From Rempart des Béguines to homosexual love affairs
Françoise Lilar, whose pen name was Françoise Mallet-Joris, was a prolific author of some thirty novels and biographies (of women), a few plays, and lyrics for French singers.
She would keep her dual nationality, Belgian by birth and French by naturalization, for the rest of her life. Having lived mainly in Paris, she returned regularly to Belgium, and lived there during the last years of her life.
Bisexual, she married three times (heterosexuals) and had four children, as well as experiencing beautiful homosexual relationships.
She became well-known as a writer as soon as Rempart des Béguines was published. This first novel, lesbian in nature, was published in 1951 by Julliard under her pen name “Françoise Mallet”. Françoise Lilar was then 21 years old, married and the mother of one child. She had just left the United States, where she had lived for two years, and eventually settled in Paris.
Françoise Lilar was born on July 6, 1930 in Antwerp into a family of lawyers. Her father, Albert Lilar, served as Belgian Minister of Justice several times. Her mother, Suzanne Verbist, born in Ghent where she studied law at university, was the first female lawyer called to the Antwerp bar. She later became a major Belgian writer, writing in French under the name of her second husband. The young Françoise grew up in a very literary family environment, “typical of the great French-speaking writers of Flanders in the lineage of Verhaeren, Maeterlinck and Marie Gevers” [i]. Her mother Susanne Lilar recounts her Flemish roots in her autobiography Une Enfance Gantoise, published in 1976.
Françoise herself emphasized her Flemish roots by adding the more Flemish-sounding name Joris to her pen name Mallet very early on. Her first novels are set in the Flemish atmosphere of her childhood. The title “Rempart des Béguines” was translated from Dutch, Begijnenvest, a street in Antwerp.
During her twilight years, in “La Double Confidence” (2001), she “evokes at the same time her childhood in Flanders, her mother and the life of the French poetess (North Flemish, like her) Marceline Desbordes-Valmore” [ii].
Her last novel, “Ni vous sans moi, ni moi sans vous” (2007), closes the loop by placing the location of the narrative in the Brussels of Art Nouveau.
Rempart des Béguines – 1951 – Context
The post-World War II period is characterized by a period of great return to the 3 Ks (Kinder, Kirche, Küche[iii]) for women. To contribute to the war effort, they were mobilized to work outside their homes and some married women were forced to take control of a workplace that their husbands had traditionally managed (e.g. farms, …). At the end of the war they were asked to return home and resume their unpaid domestic work or professional assistance to husbands or fathers: wives, mothers, daughters, subject to all authorities (men, religion, …). It was a forced return to hetero-sociality. For many women, it was also the loss of freedom newly acquired through managing a workplace for some, or through paid work (salary) for others.
However, the great wars also brought great upheavals. And this great planetary war, which began so quickly after another great war that ended barely 30 years earlier, brought about an unprecedented mixing of populations: large movements of military troops between different countries and continents, an exodus of diverse populations, with amplified means of communication (radios and newspapers, especially international ones, within reach of a wider public). A whole set of values and social codes found themselves confronted with each other. But on an individual scale, for many it also meant risking their lives, and this liberated social behavior as well as led to the discovery of new values.
Reactions at the time in the mainstream milieu: scandal and successes
The debutante writer recounted the passionate love story between a 15-year-old adolescent and an older divorcée who is the mistress and, later, wife of her father, and very free sexually (she had multiple relationships). Published six years after the war, the novel thus challenged a set of values and social codes prevalent in old Europe.
The very conventional and catholic Belgium was shocked. Everything contravened “good manners”: the youth of its author, her status as mother and wife, the lesbian theme of the book, the age difference between the heroines/protagonists, the divorce of a woman (one of the key characters), her very free-spirited behavior.
In France, the novel was seen as “quite scandalous” for the time.
The nuance is rather significant. Because fortunately the young writer no longer lived in Belgium. And in France, the novel expressed the new post-war freedoms that emerged in the early 50s. The novel announced and depicted the new values of its time, acting as a precursor, well in the vanguard of these.
Indeed, France saw the birth of new literary movements, including the “new novel”, the revelation of novelists with modern ideas such as Marguerite Duras and Nathalie Sarraute. Bonjour Tristesse (1954) by Françoise Sagan was published three years later.
