If Bel-Ami was about upward mobility during the Second Empire, then Our Hearts is about the same epoch’s downward spiraling morality. You of course could argue that there is little of moral value in either novel; but there’s something incredibly depressing about the lazy sloth-like immorality of the leisure classes compared to the scrappy underdog of the lower classes fighting for a chance to survive.
George Duroy, was a scrappy fighter, not ashamed to step on the backs of the women a station above him, one at time until he gained, if not universal respect, universal notoriety. He had little, but like his fellow women of the night, he knew how to use what he had to his advantage. Those watching his successful social climbing from the sidelines would mutter to themselves “this man is sneaky and devious, he would take the last remaining crumbs out of the mouth of a baby if it meant he would survive, all while twirling his mustache and whispering subversive sweet nothings into the ears of unsuspecting victims.” Despite the knowledge of what Duroy was, there was still the desire to creep into the circle of light illuminated from his radiating climbing star; making his victims somewhat complicit in their own demise.
Our Hearts is a different world. Here our microscope brings into focus the ennui of the leisure classes; the exhaustion and boredom that comes from being alive with little to no responsibility for anything. Life is comprised of dressing for salons and gossiping, and the endless waiting between the two occupations. It is the era of pleasure, corrupted by excessive wealth and little ambition.
Our protagonist, Mariolle, is a bachelor without profession. Twenty-seven years old and rich enough to do as he pleases, he is another example of the superfluous man, like his literary counterparts Oblomov or Onegin.
“Andre Mariolle bore the reputation of a man possessing a fine mind but a whimsical, capricious nature: one who posed as a recluse more from pride and reserve that from timidity. With fine natural gifts, quick of apprehension and perhaps of accomplishment, he had through indolence contented himself with the role of an onlooker or perhaps, to speak more accurately, of an amateur.”
As the novel opens, Mariolle is being invited to the Salon of Mme. de Burne, a young widow, now rich and independent and renowned for her style and coquetry. She has a string of beaux, all of which after professing love and undying fealty now sit breathlessly in her salon, thankful to be merely in her presence. All this seems a bit humiliating and distasteful for our hero. He sees the men jumping over each other to be the closest to her radiating glory as demeaning and a little too predictable. While he is surprised by her beauty and intelligence, he promises to keep himself guarded, not willing to be yet another jilted lover.
Mme. de Burne is the penultimate example of feminism during the Second Empire. She is neither a spouse nor a mother, defying Rousseau’s theories on the appropriate role of a woman. As a widow she is free, she neither needs a man nor desires a “master.” Instead she lives comfortably under the respectable mantle of her late husband, who had trained her to “receive his guests with mute correctness, [as] an elegant, beautifully dressed slave.” Her sartorial choices now represent her own economic status rather than that of her husband’s, she is educated and independent, having sworn to never repeat the mistake of matrimony. After the dreamy and passionate women of the Restoration, the Second Empire has ushered in a new form of protean femininity; a woman created to charm and to excite but without needing consummation. They are no longer created for men, but for each other. Their dresses calculated to outdo each other and dazzle. They inhabit a world calculated to be irresistible through the artificial power of fascination rather than the natural power of charm.
As Mariolle walks into her salon for the first time it is as if a match as been tenderly presented to kindling:
“It was as if they had known each other’s opinions and sensations, as if the same nature,the same tendencies and tastes had predisposed them to understand each other and that destiny had ordained that they should meet.”
In a word: soulmates.
Despite this breathless meeting of souls, Mme. de Burne has no intention of falling in love. She cautions him with a look not to be a simpleton, not to expect more than has been given to his predecessors.
And while rationality wins the day for a moment, his capitulation is imminent. For three months he resisted her charms and calculated grace, but eventually he succumbs to her siren songs and joins his fellow lotus-eaters; a madman in love with a mirage.
“She was, above all, a coquette, and as soon as she had gained her freedom she set to work to hunt for and subdue those susceptible to her charms, just as a hunter goes out in search of game, for the mere pleasure of seeing it fall…she believed herself an almost unique being, a rare pearl existing in a mediocre world, a world that seemed to her empty and monotonous because she was too good for it. ”
In a similar way, Zola’s Nana was a huntress seeking to bring down big game, but while Mme. de Burne is satisfied with a mere crippling and emotional emasculation, Nana wasn’t satisfied until she had destroyed fortunes and ruined the reputations of the men in her entourage. Mme de Burne somehow remains respectable and her liaisons are carried out quietly and without intrigue.
Mariolle decides he will take it to the next level and write millions of letters, thus beginning the epistolary phase of their relationship. While in person they are civil and exchange banal pleasantries on paper they are ardent lovers. And for a while this satisfies both. Mariolle is finally good at something! He’s not superfluous! He can write letters for hours each one shakespearean in length and emotion, and eventually one synonym at a time he burrows himself a little further into her heart than any of his predecessors.
And then one day she plans a trip for him. She and her father are going touring to some coastal lands to see castles etc. and she’s not sure she can spend the whole trip without seeing him. He has become necessary to her existence, or rather “the incense of the vassalage to which he was reduced” was necessary for her.
“She needed him just as any idol needs worshippers in order to become a god: in the empty chapel it is only a piece of carved wood, but let even one devotee enter, prostrate himself and pray and the piece of wood is transformed into a god equal to that of Allah or Brahma.”
So, she concocts the perfect plan, he will just happen to be sightseeing in the same vicinity and they will by chance happen to meet at a certain park at a certain time, all very spontaneous and unexpected.
