Cover of Having It All in the Belle Epoque by Rachel Mesch
Having It All in the Belle Epoque
How French Women's Magazines Invented the Modern Woman
Rachel Mesch

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2013
256 pp.
$39.95

Cloth ISBN: 9780804784245
Digital ISBN: 9780804787130
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At once deeply historical and surprisingly timely, Having it All in the Belle Epoque shows how the debates that continue to captivate high-achieving women in America and Europe can be traced back to the early 1900s in France. The first two photographic magazines aimed at women, Femina and La Vie Heureuse created a female role model who could balance age-old convention with new equalities. Often referred to simply as the "modern woman," this captivating figure embodied the hopes and dreams as well as the most pressing internal conflicts of large numbers of French women during what was a period of profound change. Full of never-before-studied images of the modern French woman in action, Having it All shows how these early magazines exploited new photographic technologies, artistic currents, and literary trends to create a powerful model of French femininity, one that has exerted a lasting influence on French expression.

This book introduces and explores the concept of Belle Epoque literary feminism, a product of the elite milieu from which the magazines emerged. Defined by its refusal of political engagement, this feminism was nevertheless preoccupied with expanding women's roles, as it worked to construct a collective fantasy of female achievement. Through an astute blend of historical research, literary criticism, and visual analysis, Mesch's study of women's magazines and the popular writers associated with them offers an original window onto a bygone era that can serve as a framework for ongoing debates about feminism, femininity, and work-life tensions.

About the author

Rachel Mesch is Associate Professor of French at Yeshiva University. She is the author of The Hysteric's Revenge: French Women Writers at the Fin de Siècle (2006).

"[W]ith its rich array of reproduced pages to illustrate points, and nice attention to the magazines' visual as well as verbal discourse, this is a highly readable, enjoyable book that adds an important dimension to the study of how the vibrant feminist contestation of those years was mediated for and experienced by the majority of women."

—Diana Holmes, French Studies

"Through brilliantly constructed close readings of word and image in these magazines, Mesch brings to light a much more complicated picture of debates by and on women at the turn of the nineteenth century . . . Many of the journalists used by, and writers depicted in, these magazines had literary ambitions. Indeed, one of the great virtues in having this material addressed by a scholar with a proper interest in cultural history, as well as securely anchored origins in the world of nineteenth-century French literary studies, is that she is able to identify novels of the period which addressed the issue of women's magazines . . . Not only does Mesch identify such key texts in the relationship between journalism and fiction, but she also brings to bear in the cultural history the kind of close textual analysis for which literary interpretation is the best preparation."

—Nicholas White, Times Literary Supplement

"In the search for work-life balance, readers will marvel at suggestions that date back 100 years."

Publishers Weekly

"This book's unique angle of analysis, wealth of quotations from primary sources, and many illustrations make it both a viable teaching tool and a scholarly resource."

—Miglena Sternadori, Journal of Magazine and New Media Research

"Mesch illuminates both the context that produced the paradox of 'having it all' and the difficulties that arose as a result. Her book opens a window onto a distant and relatively unknown past, all the while shedding light on debates that are still very much alive today."

—Susan Hiner, Vassar College

"For too long, we have tended to view the Belle Epoque through the prism of the feminism of our own day—how it measures up or falls short of current standards. By linking women's magazines of the time to novels, visual imagery, and cultural practices, Mesch breaks out of this straitjacket, offering the most insightful and thorough examination of that space to date."

—Lenard R. Berlanstein, University of Virginia

"Having It All in the Bell Epoque provides a fine historical survey debating the history of high-achieving women and how the roots of these achievers can be traced back to early 1900s France. Two key photographic magazines for women created a female role model who embodied new freedoms and approaches for women, captivating large numbers of French women and setting the stage for a century of women's rights changes. This focus on these publications provides new images of this modern French figure, analyzes artistic and literary trends contributing to the rise of this culture, and blends history with literary and artistic insights throughout, making for a solid and specific pick for any women's studies collection."

Midwest Book Review