A Woman’s Life was first published as Une Vie in 1883. Maupassant began working on it in 1877 when he was only twenty-seven and it was to be his first novel. The translation I read was from 1965 by H. N. P. Sloman for Penguin Books.
The book covers the adult life of Jeanne and begins with her returning home after five years in a convent. She is aged seventeen and is happy to be returning to the Poplars, the home of her loving parents. Her parents are reasonably wealthy, owning several farms, but they are slowly selling these off to raise money. Jeanne’s father, the Baron, is trying to move with the times by introducing new farming methods on his farms. Jeanne’s mother, once beautiful, now suffers from various ailments which leaves her exhausted and short of breath. A frequent visitor to the house is Jeanne’s Aunt Lison; she is in her forties, timid and unobtrusive. Here is Maupassant’s description of her:
She was a short, silent, unobtrusive woman, only appearing at meal-times and then retiring to her room, where she remained closeted all day. She had a friendly manner and was beginning to feel her age, though she was only forty-two. Her eyes were soft and sad and she had never counted for anything in the family. As a child no one had ever kissed her, for she was neither pretty nor noisy; she was like a shadow or some familiar object, a living piece of furniture that one sees every day without noticing it.
Aunt Lison appears at different parts of the story but is hardly noticed by any of the other characters at all.
Although not particularly religious the family attends church regularly out of respect for the abbé. One day at church they are introduced to their new neighbour, the young Vicomte de Lamare, who has inherited the property following his father’s recent death. Jeanne and Julien, the Vicomte, soon begin courting and decide to marry. This is, for Jeanne, a blissful period of her life. The wedding is planned for six weeks time followed by a honeymoon in Corsica. There is a wonderful scene where the two lovers go off for an evening walk in the gardens. The Baron and Baroness go to bed and ask Aunt Lison to wait up for the young couple. Coming back Julien notices that Jeanne’s shoes are wet and asks ‘Aren’t your darling little feet cold?’ Lison, hearing this, begins to tremble, then sob. When asked why she says ‘No one has ever asked me a question like that…never…never.’ She then runs off to her room much to the amusement of the young couple. Jeanne mutters ‘Poor Auntie!’ Jeanne is amused at the thought of any man making love to Aunt Lison but Jeanne is just as unprepared for her wedding night and married life. Maupassant is quite explicit, for a nineteenth century writer, in his depiction of their wedding night. Jeanne gets used to married life but does not enjoy the physical side.
After the misery of the first night Jeanne had got used to Julien’s touch, his kisses and tender embraces, though her revulsion from their more intimate relations remained. She found him attractive and loved him, and her light-heartedness and gaiety returned.
During their honeymoon in Corsica Jeanne continues to feel embarrassed about Julien’s sexual appetite. However, one day finding themselves alone whilst trekking up a mountain path she becomes more playful with Julien and she experiences physical sexual pleasure for the first time. The remainder of the honeymoon is like a dream for her.
Well, what with this being a nineteenth century novel we know that things will slowly get worse from hereon. Once they return to the Poplars the everyday realities of life become clearer. It becomes apparent that Julien is extremely miserly, even resenting spending money on food and heating, and he seems to have quickly lost interest in his wife. Jeanne, meanwhile, realises that she has nothing to occupy her time as Julien takes complete control of the finances and the running of the property. It turns out that Julien’s lack of sexual interest in his wife is because he is chasing other women; first there is the maid, Rosalie and then a local Countess, Gilberte. As the novel progresses Jeanne is let down by everyone, one by one. Her husband has affairs; even her parents, it turns out had lovers in the past; her son becomes a dissolute young man who, through his gambling debts and reckless business deals, drains Jeanne’s whole inherited wealth. When a new, puritanical, abbé arrives Jeanne becomes momentarily drawn towards religion but in the end she can’t accept his vengeful, vindictive God.
As Jeanne is introduced to the miseries of life Maupassant portrays her compassionately, he does not ridicule her for her naivety, instead he shows how she copes with it and adapts to the new situations. She is naturally optimistic even if events are sometimes overwhelming. By the end of the book Rosalie has returned and helps to organise the day-to-day running of Jeanne’s life and they become friends. The novel ends with her son, Paul, wishing to return, having already delivered his newly born daughter into her care, whom she instantly dotes on. Rosalie sums it up: ‘You see, life is never as good or as bad as one thinks.’ Maupassant has convinced us to hope for the best for Jeanne.
This was cross-posted on my blog Intermittencies of the Mind