Not Under Forty, by Willa Cather

A Chance Meeting

I

It happened at Aix-les-Bains, one of the pleasantest places in the world. I was staying at the Grand-Hôtel d’Aix, which opens on the sloping little square with the bronze head of Queen Victoria, commemorating her visits to that old watering-place in Savoie. The Casino and the Opera are next door, just across the gardens. The hotel was built for the travellers of forty years ago, who liked large rooms and large baths, and quiet. It is not at all smart, but very comfortable. Long ago I used to hear old Pittsburghers and Philadelphians talk of it. The newer hotels, set on the steep hills above the town, have the fashionable trade; the noise and jazz and dancing.

In the dining-room I often noticed, at a table not far from mine, an old lady, a Frenchwoman, who usually lunched and dined alone. She seemed very old indeed, well over eighty, and somewhat infirm, though not at all withered or shrunken. She was not stout, but her body had that rather shapeless heaviness which for some detestable reason often settles upon people in old age. The thing one especially noticed was her fine head, so well set upon her shoulders and beautiful in shape, recalling some of the portrait busts of Roman ladies. Her forehead was low and straight, her nose made just the right angle with it, and there was something quite lovely about her temples, something one very rarely sees.

As I watched her entering and leaving the dining-room I observed that she was slightly lame, and that she utterly disregarded it — walked with a quick, short step and great impatience, holding her shoulders well back. One saw that she was contemptuously intolerant of the limitations of old age. As she passed my table she often gave me a keen look and a half-smile (her eyes were extremely bright and clear), as if she were about to speak. But I remained blank. I am a poor linguist, and there would be no point in uttering commonplaces to this old lady; one knew that much about her, at a glance. If one spoke to her at all, one must be at ease.

Several times in the early morning I happened to see her leave the hotel in her motor, and each time her chauffeur brought down and placed in the car a camp chair, an easel, and canvases and colour boxes strapped together. Then they drove off toward the mountains. A plucky old lady, certainly, to go sketching in that very hot weather — for this was in the latter part of August 1930, one of the hottest seasons Aix-les-Bains had ever known. Every evening after dinner the old lady disappeared into the lift and went to her own rooms. But often she reappeared later, dressed for the opera, and went out, attended by her maid.

One evening, when there was no opera, I found her smoking a cigarette in the lounge, where I had gone to write letters. It was a very hot night, and all the windows were open; seeing her pull her lace shawl closer about her shoulders, I went to shut one of them. Then she spoke to me in excellent English:—

“I think that draught blows out from the dining-room. If you will ask the boy to close the doors, we shall not feel the air.”

I found the boy and had the doors closed. When I returned, the old lady thanked me, motioned to a chair at her side, and asked if I had time for a cigarette.

“You are stopping at Aix for some time, I judge?” she asked as I sat down.

I replied that I was.

“You like it, then? You are taking a cure? You have been here before?”

No, I was not taking a cure. I had been here before, and had come back merely because I liked the place.

“It has changed less than most places, I think,” she remarked. “I have been coming here for thirty-five years; I have old associations with Aix-les-Bains. Besides, I enjoy the music here. I live in the South, at Antibes. You attend the Grand–Cercle? You heard the performance of Tristan and Iseult last night?”

I had not heard it. I told her I had thought the evening too frightfully hot to sit in a theatre.

“But it was no hotter there than anywhere else. I was not uncomfortable.”

There was a reprimand in her tone, and I added the further excuse that I had thought the principals would probably not be very good, and that I liked to hear that opera well sung.

“They were well enough,” she declared. “With Wagner I do not so much care about the voices. It is the orchestra I go to hear. The conductor last night was Albert Wolff, one of our best Kapellmeister.”

I said I was sorry I had missed the opera.

“Are you going to his classical concert tomorrow afternoon? He will give a superb rendering of Ravel’s La Valse — if you care for modern music.”

I hastily said that I meant to go.

“But have you reserved your places? No? Then I would advise you to do so at once. The best way here is to have places for the entire chain of performances. One need not go to all, of course; but it is the best way. There is little else to do here in the evening, unless one plays at the gaming tables. Besides, it is almost September; the days are lowering now, and one needs the theatre.” The old lady stopped, frowned, and made an impatient gesture with her very interesting hand. “What should I have said then? Lowering is not the word, but I seldom have opportunity to speak English.”

“You might say the days are growing shorter, but I think lowering a very good word.”

“Mais un peu poétique, n’est-ce pas?”

“Perhaps; but it is the right kind of poetic.”

“And by that you mean?”

“That it’s not altogether bookish or literary. The country people use it in some parts of England, I think. I have heard old-fashioned farmers use it in America, in the South.”

The old lady gave a dry little laugh. “So if the farmers use a word it is quite safe, eh?”

Yes, I told her, that was exactly what I meant; safe.

We talked a little longer on that first occasion. She asked if I had been to Chamonix, and strongly advised me to go to a place near Sallanches, where she had lately been visiting friends, on her way to Aix-les-Bains. In replying to her questions I fell into the stupid way one sometimes adopts when speaking to people of another language; tried to explain something in very simple words. She frowned and checked me with: “Speak idiomatically, please. I knew English quite well at one time. If I speak it badly, it is because now I have no practice.”

I said good-night and sat down at a desk to write letters. But on the way to my room I stopped to tell the friend with whom I was travelling that the old French lady we had so often admired spoke very good English, and spoke it easily; that she seemed, indeed, to have a rather special feeling for language.

II

The next day was intensely hot. In the morning the beautiful mountain ridges which surround Aix stood out sharp and clear, but the vineyards looked wilted. Toward noon the hills grew misty, and the sun poured down through a slightly milky atmosphere. I rather dreaded the heat of a concert hall, but at two o’clock I went to Albert Wolff’s concert, and heard such a rendition of Ravel’s La Valse as I do not expect to hear again; a small orchestra, wonderfully trained, and a masterly conductor.

The program was long, with two intermissions. The last group did not seem to be especially interesting, and the concert was quite long enough, and fine enough, without those numbers. I decided that I could miss them. I would go up to the Square and have tea beside the Roman arch. As I left the hall by the garden entrance, I saw the old French lady seated on the veranda with her maid, wearing a white dress and a white lace garden hat, fanning herself vigorously, the beads of moisture on her face making dark streaks in the powder. She beckoned to me and asked whether I had enjoyed the music. I told her that I had, very much indeed; but now my capacity for enjoying, or even listening, was quite spent, and I was going up to the Square for tea.

“Oh, no,” said she, “that is not necessary. You can have your tea here at the Maison des Fleurs quite well, and still have time to go back for the last group.”

I thanked her and went across the garden, but I did not mean to see the concert through. Seeing things through was evidently a habit with this old lady: witness the way she was seeing life through, going to concerts and operas in this wilting heat; being concerned that other people should go, moreover, and caring about the way in which Ravel was played, when in the course of nature her interest in new music should have stopped with César Franck, surely.

I left the Casino gardens through a grotto that gave into the street, went up to the Square, and had tea with some nice English people I had met on Mont Revard, a young business man and his wife come over for their holiday. I felt a little as if I had escaped from an exacting preceptress. The old lady took it for granted that one wished to accomplish as much as possible in a given space of time. I soon found that, to her, life meant just that — accomplishing things; “doing them always a little better and better,” as she once remarked after I came to know her.

While I was dressing for dinner I decided to go away for a few days, up into the high mountains of Haute–Savoie, under Mont Blanc. That evening, when the old lady stopped me to discuss the concert, I asked her for some suggestions about the hotels there, since at our first meeting she had said I must certainly go to some of the mountain places easily reached from Sallanches.

She at once recommended a hotel that was very high and cool, and then told me of all the excursions I must make from that place, outlining a full program which I knew I should not follow. I was going away merely to escape the heat and to regard Mont Blanc from an advantageous point — not to become acquainted with the country.

III

My trip into the mountains was wholly successful. All the suggestions the old lady had given me proved excellent, and I felt very grateful to her. I stayed away longer than I had intended. I returned to Aix-les-Bains late one night, got up early the next morning, and went to the bank, feeling that Aix is always a good place to come back to. When I returned to the hotel for lunch, there was the old lady, sitting in a chair just outside the door, looking worn and faded. Why, since she had her car and her driver there, she had not run away from the heat, I do not know. But she had stayed through it, and gone out sketching every morning. She greeted me very cordially, asked whether I had an engagement for the evening, and suggested that we should meet in the salon after dinner.

I was dining with my friend, and after dinner we both went into the writing-room where the old lady was awaiting us. Our acquaintance seemed to have progressed measurably in my absence, though neither of us as yet knew the other’s name. Her name, I thought, would mean very little; she was what she was. No one could fail to recognize her distinction and authority; it was in the carriage of her head, in her fine hands, in her voice, in every word she uttered in any language, in her brilliant, very piercing eyes. I had no curiosity about her name; that would be an accident and could scarcely matter.

We talked very comfortably for a time. The old lady made some comment on the Soviet experiment in Russia. My friend remarked that it was fortunate for the great group of Russian writers that none of them had lived to see the Revolution; Gogol, Tolstoi, Turgeniev.

“Ah, yes,” said the old lady with a sigh, “for Turgeniev, especially, all this would have been very terrible. I knew him well at one time.”

I looked at her in astonishment. Yes, of course, it was possible. She was very old. I told her I had never met anyone who had known Turgeniev.

She smiled. “No? I saw him very often when I was a young girl. I was much interested in German, in the great works. I was making a translation of Faust, for my own pleasure, merely, and Turgeniev used to go over my translation and correct it from time to time. He was a great friend of my uncle. I was brought up in my uncle’s house.” She was becoming excited as she spoke, her face grew more animated, her voice warmer, something flashed in her eyes, some strong feeling awoke in her. As she went on, her voice shook a little. “My mother died at my birth, and I was brought up in my uncle’s house. He was more than father to me. My uncle also was a man of letters, Gustave Flaubert, you may perhaps know. . .” She murmured the last phrase in a curious tone, as if she had said something indiscreet and were evasively dismissing it.

The meaning of her words came through to me slowly; so this must be the “Caro” of the Lettres à sa Nièce Caroline. There was nothing to say, certainly. The room was absolutely quiet, but there was nothing to say to this disclosure. It was like being suddenly brought up against a mountain of memories. One could not see round it; one could only stupidly realize that in this mountain which the old lady had conjured up by a phrase and a name or two lay most of one’s mental past. Some moments went by. There was no word with which one could greet such a revelation. I took one of her lovely hands and kissed it, in homage to a great period, to the names that made her voice tremble.

She laughed an embarrassed laugh, and spoke hurriedly. “Oh, that is not necessary! That is not at all necessary.” But the tone of distrust, the faint challenge in that “you may perhaps know. . .” had disappeared. “Vous connaissez bien les oeuvres de mon oncle?”

Who did not know them? I asked her.

Again the dry tone, with a shrug. “Oh, I almost never meet anyone who really knows them. The name, of course, its place in our literature, but not the works themselves. I never meet anyone now who cares much about them.”

Great names are awkward things in conversation, when one is a chance acquaintance. One cannot be too free with them; they have too much value. The right course, I thought, was to volunteer nothing, above all to ask no questions; to let the old lady say what she would, ask what she would. She wished, it seemed, to talk about les oeuvres de mon oncle. Her attack was uncertain; she touched here and there. It was a large subject. She told me she had edited the incomplete Bouvard et Pécuchet after his death, that La Tentation de Saint Antoine had been his own favourite among his works; she supposed I would scarcely agree with his choice?

No, I was sorry, but I could not.

“I suppose you care most for Madame Bovary?”

One can hardly discuss that book; it is a fact in history. One knows it too well to know it well.

“And yet,” she murmured, “my uncle got only five hundred francs for it from the publisher. Of course, he did not write for money. Still, he would have been pleased . . . Which one, then, do you prefer?”

I told her that a few years ago I had reread L’Éducation sentimentale, and felt that I had never risen to its greatness before.

She shook her head. “Ah, too long, prolix, trop de conversation. And Frédéric is very weak.”

But there was an eagerness in her face, and I knew by something in her voice that this was like Garibaldi’s proclamation to his soldiers on the retreat from Rome, when he told them he could offer them cold and hunger and sickness and misery. He offered something else, too, but the listeners must know that for themselves.

It had seemed to me when I last read L’Éducation sentimentale that its very faults were of a noble kind. It is too cold, certainly, to justify the subtitle, Roman d’un jeune homme; for youth, even when it has not generous enthusiasm, has at least fierce egotism. But I had wondered whether this cool, dispassionate, almost contemptuous presentation of Frédéric were not a protest against the overly sympathetic manner of Balzac in his stories of young men: Eugène de Rastignac, Lucien de Rubempré, Horace Bianchon, and all the others. Certainly Balzac’s habit of playing up his characters, of getting into the ring and struggling and sweating with them, backing them with all his animal heat, must have been very distasteful to Flaubert. It was perhaps this quality of salesmanship in Balzac which made Flaubert say of him in a letter to this same niece Caroline: “He is as ignorant as a pot, and bourgeois to the marrow.”

