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Blanc, Marie-Thérèse (1840–1907)

Blanc, Marie-Thérèse (1840–1907)

Prolific French novelist and literary critic, primarily of American and English authors, who devoted much of her work to popularizing the history and attainments of the American women's movement for her French readers. Name variations: Blanc usually appears under her pseudonym (derived from her mother's maiden name), variously given as Th. Bentzon, Th. Bentzen, or Thérèse or Théodore Bentzon; yet she is sometimes referred to by contemporaries as Thérèsede Solms or, simply, as Mme Blanc. Pronunciation: BLÃ; BEN-tzen. Born Marie-Thérèse de Solms on September 21, 1840, in Seine-Port, France; died in Paris in 1907; daughter of the German count of Solms and Olympe de Bentzon (the Danish daughter of Major-General Adrien Benjamin de Bentzon, one-time governor of the Danish Antilles); educated at home by an English governess; married M. Blanc (a French banker), in 1856 (divorced 1859).

Blanc's literary output spanned the years 1868–1907, during which she published 51 books and 116 articles—mostly literary criticism for the Revue des Deux Mondes, a prestigious French literary journal—and translated or wrote prefaces to 16 American or English literary works. Two of her novels and one nonfictional book were lauded by the French Academy.

Selected publications:

Un divorce (1871); Un remords (acclaimed by the French Academy, 1878); Tony (acclaimed by the French Academy, 1884); The Condition of Woman in the United States: A Traveller's Notes (English translation of Notes de Voyages: Les Américaines chez elles by Abby Langdon Alger, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1895, also acclaimed by the French Academy); Choses et Gens d'Amérique (Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1898); Notes de Voyages: Nouvelle France et Nouvelle-Angleterre (Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1899); Femmes d'Amérique (Paris: Armand Colin, 1900); Questions américaines (Paris: Hachette, 1901); En France et en Amérique (1909, posthumously).

The 19th-century American literary critic Theodore Stanton praised Marie-Thérèse Blanc for her "broad understanding of America and Americans, things so exceedingly rare among her fellow countrymen and women." Indeed, in spite of her formidable general output of novels and significant writings on the women's movement, she is most remembered for introducing her French readers to America and American literature. Yet Blanc's provincial and genteel upbringing hardly hinted at her future career and interests.

Marie-Thérèse Blanc was born in the picturesque village of Seine-Port, in the department Seine et Oise, on September 21, 1840. On both sides of the family, her background was aristocratic and cosmopolitan, a circumstance that was to have a marked impact on her outlook on life. Danish Major-General Adrien Benjamin de Bentzon (1777–1827), Blanc's maternal grandfather, not only frequented the literary circles of Copenhagen, having obtained a first prize for work at the university there, but met leading Europeans such as Metternich, Talleyrand, and Hardenberg in the course of his diplomatic career. Bentzon's first wife—whom he divorced—was Magdalen Astor , daughter of John Jacob and Sarah Todd Astor ; he apparently met his second wife, Blanc's grandmother, Henriette Franciska Coppy (1781–1858), in the West Indies. While the general clearly left a strong intellectual legacy, he died before Blanc's birth. She herself viewed her grandmother's second husband, the Marquis de Vitry, as her real grandfather. The dashing—and spendthrift—Vitry was an ex-officer of the royal bodyguard during the Restoration period and a typical representative of the old regime. Blanc's mother, Olympe de Bentzon, married twice. Her first husband, Blanc's father, was the count of Solms, a proud German-Alsatian aristocrat who traced his lineage back to the era of Charlemagne and numbered many counts and princes of the Holy Roman Empire among his ancestors. It was to him that Blanc attributed her inherited "German" qualities of idealism, enthusiasm, and sentimentality.

