This collection of family letters—found, we are told, in various château-attics—constitutes a family portrait that may be representative, though one hesitates to think so, of an entire social class and period. The exchange of letters covers ten years—1892 to 1902—and considerable territory, from Normandy across to Burgundy and down to the Alpes-Maritimes and the Hérault, but has a single, compelling center of interest, Marthe de Montbourg, the pathological “case” who is causing so much ink to flow among her relations.
She is twenty, unmarried, and pregnant when the letters start; it is not clear what obscure male is responsible, only that he is “beneath” her—a pattern we will see repeated. The little particule de noblesse, the significant “de” in her name, makes her delinquency especially painful to her sister, mother, uncle, aunts, godfather, cousins; it means that certain solutions cannot be considered and that all solutions will be expensive. The family’s position rules out marriage to the father, and religion—the inevitable Catholicism transmitted in the blood—rules out abortion.
She can be married off to a station-master, a druggist, a postal clerk (the money-order window), a tax collector (among the prospects examined are two of these), providing he does not drink, gamble, neglect his religious duties, or lean to the left politically. But he cannot have parents in the retail wine business (wholesale might pass) or a baker for a brother-in-law. Given the handsome bribe of her dowry, she can even be married into her own class but with the great disadvantage that her in-laws will be certain to throw her past up to her. A grateful commoner (on Ben Franklin’s principle of choosing an old and ugly wife) will be better, above all if the young couple sets up house far from any member of the family—Marthe’s godfather’s strong recommendation.
But whatever solution is elected, after consultation with the clergy, advertisements in the “Matrimonial” column of Le Chasseur français, advice sought from a somnambule (a paramedical practitioner who works with the subject’s hair-combings and flannel undergarments), it is going to cost money. Not just the expenses of a discreet lying-in with the nuns at a St. Raphaël shelter, nor the price paid to a foster-mother for silence and anonymity, no, there is worse: even if the husband’s agreement to recognize the illegitimate child as his own is stipulated in the marriage contract, there will be a strong likelihood of blackmail from him afterward.
Marthe’s widowed mother, the Baroness of Montbourg (born de Cerilley), has included that among her fearful fancies and she has been right. Even though the parti settled on is not the hard-featured tax collector but a debt-riddled aristocrat belonging to the same petite noblesse as the Montbourg and Cerilley clans, he is not above blackmail; nor are his mother (“Mamma d’Aillot” to Marthe now) and old-maid sisters. “Sangsues,” bloodsuckers, is the word Mamma de Montbourg usually finds for the lot of them. And to the American reader this is the surprise of Marthe. The petite noblesse behaves like our notion of the petite bourgeoisie—the class of shopkeepers. It is mercenary, grasping, petty, penny-pinching, mean. No code of honor restrains these ultras, with the qualified exception of Charles de Cerilley, Marthe’s maternal uncle, who, though far from a chivalrous figure, does have some notion of fairness in dealing with people he disapproves of. This fairness of his, in fact, while never immoderate, leads his sister and niece, as the correspondence develops, to look upon him, each for her own reasons, as an enemy.
The English squires, the Anglo-Irish gentry, the American patriciate were never like this, or rarely. It may have something to do with the almost inbred eccentricity of the English squire class, passed on to the Americans and the Anglo-Irish. In comparison, the French provincial gentry as shown in these letters are all alike, seeing narrowly eye to eye except where some crass personal interest may impose a divergent view. There is not a trace of largeness, no capacity for surprising. Their main occupation seems to be the gathering of intelligence, i.e., spying, through a farflung network of agents—above all, priests filing exhaustive reports: “Mr. Robert d’Aillot has two cows and three mares on his property at Mougins.” Or, approvingly, “Mr. Robert d’Aillot is deeply conservative.” Servants, too, are practiced in this type of police work: “Mme. Clément [the housekeeper] assures me that he’s after her night and day.” All this no doubt accounts for the prevailing climate of suspicion, mounting readily to paranoia. From the very first letter, Mme. de Montbourg talks wildly to her brother of emigrating to America, which is half a dream and half an ultimate threat.
In short, these people have no souls, despite the cloud of ecclesiastics surrounding them. This last points to another common trait among them that is not found in the English aristocracy: religious bigotry, here identical with political bigotry. The French Revolution, of a hundred years back, remains a fixed point of reference. For instance, when the baroness wants to describe the childish terrorism practiced on Marthe by her husband (he tries to persuade her that anything white she sees is a ghost), she is moved to compare it with the “homicidal” treatment a hundred years back of the little Dauphin, Louis XVII, in the Temple by the cobbler Simon, his keeper; the same methods, she prophesies, will be used on her poor little bastard grandson when “they” get their hands on him. Earlier, during the husband-hunt, Mme. de Montbourg’s devoted spy, investigating the tax collector from Condé-sur-Ifs, reports that his parents have a wineshop in Levallois-Perret (just outside Paris) with “Aux grandes caves de Danton” on the sign. “It’s the name of the street,” the baroness tells her brother, “but it can also be the name of their party hero.” In other words, she has virtual ocular proof that there is socialism in that family.
