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Book review: Lesbian Decadence, written by Nicole E. Albert, translated by Nancy Erber and William Peniston

What role did lesbianism play as a social and cultural phenomenon in turn-of-the-century France? Baudelaire had already caused a sensation in 1857 when he celebrated the “femmes damnees” in The Flowers of Evil, and Courbet in 1864 had painted a scene of daring homoerotic intimacy in Venus and Psyche. However, Albert (independent scholar) argues that during the Belle Epoque the figure of the lesbian became a near obsession with writers and artists alike. They demonized and poeticized her, portraying her as seductive, grandiose, repulsive, pathetic, and admirable. The subject of both curiosity and denigration, she became to embody nonconformity and freedom, even the frightening incarnation of the modern human condition. In this wide-ranging yet detailed and beautifully illustrated book, first published in French as Saphisme et decadence dans Paris fin-de-siecle (2005), Albert explores the complex and contradictory figure of the lesbian in history, literature, art, language, medicine, and fashion. She carefully analyzes the works of authors associated with the decadent movement – e.g. Renee Vivien, Catulle Mendes, Pierre Louys, – and guides the reader into often illicit public and private spaces like parlors, boudoirs, the Greek island of Lesbos, houses of prostitution, and the bars of Montmartre. Including an excellent bibliography, this book will interest students of fin-de-siecle France, LGBT history, and gender studies.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates and above.

Reviewed by C.B. Kerr, Vassar College