A Book Review of”The Invisible Code. “Post Revolutionary France 1814-1848” by William Reddy

The Invisible Code: Honor and Sentiment in Postrevoluntionary France, 1814-1848 by William Reddy is a thorough and compelling study of the social dynamics of both men and women in France following the Revolution.  Reddy examines the code of honor during the Napoleonic years, which he terms “the invisible code”, in three distinct sections: 1) the family and marital dimension, 2) the public or political dimension and 3) the commercial dimension.   He includes marital separation cases, personal files from the Ministry of Interior and memoires from 1820-1850.  Reddy explains that during the pre-revolution years, man possessed an “honor of his estate which he transmitted to his spouse and children”(xi).  After the revolution, however, men would compete for honor based on wealth and education.  This “honor code” was interpreted through a code civil which protected family honor.

  One of Reddy’s main agendas in The Invisible Code is to reveal his study of ‘sentiment’, or honor and emotion, and how it was experienced by both French men and women.   A woman’s experience of honor was quite different as she was more sentimental in nature and therefore “a man acted more rationally causing him to see and think with greater clarity and consistency” (xiii).  This book provides a great framework for understanding the emotions of the French society which Reddy states are still present today.  He claims that private feelings could be “contained or eliminated from public deliberation or action”(xiii).

Reddy’s work is a product of research on emotion by leading ethnographers such as Raymond Williams, Catherine Lutz and Lila Abu-Lughod.   Reddy states, “By examining feeling, however, tentatively, the historian frees herself of the false comfort implicit in the idea that the past is made up of precise ‘cultural structures’ that individuals unfailingly apply”(4).   According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary , the definition of honor  is “a good name or public esteem; a keen sense of ethical conduct”(7).  This study concerns the honor or honneur (fr.) in terms of emotions widely used throughout the 19th century; specifically the handling of emotions, vocabulary and style of allusion to feelings, and a code of behavior not openly spoken.

In the first section, Reddy uses literary examples of honor citing characters and dialogue  in  Honoré de Balzac’s  Gobseck and Père Goriot,   Victor Hugo’s Hernani, George Sand’s  Indiana, and Jean Racine’s  Phedre.  These characters show honor relating to their families, social status and gender.  Passion is allowed in the private sphere and the honor code is allowed in secrecy.  According to Reddy, novel writing in the 19th century offered a means of exploring feelings without publicly naming individuals.ImageBalzac’s Pere Goriot

In the second section, Reddy cites public court cases of marital separation from this time period to show a male-centered code of honor.  These cases show conflict over honor which required the wife to submit to her husband’s authority; at least publicly.  To preserve one’s honor, Reddy explains ,was to manage appearances by doing things not necessary in themselves in order to reassure others of one’s intentions ( i.e. a woman could not work or walk in public without a male escort).  Reddy also shows that honor was associated with rank and “handsomeness of one’s lover”(76).  There was a plebian sense of conflict between sentiment and honor, between feelings and appearances.  The court saw its role in protecting the wife from her husband’s violence only if it was “prolonged and severe or endangered her life”(104).    Reddy concludes this section stating that women prefer emotional fulfillment at the expense of family honor. He concludes, “When men have had more equal access to the public sphere, women have been more firmly excluded from it”(229).

In the final section, Reddy cites documents from the Ministry of Interior to show how males sought to accumulate honor through exterior markings, merit or worth.  During the Revolution, salaried employees were rewarded with promotion and raises based on merit.  Honor was defined by an independence of mind and self-interest in pursuit of gains.  Property and income brought honor.  The Satirists portrayed these bureaucrat’s behavior based on self-interests; the lower the income, the lower the honor. Reddy also includes a section on the lives of  journalists during this time who tried to protect their honor while selling their services to daily newspapers.  The press stirred up political passions to increase circulation and disregard for truth-telling.  Reddy asks, “Where else were the duties of honor more to be respected than when one was engaged in the service to the public and to the nation?”(201).  He explains that because of the exorbitant cost of publishing, the journalists , in order to attract readership, had to “multiply political disputes and social antipathies to bring exasperation to the mind… in order to gain ‘political honor’”(204).

For social historians, this work would be highly beneficial as it provides an    understanding of a new theme of study for the modern period in French history, honor.  Reddy states that he was actually surprised at the end of this study the “overwhelming preoccupation with  honor in each of these social domains”.    This topic of honor is still relevant today as many French psychiatrists have focused on “shame” as one of the most important sources of mental disorders(238).    Reddy stated it best when he concluded, “the honor code did not disappear, it just became less visible”(238).

Redding, William.  The Invisible Code.  Honor and Sentiment in Postrevolutionary France

1814-1848.  University of California Press, 1997.

Copyright 2015 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (