Countess Bitch

Robert Tombs

  • The Notorious Life of Gyp: Right-Wing Anarchist in Fin-de-Siècle France by Willa Silverman
    Oxford, 325 pp, £24.00, June 1995, ISBN 0 19 508754 2

Who was Gyp? A woman of many names: a sign, suggests Willa Silverman, of her often-expressed unhappiness with her identity, and especially her sex. She was born Sibylle de Riquetti de Mirabeau in 1849, but her family decided to call her Gabrielle when she reached13 because she was too plain for a Sibylle. Married in 1869, to become the Comtesse de Martel de Janville, she lamented that as a woman she could not perpetuate the Mirabeau name, which she often appended to her own. Brought up by a bluff military grandfather, she was in the full sense a garçon manqué, the girl whom everyone, including herself, wished had been a boy and a soldier. She was best known under her pen names, the boyish ‘Bob’ and the sexless ‘Gyp’ (a whiplash sound perhaps, or ‘gyno gone wrong’, suggests Silverman), and was a prominent, if lightweight, literary and political figure from the 1880s to the Twenties. The ‘countess bitch’ to her many enemies, she wrote over one hundred forgotten novelettes and plays. She is probably best remembered now for her political cartoons at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, reproduced in many books as samples of the savage and hysterical polemics of the time. It is regrettable that more of them are not reproduced here, especially those that are analysed in the text. Gyp’s skill and influence lay in the creation of unsubtle, memorable stereotypes, especially of ‘modern’ girls and of Jews. According to Charles Maurras she was, after Edouard Drumont (author of the notorious La France juive),‘the writer who fixed in the minds of French people the most powerful anti-semitic images’.

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