French writer, best known for his short stories.
Mademoiselle Pearl, first published in Le Figaro literary supplement, 16th January 1886, then in the collection La Petite Roque.
Available to read online here – please note, this is a different translation from that published in the Points of View volume.
This is the second of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Memoir, or Observer Narration. From their introduction: “Three of the stories that follow bear the name of the third person, not the narrator of the story. Although all four feature someone other than the narrator, the autobiographical element is still necessarily strong. In fact, the essence of these stories may be in the resonance between the narrator and his subject: something happens in the protagonist that resounds in the narrator.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
Our narrator, Gaston, recollects a time when he visited his old friends the Chantal family to celebrate Epiphany. Chantal had been a friend of Gaston’s father, and he has known the family for decades; Chantal, his wife Christine, and their two daughters Louise and Pauline. Making up the household is Mademoiselle Pearl, who acts as a housekeeper, but is considered a close member of the family. A traditional game takes place at Epiphany, where someone at the table will discover a lucky bean in the Twelfth Night Cake. This year it is Gaston who finds the bean. Whoever finds the bean is King for the night and must choose his Queen. Gaston considers the awkwardness of choosing between any of the female members of the Chantal family and so chooses Mlle Pearl – who is hugely embarrassed at the honour.
Gaston realises in an instant just how attractive Mlle Pearl really is, even though she dresses like an old maid. After dinner, over cigars and billiards, Gaston asks Chantal how Mlle Pearl fits in to the family – is she a relative? Surprised that Gaston doesn’t know the background, he tells him the story of how one snowy night a six-week old child was discovered left outside their house – clearly loved and cared for, and with a large sum of money in the baby carriage for anyone who took care of her. The Chantals brought her into the family and raised her as their own. But Mme Chantal was keen to delineate between her own children and a foundling, so Pearl became the housekeeper – and was grateful to be given that role.
Gaston can tell from Chantal’s tone that it was always Pearl whom he loved, and not Charlotte. He confronts him with that recognition and Chantal sobs emotional tears at the thought of the love he was never able to have. Later, Gaston also confronts Pearl to discover if she felt the same way; her actions tell him that she did: “She slipped from her chair to the floor and sank slowly, softly, across it, like a falling scarf.”
Reflecting on his actions, Gaston concludes that he did the right thing. “I walked away with great strides, sick at heart and my mind full of remorse and regret. And at the same time I was almost happy; it seemed to me that I had done a praiseworthy action.”
This is a gentle story, packed with a formal elegance, but which delivers a kick and a twist right at the end. Written with gorgeous delicacy but also unexpectedly funny at times, Maupassant has a lovely feel for the pace of the writing, allowing himself time to go into considerable detail – not fully necessary for our understanding of the story – just because he wants to paint his splendid verbal pictures. An example of this is the long narration of how the baby was found outside the house, which could have been explained in an instant rather than taking up a good quarter of the entire short story.
There are some beautiful and thought-provoking observations; I love how he attributes shapes to thoughts – “Why do I always think that Mme Chantal’s thoughts are square? […] There are other people whose thoughts always seem to me round and rolling like circles […] Other persons have pointed thoughts… But this is somewhat irrelevant.” Maupassant has a very refined way of expressing some of the seedier side of life; in describing the “new quarter” of Paris, on the other side of the Seine, he describes “quarters inhabited by a strange noisy people, with the shakiest notions of honesty, who spent their days in dissipation, their nights feasting, and threw money out of the windows”.
It’s also entertaining to see how Gaston subtly disapproves of the Chantals’ cossetted lifestyle: “the father himself is a charming man, very cultured, very frank, very friendly, but desirous of nothing so much as repose, quiet and tranquillity, and mainly instrumental in mummifying his family into mere symbols of his will, living and having their being in a stagnant peacefulness.” His is a gloved hand, that conceals plenty of barbs. Perhaps it is no surprise that he confronts Chantal and Pearl with such open criticism.
The reader may well ask themselves if Gaston’s actions are justified. Yes, he has revealed to Chantal and Pearl their own truths; on the downside he has shattered the peace of their existence, which no doubt will have repercussions throughout the entire family. Personally I find Gaston’s self-justification rather pig-headed and pompous; he needs to exonerate himself so asks us to agree with him. But do we? All in all, a superb little tale.
The next story in the anthology is the third of four classified by Moffett and McElheny as memoir, or observer narration, The Tryst by Ivan Turgenev.