Blanc's formative years were spent in aristocratic provincial society, surrounded by devoted servants and caring nurses. She passed much of her childhood in the Orléanais country home of her financially straitened grandparents, and sometimes spent her summers in Touraine, her winters in Paris, along with her parents. The rather conservative traditions of her grandparents, who, as Blanc later put it, kept her "a century behind in many things," were to exert a considerable influence. Young Marie-Thérèse was educated at home, along with her brother, by their mother and a well-read English governess, one Miss Robertson, who passed on to Blanc a love for English literature, particularly the Romantics. Soon reading the Waverley novels and Washington Irving, she excelled in composition and rhetoric and was already writing at an early age; her proud father even carried around her copybooks to show friends and acquaintances. While Blanc described her education as one "by fits and starts without diplomas at the end, with much reading and dreaming, with meditation in the country and with some travel, especially a never-to-be-forgotten sojourn in Germany," she did consider these formative experiences crucial in awakening her poetic imagination.

At age 16, Blanc's father forced her to marry one M. Blanc, a banker. The Blancs had one son, later an academician and member emeritus of the French Geographical Society. There is some speculation that the match was designed to buttress the family's faltering finances. Such arranged marriages between a successful bourgeois and the daughter of an impoverished—but prestigious—noble house were not uncommon, and the practice was long known in France as an exercise in redorer le blason ("regilding the coat-of-arms"). Under the circumstances, the marriage was not a happy one and ended in divorce, after only three years. Subsequently, Blanc's husband disappeared to Haiti under mysterious circumstances related to obscure financial dealings. This separation, and the final "melting away of what fortune I had," caused her to turn to writing as a means of gaining her livelihood.

Meanwhile, Blanc's mother had divorced her first husband and remarried, this time to a French aristocrat, the Count d'Aure. The noble house of Aure had issued from the family of the counts of Comminges, who traced their ancestry back to the medieval dukes of Aquitaine and Gascony. Blanc's new father was equerry to Emperor Napoleon III and commander of the Saumur Cavalry School, in her own words "a superior man in every respect." Aure was later to prove crucial in introducing his stepdaughter to the brilliant Parisian world of literary salons and aristocratic society, as well as to the female novelist and champion of the women's cause, George Sand , whom Blanc much admired.

The hour of the woman has chimed; it is time to solicit the opinion of woman on all matters. May God watch over her, that her opinion be a reasonable one, and not add another false note to the general cacophony.

—Marie-Thérèse Blanc

After her own divorce, Blanc moved in with her mother—to whom she was very close—leaving the rustic provincial setting of her childhood for the glitter of the metropolis. Here she remained until her mother's death in 1887, after which she kept a residence in Paris and at a family property in Ferté-sous-Jouarre. The Count and Countess d'Aure had their town-house on the rue de l'Université, in the highly fashionable quarter of St. Germain, and Olympe d'Aure held her own literary salon. To an independent-minded, cosmopolitan, and talented young woman like Blanc, it seemed a new world of opportunity beckoned.

France in 1859 had regained the international prestige it had lost with the defeat of Napoleon I. Commerce and industry were booming, and French engineers were putting the last touches to the Suez Canal. Napoleon III, the great Napoleon's nephew, had brought France out of isolation and victoriously participated in the Crimean War (1854–56). Hosting the peace conference in Paris not only stirred French nationalism to new heights, but spotlighted the grandeur of Baron Haussmann's vast urban renewal. The prefect of the Seine had transformed the metropolis from a medieval maze of narrow streets into a modern city of elegant boulevards and imposing squares. Such was the atmosphere of the capital Blanc made her new professional home.

Blanc began her writing career around 1862, as a newspaper journalist. While she did publish a few short pieces in the Revue Moderne, in 1868 and 1869, it was not until late 1869 that she was given a chance at publication in a truly well-known literary magazine. She herself dates her actual literary debut to that year, for it was then that the nephew of François-Edouard Bertin, editor of the Journal des Débats, commissioned her to write a story for that periodical. She wrote the piece during a trip to Goslar, Germany—where she often spent her vacations with relatives and friends—and submitted it immediately after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War (1870). Subsequently, her friend and greatest formal literary influence, Caro, professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne, called François Buloz's attention to her new story. Buloz, editor of the prestigious and inter-nationally known literary periodical Revue des Deux Mondes, was favorably enough impressed to commission a novelette for publication in the review. It appeared in January of 1872.