Reception within the lesbian community
In France, it was “one of the rare novels of this period that gives substance to lesbians; that is why the former teenage girls of the 50s and 60s fondly think of it, although it is, as almost always in these pre-lesbian years, a disaster novel.”[iv]
As for the United States, where Françoise Lilar lived when she wrote the book in the early 1950s, pulp books (also known as “dime” or “supermaket” novels), the category in which lesbian novels were published, were available over the counter and were inexpensive.
Patricia Highsmith describes the lesbian and gay America she experienced in the 1940s and 1950s as follows: “When ‘The Price of Salt’ was written [April 1952], a few novels about homosexuality were raising their heads, somewhat timidly, though the publishers’ jacket blurbs said ‘daring’, and were being read by homosexuals male and female, and no doubt by heterosexuals curious about what was then an unfamiliar section of society, almost an underworld. Those were the days, the ‘forties and early ‘fifties, when gay bars in New York were behind rather dark door somewhere, and private clubs had get-togethers on Friday nights, admission $3.00 which included one drink, and you could invite one friend. There was dancing, and dinner at candlelit tables. (…) The gays talked about the latest homosexual novel, and maybe chuckled over the end of the story.
The homosexual novel then had to have to a tragic ending. (…) One of the main characters, if not both, had to cut his wrists, or drown himself in the swimming pool of some lovely estate, or one had to say goodbye to his partner, having decided to go straight. One of them had to see the error of his/her ways, the wretchedness ahead, had to conform (…)”. [v]
These were the endings that were imposed at the time by the publishing houses.
It was in this context that ‘Le Rempart des Béguines’ was quickly translated and published in English in 1952 in New York under the title ‘The Illusionist’. Shortly afterwards, in 1956, Jeannette H. Foster included this work in an impressive compilation “2500 Years of Lesbian History”. Her description allows us to see how the book could be read by lesbians. “A less innocent adolescent record written by Françoise Mallet, a married woman of twenty, was published in Paris (1951) as Le Rempart des Béguines, in New York (1952)as The Illusionist, and in a paper-covers 1953) as The Loving and Daring. (…) evidence of wide popularity (…) [The book] describes the initiation of a French girl of fifteen by her father’s mistress, a Russian woman twenty years older with a certain masculine hardness sometimes approaching sadism. The latter is captivated by Helene’s resemblance to a young English girl whom she once adored and whose defection left an unhealed wound. As long as Tamara is independent and masculine, Helene is her slave, cutting school, deceiving her father, even reluctantly accompanying her adored to a lesbian night club. Then Tamara becomes Helene‘s step-mother, and, relaxing at last under the influence of security, she becomes much more feminine. Consequently, Helene ceases to worship and looks forward to taking the dominant role herself, her weapon the lesbian relationship which her preoccupied father has believed merely an innocent “good influence”. Though the experience is hardly constructive in toto, both Helene and her author consider it beneficial inasmuch as it brings the lonely adolescent out of a phase of erotic reverie into wholesome contact with reality, and so has a maturing effect.” [vi]
It is interesting to note that Jeannette H. Foster states in her conclusions [vii] that since the beginning of the war, lesbian-themed literature had enjoyed relative permissiveness (“little concern to avoid overt lesbianism”), as well as greater tolerance “for a certain degree of heterosexual freedom”. Foreign novels that had won awards or, like The Illusionist, had been widely acclaimed, “had not been strongly attacked”. In contrast to an American book published earlier in 1950, Women’s Barracks [viii] by Toreska Torres (“a well-known author according to Publishers Weekly”).
However, F. Mallet’s novel bears an uncanny resemblance to certain aspects of the latter book, which deals with the love of Ursula, a shy 17-year-old teenager, for Claude, a much older woman who, disappointed by her marriage, has relationships with both men and women. Even though Claude is perceived as “perverse”, her influence on Ursula is considered “beneficial”. Despite a “happy ending” which is a magnificent return to heterosexuality, this would not prevent this book and some lesbian titles from ultimately being censored and “apparently withdrawn from bookstore sales”.
J.H. Foster thus gives us a glimpse of a world that is contradictory because it is in the midst of change.
