Finding the Woman Who Didn’t Exist
Who was the woman hidden behind the name “Gisèle d’Estoc”? The pseudonym suggests a strange hybrid of Romantic ballerina and medieval warrior: “estoc” is the old French word for sword, and “Giselle” the title of the famous ballet. In spite of the scandal she caused in her lifetime, Gisèle d’Estoc has long remained an enigma. When a sensational “Love Diary” attributed to a paramour of Guy de Maupassant was first published in the early 1940s, some scholars assumed it was a hoax. They refused to believe that the author of the diary, later identified as “Gisèle d’Estoc,” had existed. In her new book, Finding the Woman Who Didn’t Exist: The Curious Life of Gisèle d’Estoc, Melanie Hawthorne proves that the woman known as Gisèle d’Estoc was a real person. As she pieces together the story of her larger-than-life subject, Hawthorne also makes a case for the value of archival research in the humanities. Finding the Woman Who Didn’t Exist is not just a biography, but also a witty and engaging first-person account of a scholar’s search for clues. The careful arrangement of the chapters preserves the suspense of d’Estoc’s identity at birth until the very end.
The author’s journey begins with a descent into the underworld of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Bibliothèque François-Mitterrand), with its labyrinthine hallways, endless waiting times and recurrent technological glitches. This austere starting point soon gives way to a lurid world of orgies, cross-dressing lovers, bombs hidden in flowerpots and topless women fighting duels with swords. It is no wonder that the existence of Gisèle d’Estoc should have been called into question: in many ways, she seems to have sprung straight out of Barbey d’Aurevilly’s forehead, sword in hand.
Gisèle d’Estoc’s flamboyantly theatrical love life led to spectacular acts of transgression and revenge. In the course of her affair with Guy de Maupassant, she disguised herself as a schoolboy and procured women for her famous lover. Her liaison [End Page 144] with the actress Emma Rouër ended in a duel alleged to be the inspiration for Émile Bayard’s 1884 painting “Une affaire d’honneur.” D’Estoc’s name also came up in connection with the bomb attack at the Restaurant Foyot in Paris in 1894. The main victim of the explosion was the poet and journalist Laurent Tailhade, who had provoked d’Estoc’s ire after dropping hints in print about her affair with the writer Rachilde. Although the attack was more likely the result of an anarchist plot, d’Estoc was suspected of having planted the bomb to settle her score with Tailhade.
For all her notoriety, however, d’Estoc remains strangely hidden. A photograph (described but not reproduced in the book) exposes her naked body while shielding her face from view. In Bayard’s painting, the duelist presumed to be Gisèle d’Estoc has her back to us. Frustratingly for her biographer, d’Estoc seems to pop up everywhere without ever being fully visible. It would be tempting to fill in the gaps with hypotheses, to romanticize d’Estoc or to speak in her place. Instead, Hawthorne remains scrupulously exact as she sifts fact from rumor. Finding the Woman Who Didn’t Exist reminds us that a scholar’s journey is not solely made up of “Eureka!” moments. After combing through the archives at the Musée d’Orsay, Hawthorne discovers that d’Estoc exhibited at the Salon as a sculptor under her married name, Madame Parent Desbarres. Yet no concrete trace of her work survives beside the photograph of a sculpture representing a peasant woman. As a consequence, it is impossible to assess d’Estoc’s contribution to the Parisian art world. Hawthorne’s investigation into the life of Gisèle d’Estoc is an important addition to the growing field of women’s biographies. It addresses some of the core theoretical issues identified by Janet Beizer in Thinking Through the Mothers while providing an engrossing account of a colorful figure from the demi-monde of late nineteenth-century Paris.