This book argues, however, that the fear of sexual abandon--though real--veiled an even more insidious fear: that women might be capable of intellectual equality with men and thus pose a threat to the most basic structures of French patriarchal society. In demonstrating the pervasiveness of this anxiety through analysis of nineteenth-century medical texts, literary criticism, and fiction, The Hysteric's Revenge brings into relief a critical relationship between the female mind and body that is essential to understanding the discursive position of the turn-of-the-century woman writer.
The novels presented here confront this mind/body problem through a wide variety of styles and genres that challenge conventional fin-de-siecle notions of femininity. From the compelling autobiography of Liane de Pougy--one of Paris's most renowned courtesans--to Colette's frank discussions of female pleasure in one of her early novels, to the violent creativity of Rachilde's androgynous heroine, Mesch demonstrates how both canonical and non-canonical writers promoted women's intellectual authority through the development of a sexual counter-discourse. In engaging the relationship between women's minds and bodies, these novels challenge the conclusions of a century of doctors who sought to prove a physiological basis for female intellectual inferiority. At the same time, they point the way towards later French feminists who sought to subvert patriarchal structures through literary explorations of sexuality.