Monday, January 23, 2017

Une Vie - Guy de Maupassant

“Jeanne had left the convent the day before, free for all time, ready to seize all the joys of life.”

Baron Simon-Jacques Le Perthuis des Vauds is a man of generous temperament and a fanatic devotion to Rousseau. He agrees that the modern world, with all it’s tool making and property rights is no place for a modern woman. 

“Of aristocratic birth, he hated instinctively the year 1793, but being a philosopher by temperament and liberal by education, he execrated tyranny with an inoffensive and declamatory hatred.” 

The Baron believes that the only way to educate and safeguard the chastity of his only daughter Jeanne is to have her brought up in a convent; and there she has spent her childhood, severely cloistered and uneducated about the ways of the world and ignorant of the secrets of life. Her one daydream has been this day, when her father and mother would come and pick her up out of her life of seclusion and bring her to her very own castle where with baited breath she would await matrimonial bliss. 

The day her parents come to fetch her, her jolly father and corpulent mother, squeeze themselves into their carriage and make their way through the dreary grey weather to her long awaited home. As they make their way along the wharf, past tall-masted vessels and the raging sea, the three travelers are cocooned in their own thoughts. “Their minds themselves seem to be saturated with moisture like the earth.” And each held their breath, waiting for the rest of their lives to begin. 

Jeanne has spent every waking day-dream imagining what this new life would hold in store for her, she envisioned charming incidents and a life filled with ecstatic joy. As they drive up to her new home it is everything that she ever imagined, tucked into the countryside, surrounded by little farms, with an interior painted with Romantic depictions of earlier epochs and she tucks herself into a waking dream of potential hope. 

It is not long after they have established themselves that they hear a rumor of a nearby eligible young bachelor, M. le Vicomte Lamare, from a family of nobility, but little property. His father has recently died, leaving a vast sum of debts to be paid, so our economical hero has sold the family castle and now lives on one of the three farms left to the family estate. He has a reputation of a hard worker but lives a secluded life. Still nobility is nobility, and despite his six thousand livres a year, an almost pitiable sum, he is handsome and confident and slowly begins to weave himself into their lives. 

He is quiet and respectful and for Jeanne’s mother it is love at first sight. Jeanne on the other hand is too busy walking through fields and breathing the fresh scent of warm grass. She is the product of a Rousseauian education and as such spends a lot of time contemplating nature and crying. When she and her father and their new friend decide to take a boat trip to some of the surrounding islands, she is overcome by the breathtaking beauty of the sea. For her the only three things in the world that are truly beautiful are: light, space and water. Jeanne and the vicomte get seated next to each other, their bodies occasionally pressed together at the sudden movement from the waves and in this moment, overcome with the beauty of the sea, Jeanne’s daydream begins to become more distinguishable. 

As she whispers her hopes and dreams about traveling the world, all the things to see and the places of antiquity to discover, their eyes meet and he says: Yes, but it can be tiresome to travel alone, there should be at least two, to exchange ideas. Jeanne for a moment contemplates this. She likes to walk alone though, she says, she likes to run her toes through the sand and dream alone about the future. The vicomte raises his eyes slightly to hers and says, “Two can dream as well as one?”

At this point they are practically married. There is still more blushing and averted gazes and such, but their hearts have been twined and they wait the days and the perfunctory exchanges until they can communicate their true feelings. 

Despite her initial joy, Jeanne is not entirely sure she is quite ready for this next adventure, but things begin to progress quickly and beyond her control and Julien, the vicomte, seems to be everything a girl could ever ask for, patient and kind, devoted and chivalrous. When he asks for her hand in marriage the whole family is happy and excited about their future. 

The wedding preparations are hurried through and as Jeanne and Julien, now married, are about to embark on their honeymoon through Athens, Jeanne’s mother presses into her hand a small purse heavy with the weight of gold. It is two-thousand livres a third of Julien’s income, for Jeanne to purchase some wedding presents for herself. Julien watches the exchange and says nothing and the happy couple make their way to the ancient world. 

At first everything seems to be perfect, minus of course the whole unpleasant business of wedding night expectations etc. Poor Jeanne has very little experience when it comes to any of this more sordid business, she has been raised more by the birds and the bees themselves then educated about them. But even this can not dampen her mood. She loves Julien and humanity and birds and little children. 

