Masculine Desire and Gothic Sex in Post-Revolutionary Caribbean Literature, 1806-1835

“Sexing Histories of Revolution” Roundtable – Post #3
In this series, contributors explore sex and sexual revolutions in the revolutionary era. 

By Jacqueline Couti

Delving into the history and culture of the Atlantic and Caribbean world reveals that the spirit of Revolution leaves in its wake violence and dread.[1] This spirit has altered the (literary) imagination of Europe and the Americas. Indeed, as an offshoot of the French Revolution (1789-1799), the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) created renewed anxieties that translated into Gothic tropes in both the French and Francophone Caribbean literary corpora. The study of these tropes allows for a better understanding of the construction of French Caribbean national identities.[2]

Three understudied novels by aristocrats from Martinique published between 1806 and 1835 establish the reactionary aspects of French Antillean nation building. Les Amours de Zémédare et Carina et description de l’île de la Martinique (1806) by Auguste de Sansac de Traversay, Les Créoles, ou la vie aux Antilles (1835) by Jules Levilloux and Outre-mer (1835) by Louis Maynard de Queilhe are romances.[3] These nineteenth-century love stories deal with problematic transatlantic and amorous ties and contain sexual and political allegories that convey an overlooked vision of French nationalism. Eventually, these narratives blame both white and black characters for their unbridled masculine desire or forbidden love, the deleterious effects of which symbolize the aftermath of revolutions.

These aristocratic authors are caught between a reassuring nostalgia and an uncertain future; their writing delineates a geographically diverse nation plagued by not only republicanism and political upheaval but also by racial conflict. The eighteenth-century creation of a hierarchy of race has led to a simultaneous fascination and repulsion involving the possibility of contamination by blackness, which in turn fuses with the threat of social instability from revolution and its aftermath in the metropole and the Caribbean. Political allegories examine the fear of social and racial decay; in fact, the authors sexualize these motifs while they discuss how libertinage too often causes interracial relationships. The two 1835 novels reveal a plantation ideology in which the main threat of interracial sex is not rape but miscegenation and incest. Here only white women can be victims of sexual abuse as black women are considered willing playmates. These literary productions demonstrate that in the Americas, the incestuous relationship, usually the symbol of a lack of mixing in Europe, becomes a pretext for the loathing of racial admixture in creolized communities. In the wake of the July Revolution (Jul 27, 1830 – Jul 29, 1830), Levilloux and Maynard’s novels depict the Gothic fear of social, moral, and national decline. 

Published during the First Empire and the reign of the Creole-born Joséphine, Zémédare et Carina is the first and possibly the last 19th-century national romance that aspired to be both transatlantic/Creole and French. Using the Creole empress’s matrimony as a metaphor, Traversay’s optimistic praise of marriage and virtue and the ways in which they muzzle inadequate sexual desires is political. Between 1740 and 1770, sociocultural transgression, figured by white males’ lust, threatens not only the love of a Creole couple but also the safety of their community. A French libertine who ends up with a disgraceful disease that eats his flesh threatens the purity of the white Creole woman who stands as the protector of the Creole/transatlantic nation. Libertinage stands for the fading aristocracy. The malevolent characters represent not only the ills of a decadent monarchy but also of the Revolution. Strikingly, a virtuous woman of color refuses interracial love and marriage with a Frenchman from the city. Her rebuttal prescribes the appropriate sexual, social, and racial conduct to support the white oligarchy. Ultimately, the narrative rewrites in the 1770s the internal tension from the revolutionary period within the white elite between “virtuous” people from the countryside (often aristocrats) and “corrupt” people (often bourgeois) from the city. The past misdeeds of a rotten aristocracy and the increasing demands of individuals of African descent both threaten the future of the Creole oligarchy.

By 1835, Traversay’s favored theme of the young Creole woman as a sexual object of a threatening Other has become a leitmotif in Levilloux’s and Maynard’s somber Gothic novels. The threat is no longer merely white male desire but black male desire and love. The portraits of dysfunctional families and disastrous amorous relationships symbolizing the death of a plagued Creole nation prevail. Interracial sex and hybridity are more menacing than ever.

The plot of Les Créoles unfolds mainly during 1790-94 in Guadeloupe and Martinique and concentrates on Estève’s (a mulatto man), forbidden love for Léa (a white Creole woman), who is unaware of his identity. He plans to marry her with the help of her brother Edmond, who is a supporter of the Revolution. Bloodthirsty Maroons kill both lovers before their wedding. The novel denounces as a threat to the colony the propensity of white Creoles from the city to have sex and babies with mixed-race women. Outre-mer takes place during the 1830 July Revolution and portrays the doomed relationships of a mixed-race orphan, Marius, and three Martinican women from different ethno-classes. His amorous relationship with his half-sister Julie who belongs to the white oligarchy exposes the horror of miscegenation and incest and exemplifies the danger of not knowing one’s lineage. Before realizing their family ties, he kills all her suitors and his half-brother, a debauched white Creole who revels in sex with mixed-race women.

In these two novels, the use of the Gothic suggests that the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution remain ever-present. The political undertones are clear in the depiction of the monstrosity of interracial sex that creates a new class challenging whiteness and aristocratic rule. Maynard demonstrates the traumatic effects of the July Revolution as a repeat of 1789 for the Creoles who had supported the Bourbon restoration. His Creole Gothic manifests an obsession with the recurrence of revolutionary disasters. However, both Levilloux and Maynard express nostalgia for the stable social order inherent in the Ancien Régime that marks the trauma generated by the final fall of the monarchy.

Traversay’s, Levilloux’s, and Maynard’s visions of history and representations of sexuality lend further voice to the on-going transatlantic and local dialogues that still speak in 1835 against republicanism as a threat to white Creole aristocratic hegemony.

Jacqueline Couti is an Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Kentucky.  At the moment, she probes the political undertones of sexualized and eroticized images of bodies from the colonial period to nowadays in the Atlantic world.

Title image: Victor Levasseur, “Colonies françaises (en Amérique) (Hémisphère boréal),” 1854. 

Endnotes:

[1] The ideas presented here are discussed in more detail in the first and second chapter of my monograph Dangerous Creole Liaisons: Sexuality and Nationalism in French Caribbean Discourses from 1806 to 1897 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016).

[2] See Lizabeth Pravasini-Gebert “Colonial and Postcolonial Gothic: The Caribbean,” The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 229-57.

[3] See Outre-mer, edited by Maeve McCusker (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2009). The Traversay and Levilloux novels can be found in Roman Antillais du XIX siècle, edited by Auguste Joyaux (Morne Rouge: Édition des horizons caraïbes, 1977). I have also completed a new critical and annotated edition of Traversay’s Les amours de Zémédare et Carina (Paris: L’Harmattan, forthcoming Summer 2017).

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