Finding the Woman Who Didn’t Exist


“Decadence as an aesthetic movement has always illustrated the fact that interesting things are more likely to be happening on the margins than at the center.” So declared Melanie C. Hawthorne in a 2011 paper entitled “Gisèle d’Estoc: Portraits of a Decadent Woman”.

“Interesting things are more likely to be happening on the margins than at the center” – there you have the central animating assumption of Strange Flowers. And Hawthorne’s book-length treatment of d’Estoc, Finding the Woman Who Didn’t Exist (published on 1 March) provides compelling proof to support her thesis:

This is a book about Gisèle d’Estoc. If you have never heard of her, you are not alone, and you may be wondering (to paraphrase the Victorian “nonsense” poet Edward Lear) who, or why, or which, or what is Gisèle d’Estoc? This book offers some answers to these questions. The short version is this. First of all, the answer to the question “What is Gisèle d’Estoc?” is that it is a pseudonym, but resolving this question only gives rise to another one: “Then who is she?” That is the question some people have been asking for over a century, as they tried to identify the person behind the mask once and for all. You will find out in the course of this book why people cared about finding her, and you will discover that we now know that she was really Marie Paule Alice Courbe (1845–94), who rubbed shoulders with the famous and not so famous of fin-de-siècle France, and who tried her hand at creative endeavors of her own (mainly as an artist and writer).


Women may have faced many limitations in nineteenth-century France, but not everyone played by the rules and Gisèle d’Estoc seems to have broken most of them at one time or another in her colorful life. She was not the typical French woman of her time, hardly an Everywoman, except in the sense that she was not born to riches or greatness but had a go at seizing them with her own two hands all the same, as it is given to all of us in some way to make a similar effort and see where it lands us. D’Estoc pursued her art to the point of exhibiting at the Paris Salon. She took up both the sword and the pen (and this book will have something to say about the relationship between those two artifacts). She disguised herself as a schoolboy and took both men and women as lovers (and yes, sometimes disguised herself in order to do so). And if, finally, she was not the anarchist bomber she was believed by some to be (as I shall argue), the fact that the accusation was credible testifies to her reputation for action and conflict.


Gisèle d’Estoc en homme



  1. Grard Louis SIMONNET

    [image: Gisle d’Estoc ( gauche) et son amie Marie-Edme X. Gisle d’Es] For you, Gisle & Marie-Edme… GLS

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