Prosper Mérimée’s Improvisatrice: The Voice of Corsican Lament in Colomba

Prosper Mérimée’s depiction of Corsica as an anachronistic and primitive society in Colomba (1840) relied significantly on the author’s evocation of one of the island’s oldest musico-poetic practices--the improvisation of funeral laments by female singers in Corsica’s villages. Intimately connected to feuding and the practice of vendetta, this distinctly feminine medium of mourning is given voice by the character Colomba, whose spontaneous lamentations are admired by islanders but condemned by French authorities and her Europeanized brother. My discussion will show how the novel sets the oral/vocal practice of women’s lamentation in fatal conflict with a French post-Enlightenment culture dominated by the written word, depicting the female voice as a subversive force. To understand what is at stake in this competition I draw out similarities between Colomba and Germaine de Staël’s Corinne, or Italy (1807), which similarly highlights the tension between feminized, oral forms of expression and the written word.

Ruth E. Rosenberg
Volume 42.3-4