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



Femina, La Vie Heureuse and the Invention of the Femme Moderne

In the inaugural issue of the wildly successful women’s photographic magazine La Vie Heureuse, the beloved countess and critically acclaimed poet Anna de Noailles is pictured in her beautifully appointed living room with her young son delicately set upon her lap (Fig. I.1). This image faces a slightly larger photograph of the countess in profile, her billowing skirt cradling not her baby this time, but her most recent book. Noailles’ graceful presence in this five-page photo spread diffused brewing tensions between feminism and femininity in the Belle Epoque through the precisely measured equilibrium of books and babies. Indeed, rather than books becoming substitutes for babies, and thus—as contemporary fears dictated—leading to infertility, depopulation and inevitably (or so the logic went) the collapse of French society, books and babies appeared side by side throughout, as the magazine consistently depicted women authors as devoted mothers.1 Just like its rival publication Femina, La Vie Heureuse celebrated achieving women in dazzling feature stories sandwiched between elaborate fashion plates and advertisements for beauty creams, corsets and high-end furniture. Regardless of the nature of their achievements—not just as writers, but as lawyers, doctors, actresses, explorers or athletes—their femininity remained fully and vividly intact.

This book argues that Femina and La Vie Heureuse, launched within a year of each other in 1901 and 1902, introduced a significant and often overlooked image of modern French femininity, in deliberately stark contrast to stereotypes of the feminist activist and the New Woman—the two figures that have been most closely associated with Belle Epoque challenges to gender norms. Thanks to their savvy exploitation of photographic technologies, their embrace of new artistic currents and literary trends and their exquisite presentation of famous women, these magazines became the arena through which a powerful model of French femininity emerged—one that has exerted a lasting, if rarely recognized, influence on French expression.

Figure I.1 Feature story on Anna de Noailles in the first issue of La Vie Heureuse (October 1902).

Often referred to simply as the femme moderne, the feminine role model promoted in Femina and La Vie Heureuse was a bundle of decidedly new contradictions, as she embraced a newfound sense of equality without completely abandoning traditional gender roles. For many in this generation of newly educated women—the product of the reforms of the 1880s that guaranteed secondary schooling for girls—the most crucial challenge was that of reconciling traditional family structures with an independence of mind and spirit their mothers had never dreamed of.2 In the pages of Femina and La Vie Heureuse, this fantasy became a beautiful reality: the femme moderne offered an inspiring image of “having it all” in the Belle Epoque—devoted husband, fulfilling family, beautiful home, and, if not a satisfying vocation, at least some sort of outlet for self-expression, all while maintaining her impeccable appearance.

This new ideal 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 social and cultural change. Indeed, the contradictory stance of the femme moderne as both progressive in her pursuit of equality and conservative in her embrace of conventional gender differences reflected the essential ambivalence of the Belle Epoque itself, caught as it was between a postrevolutionary past in which gender roles were sharply divided and a rapidly modernizing future in which many of those long-held divisions were quickly falling away. This book proposes a new way, then, to consider the oft-posed question of whether there was a Belle Epoque for women.3 The richly coded pages of Femina and La Vie Heureuse offer an ideal vantage point from which to examine this moment of society in transition: poised to accept women in more powerful, visible roles than ever before, but not always certain as to how to imagine them inhabiting those roles.

The editors of both Femina and La Vie Heureuse—led by Pierre Lafitte and Caroline de Broutelles respectively—were firmly ensconced in what was known as the literary Tout Paris: a world of elite, highly intellectual, largely conservative-leaning writers, many of whom were published in a wide array of magazines and newspapers. This was the world of popular writers and journalists like Jules Clarétie, Paul Hervieu, Marcel Prévost and Paul Adam, and that of celebrity literary couples: the Rostands, the Catulle Mendèses, the Daudets, the Dieulafoys.4 Femina and La Vie Heureuse were, in a sense, offshoots of the vibrant literary salons that so many of these figures attended, often together.5 In his memoirs, writer J.-H. Rosny described the Maison Pierre Lafitte as “the most scintillating” publishing house, hosting dinners where one could see “the most brilliant literary stars” at the same table, from the poet Countess Anna de Noailles to the best-selling writer and media darling Marcelle Tinayre to the eccentric Lucie Delarue-Mardrus.6 Similarly, articles in La Vie Heureuse about the parties surrounding its annual literary prize proudly described the attendance of the “elite Tout Paris of arts, letters and the monde.”7

But these magazines were also products of the democratizing forces of fin-de-siècle mass culture: even as they often presented an aristocratic universe within their pages, they were, at least in theory, available to all.8 While readers were largely based in Paris, they extended to the provinces and represented a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. We might describe the space created by Femina and La Vie Heureuse, then, as a fusion of the exclusiveness of the salon with the openness of the department store, displaying for an aspiring public the amenities of the upper classes.9 The luxuries associated with this milieu, however, were not limited to high-end goods. Quite remarkably, Femina and La Vie Heureuse made available and desirable for a broad female readership the creative, intellectual endeavors of the monde littéraire; they encouraged readers not only to dress and shop like the social elite, but to be reflective and literary themselves in myriad ways that we will explore in the pages that follow.

