Mademoiselle de Maupin

This morning I finished reading

First published in 1835, although hailed as a masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo, the book did not gain critical acclaim, although there are now many available editions in print.

Letting us know, in case we missed it, that the work is based on Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’, the narrator hopes that we will be introduced or sent back to that work by association. I will certainly revisit the bard’s play. As usual I will not reveal the story, save to say that it is hardly the comic romance of the original.

Had it not been for Gautier’s sublimely elegant flowing prose I may not have persevered to the end. By means of the device of letters to friends the protagonists explore obsession with physical beauty and perfection impossible to reach. Surface female beauty is idealised yet women are treated as prey, to conquer, use, and reject, particularly in the self-centred fantasising in the first third of the book, which I began to find boring. The period and culture in which it is set is nevertheless well evoked.

When the link with the original play becomes apparent and a story involving relationships emerges, my interest was rekindled. Gautier is a master of the long, effortless, graceful sentence; his descriptions of furnishings, fabrics, plants, landscapes, light, shade, and nature in all its forms, are as exquisite as those of physical comeliness. He never overlooks an apt adjective. Dialogue is credible and well paced.

The author explores themes of hetero – bi – and homo – sexual and lesbian attraction and, of course, crossdressing.

In his lengthy introduction Jaques Barzun suggests that the book’s earlier popularity with the English was because we were hoping for prurient descriptive details. If so, we were in for disappointment, because, despite the frontispiece shown above, they are in short supply.

André Dugo’s pen and wash sketches ably reflect the elegant fluidity of the prose.

Now to revert to ‘As You Like It’

This evening we dined on oven fish and chips and mushy peas with which Jackie drank Hoegaarden and I drank more of the Shiraz.