When studying queer history, especially asexual and aromantic history, silence is an immediate problem. The only way to know whether or not someone is asexual or aromantic is through their own identifying as such. The newness of asexual and aromantic communities and silence around sexual orientation has robbed us of this. Finding asexuality historically as an identity, instead of a choice or behavior, is often impossible. Instead of hoping for a definite answer, we must look at behavior, despite every claim that asexuality and aromanticism are identities, not behaviors, read between the lines, and accept that we may never know.
Catherine Bernard may not have been asexual, but she certainly is a figure silenced by history. Her dates of birth and death are unknown and she was written off her family's list of baptism, most likely due to her conversion to Catholicism. She was a woman that wrote tragedy, a scandal for late seventeenth century France, and lived alone in Paris (another scandal), supporting herself through writing. While she experienced success during her lifetime (her tragedies were performed many times and she won numerous poetry prizes) most of her writing has been attributed to male authors, particularly to Bernard de Fontenelle. She stopped writing after receiving a hefty gift from the king thanks to the patronage of Mme. Pontchartrain. She never married and there are no records anywhere of her having any form of romantic or sexual relationship with anyone. Was she asexual? Maybe. Maybe not. But her writing speaks to an experience of asexuality that is worth considering.
Alongside her two tragic plays and poetry, Bernard wrote a series of four novellas titled Les Malheurs de l’amour (The Misfortunes of Love), of which we will look at “Inès de Cordoue”. But first, we should observe her reason for writing these tales. She introduces the series in explaining, “I see so much disorder in even the most reasonable love that I thought that it would be better to present to the public image of misfortunes coming from this passion than to show virtuous, gentle lovers happy at the end of the book”. Through discussing what she sees instead of what she experiences, Bernard places herself outside of her chosen subject matter, love. She looks at it from a distance and, while she can admit that love can be “reasonable”, she remarks on the disorder above all else. This touches on the asexual experience – she is an outsider looking in on relationships and finds it easiest to see the negative messiness of a relationship than the positives.
“Inès de Cordoue” appears to center around a heterosexual romantic pairing, but the plot is driven by women and their platonic relationship, while men are relegated to love interests or outside powers that keep women away from their love. Notable here, Inès, gains a servant, Elvire, when she is first forced into an engagement with the Baron de Silva. Elvire stays with her for the rest of the novella, when the Baron has to flee and eventually marries someone else. When Inès later marries the Count of Torres against her wishes, Elvire assists her in seeing her actual love, the Marquis of Lerma. When Inès has to escape to the country to protect her reputation, she goes to the home of Elvire’s mother and “never abandoned Elvire”. While the relation between a mistress and her servant includes an unequal power dynamic and should be questioned, this relationship is the most stable and reliable one in Inès’ life, a direct contrast to the dramatic love story. While Inès appears incapable of staying with her romantic love, through panic, inaction, and a wish to maintain her reputation, her love for Elvire (and vice versa) is dependable, constant, and non-romantic throughout the story.
An underlying message in Bernard’s work is that love never ends well, which is exemplified by the two fairy tales at the beginning of “Inès de Cordoue”. When looking at fairy tales, it is necessary to situate Bernard within a new context – the birth of the literary fairy tale. During the seventeenth century, many women contributed to the new genre. The tales written by women were often long, complex, and political. In particular, Mme. D’Aulnoy, credited with having written the first fairy tale, was vocal against arranged marriage and supportive of marriage by choice in her tales. In comparison, Bernard’s two tales do critique arranged marriage, but also the entire practice of marriage, possibly even love.
We will only look at the first tale, “The Rosebush Prince”, in which the princess Florinde is prophesied to face misfortune in loving one she cannot see. In terror, her mother tries to keep her from this fate by organizing a tournament for the nearby princes, hoping to arrange a marriage with a suitable prince before it is too late. Florinde, fearing that choosing one would upset the others, refuses to make a choice. Her mother is distraught but does not push Florinde into marriage. Florinde then retires to the country where she happens upon a rosebush that is, in fact, a prince that had already fallen madly in love with her portrait. The two grow close and when she is called back to her mother’s court, Florinde’s tears turn the rosebush back into the prince, proving that Florinde loves him truly. Florinde’s mother is more than happy to follow her daughter’s wishes and allow the two to marry, but Florinde is still uncertain, as the prince has never seen another young woman. She sends him to the Island of Youth, where he temporarily falls for the island’s queen. After returning and marrying Florinde, he admits his weakness for the Queen of Youth to Florinde and she grows angry. His immediate reaction is to run to the ladies of the court for “consolation”. Florinde finds him and, in response to her anger, the prince asks to be turned back into a rosebush. The underlying message of the tale is clear: love strong enough to break a curse may only go in one direction and infidelity is always a possibility.
The marriage in this tale is chosen by the two partners. However, it still goes wrong. Bernard calls the entire concept of literary romantic love into question. The prince does not spend much time with any other young person his age. It is easy to see his behavior as a response to this, especially when he immediately falls for the Queen of Youth upon meeting her. In contrast, Florinde does spend time with men her age, but has more interest in a plant than any of those men. Her love is less about attraction to a handsome man and more about the time she spends with him. When read through a contemporary asexual lens, both Florinde’s attachment to a long, drawn-out courtship and the prince’s conflation of companionship and love can be read as asexual experiences.
It is also worth mentioning, that Bernard includes commentary within the tale. When the princess first meets the rosebush, the teller reflects “I do not know” what emotion Florinde felt, once again distancing herself from the emotions and experiences surrounding love. Later, when the prince tells the princess of his infidelity, the narrator sounds exasperated, claiming “people accustomed to love are not as reasonable as others, and are barely an example of a good pair”, echoing Bernard’s earlier assertion concerning disorder in “even the most reasonable love”. From a stylistic viewpoint, these moments exist to emulate the oral setting in which the tale would have been told (and was told by Inès in the novella), but it is also a way to express an opinion. While this would technically be Inès’ interpretations, they are also a moment for Bernard to insert her own viewpoint.
In the end, analysing someone’s writing will never give us a definite answer on their identity. All we can understand about Bernard from “Inès de Cordoue” is a certain distance from love and questioning of marriage that may go slightly farther than other women writers of her time, who focused much more on promoting marriage by love over arranged marriage. Pairing this with the knowledge that Bernard never married and the fact that we cannot find any record of her ever having a romantic or sexual partner, all we can do is start speculating on her asexuality.
While Bernard was actively erased from literary history by the work of male writers and historians, her asexuality was not actively erased, but hidden through passive indifference. For many, asexuality is seen as a “last-resort” identity, something that works when nothing else fits. While a single woman living alone in Paris in the late seventeenth century is a scandal, it was not noteworthy enough to consider the possibility of asexuality (and, asexuality is a new identity that has been considered less in history, to begin with). And yet, in all the research on Bernard, there is only single mention of her sexuality – one scholar tried to claim she collaborated with a man on a certain work and suggested the two were lovers. There is no evidence for this and it is more or less discredited.
It is time to be more active in our search for asexuality in history. Our lack of information on Bernard’s sexuality may simply be because we lack information on her life, but it could also be because there is no more information to be had on the subject. Maybe there were no lovers. Maybe the distance she creates between herself and love in her writing was something she also experienced in her daily life. We have to at least consider the possibility.
* translations of quotes in text by the author
Work by Bernard available online (in French)
Brutus (tragedy) http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k5734466w?rk=64378;0
"Eléonor d’Yvrée" (first novella in Les Malheurs de L’amour) http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k65480942?rk=85837;2
“Inès de Cordoue” (Including fairy tales, "The Rosebush Prince” and “Riquet with the Tuft”) https://books.google.com/books?id=Rvg5AAAAcAAJ&source=gbs_book_other_versions
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