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"A meditative tale of unrequited love—De Kretser's writing is by turns poetic, metaphorical and delicately elliptical, capable of evoking a mood or a change in direction in the subtlest of ways." - Independent on Sunday
On a cloudless summer afternoon in 1789, labourers working in the fields around Montsignac, a village in Gascony, saw a man fall out of the sky.
The balloon had drifted over a wooded ridge and into their valley. The farm-workers, straightening up one by one, shaded their eyes against the dazzle of sun on crimson and blue silk. The thing hung in the sky — sumptuous, menacing — like a sign from God or the devil.
Then there was thunder and fire, and a man plummeting earthwards.
It was the 14th of July. The world was about to change.
Stephen opened his eyes and fell in love.
It was right and natural that it should happen that way: he believed, like so many of his generation, in the coup de foudre — the lightning flash which reveals the lie of the land between a man and a woman. `An angel,' he sighed, not caring who might hear.
At once her face moved away, out of his field of vision. There was the sound of vigorous scratching.
He was propped up against cushions on a crimson sofa carved with scallop shells. There was slanting light, motespeckled, and the scent of roses. He took in the old-fashioned beams, on which blue and red flowers had once been painted, and the unpapered walls. But as usual it was the pictures he really noticed: the large one directly opposite him showed a maiden with a basket of fruit, and the rest were no better. He had imagined that kind of thing would be different in France.
An elderlyservant, long and thin as a nail, served him from a decanter on a silver tray. He sipped — was it brandy? something that made him choke — and looked around for her.
She was seated by the window, her head bent over a small garment at which she was stitching. But a child of about eight, solemn-faced and weighed down with dark curls, planted herself in front of him.
`Are you fatally injured? If you live, will you take me ballooning?'
`Mathilde, someone who has suffered an accident is ill-equipped for your conversation.' Stephen turned his head and saw a stout man in a mustard-yellow waistcoat, standing in front of the fireplace. `I envisage a speedier recovery for our visitor if you remove yourself from his vicinity. And take Brutus with you.'
Unperturbed, the child continued to gaze at Stephen with expectant curiosity. `I adore children,' he said and smiled at her. `They are so ... innocent and yet so perceptive in their apprehension of the world.'
`Oh no — another Rousseauist,' said the child with unconcealed disappointment. `I'm not like that at all.'
As she spoke, something manifested itself on the far side of the room. Stephen saw a squat black form, a squashed-in muzzle, a formidable underbite that exposed a row of yellow fangs. Swiftly and noiselessly, the apparition padded up to him and thrust its cold nose between his legs.
His knuckles whitened around his glass.
A tall young woman, whom he had not previously noticed, said, `Brutus!'
The creature withdrew its muzzle an inch or so and sneezed, scattering cold droplets. Its eyes were amber and unwavering, and made no secret of its low opinion of the intruder.
`It's quite all right,' the child said kindly. `He doesn't bite many people these days. He used to be much worse.'
`I trust you find the intelligence reassuring.' The stout gentleman crossed the room, obliging the dog to give reluctant ground. Stephen found himself looking up at panoramic grey eyebrows, and sharp brown eyes that pinned an enormous beaky nose into place. `Jean-Baptiste de Saint-Pierre' — holding out his hand — `Welcome to Montsignac.'
`Stephen Fletcher.' He attempted to get to his feet but Saint-Pierre wouldn't allow it, waving him back onto the cushions. Brown eyes and yellow ones continued their unhurried scrutiny of his person.
`Really? Then no doubt you have an opinion about turkeys.'
Stephen had just decided that a turkey must be something entirely different in France, when his host added, `But you speak our language very well.'
He identified it as a question. `I'm afraid you exaggerate. But my mother is a Frenchwoman, and since my father's death we've lived with her family.'
The explanation seemed to satisfy Saint-Pierre. `Well, Mr Fletcher, you appear not to have suffered any serious harm as a result of your unexpected descent into our midst.'
He had been away from home long enough to recognise that he was being gently mocked. Old World conversations required athleticism, a series of leaps between words and what they might mean. That was another thing he had not been prepared for.
`No. That is, I mean ...' He wriggled experimentally and regretted it: `My ankle ...' He drank more brandy and asked, `What happened?'
`Reports vary. My own conclusion, based on the available evidence, is that you leapt from a balloon that had caught fire. Fortunately, you landed on one of my haystacks. Some villagers carried you here. A doctor has been sent for, but the town is a few miles away.'