Piety and avarice combine in these morose natures. Occasionally they are at cross-purposes, as when Mme. de Montbourg confronts a dilemma in ordering Masses said for her beloved only son on the first anniversary of his death. In Normandy (where she is putting the château up for sale anyway in the hope of fleeing the scandal), she would have to send out engraved announcements, engage a whole raft of priests, distribute bread to the poor, etc. Moreover, Masses would call attention to the family. Instead, why can’t she have a service said at the orphan asylum doubling as a home for unwed mothers where Marthe will be lying in? Rather than bread to the poor, she can distribute clothes to the orphans, killing two birds with one stone. Having decided that, for All Souls Day she orders a wreath which her brother can lay on her son’s tomb in Burgundy and specifies that it be made entirely of beads rather than of natural materials, because beads last longer.
No seigniorial largesse; economy is the watchword, as in the petty bourgeoisie. “Try to get it cheap,” she enjoins a family connection who, she hopes, will be able to get “de Beauvoisin”—from the name of his village in Dauphiné—legally attached to the young station-master’s surname. She and her brother keep sending each other all sorts of produce—bags of potatoes, butter, grapes, bulbs, flower-cuttings—and always by petite vitesse (slow freight), so that one wonders about the butter, at least. “Return the bags,” each tirelessly reminds the other. Hampers also travel slow freight from mother to daughter, carrying blue flannelette from the Printemps department store, laxatives, dog biscuits.
Marthe asks her mother to send her her gray bedroom slippers, a bad-breath remedy (charcoal tablets), her father’s steamer rug. On her own initiative, she sends her mother a new product, very economical, that will replace butter and lard in cooking—evidently a sort of margarine. And it is Marthe, the rebel of the family, who counsels her ailing mother to rub herself with oil that has been burned before the statue of St. Anne and to get another relative to send a flask of oil from the lamp that perpetually burns before the miraculous statue of Our Lord in Brussels. This ignorant credulity accords oddly with the pessary that her new Catholic family wants to equip her with and that her mother vehemently opposes. That Marthe, as we have guessed almost from the beginning, is sexually insatiable does not make her a free spirit, despite the tendency to bill her as an early women’s lib heroine exhibited in some of the French reviews of the book. In fact it is not easy to place her on a map of the politics of sex. That she had a weakness for bus drivers, valets, peasants in the fields only means that she was predatory, like young men of her class then and now.
Currently she would doubtless be called a nymphomaniac; in her own day the term seems to have been hysteria, from the Greek word for womb, used specifically here (sometimes chastely abbreviated to “hist…”) for Marthe’s complaint. Far from making her a liberated woman, this clinical oddity was the source of her enslavement. Robert Caron d’Aillot could do almost anything with her as long as he kept her supplied with sex (almost like a drug habit) of his own manufacture. She let him pawn her wedding gifts, divert money her mother sent to his own use, wrote wills to suit him, sent abusive letters to her mother, threatened her, refused for long periods to enter her house, lied, lied, lied…. Depending on her mood or the effect she wanted to create, she lied when she said he beat her and when she said he didn’t.
The most awful aspect of her slavery to him was not physical or financial but mental: the propitiatory habit of baby talk. She called him her “Cat,” her “Tom Cat,” her “Big Rat”; she refers to herself in the third person as his “’tite femme” (little wifey). “Poor you,” she writes to her mother, “what would you do with me at the end of a week if you had me with you without my tom cat [matou]?” She could not have been more explicit. And she even applied this “little language,” redolent of married sex, to her poultry; she calls her ducks “quack-quacks” and talks of “mummy hens.” Her “Cat” has put the incubator in the dining room, so she can feed her mummy hens in the kitchen. She and “Big Rat” have no children (can childlessness be an excuse?—her own by-blow has been farmed out to a foster-mother); but whether that is because of the pessary, or inherited syphilis, probably picked up by her father from a dancer in Caen, or a retroverted uterus, never becomes clear. The strange fact is that she retains this awful baby talk in different circumstances, when, at the end of her short life, divorced from her wife-beater, she lives in what quite clearly seems a lesbian ménage with a servant-companion, who is her “hedgehog,” while her male cousin and contemporary is her “angora cat.” It does not come as a surprise that when her will is opened, not her relations but her familiars named for animals are found to be her heirs, the plebeian hedgehog getting the lion’s share.
Yet, except for her sexual dependency on lowborn or brutal people, Marthe is a true member of her caste, just as hard and grasping as any of them, perhaps a little more. In one of her last letters, she adjures her administrator-cousin not to be soft with a poor tenant of hers who is behind in his rent; she knows the type—the best thing to do will be to foreclose the mortgage before he can clear out, the way they do in Normandy. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: if she runs true to form (already worrying in May about wreaths for the tombs on All Souls Day), so does the whole breed, to the point that, as some French critics remarked, it seems almost too perfect. This is exactly how these people are, clones of themselves. The economy of the race, the ingrained habit of saving, explains, indeed, the mystery of the survival of all this paper, when so many of the letters comprising it have ended “Burn this!” Thrift, it would appear, got the better of prudence; one can never be sure that a damaging document may not some day come in handy. As Mme. de Montbourg wrote to her brother apropos his acquaintance with the brother of the bishop of Montpellier: “Be sure to keep his address, as we might well have need of him.”