Another American lesbian novel would also struggle to get published. “The Price of Salt” (published in French under the title Les eaux dérobées), written under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, was published thanks to the Coward McCann publishing house but not until April 1952. The book could have been published earlier if Harper Brothers, the author’s original, internationally-renowned publishing house, had not refused to do so. She would be forced to change her name in order to publish the novel with another publisher. She would also have to wait another thirty years or so before she could publish it under her real name, Patricia Highsmith, and under a new condition, that of finding a new title, “Carol” . This novel is now experiencing a dazzling comeback, thanks to its film interpretation. It was in 1951 that the book “L’Inconnu du Nord-Express”, written by Patricia Highsmith, was brought to the screen by Alfred Hitchcock… The economic stakes were enormous, and censorship was strictly enforced against the lesbian-themed book.
Le Rempart des béguines did not overshadow Françoise Mallet-Joris’ promising literary career. Away from her country of origin, a Belgium that remained traditional, living in Paris in a capital of great culture and literature, and living a freer life, she was not held back by scandal and would go from literary success to success.
The writer also took a different approach to the work of writing her first novel: “I didn’t see it from a specifically homosexual point of view, but as the relationship between a child and an adult […] I saw this confrontation, which was not between two adults” [ix].
Success came with La Chambre Rouge (1955), a non-lesbian “sequel”. She was soon awarded the Prix des Libraires in 1957 for Les Mensonges, the Prix Femina in 1958 for L’Empire Céleste, in 1963 the Prix René-Julliard for Lettre à Moi, and the Prix de Monaco in 1964 for a biography of Marie Mancini, le premier amour de Louis XIV.
Her books were published by major publishing houses such as Julliard, Grasset, Gallimard, and Flammarion.
Her fame and reputation led her to become in 1969 a member of the Femina jury, of which she later became president. She remained a member of the committee until 1971, when she was unanimously elected in November to the Goncourt Academy – she would remain a member until her resignation in 2011 due to health reasons.
In 1993, the writer joined Belgium’s Royal Academy of French Language and Literature, taking the seat of her mother, who had died a year earlier. She remained there until her death on 13 August 2016.
She was considered a true “witness of her time”. She is also honored for the great diversity of her work. In her acceptance speech at the Belgian Academy, she said: “I would like to be able to write with both hands and for each hand to write the opposite of the other”.
From 1970 to 1981, a long love affair and professional collaboration with Marie-Paule Belle
For many homosexuals, lesbians and bisexuals, the end of the 1960s and 1970s, with the emergence of feminist and lesbian movements, made it possible to break free from their shackles and dare to live out their non-heterosexual “inclinations”. Nevertheless, difficulties (still) remained.
It was during this period that Françoise met Marie-Paule Belle, a French variety singer and composer who was openly lesbian. They began a love affair in 1970, and both made no secret of it. This was not very common at the time. Many homosexuals, particularly in the public sphere, in artistic and cultural circles or in show business, still passed themselves off as “bisexual” in interviews, as this was better accepted by an audience that remained predominantly heterosexual, sexist and lesbophobic.
Le Rempart des Béguines was adapted for the silver screen in 1972 by the director Guy Casaril, with whom she worked on the script. In an interview filmed [x] on 14 September 1972 that announced the film’s forthcoming release, Françoise Mallet-Joris appears rather boyish, with short hair, wearing trousers and a tie. In a beautiful, deep, rich and suave voice, she reveals the difficulties of having to render all the subtleties of her novel through dialog alone. She soon became Marie-Paule Belle’s lyricist, writing lyrics for her songs. The song La Parisienne, which she co-wrote in 1976, became a real hit and definitively launched the singer. In it, she recounts “the adventures of a provincial woman who arrived in the capital”: “I am not a nymphomaniac / I am blamed, I am blamed / I am not a transvestite / It affects me, it affects me”. The success was enormous: “The single would become a golden record. Marie-Paule Belle filled the Olympia in Paris and the Théâtre des Variétés.”[xi]
All of this shows Françoise Mallet-Joris’ extraordinary ability to adapt to a wide variety of writing styles: novels, songs, film scripts, not to mention theater and opera.
That same year, 1976, her novel La Chambre Rouge was adapted for the cinema by the Belgian director Jean-Pierre Berckmans.
In 1979, French-speaking Swiss television devoted a day of interviews to the singer Marie-Paule Belle and the writer Françoise Mallet-Joris [xii]. This journalistic gem allows us to better understand the extremely rich and respectful personal and professional dynamic that existed between the two creators.