Acceptance within the Belle Epoque literary world required a tacit disavowal of turn-of-the-century feminist movements, lumped together in the collective consciousness as a direct threat to “traditional” French values. Femina and La Vie Heureuse consistently rejected the feminist label for that reason. “This magazine is not about ‘feminism’ or ‘social emancipation,’” the editors of Femina insisted in their introductory mission statement. “We’ll leave to others the work of masculinizing women and robbing them of their delightful charm.”10 This harsh stereotyping, hardly reflective of turn-of-the-century feminism’s diverse causes and supporters, allowed the editors to invent a “straw feminist,” as it were, from which to draw a vivid distinction with their own work.11 And yet, I am arguing, it would be a mistake not to recognize the import of these magazines in the context of a more capacious feminist history.12 In what follows, I use the term Belle Epoque literary feminism (whose precise contours I elaborate on below) to designate Femina and La Vie Heureuse’s stance as one occupied with expanding women’s roles even as they carefully avoided explicit political engagement. Despite their own initial resistance to the label, this book recognizes as feminist, then, the energetic efforts of these magazines and their surrounding web of fictional texts to help Belle Epoque women imagine themselves comfortably inhabiting modern roles.

Belle Epoque literary feminism was defined in large part by the unique discursive space that it fostered—the network of readers and writers that connected Femina and La Vie Heureuse and the novels associated with them, stemming from the enclosed world of the literary Tout Paris to a wide web of readers who would respond to their surveys and contests by the thousands.13 In presenting this new space, I would like to recognize its place as part of the new media of the twentieth century, through which lines between public and private were increasingly elided.14 As we shall see, the magazines were quite innovative for their time, with their reliance on photography, their cultivation of celebrity culture (often in the service of certain ideological positions), and their willingness to envision new modern heroines and ideals that might lead their readers to see themselves differently. While we may be familiar with the mimetic pressures of celebrity culture—which continue to function in much the same way to this day—we have not yet considered the particular way that early celebrity and mass culture in France shaped a new model of womanhood, one that not only soldered the association between consumerism and femininity, but also encouraged women to develop their own critical and creative voices.15

Recently Lenard Berlanstein and Colette Cosnier have debated the feminism of Femina, with Berlanstein linking its progressive strategies to that of Marguerite Durand’s La Fronde—the publication most visibly associated with Belle Epoque feminism—and Cosnier rejecting the feminist label for a magazine edited largely by men.16 It is certainly worth noting that Femina’s publisher and most of its editors were men; that many of the most frequent collaborators at both magazines were as well; and that so many women writers’ presence in their pages was secured by their link to an already famous husband.17 In these ways the magazines were fundamentally different from the all-woman run La Fronde.18 Notwithstanding Femina’s patriarchal structures, however, the most visible success of Belle Epoque literary feminism pertained to women writers—figures caricatured throughout the nineteenth century among the very same elite as haggard, man-hating bas bleus, or bluestockings. In the 1840s, cartoonist Honoré Daumier’s Les bas bleus series for Le Charivari had infamously ridiculed such women while betraying the profound anxiety they elicited as a potential threat to bourgeois domestic norms. Women who wrote were, in Daumier’s eyes, terrible wives and even worse mothers (Fig. I.2). In image after image, women writers were depicted as abandoning or sabotaging their traditional roles; worse yet, their husbands were left emasculated, forced into the roles their wives had evacuated. Long after Daumier, the bas bleu continued to be a reviled figure throughout the century, her threats vilified in writer Barbey d’Aurevilly’s treatise by the same name, not to mention countless other cartoons, satires and literary and journalistic asides.19

The Belle Epoque woman writer, on the other hand, emerges in Femina and La Vie Heureuse as the gorgeous conjugation of new equalities with traditional values, and thus a key example of the femme moderne. While largely absent from French literary histories, these magazines were credited during their time with facilitating an astonishing growth in the numbers of women writers, opening the way for women writers to be elected to the Société de gens de lettres and to regularly earn the Legion of Honor, facilitating women’s creation of their own literary prize (which would become the Prix Femina), and contributing to the overall sense that women were on the cusp of being admitted to the Académie française (even if this would not in fact happen for several more decades).

Moreover, this study adds to previous scholarship a full exploration of the medium itself, which, I am arguing, was crucial to the magazines’ feminist expression. If La Fronde was often referred to as Le Temps in skirts, this was in part because it had the same format as mainstream dailies, with headlined columns over several text-filled pages. The alternative model of femininity that Femina and La Vie Heureuse proposed, on the other hand, was profoundly visual, and the magazines’ wide variety of images and photographic innovations contributed to the sense of the dynamic possibilities they offered within, always, a hyper-feminized context. Thus, the story that I am presenting is as much about the history of French women as it is about the history of mass culture and the media in France; the femme moderne was as important for the freedoms that she openly embraced as for the kinds of journalistic innovations that allowed her to be celebrated. Belle Epoque literary feminism was primarily a work of imagination: of examining, exploring and most fundamentally, fantasizing about what the fully realized modern woman could be—and this, importantly, was done by both men and women. In its imaginative work, it was truly separate from the contemporary feminist movement, deliberately steering away from their serious political and social work, which was grounded in a searing and not entirely pleasant social reality.20 Often, as we shall see, the images depicted in Femina and La Vie Heureuse did not even reflect upper bourgeois or aristocratic reality—few women, comparatively, were doctors or lawyers, the balance of work and family was not effortless, equal partnership in marriage was not embraced in every household. Moreover, the ideals shared in these magazines were often misunderstood beyond the context of their devoted readerships. For legions of Belle Epoque women, on the other hand, the magazines represented a vibrant universe, an alternative reality in which certain kinds of feminist fantasies were normalized, made both accessible and desirable. Femina and La Vie Heureuse thus gently moved women forward by vividly displaying before them a compelling future in which their success was a given.


1. On the perceived dangers of female intellect, see Rachel Mesch, The Hysteric’s Revenge: French Women Writers at the Fin de Siècle (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006), 14–21.

2. For more on the Camille Sée laws implemented by Jules Ferry and their influence, see Françoise Mayeur, L’Éducation des filles en France au XIXe siècle (Paris: Hachette, 1979); Rebecca Rogers, From the Salon to the Schoolroom: Educating Bourgeois Girls in Nineteenth-Century France (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2005).

3. On the question of whether the Belle Epoque was favorable to women, see Diana Holmes and Carrie Tarr, eds., A Belle Epoque? Women in French Society and Culture, 1890–1914 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006); Susan K. Foley, Women in France Since 1789: The Meanings of Difference (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); James F. McMillan, France and Women, 1789–1914: Gender, Society and Politics (New York: Rout-ledge, 2000); Christopher E. Forth and Elinor Accampo, eds., Confronting Modernity in Fin-de-Siècle France: Bodies, Minds and Gender (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

4. Clarétie, Hervieu, Prévost and Adam were critically acclaimed writers. Clarétie, Hervieu and Prévost were members of the Académie Française. Edmond Rostand, elected to the Académie Française in 1901, was a playwright and poet best known for Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) and Les Romanesques (1894), which was the basis for the Broadway hit The Fantasticks. His wife Rosemonde was an accomplished poet as well. Decadent writer Catulle Mendès was briefly married to Judith Gautier before marrying Jeanne Nette, who became known as Jane Catulle-Mendès and was a prolific poet. Writer Alphonse Daudet, father of Léon and Lucien, was married to Julia, also a writer. Jane and Marcel Dieulafoy traveled through the Middle East together, with Jane documenting their discoveries. When her husband was deployed to the front during the Franco-Prussian war, she followed, in a soldier’s uniform. With governmental permission, she continued to dress in men’s garb from then on.

5. On the social world of Belle Epoque literary Paris, see Anne Martin-Fugier, Salons de la IIIe République (Paris: Perrin, 2003); Géraldi Leroy and Julie Bertrand-Sabiani, La Vie littéraire à la Belle Epoque (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1998), 29–53. On the important role of the salon for women in earlier centuries, see Elizabeth C. Goldsmith and Dena Goodman, Going Public: Women and Publishing in Early Modern France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 1–9; Steven D. Kale, French Salons: High Society and Sociability from the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004); Joan B. Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988).

6. J.-H. Rosny, Mémoires de la vie littéraire (Paris: G. Crès et Cie, 1927).

7. “Les Fêtes du Prix Vie Heureuse,” La Vie Heureuse, April 1, 1907.

8. Many democratizing forces characterized the emergence of mass culture in France. See Lisa Tiersten, Marianne in the Market: Envisioning Consumer Society in Finde-Siècle France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 207–19; 126–28; 228; Rosalind Williams, Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 154–209.

9. On the department store, see Rachel Bowlby, Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreising, Gissing and Zola (New York: Methuen, 1985). On the relationship between magazines and department stores in British culture, see Ellen Gruber Garvey, The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) 3–4.

10. Femina, February 1, 1901, 2. Most issues of Femina were approximately twenty to thirty pages; however, the pagination was continuous throughout a single year. Most pages of La Vie Heureuse do not include page numbers, so I have included them only when indicated.

