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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.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0520084284
Page count: 291pp
Publisher: Univ. of California Press