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A Life by Guy de Maupassant

As with Marcel Proust, Guy de Maupassant came from a French middle-class family. Born 21 years before Proust in Normandy, he led a life typical of many single middle-class men of the time; his main occupations being womanizing and boating. On moving to Paris he counted Flaubert and Zola as friends, at one point becoming France’s second best-selling author behind Zola. The novel, ’A Life’, is the first of six novels he wrote before his death in 1872 at the age of just 42.

The novel tells the story of Jeanne de Lamare, from when she leaves convent school until, after 29 years, she becomes a grand-mother. As with the author himself, Jeanne has enjoyed a wealthy Normandy upbringing. My initial thought was this novel could be quite Proustian in its delivery, if only due to some similarities between de Maupassant and Proust such as background and subject, however, it is not, instead it is the simple story of someone’s life and as such proceeds in an easy-to-follow series of short chapters; more like his friend Flaubert. It is also with great pleasure that I have found another French writer of great quality whom, up to this point, I had not heard of. And so to the novel itself; or let’s say a short story with an unexpected but optimistic end.

The novel begins with Jeanne and her parents making the journey from their home in Rouen to Jeanne’s new home; the chateau of Les Peuples on the Normandy coast. Making the journey with Jeanne, was her father, Baron Le Perthuis des Vaudes, her mother, Adelaide, and Rosalie the housemaid, described as a tall and strapping Norman girl who was around the same age as Jeanne and was treated almost as a second daughter.

Life at Les Peuples, to begin with, was very enjoyable, with walks down to the sea and spending time with her parents among the poplar tree lined avenue that led to the chateau and its surrounding gardens. Jeanne’s ambition, however, was to find a husband and with the news, brought to them by the local priest, that an eligible bachelor had recently moved to a nearby estate, the second part of Jeanne’s journey was about to begin.

Monsieur le Vicomte de Lamare’s appearance is described as that which, ‘women dream of and men find disagreeable.’ His family history also finds favour with Jeanne’s father as they discover that de Lamare’s father and Jeanne’s grandfather shared a mutual friend. In fact, it seems almost as if the Baron is falling for de Lamare and it is not until a boat trip to Etretat (see image) that it becomes clear that de Lamare is to become Jeanne’s future husband.

A new character now enters the story, Jeanne’s mother’s sister, Lison, an unmarried woman who after various misfortunes lives in a religious house for people who are alone in the world. At forty-two she seems older and rarely speaks, appearing only at mealtimes, before disappearing once more to her room. Hers is a story of little love and little interest in her, rarely being kissed and largely ignored.

Jeanne’s happiness was now at its peak with her love for, and marriage to, de Lamare; now known to her as Julien. Their honeymoon to Marseille and then on to Corsica left Jeanne in such a state of utter contentment that she did not want to return to Les Peuples. The first signs of Julien’s true character had also begun to emerge, as he took charge of their finances, only allowing Jeanne a small amount of money to spend.

Jeanne’s return to Les Peuples seemed to signal the beginning of a new part of her life and one that she seemed uneasy with as the house that she had spent such happy times in, and where she had dreamed of an exciting future, had now all but vanished. She wasn’t herself anymore; able to do what she wanted when she wanted; she was now the wife of a man and, although she loved him, some doubts about her future happiness were beginning to appear as Julien’s meanness continued and his drinking increased.

Rosalie, in the meantime, had, unknown to Jeanne, been sleeping with Julien which resulted in her giving birth to a child. Attempts were made to find out who the father was but Rosalie remained tight-lipped, until one night Jeanne entered her husband’s bedroom to find Rosalie and Julien lying there together. At this discovery, Jeanne’s world fell apart, not only because of her husband’s adultery but also because now she would lose Rosalie, who had been Jeanne’s main support. She also, at this time, realised that Rosalie’s son was Julien’s and that he and her own soon to be born son would be brothers and share the same father.

As Rosalie had to be sent away from Les Peuples, the Baron had arranged for her to have one of his farms. He had also arranged a husband for her to help run the farm.  Jeanne, reluctantly, agreed to continue her marriage to Julien for the sake of her son and to keep the possibility of having a daughter, which she had long dreamed of, alive.  

Life at Les Peuples seemed to settle down and Jeanne and Julien began to pay visits to other families nearby. Eventually a close friendship begins to flourish with another family, of similar standing and similar interests, the Fourvilles. Right away this seemed to be a friendship that would benefit both Jeanne and Julien, as the Fourvilles exuded contentment and happiness in their own relationship and, with a genuine affection towards the couple from Les Peuples, both couples became frequent visitors to each other’s estates. A common interest between the two couples was horse riding, which Julien and the Comtesse were particularly fond of, however the reader is soon aware that there was more going on than just a fondness for riding horses, as they began to spend more and more time together, often without their partner’s knowledge.

The next part of Jeanne’s life was to be a tragic one. Her mother died suddenly and the Comte became aware of the affair between his wife, whom he loved very much, and Julien. In a fit of rage, he found them together in a shepherds caravan on a steep hillside. Bolting the caravan door from the outside, he then pushed the caravan until it began to gather speed on the slope. Screams came from inside as the caravan bounced several times before launching itself into a gully and shattering like a broken egg, killing both people inside. That same evening, Jeanne gave birth to a still-born daughter.

Now only Jeanne, the Baron, Aunt Lison and Pullie (Paul), her son, were left. Life settled down for a while and Pullie grew taller. One day Jeanne’s idyll was broken by the news that Pullie was to leave Les Peuples and attend school. Jeanne was heart-broken and so it proved that from that day on mother and son would never be close again. Pullie made friends, and with a new found independence, visits home became less and less and over the coming months, which then turned into years, his only communication home was to ask for money with which to pay off his gambling debts, resulting in the Baron having to dispose of more and more of his property until even Les Peuples had a large mortgage.

Life only seemed to go from bad to worse for Jeanne as first the Baron died and then, soon after, Aunt Lison also died. Jeanne, now heavily in debt, became ill once more only to awaken one morning to find a familiar figure sitting on an armchair in her room: it was Rosalie. Rosalie promised that she would stay with Jeanne forever now that her son had grown and the farm was doing well.

In the final part of the novel, Jeanne and Rosalie, have moved from Les Peuples (sold to clear debts) to a smaller house in Batteville. At first reluctant to even leave her new home, with Rosalie’s help, Jeanne searches Paris for any signs of Pullie; only to return home without success until one day a letter arrives from Pullie telling her that his wife is dying after giving birth to a daughter. Rosalie goes to Paris to bring the infant home with Pullie promising to follow her in a few days, after his wife’s funeral has taken place.

The novel concludes with Rosalie saying to Jeanne, ‘You see, life’s never as good or as bad as we think.’ And with this the reader is left with a more optimistic view of the life to come for everyone at Batteville.

And so an enjoyable book ends with, perhaps, a happier ending than might have been expected.

A Life: Arts Articles
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