Eventually Julien asks to hold the little purse that Jeanne’s mother has given her, and without hesitating she hands it over. Increasingly he begins to exhibit miserly tendencies and at one point when she asks for some change to buy a little something for herself, Julien hands over a couple sous saying she needs to curb her exorbitant spending habits. By the end of their honeymoon he has become distant and laconic. And as they head back to her castle among the poplars she feels as if she has married a stranger. 

“Then it came to her that she had no longer anything to do, never again anything to do. All her young life at the convent had been preoccupied with the future, busied with dreams. The constant excitement of hope filled her hours at the time so that she was not aware of their flight. Then hardly had she left their austere walls, where her illusions had unfolded, then her expectations of love were at once realized. The longed-for lover, met, loved and married within a few weeks, as one marries on these sudden resolves, had carried her off in his arms, without giving her time for reflection.” 

Slowly, Julien becomes more and more aloof and reserved and Jeanne becomes the slave of a life of lethargy and seclusion. 

“It seemed to Jeanne that her mind was expanding, was beginning to understand the psychic meaning of things; and these little scattered gleams in the landscape gave her, all at once, a keen sense of the isolation of all human lives, a feeling that everything detaches, separates, draws one far away from the things they love.” 

And then one morning while she’s sitting silently in her room and contemplating the disillusionment of life, her maid, Rosalie, seems out of breath and unwell. Without really seeing her, Jeanne asks if she’s well, when the response is a moan and a cry of pain as Rosalie holds her stomach a wave of understanding washes over her. She races to the top of the stairs and calls “Julien!! Come quick!” But by the time he runs up the two flights of stairs, their maid Rosalie has already given birth to a baby boy, in what is the shortest recorded labor in literary history.

This is shocking. Especially for a sheltered Rousseauian. How did this happen? Rosalie is an unmarried scullery maid…while Jeanne is trying to rationalize what is taking place her husband seems even more gruff and deleterious. When he walks into the room and sees the maid, crouching on the floor with her new baby he turns around, an evil look on his face and abruptly tells his wife to get out of the room, this is none of her business. 

Jeanne is shocked and horrified. She tries to force the maid to tell her who the father is, but the maid shutters with horror and perhaps revulsion and is unable to speak. Julien is sullen and angry whenever the subject is brought up of their maid’s impropriety, but they gradually fall into acceptance of their new reality. And slowly as the seasons change, with the weather Julien’s mercurial moods wax and wane. One particularly freezing night while a chill has fallen over the house Julien’s mood for some reason seems to thaw. He allows his wife to heat her room with an extra log and then since she is not feeling well, he kisses her goodnight and heads to his own room. 

The weather is perilously cold and Jeanne awakes feeling ill. She rings for her maid and gets no response, concerned for her maid and the child, living in the even colder rooms in the garret, she creeps out of her bed and makes her way to Rosalie’s room softly calling her name. But the maid is not there, the bed sheets are askew and looked slept in, but where could the maid be? Jeanne makes her way to her husband’s room to tell him of her discovery…by the light of the dying embers she perceives Rosalie’s head leaning on her husband’s shoulder. 

At this point it’s hard to decipher if it’s Julien that has failed her or Rousseau.

She has had a completely different expectation of the “noble savage”. She thought that meant taking long walks and discovering native peoples. But in all her day dreams the fidelity and commitment to her lover were always taken for granted. She has married a roving individual with a preference for loose companionship, who has thrown off the tyranny of marital expectation and there is little she can do. Not only that but she is pregnant. 

Her parents and the priest come to force Rosalie to make a confession. She says that she has been having an affair with Julien since the first time he came to the house. That the second they got back from their honeymoon, that night he went to her bed. He has been a more faithful husband to the maid than to his wife. The father is at first apoplectic and about to do something hasty and rash when the priest pulls him aside and says basically “who of us has not had a dalliance with a maid? How can you be harsh with your son in law when you are guilty of the same crime?” The father pauses. The priest is right. And so they all decide to live as happily as possible ever after, quickly marrying the maid off to a burly farmer who for a large sum and the property of a farm decides he can be persuaded to adopt a bastard. 

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