“Femme d’influence” in the French literary world – other loves
A member of several literary juries, Françoise Mallet-Joris has also worked as the publishing director at Julliard and as a reader at Grasset. She had become a “woman of influence” in the French-speaking literary world. Françoise Verny, journalist and “high priestess” of the French publishing world, published several of the writer’s novels. In 1990 she published her autobiography, which thoroughly documents her years in the French publishing world. She dedicated it in particular to Françoise Mallet-Joris, citing her on the cover page as one of the “celebrities of today” and devoted a whole chapter to her. It is in these pages that she reveals the strength of their relationship: “We went through the torments of passion before enjoying a shared tenderness. Our intimacy fills me up and amazes me more and more every day. (…) [I] can’t do without her and she can’t do without me. The closest of my loved ones. (…) We love each other (…)”. [xiii]
Françoise Mallet-Joris was recognized as a writer, and well loved. Upon her death, Agence France Presse interviewed Marie-Paule Belle, deeply affected: “I owe her everything… I was born a second time thanks to her. I feel an immense sorrow”.
The most outstanding work of her career remains Rempart des Béguines. In 1985, Claudine Brécourt-Villars chose an excerpt from this bestseller for the novelist in her collection Ecrire D’amour. Anthologie de textes érotiques féminins (1799-1984). Even if she analyzes the relationship between the characters as an “intellectualised eros” [xiv], the modernity of the tone does not elude us, and one can understand why the novel achieved success as soon as it was published in the middle of the 20th century. Generations of lesbians – but also any romantic person – used to a double interpretation of novels and rejecting anything that disturbed them, could only savor the magnificent passages that the novel contained. Here is an excerpt from the selection published in the anthology: “(…) when I was fifteen years old, (…) [I tasted] in Tamara’s arms the joy of being comforted, kissed, of hearing myself whisper tenderly, and it seemed to me that this pleasure found its natural continuation in the long kiss that followed. I had never kissed anyone like that before (…). So the kiss was a total and wonderful revelation to me. As soon as she had stopped kissing me, I held out my face for her to take my lips once more, and the connection between us was immediately perfect. Later she undressed me completely (…). And between her kisses, which I could not tire of, I spoke to her about everything, I confided to her everything I had dreamed, imagined, desired.” [xv]
(Translated from French by Brussel Onthaal vzw, supervised by Tamara for L-Tour – With the support of Equal.Brussels)
Originally published under : LENS, Marian : Françoise Mallet-Joris (1930-2016). Du Rempart des Béguines à ses amours homosexuelles. In: Het ondraaglijk besef / La notion insupportable (Fonds Suzan Daniel), n°23, december/décembre 2017, pp. 9-12.
[i] Duplat G., Mort de Françoise Mallet-Joris, romancière foisonnante. (http://www.lalibre.be/culture/livres-bd/mort-de-francoise-mallet-joris-romanciere-foisonnante-57aefa3435709a31055e1713, 13-08-2016, mis à jour le 14-08-2016).
[iii] Translation: Children, Church, Kitchen.
[iv] L’infolettre de Bagdam (France), 18 août 2016.
[v] Afterword written in October 1983 for the « The Price of Salt » version, under the author’s pen Claire Morgan, edited by The Naiad Press in 1984.
[vi] Foster Jeannette H., Sex Variant Women in Literature. New York, Vantage Press, 1956. Abstract taken from the reedition of the book by The Naiad Press, 1985, p338.
[vii], p. 341.
[viii] [note for the French version]
[ix] Abstract from an interview by the Belgian writer J. de Decker in 2004, quoted by Maëlle Le Corre, Françoise Mallet-Joris, l’auteure du «Rempart des béguines» est décédée, in : Yagg (rainbow e-newsletter), 15.08.2016.
[x] Françoise MALLET JORIS speaks on the French broadcast Italiques in relation to the film adaptation of her novel: http://www.ina.fr/video/I13267569.
[xi] Http://www.universalmusic.fr/artiste/7776-marie-paule-belle/bio ; accessed on 02/11/2016.
xiii] Verny Françoise, Le plus beau métier du monde, Paris, Olivier Orban, 1990, pp. 444-445.
[xiv] Brécourt-Villars Claudine, Ecrire d’amour. Anthologie de textes érotiques féminins (1799-1984). Paris, Ramsay, 1985, p 45.
[xv] Ibid., pp 243-244.