Gender Is a Story I Tell Myself

Rachel Mesch, Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France

Stanford University Press, 360pp, £24.99, ISBN 9781503606739

reviewed by Frankie Dytor

Queer historians have long struggled with the absence of their stories from the archive. The literary critic Terry Castle described her research as an encounter with the ghostly, a hunt for the ever elusive ‘apparational lesbian’. More recently, others, like the writer and activist So Mayer, have proposed that historians document queer and trans history by creating an ‘anarchive’. The anarchive would make writing a form of patchwork, an anti-linear process weaving together points of resistance and subterfuge. Yet occasionally — tantalisingly — all the archive requires is a simple readjustment, a reprioritising of known material to reveal stories of self-made gender.

Rachel Mesch’s monograph Before Trans does exactly that. It tells the stories of three infamous individuals of post-revolutionary France: Jane Dieulafoy, Rachilde and Marc de Montifaud. Members of the cultural elite, all three were assigned female at birth, and all three challenged the limits of this designation. Jane Dieulafoy, an archaeologist employed by the French state, was affectionately described by the press as ‘the intrepid explorer who wears men’s suits’. Rachilde, the author of the censored novel Monsieur Vénus, inspired the playwright Oscar Méténier to create his gender fluid character Mary Staub who ‘was and only wanted to be a man’. Marc de Montifaud, art critic and historian, visited the Parisian Salon unchallenged as Monsieur de Montifaud.

Before Trans places these three extraordinary lives against the well-charted 19th-century backdrop of national crisis over the traditional place of masculinity and anxiety over the increasing visibility of women in creative spheres. Mesch asks a question that has often vexed historians of this era: how are we supposed to categorise the seemingly endless number of people who took divergent paths from those expected of the period? Rather than place this within the familiar rhetoric of ambiguity, deviance and performativity, Mesch turns to the lessons of trans scholarship.

Mesch offers an expansive definition of trans, arguing that ‘the broad category of trans can include anyone who feels misaligned with the gender attributed to them, regardless of how they identify and how they choose to express themselves’. For this reason, Mesch explains, the book does not try to pin down whether or not any of the historical figures she discusses were certifiably ‘trans’. As countless trans scholars have pointed out, it is futile to definitively apply the label trans within the context of a modern medical legal definition that works primarily to ascertain the legitimacy of a subject’s experience. Yet, gender has been used as a historical category, even though it may be an anachronistic one (the concept of gender as we understand it now did not exist in post-revolutionary France, for instance). Mesch argues that trans might equally offer a productive framework through which to explore complex gender stories from the past. Her work attends to the complexity and intricacies of every individual’s story, allowing for the necessary inconsistencies and partial telling that results from this approach. As Mesch neatly summarises it: trans is not so much an identity or category, but a departure.

The question remains, however, exactly how a story of trans before trans might be written. One of the most powerful arguments in Mesch’s book is the idea that transness has often existed covertly. This requires historians to reconsider the type of historical evidence they use. Mesch gives importance to ephemera, to scrapbooks, marginalia and underlining — all of which are ways that people create alternative, personal historical trails that linger quietly around the written ‘text’. Mesch also asks historians to consider why historical figures returned to certain themes and certain characters. She argues that fiction gave ‘avatars’ to Rachilde, allowing the author to re-imagine selfhoods beyond the real — as when a character prays to the Virgin Mary for a change of sex. Montifaud researched ‘misunderstood’ historical figures who were scorned and exiled by their society. Dieulafoy looked to other cultures and to the past, from the cross-dressing hero Joan of Arc to images of Persian masculinity.

Yet how could these authors give voice to trans experience without the language that we nowadays have? Mesch’s discussion of Rachilde reveals an author writing outside of the boundary of language, a figure who existed ‘outside of [the] epistemological categories’ of the 19th century. The protagonist of Monsieur Vénus ponders this problem: ‘I always thought I was one when I was really two’, eventually switching to use the pronoun ‘they’ in the end scene of the book. Mesch argues that this outsideness was recognised by Rachilde’s contemporaries, as ‘there was something inarticulable about Rachilde that nevertheless invited repeated efforts at articulation’. The editor of the regional newspaper The Echo of the Dorodogne would send messages to ‘Mademoiselle’ when Rachilde was dressed ‘en homme’, and to ‘her brother’ when dressed ‘en femme’. Rather than reading these moments as contradictory forms of self-expression, Mesch reads their significance outwards, as evidence that 19th-century contemporaries were capable of recognising and placing gender non-conformity.

As the section on Jane Dieulafoy shows, however, trans comes with its own problematic history of empire and orientalism. Dieulafoy, who was a soldier before she turned archaeologist, used the fiction of the east to explore the construction of gender, posing in photographs as an odalisque in soldier’s uniform. The enduring relationship between imperialism and masculinity is hinted at here, although not fully developed. On her travels, Dieulafoy wore trousers, apparently for ease; on her return to Paris, however, she continued to wear them, obtaining a ‘permission de travestissement’ to do so. As Dieulafoy’s expeditions became renowned amongst the cultural elite, her sartorial choice could be written off simply as eccentricity - a reminder of how class has historically provided a crucial crutch to the safety and visibility of trans expression.

Visibility, of course, is not only visual but exists in text and legacy. Mesch’s discussion of art critic Marc de Montifaud gives pause to reconsider the intentions of the historical subject who wrote behind a nom-de-plume. Mesch clearly shows how Montifaud’s use of a male pseudonym was not a strategy to hide femininity behind a male-presenting voice, but instead an integral part of Montifaud’s construction of self. A quick search of Montifaud pulled up the British Museum’s entry on the art critic: ‘Female author writing under male nom de plume’. Descriptions like this are ubiquitous in catalogues of historical records. Last summer, the Women’s Fiction prize came under scrutiny for its botched campaign ‘Reclaim her name’, the aim of which was to republish mainly Victorian fiction under the ‘real’ author’s name. As many pointed out however, the attempt to ‘give them the credit they deserve’ actually robbed authors of the agency to tell their own history. Pseudonyms were not just professional masquerades. Montifaud was publicly mocked and reviled for their writings, even imprisoned for certain publications. It is improbable that this high-profile author, who used Marc amongst intimate acquaintances and significantly named their son the same, chose a name simply to trick the press or flatter the public.

In many ways, the greatest contribution of Before Trans is its promise of more; a taste of things to come. The book hints at the co-constitution of whiteness and transness that is, inextricably, part of the history of queer European subjects. I wonder what the book would have looked like if its bibliography could have included the 2018 monographs by Jules Gill-Peterson and Kyla Schuller, which have alerted us to the entanglements between the modern racialised subject and the gender binary. Mesch, however, ultimately weaves a complex and nuanced tale that takes intimacy and self-confession seriously. What other gender stories are lying in plain view, waiting to be told?

Frankie Dytor is a PhD candidate in the History of Art department at the University of Cambridge.