Linton on Mesch (2020)

Mesch, Rachel. Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France. Stanford UP, 2020, pp 351, ISBN: 978-1-50360-673-9

Before Trans is an impeccably written and exceedingly well-researched account of three French writers whose gender expression challenged nineteenth-century ideas about masculinity and femininity and who used writing in unique ways as a means to discover, express, and record their own layered, shifting sense of self, long before words like “transgender” had entered the lexicon. Mesch’s analysis is in no way limited to discourse, however. Her book is packed with photographs and other images, culled from a wide range of archives and presented together for the first time. These images bring the subjects alive for the reader through Mesch’s insightful analysis of sartorial codes, visual iconography, and even gendered wordplay on calling cards and entrance tickets. Before Trans is a highly interdisciplinary project that seamlessly weaves together threads from cultural history, art history, and close literary analysis. Taken as a whole, Before Trans helps us to understand not only the writers that Mesch is examining, but more broadly the gender constructs of the nineteenth century, and, most importantly, the fact that “trans,”  “before trans,” like “trans” today, did not mean one thing, or even the same thing for one person throughout the entire course of their lifetime. 

The three writers chosen by Mesch are alike in that they were assigned the female gender at birth although all lived as men in some way for part their lives. Each of them also wore pants at certain points. In most other respects, they could not have been more different. Each of the three parts of Before Trans delves into the life and writings of one author. The first and longest is dedicated to Jane Dieulafoy (18501916). Mesch takes us to the battlefield as Dieulafoy fought alongside their husband during the Franco-Prussian war, and to Persia for several archaeological expeditions during which Dieulafoy again accompanied their husband. (Dieulafoy exploited a loophole that allowed them to fight as a soldier alongside their husband as a franc-tireur at a time when only male combatants were otherwise permitted, Mesch explains). Mesch argues compellingly that it was the imperial model and Dieulafoy’s own role in constructing a narrative of themselves as a conquering colonialist that allowed them to be accepted and even celebrated in the conservative, Catholic milieu in which they circulated, even though they never returned to wearing skirts again after travelling. Rachilde (18601953), the most well-known of the three authors, and one whom Mesch had earlier explored in her first book, The Hysteric’s Revenge, comes next. Mesch’s reading of Rachilde through a trans framework reveals the author’s complex and layered gender variance—and will certainly change the way we teach Monsieur Vénus. A lot has been written about Rachilde, but Mesch humanizes them in a new, and at times, deeply touching way in chapters that reveal multiple “deaths” and “rebirths.” The third (and slightly shorter) section explores Marc de Montifaud (18451912), whose rejection of gendered social norms and erotic writings led to their exile and imprisonment at several points. In contrast to both Dieulafoy and Rachilde, who, Mesch argues, tried to understand their own gender variance in reference to existing gender categories (Dieulafoy “through feminist theories and stories that championed gender-crossing” and Rachilde through “an obsessive focus on her relationship to the category of women”), “Montifaud seemed to have dispensed with categories entirely” (276). As Mesch puts it: 

Her powerful self-determination, captured in her confident declaration of selfhood, exhibited her decidedly modern deference to internal logical above all else. Replace the “buts” with “ands”: in this worldview, you can be wife and mother and identify with masculinity; you can be attracted to women and to your husband or other men. You can wear men’s suits, sport a man’s haircut, and also wear makeup, jewelry and heels. (276)

Mesch’s work on fashion and femininity in her second book, Having it All in the Belle Époque, shines through in her insightful readings of photographs of Marc de Montifaud, miserable, as a child in a dress, and at ease several years later in trousers, passing as a square-jawed and highly accessorized man.

In the introduction, Mesch thoughtfully explains her choice to use feminine pronouns for her subjects in an effort to avoid misgendering them and because gender-neutral pronouns did not exist in the nineteenth century. In more recent publications and in talks about the book, Mesch has shifted to using contemporary gender-neutral pronouns to describe them. I understand why Mesch is now doing this and fully support it. At the same time, by limiting herself in this book to the pronouns by which the writers themselves were constrained (and that they assiduously subverted, as she argues), Mesch helps reveal their struggle to articulate their gender variance in the absence of the very language to do so. In this way, Mesch’s original choice might surprisingly help to bridge the historical gap for contemporary readers. 

The fact that Before Trans reads like a novel while clearly reflecting sustained reflection and research means there is something in it for specialists and non-specialists alike, ensuring its success inside and outside of the classroom. Each chapter reveals new historical findings and fascinating discoveries that leave the reader sometimes wishing that publishers were not so strict about keeping notes to an absolute minimum. In one tantalizing example of this, Mesh mentions that Rachilde “discussed” the “significance” of Monsieur Vénus “in a letter to the gay sexologist Marc-André Raffolovich, whose work challenged established views on homosexuality” (174–75). In the associated footnote, one finds only the archive in which the letter that Mesch has unearthed can be found. What did Rachilde say about homosexuality in the context of their most famous novel, we wonder. 

Mesch’s pathbreaking book, Before Trans, is a must-read for experts and students of gender studies for years to come, opening the door to more scholarship on gender non-conforming historical figures. 

Anne E. Linton
San Francisco State University