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“Women are not supposed to write; yet I write.” –Marceline Desbordes-Valmore
In 1817, at the late age of thirty-three,Marceline Desbordes, the actress and Romantic poet–the only woman counted by Paul Verlaine among his poètes maudits, or “accursed poets,” a group that included Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, and Alfred de Vigny–marries Prosper Valmore, a fellow actor who brings love and stability to her tumultuous life. Such stability is short-lived, however:When she meets Henri de Latouche, an influential man ...
“Women are not supposed to write; yet I write.” –Marceline Desbordes-Valmore
In 1817, at the late age of thirty-three,Marceline Desbordes, the actress and Romantic poet–the only woman counted by Paul Verlaine among his poètes maudits, or “accursed poets,” a group that included Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, and Alfred de Vigny–marries Prosper Valmore, a fellow actor who brings love and stability to her tumultuous life. Such stability is short-lived, however:When she meets Henri de Latouche, an influential man of letters, they soon begin a passionate affair. Although their tryst does not last more than a year, their relationship survives through letters and memory. It sparks inspiration in Marceline’s work and leads her to create some of the most beautiful poetry in French literature. A talented poet, a romantic woman, a passionate lover, a nurturing mother, and a child at heart, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore is rescued from obscurity through Plantagenet’s dazzling writing in this fictionalized biography. The book will include a selection of Desbordes-Valmore’s poems in the original French and in an English translation by the Pulitzer Prize—winning poet Louis Simpson.
Not far from the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Childeberte is a big five-story structure inhabited by artists of every shade. Tucked in a corner behind the canvases and hardly bothered by the turpentine fumes, I am able to turn all my attention to my poems. Or so I pretend. But the truth is that for months I have been stopping at my uncle Constant’s studio only briefly on my way to the rue des Saints-Pères.
“My son, your husband, is very obliging. To think that he wears himself out on the stage of the Odéon day after day, poor boy, so that we may live, while you traipse about the streets without the slightest concern for his reputation!” says Anne-Justine. Her voice holds exasperation as well as hatred.
“When a person has a past such as yours,” she went on, “and has managed by a miracle–or by artifice–to marry the foremost actor of the day, one might expect some attempt at discretion. But you are mistaken if you think that I am like Prosper! I hear what people are saying . . .”
I sigh. There are rumors, I am well aware of it, prompted as much by my poetry as by my former career as an actress. My mother-in-law takes them in greedily. She has never accepted that her only son should marry a woman seven years older than himself. And one who, at least while I was still performing, received greater acclaim on the stage. I am untroubled by her words. In the early days of our marriage, Anne-Justine’s attacks hit home and wounded me and Valmore both. Now they barely graze me. Shallow scratches that are quickly erased by Henri’s claw marks.
1. Were you aware of the celebrated French poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore prior to reading The Last Rendezvous? Anne Plantagenet did a lot of research into Marceline's life in order to write this fictional account. Why do you suppose the author chose to write The Last Rendezvous as a novel rather than as a biography? Discuss the freedoms allowed by the format she chose. Would you have been as drawn to this book had it been written as a biography? Why or why not?
2. Marceline often speaks of having been robbed of her childhood. What effect does this have on her thoughts and actions as an adult? How does this sense of lost time shape her as a wife and lover?
3. We learn that Henri's name is actually Hyacinthe. Discuss the irony of him being named after a beautiful flower. Why do you suppose Henri allows a simple misunderstanding about the initial ("H") he uses as his signature to go uncorrected, and chooses to go by an assumed name even with his most intimate relations? Marceline declares, "He goes masked." In what ways is this so? What masks does Marceline wear?
4. From all outward appearances, Valmore is the ideal husband. He is attentive, patient, doting, attractive, honest, and provides the unconditional love and stability Marceline never knew in childhood. Discuss why Marceline cannot allow herself to be happy in her life with Valmore. Why does she crave the uncertainty and chaos that her affair with Henri brings? Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you got just what you always thought you wanted only to find that it was not as fulfilling as you had imagined? Have you ever eschewed peace in favor of havoc? Discuss any parallels you see between Marceline's life and your life or the lives of those close to you.
5. Discuss Marceline's approach to motherhood. She declares, "No woman is more a mother than I am. I live and breathe for my child." In what ways does Marceline come across as a devoted mother? What signs do you see of the opposite? How would Marceline's parenting style be received today?
6. When Marceline was a child, and home life started to unravel, her father continually reinvented himself in order to get by. Marceline tells us that, "accepting no responsibility for our misfortunes, he invented harebrained stories, spun outrageous nonsense." What lessons does Marceline learn from her father's coping mechanisms? How does Marceline's father's penchant for manufacturing "beautiful lies" eventually graft itself into Marceline's personal and professional life?
