Home Forums Reading Group Isabelle de Charrière, The Nobleman (1763)

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    • Kim Simpson
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      Starter Questions

      – The tagline to this story is ‘A Moral Tale’. What are the morals we are meant to take from it?

      – How is female desire being represented here?

      – In what ways is this tale subversive? How does the humour of the text work?

      – What are your thoughts on translation? What should a good translation do? What challenges might there be for the reader of a text in translation?

      – How does this text correspond with other eighteenth-century texts you’ve read by women? Are there concerns in common? Are there notable differences?

      – Why isn’t Charrière featured on literature courses in the UK/US?

      – Did you read any of the other texts in the collection? What did you think? Are there themes that run throughout Charrière’s work?

    • Kim Simpson
      Forum Administrator
      Post count: 35

      Write Up: Chawton House Reading Group 1 October 2020
      Trudie Messent

      ‘The Nobleman’ (1763) was the one story read by everyone who attended the discussion. Other stories read and discussed were ‘Letters from Neuchâtel’ (1784), ‘Letters from Mistress Henley Published by Her Friend’ (1784), ‘Constance’s Story’ (1795?) and ‘St. Anne’ (1799). Discussion on individual stories was interspersed by more general comments, which have been grouped at the end of this summary.

      ‘The Nobleman’ was enjoyed by everyone and there was agreement that it was very reminiscent in style and humour to Jane Austen’s work, in particular her Juvenilia. This was partly attributed to Charrière being relatively young (22) when she wrote it. The group thought that this story also reminded them of other Austen texts in style, plot, and their characterization. ‘The Nobleman’ was reminiscent of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion for the satire aimed at noblemen, and Northanger Abbey specifically for the gothic elements. This story predated by just a year the publication of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.

      Charrière’s subversion of the elopement plot was widely commented upon. These included comparisons to novels such as Clarissa, where elopement results in calamity and the seduction narratives in amatory fiction where elopement often goes very badly. It was noted that in the novels of Austen, elopements are disastrous for the women, for example both Elizas in Sense and Sensibility (although the first was an affair) and Maria Bertram’s in Mansfield Park (also strictly speaking an affair), although this is not necessarily the case in Austen’s Juvenilia.

      There was some discussion over Julia’s motivations to elope. Were her lack of a mother figure and romantic notions derived from her enjoyment of novels included to suggest these might unduly influence her decision? Isabelle de Charrière portrays Julie as not wanting to be too clever. It was agreed that it was difficult under these circumstances for her to gain much understanding of the real character of Valaincourt or develop a meaningful relationship. Under different circumstances it might be possible to bestow a token, such as a lock of hair but not for these lovers. It was suggested that there were undertones, and a hint when she was proposing to elope, that Valaincourt might not live up to Julie’s expectations. The significance of Valaincourt as the hero’s name was discussed. It is a common surname in Northern France. The similarity to Vallancourt in The Mysteries of Udolpho, was mentioned, although this was published decades after ‘The Nobleman’.

      We discussed the way in which the firm, one could say aggressive, behaviour of Valaincourt in insisting on the elopement, without seeking Julie’s opinion, pleased her, whilst similar behaviour from her father would not have been pleasing. If Valaincourt had asked her opinion would Julie have been less likely to elope? We questioned why some forms of male tyranny are viewed as awful whilst others appear to fill the heroine with joy. Ideas raised included evading the might of the husband and extending the interests of the wife.

      The heroine, Julie, expressed pleasure that Valaincourt stole her picture and the landscape she liked from her room, concurring with her in valuing these more highly than the portraits of her ancestors, which she disliked. All agreed that one of the most humorous incidents was when Julie used the portraits of her ancestors to traverse the boggy sections of the moat. The ancestors coming to life at the end was also much appreciated.

      Attitudes to nobility, old versus new, were clearly central to this story, as suggested by the title. Whilst it could be argued the title shifts the focus away from Julie and towards her father and his attitudes, nobility, or lack of nobility of sufficient pedigree, is essentially the main barrier to her father sanctioning their marriage, and central to the plot. It was noted that the newly ennobled did not have the same status and could never catch up in the father’s opinion, unconvinced by the more reasonable attitude expressed by his old friend. Did this apply to old money and new money? In this story Charrière introduces the birth over worth debate.

