Madame de ___ by Louise de Vilmorin (tr. Duff Cooper)

While looking through my shelves for suitable books for Women in Translation month, I found Louise de Vilmorin’s novella Madame de___. It’s a perfect one-sitting read, short enough to squeeze into a spare hour or two. Despite being published in 1951, Madame de ___reads like a classic 19th-century French novel, albeit in miniature. It is a beautifully constructed story: elegant, artful and poignant all at once.

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Madame de___ is a woman of some distinction. She and her husband, an astute and wealthy man, belong to a circle of society that values elegance, discretion and reputation. They are no longer in love with one another but have moved into a different phase of their marriage; nevertheless, it suits both of them to remain together.

Even though her husband never questions the amount of money she spends on clothes, Madame de ___ likes to think of herself as rather clever and prudent. Consequently, she keeps the true extent of her expenditure hidden from her husband. After this has been happening for few years, Madame de ___ finds herself with significant debts to settle. Unwilling to confess her position to her husband for fear of losing either his respect or his confidence, she decides to sell some of her jewellery in secret. After some deliberation, Madame de ___ settles on a pair of earrings made of two glittering heart-shaped diamonds, a gift from her husband on the day after their wedding.

She called on her jeweller. He was a thoroughly reliable man; in the houses of many of his most important customers he was as much a friend as a jeweller. She swore him to secrecy, and spoke to him in such a way that he received the impression that M. de ___ was aware of what his wife was doing. The jeweller assumed that M. de ___ had some private money troubles, and wishing to help him without letting Mᵐᵉ de ___ realise what he suspected, he tactfully asked:

“But, Mᵐᵉ, what will you say to M. de ___?”

“Oh,” she answered, “I shall tell him I’ve lost them.”

“You are so charming that I am sure people always believe whatever you say,” said the jeweller, and he bought the earrings.

Mᵐᵉ de ___ paid her debts, and her beauty, free of care, shone brighter than ever. (pgs. 12-13)

This unfortunate act sets in motion a sequence of lies and acts of deceit that come back to haunt Madame de ___ over the course of this story. Perhaps she really did believe the jeweller when he flattered her with the notion that people will always accept whatever she says without probing too deeply…

A week later Madame de ___ claims she has lost the diamond earrings on the evening of a ball. The next day the incident is reported in the newspaper giving the impression that the earrings may have been stolen. On seeing the report, the jeweller feels he must approach M. de ___ and discreetly inform him of the true whereabouts of the earrings. M. de ___ is saddened to learn of his wife’s actions. He is shocked not only by the blatant manner of her deception at the ball but also by her insincerity. By pretending to be upset by the loss of the jewels themselves, Madame de ___ has shown herself to be somewhat disingenuous.

Unbeknownst to his wife, M. de ___ buys the earrings from the jeweller and promptly gives them to his Spanish lover who is leaving Europe to live in South America. Following her arrival in her new home, this lady also finds herself with debts to pay, and so she sells the earrings given to her by M. de ___ to a local jeweller. A European diplomat then spots the earrings and buys them for their beauty.  By pure chance, the diplomat, a newly-appointed Ambassador, happens to meet Madame de ___ at a formal dinner, and they are clearly attracted to one another. At first Madame de ___ is unsure of her true feelings for the Ambassador, but they maintain a flirtatious relationship over the course of several months. Finally, Madame de ___ realises she is in love with Ambassador and rushes to inform him. Delighted at this development, the Ambassador gives Madame de ___ a gift as a token of his love: a beautiful pair of diamond earrings, cut in the shape of hearts.

By now we’re about one-quarter of the way through the book. It’s a short novella, so I don’t want to reveal too much more about the remainder of the plot; save to say the return of these earrings gives rise to more lies, duplicitous behaviour and heartache for more than one person in this story.

Madame de ___ proved to be an excellent choice for WIT month. I was utterly captivated by this little novella; the prose is graceful and stylish, just like our initial impressions of Madame de ___ herself. Ultimately though, the story evokes an enduring sense of melancholy and solitude. I’ll finish with a quote that captures it as well as any other. As we join the scene, Madame de ___ is just coming to terms with the nature of her true feelings for the Ambassador.

Wrapped in a heavy cloak, with some muslin round her head and her arms buried to the elbows in a fur muff, she sat by a low wall which overhung the beach and gazed on the waves and the horizon, which was lit up at regular intervals by the beam of a lighthouse. Suddenly she felt that she no longer had any importance; she asked herself what she was doing in the world, and why she was living; she felt that she was lost infinite space; she sought for the meaning of life and could find no answer in her mind, only the face of one person. Her heart grew heavy with the double weight of that presence and of that absence. She felt a violent desire to be given confidence in her own existence and she felt nobody could give it to her but the man without whom she now knew that life would be unendurable. (pgs. 22-23)

Max and Guy have reviewed Madame de ___, and their posts include further analysis on particular elements of the story – as always, they are well worth reading. My thanks also to Scott who recommended this novella. The Pushkin Press edition contains an excellent afterword by John Julius Norwich, son of the translator, Duff Cooper (one of Louise de Vilmorin’s lovers). It offers a fascinating insight into de Vilmorin’s life, one that adds another dimension to this fateful little tale.

Madame de ___ is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy. Book 6/20, #TBR20 round 2.

55 thoughts on “Madame de ___ by Louise de Vilmorin (tr. Duff Cooper)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Jane. It so easy for books to get lost or forgotten about in that way. I’ve got 2 or 3 different wishlists, and they could do with a good clearout. I bought Madame de ___ last year, but it had slipped down the side of one of the bookcases, and I only found it again while looking for WIT Month reads! I hope you get a chance to read it at some stage as I think you would love it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      So do I. It’s such a simple premise, but the reappearance of these earrings causes no end of trouble for all concerned. I love the cover as well. The Pushkin Press books are always beautifully designed, but I think they’ve excelled themselves here.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s an interesting thought. In the hands of another writer, (or if de Vilmorin had used a different tone), this premise could have given rise to black comedy, but it’s actually a very melancholy tale. I was rather moved by it…

      Reply
      1. poppypeacockpens

        I’ve just read it… and yes! Absolutely more melancholic than comedic; such sadness – although the jeweller did very well out of it all offering some chiaroscuro (could quite fancy a monologue version from his pov). I was quite taken with the biography given by Duff Cooper’s son too & I’d certainly read more from de Vilmorin.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Hurrah! I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Poppy. Yes, the jeweller must have made a tidy commission from that merry little dance, what goes around comes around…

          I was quite touched by John Julius Norwich’s afterword, too. Interestingly, Duff Cooper wrote a novel about a WWII espionage plot: Operation Heartbreak, published by Persephone. As far as I can tell, it’s rather highly regarded. I’m sure I’ve seen a review but can’t recall where exactly…it will come to me. :)

          Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              The film should be good as it was directed Max Ophüls, one of the leading directors of his day. I love his adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s story, Letter from an Unknown Woman.

              Reply
              1. poppypeacockpens

                I’d like to see that too… such an intense & poignant story yet with creepy undertones. Just reread it this morning… still just as effective. It’s one of 4 in a Pushkin Press collection – as it’s translated by a women feels like it still fits the #WITMonth brief.

                Reply
                1. JacquiWine Post author

                  Those Pushkin collections are lovely, they’ve done a great job in returning these writers to us. The film version of Letter from an Unknown Woman is well worth tracking down. Hope you enjoy!

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Sounds wonderful Jacqui – very much a case of what goes around, comes around! One to look out for!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Definitely, Karen. It may seem as though I’ve revealed quite a lot of the plot here, but this is only the beginning. Those earrings keep passing in and out of the hands of M. de___’s jeweller. They start off as a symbol of love, a husband’s gift to his wife on the day after their wedding, but they end up symbolising something else entirely. It’s a very effective story.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s great, Susan – highly recommended. After a couple of false starts back in May, I’m almost at the halfway stage of that second #TBR20. Hoping to be done by the middle of October. :)

      Reply
  2. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    Just this morning, I had resolved to start another #TBR20 myself and only use books I already own for upcoming book events. It seems like I need to quickly find this novella before I start. It sounds wonderfully melancholic, and and all because of a pair of earrings. The cover is quite beautiful, too. Thanks, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Oh, do get hold of this little gem (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) before you start your #TBR20. It’s quite affecting – as you say, very melancholic and beautifully written, too. The Pushkin Collection books are always beautifully designed, but this cover is one of my favourites. It’s simply perfect.

      Reply
  3. litlove

    It’s clever of you even to have found this! Years ago I was looking for Louise de Vilmorin and struggled to get books by her even in the original French! I had an anthology of bits and pieces by her but that was all. I may have to look this out – gorgeous review as always!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, wow – well, I can wholeheartedly recommend this one!

      Louise de Vilmorin was completely new to me until I noticed Madame de___ in the Pushkin Press collection some time ago. I’d been considering it for a while but hadn’t seen a review anywhere, and then I noticed Scott had read it last year. He recommended it, and then Max also suggested it to me, so I knew it would be just my type of thing.

      I’d like to read more of her work as I loved the mood, the prose style and pretty much everything about this one. Was your anthology in French? I’m not sure if any of her other works are available in English.

      Reply
      1. litlove

        Yes, it was a French anthology. Pushkin are amazing, aren’t they, in the way they discover these lost gems? I will certainly look out for it!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, I thought it might be. Yes, Pushkin have been doing such a great job in returning these writers to us. I’ve got another two or three Pushkins sitting on my wishlist ready and waiting for the next round of book buying!

          Reply
  4. Guy Savage

    Another post not received. WordPress must be buggy as I got the pingback.
    Yes this was a wonderful little story. I wanted to read more by this author. One of things that is most impressive, IMO, is the way this feels like a 19th C classic

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad you received the pingback, that’s something!

