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’.

Her upbringing was provincial upper-crust, if also slightly bohemian. Though the name was historic – she was a grand-niece of the great Revolutionary orator, rake and bruiser – the Mirabeau family was not very rich and not very lucky. Although it was able to cut a modest dash in Nancy, there was no question of life in Paris society. Sibylle/Gabrielle’s mother began to write for pin money. Her father got himself killed accidentally as a volunteer in the Papal army. Her husband turned out to be a feckless nonentity who squandered her inheritance and had to be supported for the rest of his life. Like her mother, she turned to writing as first a useful and then an indispensable source of funds: society gossip and satirical dialogues for newspapers, the slangy irreverence of ‘Bob’, a French forerunner of Just William, and racy novels featuring the tragic adventures of slim, persecuted, upper-class, ‘devilishly boyish’ heroines.

Much of this was, of course, an endless rehashing of her own grudges and fantasies, but the prime motive was cash. Gyp (as she became in 1883) often repeated that it was hack work, dashed off at maximum speed and with minimum trouble: ‘Writing bores me to tears.’ Despite or because of this, it proved successful, and increasingly profitable: like P.T. Bamum, Gyp did not lose money by underestimating the intelligence of the public. She entered the small world of Parisian hommes de lettres (as she insisted on being considered), was sought after by the best publishers, held a salon at her house in semi-smart Neuilly, became acquainted with established literary stars such as Daudet, Dumas fils, Halévy and Goncourt and the promising novelists Anatole France and Maurice Barrès,who became one of her closest and most faithful friends. She held open house for her entourage during the summer in a villa on the Normandy coast. In short, she enjoyed remarkable literary success.

She also threw herself into the thrilling world of street politics, in which as an aristocrat and a woman she was a rare, though not unique, phenomenon. Contemptuous of parliamentary democracy, she leapt onto every passing reactionary bandwagon, seeking, Silverman tells us, a regime that was ‘charismatic, authoritarian, military and “male” ’. Napoleons I and III had been childhood heroes, but political involvement began only in middle age, in the wake of the dashing demagogue General Boulanger, in1888. After his rapid demise, she transferred her admiration to the nationalist poet and agitator Paul Déroulède, her hero during the Dreyfus Affair, during which she had the time of her life, devoting her talents as satirist and cartoonist to the anti-semitic cause. Finally, she gave grudging approval to the radical Clemenceau – ‘A real Frenchman, very distinguished and pedigreed’ for his wartime semi-dictatorship. For her, democracy and modernity were always detestably vulgar.

Is Gyp worth a biography, especially one as professional as this? Silverman has researched extremely thoroughly in public and private archives, the press and in the secondary literature. She writes with clarity and verve. She shows sensitivity and judgment and has a far sounder grasp of history, with the striking exception of everything military, than is usual among literary specialists. And there are picaresque episodes that give the story plenty of life: Gyp has vitriol thrown over her (no permanent damage) and she gets kidnapped and escapes (it turns out to be a practical joke). But she is so shallow as both writer and political activist, and often so irritatingly, wilfully stupid that I sometimes wondered how Silverman could put up with her. Had Gyp been a man, she probably wouldn’t have done. Gyp’s political allies, the cartoonist Forain (a far better draughtsman) and Déroulède (no better a writer but incomparably more important and interesting a political figure) would be unlikely to attract such scholarly attention. It is as a tough, successful, ill-used and indomitable woman making her way in a man’s world that Gyp manages to inspire some sympathy.

Sympathy, but not indulgence. For one thing, the claim sometimes made that Gyp was, both by her writings and her activities, a feminist pioneer, is given short shrift by Silverman. True, she condemned corsets and made her heroines unconventional; but this was a combination of aristocratic eccentricity and her tomboy upbringing rather than principle. She tried to keep her own name, but this was Mirabeau pride, not a blow for women’s rights. She legally separated her property from her husband’s, but this was only to ward off ruin. She made an independent career, but this was an unfortunate necessity. No feminist therefore; rather, a misogynist.

This is, for Silverman, the key that unlocks many doors: Gyp’s identity problems, her rejection of her own femininity, her anti-semitism, and in politics her worship of power and matching disdain for an ‘effeminate’ democratic Republic – ‘she would campaign actively to restore to her country the type of “male” authority she felt was lacking in her own life.’ Gender analysis, here spiced with a dash of Freud, is now fashionable and has some weighty supporters in France, including the historian Maurice Agulhon, whose analysis of the female imagery of the Republic is not dissimilar. It certainly explains Gyp rather neatly, and Silverman marshals much convincing evidence. Moreover – although this is not much explored here – it might cast some light on the interesting flirtation of several prominent and active feminists with the extreme Right, including the leading journalist Séverine (who remained remarkably indulgent of Gyp’s antics even when she changed sides) and the formidable Duchessed’Uzès. Gyp herself was wooed by a leading feminist newspaper, notwithstanding her fanatical anti-semitism, but she turned them down.

A classic weakness of biography and even more of psycho-history is that they explain in individual terms ideas, loyalties and activities that were collective. If Gyp’s admiration for Bonaparte and Boulanger was a consequence of self-hatred and a quest for masculinity, how do we explain that same admiration on the part of millions of other male and female Bonapartists and Boulangists? In fact it was common for Legitimists to gravitate to Bonapartism. Many upper-class conservatives were anti-semitic and most were anti-Dreyfusard. Gyp’s political prejudices were utterly commonplace and, like her writing, appear to have cost her little intellectual effort.

