This is a little book I chanced across in a second-hand bookshop in Sutton Hoo a few weeks ago. Published in 1952, it was illustrated by Ian Ribbons so charmingly that I bought it, knowing nothing about the author or the book.
I was staying with my parents who take The Times and serendipitously the very next day an interview with John Julius Norwich was printed in it. John Julius Norwich is the son of Duff Cooper, translator of this little novel, and in the interview he mentioned Louise de Vilmorin as a French ‘poetess’ (!) and the mistress of his father while he was British ambassador to France.
Next stop Wikipedia. Disappointingly the main focus of de Vilmorin’s entry is fixed upon the men in her life rather more than her achievements. Marie Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin was born in 1902 into a wealthy family who had made their fortune a seed company, Vilmorin. First she was engaged to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; then she married a rich American, Henry Leigh Hunt, and then she married a Count Paul Pálffy ab Erdöd. She was also mistress to André Malraux and Count Paul Esterházy de Galántha (who left his wife for her though they never married). Her correspondence with Jean Cocteau was published after her death in 1969 and she counted Sadruddin Aga Khan among her friends.
About her work, English Wikipedia says in a slightly bizarre non sequitur:
She was afflicted with a slight limp that became a personal trademark. Vilmorin was best known as a writer of delicate but mordant tales, often set in aristocratic or artistic milieux.
There’s more detailed information on the French-language version of the site.
Madame de was made into a film, The Earrings of Madame de, directed by Max Ophüls (and I can see it would make a very good film); at least two of her thirteen other novels were also filmed. In France it seems she is best known for Madame de and Julietta. She published six collections of poetry (three posthumously), one of which, Fiançailles pour rire, was set to music by Francis Poulenc. (You can listen to it here.) Her work was notable for its use of holorimes (more about those in this article by Miles Kington ) and palindromes, and in 1949 she received the prix Renée Vivien for her poetry. She wrote film scripts and dialogue for several films, including Les Amants directed by Louise Malle, and acted in a couple of others. Louise de Vilmorin, it transpires, was a well-connected and talented woman of letters and I feel rather embarrassed that I had never heard of her before.
(Louise de Vilmorin photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1955, from here)
And what of Madame de?
Elegance rather than beauty was accounted the mark of merit in the circle of society to which Madame de belonged and in that circle Madame de herself was acknowledged to be of all women the most elegant. She set the fashion among those who knew her and, as the men said she was inimitable, sensible women sought to imitate her. They hoped that some glint of her lustre might shine on them, and that their ears might catch some echo of the adulation she received. Wherever her approval fell, distinction was conferred; she was original in all her ways; she made the commonplace seem rare, and she always did what nobody expected.
Madame de is a wealthy woman of fashionable nineteenth-century French society. (I surmise this: there is mention of travel by carriage but also by train, and of the possibility of a duel.) Or rather – she is a wealthy wife; her husband gives her money for her expenses. Although he is ‘proud of his wife’ and never questions her or stints her,
yet from a sort of weakness, not unmixed with a desire to prove her cleverness, when he admired some object she had just bought or a dress she was wearing for the first time, she could not resist saying that it had cost her half of what she had actually paid for it.
Unsurprisingly, over the years Madame de runs up massive bills which she cannot pay. Unable to bring herself to confess to her husband – I think we can all sympathise with how humiliating that would be – she sells a pair of diamond heart-shaped earrings to a jeweller in order to raise the money herself, and then she pretends to her husband – they were a wedding present from him – that she has lost them. And from this all the trouble starts.
Secretly selling the diamond heart-shaped earrings your husband gave you as a wedding present perhaps suggests that your marriage is no longer as happy as it once was. And Monsieur de has a mistress (of whom he is tiring), a mistress whose existence he conceals from his wife. He buys the earrings back as a parting gift to the mistress. The novel follows the travels of the earrings, given and sold, always coming back to Monsieur and Madame de. As they pass through different hands, the lies and sorrow in the couple’s lives accumulate and the earrings’ symbolism becomes more charged with each exchange, each layer of deceit and emotion and misunderstanding. Initially cold and frivolous, Madame de falls in love and even discovers herself capable of kindness.
Although Madame de is so short and not one single character is ever given a name, it carries a weight and depth which is testament to Louise de Vilmorin’s skills as a writer. She has certain expectations of her readers: that they will be able to recreate the nineteenth-century milieu in which it is set, obviating the need for lengthy description or explanation; that they will be familiar with Madame Bovary and perhaps also Anna Karenina. Isak Dinesen’s short stories also spring to mind, and the work of Lesley Blanche, I think they all share similar sensibilities. The book is, like Madame de herself, beautiful and elegant. I don’t know if any more of her work has been translated, but I should like to read it.