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A loyalist Catholic reactionary with “deeply felt disdain for materialism, reason, and good sense,”[1] French novelist and playwright Auguste de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam (1838-1899) hardly seems like a likely candidate to be considered a prescient, even vital, author of science-fiction. A decided eccentric—better known even in his own lifetime for his myriad and often dilettantish forays into occultism, debauchery, and scandal (including a failed attempt to enthrone himself king of Greece in 1863)—than for his textual output, Villiers is typically regarded by scholars of French literature as the author of curiosities at best, unreadable purple prose at worst. Yet his 1886 novel, L'Ève Future (Tomorrow's Eve), is speculative fiction, analyzing the fears, taboos, and desires of a dying age. The novel explores a dichotomy of our own time: the cultural tropes of the male rational scientist and the female body as experiment.

Equal parts Frankenstein and Pygmalion, Tomorrow's Eve is the story of Thomas Edison—clearly fictionalized, though referred to by name. He is the “wizard of Menlo Park,” who cloisters himself in his laboratory, attended by a mysterious spirit-cum-laboratory assistant known as Sowana. When Edison's close friend, the idealistic Lord Ewald, arrives at Menlo Park, he piques Edison's interest with his tale of heartbreak: Ewald has become besotted with the beautiful Alicia Clary, a singer who, according to those around her, closely resembles the statue of Venus Victrix in the Louvre Museum. Yet Alicia's soul, laments Ewald, is hardly as beautiful as her exterior form. She is bourgeois, she is mediocre, and she responds to Ewald's attempts at evoking her passion with apathetic dullness: when he brings her to the Venus Victrix, hoping that she too will fall into raptures at the resemblance, she only notes, “but I have arms!” (p. 46).

Venus de Milo

Edison responds to his friend's plight with a proposal. Since Alicia Clary—and by extension, all women—has proven herself unworthy of Lord Ewald's love, Edison will instead create for his friend a perfect specimen, the Eve of a new race of womanhood, “a combination of exquisite substances. . .[that make up] artificial flesh." A robot with Alicia's face, body, and mannerisms, but with a personality designed to cater to Ewald's every whim: “an Imitation Human Being, if you prefer” (p. 61). Edison implies that his creation will be as fully real as Alicia herself: “Her operation will be a little more dependent on electricity than that of her model; but that’s all” (p. 69). She is not the illusion of a woman, but the manifestation of the feminine ideal, mechanized and subject to male control.

Thus, Edison creates the android, Hadaly.[2] The bulk of the narrative is devoted to describing this creation: a pseudo-scientific account of every part of the female anatomy that borders, at times, on the fetishistic. Several chapters are devoted to her arms, legs, and face.

Once Hadaly is completed, Ewald predictably mistakes Hadaly for the real Alicia, who was brought to Menlo Park for the purpose of comparison. He falls desperately in love with Hadaly before her true identity is revealed. Then the easy dichotomy of man and machine becomes more complicated when Hadaly is revealed to have developed a soul. She is inhabited by the mysterious Sowana (it is never clear how this happened). This is not the “soul” Edison had promised Ewald he would give to Hadaly—indeed, she instructed Ewald to keep her soul a secret from Edison—but something distinct, something beyond Edison's control. And it is the vast and uncontrollable world of nature that overwhelms the mechanistic world of technology, as both Hadaly and Ewald perish in a shipwreck while crossing the Atlantic.

One of the most striking elements of Tomorrow's Eve—and one that has been the subject of much critical discussion, including works by Jennifer Forrest and Marie Lathers—is the novel's treatment of femininity. The novel follows a pathologizing approach that borders on the misogynistic. As modern readers, we can no longer consider contemporary Leon Bloy's assertion that Villiers sought “a restitution of Woman. . .to create her, as God would have,” without considering critically what, exactly, needed restituting.

Tomorrow's Eve

If Edison's goal is to reappropriate the act of divine creation, to fashion “a being made in our image, and who, accordingly, will be to us what we are to God” (p. 64), then in the world of Tomorrow's Eve, female flesh becomes nothing more than raw material, existing solely to be shaped to the masculine will. Women are nothing, as Edison says of the robot Hadaly, “but an uncut diamond. . .the skeleton of a shade waiting for the shade to exist” (p. 62). Yet the female body, for Edison, is not merely inadequate when compared with its mechanical, man-made, counterpart. It is de facto a disease to be cured: female flesh—and in particular, the female reproductive system—is the locus of mediocrity, powerlessness, sickness, and decay. As Asti Hustvedt puts it in “The Pathology of Eve,” “Being a woman was a complicated medical problem” (p. 25).

