Friday, 17 October 2014

Book Review: Marie Claire by Marguerite Audoux one week ago the French writer Patrick Modiano was announced as this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (»»» read the respective announcement on Read the Nobels), but quite apart from the fact that I had never heard of him until then, I would consider it too early and too obvious to review one of his books for the Books on France 2014 reading challenge already today. Instead I chose a bestselling novel from the early twentieth century, more precisely a memoir: Marie Claire by Marguerite Audoux. The author was already forty-seven years old when this masterpiece of hers, in which she recounts her childhood and adolescence in a Catholic orphanage and on a remote French farm, came out and earned her the Prix Femina 1910.

Marguerite Audoux was born Marguerite Donquichote in Sancoins, France, in July 1863. She passed most of her childhood in the orphanage of Bourges and was given into the care of a farmwoman as a teenager. Until she was eighteen, she worked as a shepherdess and farm-girl. Later she went to Paris where she earned her meagre living as a seamstress and doing odd jobs. In 1895 she adopted her mother’s maiden name. Through her niece Marguerite Audoux got in touch with intellectual circles. Encouraged to write by her new friends, she made her literary debut with a few short stories and articles, but it was her first novel Marie Claire, a memoir, that brought the breakthrough. Over the following twenty-seven years of her life she wrote three more novels, namely the sequel to Marie Claire titled Marie Claire’s Workshop (L’Atelier de Marie-Claire: 1920), De la ville au moulin (1926; From the City to the Mill), and Douce Lumière (1937; the title is the name of the protagonist meaning Gentle Light), as well as a couple of articles and short stories collected in Valserine and Other Stories (Valserine et autres nouvelles: 1912) and La Fiancée (1932; The Fiancée). Marguerite Audoux died in Saint-Raphaël, France, in January 1937.

In the opening scene five-year-old Marie Claire witnesses her mother’s laying-out in state in the parental bedroom somewhere in the French province. The girl is too young to understand why
“[T]he men came in as though they were going into church, and the women made the sign of the cross as they went out.”
The mother died from an unspecified pulmonary disease and also Marie Claire is affected by it suffering from pains in the sides. She and her older sister are taken care of by an aunt for a while, but their father takes to drinking and eventually he abandons the girls for good. They are taken to a Catholic orphanage and separated because Marie-Claire is still small and weak, while her sister is already big and strong. Marie-Claire grows up in the care of different nuns, her favourite being Sister Marie-Aimée, and with her friends Ismérie and Marie-Renard. She’s a very sensitive and timid child, but some mistake her attitude for pride. As it turns out, she is inclined rather to studying than to the needlework that she is taught and finds hard to concentrate on. When Marie Claire is thirteen years old the mother superior sends her off to a farm called Villevielle where she will be trained to be a shepherdess. This is to punish her for her assumed pride as well as to take revenge on sister Marie-Aimée who broke her nun’s vow (and secretly gave birth to a child pretending to be sick in front of the innocent girls). The farmers, Sylvain and Pauline, are kind and caring people who treat her as well as she can only wish. She comes to like country life, but the farmers soon realise that she’ll never become a good shepherdess and employ her in the farmhouse instead to help Pauline with the household and the baby. Then Sylvain dies from pneumonia and the owner of the farm drives the widow and her dependents away, all except Marie Claire. She has to stay with the new master, the owner’s recently married son Alphonse. From then on she is the maid of the farmwoman who is obsessed with lingerie and has a seventeen-year-old brother. When Marie Claire and Henri meet, they are immediately drawn towards each other, but she is a nobody and he is the heir of a rich farmer…

Marie Claire is an autobiographical novel based on the author’s memories of her childhood and adolescence although she changed names and surely certain details too which she didn’t wish to spread out before her readers. The strictly chronological plot is made up of a series of events from everyday life which, however ordinary they may seem, impressed the girl enough to remember them for the rest of her days. The language of the first-person-narrator is simple as can be expected from a writer who in her youth only received the most basic education for being an orphan without means or protection, but at the same time the prose is clear and elegant in its natural flow. Compared to other literary works of the period the novel feels pleasantly modern thanks to its rather plain and concise style. All characters of the story are so true to life that I wouldn’t be surprised to meet their modern versions somewhere the other day. They also move in a vividly painted scenery which evokes emotions matching the respective situation as well as a rather picturesque past. Some passages seem a bit clichéd and influenced by cheap novels, though. There can be no doubt that life in the orphanage and on the farm was hard and probably rather bleak too most of the time, and yet, no bitterness or resentment has flown into the text. The author also managed to avoid sentimentality and nostalgia… or maybe they just weren’t in her nature.

As a matter of fact, I’m not a huge fan of memoirs, but Marie Claire by Marguerite Audoux has been a pleasant experience. It’s a humble as well as touching autobiographical novel and it’s an important testimony of times not so long past really. Five quarters of a century make quite a difference despite all… It’s a pity that this book happens to be quite forgotten today, especially outside France, although the original French text as well as several English translations are in the public domain and available online for free on sites like ManyBooks or the Online Library of It definitely deserves better and thus I recommend it for reading.

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