French Gothic Novel or The Roman Noir

The term, “noir” instantly brings to mind the works of such authors as Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain, and Dorothy B. Hughes.  Many of their novels turned into the gritty, black and white films of the 1950s.  Tales of downtrodden men and women (victims and perpetrators alike) lost in the underbelly of society.

However, Roman Noir (black novel) was first coined by the French in the 18th century, and originally referred to the Gothic novels emerging from England at the time.

The English Gothic novel (born from Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto) were mysteries often set in ruined castles populated by lonely women, tyrannical Lords, and creepy servants.   Ancient curses, ominous visions, forbidden romance, and fears of the supernatural abound.

The Roman Noir became the parallel literary movement in France.  Notable authors included  Denis Diderot, Madame de Genlis,  Baculard d’Arnaud,  Stéphanie Ducrest de St-Albin,Gaston Leroux, Balzac, Vicomte d’Arlincourt,  Francois Ducray-Duminil,  Victor Hugo, and Maupassant.

During the nineteenth century,  in continuation of the Gothic or Roman Noir, a new emphasis on horror gave birth to the  le roman frenetique.  

-Lou Chaney as The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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20 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for the lesson. I always wondered where noir came from. I always think of detective noir films and books though.

  2. Hi Nate,

    Thanks for stopping over at my blog. I too, was surprised to find out where the term originated.

  3. I knew you would unearth some interesting facts. 😀

  4. Thankee Ralfast! I hope to unearth more. 🙂

  5. I had never thought of “Hunchback” as a ‘noir’ work before. I guess in my mind it indicated the old b&w movies from the 30s, 40’s and so on. Silly of me 🙂

  6. Not at all silly, DD!

    I think that’s where most of us (including myself) think it comes from. I just learned that little historical fact the other day when I started my research into the French Gothic novels.

    I love discovering things/terms are much older than we think. And that they often had different meanings or pertained to different things.

  7. Hi Tasha, truly an interesting read. I study french in middle school and knew noir meant black. I should of thought out of the box that it also pertain to other things with negativity as it is in America.

    I use to say why is it that everything black have to mean something bad in school, than I say oh ya white magic is bad but no one think about it, they think more about black magic, lol, I can’t win.

  8. hey Lora,

    I can understand your sensitivity and feelings regarding the issue. I’m very sorry if terms and words have been twisted through the centuries and used to hurt others. 😦

    But if it makes you feel any better, in occult teachings, “dark”-simply refers to things unseen, things yet unknown. It is not a negative in any way.

    And in that regard, I love anything “dark”. 😉

  9. p.s. I should add however, that you were right. White magic does mean “good” spells. While black magic tends to mean curses and hexes.

    I think they simply took the idea of darkness and how some fear what is unknown and can’t be seen…and stretched the meaning. Thus, darkness/blackess- fear of the dark/night, etc-evil.

    It was probably the most simplistic way they could explain the difference regarding different types of spellwork.

  10. Hi Tasha, I am not sensitive over it, I find it to be funny in all honesty. Don’t mind me…I was just analyzing. I would always sit in history class just waiting for them to tie something bad with the color black. I never took it in any offense I just think it is funny how different color symbolize throughout history. But your right dark chocolate is the bomb but it will kill ya, it is too sweet, LOL, See can never win 🙂

  11. Ah..but dark chocolate in moderation is quite good for ya. All the antioxidants. 🙂 🙂

  12. 🙂 ah so good point! I must remember this one. Thank you Tasha:)))

  13. Lora, if it’s any consolation, in the pagan circles I run in, we don’t use the terms ‘white magic’ or ‘black magic’. That’s more Hollywood. Magic is magic, it’s just a tool, like electricity. And like electricity, it can be good or bad, depending on how you use it.

  14. Well put, DD!

  15. Hi DD and thanks:) The only magic I honestly like … I know it going to sound corny… but I like children magic with tricks. Last year I went to a wedding and missed the magic show. The magician heard me asking people what did he do. He came over to me and asked me if I wanted to see some tricks before I knew he was a magician. I told him naw I am married…with my dirty mind he was talking about magic trick, lol, after he introduce himself he showed me some card tricks I went bonkers over because I was the assistant and could not get how he did it. Never the less I was a happy camper.

  16. 🙂

    Magic tricks aren’t corny. They’re fun.

    That said, I like a lot of things people would think corny. 😉

  17. Cool! I’m glad you’re sharing your study of the genre, and in such a fun way.

    At the risk of the cliche, the more research I do, the less I feel like I have even a loose grasp of the genre and all that it encompasses. The upshot is that I don’t have to worry about running out of stuff to write about. *grins*

    Here’s a question I’ve been contemplating — How can/does neo-Victorian Gothic literature contribute something new and original to modern literature rather then merely serving as an homage to the 19th century? What can the genre achieve that others cannot (at least as easily)?

    Probably a deeper question that you want to answer in your comments section, but I’d be interested in any thoughts in that direction that come up in the course of your study.

  18. Hi Haystack!

    First, thank you. )

    Second, good questions.

    Regarding the Victorian thing- I believe we writers today are in the great postion about being able to write stories set in that time…uncensored. The way people spoke and behaved in novels of those times were much different from what was actually going on in real life, if you read letters from that time, private diaries, editorials complaining about people swearing in public, statistics on everything from crime to the number of babies born very quickly after weddings. *wink* etc, etc…

    Anyone who thinks people back then generally acted like they belonged in some BBC production probably also think women really did housework in high heels and pearls like in 50s sitcoms. 😉

    I remember reading how Wilkie Collins caught hell from critics because he gave the “bad girl” heroine in No Name a happy ending. In the 19th century, moralistic endings were expected. Or, what they deemed moralistic.

    Luckily, we’re free from those constraints. Our female characters don’t have to take a lethal dose of laudanum just because she’s had sex. And *gasp* enjoyed it!

    The criminal doesn’t always have to be caught. Ect. ect…

    btw, this makes me think about Lefanu’s Carmilla. (I loved your post on it, btw). Anyway, while I can’t say for sure, of course- I’d bet a lot that if he’d written that nowadays and not been stuck with the rules of his time, it would’ve ended VERY differently.

  19. That’s a really good point. And it definitely draws readers in when you present Victorian characters in a way that runs completely opposite to their expectations.

    I write about orphans/waifs, and I’ve really been focusing on giving them strong, charismatic personalities and realistic behavioral problems–Oliver Twist put me to sleep.

    Something I’ve been considering a lot lately is how so much of the culture, institutions and technologies of the Victorian period are perceived as archetypes for those that shape our world we live in. The “ideal” pen is a fountain pen, the “ideal” watch is a pocket watch, the “ideal” Christmas is a Victorian Christmas; and modernity has just kind of been layered on top of that. The Victorian period is embedded in the collective subconscious in such a way that makes it ideal for writing in a darkly mythical, dreamlike, or magically realistic style.

    It’s hard to achieve the same kind of atmosphere once you put smart phones and Facebook into your story.

  20. I’m glad to see more noir posts 🙂

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