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Turn-of-the-century honor lost : MARTHE, A WOMAN AND A FAMILY: A FIN-DE-SIECLE CORRESPONDENCE, translated by Donald M. Frame (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $15.95; 361 pp.)

January 06, 1985|DON G. CAMPBELL | Campbell is a Times staff writer and author.

How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child. --Shakespeare's "King Lear"

The wayward, and thankless, child has been with us as long as parenthood has, even though society's concept of "wrong" and "right" changes almost by the year: Yesterday's hippie movement is today's self-expression.

But, somehow, being sexually promiscuous at age 14, and pregnant by a farmhand at 18, is, even today, a pretty sure way for a daughter to bend her mother out of shape. At the turn of the 20th Century (fin-de-siecle), it was an unmitigated disaster if you were a member of the landed gentry in France and painfully conscious of your role in "proper" society and of the damage that wagging tongues can do to a proud reputation.

"Marthe, a Woman and a Family," is a remarkable collection of correspondence between distraught members of the De Montbourg and De Cerilley families in the period 1892-1902, as they wrestle with, "what are we going to do about. . . ?" (in this case, Marthe, but almost any family could easily substitute for another). The letters were unearthed in the attic of a French chateau about 10 years ago.

Wealthy, even by today's standards (with an estate estimated between $600,000 and $3 million), the De Montbourgs, nevertheless, have a status problem that money, alone, doesn't entirely solve: Who can they find to make an honest woman of madcap Marthe, a man who isn't either a certifiable basket case or bounty hunter?

While Emile, Marthe's perennially semi-hysteric mother, sneaks the girl off to the anonymity of a Parisian home for unwed mothers, most of the actual recruiting is left to poor old, Job-patient uncle Charles de Cerilley. And it is Uncle Charles who garners most of our sympathy as he tries to maintain some sort of family stability as Emile's self-pitying letters inundate him. ("Affectionately, your unhappy sister. . . . Affectionately, your ever-afflicted sister. . . . Affectionately, your sad sister.")

Despite a handsome dowry (how else?), the talent search takes nearly two years as priest, relatives and even personal ads are enlisted in lining up someone suitable to salve the family honor. A pharmacist, a postal worker and two stationmasters make it to the semi-finals, but the final role of retroactive cuckold finally falls to a "pleasant" 33-year-old whose background suggests that, by now, hard-pressed Uncle Charles and still-distraught Emile have lowered their standards appreciably.

Robert d'Aillot, the possessor of a "good" name (there's that, at least), is hardly the 19th-Century equivalent of a Harvard MBA in the good-catch department. His main claim to professional fame is managing his father's estate, and, since his father is a retired customs official on a small pension, Robert's responsibilities begin and end with taking a few vegetables and milk to market occasionally.

Instinctively, the reader knows only too well that this combination of Marthe's, shall we say, giving ways, combined with Robert's new-found, and heady, move onto the lower rungs of the petite noblesse , spell nothing but trouble.

Trouble indeed as Marthe's lusty appetite for bedroom romping ("I'm sorry, I didn't catch the name"), and Robert's latent instincts for family blackmail come to a predictable head.

These fascinating letters have a universal timelessness about them--the close-knit family under siege--even as they chronicle a rigid French social structure beginning to topple. Our heroine, Marthe, emerges only peripherally, most of her own contribution to the correspondence beginning only after her--horrors--divorce.

Slowly, inevitably, we watch the family crumble and fall apart . . . old, dark secrets surfacing that help explain Emile's near-paranoia over her wayward daughter . . . legal wrangles erupting . . . sickness and death taking their toll. And yet, somehow, that turn-of-the-century dignity still remaining largely intact.

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