      The contrast between Julie’s elopement and the actions of her brother in agreeing to an arranged marriage to a woman based on her lineage, without any anticipation of happiness or fidelity was noted. It was remarked that we never learn the name of her brother and learn little about him, apart from his willingness to marry for nobility rather than love. The little more we learn is comic, such as that his best friends are dogs. He is just referred to as ‘the young baron’ with a series of putdowns and ironic asides. Julie and her father were reconciled at her brother’s wedding, when her father became intoxicated, and forgiving, thus bringing the story to a rather abrupt conclusion.

      One aspect of ‘The Nobleman’ which was found surprising was the well-articulated and quite explicit references to female desire and sex. After ‘The Nobleman’ was published Charrière’s parents, nobility themselves, bought up as many copies as possible, probably concerned at their friends’ reactions to the satire on nobility and references to female desire. They were fairly successful in suppressing ‘The Nobleman’ and it was many years before Charrière published again.

      ‘Letters from Neuchatel’ was considered not as modern in feel and quite disturbing. The ‘virtuous woman’ Mademoiselle de la Prise demonstrating her goodness by informing the man she admires, Henri Meyer, that he is responsible for the pregnancy of Julianne, a seamstress, and offering to act as their go-between, conveying money from him to Julianne and arranging for her departure. Although Henri immediately offers to pay for the support of his infant, he appears more concerned with assuring Mlle de la Prise that his relationship to Julianne ceased months ago, rather than concern for Julianne and his child’s future. Mlle then assures Meyer that he will never have to see Julianne again. It is left to his uncle to offer to house Julianne, but only on the understanding that she will leave after the birth whilst the infant will remain with him.

      The group reflected on the feelings of Mlle de la Prise. Could she be happy in hearing about the pregnancy? It was argued that sorting out the pregnant seamstress put Mlle de la Prise into a position of power relative to Meyer, so she could manipulate him. This was one example of how these stories explore how women manage their relationship with men in original ways.

      This story was unpopular in Neuchatel, with their citizens offended, probably by the way their class politics and petty, rigid social manners were portrayed. It also exposed the gap between the upper classes and the women who served them.

      The discussion on ‘Letters from Mistress Henley Published by Her Friend’ focussed on the relationship between Mistress Henley and her husband. On first reading the wife appears a sad figure, constantly trying to change herself to please her husband, seeking and trying to follow his advice, only to be repeatedly corrected and criticised. On reflection it was observed by some that the wife was not entirely sympathetic, as the husband appeared more modern and reasonable. The second letter explores the nature of obedience and compliance from a different perspective. If you adopt a modern view on coercion and control, he was unappreciative and very cold which upset her. Many of the things her husband asks her to do are not positive, he destroys her in the end as everything she does is undermined. Like much of Charrière’s fiction this can be read at different levels of complexity.

      The last two stories read by members of this group had never previously been translated into English. ‘Constance’s Story’ was an originally unpublished continuation of Three Women. This may account for it being considered ‘a bit weird’. It again explored the relationship between men and women, including that of a white plantation owner and a black mistress. Constance seems to knowingly nod to this relationship, and this raised questions about who Charrière thought of as her audience. ‘Saint Anne’ was the last story read and considered interesting mainly for the inclusion of aspects of Revolutionary France.

      Charrière’s stories were extremely enjoyable and had a vivacity and directness which gave them a very modern feel. Comments included ‘it could have been written yesterday’ and ‘light, frothy and very funny’. The modern style of the language was admired and there was some discussion on whether this could be partly attributed to the translation process, although the translator, Caroline Warman, claims that she had kept as closely as possible to the original French.

      Whilst these stories were easy to read and appeared light, reflection revealed their complexity and we were struck by their form, the range of writing styles and genres employed, and how Charrière carried the tropes. ‘The Nobleman’ could be viewed as fable or satirical prose rather than a narrative. ‘Mistress Henley ’ appeared the most finished story, yet here Charrière seemed to be playing with an idea rather than conveying a message. The difficulties of writing epistolary fiction were recognised and an awareness of the complexity of the writing process was derived from reading the unfinished stories. Ideas explored included manipulation, coercion, and power dynamics. They dealt with both nobility and the bourgeoise, adopting a satirical attitude to both. Do any novels flatter the petit bourgeoisie or deal with middle class values sympathetically? Overall, the collection was considered highly unusual as it is difficult to find comparative stories and novels from this period. It would be interesting to know Charrière’s politics as her stories are quite daring and controversial. Charrière was a contemporary of Rousseau and would probably be aware of his ideas on how we learn to behave. Is it innate or because of our ancestors, natural versus artificial, sensibility or natural feeling?