He agrees. Life for him is little more than one long transport of intoxicating desire. And at the appointed time he is in the aforementioned park, pacing up and down in a way he hopes looks very casual and spontaneous. And then she's there, introducing him to her aunt and relatives and then he’s saying his lines about “the pleasure of your company for dinner etc.” and everything goes according to plan. He is embraced by her family’s traveling party and becomes one of the group.
And whether it’s the boredom of the seaside, or the fresh air and wholesome manor of the countryside, Mme. de Burne feels herself slipping. Is she falling in love? Does she have the capacity for such an emotion? As the two find themselves climbing up mountains and walking on precarious ledges, he reaching out with his strong and solid arm to rescue her on more than one occasion, their eyes meet and there is a mutual understanding.
All of this is very exciting and heart palpitating etc. as Mariolle paces back and forth in the middle of the night, alone in his room, illuminated by the moonlight. He hears a shuffle in the hall and then a soft tap on the door. His heart skips a beat.
“He started and looked around. A woman with her head veiled in white lace, and wearing one of those robed-de-chamber that look as if made of snow and silk and lace, entered. She carefully closed the door behind her; then…she walked straight to the mantel and extinguished the two candles.”
He has won! He congratulates himself on his conquering of her. She is the one now subdued and in love. He is Eros, none can resist him. The trip ends and he rushes back to Paris to find the perfect apartment to conduct their affair in. He must hide out for a few weeks so that his friends all think he is continuing a tour of the continent, so when Mme. de Burne returns they will have a few glorious weeks to be alone together without commitment or dinner party…but first he has to convince her to live this duplicitous life of intrigue and deception. He waits for her return with bated breath.
They meet early in the morning in a public garden, he a little too conspicuous for her taste. What is he thinking prancing about for everyone to see him? She brings him to the most secluded place in the park as if she’s done this many times before. Now, carefully hidden behind the shrubs they can pick up where they left off. Mariolle, cautiously mentions perhaps meeting at a flat he has just taken the liberty of renting. Without batting an eye, and after a couple practical questions she agrees.
And then at the precise moment their love is officially and practically established the seed of its demise is planted.
For a second the game is perfect. They meet in public and she says “my dear friend!” and then attends to her other more special guests. Every night his decorum is exemplar. It’s almost as if they barely know each other.
And then every afternoon they spend wandering the little garden of their perfectly hidden flat and of course doing other things.
But then it’s not every afternoon. Mme. de Burne at the last minute cancels or shows up hours late and then eventually not at all. Her favorite part of the game is the evenings, surrounded by men that openly or secretly admire her with a few ardent worshipers thrown into the mix. The actual love making is a bit of a drag. It’s annoying to have to get out of all her clothes and then putting them back on without the help of a maid is way too much work. Can’t they just be secret lovers without the lover part? She needs his worship, but nothing else.
And in a nanosecond it’s over. His heart is wrenched out of him and she looks on unable to comprehend the suffering she has caused him. While emotionally eviscerated he has just enough strength to promise himself that he will survive. He will wrench himself free from this instrument of torture even though he may leave portions of himself, fragments of his heart on the rack.
He writes her a missive telling her he is leaving and the next morning goes, anywhere as long as it is far away from the skyline that he finds to be so incredibly heartbreaking.
He finds a small hermitage, somewhere in the Parisian suburbs. Far enough to be “gone” but close enough to get the paper and scour the society pages for lines to read in between; hoping to find traces of Mme. de Burne’s new lover and indiscretions. He must have been thrown over for another. It isn’t possible that he’s just too boring to keep a girl interested, although he is incomprehensibly dull.
Two days in the country and he’s stir crazy. There’s way too many trees and nothing to do. He finds himself at a little inn, the waitress, while from a lower class is not unpleasing to look at. He goes back the next day and the next and before he knows it, as if fate has decried it, he has taken her into his “protection” as a maid. Within a short time she has transformed herself from a scullery maid to a lady in waiting complete with clean nails and new clothes…
…I wish the book ended here. Slightly misogynist, but I still would have considered this a happy ending. He didn’t get the girl he wanted, but he slowly learned to love a good honest girl of genuine character. He does not force himself on her but after months of reading theology in his hermitage he swears to cast aside conspicuous consumption and the leisure classes and devote himself to charity.
But no. He ends up sleeping with his maid, while calling her “child” and thinking of Mme. de Burne. While the maid is devoted to her new master and hastily transforms herself in every way imaginable to squeeze herself into his cookie cutter notions of femininity, it is all for naught. NAUGHT.
After zero amounts of time, but enough time for the maid to think they are getting married and probably preemptively naming their future children, Mariolle writes Mme. de Burne a note. And a few hours later she’s there, swathed in evanescent mauve, shimmering and glittering in the twilight. The maid can not possibly compete with this vision of beauty and femininity. After a short tête-à-tête, Mariolle has denounced his relationship with the maid. Mme. de Burne is the only true love of his life.
Well, she says, you would make a terrible husband and currently you’re a bit too passionate for a secretive lover; a bit jealous and demanding of the actual love part, but someday, you will be the perfect fit for my secret lover. I will take advantage of you and make you wait for hours in the rain for trysts that actually don’t take place, but at that point you will finally appreciate me and you will recognize that fidelity of the heart is better than love.
For the record, Mariolle is being offered the secret abusive relationship he just had and that almost crushed him, only this time he has to wait with bated breath. She has won. He is no longer a man but a simpering, pining slave to his god of love.
Mme. de Burne takes her leave. The maid skulks back in weeping. Mariolle can’t possibly choose her over that vision of beauty. ‘There, there’, says Mariolle, stroking her hair and thinking of his future of blissful vassalage, ‘I will always love you.’