One of the young women — not the angel but the tall one — said, `Father, if the gentleman has hurt his ankle it'll swell up. He should take off his boot.'
At this, the servant creaked forward. `No sense at all,' he remarked, to no one in particular, between bootlaces.
Saint-Pierre said, `Allow me to present my daughters, Mr Fletcher. Mathilde you are already acquainted with. Then there is Sophie —' she nodded shyly at him — `and Claire, my eldest.'
The angel looked into his eyes and smiled. Not an angel after all, thought Stephen, but the Madonna herself, with that blue dress.
(Though not perhaps the way it clung to her body.)
`Madame la Marquise de Monferrant,' murmured Saint-Pierre, his head on one side, detached, observing.
Somehow the back of Stephen's hand struck the decanter, sending it crashing. The dog surged forward and fastened its jaws onto his shin.
When Saint-Pierre was twenty-four years old, Jean-Jacques Rousseau published The Social Contract. The philosopher was a controversial, even radical figure; Saint-Pierre found his book annoying, naively if passionately reasoned. His taste ran rather to the cynical wit of Voltaire, whose Candide he had bought in the original anonymous Swiss edition of 1760 and kept on his night-table ever since.
Yet when time had soothed the irritants of sentimentality and rhetorical excess, Saint-Pierre discovered Rousseau's arguments lodged pearl-like within him. The Genevan called for social justice, preached the essential goodness of nature, pleaded for substantial content over frivolous style. Saint-Pierre thrilled to it all. Which is not to be wondered at: we are innately lazy and selfish thinkers, and the philosophies we favour are inevitably those which correspond most closely to our own needs and inclinations. Saint-Pierre, despite the keenness of his mind, was no exception.
He was heir to one of the great southern families of the noblesse de robe, the judicial — as distinct from the military — nobility. But if he had been born within the cocoon of aristocratic privilege, life had instructed him in the essential flimsiness of that edifice. The Saint-Pierre family's troubles had begun with Jean-Baptiste's father, who at the age of twenty-two had forsaken his native Toulouse for the glitter of the capital. Well, of course: a young man, rich, ambitious, of noted brilliance. He had outgrown the provinces like a shabby suit of clothes.
He had social connections in the royal entourage and legal ones at the sovereign high courts. Thus he obtained a minor sinecure — Keeper of the Royal This or That — at Louis XV's Versailles as well as a place on the Parisian court of appeal. A year later he married the daughter of the president of the court. His future unrolled before him like cloth of gold.
Then he discovered two things about himself: he had a taste — and a talent, he believed — for gambling, and he was in love, hopelessly, unswervingly in love, with a woman who was not his wife. He would turn up of a night at the gaming tables with a bag of gold in each hand, and walk away whistling into the dawn with empty pockets. He found it necessary to spend more and more time at Versailles, to be near the chestnut-haired beauty who held his heart like a tremulous songbird in her plump little hand. On those occasions when luck went his way he bought her emeralds, which were what she loved best in the world.
His son associated Paris with sounds (his mother weeping and coughing, angry voices) and Versailles with smells (his father had a tiny set of airless rooms near the royal privies). Jean-Baptiste lived for the summers spent with his father's parents on their estate at Montsignac in Gascony: long, unreflecting, solitary days played out in forests and flower-filled lanes. There were dogs, meadows, vineyards, birdsong, the river's green expanse. He was his grandmother's darling, his grandfather's boast. There was no red-eyed mother spluttering behind a handkerchief, no red-faced father shouting that it had to be done, the land had to be sold and anyway it was only a temporary measure. No hard-faced boys jeered at him — their beaks jabbing peck peck peck — because his father was only a jumped-up magistrate from the provinces and not a proper courtier (unlike their fathers), nor a military commander (unlike their fathers), and horribly in debt (not unlike their fathers, but these things are different for courtiers and military commanders).
His mother coughed herself to an early grave. His father wept tears of self-reproach, hugging his son to his breast. Peering out from the embrace, the boy saw his father take a band of red and green stones from the dead woman's dressing-table and slip it into his pocket.
A whisper — it was no more — had begun to circulate about a judge whose judgment could be bought. Bribery in itself was more or less the order of the day; the scandal lay in being talked about. The president of the court found it expedient for his son-in-law to give up the judiciary in order to devote himself fully to his royal duties. Naturally, there was no appeal from the president's ruling.