Blanc's debut with the Revue des Deux Mondes was to mark the beginning of a long and fruitful writing career, during which she published at least one novel or monograph every year, not to mention the scores of articles and a good dozen translations or prefaces over a 40-year period. Her work appeared in both French and American periodicals, among them the Revue Bleue, Revue Moderne, Century Magazine, The Forum, and the North American Review, a prestigious Boston literary and historical quarterly. Her book publishers included the renowned Parisian houses of Hachette, Armand Colin, and Calmann Lévy. A few of her novels appeared in serialized form in the Revue des Deux Mondes, while some articles were subsequently issued under one cover, as essay collections.

Her novels aside, the bulk of Blanc's work—in strictly quantitative terms—was devoted to literary criticism. While she did write a few pieces on Continental European authors, such as her own compatriot George Sand, or the Russian Turgenev, most of her criticism was devoted to contemporary Anglo-American literature. At least one modern author, P. Leguay, has considered her less of a critic than a popularizer. However that may be, the self-avowed Americanophile did introduce her readers to writers such as Bret Harte, Thomas Aldrich (with whom she enjoyed a 25-year friendship), Sarah Orne Jewett , Edward Bellamy, Frances Hodgson Burnett , Walt Whitman, Artemus Ward, Henry James, George Cable, Richard Stoddard, Sidney Lanier, Hamlin Garland, Booker T. Washington, and Mark Twain—of whom she was very critical, apparently stimulating his antipathy for France. It also seems Blanc exercised a substantial influence on Henry James, whom she met first in France, in 1876, when he visited her at the ancestral Solms home in the provinces, and later in London in 1891 and 1899. While it is impossible to establish the exact nature of their personal relationship, it seems fairly clear that Blanc herself, along with her work, inspired many characters in James' writings. The influence is especially marked during his Parisian period, and evident in The Ambassadors. British authors reviewed by Blanc include Sir Henry Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans ), and Robert Stevenson, whom she particularly admired.

Blanc's work was her life, and she labored incessantly for the recognition of her talent both as an individual, and particularly as a woman, in a French society still far from achieving any semblance of equal opportunity. Her literary output reflected Blanc's socialization as a well-bred, cosmopolitan and aspiring young woman, thrown upon her own means after a failed marriage, in an environment where single women necessarily struggled hard to attain professional success. Many of her novels and short stories dealt with the place of women in society and the relationship between the sexes, and specific themes seem to reveal strong autobiographical characteristics; e.g. Une vie manquée, which evoked the theme of forced marriage, or Un divorce, doubtless inspired by her mother's and her own experience. In one novelette, Emancipée, the heroine is a young and ambitious Frenchwoman aspiring to become a physician in a hostile, male-dominated academic and social environment. The plot revolves around a classic dilemma: the young woman is forced to choose between her career and her lover, and the resulting emotional anguish of the parties involved is a vivid evocation of the social tensions caused by changing gender roles. The resolution of the conflict is a significant comment on Blanc's own moderate position vis-à-vis the women's movement. While the heroine does finally choose her lover over a medical career—the traditional choice—she leaves no doubt that she has chosen of her own free will.

The women's movement in France was making headway during Blanc's lifetime, but progress was slow and in many ways incomplete, if compared with the success of women across the Atlantic. In the year of her birth, Etienne Cabet, a major promoter of the feminist cause, had called for equal access to education and the professions—but not political rights—in his Voyage en Icarie. In 1843, the more militant Flora Tristan published L'Union ouvrière, a socialist manifesto which demanded the equality of the sexes and emancipation of women, full political rights, the right to work, and the right to education; but the radical nature of her position placed her far ahead of her time. The second half of the 19th century brought with it jobs and prosperity created by the accelerating industrial revolution, and women entered the labor market in ever greater numbers. While during the 1870s women primarily worked for equal rights in private salons with an increasingly political bent, the 1880s and 1890s witnessed the proliferation of feminist periodicals, women's associations and congresses. The program was there, but its realization took time, and real gains came slowly, mainly in the realm of access to higher education. During Blanc's adulthood, the first woman graduated with a B.A. (1861), earned an M.D. (1875), and was granted a Ph.D. in the sciences (1888). It was not until seven years after her death that the first woman obtained a Ph.D. in Blanc's own field, letters. In the domain of civil rights, progress was even slower, for a married working woman could not freely dispose of her own wages until 1907. So progress was perhaps moderate, but nonetheless real, given the 19th century's point of departure—Napoleon's Code Civil with its paternalistic legislation for women.