Political activism was a great lark. It also made her a celebrity, increasing her sales and advances, for she had a keen eye to the main chance. How relevant was her psyche to all this? I suspect that snobbery, fashion and a keen sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ were what really decided Gyp’s political attitudes. Interestingly, this incandescent nationalist had got herself into embarrassing trouble in 1870 by hob-nobbing openly with German officers occupying Nancy. But they, of course, were ‘us’. Besides, nationalism, and not only in France, was always more concerned with enemies at home than enemies abroad: democrats, socialists, above all Jews.

Marxism seems at least as satisfactory an explanation as gender for the footling and irresponsible agitations of the anti-Dreyfusards and their hired bullies – a lumpenproletariat if ever there was one. Slumming was clearly a thrill for Gyp and other upper-class would-be populists, whether in Montmartre cabarets like the Chat Noir or in street brawls. She boasted that when recruiting her thugs during the Dreyfus Affair, ‘I always chose those who seemed to me the worst, the most “hooligan” ... They were the best, the gutsiest.’ People like the Marquis de Morès (another of Gyp’s macho heroes) and her cousin de Sabran-Pontevès teamed up with rabble-rousers like Jules Guérin, a rent-a-crowd entrepreneur who found anti-semitism a nice little earner. There is something of the ageing groupie in Gyp’s adoration of this succession of strutting misfits. It was platonic, however; she clearly had problems with sex, and both her husband and long-time lover were pretty self-effacing.

Gyp and her chums liked to think that the inverted snobbery of their anti-bourgeois extremism gave them an easy rapport with the mob – with the butchers’ boys from the La Villette slaughterhouses who were willing to earn a few extra francs beating up Dreyfusards – but the only rapport that counted was financial. Champagne and scent profits – easy money easily spent – were long to bail out the failing fortunes of the Right. The Duchesse d ’Uzès was the main paymaster. She had inherited the Veuve Clicquot millions, with which she hoped to smooth the way for a restored monarchy. A die-hard reactionary and leading feminist, tireless rider to hounds and France’s first woman motorist, she would be a marvellous subject for a biography. Eventually, like Gyp, she found rightwing agitation even more expensive and futile than foxhunting: the unspeakable in full pursuit of the unelectable.

Silverman is not quite so dismissive of Gyp’s political adventures as I am. She seems to accept Gyp’s sincerity – partly, perhaps, through trusting the account that Gyp later wrote. She accepts the anti-semites’ own inflated estimate of their active following. Perhaps I am being insensitive in not seeing Gyp as particularly hard done by or as deserving much sympathy. Being a woman, and an aristocrat, did no harm to her political or literary career. She had no difficulty in finding a profitable niche in the literary world, one that her talent scarcely merited. Her novelty value as a woman in politics brought enviable notoriety and at the same time a degree of protection in the rough and tumble. Her feminist friend Séverine tried to stop her being sued for her vicious slanders by pleading a double standard: they should be overlooked because she was only a ‘petite blonde woman with a mouselike air’. She got off quite lightly. In short, although Gyp thought she would have liked to be a man, she was skilful at exploiting the fact that she wasn’t one. That was the essence of her quasi-feminism.

The book is interesting for the insight it gives us into the Paris literary world and its workings. Crucial for Gyp was her association with her Jewish publishers, Calmann-Lévy, the most efficient, enterprising and remunerative of the day. This was a durable relationship, which Silverman traces through the voluminous correspondence in the publishing house’s archives. It was disturbed but not destroyed by the crude and insistent anti-semitism that she put into her novels from the 1880s onwards, and which they tried to tone down while still keeping her on their list. Though the partnership was based on mutual profit – they were generous with advances, she produced a very saleable product – there also seems to have been a certain ambivalent affection.

For all her ostentatious condemnation of bourgeois and Jewish materialism. Gyp had the ruthless avarice of hard-up gentility, and shamelessly milked Calmann-Lévy for advances. I would be curious to know more about her financial situation – there was income from rents as well as royalties – but perhaps the evidence is lacking. Her plucky readiness to pay all the family bills, and maintain, seemingly uncomplainingly, a parasitical husband whose only talent was for shooting, is admirable in its way. During the First World War, hit by inflation, age and reduced earning power, her lot becomes rather pathetic.

Yet even her tragedies involved a fecklessness more likely to inspire irritation than sympathy. Her favourite son, the destined heir of the dilapidated Château de Mirabeau and a cavalry subaltern, died in Africa from typhus caught in a cell to which he had been consigned after an unauthorised and hare-brained expedition which almost led to his troop being wiped out. (How lucky for France that these people never managed to organise a coup d’état.)

Gyp lived until 1932, writing and grumbling to the last. Her funeral attracted an interesting range of mourners, including André Maurois and Paul Valéry, the former socialist Dreyfusard Alexandre Millerand, the Duchesse d’Uzès,Marshal Lyautey – and of course a Calmann Lévy. Old age and the watershed of the First World War had calmed the old antagonisms, if only by creating new ones. Gyp had become merely a relic. ‘People awaited her latest novel,’one obituarist wrote, as they awaited ‘Willy’s latest pun, Boni de Casteilane’s latest frock coat ... Her ideas, like her writing, wear the colour of a bygone era – there is, in them, Art Nouveau arabesques, outdated Lalique ... an odour of ylang-ylang ... a glimmer of furs, of mutton-chop sleeves.’