Italian Landscape and French Female Sentimental Novelists (1792-1815)

Christie Margrave

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Links between women and nature have existed for centuries, a fact attested to by the very concept that ‘Mother Nature’ herself is considered a feminine, maternal entity. The scientific minds of eighteenth-century France certainly connected female emotion, behaviour and biology inextricably with aspects of the natural world, such as the lunar cycle (MacCormack & Strathern (1980)). The nexus between the feminine and the natural world even furnished thinkers of this period with a reason to subordinate women to men in a society which ranked human reason and intelligence above nature and natural instinct (La Mettrie, Stahl, Roussel).
Mid-way through the century, Rousseau engendered a metamorphosis in public opinion regarding nature. Nature was placed upon a pedestal; living at one with the natural landscape was actively encouraged. Yet, paradoxically, the condition of women remained inferior, their treatment conservative.
Female sentimental novelists of the First Republic and First Empire address such treatment, questioning their sex’s role in society. Furthermore, they employ descriptions of the natural landscape to do so, using the very element to which women are tied to embody and reflect the issues they faced during this turbulent period.
This paper will examine problems encountered by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French women in love and marriage in particular, considering forbidden marriages, forced marriages (Bernard (2007), Desan (2006), Segalen & Fine (1988)), idolatry, and the male creation of the perfect female lover. Should a woman pursue public duty in accepting an arranged marriage or should she pursue her own personal happiness? Should she conform to the ideal image expected of her as a lover?
Two novels penned at the turn of the new century will be analysed – Mme de Krüdener’s Valérie (1803) and Mme de Staël’s Corinne ou l’Italie (1807). New light will be shed on Krüdener’s and Staël’s exploration of the feminine condition in the context of cultural interest in the Italian landscape in particular. My paper will examine how three different Italian landscapes – Neopolitan countryside, Venetian waterways, and Mount Vesuvius – 1) provide suitable spaces for the engendering of passion, and 2) simultaneously undermine the love which they helped nurture.
The paper will investigate the paradoxical ways these landscapes were viewed, considering them in terms of power and bondage (Naples), dreams and nightmare (Venice), and passion and destruction (Volcanoes). In presenting antithetical views of landscapes which embody the very gender debates at the heart of their novels, Krüdener and Staël offer two pairs of opposing types of women – submissive/liberated, and imagined/real – without advocating an advised path. In delivering novel combinations of contemporary views of Italy, Krüdener and Staël enrich the reader’s experience of the socio-political gender debate, in lieu of dictating an answer.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - Jan 2012


  • Italy
  • landscape
  • French literature
  • women's writing
  • sentimental novels

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