I find it really frustrating that so few people have heard of Rachilde, because in my opinion she was one of the finest writers of the Decadent movement. The Marquise de Sade was the first thing I read by her, and I was completely blown away. Not only is the novel a love letter to Decadence, it is also an early feminist treaty. It tells the story of Decadent heroine Mary Barbe. Mary, the daughter of a soldier, has a miserable and isolated childhood, neglected and despised because she was born a girl. However, rather than being beaten down when each small source of happiness and affection she encounters (a fierce pet cat, a delicate young boy) are snatched away from her, Mary slowly learns that the only way to counteract the cruelty of the world is to match it. She exploits her burgeoning sexuality, enslaving and then crushing the men who fall in love with her, punishing them for treating her as an inferior. Her heart is only ever touched by a sensitive young medical students, prone to nosebleeds (which Mary loves), and who allows her to exact her sadistic sexual desires on him. The thing I love most about the novel is that there is no measly moral ending. Mary is never punished for her transgressions; she grows in power and depravity, with ‘a heart serene and a dagger raised.’
Rachilde was the nom de plume of Marguerite Valette-Eymery (1860-1953). She was very influential amongst the Decadent and Symbolist circles of the time – she played an instrumental role in getting Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi onto the stage. In many ways, The Marquise de Sade was an autobiographical novel – like Mary, she grew up in a military family, and suffered rejection from her parents, who wanted a boy. She started her literary career as a journalist, moving to Paris as soon as she could support herself. She finally made her breakthrough with controversial novel Monsieur Venus (more on that later). She married Alfred Vallette, with whom she founded the influential literary journal, Mercure de France. Despite all of this, she has somehow been relegated to a ‘supporting role’ in the history of Decadence, a fact which I hate. She was a remarkable woman, and an extremely talented writer, and deserves to be recognised as one of the key figures of literary Decadence.