When one looks at lists of the great French novelists, certain names appear time and time again: Proust, Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, Hugo, Stendhal, Maupassant. They are all great writers. They are also all men. While some of the following writers are frequently represented on such lists, they are almost never among the first mentioned. They are acknowledged as significant within the French canon and all have had at least one work translated into English, but it behooves us, as readers, to seek out women writers, as they continue to be deprived of the most prestigious places in the canon.
The Mandarins (1954) - Simone de Beauvoir
Though widely considered an "autobiographical" novel, such an epithet rather minimizes the extraordinary richness of this novel of ideas, among them the notion that the novel, no matter how truthful in its details, is of its very nature a lie. Set in the aftermath of the American liberation of Paris, The Mandarins follows a set of French intellectuals struggling to channel their ties to the resistance into post-war political activity and grappling with survivors' guilt in the wake of so many of their compatriots' deaths. It is a nuanced distillation of feminism and existentialism through a fictional lens, essential for any students of those concepts.
Cheri (1920) - Colette
Though Gigi is by far Colette's best-known work in the English-speaking world, its brightness and hopefulness are decidedly anomalous in the author's oeuvre; Cheri, with its slight seediness and eventually disillusioning vision of dissipation, is much more representative of Colette's literary perspective. The novel recounts the affair between Cheri, a self-indulgent profligate, and Lea, a courtesan, who begin their amour when he is only nineteen and she is already forty three. The novel frankly addresses sex and love in the lives of women judged to be past their prime, and, though aesthetically it's quite delicious, it is a bitter and disenchanted story.
Letters from a Peruvian Woman (1747) - Francoise de Graffigny
This novel broke ground both for its feminist politics and its compassionate portrayal of a woman of color. Zilia, a kidnapped Peruvian princess, is brought to Europe as a curiosity. In her diary, she records, with intelligence, wit, and acuity, the bizarre class, race, and gender politics of colonialist France; remarkably, Zilia develops into an independent woman who pursues both an intellectual career and rejects the slavery-like conditions of marriage. This novel remains unique in the European canon, a fearless, tenacious answer to repressive cultural hierarchies.
Suite Francaise (2008, written 1942) - Irene Nemirovsky
This unfinished masterwork, written during the early years of World War II, remained incomplete because Nemirovsky, though Catholic, was of Jewish descent, and was sent to Auschwitz where she died of typhus. Suite Francaise has a sickening immediacy, written as it was in the very midst of the German occupation of Paris and the profound uncertainty under which the French were living, and it survives as an undeniable record of the French experience of World War II. Part one recounts the distraught Parisians' flight as the Germans marched in, while part two describes the bizarre re-assumption of daily life under occupation. Tragically, part three, meant to portray the formation of the resistance, was never written.
Indiana (1831) - George Sand
In the English-speaking world today, Sand is better known for her sexually adventurous life (depicted in multiple films, including Impromptu and Children of the Century) than for her sublime feminist novels, of which she wrote more than forty, many of which have yet to receive a translation. Indiana is both a grandly romantic story of illicit love and adultery and a damning critique of the Napoleonic Code, under which married women could not own property, claim responsibility for their children, or sue for divorce. Married at an appallingly young age to the elder Colonel Delmare, the sheltered Indiana is easily swept off her feet by the womanizing Raymon de Ramiere, who has already seduced her maid and foster sister Noun, a mixed race woman whose sympathetic portrayal was controversial upon the novel's release.