I found Prosper Mérimée’s A Slight Misunderstanding thanks to Max at Pechorin’s Journal. This is a fairly simple story, deceptively so, of Julie de Chaverny, a beautiful, bored society woman who makes a fatal error. The title indicates that the error is ‘a slight misunderstanding’ and while it’s certainly true that the events which unfold occur due to a misunderstanding, this leads to a phenomenal error in judgment. This error mirrors the complications of love affairs in which those involved fail–deliberately or otherwise–to discuss their real intentions. Through this story, Mérimée shows just how exquisitely easy it is to misinterpret events and the actions of others.
Here’s society beauty, Julie de Chaverny married 6 years before:
Julie de Chaverny had now known for approximately the last five years and months that it was not only impossible to love her husband but difficult even to feel any respect for him. Not that her husband was offensive, nor was he either foolish or stupid. And yet perhaps he was something of all three. Looking back, she might have recalled having once liked him; now, he bored her. She found everything about him repellent: the way he ate, the way he drank his coffee, the way he spoke, set her nerves on edge. They hardly ever saw or spoke to each other except at the table; but as they dined together a number of times a week, this was quite enough to keep her aversion alive.
So much for married bliss. Mérimée’s insertion in the passage of the words “she might have recalled having once liked him” adds the element of the muddying of time and also a strong sense of ennui. There’s also the idea that Julie perhaps no longer wishes to remember the relationship for what it once seemed to be. The craft of this 1833 novella shows strongly in its first paragraph. It’s easy to imagine Chaverny slurping his soup and being generally annoying at the dining table, and certainly his presence and possibly his manners serve to remind Julie of just how much she dislikes the man she married.
This state of affairs is buoyed by Chaverny’s constant love affairs with other women, and Julie…well Julie has her flirtations.
Young, beautiful and married to a man whom she disliked, one may imagine that she was bound to be surrounded by much admiration which was far from disinterested.
Julie’s flirtations are rather innocent. She enjoys admiration, but she has no intention of becoming any man’s mistress. That’s too bad for Major de Chateaufort, a handsome young officer who sniffs Julie’s marital distress and is determined to make her his mistress. Chateaufort hangs around Julie like a dog expecting his dinner, and just as he seems to be making progress in the affair, Darcy, a man from Julie’s pre-marriage days enters the picture….
There are a couple of scenes which capture the awkwardness of the De Chavernys’ relationship. In one scene, at the end of a long evening, Chaverny is caught unawares by the prospect of sharing the carriage home with his wife–no easy task apparently, as “the prospect of being alone with her for twenty minutes was alarming.” This really is a marvellous moment and Mérimée takes full advantage of it–including another significant carriage scene later. That same night, Chaverny even hints at sex, but Julie has a million ways of slipping out of his grasp and silencing any fleeting interest her husband may feel for her.
Mérimée shows how society plays a role is pushing Julie into Darcy’s path. This is an interesting contrast to Wharton’s Age of Innocence where we see society taking an active role in keeping Countess Olenska and Newland Archer apart. What happens to Julie and how she reacts to her old lover is the bulk of this story, and I was reminded of Louise de Vilmorin’s Madame de–another lost society woman who’s much more delicate and sensitive than she first appears.
A Slight Misunderstanding is a jewel of a story–no argument from this reader, but beyond the delight of reading it, I also considered the problem of intention and mis-communication. It’s bad enough these days, but love affairs must have been so much more complicated in the past–how could one discuss one’s intentions or interest if it was considered impolite?
Translated by Douglas Parmée