Certainly, Villiers is far from unique among his contemporaries in his obsession with pathologizing the female body. Edgar Allan Poe, a great influence on Villiers, wrote many stories of women who existed as slaves to hysteria and to the biological demands of their bodies. The stories of Villiers' contemporary French decadents are similar. J. K. Huysmans' reimagining of female genitals as diseased Venus flytraps in his 1894 novel, Against Nature, is among the most strikingly misogynistic images in nineteenth-century French literature.

Such an approach was not confined to the literary. As Asti Hustvedt puts it,

“A new obsession with femininity—as the sheer volume of treatises on the subject during this period demonstrates—arose during the late nineteenth century, when the rise in prominence of medicine converged with social conditions to create a new science of sexual difference. Femininity was now rewritten according to new developments in medicine. In late-nineteenth century France, the deranged body—a pathological, degenerate, and hysterical physiology—becomes the dominant cognitive frame for the idea of the feminine” (p. 26).

Indeed, much of the literature so prevalent in the scientific discourse of nineteenth-century France takes great pains to highlight the dichotomy between the (male, rational) doctor and the (female, hysterical) patient. As Forrest puts it, “Not negligible are the numbers of doctor-artists in the last quarter of the nineteenth century who participated directly. . .or indirectly. . .in firmly establishing female myths as the truth of scientific observation” (p. 28).

So-called scientific observation, in other words, served in large part to use the language of scientific inquiry to control and medicalize the diseased state of being a woman. For these “doctor-artists,” as for Villiers' Edison, the masculine world of science, technology, and control is conceived as triumphant over its physical surroundings. The world of the female, by contrast, is a world of genetic necessity and biological determinism. This dynamic transformed the operating table and the mortuary slab into spheres in which sexual dominance could be asserted: Marie Lathers, in her The Aesthetics of Artifice (1996), highlights the far from isolated, chilling case of J. M. Charot, a nineteenth-century neurologist who made a regular habit of exhibiting his experiments on predominately female patients for the pleasure of male spectators (p. 47).

Yet Villiers' Edison, in his creation of Hadaly, takes this approach one step further. Not only does he seek to “restitute” the diseased female body; he seeks to do away with it altogether, replacing it with a corporeal form of his own making. Alicia Clary—by daring to express opinions different from those Lord Ewald expects of her, even going so far as to deny her commonality with the statue with which Ewald associates her—has proven herself unworthy of the ideal femininity Edison and Ewald have come to expect. Edison's response is chilling, even fetishistic, in its violence:

“I AM GOING TO STEAL HER OWN EXISTENCE AWAY FROM HER [capitalization author's own]. . .capture the grace of her gesture, the fullness of her body, the fragrance of her flesh, the resonance of her voice, the turn of her waist the light of her eyes. . .down to the shadow she casts on the ground—her complete identity, in a word. I shall be the murderer of her foolishness, the assassin of her triumphant animal nature. . .and then, in place of this soul which repels you in the living woman, I shall infuse another sort of soul, less aware of itself perhaps (but about that sort of a thing, who can tell?” (pp. 63-4). 

Ewald's response to Alicia's refusal is also violent: “What I really would like would be to see Miss Alicia dead, if death didn‘t result in the effacing of all human features. In a word, the presence of her form, even as an illusion, would satisfy my stunned indifference, since nothing can render this woman worthy of love" (p. 46).

The trappings of science—knowledge, experimentation, creation—become a means of textual (not to mention sexual) control: as a man of science,, Edison can use his skills not merely to reproduce Alicia, but to destroy her. As a woman, he suggests, her personhood is entirely disposable. “Even after the whole thing is done, since you will always be able to destroy her—drown her if you like—without upsetting the Deluge in the least” (p. 70).

Edison is able to justify his actions by appealing to his exalted status as possessor of scientific knowledge. Hadaly may be a “living doll,” he admits, but—in his mechanistic worldview—so too is Alicia herself. All women are, by virtue of their sex, essentially machines themselves. When Ewald balks at the idea of pressing various rings on Hadaly's body in order to provoke certain responses, Edison responds that “Living women too have rings one must press. . .think of all the hypocrisies to which Don Juan himself must condescend in order to bring some willful little baggage to a semblance of obedience” (p. 81). If men are, in the world of Villiers' Edison, scientific beings, whose rationality and ability to create frees them from the strictures of the natural world, women are only ever subject to its control.

