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Liberty, equality, adultery
John Adamson reviews Husbands, Wives, and Lovers by Patricia Mainardi
How did the great cataclysm of the French Revolution - and the quarter
century of war that it unleashed - affect the development of European
culture? This is currently one of the most fashionable of historical questions,
and a broad (and generally persuasive) consensus is emerging as to the
The years around 1800, so the argument runs, marked more
than a simple change from one century to another, but one of those epochal
transitions when ideas, assumptions and behaviours alter, not slowly and
incrementally, but suddenly and fundamentally - a process of change accelerated,
most often, by the pressures of war.
In this case, the cultural primacy that had been enjoyed
by the aristocratic royal court was eclipsed and displaced by a new "public
sphere" - a composite of institutions outside courtly control, from
the newspaper, the novel, and the subscription concert, through to the
publicly funded museum and art gallery - and by the values of an increasingly
numerous and prosperous bourgeoisie.
The impact of this transformation has been persuasively
traced in relation to politics, the visual arts, and even music. In this
new book, Patricia Mainardi discerns it in an altogether different context:
in relation to marriage and sexual mores.
Here, too, she contends, a radical transformation can
be discerned in France, either side of the 1800 divide. And we can chart
these changes in a variety of cultural forms: from published gazettes
of court-room proceedings (which provided contemporaries with some of
the most explicitly titillating accounts of sexual misbehaviour on offer),
through to novels, popular prints, and even the plays and operas presented
on the Parisian stage.
In short, Ms Mainardi argues that between the fall of
the ancien regime in 1789 and the fall of Napoleon in 1815, France lost
its sense of humour over adultery. The contrast in attitudes can be simply
exemplified by juxtaposing Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro (1784)
- the model for the near-contemporary opera by Mozart, in which adultery
is a matter for reflection on the comic folly of the human condition -
with Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857), where adultery is the stuff of high
tragedy, and the protagonist is punished for her immorality. Beaumarchais'
insouciant adulterers end up with forgiveness and reconciliation; Flaubert's
with scandal and death.
What produced this transformation? Mainardi's explanation
lies in the legal revolution unleashed by 1790s in France and consolidated
in the 1804 Code Napoleon, the reordering of French law that survived
the fall of the Emperor in 1815 and, shorn of its anti-Catholic elements,
became the basis of French law into the modern age.
The key change in attitudes to adultery, argues Mainardi,
related to inheritance. Pre-Revolutionary France had practised primogeniture
- the inheritance by the first-born son of a father's estate to the exclusion
of any other siblings. Under this system, if a wife later had an adulterine
child, this might be socially or morally reprehensible, but it had no
serious economic consequences for the legitimate heir.
The 1804 Napoleonic Code changed all that. It confirmed
the Revolution's abolition of primogeniture and decreed that estates should
henceforth be divided equally among all the surviving children. For these
purposes, any child born of the mother during the marriage to her husband
was deemed to be a legitimate heir, and inquiries into paternity (a rather
haphazard business anyway in the absence of DNA-testing) were forbidden
From the inauguration of the Code, adultery - and the
doubts it created over the paternity of children - threatened the family
patrimony as never before. By granting cuckoos in the nest the same inheritance
rights as "genuine" hatchlings, the Code placed a new emphasis
on wifely chastity and inaugurated a new era of husbandly suspicion. For
cheated husbands now had more to fear from their wives' infidelities than
the traditional cuckold's horns.
Compounding the problem were conflicting expectations
of marriage. For in the first half of the 19th century, the subversive
Enlightenment doctrine that a marriage should be a love match was gaining
currency in a culture where the older model of the arranged marriage (the
mariage de raison) remained the norm for couples from all levels of the
social hierarchy. Moreover, divorce (after a brief legalisation under
the Revolution and Napoleon) was once again prohibited after 1815.
The temptations to adultery to which this disjunction
gave rise became the stuff of novels, operas, and painting in post-Napoleonic
France to a degree that is in marked contrast to contemporary England.
In England, where young couples were relatively freer in their choice
of spouse, the standard novelistic plot, for instance, focused on romantic
attraction in the context of pre-marital courtship, with the story usually
ending happily at the altar. In France, by contrast, the plot generally
began at the altar, with romantic love usually being found after the marriage,
and usually with someone other than the legal spouse.
The major theme, in both literary and dramatic works,
is the moralistic cautionary tale: the disaster that will befall the woman
(and it is almost always the woman: male infidelity was regarded, hypocritically,
as the most venial of sins) who flouts social convention in search of
Yet, moral repression is not the only theme. The satirical
print retailed a very different set of expectations. The 1819 lithograph,
for instance, titled The Useless Precaution depicts a fat, bald, and elderly
husband closing the door to his house, as he leaves, with elaborate locks,
while she, in the distance, greets her handsome young lover who is climbing
a ladder to her boudoir window.
Shining through the priggishness of post-1815 morality
are bright shafts of satire. The point of many popular prints and engravings
was the resourcefulness with which individuals seek romantic union at
whatever cost. And even the literary world had its dissentient voices,
like that of George Sand, the female novelist who risked charges of immorality
in the 1830s by denouncing the would-be tyranny of husbands, and having
her adulterous heroines live happily ever after.
If Patricia Mainardi is occasionally a rather heavy-footed
guide through the trysts and assignations of post-Napoleonic France -
more Balzac, I fear, than Beaumarchais - her account is nevertheless filled
with astute observations and clever evidential juxtapositions. Few books
bring home more directly the sheer vileness of France under the Bourbon
Restoration. For in managing to unite the political authoritarianism of
the ancien-regime aristocracy with the moral Puritanism of the newly powerful
bourgeoisie, it managed a uniquely repellent combination of the worst
of both worlds.