The Art of Friendship in France, 1789-1914

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: French


Friendship is everywhere. It is almost impossible to imagine a society or culture without it. Yet for a concept that is so immediately, intuitively meaningful to virtually all human beings, friendship has been a famously intractable scholarly problem. Unofficial, uncodified and unregulated (not to mention, very often, unspoken), friendship does not lend itself to clear theoretical definition; nor do the friendships of the past necessarily leave traces that might allow us to elaborate a model of historical friendship from evidence. It is doubtless both the challenge and the possibilities promised by these problematic aspects of friendship that have made it such a productive field of research, across a number of disciplines, in the last twenty years. Historians and literary critics have been drawn to the theme for different reasons, and have addressed it in different ways - but they have rarely had the opportunity to compare their basic assumptions about friendship, and thus to work out if they are even talking about the same thing. Our interdisciplinary network encourages an international panel of scholars working on France in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, the nineteenth century, and the Belle Epoque up to the Great War, to consider what presuppositions about friendship operate within their own field (and, perhaps, their own national academic context), and what they might learn from the use made of the concept by scholars in other disciplines - in particular, what new forms of evidence they might acquire through an interdisciplinary conversation, and how that evidence might enrich their own account of this central cultural question.

Our network will bring together historians and literary scholars from France, Canada, the UK and the USA, who will collaboratively investigate friendship as a public and private issue, as a cultural phenomenon and a fact of life, as representation and reality. Of particular importance to us will be the relationship of friendship to sex and desire: for while historians including John Boswell and Alan Bray have debated how 'friendship' might have provided past ages with a language in which to talk about same-sex desire and relationships, critics of nineteenth-century literature might equally hanker after a language in which to talk about texts that somehow escapes the seeming monopoly of 'desire' on twentieth-century theories of reading and interpretation. Could nineteenth-century (heterosexual) men and women be 'just friends'? Could nineteenth-century literary texts represent such a friendship, whether possible or not in real life? Would a novel in which the characters were bound exclusively by friendship, and from which sexual desire was excluded, even be readable? All of these questions will flow into our collaborative exploration of what friendship meant to different people in nineteenth-century France, what new things an analysis of 'friendship' can tell us about this supposedly familiar context, and, in addition, what the peculiarities of nineteenth-century ideas on friendship can teach us of our own assumptions and blind spots about this everyday theme.

Planned Impact

This project aims to build on the natural human interest in the ties of friendship to which we all, one way or another, relate. We would therefore expect a broad interest from the general public in the topic, to help people reflect on the changing nature of different forms of friendship across place and time, as well as their continuities. We plan to access and engage the general public through audio-visual media (via Radio 4, France Culture and youtube) and face-to-face presentation (via Cambridge's outreach programme, the Festival of Ideas).

We also aim to engage with specific cultural and educational routes to beneficial impact. In addition to museum visitors, beneficiaries in this regard are the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Denver Art Museum, Colorado, which will benefit from our contribution of expertise and reflection to one of their upcoming joint major exhibitions. We are working with the curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Jane Munro, whom we have invited to contribute to the network meetings, and who is organizing an autumn 2017 exhibition on the Impressionist painter, Edgar Degas, which will highlight the theme of 'conversation' which our network will also underline. The Fitzwilliam Museum will also benefit from us helping their curators to develop a theme trail through its collection as a visitor attraction to draw interest in and across its various collections. We plan to contribute to the outreach programme of the exhibition through podcasts and live talks, and defining a themed trail in the museum focussing on paintings in the general collection which evoke our shared theme of "Intimate Conversations".

We identified teachers as potential beneficiaries as well as primary and secondary school children. We plan to work with Helen Demetriou, a Teaching Associate in the Cambridge Faculty of Education with relevant expertise (project on Friendships and Performance at Transfer and Transition, for DfES), to create new materials for primary and secondary schools, digitally available for free, which would help teachers to use literature of all kinds to deliver the national curriculum PHSE focus on human relationships and friendships at all key stages. We shall show how stories from many cultures can be used to encourage children to model their own ideas on friendship by discussing character relationships with fewer inhibitions than they would feel in being asked to discuss openly in class their own friendships. We would trial these materials in local schools before offering them nationally via our universities' commitment to language outreach (


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