The boy endured the decade that followed. Paris was the saddest, emptiest place. He worked hard at his books — he had the habit of scholarship easily acquired by lonely children — and his discipline was backed up by a razor-sharp mind: there at least his father hadn't failed him. As soon as he could, he made the journey in reverse, turning his back on the capital to enrol in law school in Toulouse.
The year Jean-Baptiste read Rousseau was the year his father died. The chestnut-haired woman, a widow for the past eighteen months, had accepted an offer of marriage from a distant, wealthy cousin, thus definitively spurning her former lover. They said old Saint-Pierre died of a broken heart, alone in his evil-smelling little room in the icy palace.
The son did what he could, with the help of his mother's money. The debts sucked up his inheritance and swelled, new creditors daily presenting their IOUs scrawled with his father's initials. He was glad to pay, glad to redeem the moral bankruptcy of his childhood. He saw himself as an honnête homme, an upright man. Early on in life, he had determined he would be the antithesis of the fawning courtier, the unfaithful husband, the judge who accepted bribes and robbed the dead. He gave up mortgaged estates with the lightest of hearts; Montsignac, which still belonged to his grandfather, was safe and that was the only parcel of his patrimony he cared about.
He chose to wear plain, slightly shabby clothes that would never have been tolerated at Versailles. He was rather proud of the fact that he was hopeless at dancing.
A position on the Toulouse parlement had followed naturally for the brilliant law student. Saint-Pierre told himself he had earned it by his own efforts, although he knew very well that his lineage weighed equally in his recruitment to the high court, his grandfather having renounced his place on the bench in favour of his grandson. The essential thing, reasoned Jean-Baptiste, was that he took his work seriously and judged the cases that came before him with impartiality, careful to use his office in the interests of ordinary people, scrupulous in his dissection of privilege.
Thus are we defined by the influences we would most resist.
But perhaps you have the wrong impression of Saint-Pierre. It shouldn't be thought that he was a prig. He laughed readily, finding absurdity in most things, and was possessed of a slightly malicious turn of phrase. And like all true Gascons, he knew the pleasures of the table. Sober as a judge, so the saying goes, and Saint-Pierre took care to be, despite his partiality to armagnac and the wines of Bordeaux. But food was a source of harmless delight. He sucked the tiny bones of roast ortolans, smacked his lips over cassoulets made with good Toulouse sausage, devoured pâtés, soufflés, omelettes, lemon tarts, Marennes oysters, Corsican blackbirds, pigs' trotters stuffed with pistachios, filet mignon spiked with truffles, those small, round goat cheeses that have been rolled in wood-ash. He had a special weakness for foie gras made from the liver of the red-legged partridge. He allowed himself small gastronomic affectations, insisting that woodcock should never be drawn, but hung up by the feet until the feathers fell and the insides deliquesced and dripped out through the beak.
He had always been tall. Now he grew fat. He was proud of that, too: at Versailles, they watched their figures.
The girl he married came from a family which, although perfectly respectable, was neither wealthy nor well connected; his marriage could not be said to be spurred by greed, snobbery or desire for preferment. Not that anyone thought to look beyond the obvious motive for his choice: Marguerite, his eighteen-year-old bride, turned heads wherever she went. Along with the usual silver, linen and furniture, she brought with her a retinue of disappointed bachelors who hung mournfully around the household, importuning her with their eyes and assuring Saint-Pierre that he was `a lucky dog'.
But the girl who could have had her pick of Toulouse was in love with her husband, who made her laugh; and the young man who often woke from dreams of his mother crying and found his own face wet was utterly enamoured of his wife. Love matches, marriages welded together by affection rather than duty or material gain, were à la mode, and the Saint-Pierres, with their two sweet little girls, were the very model of domestic happiness.
There were sorrows of course — their son lived three days, Marguerite's sister was carried off by smallpox — and anxiety about money was never far away. The judiciary, for all its prestige, was not a lucrative career. Magistrates were expected to supplement their modest incomes, in theory from personal fortunes, in reality from a variety of venal practices. Saint-Pierre made a virtue of limited means; there were, nevertheless, certain appearances that had to be maintained. Like Rousseau, he could have said that although he lived economically, his purse insensibly exhausted itself: his daughters needed, his wife had to, his position required.
