There’s something haunting about the novella Madame de by Louise de Vilmorin. I finished this slim work a few weeks ago and have read 4 more novels since then, and yet I find my mind wandering back to its characters. In the introduction, translator Duff Cooper (one of the author’s lovers) states that Madame de has a “strange, timeless quality.” And it certainly does. I had the impression the novella had been written in the 19th century, so I was surprised to discover it had been written in 1951. The characters are only given the slightest, necessary identifications: Madame de and her wealthy husband, Monsieur de, while other characters are named by their professions or by their familial relationships to Madame de, and yet even though the largely nameless characters are only described with a few delicate sentences, the essence of their characters is clear is this marvellously rendered little masterpiece.
I don’t usually enjoy novels or films that follow the history of an object (The Yellow Rolls Royce, or The Red Violin, for example); I much prefer character-driven dramas, so when I read the premise of Madame de–a novella that follows the ownership of a pair of earrings, well, frankly I didn’t expect much. The plot is deceptively simple. Madame de incurs a large number of debts. For several reasons rather than apply to her husband for money, she decides to sell a pair of earrings. The earrings she selects are an outstanding pair of large diamonds cut into heart shapes given to her by her husband on the day after their wedding. Following the sale of the earrings, circumstances bring them back into the possession of Monsieur de, and he then gives them to a discarded mistress who’s rather conveniently leaving the country. But the earrings return and what occurs in the life of Madame de —– is the heart of this marvellously wrought little tale.
Here’s a quote from the first page:
“Elegance rather than beauty was accounted the mark of merit in the circle of society to which Madame de —— belonged and in that circle Madame de —— herself was acknowledged to be of all women the most elegant. She set the fashion among those who knew her and, as the men said she was inimitable, sensible women sought to imitate her. They hoped that some glint of her lustre might shine on them, and that their ears might catch some echo of the adulation she received. Wherever her approval fell, distinction was conferred; she was original in all her ways; she made the commonplace seem rare, and she always did what nobody expected.”
The very brittle, delicate Madame de floats in a world full of admiration for her beauty and her elegance. Like an orchid, she requires a certain atmosphere, a certain temperature in which she can survive, and like many an affluent fictional society woman, love is the means of her destruction. In some ways, Madame de reminds me of Anna Karenina–a married woman who makes the mistake of falling in love. Madame de is proud yet delicate, bred and married for ornamental purposes, and while she understands this role, when she falls in love she begins to question her very reason for existence:
“her arms buried to the elbows in a fur muff, she sat by a low wall which overhung the beach and gazed on the waves and the horizon ….Suddenly she felt that she longer had any importance ; she asked herself what she was doing in the world, and why she was living; she felt that she was lost in infinite space; she sought for the meaning of life and could find no answer in her mind, only the face of one person. Her heart grew heavy withe the double weight of that presence and that absence. She felt a violent desire to be given confidence in her own existence and she felt that nobody could give it to her but the man without whom she now knew life would be unendurable.”
The beautiful pair of earrings–once a gift that should have had some sentimental significance to Madame de are traded time and time again. After the first gifting (from Monsieur de to his wife after their wedding night), they become a commodity without sentiment when they are sold. Then Monsieur de uses the earrings, in a sense to punish his wife, by giving them away to a mistress. Any sentimental value is gone. But that isn’t the end of the story, and the earrings reemerge and are given again several times–each time with deceit, until a gift of love becomes a hideous reminder of the lies that accompany it.
Madame de is a morality tale. The characters lie to one another, and through the sale of the earrings, love and trust are eroded through deceit, and relationships are inevitably tainted. Sadly, Monsieur de imagines that his wife is incapable of true passion–after all she plays a role for her husband and he doesn’t see her as a full, developed human being capable of the full range of human emotions. But Madame de‘s tragedy is found in her love for another man, and she pays dearly for her initial mistake.
The tragic figure of Madame de also made me think of Madame Bovary, and perhaps the comparison is inevitable. Madame Bovary was destroyed by boredom and her consumerism, and interestingly consumerism plays a role in Madame de’s downfall too. After all, a desperate act to hide debts from her husband begins an unfortunate chain of events, and by the time the novella concludes, the earrings seem to be an unpleasant reminder of all that’s wrong in the lives of these wealthy socialites: a husband’s gift to his new wife must certainly have some sentimental value if nothing else, and yet Madame de has incurred horrendous debts while her husband dallies with a mistress. The cold elegance of the lives of Monsieur and Madame de negate any personal confrontation, and they bear up well in public but avoid any intimacy, any discussion of debts, affairs, mistresses or lovers, and meanwhile the passing back and forth of the glittering cold diamond earrings–rather ironically shaped like human hearts emphasize the absence of love in Monsieur and Madame de’s sterile, passionless, polite, and toxic marriage.
It’s not too suprising that Max Ophuls made a film out of this gem….