Saturday, May 26, 2012

Octave Feuillet's La petite Comtesse (1857)

La petite Comtesse is set in set in the world of country houses and hunting parties. An epistolary novel, narrated through the letters of the young hero, George, it covers a few months. It ends in the death of both the leading lady, the little countess (who catches a novelistic wasting chill caused by disappointed love for the hero) and of George, who after her death commits suicide in a duel.

This novel seems like a throwback to 18th century sentimental fiction. The rather melancholy, bookish hero resembles Goethe's Werther, the hero of the archetypical example of that genre. As in The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), the hero, clearly the most sensitive, aesthetic, and educated person around finds himself out of his element in the provinces.  A tragic (and sexless) love story ensues.

The hero of the Feuillet novel is quite indistinct. He has no family that we know of. His background and education are not described. We know that he is a bit of an antiquarian, gathering information about a ruined Benedictine monastery for some government commission for preserving antiquities. His friendship with Paul (his correspondent) is close but not fleshed out with specifics. His source of income (he is well off enough not to need a real job) is a mystery. His social status is clearly “gentlemanly”. (He can ride, shoot, and, while on the reserved side, can hold his own with polite, even aristocratic, company.) But it is made clear that he is not an aristocrat, and sees that class as obsolete.

The countess is a little more brightly painted.  A young and merry widow, she is the center of al attention, and her flirtatious high spirits give her a bit of a bad reputation. The hero is the only one to resist her charms, which eventually leads, of course, to her falling in love with him. None of this results in any hint of sex (or even kissing), and they only spend a few minutes alone together.

All this seems strange after decades of Balzac, Stendhal, and Gautier  – hundreds of novels that are acutely aware of social status, money, and a far franker exploration of love and sex. This is a throwback to an older sensibility, before the French Revolution, before the Romantic and realistic movements in art. Even George Sand, whose novels share a similar rural scene and a preoccupation with the sensibilities and weaknesses of the idle classes, is far more concrete in terms of emotional history, physical longing, and material status. In Feuillet, the sexuality is not even repressed.

Feuillet was quite popular and respected in his time. Here he seems alien form in his own time; indeed, with a very few changes in detail, the novel could as easily be set in the eighteenth century as in the nineteenth. It's hard to believe that this novel is almost exactly contemporary with Madame Bovary (1856).

George gets Romantic about the ideal life in his ruined monastery:

Oui, si j'avais vécu, il y a quelque mille ans, j'aurais certainement cherché parmi eux le repos du cloître en attendant la paix du ciel. Quelle existence m'eût mieux convenu

Yes, if I had lived some thousand years ago, I would have certainly sought  the rest of the cloister while awaiting the peace of heaven. No existence would have suited me better.

1 comment:

  1. The words in alphabetical order :