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Rachel Mesch "Before Trans" (Review)

Before Trans: Three Gendered Stories from Nineteenth Century France (2020) by Rachel Mesch

Rachel Mesch’s Before Trans: Three Gendered Stories from Nineteenth-Century France, published in 2020 by the Stanford University Press, is an eye-opening account of the lives and writings of three individuals whom Mesch identifies as likely transgender from different points across nineteenth-century France.

Within the book, she identifies that 'trans can designate a departure from assumed gender’ which may include ‘anyone who feels misaligned with the gender attributed to them’, and this broadly inclusive rhetoric she marks as including Jane Dieulafoy, Marc de Montifaud, and Rachilde (Mesch, 8). Even though these individuals lived in a time before the establishment of our modern terminologies, Mesch highlights that this lack of language does not prevent historical figures from ‘experienc[ing] their gender in complex ways’ and argues that the limintations of language should not prevent us from attempting to configure the ways in which we view gender in the past (Mesch, 9). Mesch concedes that ‘recovering gender variance in the past is not a simple affair, and the evidence is not always direct or conclusive’, but proceeds to argue convincingly that ‘pushing feminist history beyond the gender binary’, assists greatly in establishing a new challenge to the patriarchal structures of the past (Mesch, 285, 286).

Of these gendered stories, Jane Dieulafoy’s is the one which I find most compelling. Dieulafoy (1851-1916) wore her hair short, obtained a trouser permit from the French government, and worked as an archaeologist, explorer, and novelist. She adopted men’s clothing while fighting in the volunteer army and continued the practice during her travels in modern-day Iran. Her cross-dressing was initially presented as a means of convenience and comfort, but she continued to dress in masculine clothes long after she returned to France.

What is particularly interesting about this case, however, is the loyalty of Dieulafoy’s husband, Marcel. Her gender expression did not seem to be a cause of contention within their marriage, and for all appearances the couple were loving and supportive – to the extent that Marcel nominated his wife for recognition in her archaeological work. Perhaps this – the constant support of her husband – was one of many potential reasons Dieulafoy was not understood as a threat to the French public. Mesch writes that Dieulafoy’s ‘appearance was so far from what her female peers could ever contemplate, and her achievements so exotic, she was not perceived as a threat to the unwritten rules of French femininity’ (Mesch, 118). Furthermore, her conservative values (Dieualfoy was anti-divorce, for example) and an ‘association with the most conservative elements of French society’ prevented her from being seen as a total radical (Mesch, 102).

Dieulafoy’s fiction (which Mesch identifies as ‘pseudo-autobiographical’) predominantly contained cross-dressing protagonists who often follow a similar trajectory to her: ‘that of a woman who passes as a man for the greater good, who is ultimately recognized and affirmed as a new kind of female hero by everyone around her without having to relinquish her masculinity’ (Mesch, 40). By using this plot, a mirror of her own experience, Dieulafoy defines a new kind of femininity, one that exists in a liminal space and is built from necessity and then maintained via convenience and desire. Mesch argues that ‘by suggesting that there were other ways to be a woman, Dieulafoy challenged gender difference itself’, and, while her novels were not massively successful, they nonetheless indicate the necessity of a space for gender-nonconforming individuals in present-day research of the nineteenth-century (Mesch, 118).

Mesch’s other two case studies, Marc de Montifaud and Rachilde, also posit an interesting critique of nineteenth century gender. Both of these individuals ‘carve[d] out a distinct public space for [themselves]’ while retaining a level of respectability in the French tradition, perhaps bolstered by their place within the class structure of French society. One difficulty of Mesch’s study, which she acknowledges herself, is that the level of freedom of gender expression afforded to the likes of Dieulafoy was only possible to this degree because she was successful, financially secure, and upper-class. Unfortunately, the stories of gender-nonconforming or transgender individuals of a lower or working class are less readily available. Such individuals were likely not safe to explore non-normative expressions of gender, and, had they felt comfortable doing so, these instances were less likely to be reported.

Mesch's book provides a vital study into the lives of these individuals who challenged and pushed the boundaries of gender within French society. The book is a gripping and compelling analysis of gender-nonconformity, and a must-read for all those interested in the constructions of gender in the nineteenth century.

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