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It is not through any arcane family tie that Mary Barbe, the anti-heroine of La Marquise de Sade, gives the book its title, but from her choice of career as murderous femme fatale. A plainly Sadeian logic marks her decadent excesses: the rewards of female virtue are such that vice is the only means to freedom. Mary Barbe embodies Juliette’s ruthless answer to the innocent, wronged Justine.

Rachilde claimed to have read Sade as a teenager, at large in her grandfather’s three-thousand-volume library in Périgord. An ambitious young woman determined to be a writer and gorging herself on a feast of Enlightenment literature. Before long she was heading for Paris, willing away her provincialism (she would always hate the provinces) and propelling herself towards coronation as ‘Queen of the Decadents’, with the publication, in 1884, of Monsieur Venus, a succès de scandale if ever there was one. She was twenty-four.

A year later she met her future husband, Alfred Vallette, who was to be the editor and co-founder of Le Mercure de France, an avant-garde review avant la lettre, for the term was only then entering the language of the arts and literature. Its first issue, on January 1, 1890, included contributions from Mallarmé, Remy de Gourmont, Saint-Pol Roux and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. It lasted as a prominent literary quarterly until 1953 and its distinguished book-publishing arm has just turned a hundred.

Le Mercure meant that Rachilde would be a central figure in Paris literary life at a point when a new aesthetic consciousness was taking shape. From the beginning, Le Mercure held weekly receptions, its Tuesdays, hosted with renowned aplomb by Madame Rachilde for some fifty years. Oscar Wilde testified to her famous tact on these brilliant, star-studded occasions, though she was to acquire a reputation for being foul-mouthed which put some visitors off. One of the most warmly welcomed guests was Alfred Jarry, weird, often unwashed, and perhaps even wearing a borrowed pair of Rachilde’s shoes. Jarry and Rachilde were close friends until his early death, even though his relations with women were not easy. One compliment he paid her is worth noting: ‘Ma-da-me… you don’t cling.’ Her biography of him was published in 1928.

Unlike Jarry, and other burned-out cases of the Symbolist-Decadent milieu, Rachilde did not translate the excesses of her work into life. She had a solid marriage to Vallette, dedicated anchorman amid the furious currents of the avant-garde. He died in 1935. She herself lived to the age of 94, her body unravaged by the alcoholic, narcotic and sexual extravagances to which the decadents so often felt themselves obliged to be prone. Verlaine called her ‘his good little bourgeoise’. She confessed once to trying hashish mixed with apricot jam. Her eccentricities were only moderate ones.

But the life and fiction do swing somewhere on the same perverse and surely un-bourgeois axis. And Rachilde, a neglected figure a century on from her fin-de-siècle heyday, was strange enough and rich enough in paradox to warrant more attention than she has had. What did her anti-heroines inherit from this ambitious, precocious young writer, a woman too tough ever to cling to the best of her friends?

Mary Barbe is an even more Sadeian sadist than the infamous Raoule de Vénerande of Monsieur Venus. Their names brand them as bearers of loves fatality, Mary’s invoking a female Bluebeard, Raoule’s echoing the late century’s venereal plague. Both know that love is an unaffordable weakness: ‘love was a rotten business which would never seduce her’ reflects the 16-year-old Mary on the eve of her wedding to the Baron de Caumont, an unreformed rake whom she will outdo and undo with a particularly cruel poetic justice wherein sex is death. With Mary, the enslavement of men is more often than not a prelude to their destruction, and it calls for a hard heart. With the power that accrues to heartlessness comes a taste for erotic torture – for the pleasure of talons drawing blood, fangs that bite deep into flesh. Mary grows up under the sign of the feline: from the fiercely scratchy little cat that is her comfort in childhood, her familiar in the moment of the little girl’s insight that men rule the world, to the bloodthirsty man-eating lioness Mary has become by the book’s final chapter; a lioness raging with Nietzschean discontents, pacing the cage of tame times.

When Rachilde published La Marquise de Sade, in 1887, Nietzsche was in the air, his writings much talked of, though as yet little translated. Her own approach to being a woman seeking empowerment appears to owe a lot to his doctrine of the superman.

