In September 2007, Nelly Arcan appeared on the talk show Tout le monde en parle, a cultural phenomenon in Quebec watched weekly by more than a million viewers. Her first two novels, Whore and Hysteric, had scorched the literary landscape with their caustic, quasi-autobiographical reflections on sex work, death, and the toxic veneration of female beauty; both books had attracted major critical attention and had been nominated for prestigious literary prizes in France. Now, the 34-year-old author was ostensibly being invited onto the show to discuss her third novel.
From the moment the buxom blonde took her seat on the all-male panel, though, it became clear that nobody wanted to talk about her book. After several minutes of increasingly irrelevant questions, the host’s sidekick gleefully admitted that he was at any rate too distracted by Arcan’s cleavage to pay attention to her words. Watching the clip, you can see the camera pan from the smirking panelists to Arcan’s crestfallen face as she resigns herself, ironically, to forbearing the very sexism denounced in her (now long-forgotten) novel.
Since Arcan’s suicide in 2009, much has been written about this episode, which encapsulates her inability to shake the hypersexualized image of herself she created in her work. As Patricia Smart notes in Writing Herself into Being: Quebec Women’s Autobiographical Writings from Marie de l’Incarnation to Nelly Arcan, the media became obsessed with the autobiographical elements of Arcan’s writing, “ignoring its literary qualities in spite of the author’s attempts to draw their attention to them.” The media thus trapped Arcan in what critic Irene Gammel has called a “confessional snare,” downplaying her creative ability by fixating on her salacious disclosures.
In a New Yorker article that made waves last spring, Jia Tolentino argued that a similar fate has befallen many of the internet-era personal essayists, most of them young women, who have tried to launch their writing careers by publishing provocative accounts of sexual or social transgression. Although these pieces—with punchy titles like “On falling in and out of love with my dad” (a story of incestuous attraction) and “My gynecologist found a ball of cat hair in my vagina” (self-explanatory)—attracted fleeting attention, they seldom led to professional success; on the contrary, Tolentino notes, they frequently provoked backlash or unexpected emotional consequences for their writers.
These examples speak to the perils of self-disclosure in an age when the boundaries between private and public have become porous. Women’s writing has always been policed, but for much of history women’s confinement to a strictly demarcated domestic sphere meant that, if they wrote at all, they did so mainly in letters or diaries. Many of these ephemera were subsequently destroyed or relegated to dusty attics, never to be seen again; in the small number of documents that have been published or preserved in archives, though, lies a trove of insight into the ways women understood their world.
In Writing Herself into Being, Patricia Smart, professor emerita of French at Carleton University, blows the dust off some old boxes to trace the history of women’s autobiographical writing in Quebec. Her landmark study of Quebec feminist literature, Writing in the Father’s House, won a Governor General’s Award in 1988 for exposing the deep-rooted misogyny in Quebec’s literary tradition and showing how the female voice emerged in counterpoint to its tropes. Writing Herself into Being continues that project insofar as it looks at the ways women’s self-expression has been circumscribed by their patriarchal milieus.
Smart’s decision to highlight lesser-known figures while omitting famous writers like Marie-Claire Blais and Nicole Brossard (both pioneering contemporary lesbian writers), is admittedly a strength and a weakness of the book. Smart illuminates much esoteric and otherwise understudied material, but thereby ends up painting an incomplete group portrait of Quebec’s female autobiographers. Nonetheless, Writing Herself into Being provides fascinating insight into the ways that women’s writing has changed—and remained painfully similar—over the past three and a half centuries.
The book was nearly thwarted when Smart realized that in the 300 years between the spiritual autobiography of Marie de l’Incarnation, which appeared in 1654, and Claire Martin’s 1965 In an Iron Glove, not a single autobiography by a woman had been published in Quebec. In fact, the autobiographical genre as a whole did not really emerge in Quebec until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, a period of dramatic secularization and social reform that ushered in a new sense of individual empowerment. As women revolted against the Catholic values of maternity and meekness, spurred by second wave feminism, writers like Claire Martin, France Théoret, and Gabrielle Roy began publishing first-person accounts of their struggles.
