NOT TO BE MISSED
"Ourika", a novel by Madame de DURAS 
Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule: Bleu autour, 2006. (76p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Published in 1823, Mme de Duras' Ourika is a unique contribution to French literature: against the grain, it portrays a well educated 18th century black teenager who always looks her best and masters to perfection the etiquette of French aristocracy. The sky should have been the limit for this multi-talented character, but angst and depression sets in when she suddenly realises what it really means to be black in an era of racial segregation. "I reached the age of twelve, she says, without it once occurring to me that there might be other ways of being happy, beside mine. I did not regret being black. I was told I was an angel. There was nothing to warn me that the colour of my skin might be a disadvantage. I had only one friend of my own age and my dark skin never meant he did not like me". (p.9) The awareness of her precarious position in the world comes not only as a surprise, but also more tragically as a shattering experience that destroys Ourika's dreams, self-confidence and perception of herself. From the posture of a carefree child prodigy attracting the favour of French nobilities, she finds herself in the position of a lonely young woman with no escape from her privileged yet wretched existence.
Ourika's despondency and ultimate passing show society's power to break those who have the impudence to challenge its rules. Yet, beside this all to common fact of life, this novel is also telling a far more uplifting story, one that debunks some deeply ingrained stereotypes that have nurtured social ordinance. Ourika pays for her transgression of sacrosanct social hierarchies with her life, but she also explodes myths about women and African women in particular that have persisted over the centuries. She tells of women's ability to achieve extraordinary feats in all spheres of human endeavour. Ourika is a shining example of women's intellectual potential and success; one of the very first if not the first literary depictions of a gifted African female "accomplished in everything". She has gained a tremendous range of skills and knowledge under the tutelage of the best teachers of her time: "I had a good voice, she says, and I was trained by the best singing-masters. I liked painting, and a famous painter took it upon himself to direct my efforts. I learned English and Italian, and Mme de B. herself made sure I was well-read. She guided my intellect and formed my judgment. When I talked with her and discovered the treasures of her mind, I felt my own exalted. It was admiration for her that opened my own intelligence to me". (p.34) French readers have had to wait till the end of the 20th century to find another novel submitting a similar acknowledgment of black African women's ability to achieve considerable intellectual and social feats.
Given the ferocious exploitation of African labour in the 1700s, the thought of depicting a black African girl who was neither a slave nor a maid could appear quite fanciful. Yet, the actual young person who inspired Mme de Duras shows otherwise. She had been purchased in Saint Louis by the Chevalier de Boufflers, then Governor of Senegal, and presented as a gift to Mme de Beauvau who brought her up in Paris just like her own daughter. "She was born with a great deal of intelligence, Mme de Beauvau said later, and the most striking quality of her mind was her ability to sense good taste, a natural inclination that always impressed as we were reading together... Looking at her was an everlasting pleasure: her nice eyes, charming appearance, grace, manners, nobility and kindness: in short everything about her I found delightful".  On the other side of the Atlantic, another young and frail compatriot of Ourika was also testifying to the intellectual ability of her black sisters in bequeathing for posterity the first substantial collection of poetry published by a black African woman. Embarked aboard the slave- ship Phillis, she had arrived in America in 1761 on the brink of death and had been named Phillis Wheatly. Subsequently she received the best possible education a girl could get at the time, thus becoming the first major African-American female intellectual. But like Ourika, she died early, a victim of society's racism and prejudice: a mirror image of Ourika, which certainly adds credibility to Mme de Duras' semi-fictive character.
What turns an author, a book or a literary character into an inspirational icon, cherished by society over time, is a matter of conjecture, but the reasons for Mme de Duras' novel ebbing toward obscurity in the 19th century can be explained by die-hard racism and sexism: two evils that have plagued French society from time immemorial.  Racist prejudices were peddled by a powerful lobby of colonial slave-owners and investors who spent considerable resources denigrating books challenging their self-serving beliefs and putting in jeopardy their exploitative commercial ventures. Their machinations, intrigues and violent diatribes against the abolitionists who nevertheless managed to have slavery abolished in 1794 led to the re-establishment of slave labour by Napoleon in 1802, to serve France's strategic, economic and politic interests. The subsequent shift from slavery to 19th century colonial exploitation and the pseudo-scientific theories developed on "the inequality of human races" only pushed dissenting voices, such as Mme de Duras', further towards total oblivion.
