Gabrielle de Bergerac by Henry James

The title Gabrielle de Bergerac from Henry James was new to me when I stumbled across it on Amazon for the princely sum of $2.99 for a Kindle edition. For those who don’t mind reading large amounts of material on the computer, I’ve since found it free online. Gabrielle de Bergerac is set pre-French Revolution, so it’s not standard James fare. It’s not a perfect novella, but it starts off strongly over the discussion of an ancestral portrait. The elderly M. de Bergerac owes the unnamed narrator a sum of money which he realises he can never repay. In lieu of payment, M. de Bergerac offers the narrator one of his paintings instead:

He told me frankly that he saw no way, either in the present or the future, to reimburse me in cash. His only treasures were his paintings; would I choose one of them? Now I had not spent an hour in M. de Bergerac’s little parlour twice a week for three winters, without learning that the Baron’s paintings were, with a single exception, of very indifferent merit. On the other hand, I had taken a great fancy to the picture thus excepted. Yet, as I knew it was a family portrait, I hesitated to claim it. I refused to make a choice. M. de Bergerac, however, insisted, and I finally laid my finger on the charming image of my friend’s aunt. I of course insisted, on my side, that M. de Bergerac should retain it during the remainder of his life, and so it was only after his decease that I came into possession of it. It hangs above my table as I write, and I have only to glance up at the face of my heroine to feel how vain it is to attempt to describe it.

But he does describe it:

The countenance is interesting rather than beautiful,-the forehead broad and open, the eyes slightly prominent, all the features full and firm and yet replete with gentleness. The head is slightly thrown back, as if in movement, and the lips are parted in a half-smile. And yet, in spite of this tender smile, I always fancy that her eyes are sad. … The whole face has a look of mingled softness and decision, and seems to reveal a nature inclined to reverie, affection, and repose, but capable of action and even of heroism.

The narrator, half in love with the portrait of a long-dead woman, presses his elderly friend to tell him the story of his aunt, Gabrielle de Bergerac, and so the narration passes to the elderly Baron who recalls his childhood as the little Chevalier, pre-French Revolution at the Bergerac estate. There’s little money and not much of a social life, and the person to potentially suffer the most from social isolation and the lack of money neccesary to enter into the sort of entertainments that might offer a new way of life through marriage, is Gabrielle de Bergerac, the 9-year-old Chevalier’s aunt. Gabrielle isn’t, however, interested in marriage:

I remember that she frequently dressed in blue, my poor aunt, and I know that she must have dressed simply. Fancy her in a light stuff gown, covered with big blue flowers with a blue ribbon in her dark hair, and the points of her high-heeled blue slippers peeping out under her stiff white petticoat. Imagine her strolling along the terrace of the château with a villainous black crow perched on her wrist. You’ll admit it’s a picture.

The elderly Baron recounts the story of Gabrielle de Bergerac to the unnamed narrator, so we get a story told through another story–a neat framework for a short summer that took place decades earlier. All of the characters in the elderly Baron’s story are dead and he’s now displaced in another country, but he remembers this significant summer when he was 9 and his role in the events that took place.

There’s a frequent visitor to the Bergerac estate–a close family friend, the Vicomte de Treuil. He’s run through his entire fortune and now he lays siege to a wealthy elderly uncle who lives in the “adjacent château, and who was dying of age and his infirmities.”  The Vicomte’s visits bring life to the Bergerac household as his “conversation  was a constant popping of corks.” While the Vicomte is the Chevalier’s father’s closest friend, his fiercest defender is the Baronne:

She had a passion for the world, and seclusion had only sharpened the edge of her curiosity. She lived on old memories–shabby, tarnished bits of intellectual finery–and vagrant rumours, anecdotes, and scandals.

Gabrielle de Bergerac is a beautiful story for its marvellous descriptions of its characters. We know, of course, that all of those involved–with the exception of the elderly Baron are all dead, so this frail old man’s story–filled with nostalgia and sadness and recalled after his death–has incredible, vital power. There are no villains here, and instead James creates well-rounded characters who are trapped by class and circumstance, and through the author’s sagacious eyes, we see the dying embers of a class and culture on the verge of disappearance. The Vicomte, the elderly baron tells us:

was the last relic of the lily-handed youth of the bon temps; and as he looks at me out of the poignant sadness of the past, with a reproachful glitter in his cold blue eyes,and a scornful smile on his fine lips, I feel that, elegant and silent as he is, he has the last word in our dispute.

My kindle version gives the date of the story as 1918 (James died in 1916), but elsewhere on the internet, I see the date 1869, and that Gabrielle de Bergerac first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.  For the subject matter, Gabrielle de Bergerac is an excellent companion story to Balzac’s The Ball at Sceaux.

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15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, James, Henry

15 responses to “Gabrielle de Bergerac by Henry James

  1. Ooh, I’m tempted but I’ve got too many on the kindle already waiting to be read … the virtual (sorta) tbr. So, this is a James historical fiction novel? I do love the description of “old memories” as “shabby, tarnished bits of intellectual finery”. Makes me want to know this character.

  2. I’m very surprsied to hear this is a Henry James novella. The topic sounds more like Balzac but once you read the quotes, it couldn’t be Balzac. Interesting find, in any case.

  3. I didn’t know James had written historical fiction but I’m not a specialist of his work. Strange that he chose pre-Revolution France for it and not England.
    The French edition includes Madame de Mauves, perhaps they are similar stories. You might want to look at it.
    Why does that idea of falling for a painting ring a bell?
    Have you read or seen the film Cyrano de Bergerac?

  4. Gummie, Caroline and Emma: I was surprised to find James writing an historical novel as he gave Wharton the advice to write what she knew (good advice too), and here he is breaking that advice. But this is fairly early in his career. I downloaded a free copy of Madame de Mauves for the kindle. yes I have seen Cyrano (haven’t read it).

    The portrait rang a bell for me too but the only title I came up with is Laura by Vera Caspary.

  5. Like all of the above, this surprises me – never heard of it, and it sounds very un-James-like. Actually, it sounds like a German novella…

    • Tony: you’ve read a lot more German lit than me. What makes this sound German to you? That’s an interesting comment as it takes us back to ‘writing what you know’ and perhaps James hit some buttons that had a German chime for you.

      • Probably the setting and the frame narrative – Storm loves a tale of woe told at a remove of several generations :)

        I think it’s more that we read things from a certain viewpoint than that the writer has those intentions. If I think back to how many writers’ styles I’ve compared in some way to Haruki Murakami…

  6. Count me as another surprisee, it does sound very good though. Elegaic.

    I’ll check out the kindle edition, but I already have so many unread classics on my kindle…

    • The ending wasn’t what I expected, and the story didn’t quite work towards the end (began strongly). It seems as though we left Gabrielle when her story was about to get really interesting–but this is a fault of the fact her story is recalled by a man who only knew her for a few childhood years.

  7. I thought I had at least heard of all James’ novels and novellas, but,like the others, I hadn’t heard of this. I haven’t even seen it listed in the contents pages of his collected shorter works.

    I think 1869 is a likelier date than 1918: the sure way of distinguishing late James from earlier James is that with earlier James, you don’t have to read each sentence over five or six times to understand what the hell it’s about!

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