7. We watch as Marceline's mother leaves her husband and chases the dream of a new relationship. Rather than freeing herself, Catherine becomes emotionally dependent on Saintenoy, who fails to provide for her in any real way. What lessons does Marceline learn from this? In what ways is Marceline like her mother? Different from her? To what extent are we doomed to recreate the same mistakes we watched our parents make?
8. As a child, Marceline treasures her one-on-one time with her mother but desperately wishes that Catherine would confide in her and open up to her emotionally. How does Marceline carry this trait of trying to draw blood from a stone into adulthood and her other relationships? Discuss the similarities between Henri and Catherine. Is Marceline capable of feeling content? Why or why not?
9. Marceline's mother-in-law is described as suspicious, jealous, and disapproving of Marceline. Her father-in-law is described as a companion who relies on her and appreciates her. In what ways do her in-laws represent Marceline's conscience? Discuss how the two are outward symbols of Marceline's inner turmoil.
10. Discuss the French Revolution as a backdrop in this novel. In what ways does the author use this as a tool to unfold the drama of her story? In what real ways do you think it played a part in shaping Marceline's personal and professional life?
11. At turns we hear Marceline's assessment of her own circumstances as having been "abducted," "sacrificed," and "in exile." In what ways does Marceline surrender power over her own life to others? Does she ever fully take responsibility for her actions?
12. It seems that Marceline uses the two pillars of her professional career—theatre and poetry—for distinctly different purposes. Which does she use as a veil, and how? Which art form makes her feel most free, and why? Discuss the role of art in this novel and in your own life. What pleasure and purpose do you derive from the written word versus performance?
13. After reading Marceline's poems, do you see her differently through her own words? Do have a deeper understanding of her life or her feelings? How do her poems speak to you, as opposed to the novel?
14. Marceline has been called "an early feminist." In what ways is this true? By today's standards would you consider her more of a feminist or a traditionalist? Discuss how her life and choices may have been different had she lived in modern times.
Posted December 26, 2010
The Last Rendezvous is the fictional autobiography of the dedicated poet and reluctant actress, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, who lived from 1786 to 1859. As Plantagenet notes in her "Acknowledgments" to the novel, "[t]his novel distorts historical reality throughout. The actual life of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, French woman of letters (b. Douai, 1786; d. Paris, 1859) was likely quite different from the one recounted here. And Marceline Desbordes-Valmore would not have told her story as I have. She would not have told it at all."
Marceline definitely is not portrayed as a shrinking violet in The Last Rendezvous. In fact, she appears to wallow in her emotions, while disregarding those of her husband, Prosper Valmore, as well as those of her lover and inspiration for most of her poetic genius, Hyacinthe Thabaud de Latouche, more familiarly known as Henri. For a large portion of the novel, Marceline portrays herself as being torn between the stability that her husband provides and the intoxication of her romantic involvement with her reclusive and eccentric lover. The intensity and depth with which Plantagenet reveals the quandaries that beset Marceline are dwelt on as though they come from the personal explorations of an intimate journal.
Plantagenet alternates chapters between the young Marceline, who is torn away from her father and other siblings in her mother's elopement of the spirit to the Antilles islands, where her mother succumbs to ill health, and the older, more emotionally drained, Marceline, who can only find respite in the arms of her physically unattractive, though intellectually astute, lover. Readers are inevitably encouraged to compare the older and the younger Marceline, which facilitates their becoming involved in the sequence of events. The dichotomy between present and past is not only intriguing, adding to the multi-layered feel of the text, but also mirrors the spirit of the correspondence on which Marceline spent much of her life, even coming to refer to it as her "religion".
Marceline's own waywardness, as it is portrayed in the pages of this novel, seems to be part hereditary, part due to her unusual upbringing. She appears to feel no remorse about her actions, which were far from conventional at the time. However, her compassion for social outcasts, as well as for her alcoholic father and brother, reveal traits of kindness, to which she makes only passing reference, as she does to the political and social upheaval of the revolutionary times in which she lived. Anne Plantagenet's personal knowledge of the French landscape, including that of the distinction between Parisian and small town life, adds resonance to the text.
The work ends with a selection of poems by Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, which are given both in their original French and in their English translation by Louis Simpson, with the assistance of Willard Wood. Anne Plantagenet was awarded the 2005 Award for Narrative Biography by the Académie internationale des arts et collections for Seule au rendez-vous. This novel should appeal to all who are interested in the Romantic Movement and to the literary outpourings of women. However, it can also be read as a straightforward period romance, so The Last Rendezvous should be blessed with a wide reading audience.