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 …