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.
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.