11. Historian Karen Offen’s pioneering work on late nineteenth-century French feminism has been crucial to demonstrating the diverse nature of its causes and identifications, as well for situating it within cultural, literary and social trends. I am grateful to her for sharing part of her work in progress, Debating the Woman Question, which brilliantly lays out the multiple strands of early Third Republic feminist claims and their relationship to one another. Several articles opened up this field of study and examined the multiple expressions of late nineteenth-century French feminist activism, as well as its expression in literature. See Offen, “Depopulation, Nationalism and Feminism in Fin-de-siècle France,” American Historical Review 89, no. 3 (June 1984): 648–76; “Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Perspective,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14, no.1 (1988): 119–57; “On the French Origin of the Words Feminism and Feminist,” Feminist Issues 8, no. 2 (Fall 1988): 45–51.

12. I am continuing in this sense the work begun by Mary Louise Roberts in expanding our understanding of Belle Epoque feminism through her study of the New Woman, as well as Lenard Berlanstein’s important work situating Femina in Belle Epoque feminist history. Roberts, Disruptive Acts: The New Woman in Fin-de-Siècle France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Berlanstein, “Selling Modern Femininity: Femina, a Forgotten Feminist Publishing Success in Belle Epoque France,” French Historical Studies 30, no. 4 (Fall 2007): 623–49.

13. Habermas’s notion of the literary public sphere, often invoked in early modern scholarship on the salon, is another way of demarcating this space. Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, translated by Thomas Burger, with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), 29–30.

14. I am following in this sense Janet Wolff’s suggestion with respect to the well-studied question of female flânerie that we demote the public/private binarism, which tends to locate men and women in separate, gendered places. See her chapter “Gender and the Haunting of Cities: Or, the Retirement of the Flâneur,” in AngloModern: Painting and Modernity in Britain and the United States (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 68–85. Wolff’s essay is a coda to her original article, “The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity,” in Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 34–50, and the many responses it inspired. On nineteenth-century women writers, journalists and flânerie, see Catherine Nesci’s fascinating study, Le flâneur et les flâneuses: Les femmes et la ville à l’époque romantique (Grenoble: ELLUG, 2007).

15. Berlanstein demonstrates the ways that female celebrities in the second half of the nineteenth century legitimized certain kinds of roles in “Historicizing and Gendering Celebrity Culture: Famous Women in Nineteenth-Century France,” Journal of Women’s History 16, no. 4 (2004): 65–91.

16. Berlanstein writes: “Femina participated in the same bold endeavor to which Durand had committed her newspaper, spreading a feminist message while changing the image of feminism, making it compatible with femininity. The difference was that for Durand, femininity was a tactic to strengthen the appeal of feminism, whereas femininity was at the core of Femina as a commercial enterprise” (“Selling Modern Femininity,” 625). For the debate between these two scholars, see Cosnier, Les Dames de Femina, 285–303, and Berlanstein’s review of Cosnier in H-France 9, no. 134 (November 2009): 566. Cosnier refuses to recognize Femina as feminist, in large part because of the overall conservatism of its message. However, she seems to be relying on a modern definition of feminism rather than considering the extent to which the magazine may have challenged Belle Epoque gender norms and attempted to expand women’s roles, even within certain circumscribed parameters. Colette Cosnier, Les Dames de Femina: Un féminisme mystifié (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009).

17. Parts of the feminist ideology expressed by La Fronde were quite resonant with the emphasis on conventional femininity found in Femina and La Vie Heureuse. In 1898, Daniel Lesueur wrote about the importance of “charm, seduction and beauty” (Karen Offen, “The Birth of Feminism,” Debating the Woman Question in Modern France, 16th–20th Centuries [in progress]) and in 1903 Marguerite Durand famously wrote that “feminism owes a great deal to my blonde hair” (Mary Louise Roberts, Disruptive Acts, 49).

18. There was very little overlap among the general staff writers for La Fronde and Femina and La Vie Heureuse. However, several high-profile women writers published in all of these publications: Gyp, Séverine, Marcelle Tinayre, Daniel Lesueur.

19. Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, Les bas-bleus (Paris: Société Générale de librairie catholique, 1878); Several fin-de-siècle plays portrayed thinking women in a negative light, including Paul Hervieu, Les Tenailles (Paris: Lemerre, 1896) and Maurice Donnay, L’Affranchie (Paris: Olendorff, 1898). Albert Cim dedicated his novel Bas-bleus (Paris: A. Savine, 1891) to Barbey and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, writing that both “so eloquently celebrated women who stay home and so vigorously lashed out at those women—of the pen, the club, or the street, who only aspire to become public.” For more on the iconography of the female intellectual in the nineteenth century, see Janis Bergman-Colter, The Woman of Ideas in French Art, 1830–1848 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

20. Among the causes taken up in the 1890s were venereal disease, infant mortality, prostitution, and abject poverty.