It is tempting to dismiss Villiers' work as mere misogyny, or a disturbing artifact of a particular moment in time and space. To do so, however, would be to overlook the extent to which Villiers himself, in the novel's conclusion, subverts the very dichotomy he exploits so powerfully. In the novel's climax, the mechanistic world of Edison's laboratory is transformed into a Gothic, fantastic world, one in which Sowana—by nebulous and unexplained processes—imbues Hadaly with a soul. Nature—powerfully feminized in Villiers' imagery—takes her revenge on the men who have transgressed against her, the final shipwreck serving as an ironic counterpoint to Edison's idle comment that Ewald can drown his new beloved if he finds her unsatisfactory. As Jutta Fortin puts it in Method in Madness: Control Methods in the French Fantastic: “[For Villiers], mechanization fails as a means of control in fantastic narrative” (p. 95).

Villiers

In another of Villiers' works, the play, Elen, two students discuss the limitations and possibilities of scientific inquiry. “Science will not suffice,” one student argues. “Sooner or later you will come to your knees. . .before the darkness” (quoted in Lathers 136). Villiers may be subverting the very dichotomy of male creative power and female raw material he at first seems to uphold. Edison, Ewald, and their creation, Hadaly, ultimately fall victim to shadowy processes beyond their control.

It can be argued that the way in which Villiers subverts his vision of male power—the triumphant victory of a feminized, savage Nature over the rationality of men and science—is itself problematic in that Villiers never transcends fundamental gender binaries. But his willingness to question the sexual politics inherent in nineteenth-century ideals of the “rational” and the “disembodied” provides us at once with a richly complex meditation on the relationship between science and nature, mind and body, male and female, that has come to characterise so many works of speculative fiction from the nineteenth century through the present day. By presenting Ewald and Edison's project of creating the “perfect woman” as irremediably wicked, inevitably doomed, Villiers is perhaps more ahead of his time than a cursory glance at Tomorrow's Eve might credit him—indeed, more willing to critique pathologizing and objectifying the female body than more recent forays into the genre (as even a cursory glance at the recent controversy involving the SFWA might show).

This, then, is what makes Tomorrow's Eve seminal in the history of science fiction. On the one hand, it typifies a dichotomy that we see over and over again in contemporary popular culture: that of a male “rational” creator and his female, mechanized counterpart, whether Deckard's Rachel of Blade Runner or the anodyne Buffybot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In Tomorrow's Eve, we find a powerful example of how, as John Anzalone puts it in his introduction to Marie Lathers' study, “science and art share ways of imaging woman that bind her, petrify her, and render her inert for their ministrations. . .[calling] upon the new technologies of mechanical reproduction that the promote the artificial at the expense of real women” (p. 11). Are our ideal women, photoshopped on the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair, any less artificial, any less mechanically shaped into submissive ideals of femininity, than Villiers' Hadaly?

Footnotes

[1]. Forrest, Jennifer. “The Lord of Hadaly’s Rings: Regulating the Female Body in Villiers De l’Isle-Adam’s ‘L’Eve Future’.” South Central Review 13, no. 4 (December 1, 1996), p. 18.

[2]. Villiers is one of the first authors to popularize the term android. Here, he seems to be using the term as synonymous with “robot,” without any pseudo-biological connotations, though Hadaly does eventually prove to possess a soul.

Bibliography

Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. Tomorrow's Eve (trans. R. M. Adams). [University of Illinois Press: Chicago, 2001]

Jennifer Forrest. “The Lord of Hadaly’s Rings: Regulating the Female Body in Villiers De l’Isle-Adam’s ‘L’Ève Future’.” South Central Review 13, no. 4 (December 1, 1996): 33-52.

Julia Emma Fortin. Method in Madness: Control Mechanisms in the French Fantastic. [Rodopi: New York, 2005]

Asti Hustvedt. “The Pathology of Eve: Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and Fin de Siècle Medical Discourse” in John Anzalone (ed), Jeering Dreamers: Villiers De L’Isle-Adam’s L’Ève Future at Our Fin De Siècle: a Collection of Essays. [Rodopi: New York, 1996]

Marie Lathers. The Aesthetics of Artifice: Villiers' L'Ève Future. [UNC Department of Romance Languages: Chapel Hill, 1996]

 




Tara Isabella Burton is working on a doctorate in French decadent fiction at the University of Oxford. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Shimmer, Arc, Litro, and The Dr TJ Eckleburg Review; her nonfiction can be found in Guernica, The New Statesman, The Spectator, and more. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently out on submission.
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