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Summary

Summary

Edward Berenson recounts the trial of Henriette Caillaux, the wife of a powerful French cabinet minister, who murdered her husband's enemy Le Figaro editor Gaston Calmette, in March 1914, on the eve of World War I. In analyzing this momentous event, Berenson draws a fascinating portrait of Belle Epoque politics and culture.


Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Berenson, professor of history at UCLA, writes a gender micro-history of the Belle Epoque in France (1890-1914) by examining the trial and acquittal of Madame Henriette Caillaux. On March 14, 1914 she fatally shot Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro , motivated by the press campaign he was conducting against her husband, Joseph Caillaux, an influential left-wing cabinet minister. Utilizing courtroom transcripts and press coverage of the proceedings which riveted the attention of the nation, the author presents a carefully researched analysis that yields insights into the years when early feminism was beginning to affect social mores. Through the behavior and statements of the trial's participants, a societal portrait of the complex power relationship between men and women of the period emerges in this fine academic history. Illustrated. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Kirkus Review

A skillful take on France's belle époque, using the celebrated 1914 trial of Henriette Caillaux for the murder of Le Figaro editor Gaston Calmette as a springboard to examine a wide range of contemporary topics. Dubbing his method ``microhistory''--whereby the past is approached ``through one exemplary event or person''- -Berenson (History/UCLA) looks at French attitudes toward divorce, the place of women in society, masculine ``honor'' and dueling, the growing power of the popular press, and the lingering psychological damage of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. On March 16, 1914, Henriette Caillaux, wife of the head of the left-leaning Radical Party, entered the office of Gaston Calmette, whose influential journal was engaged in a campaign of vilification against Mme. Caillaux's husband, Joseph. ``You know why I have come?'' the elegantly dressed matron asked. ``Not at all, Madame,'' Calmette replied. Without another word, Mme. Caillaux drew a pistol from her muff and pumped six bullets into Calmette. Four months later, the editor's assailant stood trial for murder. Addressing the events of the week-long trial day-by-day, Berenson discusses how Mme. Caillaux's defense depended on convincing the jury that hers was an uncontrollable ``crime of passion'' rather than a premeditated political act. The author offers interesting insights into how this defense reflected the widely held conviction that ``real'' women were in thrall to their emotions and not responsible for their actions in such crimes. The ploy was successful: Henriette was found not guilty. Here, Berenson is especially sensitive in conveying the frustrations felt by many women of the time and the ironies inherent in their position. Speaking of male attitudes toward marital sex, for example, he writes, ``One's wife was not to be an object of sexual desire, since to desire her was to degrade her.'' Freshly researched, elegantly written, always engrossing. (Twelve b&w illustrations.)


Booklist Review

On March 16, 1914, Parisian society matron Henriette Caillaux pulled a Browning automatic from her fur muff and shot to death Gaston Calmette, the editor of Le Figaro, for libeling her husband, Joseph, a former prime minister. Four months later, and only two weeks before Europe would be plunged into war, Madame Caillaux's trial began, both in the courts and in the newspapers. Berenson, professor of history at the University of California, employs histoire microscopique, analyzing the past by focusing on one particular event, in this case, the trial. Culling information from verbatim transcripts and the various leanings of the press, Berenson devotes each of six chapters to one of the principals in the trial and her or his day in court. In the process, he recaptures the drama of a scandal that held the French public in thrall with its TV movie-like mix of passion, crime, high society, moral and immoral behavior--and, of course, Madame Caillaux herself, smoking gun notwithstanding, declaring her innocence as a prisoner of "unbridled female passions." Berenson provides fascinating insights into the connections between politics and culture in France's Belle Epoque. ~--Eloise Kinney


Choice Review

Drawing on a vast array of sources, Berenson reconstructs a dramatic moment in the history of the Third Republic: the trial of Henriette Caillaux. His work is a critique of French society during the Belle Epoque with emphasis on the role of gender and social class. By focusing on this sensational trial, the author examines the mores of French society. Charged with the murder of Gaston Calmette (editor of Le Figaro), a crime Madame Caillaux readily admitted at her trial, she was able literally to get away with murder because she successfully exploited the all-male court's condescending feelings toward women. Claiming typical female instability and weakness as a consequence of Calmette publishing her husband's love letters to a mistress, Caillaux argued that her act was a crime of passion. Although Berenson provides an innovative perspective on this affair, some of the issues in this case were also examined in Rudolph Binion's pioneering work, Defeated Leaders: The Political Fate of Caillaux, Jouvenel and Tardieu (1960), which Berenson cites. Berenson's book is notable because it is informed by feminist literature, giving it an appropriate contemporary flavor. College, university, and public libraries. J. Szaluta; United States Merchant Marine Academy