Tag Archives: courtship

The Seducer: Frank Wedekind

After reading Frank Wedekind’s short story, The Seducer, I looked up the meaning of the word ‘seduce.’ “A person who entices another into sexual activity. A person who entices another to do or believe something inadvisable or foolhardy.” Initially I was not sure that either definition quite fits Wedekind’s story, but perhaps it’s a matter of who is being seduced. … The story, set in the 19th century, begins like this:

“It is entirely easy to win the favor of every girl, without exception. But it isn’t always easy. The important thing is to set about it in the right way.”

The rest of the gentlemen of the circle of close friends listened in eager anticipation.

So we have several men gathered while one explains how to win “the favor” of a woman. Thanks to the title, naturally, I decided that the narrator is talking about sexual favors. The narrator goes on to explain how he visited his Aunt Matilda and there met Melanie who has just returned from Brussels. The narrator is clearly sexually attracted to Melanie and that notes that “her hips and most of all the shape of her corset struck me for their magnificent curves.” But while the narrator is impressed by Melanie, the feeling isn’t mutual.

She cast sharp glances at me that made me feel as if I were being peppered with small-caliber shot.

Later the narrator and Melanie go for a walk in the garden. It’s dark and there’s a little bit of seduction going on with Melanie as she “leaned her upper body” over her male companion. The narrator leaves only to return a few days later. At this meeting, with the aunt conveniently asleep, the narrator and Melanie are in the house with Melanie sprawling all over the chaise longue, and she’s so hot, she has to undo the two top clasps of her thin dress so she can “breathe better.” The narrator feels no small frustration during his talk with Melanie as he is only given “a wordless, superior smile.”

The courtship, for that is what it is, continues with the narrator almost driven crazy by Melanie’s behavior. On one hand she’s cold and yet during each of their meetings there are rather unsubtle sexual maneuvers from Melanie. This short story only runs to a few pages, so I won’t go into it any further. For this reader, the story is, given the narrator is lecturing men on the subject of how to win an uninterested woman, ironic. There’s a seducer in this story alright–it’s just not the narrator.

Original title: Der Verfüher.

Translator:Juan LePuen

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The Claverings by Anthony Trollope

It was time for another Anthony Trollope, and while I can’t explain why I decided to read The Claverings, this selection, as it turns out, is a good companion novel for the recently read Can You Forgive Her? While Can You Forgive Her? concerns a woman who vacillates back and forth between two suitors, The Claverings is the tale of a young man who can’t choose between two women.

The novel begins by landing us into the action as the very beautiful Julia Brabazon drops, finally, forever and rather cruelly, the love of her youth, Harry Clavering in favour of an advantageous match with the very wealthy and much older, “debauched” Lord Ongar, a repulsive man who wears an “elaborately dressed jet black wig.” Harry accuses Julia of being a “jilt,” and while she doesn’t deny that, she attempts to mollify Harry’s accusations with arguments of practicality. Trollope gives us some wonderful numbers to play with here (I’ve been obsessed with the cost of living in the 19th century since reading George Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street). We learn that Julia has 200 pounds a year to live on but owes 600. Lord Ongar lives on “perhaps” 60,000 a year. Harry Clavering’s father, Reverend Clavering earns 800 pounds a year, but that income is “nearly doubled” by his wife’s fortune.  On that income and with a curate to do most of his work, Reverend Clavering hinges on Country Gentleman status. In fact, he used to be a “hunting parson” until Bishop Proudie “lectured” him about the appropriateness of the activity. Now Reverend Clavering reads poetry and novels to the exclusion of everything else. 

Harry doesn’t want a career in the church despite his father’s encouragement and obvious easy lifestyle. Instead he plans to make his own way in the world and after Julia dumps him, Harry goes to Stratton to become an apprentice civil engineer living at the home of the Burtons. There he falls in love with the last daughter of the house (all the other daughters have also married previous apprentices), Miss Florence Burton. Now Florence isn’t as majestically beautiful as Julia, but she is the better person. Harry has the niggling feeling that somehow he’s been hooked by the Burton family into falling in love with their daughter. Of course, part of this feeling can be explained by the fact that Harry has simply followed in the footsteps of all the previous apprentices who lived at the Burton home. This repeated pattern of behaviour suggests that Harry isn’t particularly unique, and then again, the Burtons are a step down in the social stratosphere.