Blanc was very much interested in keeping her readers abreast of developments in the women's movement, particularly on an international scale and in those countries where progress appeared greater than in France, namely Britain and the United States, though she also wrote about the plight of women in Russia. True to her early journalistic training, Blanc always traveled to the countries in question, to see for herself and to interview local authorities, while never neglecting serious research into contemporary printed sources. When necessary, she quoted relevant passages in official government publications or local newspapers.

In 1893–94, and again in 1897, Blanc—who must rank as the premier 19th-century French student of the American woman—traveled to the United States, observing women of all classes and races, both urban and rural, in the East, South and Midwest. Keeping a diary proved an invaluable aid in writing up her experiences. In 1897, she was accompanied by Ferdinand Brunetière, famous critic, Sorbonne lecturer in literature, and editor of the Revue des Deux Mondes. She intended to popularize American women's history in general, and the attainments of the women's movement, in particular, for her French sisters. Blanc summed up her prize-winning Les Américaines chez elles as "a woman's notes about everything that relates to the condition of women." She wanted, "quite simply, … to take note of some of the great progress that interests the whole world. It has been accomplished, without much ado, by a group of women I have admired while at work, and whom I have considered worthy to serve as models for all other women." Thus, she examined the co-educational system, also visiting the blossoming women's colleges; commented on the position of women on the labor market and in the professions; and looked up the main women's clubs, both the literary and more politically oriented. She also researched the impact of women on public welfare and philanthropy, finally inquiring into the state of the suffrage movement. Her travels throughout the country took her from New York to New Orleans, from Boston to Galesburg, Illinois. In the nation's capital, she even attended sessions of both houses of Congress. The list of men and women she met and interviewed reads like a roll-call of 19th-century American philanthropists and feminists, including prominent figures such as Jeannette Gilder, Kate Field, Ednah Dow Cheney, Julia Ward Howe , and Ellen Gates Starr .

Yet her overall enthusiasm did not prevent Blanc from being critical of what she saw, and some aspects of American feminism were too strong for the moderate Frenchwoman's palate. Here her traditionalist childhood and youth left their mark. While American women were more liberated than the French, and Blanc admired them for their educational and professional opportunities, some women, she felt, were forgetting their domestic duties and neglecting their feminine persona while scrambling for the attainment of more ambitious goals. Why, she asked, should homemaking or a woman's personal appearance suffer in the struggle? In the end, Blanc did not consider the time ripe for full political participation. Better to let the men do battle in the sordid arena of politics and leave the high moral ground to women—a decidedly 19th-century attitude. Women, she argued, were by nature better suited to quietly promote reform from behind the scenes, and the record of achievement in women's philanthropy testified to the success of such a strategy. On balance—at least compared to the "more radical" English—the American women's movement had been spared the excesses of the "real feminist party" and been tempered by the wisdom of its leaders. As to the impact of her own efforts at keeping Frenchwomen informed of such developments abroad, Blanc believed they had contributed "not a little to advance in France the moderate and rational side of the woman cause." Indeed, the acclaimed Les Américaines chez elles was something of a bestseller in its day, running through five editions.

In 1899, Blanc traveled to London for the second quinquennial meeting of the International Council of Women, which she attended, reporting back to her French readers in a lengthy article. Again, her aim was popularization, for her piece is nothing less than an introduction to the history of the council, including a country-by-country report of the state of the women's movement and a survey of the papers delivered at the conference. Clearly, she was most interested in developments in self-help, social welfare, civil rights, working conditions, and the role of women in the international peace and disarmament movement.

Blanc died in Paris at age 67. Her last article was published posthumously by the American Century Magazine in 1908 and introduced her American readers to the French Academy—the arbiter of language and literature that had crowned her work, though membership for a woman in that male bastion of letters was impossible. A year later, Hachette issued her last book, the comparative work En France et en Amérique.