When she arrived in the capital Rachilde already had some literary connections; her cousin Marie de Saverny edited the newspaper L’Ecole de Femmes and there she began her journalistic career. Her memoirs of youth and childhood, Quand J’Etais Jeune, record the frenetic round of visits to editors, publishers and people of importance. One of these was Sarah Bernhardt, whom she seems to have impressed enough for the great actress to exert some influence on her behalf.

Doubtless partly inspired by Bernhardt, in the early 1880s Rachilde adopted male dress for a time, after a trip to the Préfecture for the necessary police authorisation. Appearing in public as an ‘Amazon’ had a recognised practical rationale: it neutralised an unaccompanied woman’s gender – in a period when women’s freedom of movement was still severely constrained – freeing her simultaneously from the restrictions of respectability and the unwanted attentions of those who might assume her morals to be loose. For Rachilde, being an Amazon seems to have involved an even greater transcendence of gender than that required by a busy woman journalist. It gave her a proxy male identity. Following the example of George Sand, an earlier Amazon, she called herself a ‘man of letters’ and had this title printed on her calling cards.

Feminist readers will find Rachilde’s anti-heroines interesting precisely because they are ‘unnatural’ women. Motherhood is anathematised by both Raoule and Mary, while lesbianism is too paltry an answer to male domination, worthy only of schoolgirls. But they inhabit a world of transgressive desires and inversions which goes beyond mere scornful rejection of conventional femininity and turns towards the monstrous will to power. Its landscape is murder, incest, rape and sundry acts of violence. The literary technique is too slapdash to chill the blood, but the imaginative scope can still take the breath away.

Rachilde did not have women friends (while she had many friendships with men). Women, it seems, were despised by her, unless they rose far above the ordinary and joined the ranks of men. Colette was one of these rare exceptions. Reviewing Claudine in le Mercure, Rachilde discerned Colette’s hand in what had been published as her husband Wily’s work. She told the younger writer that she had enough talent to cut her hair short, honouring her as a ‘man of letters’ and stoutly defending her thereafter. Although there was a rift between the two women in the 20s, Rachilde can certainly be credited with bringing Colette out of authorial obscurity.

Claude Dauphiné, Rachilde’s biographer, argues that her commitment to Colette shows her to have had more sympathy with women and feminism than her publicly vehement anti-feminism proposes. Around the turn of the century Rachilde had been identified with the revolutionaries of the avant-garde. By 1928, when she published her polemical pamphlet, ‘Why I am not a Feminist’, she was considered a reactionary, earning the opprobrium of the Surrealists for her loudly voiced anti-German sentiments.

In Rachilde’s fiction the social dictates of gender are satisfyingly mocked, but the long-running question ‘is woman born or made?’ prompts her resounding double negative. She refused femininity, yet refused any feminist diagnosis of how things were or ought to be. It is the work more than the life that gives credence to Dauphiné’s contention that Rachilde was in some sense a feminist despite herself. All the more so when we remember that her revenge scenarios, whereby women punish and diminish the sex that wrongs them, although crude, were not wanting in tongue-in-cheek humour: ‘A fit of hysteria? I didn’t know that gentlemen had them’ observes the Countess de Liol in the midst of her panic about the Baron’s collapse.

And, significantly, Mary Barbe is given a long and detailed history to account for her perversions. Rachilde is offering us a case study. As Dauphiné notes, Rachilde’s fictions, along with the work of Jean Lorrain and Octave Mirbeau, are ‘literary illustrations of manuals of sexual psychopathology’. It is this that startles. Just as Freud was plunging into his work on hysteria and psychopathology, here are the demons of the unconscious rearing up in fiction, blatant as can be, warped children of the Zeitgeist.

Mary Barbe is the Id made flesh, given horrid life not just by a childhood of small brutalities, but by the crueller blow of being made to feel of no importance. Women don’t count, Mary learns, and as a result turn out to be worthless, feeble creatures, while men never live up to their self-elevated stature. Blindly, Mary goes too far in her refusal to be male or female, to be human. But she was surely onto something.

Liz Heron