Harry, eager to wed, presses for an early marriage, and Florence opposes him on this issue. She argues that they should wait until Harry’s career is well established as she thinks that Harry would not cope well with poverty. The issue of money again rears its head–Florence will have a 100 pounds a year from her father, and Harry will earn 150 pounds annually in his new profession. He thinks this is plenty to live on, but Florence disagrees. The subject of sex also lurks under the surface of this pressure, and the disagreement over the issue of whether they should wait to marry quickly or delay the wedding day leads to the first rift between the engaged couple. Also around this time, the now widowed Julia Ongar returns to England under a cloud of scandal….

Harry Clavering, engaged to Florence Burton, finds himself championing Lady Julia Ongar, and he becomes a frequent visitor to her London home. Confused and bewitched, he no longer understands his own heart. Harry isn’t much of a hero as he’s young, plastic and weak.

Since the title of the novel is The Claverings, naturally the plot concerns other family members apart from Harry. Harry has two sisters, Mary and Fanny. While Mary marries Reverend Fielding, an appropriate match, in a minor aside Fanny is courted with persistence by the very serious and impoverished curate Mr. Saul–a man who earns a mere 70 pounds a year. Of course all these doings focus on the parsonage, but there’s another branch of the family at the ‘great house’ — Now to look at the family tree: Reverend Henry Clavering is the uncle of  Sir Hugh Clavering of Clavering Park. Baronet Sir Hugh is married to Hermione née Brabazon, the older sister of Julia Brabazon, and we learn that they live on 7,000-8,000 a year. In spite of the close relationship between the families at the parsonage and at Clavering Park, there’s no love lost between the two sets of relations. Henry Clavering considers it his duty to remain on good terms with those who live at Clavering Park but he really can’t stand Sir Hugh. One scene in the novel includes an uncomfortable evening at Clavering with a very unpleasant Sir Hugh who acts rudely and does not bother to hide his boredom.

In this novel, Trollope addresses the restrictions placed on the decisions women face. Underneath all the talk of love and marriage lurks the idea of the lack of choices for women. Early in the novel, Julia tells Harry:

If you could only know how infinitely I should prefer your lot to mine! Oh, Harry, I envy you! I do envy you! You have got the ball at your feet, and the world before you, and can win everything for yourself.

and

You can choose, as I say; but I have had no choice,- no choice but to be married well, or to go out like a snuff of a candle. I don’t like the snuff of a candle, and therefore, I am going to be married well.  

While men may choose their careers, for women, their careers are marriage, and Trollope boldly addresses this reality. He tells us that Julia, who chooses to become a Countess was “mercenary” but adds, with generosity:

Were not all men and women mercenary upon whom devolved the necessity of earning their bread?

Of course we see where these ambitious marriages lead. Julia’s sister Hermione loves her husband, mean-spirited Hugh Clavering rather as an abused dog loves its human. Hermione is so desperate for love and attention that she opens herself up to scorn and derision from her heartless, mean-spirited spouse. Julia lives to regret her marriage and realises that she sold herself for worldly gain and made a very bad bargain in the process.

Bad characters always seem to be a great deal more fun to read about than good characters, and that is certainly true in The Claverings. Sir Hugh is a curious character–not a monster by any means, but there are important emotional components missing. He treats his wife appallingly, but then he’s not much better with anyone else in his circle. He barely tolerates his brother, Archie, loathes his uncle, and seems to dislike society on principle.

The Claverings is called One of the “three faultless” Trollope novels, but I’m not sure why that is. While I enjoyed the novel immensely (it is, after all, Trollope), I was never entirely convinced of Julia’s feelings for Harry Clavering. However, that niggling argument aside, some of the novel’s second tier characters are unforgettable. When Julia returns from Florence, she brings along the sneaky, opportunistic “Franco-Pole” Sophie Gordeloup, who may or may not be a Russian spy. Madame Gordeloup’s brother, Count Pateroff, one of Lord Ongar’s friends, is in hot pursuit of Julia as he regards her as his prize. Count Pateroff and his peculiar sister seem to be beings from another planet, and they are treated as such by the other characters in the novel who are at a loss to know quite how to deal with this pair. At one point Julia tells Harry to seek out the Count, and in spite of knowing the Count’s address, Harry can’t track his quarry down for weeks. When they finally meet for dinner, the topic of conversation (the digestion and the refusal to discuss the consumption of horsemeat in a “besieged city,“) is steered firmly by the worldly, savvy Count much to Harry’s frustration.