Blanc's reception by contemporaries and moderns has been largely mixed. Theodore Stanton, writing in 1898 in the North American Review, termed her "perhaps the most distinguished of living French female writers." Mario Bertaux, who, in his preface to The Condition of Woman in the United States, called her both a realist and an idealist, noted that she was quite popular in America and Britain. Angelo de Gubernatis, in the Dictionnaire international des écrivains du monde latin (1905), stressed her "great talent," pointing out that she would have been admitted to the French Academy, had that august body accepted women into its midst. On the other hand, a hostile reviewer of The Condition of Woman, in the New York weekly TheNation (1895) accused her of "slap-dash" journalism and prejudice, though omitting to cite any concrete examples. Nor is the brief article devoted to Blanc in the standard French national biography (1949) any more flattering. Its author, archivist P. Leguay, doubted whether she really understood the American authors she wrote so much about. He concluded that "Neither her books of literary criticism, nor her numerous novels, reveal a truly strong personality, only a terrible facility at writing." Recent scholarly appraisals have tended towards a more positive view, so that Joan West in 1987 qualified Blanc's interpretation of American literature and society in general as "authoritative," while this contributor demonstrated her methodical research into, and balanced perception of the American woman, in particular. An unequivocal testimony to her continued influence in social history—if not literature—is the listing of Les Américaines chez elles as a major 19th-century source on American women in Pierre Grimal's manual on global women's history.

Gilder, Jeannette Leonard (1849–1916)

American journalist. Born Jeannette Leonard Gilder on October 3, 1849, in Flushing, New York; died in 1916; daughter of Reverend Gilder (a minister and Union Army chaplain).

After her father died of smallpox while serving as a chaplain with the Union Army during the Civil War, 15-year-old Jeannette Gilder found a job to support the family. Following a stint at the Newark Morning Register, she moved to New York and became literary editor of the New York Herald. Gilder and her brother Joseph then co-founded (1881) the weekly literary magazine the Critic, which she edited for 25 years (1881–1906). She was also the author of The Autobiography of a Tomboy (1901) and The Tomboy at Work (1904). Wrote Gilder: "Tomboy was the accepted name for such girls as I was, and there was no use in arguing the case. After all, it made little difference. I did not care what they called me, so long as they let me alone."

sources:

Bibliographie de la littérature française, 1800–1930. Ed. by Hugo P. Thieme. Paris: E. Droz, 1933.

Blanc, Marie-Thérèse. "Autobiographical Notes." Collated by Theodore Stanton. North American Review, May 1898.

——. Notes de Voyages: Les Américaines chez elles. 5th ed. Paris: Calmann Lévy 1896.

Dansk Biografisk Leksikon. 3rd ed. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1979–84.

Dictionnaire de Biographie Française. Edited by M. Prevost and Roman D'Amat. Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1949.

Dictionnaire de la noblesse. Ed. by François Aubert de la Chenaye-Desbois. (1863–1876) Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1980.

Dictionnaire biographique, comprenant la liste et les biographies des notabilités des départements: Seine-et-Marne. Paris: Flammarion, 1893.

Grimal, Pierre, ed. Histoire Mondiale de la Femme. 4 Vols. Paris: Nouvelle Libraire de France, 1965.

Gubernatis, Angelo de. Dictionnaire international des écrivains du monde latin. Rome: chez l'auteur, 1905.

Neues allgemeines deutsches Adels-Lexikon (1859–1870). Edited by Ernst Heinrich Kneschke. Leipzig: Verlag Degener, 1930.

Perrot, J. "Un-Amour-de-James (James, Henry and Bentzon, Mme. Th.)" Revue de Littérature Comparée. Vol LVII, no. 3, 1983, pp. 275–93.

suggested reading:

Chew, William L. III. "Marie-Thérèse Blanc in America: A Fin de Siècle Perspective of the American Woman," in Re-Discoveries of America. Edited by Johan Callens. Brussels: VUBPress, 1993, pp. 17–61.

Fliche, Mme. Paul. Mme. Th. Bentzon. Paris: P. Lethielleux, 1934.

West, Joan M. "America and American Literature in the Essays of Th. Bentzon: Creating the Image of an Independent Cultural Identity," in History of European Ideas (Great Britain). Vol VIII, no. 4–5, 1987, pp. 521–35.

William L. Chew III, Professor of History, Vesalius College, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium

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