Kleist’s Marquise of O was a third or fourth re-read for me, and there are some books that yield fresh results each time. This is true of Kleist’s novella–one of the few Kleist wrote (the excellent intro from translator Nicholas Jacobs mentions) that actually has a happy ending. How can you not like a happy ending? And yet for this read, I found the ending happy … yes … but a little incongruous. Back to that later.
So here’s the plot which was, apparently, based on a real, sensational event, and as we can imagine Kleist’s story caused quite a stir too.
The story begins with the Marquise of O, “a woman of impeccable reputation and mother of well-brought up children” putting advertisements in newspapers that “she had inexplicably found herself in a certain condition, that the father of the child she would bear should make himself known, and that out of the regard for her family she was resolved to marry him.” This is a bold but desperate move taken by the Marquise, and then the tale moves backwards in time.
It’s the Napoleonic Wars. In a Northern Italian town, the widowed Marquise of O and her children live with her parents. With news that war approaches bringing foreign troops, “even Russians,” the Marquise’s father, the Commandant, urges his wife and daughter to flee, but before they can escape, the citadel is surrounded, and after much fighting the foreign troops break into the castle. Some soldiers find the Marquise and drag her out into the courtyard. They are about to rape her when a Russian officer appears and “with angry thrusts scattered the dogs lusting after their booty.” The Russian, Count F., then offers his arm to the Marquise and escorts her to her rooms. Here she faints. The Commandant surrenders to Count F who then proceeds to be a Great Hero by dashing over the castle ramparts performing all manner of astonishing deeds.
The Commander-in-Chief (the Count’s uncle) of the Russian troops learns about the “criminal assault” on the Marquise and tells Count F to round up those responsible and have them shot. Count F says he cannot identify them, but since one of the men was wounded by Count F as he rescued the Marquise, it’s not long before the general has the wounded man interrogated, the remaining perps are found and then shot.
From this point, Count F has a special place in the Marquise’s eyes, so she and her parents are horrified to hear that he is subsequently killed on another battlefield. Yet the rumours are false, the Count still lives and he returns to the Marquise and her family. He expresses a desire to marry the Marquise and has interrupted an important mission to accomplish his goal. The Marquise’s father cannot understand the Count’s urgent wish to marry his daughter, but the more the Commandant prevaricates, the weirder the Count becomes.
All agreed that his behaviour was utterly strange and that he appeared to be used to capturing women’s hearts, like fortresses by assault.
The Count won’t go away and the Marquise finally agrees to not marry another until he returns from Naples. The Count is torn between hopeful and disappointed as he tells the Marquise’s family he wanted to marry her immediately. What’s the rush?
Well it soon becomes clear what the rush is. The Count FINALLY leaves, and the Marquise begins to feel ill. She’s stunned to learn she’s pregnant but her father is horrified; she claims she did not have sexual intercourse with anyone, but he doesn’t believe her, and throws her from the house. It’s this that drives the Marquise to publicly advertise for the father of her child to show himself. It’s a desperate move designed to show her parents that she is innocent.
It’s a great little story that was made into a great film by one of my favourite directors Eric Rohmer. For this reread, I was struck by the fairytale aspects of the story (rape aside). Here we have mortal enemies shooting each other one minute and sitting down for tea together the next. Of course it’s a class thing. 5 men were executed for attempted rape, and the noble is forgiven. He’s a dashing hero, a persistent suitor but if you peel away the glamour, his actions were despicable even if they are covered with a patina of courteous gallantry.
translated by Nicholas Jacobs