      Yes, I agree. Something about the context/milieu gives this story the feel of a 19th Century novel, and it’s there from the opening pages. I just realised this morning that all three of us have quoted the same passage in our reviews: the scene where she comes to question the nature of her life with M. de____. It really is one of the key moments in the story.

      Must get hold of a copy of the film as I’d been holding off until the review went up just to keep them separate in my mind. Love Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman, so I’m looking forward to seeing his interpretation of Madame de___.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hurrah! It’s a marvellous little story, Grant. I’m almost tempted to offer you a money-back guarantee on it! I haven’t read The Necklace – that’s a Guy de Maupassant story, right? An apt comparison as Madame de ___ could almost be a du Maupassant story, it’s very much in that style.

      Reply
  5. cindy

    Louise de Vilmorin is mentioned a lot in ‘The Horror of Love’ by Lisa Hilton, a non-fiction book about the relationship of Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski. She was apparently Gaston’s mistress, at one time. It’s worth reading, and there is a photo of Ms de Vilmorin, too.

    Reply
  6. Violet

    Ooh. Duff Cooper. I’m very interested in him and the lovely Diana, and for a few years have slowly been reading his diaries. And I see you mentioned ‘The Horror of Love’ in a comment, which I have sitting on a shelf. I think I’ll have to add this novella to the mix.

    I enjoyed reading your review. It sounds as though Cooper did a good job with the translation. He was such an accomplished man, and must have been utterly charming in order to get away with all his philandering. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad you enjoyed the review – it’s a terrific little story, rather moving in its own way. Yes, Duff Cooper’s translation reads very smoothly, it all flows beautifully. I’d never come across Cooper before, but it seems he wrote Operation Heartbreak, a novel about an espionage operation in WW2. I may have to take a look. He sounds like a very interesting character, too!

      Reply
  7. Scott W

    I was sure you’d enjoy this, Jacqui. It’s like some mischievous sprite climbed into a Maupassant story. I often think of this book in connection with Vivant Denon’s Point de Lendemain, though they’re actually quite different other than having a sly libertine at the center.

    The title is really one of the most perfect things – that hanging “de ____”.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Loved it, Scott…all that heartache over a pair of evenings. I’ve only just started with de Maupassant, but Madame de ___ does seem to evoke a similar style. I don’t know if you noticed Grant’s comment, but the description of the set-up reminded him of Maupassant’s The Necklace. One for me to chase down at some point.

      Also, it’s funny you should mention Vivant Denon, as I have one of his novels (No Tomorrow) on the bookshelves at home. Looking forward to it immensely!

      Reply
      1. Scott W

        I missed Grant’s comment, but yes, the set-up is a bit like “The Necklace.” de Maupassant has a number of stories with similar confusions. (No Tomorrow, by the way, is the title used for the translation of Point de Lendemain, a book even thinner in volume than Madame de___ but no less entertaining).

        Reply
  8. Emma

    You, Guy, Max and Scott: that’s a lot of good recommendations. I’m sure I’ll like it and I haven’t read Louise de Vilmorin. (That’s why she’s not on my list of French suggestions for WIT month)
    I’ll look for it in French and I second Scott’s recommendation of Point de lendemain. (review on Max’s blog and mine)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m fairly confident you’ll enjoy this one, Emma! It’s a great little story, quite affecting in its own way. As Guy has mentioned, it really does feel like a classic from the 19th Century. I’d love to read more by de Vilmorin, but there doesn’t seem to be much available in translation. I need to take a closer look.

      I have the Vivant Denon! (It’s published in English as No Tomorrow, so I hadn’t connected it with Point de lendemain until Scott pointed out the change in title.) Delighted to hear it comes with your endorsement, too. Funnily enough, Max recommended it to me last year, along with Madame de ____! Connections, connections….

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I loved it, Max – thanks for the recommendation. Having reread your review, I completely agree with your comments on de Vilmorin’s skill as a writer. It’s quite uncanny how she manages to create such a rich picture in the mind of the reader when her descriptions of the characters are so economical.

      I’m sure I’ll enjoy the Denon, too – all the signs are very promising.

      Reply
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  10. Séamus Duggan

    This, as do so many of your choices, sounds great. However, after some recent splurging I need to do a TBR2000 or something to run down the insane amount of unread books on my shelves. I’ve a feeling I’ve seen the film – just checked it out and yes I have. It was good, although it was a long time ago that i saw it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! And I thought I had a lot of unread books…I haven’t quite reached the thousands yet, but there’s still time.

      Madame de ___ is an absolute delight, and it would make the slimmest of additions to your TBR. ;-) Glad to hear you liked the film as it’s on my DVD rental list. It’s hard to go wrong with Max Ophüls, isn’t it?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, John. It’s a marvellous little story. I wondered if you might have seen the film adaptation directed by Max Ophüls. It’s on my list to watch.

      Reply
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