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Home » literature » fiction » Herculine Barbin (Foucault) — Book review

Herculine Barbin (Foucault) — Book review

I read Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite ages ago as part of my Classics Club reading challenge, but I’ve been exceptionally tardy in writing it up. In fact, since then, I’ve read and written about Eugenides’ Middlesex, which was in part ‘inspired by’ this book and a sense of disappointment with the text. As a consequence, the short review below relates heavily to my review of Middlesex.

The memoirs are genuine, and I quite enjoyed reading HB, although of course it is far less salacious than some people might be expecting. HB’s love affair with fellow teacher Sara is touching, and it is the obvious (and superior) precursor to Eugenides’ depicted relationship between Cal and a schoolmate. I find HB far more relatable than Eugenides’ Cal, perhaps because the latter has a slightly patronising “I must be a bit shocking to you” air, whilst HB’s narrative feels more on the level with the reader. This is perhaps what Foucault responds to in HB, using the narrative to talk about sociocultural circumstances wherein a “true” sex is less insisted upon.

Alongside the edited memoirs, Foucault brings together a number of other documents relating to HB’s life and the reporting of HB’s condition, as well as Oskar Panizza‘s ‘Scandal at the Convent’, a late-nineteenth-century story based on HB’s life. These framing materials, and their juxtaposition with the memoirs, are really the most interesting part of the text. These perhaps frustrated Eugenides and his desire to dissect and lay out the inner narrative of someone with a particular intersex condition, but to me they are the most interesting part.

The obsession with “true” sex — in turn becoming an obsession with genitalia and reproductive organs, redefining “true” as “bodily” — becomes for Eugenides character-driven, a bildungsroman, a journey for Cal towards a “true” and chosen sex that nevertheless has genitalia as a sign of falsity, rendering Cal unable to perform PIV intercourse in the male role, and thus, apparently, unable to live fully (at least until Eugenides’ love-conquers-all ending). What HB’s memoirs and Foucault’s framing text(s) question is why “true” =/= “as currently is”.  This is a question that Eugenides does not really tackle, although it can be asked of the novel, and should be, I think, in conjunction with HB.

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