      There was some discussion over which of her names should be used for the author, given her multiplicity of names and national identities. The book series ‘Reclaim her name’ which re-publishes with names previously anonymous works was mentioned, considered controversial as some authors may not have wanted their names published.

      Charrière had been recommended by Gillian Dow. The Charrière Society normally come to the Jane Austen Museum in Chawton each year, as they hold a collection of her correspondence. Given that there seems to be a resemblance between the work of Charrière and Austen, the possibility that Austen may have read Charrière was raised, although there are no books by Charrière in the Godmersham Park catalogue.

      The discussion then widened to consider how many French novels may have been read by Austen, and whether Austen would have read them in French. Gillian Dow and Kate Halsey have written an article in which they consider some French writers that Austen may have read. Examples of the extent to which translations may result in substantial changes were considered such as a French translation of Sense and Sensibility which changes the ending.

      We agreed that it would be interesting to read more of Charrière’s work, possibly the letters between Charrière and her long-standing friend, Constant, published as There are No Letters Like Yours: The Correspondence of Isabelle de Charriere and Constant d’Hermenches

    • Kim Simpson
      Forum Administrator
      Post count: 35

      Write Up: Chawton House Reading Group 2 October 2020
      Emmeline Burdett

      Due to the coronavirus, the Chawton House Book Group met online again, and October’s read was Isabelle de Charrière’s 1763 work The Nobleman. This was the startlingly modern, satirical tale of a nobleman who was so obsessed with his lineage that he rejected his daughter’s suitor due to the latter’s supposedly insufficient pedigree. The fact that the book group has had to move online for the duration has meant that we are able to have participants from much farther afield than usual – particularly from the United States.

      Whilst The Nobleman was startlingly modern, it also portrayed the times in which its author lived in various intriguing ways. Perhaps most intriguing was the information that, upon its publication, Isabelle de Charrière’s parents attempted to buy up all the copies. As their aim was clearly that no-one should read the work, their actions can evidently not be interpreted as parental pride. This left two possibilities: either de Charrière’s parents disapproved of the story’s depiction of desire, or they were alarmed by its critique of the social order.

      As ‘The Nobleman’ was a short story, it formed part of a volume of de Charrière’s work published by Penguin Classics. Some of the group had gone on to read other stories in the collection – most notably ‘Letters from Neuchâtel’ and ‘Letters from Mistress Henley Published by Her Friend’. Both were epistolary, (a form which was very popular in the eighteenth century) and the former told the story of Henri Mayer, newly-arrived in the town to take up a seemingly rather undemanding job at a factory. Mayer’s board, lodging and expenses are paid by his uncle, who also gives him ten louis spending money (200 francs) every four months. Mayer gets a young girl, Julianne C., pregnant. It is arranged that her child should be brought up abroad. As one of the participants in our group observed, it was hard to reach back to the time the story was written to know what to make of this. That it must have touched a nerve is clear: the story did not go down well with the real inhabitants of the town, and it concludes with a satirical poem about their reaction. The poem includes the lines:

      Be happy with nature;
      She might without injuring you
      Not have afforded you all her gifts at once.

      Like so much of de Charrière’s work, this has, potentially, a much wider application than that for which it was originally conceived.

      ‘Letters from Mistress Henley Published by Her Friend’ was a chilling tale of what one might describe as marital abuse. It was also a critique of some aspects of Enlightenment philosophy. Mistress Henley is married to a man who, in line with his Enlightenment principles, is ‘reasonable’ – in other words, controlling and passive-aggressive. He never expresses a straightforward opinion on what his wife does, whilst leaving her in no doubt when she has done something which he considers ‘wrong’. For example, he plays the victim when displeased by the behaviour of her angora cat, ‘suggests’ that the dress she is wearing for a ball is unacceptable, before saying ‘Since your aunt considers this dress appropriate, you must stay as you are’. The result is that the ball is ruined: Mistress Henley is unable to tell whether or not she has done the right thing, and, in consequence, does not enjoy it at all.

      Isabelle de Charrière was a Dutch aristocrat, who was born Isabella Agneta van Tuyll van Serooskerken. At the age of 31, she married her brother’s ex-tutor, Charles-Emmanuel de Charrière, and went to live with him in his native Switzerland. She wrote in her husband’s native language of French, and published novels, pamphlets, plays and operas. She deserves to be much better-known than she actually is, given the breadth and originality of her output. As she did not write in Dutch, she is little-read in the Netherlands. She is also little-known in France, and her works have only recently been translated into English. She died in 1805.

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