While the Count sees the widowed Julia as his rightful property, that sort of fortune floating around gets attention, and Sir Hugh Clavering, who has no time for his sister-in-law Julia since scandal attached to her name, decides that she’s the perfect match for his brother, Archie. Archie consults his friend Captain Boodle on the matter of exactly how to lay siege to the beautiful wealthy widow, and the scenes between Archie and Boodle are hilarious. Boodle, incidentally is mentioned in a minor aside in the Vicar of Bullhampton. While Boodle’s extremely funny strategy for laying siege to the wealthy widow includes the advice to treat her like a horse, this section of the novel really takes off when Sophie Gordeloup becomes involved in the intrigue. Throughout the novel, Sophie behaves appallingly, and yet no one seems to know quite how to stop her. She’s rude, pushy, grasping, and duplicitous–in essence, she’s in a class of her own. Archie thinks she’s insane while Captain Boodle can’t help but admire her.

Sophie certainly makes short work of all the men who sniff around the widow. Here she is in a scene at Julia Ongar’s home after getting rid of Captain Archie Clavering:

“He was come for one admirer,” said Sophie, as soon as the door was closed.

“An admirer of whom?”

“Not of me; oh no; I was not in danger at all.”

“Of me? Captain Clavering! Sophie, you get your head full of the strangest nonsense.”

“Ah; very well. You see. What will you give me if I am right? Will you bet? Why had he got on his new gloves, and had his head all smelling with stuff from de hairdresser? Does he come always perfumed like that? Does he wear shiny little boots to walk about in de morning, and make an eye always? Perhaps yes.”

“I never saw his boots or his eyes.”

“But I see them. I see many things. He come to have Ongere Park for his own. I tell you, yes. Ten thousand will come to have Ongere Park. Why not? To have Ongere Park and all de money a man will make himself smell a great deal.”

“You think much more about all that than is necessary.”

“Do I , my dear? Very well. There are three already. There is Edouard [Count Pateroff], and there is this Clavering who goes with his nose in the air, and who thinks himself a clever fellow because he learned his lesson at school and did not get himself whipped. He will be whipped yet some day,-perhaps.”

It’s through this scene that we see that the secret to the limited success of the Count and his sister Sophie Gordeloup, two people who expect to make their fortunes in England is to be found in the fact that they bend the boundaries of polite behaviour. Julia is clearly sending a message to Sophie that she considers it impolite to discuss the subject, but Sophie simply doesn’t care.

Anyway, another wonderful Trollope novel. A word on my copy. I read the Dover issue with original illustrations and a foreword by Normal Donaldson. The Claverings was originally published in serial form in 16 parts in The Cornhill Magazine 1866-1867.

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The Vatard Sisters by J.-K. Huysmans

What a stroke of luck to come across another Huysmans novel. The Vatard Sisters is the second novel from Huysmans, and while it’s a great read, it’s also an interesting marker of this remarkable writer’s career.  Huysmans is best known for the novel, Against Naturea quintessential book of the Decadent period. Huysmans’ first novel, Martha places the author closer to Naturalism, and he’s still in the Naturalism phase with Les Soeurs Vatard (The Vatard Sisters), so it’s no surprise that the book comes with a dedication to Emile Zola from “his fervent admirer and devoted friend.” Huysmans is not yet at the height of his talent, and while The Vatard Sisters lacks the social power and observation of Zola’s  L’Assommoir, Zola’s influence in this marvellous novel is apparent.  Huysmans was initially attracted to the novels of Flaubert and the Goncourt brothers, but in 1875, Huysmans bought the early volumes of the Rougon-Macquart cycle and became a dedicated reader and defender of Zola.

The Vatard Sisters (1879) is a fairly simple story wrapped about the love affairs of two Parisian working-class sisters, Céline and Désirée Vatard. Céline, blonde, bold and vigorously healthy is very different from her dark, quiet, “rougishly attractive,” younger sister Désirée.

Désirée, an urchin of fiteen, a brunette with large, pale eyes that were somewhat crossed, plump without being fat, attractive and clean; and Céline, the carouser, a big girl with clear eyes and hair the colour of straw, a solid vigorous girl whose blood raced and danced in her veins, a great minx who had run after men ever since the first onset of puberty.

It’s the 1870s and the sisters work long, tedious hours as bookbinders. Huysmans brings the Débonnaire company to life with vivid, lively descriptions of the social interactions between the workers:

They all detested each one another and they all, men and women alike, understood one another like thieves at a fair when it came to deceiving the supervisors, but outside the shop, they scarcely ever got together except to exchange blows or scratches. Once the morning work began the sight of a late arrival barely able to drag herself to her place or still wearing heavy, black eyeshadow was cause for great hilarity, with everyone leaping about in rowdy abandon. If the owner, exasperated at seeing some great devil of a guy as drunk as a polack, bouncing from one pile to another, paid him off and fired him, that did not prevent the woman this drunk honoured with his caresses and blows from getting up and leaving, dragging with her the whole group that took her side. This always provoked some booing from the other workers, punctuated by a scattering of doleful remarks from the older, more worldly-wise women who complained “Isn’t she stupid to follow a man who beats her! I would get rid of him!” Ironically, the same older woman would arrive the next day with a black eye or with marks on their faces and then energetically defend their own man when the others called him a thief and coward! Gossip was a way of life in the workshop. So and so was running around like a bitch in heat after a man who did not care at all about her. She whined all day long at her work and ended up tearing out the hair of the other woman who was dishonest enough to have stolen away her lover and tease enough to have put it up to her face. With all these little disputes embittered by stupidity, with all this hatred enflamed by contact with the male population, it was a miracle that ten or twelve of the same women remained at the end of several days. The Débonnaire sieve was not stoppered, like a stream of dirty water all its personnel of men and women rolled in waves to gush out through the hole of its doors into the street.

Huysmans gives us some delicious glimpses into Parisian working class life–both at work and at play. In one scene the company owner is plagued  by a bill collector who’s owed money by an employee, and in another, a debt collector comes around with an account book in which he records payments for amounts owed by the workers.

The women worked just enough to allow them to stuff themselves with fried potatoes and buy cheap jewelry. The men worked simply because it allowed them to put away great quantities of white wine in the morning and spend their afternoons lapping up liters of cheap red wine.

Reminiscent, of course, of L’Assommoir, but Huysmans’ picture of working-class life as seen through the lives of the Vatard sisters isn’t as bleak as the life of Zola’s Gervaise. While the married women at the Débonnaire company complain about the drunkards they have for husbands and sport black eyes and bruises to prove it, Désirée and Céline are still unmarried. Marriage may seem to be inevitable, but neither sister is in a hurry to wed. Who can blame them? Not only are they surrounded at work by squabbling spouses, but the Vatard home life isn’t exactly perfect. Madame Vatard is an invalid who spends her days in a paralytic state “like a lump,” and that places the burden of the household onto the sisters. Vatard accepts that Céline is the flightier and more promiscuous of his two daughters and conveniently concludes that “if she wanted to live like a slut, he would rather have her cheerful and not nasty and mean like all those girls embittered by celibacy.” On the other hand, he encourages his favourite daughter, Désirée, who considers herself “a real lady” to remain celibate and set high expectations when contemplating a future husband. Incidentally, Vatard has a vested interest in keeping Désirée at home at night in order to help with household chores. Céline warns Désirée that she’s too picky, and she’ll “end up badly.” Désirée has learned much from Céline’s example, and she’s seen how Céline, quick to offer sex to lovers, has been quickly abused and abandoned by them. Consequently, Désirée is “guarding the flower of her maidenhood, very determined not to lose it except for good cause.” 

 When the novel begins, Céline’s latest lover in a series of disappointing men is a rather sly, opportunistic character named Anatole–a man who holds great appeal for most women. Céline has the habit of dragging fifteen-year-old Désirée out in the evening in order to make up a foursome with Anatole’s friend, Colombel, but he fails to capture Désirée’s attention. Unlike Céline, Désirée has no intention of having sex until she’s married, and she dreams of a bourgeois paradise complete with the sort of bric-a-brac she’s spied in shop windows:

She wanted a husband who did not have spots on his shirt, who washed his feet at least once a week, a man who did not drink and would permit her at last to realize her dream: to have a bedroom with flowered wallpaper, a walnut bed and table, white curtains on the windows, a pincushion made of shells, a cup with her initials in gold on the dresser, and a nice picture hanging on the wall, perhaps a print of a little cupid knocking on a door.  

Into Désirée’s life enters Auguste, a former soldier who takes a lowly, poor paying job at the Débonnaire company. He catches Désirée’s eye, and in turn, she has a definite appeal for him. As for Céline, she tires of Anatole and after listening to another girl bragging about her wealthy lover, she decides to catch a rich, older lover–someone who will buy her presents and new clothes. Céline enters the life of artist Cyprien. And it’s with this character we see a glimpse of Against Nature.

In fact, he was really quite debauched. His taste ran the gamut of all the nuances of vice, provided they were subtle and complex. He had been fortunate enough to have made love to third-rate actresses as well as to the dregs. Frail and excessively nervous, haunted by those unheard ardors that rise from exhausted organs, he had reached the point of no longer dreaming of anything other than sexual fantasies spiced with perverse faces and baroque trappings. Where art was concerned, he understood only the modern. Caring little about the vast-off clothing of old periods, he asserted that a painter ought to render only that which he was able to visit and see. Now since prostitutes made up the bulk of his acquaintances, they were the sole subjects of his paintings.

The Vatard Sisters takes a generous look at the foibles of  human nature and is a delight to read with its scenes of noisy cafe life, the Absinthe Hour, tawdry fairgrounds and shabby music halls.  Céline and  Désirée are on the brink of their lives, poised on the edge of making decisions regarding marriage and children, and they make different choices. Through the lives of these two women, Huysmans examines the development and decline of relationships, the roles of love and sex, the confusion between the two, and adds frank mention of sexual frustration and masturbation.  For this reader, the novel’s reaches its apex with Cyprien poignantly reminiscing in bed alone at night–and through this passage, Huysmans allows us to forgive this character who has had a sort of comeuppance.

Overwhelmed by the memory of all those broken liaisons, stirred by all these faces passing before his eyes with their bedroom smiles and the spit they had thrown in his face upon leaving him, he extinguished his lamp.

Translated by James C. Babcock

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A Game of Love and Chance by Marivaux

“Have you ever seen counterfeit money? Do you know what a dud coin is? Well, I am rather like that.”

A Game of Love and Chance is the third book from Emma in our virtual gift exchange. I was surprised at the choice of a play, but also more than happy to read it. I was lucky enough to see a superb production of The Triumph of Love a few years ago, so reading another play by Marivaux brought back some good memories. I now have a collection of several Marivaux plays: The Double Inconstancy, The False Servant, The Game of Love and Chance, Careless Vows, The Feigned Inconstancy and five one-act pieces. My edition is from Methuen World Classics, and it has the peculiar feature of including the cast members, so for A Game of Love and Chance, my copy states that this translation, from John Walters was commissioned by the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, and was first performed on Feb. 20, 1986. Then comes the cast list of actors for this particular production.

The plot of A Game of Love and Chance is as follows:

Monsier Orgon wants his daughter, Silvia to marry Dorante, the son of an acquaintance.This is, rather importantly, an arranged marriage–but an arranged marriage with conditions. Orgon wants Silvia to meet Dorante and see if he pleases her. Silvia, however, has recently had a rather unpleasant experience of seeing a wife in tears and she realises that a man can show one face to the world while his wife sees the ‘real’ side. She gives her servant, Lisette, an example:

And then there’s Leander. People are happy with him when they see him, are they not? Well, let me tell you, at home he is a man who says not a word, neither laughs nor scolds–a frozen, solitary, unapproachable soul. His wife does not know him, she has no dealings with his mind. She is married only to a shape who emerges from an inner room to come to table, and withers all around him with a chilling apathy and torpor. Now there’s an entertaining husband for you! 

So Sylvia devises a plan. She decides to pose as her servant Lisette as she wants to be able to gauge Dorante’s true character. Is there a better way to see the ‘real’ person than to pose as (or to really be) a perceived social inferior?  

There’s a catch. Dorante has decided to do the same thing, so he switches places with his valet Harlequin. Subsequently, Harlequin courts Lisette (thinking that she’s the wealthy Silvia), and Dorante falls in love with Silvia (thinking she’s the lowly maidservant). Of course this is all very clever as then we see that Dorante’s motivated not by venal concerns but by love–whereas Harlequin thinks he’s going to land a rich wife and change his fortunes. The best part has to be that the audience is on the joke–along with Sylvia’s father, Orgon.

The dialogue is fast-paced and very witty. Here’s Harlequin and Lisette:

Lisette: I find it hard to believe that it hurts you so much to wait, Monsieur. You are only pretending impatience out of gallantry. You have barely arrived here, your love cannot be very strong. At the most, it can only be in its infancy.

Harlequin: You are mistaken, oh wonder of our age! A love such as ours does not stay long in the cradle. My love was born at your first glance, your second gave him strength, and the third made him a big boy. Let us try to marry him off as soon as possible. Look after him, since you are his mother.

Lisette: Do you find him mistreated then? Is he so forsaken?

Harlequin: Until he is fixed up, just give him your lovely white hand to keep him amused.

Is it just my dirty mind, or is there a sexual connotation there?

I didn’t care for some of the updated language. Perhaps it worked better on the stage. Here’s the arrival of Harlequin posing as Dorante:

Harlequin: A servant out there told me to come in here. He said my pa-in-law and my missus would be informed.

Silvia: you mean Monsieur Orgon and his daughter, I suppose, Sir?

Harlequin: Well, yes, my pa-in-law and my missus, as good as. I’ve come to wed, and they’re waiting for me so they can get married. It’s all agreed. we’ve only to go through with the ceremony, and that’s a mere trifle.

In the French version, Harlequin uses the term beau père instead.

One of things that struck me as I read the play is how much it reminded me of Shakespeare for its idea of the mixed up couples, but the informative intro to my copy states that Marivaux plays  “have an average of six main roles, with a minimum of five and a maximum of ten.” Just guessing here, but the Shakepeare plays seem to have a higher average number of characters. Another thing that was apparent in the play is of course the innate snobbery that the upper class couple Dorante and Silvia are capable of a higher sort of love while Harlequin and Lisette’s relationship is much more earthy. The laughs seem to be generated by Harlequin and Lisette rather than their upper class counterparts, so is Marivaux also saying that the servants enjoy life more?

Thanks Emma. I enjoyed this and since I have a free French version on the kindle, I’ll try reading it in French–although I think the translation I have includes some creative liberties.

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A Slight Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée

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

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Filed under Fiction, Mérimée Prosper

The Trumpet-Major by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy’s novel, The Trumpet-Major, published in 1880, is a great favourite. It’s certainly not one of his masterpiece tragedies (Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure), but neither is the book as light as his rural humorous romance Under The Greenwood Tree. The Trumpet-Major is a curious novel for the manner in which Hardy slips the lives of his characters into historic events–he includes the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson, and the ship the Victory in this story. This puts a date on the action, but for the rest of the novel, we are on fairly familiar ground as Hardy explores that ever fertile yet oddly complicated territory surrounding the choices and motivations of women. Hardy sets the romance and courtship of a young Wessex woman against the upheaval and uncertainty of impending war.

The woman under scrutiny here is Anne Garland, the only daughter of an impoverished widow. Anne’s father was a respected, local artist, but his death led to a downturn in circumstances, and mother and daughter now occupy one half of Overcombe Millhouse with the miller occupying the other side. While there’s a partition constructed to separate the two dwellings, there are also invisible class divisions between the two households. This creates some awkwardness. After all, materially the miller is better off than the widowed Mrs Garland, but she is, socially speaking, considered more “genteel” than the man she pays rent to. The Miller Loveday handles the awkward situation delicately. He brings his tenants a few items now and again and his employee does the gardening for both households.

Miller Loveday has designs on the Widow Garland. Everyone seems to know this–although it’s not openly discussed, but while romance is in the air, the heroine of the tale is young Anne Garland. Anne is not one of Hardy’s magnificent heroines (Tess, Bathsheba, or even Eustacia). In The Trumpet-Major, Anne, like Far From the Madding Crowd‘s Bathsheba must choose between three suitors. Unlike Bathsheba,  Anne is not a particularly flawed woman, and she’s not the sort who will drive men to madness. In many ways, Anne is reminiscent of an Austen heroine.

Anne’s three suitors are: Festus Derriman–a bombastic, sexually aggressive man, “red-haired and of florid complexion,” who is expected to inherit his uncle’s estate, and the two sons of Miller Loveday, sailor Bob, and trumpet-major John. For material and social reasons, Festus is Anne’s mother’s choice, and for most of the novel, and sometimes with great comic results, Festus pursues Anne at every opportunity, and repeatedly tries to corner her when she’s alone in a no-holds barred fashion that even raises the threat of rape:

Some of the guests then spoke of Fess Derriman as not such a bad young man if you took him right and humoured him; others said that he was nobody’s enemy but his own; and the elder ladies mentioned in a tone of interest that he was likely to come into a deal of money at his uncle’s death. The person who did not praise was the one who knew him the best, who had known him as a boy years ago, when he lived nearer to Overcombe than he did at present. This unappreciative person was the trumpet-major.

The main dilemma, then, occurs between Bob and John Loveday, and concerns exactly who Anne will choose. Anne has had a long-standing affection for Bob, but Bob is thoughtless, fickle and shallow. John Loveday, however, the trumpet-major of the title, is the opposite of his brother. He’s reliable, quiet, thoughtful, and deeply in love with Anne.

The novel begins with the sudden arrival in the countryside of a great army. The villagers expect an imminent French invasion (Hardy’s grandmother told tales of the “invasion scare“), and the bivouacking of soldiers close to the miller’s home only endorses these rumours. As the soldiers make camp, an air of excitement reigns:

Though nobody seemed to be looking on but the few at the window and in the village street, there were, as a matter of fact, many eyes converging on that military arrival in its high and conspicuous position, not to mention the glances of birds and other wild creatures. Men in distant gardens, women in orchards and at cottage-doors, shepherds on remote hills, turnip-hoers in blue-green enclosures miles away, captains with spy-glasses out at sea, were regarding the picture keenly. Those three or four thousand men of one machine-like movement, some of them swashbucklers by nature; others, doubtless, of a quiet shop-keeping position who had inadvertently got into uniform–all of them had arrived from nobody knew where, and hence were a matter of great curiosity. They seemed to the mere eye to belong to a different order of beings from those who inhabited the valleys below.

 Bonaparte and the French army are expected to invade any day, so the locals are in a continuous fever pitch which is occasionally ignited by rumors that the French, ready to pillage, have actually landed. Hardy uses this with comic results that are reminiscent of the thrills anticipated by the spinsters of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford.

Hardy moves his lovers around like chess pieces as various situations take place just before and after The Battle of Trafalgar Square. Many of the complications which arise are due to both Bob and John stepping out-of-the-way for his sibling, and other complications arise from misunderstandings. Hardy seems entranced with Anne’s choice–a choice which really defies any logic, and instead must be chalked up to the mysteries of the heart. While it’s easy to dismiss this as one of Hardy’s lesser novels, The Trumpet-Major is more complex than it first appears. This bittersweet story may seem lighthearted in comparison to other Hardy masterpieces, but the story is laced with the tragedies that will occur off the page and after the book’s conclusion. While the characters live and mingle in fairly happy even amusing circumstances, Hardy peppers the tale with hints of the fate that awaits some of the military men. This future darkness runs throughout the story:

It was just the time of year when cherries are ripe, and hang in clusters under their dark leaves. While the troopers loitered on their horses, and chatted to the miller across the stream, he gathered bunches of the fruit, and held them up over the garden hedge for the acceptance of anybody who would have them; whereupon the soldiers rode into the water to where it had washed holes in the garden bank, and, reining their horses there, caught the cherries in their forage caps, or received bunches of them on the ends of their switches, with the dignified laugh that became martial men when stooping to slightly boyish amusement. It was a cheerful, careless, unpremeditated half-hour, which returned like the scent of a flower to the memories of some of those who enjoyed it, even at a distance of many years after, when they lay wounded and weak in foreign lands.

The comic scenes of the drunken flirtatious, egotistical Festus Derriman are set in wonderful juxtaposition to the seriousness of the events beyond Wessex. The ugliness of the Press Gang is one clear incidence of the outside world’s invasion into the Wessex countryside, and yet not every man has to be press-ganged into servitude. Many enlist of their own free will, drawn by the perceived thrill of battle, promise of ‘adventure,’  and the ignominy of staying at home while war is waged by others on foreign shores. There’s the sense that while the Napoleonic Wars unsettle the green, rich fields of Wessex, things may never quite return to the innocence of the summer of that pre-war period.

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Filed under Fiction, Hardy, Thomas