Many of these 20th-century autobiographies were written by working class women, and chronicle the grinding effects of poverty, abuse, and social rejection. The eclectic documents that Smart collects from earlier eras, by contrast, were mainly penned by the well-to-do, who had the necessary time and materials, not to mention the sense of importance, to write. A survey of this literary history reveals that, far from a glorious march toward empowerment, Quebec’s female autobiographical arc is in fact a continuum of repression and self-negation.
The originator of this dreary lineage is Marie de l’Incarnation (1599-1672), an Ursuline nun and mystic who believed in the religious value of bodily suffering. Her spiritual autobiography details her escalating self-mortifications, which begin with the pedestrian (hair shirts, self-flagellations) and culminate in the baroque (abandoning her only son to emigrate to New France, reputed to be “a place of horror,” “which people [in France] called…the suburbs of hell”). For the next three decades, she lives in a house “with two hundred holes in it,” where candles won’t stay lit, snow accumulates indoors, and water freezes within fifteen minutes. In Marie de l’Incarnation, Smart locates “the founding paradox” of Quebec’s autobiographical tradition: “it begins with a work in which the author’s goal is the annihilation of self.”
Smart goes on to show how this spirit of self-negation reverberates in the next three centuries of women’s writing. The diaries, which become fashionable in the mid 19th century, record “the systematic silencing of young girls as part of their preparation for the roles of wife, mother, and educator.” Correspondences such as that of Julie Papineau (1795-1862) and her husband Louis-Joseph, one of Quebec’s founding nationalist fathers, reveal how women were forced to play “queen of the hearth” while men gallivanted around. Their correspondence nevertheless shows that when Louis-Joseph was not mansplaining how the household should be run in his absence (“you must be very careful not to let [the children] get their feet wet when they go out and to keep Amédée in the house when the weather is bad”), he was carefully weighing his wife’s political advice about the brewing Lower Canada Rebellion. In Julie’s letters, we see how women found covert ways to participate in civic life at a time when they were essentially barred from the public sphere.
While the problem of unequal gender roles is universal in western cultures in the period preceding women’s suffrage (and remains problematic to this day), the patriarchal norms of the all-powerful Catholic Church in Quebec heightened the barriers to women’s empowerment. This legacy looms large even for the 20th century autobiographers who deliberately broke with the past, as we see in the anti-Catholicism of Claire Martin’s In an Iron Glove as well as in the conservative backlash against her revelations. Martin would later admit that she delayed publishing her memoir until society was “ready to accept” her account of the violence and cruelty inflicted on her as a child by parental figures and religious authorities. When the book finally appeared in 1965, it provoked decidedly mixed responses. As fan letters poured in from women who had similarly suffered in their convent schools and unhappy homes, Martin was taken to task in the media by traditionalists offended by her excoriation of Quebec society.
This inheritance persists into the 21st century. In Whore, Arcan’s persona rebels against her Catholic upbringing by becoming a hypersexualized prostitute, but, ironically, comes to realize that her sexual abasement replicates the very ethic of self-denial she was trying to escape. For this reason, Smart views Arcan as a mirror twin of Marie de l’Incarnation, whose extreme self-mortifications kick off Quebec’s autobiographical tradition. Smart describes prostitution and mysticism as “two opposing poles of a long tradition of female sacrifice,” and the same could be said of the two women who bookend Writing Herself into Being. Smart is somewhat apologetic about the history she documents, admitting that it is “not the linear route to progress one might have imagined or wished for.”
Practically speaking, women’s lives have improved substantially over the past three centuries, and specifically since the cultural overhaul of the 1960s. Quebec’s low birth rate and generous daycare subsidies have unshackled women from the domestic sphere, while access to education has increased their career options and narrowed the gendered wage gap. The election of Montreal’s first female mayor in November has been hailed as a milestone in the struggle for equality.
Despite these material gains, the battle for equality rages on. Its latest front is the recently-passed Bill 62, whose requirement that civil servants and those receiving public services uncover their faces is widely seen as targeting Muslim women. Ironically, it is the same voices telling Muslim women to unveil themselves that criticized Nelly Arcan for not covering herself up. Though women’s rights have come a long way over the past three and a half centuries, these examples show how female expression is still policed and devalued; in this regard, things have not really changed all that much.