The challenge to male cultural and intellectual hegemony that was initiated by 18th century and early 19th century women was also met with contempt, scorn and preconceived ideas; although those who were feeling under threat in this case were not the shady profiteers of slave labour but a bevy of male philosophers and writers convinced of men's superiority over women. For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau took great exception to the ascendency of women in French intellectual life. "The most esteemed woman, he wrote, is the one who has the greatest renown ... and whose favour is most ignominiously begged for by humble, learned men". The bloody confrontations that followed the revolution, the terror, Napoleon's ferocious ambitions and the reactionaries' fears, all ensured a return in force of "male supremacy", hence the end of women's short-lived influence in the production of knowledge and its dissemination.
Mme de B.'s inclusion of the delightful young Ourika in her inner-circle of friends has thus been interpreted in different ways. From a Rousseauian point of view, it has been seen as a clever ploy aimed at seducing men of letters who were easily distracted from their all important men's business. But this interpretation does not stand close scrutiny. Every page tells us the story of genuine love and attachment. Mme de B.'s interest in the development of her young protégée is undeniably sincere. If she teaches her to dance to perfection, for example, it is not to exploit her youth and charm; it is rather because she knows her entourage will appreciate seeing her representing Africa to advantage in a quadrille, symbolising the four corners of the globe. She wants people to engage with her as they would with any aristocratic lady of her age: that is on the basis of her manners and performance rather than stereotyped perception of blackness. To her, Ourika is not a "Noble savage". She is a good tempered and gifted individual and she wants her to look her best, to behave like a genuine aristocrat and to assume her African origins. Furthermore, she does not satisfy herself with common stereotypes about Africa, but makes genuine efforts to find out relevant information about Ourika's country: Travellers are asked for advice, books of costumes are sought, and learned tomes on African music consulted before, eventually, a comba the national dance of her country is chosen. (p.35)
For her part, Ourika can only see Mme de B. as the most caring and open-minded individual, a leading light who is genuinely interested in her wellbeing. But unfortunately, doing the right thing according to one's conscience or inclination does not mean doing so in the eyes of society. Thus Mme de B.'s quandary when she realises that, although Ourika is innocent of her transgression, she nevertheless flouted what her contemporaries are considering "her natural destiny". (p.38) Society is taking its revenge in disqualifying her from both French aristocracy and the soothing of African sisterhood. "I would do anything to make her happy, Mme de B. says, and yet, the more I think about it, the further away a solution seems". (p.37) One may suggest that Mme de Duras' literary legacy has suffered a similar fate at the hands of socially acceptable great- minds who could not bear women's challenge to their hegemony, thus her near absence from mainstream literature for the past couple of centuries. After reading of Mme de Duras and other salonnières' successful re-ordering of social priorities around the time of the French Revolution,  it is hard to understand why such important personalities are still belittled today. What might have been if they had not been refused entry to the pantheon of the all-time Greats?
Translated quotes from the French are mostly borrowed from John Fowles "Claire de Duras Ourika, an English translation". New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1994.
1. Mentioned in Roger Little's fascinating study "Madame de Duras et Ourika", in Mme de Duras. "Ourika". Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1993, p.40.
2. "Phillis Wheatley complete writings". (Ed. Vincent Carretta). New York: Penguin Books, 2001.
3. Odile Tobner. "Du racisme français. Quatre siècles de négrophobie". Paris: Editions des Arènes, 2007.
4. Mentioned in Dena Goodman's must read, "The Republic of letters. A cultural history of the French enlightenment". New York: Cornell University Press, 1994, (p.54). Many chapters devoted to the Salonnières and the rule of polite conversation are an absorbing take on the French enlightenment.
5. For example, the protracted fight that opposed playwright Mme de Gouges who lost her life by guillotine in 1792 to the Théâtre-Français because of the latter's refusal to perform her drama "L'esclavage des nègres", provides further evidence of 18th century women's determination. See Sylvie Chalaye and Jacqueline Razgonnikoff's introduction of the play re-published in 2006. (Olympe de Gouges. "L'esclavage des nègres ou l'heureux naufrage". Paris: l'Harmattan, 2006).
Note added on January 9, 2013. An interesting volume by Sylvie Chalaye proposes three different adaptations of Mme de Duras' novel for the theatre, written and performed in Paris in 1824. Thorough flops at the time, the rowdy reception of these plays by the Parisian public was mainly due to people's loathing of the main character who strayed from the popular and debasing image of the "bon nègre". (Sylvie Chalaye. "Les Ourika du boulevard". Paris: L'Harmattan Autrement mêmes, 2003.)
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities