Jemma Walton reviews From Menstruation to the Menopause: The Female Fertility Cycle in Contemporary Women’s Writing in French, by Maria Kathryn Tomlinson (Liverpool University Press, 2021).
Towards the end of her monograph, Maria Tomlinson highlights that ‘The female body is caught in a complex web of different discourses, beliefs, stereotypes, and expectations’ (196). From Menstruation to the Menopause conducts the vital task of tracing the vastly different qualities of such a web by deploying an impressively culturally attuned methodology.
Tomlinson takes as her corpus novels written in France, Algeria and Mauritius published between 1990 and 2015. Each country has its own chapter, which consists of discrete sections analysing literary depictions of menstruation, childbirth and menopause. Much of her work is innovative: Tomlinson points out that the female fertility cycle is usually only a secondary concern in literary studies that often focus on other themes, which is a fair assessment of works in English as well as those in French. Analysis of menstruation in narrative is rare, a contention which holds true despite the linked developments of Critical Menstruation Studies as a field of academic enquiry and the boom in international menstrual activism, both of which Tomlinson elegantly details in her introduction. Even the landmark Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies (2020), which consists of 72 chapters, does not contain an essay relating to fictional depictions of menses. Menopause remains similarly underdiscussed – despite, as Tomlinson calls attention to, considerable media attention being directed towards menopausal activism since 2018. Childbirth alone is credited as a topic of interest for scholars researching women’s writing from France courtesy of a renewed interest in motherhood studies, notably led by the critic Gill Rye (2).
However, where Tomlinson’s work is unique is in considering three francophone countries alongside each other; as she states, when these literatures do appear within the same publication it is usually within edited volumes and in separate chapters without cross-cultural comparisons being drawn. Tomlinson hopes that her approach ‘sheds light on the meaning of the postcolonial in the twenty first century, and encourages an examination of the political, religious and cultural contexts that are represented in contemporary literature’ (8).
Diffusing Second Wave Feminism
Tomlinson challenges a monocultural approach by questioning the practice of using feminist thinkers such as Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva when reflecting on contemporary literature in French. Referring to such theorists as ‘second-wave’ has been problematised by scholars such as historian Linda Nicholson, who argues that dividing feminist thought and action into a series of climactic points or pushes with a cohesive set of beliefs may be misleading and unhelpful as it suggests that feminist agitation moves forwards and recedes at equal times and with a united set of complaints or beliefs (2010, online). However, this is the nomenclature that Tomlinson uses throughout her monograph. Such an approach does not present major implications given that the French feminists she discusses did, broadly, share many aims, and operated in the same period. Tomlinson underscores the criticism of second-wave critics such as Irigaray et al. as being ‘monolithic, essentialist, elitist and ignorant of how differences between women – such as sociocultural context, religion and class – may impact their female bodily experience’ (3). Evidence for such criticism offered by Tomlinson includes Toril Moi’s uncompromisingly blunt criticism of such theorists in Textual/Sexual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (1980) where Moi states that they ‘take for granted an audience as Parisian as they are’ and that their work ‘smacks of elitism’ (96), plus Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s charge that their work reflects ‘the inbuilt colonialism of First world feminism towards the Third’ (1981, 184).
Instead, Tomlinson seeks to explore how current French-language women’s writing is intersectional, and she works from sociologist Patricia Hill Collins’ definition of the analytic as one that is attentive towards ‘particular forms of intersecting oppressions, for example, intersections of race and gender, or sexuality and nation’ (2002, 18). Her arguments are developed using a methodological combination of close reading and ‘sociological studies being used as a framework for literary analysis in order to draw out societal beliefs which impact the experiences of the characters’ (3).
Culturally Attuned Feminist Reading
This book can be read in two ways: each chapter considers the three themes (menstruation, childbirth and menopause) in turn through the situated context of a different country. One can either read the text as written or trace Tomlinson’s themes through their different locations and contexts in the discrete segments devoted to menstruation, for example, in each chapter. Tomlinson’s introduction does not anticipate this approach, although her 2018 PhD thesis was structured thematically rather than by territory, which may explain a reader’s potential inclination to access her present volume in this way. Indeed, reading in the latter mode richly illuminates the frequently contrasting ways by which francophone writers from different cultures approach each of the bodily processes under consideration. In terms of menstruation, for example, Tomlinson finds that French texts which discuss menstruation such as Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M (2001) reveal a linked tendency to medicalise menarche (first periods) and focus on hygiene. Rather than explain the facts of life to her themselves, when Catherine starts her periods her mother and grandmother send her to see a doctor. After an examination, the doctor instructs her to clean herself more thoroughly while smelling his finger and suggesting that ‘cela ne sent pas très bon’ (it doesn’t smell very good) (56) [translation by Jemma Walton]. Tomlinson interprets the doctor’s gesture as predatory and perverse, as well as indicating that ‘the French society in which Catherine lives primarily views menstruation as a matter of hygiene’ (56).
Another aspect of French narratives highlighted by Tomlinson is a link between intimate or social violence and menstruation. For example, Nathalie Schweighoffer’s J’avais douze ans… (1990), which is based on her experience, depicts menarche as the incident that initiates five years of paternal sexual abuse. Additionally, Virginie Despentes’ Baise-Moi (1994) features a character who enjoys the sight of her menstrual blood dripping onto the floor. However, as such an act of bodily acceptance and celebration is placed amid chapters of intense violence, Tomlinson reads any menstrual positivity as being muddied by potential conflation with the lurid acts of aggression that form the rest of the book. The analyses of French menstrual narratives suggest that menses in this country is bound up with a wide range of negative experiences and associations – indeed, the title for Chapter Two, which covers France, is ‘Violence, Trauma and Medicalisation.’ Such a title would not be appropriate for Tomlinson’s analyses of menstruation in narratives from Algeria and Mauritius, which have rather different, frequently more positive, foci.
In her analysis of the Algerian novel La Jeune Fille et la Mère (2007), by Leïla Marouane, Tomlinson points out the cultural nuances which problematise the validity of second-wave feminist insistences on speaking out about bodily matters. In this novel, when the protagonist Djamila has her period, she is prevented from leaving her house by her father. Tomlinson persuasively argues that in Algerian literature silence can be a sign of resistance and strength rather than an internalised form of patriarchal oppression; an argument that valorises her methodological demand for a more culturally attuned approach to feminist textual work.
Similarly, in her analysis of the Mauritian depiction of menstruation in the novel Paradis Blues (2014) by Shenaz Patel, Tomlinson highlights that menarche brings to a narrator’s mind the clichéd colonial female body, depicted most famously by Paul Gauguin, who is known for his portraits of the naked or semi-clothed women of Tahiti: ‘l’île. Source de tant de myths, porteuse de tant de clichés. Peut–être un tableua, oui, par exemple un Gauguin, allongeant ses femmes sereinement lascives et nonchalamment épanouies (…) et l’îlienne de se demander: est-ce ainsi? Suis-je cela?’ (The island. Source of so many myths, bearer of so many clichés. Perhaps a tableau, yes, for example a Gauguin, stretching out his serenely lascivious and nonchalantly fulfilled women […] and the islander wondering: is this so? Am I that?) (146) [trans JW]. Tomlinson argues that the protagonist, Mylene, experiencing her first period and selecting fierce language to describe it – ‘[r]ouge comme l’infer’ (red as hell) (146) [trans JW] – is a deconstruction and disruption of the hackneyed image of the sensual Mauritian woman (146), and, as such, is a liberatory moment. Such readings justify, again, Tomlinson’s embrace of an intersectional approach to her material.
The range of topics included in Tomlinson’s discussion and the way she groups them, along with her culturally attuned methodology, will give future literary critics of the female fertility cycle who are working in any language inspiration for structuring and analysing their evidence. Certainly, given the continuing interest in international menstrual activism, and what Deborah Jermyn (2023) terms the ‘menopausal turn’ in contemporary UK culture – which has seen milestones such as Labour MP Carolyn Harris’s Private Members Bill to end NHS prescription charges in England for Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) – more work in this crucial yet underexplored area is urgent. Future critics might well look to Tomlinson for not only a guide to substance but also for the style of their work: her outstanding achievement with this monograph is the accessibility of the prose. It would be a struggle, for example, to find a text which describes the work of critics such as Irigaray, Cixous and Kristeva with the combination of brevity, thoroughness and clarity as Tomlinson achieves in her introduction. This makes From Menstruation to The Menopause not just a relevant but a highly enjoyable read for scholars from undergraduate level upwards who are interested in literary analysis of the female reproductive body.
Bobel, Chris. Inga T Winkler, Breanne Fahs, Katie Ann Hasson, Elizabeth Arveda Kissling, Tomi-Ann Roberts, eds. 2020. The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies [Internet]. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jermyn, Deborah. 2023.“‘Everything you need to embrace the change’: The ‘menopausal turn’ in contemporary UK culture.” Journal of Aging Studies, volume 64.
Nicholson, Linda. 2010. “Feminism in “Waves”: Useful Metaphor or Not?” New Politics Vol. XII, No. 4, Whole Number 48. (Online).
Tomlinson, Maria Kathryn. 2018. The Female Fertility Cycle in Cross-Cultural Perspective: Representations of Menstruation, Childbirth, and the Menopause in Contemporary Women’s Writing in French [PhD thesis, University of Reading].
About the Author
Jemma Walton is an English PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, where she is writing a thesis on surrogacy memoirs. She is also co-convenor of interdisciplinary repro-research network Broadly Conceived.