I have just been to see the film Les Miserables, a brilliantly produced gloom-fest (despite the best efforts of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter to lighten the tone). My response wasn’t quite as dramatic as that of the family in the viral video who left the cinema sobbing (hear the father say, “I’ve been to funerals more cheerful than this!”) but it would be hard to remain dry-eyed throughout especially when Samantha Barks sings On My Own as she walks through the rain after seeing the love of her life in the arms of another woman.
It seemed a good week to read about another French tragedy contained in the short novella, A Slight Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée which was recommended to me by Guy of His Futile Preoccupations and Emma of Bookaroundthecorner.
A Slight Misunderstanding is a near-perfectly constructed story about a young woman, Julie de Chaverny, married to someone she has come to dislike intensely. Julie finds an outlet for her romantic feelings in mild flirtations but is quite determined to avoid anything more serious. Her enthusiasm for romance has been curtailed by her disappointment and she has become “agreeable to everybody in general and to no one in particular” (perhaps we all know people like this).
Enter stage left the young Major de Chateaufort, an officer with “a charming face” and “extremely likeable”. He receives a note written by Julie on behalf of her husband, inviting him to dinner. Being a conceited young man, de Chateaufort reads far too much into every phrase of the note, exclaiming to his friend Major Perrin,
“Can’t you see the fondness in that letter, My dear Major de Chateaufort, Please note that in another letter she just wrote Dear Major de Chateaufort . . . I shall be doubly grateful to you, there’s no mistaking what that means”.
(I can’t imagine what de Chateaufort would have made of the endless LOLs and XXX of today’s social media).
The day of the dinner party comes, and Chateaufort finds himself sitting next to Julie and able to impress her with his wit and gaiety. After dinner he plays the piano while she sings, her husband having disappeared into another room. A few days later, Julie and her husband go to the Opera where Chaverny chases after an attractive woman, the mistress of a Duke. Cheverny compounds his offences by departing for a few days hunting, leaving his wife to pay a social visit to a friend where Chateaufort will be present.
At this point I could imagine the thrill that 19th century readers would experience by observing Mérimée’s set-up; poor Julie is being thrust ever closer into the arms of Chateaufort, but we all know he’s a cad who would make a very unreliable lover.
But Mérimée is not content to have just one potential claimant on Julie’s affections, for a Monsieur Darcy appears on the scene, an old friend of Julie’s who has been working as diplomat in Constantinople for the last few years. We readers didn’t much like the conceited Chateaufort and find ourselves far more impressed by the noble Darcy (doesn’t somebody with the same name occur in another well-known novel?). Darcy tells a series of hilarious stories at the expense of the Muslim population of Turkey and poor old Chateaufort cannot compete for Julie’s attention against the old friend with whom she already seems to have such a powerful bond.
When Julie leaves the party in her carriage, the weather takes a turn for the worse and the carriage is hurled into a ditch and breaks a wheel. It is a dark night and things are looking bad for Julie, but within a short time, another carriage comes along and who should jump out to effect a rescue, but M. Darcy. He persuades Julie to travel on with him in his carriage and as they are thrust together in the small compartment, a degree of intimacy develops between them leading to a feverish kissing of hands. Julie’s inner conflict compels her to jump across to the other side of the carriage while also greatly desiring to throw herself into Darcy’s arms.
At this point Mérimée shows us how vulnerable Julie’s failing marriage has made her, for we discover that Darcy’s ardour is more of a dalliance than a grand passion;
It must be observed that Darcy was mistaken as to the nature of his feelings; he was not in love. He had merely seized his chance of plucking from a tree a fruit that seemed ready to fall into his lap and which was certainly too good to be missed . . . once the first ecstasy was over, he delivered himself of a few tender phrases interspersed with a good deal of hand-kissing.
Julie on the other hand was plunged into despair and after a sleepless night departs for Nice to see her mother. On the way she falls ill and stops at a village where a local doctor prescribes bed-rest. Within a short time, poor Julie is dead. Her husband goes through the motions of mourning, Chateaufort refuses a few invitations to dances and Darcy marries three months later. As with most deaths, life goes on and time soon dims the memory of the deceased.
A Slight Misunderstanding has all the qualities of a 19th century short story – a snapshot of the social life and manners of the times and an almost formal structure which sets the scene, develops the main threads and moves to an inevitable conclusion. Like so many books of the period this novel brings out several aspects of the social conditions of the time:
- The imprisonment of women in a rigid social code that could exalt them on the one hand but destroy them in a moment if they broke the rules.
- The tendency of men to see any woman as “fair game” if she appeared to be dissatisfied with her marriage.
- The inability of all sides to understand the intentions of the other. In a day when feelings were expressed by elaborate hints and gestures, the chances of miscommunication were high and could lead to disastrous consequences.
Having said that, I think it’s a shame that Mérimée had to create such a sad end for Julie. Having endured a loveless marriage for six years, it would have been nice to see her find a resolution to the conflicts which gave her such unhappiness. Or perhaps Mérimée’s social code had a Talibanic tendency in which neglected wives had to be blamed and judged for their failing marriages?