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Women's History Month Spotlight: Advice From the 19th Century, on Loneliness and Doubt, Horses, Vacuum Cleaners and the Nature of Time

03/28/2013 12:12 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2013
  • Carole DeSanti VP/Editor at Large, Penguin Random House; author, 'The Unruly Passions of Eug�nie R.'

In honor of women's history month and to celebrate the paperback publication of The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R., I arranged an interview with Eugénie R. herself (heretofore known only as my fictional character) to find out how this 19th century woman feels about our 21st century world.

CD: I wanted to welcome you on behalf of our century, and thank you for time-traveling 150 years to be with us. First of all, how did you get here? And, how have you found your visit so far?

Eugénie: I took a balloon, similar to the hot-air balloons of my own time -- like those that saved us from the Prussians in 1871 -- but this one also travels over, shall we say, certain other dimensions. It has been an adjustment, arriving, as I have, in the middle of New York City, where it is apparently winter in March (As usual, I ignored advice on the weather and brought only a light shawl, and no proper boots -- only my cloth slippers, but I was used to that from Paris, when I was quite out of sous, not to mention any larger bills, and marching about on the cobbles wondering how to survive). So. I see you have fewer kings and queens, but the rents are still exorbitant, fashions catastrophic, the economy is turbulent and absinthe has come back, so I suppose I feel right at home!

CD: I'm glad to hear you are your old self, still speaking in those long sentences. I'm interested to know what strikes you, particularly, about our era?

Eugénie: Your loyalty to our ideas is perhaps too great; the air in general feels very hard. Like it has iron filings in it. I fear my century was responsible for that, in part.

CD: Can you explain, please?

Eugénie: Well, you have remained enamored of our industrial revolution and amassing of capital amongst the few, which makes for difficulties. Your bankers are still facing off with those young Occupiers -- who are the very image of the Paris Communards -- though I have to say it was all a bit more fun in my day, at least before we went down at the barricades. With all of the advances in science and technology, your people strike me as very lonely and fixed on their struggles. Of course, we were lonely in Paris, and we had difficulties -- many of them. But there was an art to it, and I think our sadness did not last quite so long. Sooner or later, you would have to go out to the vegetable stand or the butcher. Then, you could also discuss the matter of your loneliness over a glass of wine at a café, not just alone in front of a screen, and so it was easier to persuade someone to care about you. I was afraid to go into a restaurant, of course -- women did not dine alone then, you know. There, things have improved.

C: Yes, the situation of women has changed a lot, and I want to get to that. When we were writing your story I kept coming across one roadblock after another. It seems unbelievable to us, these days, that you survived.

Eugénie: Yes, we lived on friendship, strategy, music and poetry and hope -- much as you do, although you could use more of the last two. Also, you may have lost too much in banishing the horse. Tossing out the corset and introducing the vacuum cleaner has helped -- we spent far too much time struggling for breath and digging dirt from crevices.

CD: Seriously, though. You begin your story by asking yourself the question -- "How does a woman learn to doubt herself? When does it happen, and why?" Sometimes I wonder if we are any less doubtful.

Eugénie: If you will permit me an observation, your women, with all of their advantages -- which should be celebrated daily from my point of view -- still have the great patriarchal shades looming over their shoulders, and I fear you are quite confused and depressed at times because of it. It's no small matter to shake off the press of history like so much dust. And it continues to be difficult, especially if the female sex is somewhat blamed for anything they gain, as though it is a contest to be lost. It is not. We also tend to blame ourselves for not doing enough. So it's not surprising that you are uneasy about it, at times.

CD: But you did make the journey away from doubt -- even though you were swept up in an economy that collapsed, then the Siege of Paris, forced to abandon your daughter, your body put up for sale. You learned to live with a kind of faith and certainty despite it all. That's what I had to understand.

Eugénie: I appreciate your having stayed with it, otherwise Monsieur Zola and his dreadful Nana would have had the last word, not that she had much to say for herself. And Madame Bovary was the Fifty Shades of Grey of her day.

CD: It wasn't easy to bring your voice forward, especially when you turned your back and didn't speak to me for long stretches!

Eugénie: Oh, well, time does not exist where I live now. So you must keep up the thread of your desire to know. (Besides, I was upset when you tried to force an ending on me.)

CD: I apologize for that. I was in a rush to make a deadline.

Eugénie: I do think it's true that we share some of the same dilemmas. But your women have many tools, now. We built them up over the centuries and we must now put them to use.

CD: What do you mean, exactly?

Eugénie: Our love and desire is a tool. That is perhaps the main lesson I learned from my 19th century lifetime. My doubts arose because I was trying so very hard to love and be loved, and it seemed that the result was that I was always betrayed. Nothing I held dear seemed to matter to the world. I had to learn how to live life from my own perspective, moment to moment, and to honor what I loved even if I did not feel its return. You wear different clothing, and pass more swiftly along the streets. But you have your own signs and signals. You just need to watch for them.

CD: What would you like readers to take away from your story?

Eugénie: In each of us there is a great, epic struggle - even in the least of us, whose story is the quietest and goes unheard. There is a great desire to diminish our own stories; to write ourselves off as insufficient to our tale, or -- you know -- to judge it by who wants to read it, how many and when, especially in your publishing world. Your great author Chinua Achebe said it well -- I passed him on the way down, in fact, in his own balloon. He said, "There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative. Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like." He was writing about black and white men in Africa. But, it was necessary for us to rearrange the story about women more truthfully, too.

CD: Some readers have asked what happened next. Is there another volume?

Eugénie: You know the answer.

CD: ...Time will tell?

Eugénie: Indeed.

Eugénie will make her paperback debut in The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. on March 26, 2013.