Upon my first foray into this criminally underrated effort from Marguerite Emery-Vallette (more commonly known by her nom du guerre of Rachilde), I breathed a sigh of relief.
After all the detours and missteps I’d sat through since savoring the original trilogy of Huysmans’ La-Bas, Mirbeau’s Le Calvaire and Rachilde’s somewhat naive but intriguing Monsieur Venus (which she wrote at the ripe old age of 20), encountering even the first few pages of the somewhat deceptively titled Marquise de Sade was like taking a breath of fresh air. From the likes of Gautier, d’Annunzio and the Dedalus Books of Decadence to this assured declaration of war was much akin to leaving musty catacombs peopled with the decaying literary stylings of days long since gone by and returning to a new and more present life, dripping with the rosy-cheeked flush of vibrance and more than a hint of metaphorical relevance to the decline and fall of the American Empire, and indeed, the world today.
I challenge ANYONE to get past chapter 3 without being overwhelmed with a deep and abiding disgust (if not abject rage) towards what she terms “the pious” – i.e. the forces of repression, conservatism, and bourgeoise religiosity that underpin society (and particularly American society) to this very day. Naturally, she was referring to fin de siecle France, but like all the best Decadents, the sentiments, philosophy and view of the world are surprisingly au courant and up to date.
Far better written and with a much more precise attention to character and detail than I found in her more “infamous” Monsieur Venus, we follow the young Mary Barbe through her turbulent youth and gradual transformation into what would be termed these days as a goth girl.
For unlike the prudish coquettishness of Raoule de Venerande, whose wooing and transformation of a slightly sensitive lower class male into an effeminate “sissy maid” and drag queen strikes the reader as little more sexually or emotionally developed than the average Twilight-obsessed teenage emo girl of today, Mary Barbe is a far more fully developed persona, and all the more threatening to the average male ego therefore.
The first 6 chapters are, in effect, something of an atrocity exhibition; an intimate and detailed catalogue of the young life of our heroine and the various shocks and abuses she, like so many of us in the ostensible “real world”, are expected to suffer and smile through.
Beginning at a very young age (the implication is that she is either 5 or 7 at the time), when she inadvertantly wanders in on a slaughterhouse scene (and discovers just how her mother’s special curative drinks are acquired), we are there and quite present with Mary for each and every nasty turn. After the slaughterhouse incident, she attends a children’s party, where all the girls are given baby sheep to play with. Unfortunately, a certain Paul Marescut, an older bully with something of a crush on her, decides to steal her sheep, and prove his manliness by dragging the beast away, breaking its leg in the process. Rather than properly upbraiding the brat, Mary herself is punished, for it is improper for a colonel’s daughter to cry over such trivialities!
With a sickly mother, harsh military father and uptight schoolmarm of an aunt Tulotte (who also serves as her tutor and nanny), her home life is equally twisted and unfair. Her father, a proud and stuffy colonel in the French Hussars, has little enough regard for her, wishing fervently he had birthed a son instead. A pattern quickly emerges wherein whenever Mary reports a given adult wrongdoing to her parents, she winds up punished in turn herself, thus learning a schoolyard lesson all too many of us had to learn – better to deal with things on your own than to rat out malfeasance to ostensible “defenders of justice”, who ultimately solve nothing, and wind up suffering further consequence from both perpetrators and “defenders” for your efforts.
When the whims of a given society lady of connections result in their transfer to the dour town of Dole and the home of a spinster by the name of Mademoiselle de Cernogrand, she is further subjected to the horrors of Puritanism and having to deal with the religious mindset. Chastising her for her “insolence”, attempting to cram their beliefs down her throat, and threatening fire and brimstone punishment at every turn, she is similarly stripped, through an unholy coalition of family and de Cernogrand, of her cat and its litter, the last of whom is deliberately stepped on and killed by the feline-hating prude. Again, when she brings this, and the unwelcome changes in her family’s staff due to de Cernogrand’s pernicious influence to her father’s attention, she is once again punished, and given over to further lecturing and assurances of how their new circumstances are somehow better than their former, comparatively free and easy surroundings of earlier days.
It is this cycle of justified anticlericalism, the punishment of virtue and the reward of the wicked (albeit in this case, the ostensible “good” of “the pious”, who are to be found altogether detestable by their actions and dark and overweening suppression of natural behavior and desires), that makes the book’s otherwise misleading nomenclature justified. It is in this sense (and the sense of who Mary eventually becomes) that the Sadean ethos is truly evoked – never really in the modern, somewhat bastardized sense of the interrelation between pain and pleasure, but in the philosophical sense of man against societal mores, and the hegemony of religion over instinct and primal desire.
Trouble follows on trouble – Mary is increasingly neglected and left to her own devices. First she finds some comfort in a youthful dalliance with the gardener’s assistant Siroco, and there is already a touch of the perverse creeping into her persona, as she gets a sexual thrill out of getting him into trouble (cutting off the gardener’s long-cared for and prized flower, just so she can eat it – the ability to manipulate her beau being the obvious end of the experiment rather than any imagined treasure or prize in the object itself).
Catching him washing his clothes by the stream one day, she coerces him into running away with her to the local fair, but this only results in his catching pneumonia and passing on, to her bewilderment and bereavement.
Finally, her perpetually consumptive mother manages to conceive again, which both kills the woman and brings the long-desired male into her father’s world – which Mary finds herself utterly shut out from.
Tormented by her usurpation (not that her lot was ever very good to begin with, but this!) and loss of her sole defender (however sorry), she commits a sin of omission one night, deciding against sounding an alarm when a drunken nanny falls asleep and smothers the infant to death. Remorseless, Mary goes on…
Eventually her father is sent off to the Franco Prussian war and is killed, leaving her and Tulotte at the mercy of their cold and scholarly uncle, who runs a Dickensian household untouched by the hand or presence of woman, effectively finding herself on the short end of the stick again.
Detested and relegated to an attic room, she suffers in silence until one day, in first flush of womanhood, she decides to have it out with the man once and for all. Finding interest in her at last, he brings her into his world of scientific and biological study, tutoring her until one day, he finds himself flush with passion for her. And having been molded by bitter life experience into a proper Decadent femme fatale, the fireworks begin, and several men are about to pay…
There is really nothing to be said about this book other than a wholehearted exhortation to those interested in the style or genre to pick this up and read it as soon as possible. While many have made the rounds, emphasizing their “horror” at the actions of the adult Mary Barbe, Rachilde’s skill at bringing us inside the injustices and cruelties of her world from earliest days leaves much of her subsequent behavior seeming, if not justified, then at least quite understandable. The lesson is clear: an unjust world produces monsters. Allow societal evils to run rampant at our collective peril.
A proto-goth girl and something of a cornered animal throughout, it’s hard to evince any measure of surprise when she bares her teeth and turns nasty in the latter half of the story. While no role model, Mary Barbe is perfectly comprehensible and identifiable as one of us.
Given the undisputed quality of this book (which again, is a marked improvement over and unquestionably far superior to her earlier and more naive, yet strangely much feted Monsieur Venus…is it merely that Mary Barbe demands more of the reader, that identification with our heroine brings with it some uncomfortable implications as we move into the latter phases of the story?), it becomes a clear and notable tragedy that more of Ms. Emery-Vallette’s many novels and short stories have not been translated into English…though given the persistent strain of puritanism that hovers hideously, spreading its grim shadow over our nation even in this new millenium, and which she skewers so well herein, said novels’ stated subject matter probably comes as an answer to my rhetorical question in and of itself.
Incredible literature, this Marquise comes highly recommended.