They spent every summer at Montsignac, where the big house stood empty since the death of his grandfather. Marguerite sat sketching on the terrace, worked in her garden, became acquainted with the village and its inhabitants. Dainty Claire, her father's favourite, clung to her mother's skirts, so it was Sophie who accompanied Saint-Pierre on his rambles through the countryside, scampering to keep up with his stride, memorising the casually recited names of birds and plants, filling her pockets with leaves, berries, a hedge-sparrow's nest, a curiously shaped pebble. Returning from these excursions, they would be met by Claire, who always ran to welcome her father home. He seized her wrists and whirled her off her feet while she shrieked with joy; he kissed her and scooped her up onto his shoulders. Sophie, standing a little way off, picked at the dusty hem of her dress.
One winter, when she had been married less than a dozen years, Marguerite began to cough. Saint-Pierre recognised that note instantly. Like his mother, his wife now turned her face away when he tried to kiss her.
So, finally, he had that too in common with his father.
He mortgaged Montsignac without hesitation and sent for doctors from Montpellier, Padua, Edinburgh, Vienna, even Paris. Depending on the remedies they confidently prescribed, he would stand over Marguerite until she swallowed the cup of ox blood or submitted trembling to the application of leeches. He piled layer upon layer of quilts over her small white body to sweat out the disease, stifling her protests. He insisted she spend the winter in Italy with her mother, although she wept and coughed and didn't want to go.
While Marguerite was away, Saint-Pierre's maternal grandmother died in Paris. Secretly he had anticipated this event, guiltily looking forward to the money he was sure he would inherit; although they saw each other very rarely, since he never went to Paris and she seldom left it, he was her only grandson. She had presented him with an extraordinarily ugly but undeniably valuable Sèvres dinner-set on the occasion of his marriage and she never forgot his name-day.
As it turned out, the old lady left him nothing but her husband's law books. Her Parisian son-in-law sent Saint-Pierre a curt letter informing him of the fact, and enquiring what arrangements he intended to make for taking possession of the volumes. Saint-Pierre wrote back asking for the books to be sold; he could imagine the sneer with which the implicit avowal of need would be received. Well, their good opinion meant nothing to him. That Montsignac would pass to his creditors was the only unthinkable thing. He sat in his library behind a desk where debts lay like leaf-fall and knew what he had to do.
By the time Marguerite returned from Italy everything had been decided and set in motion. The lease on the expensive townhouse was to be given up in the spring and its contents auctioned; the Saint-Pierres were moving to Montsignac where the clean country air would be far better for Marguerite's lungs than the stench and filth of the town.
Worn out from the long journey home, his wife lay on a sofa and tried to make sense of it. `But how will we live? What will you do? Your work —'
`It's all settled,' he told her, not without a trace of pride at his resourcefulness. `A vacancy on the appeal court in Castelnau comes up at the end of the sessions and I shall be filling it.'
From the parlement of Toulouse to the appeal court at Castelnau! `You could have been president!' she whispered, appalled.
He went to sit beside her and took her hand. `My dear,' he said gently, `we have no choice. And we have always been happy at Montsignac, you know that.'
She thought, It is all very well for the summer.
1. Stephen Fletcher, the charismatic American balloonist, makes a dramatic entrance. Discuss his contribution to the plot. What does he symbolise, taking into consideration his origins and attitudes?
2. The 'trivial' and domestic (food, fashion, gardening) are extensively detailed. How does this preoccupation with the minutiae of 18th century life contribute to the unsettling sense of realism when the Terror invades this idyll?
3. De Kretser sets the rose at the centre of her novel. Why does she do this and what does the rose symbolise? What do you think the 'garden' represents? And to what extent does the 'Nature' imagery colour the novel as a whole?
4. Discuss the conflict of the progressive and the passive. Compare the fates of the 'progressive' characters such as Dr Morel with Saint-Pierre who judges himselfguilty of 'inattention, selfishness, complacency.' (p.281) Consider the Enlightenment philosophy and the Darwinian 'evolution' theory.
5. Compare the three Saint-Pierre sisters different attitudes and reactions to their rapidly changing worlds. Discuss the themes of denial, sublimation and obsession.
6. Consider the conclusion. Is there hope and a moral at the end? Examine the author's narrative stance. Is it dispassionate throughout the novel? Do you think she condemns Sophie and if so, why?