Of course, a story of youth, which altogether lacks that gustatory zest, that exaggerated concern for trivialities, is scarcely successful. In L’Éducation the trivialities are there (for life is made up of them), but not the voracious appetite which drives young people through silly and vulgar experiences. The story of Frédéric is a story of youth with the heart of youth left out; and of course it is often dull. But the latter chapters of the book justify one’s journey through it. Then all the hero’s young life becomes more real than it was as one followed it from year to year, and the story ends on a high plateau. From that great and quiet last scene, seated by the fire with the two middle-aged friends (who were never really friends, but who had been young together), one looks back over Frédéric’s life and finds that one has it all, even the dull stretches. It is something one has lived through, not a story one has read; less diverting than a story, perhaps, but more inevitable. One is “left with it,” in the same way that one is left with a weak heart after certain illnesses. A shadow has come into one’s consciousness that will not go out again.

The old French lady and I talked for some time about L’Éducation sentimentale. She spoke with warm affection, with tenderness, of Madame Arnoux.

“Ah yes, Madame Arnoux, she is beautiful!” The moisture in her bright eyes, the flush on her cheeks, and the general softening of her face said much more. That charming and good woman of the middle classes, the wife who holds the story together (as she held Frédéric himself together), passed through the old lady’s mind so vividly that it was as if she had entered the room. Madame Arnoux was there with us, in that hotel at Aix, on the evening of September 5, 1930, a physical presence, in the charming costume of her time, as on the night when Frédéric first dined at 24 rue de Choiseul. The niece had a very special feeling for this one of her uncle’s characters. She lingered over the memory, recalling her as she first appears, sitting on the bench of a passenger boat on the Seine, in her muslin gown sprigged with green and her wide straw hat with red ribbons. Whenever the old lady mentioned Madame Arnoux it was with some mark of affection; she smiled, or sighed, or shook her head as we do when we speak of something that is quite unaccountably fine: “Ah yes, she is lovely, Madame Arnoux! She is very complete.”

The old lady told me that she had at home the corrected manuscript of L’Éducation sentimentale. “Of course I have many others. But this he gave me long before his death. You shall see it when you come to my place at Antibes. I call my place the Villa Tanit, pour la déesse,” she added with a smile.

The name of the goddess took us back to Salammbô, which is the book of Flaubert I like best. I like him in those great reconstructions of the remote and cruel past. When I happened to speak of the splendid final sentence of Hérodias, where the fall of the syllables is so suggestive of the hurrying footsteps of John’s disciples, carrying away with them their prophet’s severed head, she repeated that sentence softly: “Comme elle était très lourde, ils la portaient alter-na-tiv-ement.”

The hour grew late. The maid had been standing in the corridor a long while, waiting for her mistress. At last the old lady rose and drew her wrap about her.

“Good night, madame. May you have pleasant dreams. As for me, I shall not sleep; you have recalled too much.” She went toward the lift with the energetic, unconquered step with which she always crossed the dining-room, carrying with hardihood a body no longer perfectly under her control.

When I reached my room and opened my windows I, too, felt that sleep was far from me. The full moon (like the moon in Salammbô) stood over the little square and flooded the gardens and quiet streets and the misty mountains with light. The old lady had brought that great period of French letters very near; a period which has meant so much in the personal life of everyone to whom French literature has meant anything at all.

IV

Probably all those of us who had the good fortune to come upon the French masters accidentally, and not under the chilling guidance of an instructor, went through very much the same experience. We all began, of course, with Balzac. And to young people, for very good reasons, he seems the final word. They read and reread him, and live in his world; to inexperience, that world is neither overpeopled nor overfurnished. When they begin to read Flaubert — usually Madame Bovary is the introduction — they resent the change of tone; they miss the glow, the ardour, the temperament. (It is scarcely exaggeration to say that if one is not a little mad about Balzac at twenty, one will never live; and if at forty one can still take Rastignac and Lucien de Rubempré at Balzac’s own estimate, one has lived in vain.) We first read Bovary with a certain hostility; the wine is too dry for us. We try, perhaps, another work of Flaubert, and with a shrug go back to Balzac. But young people who are at all sensitive to certain qualities in writing will not find the Balzac they left. Something has happened to them which dampens their enjoyment. For a time it looks as if they had lost both Balzac and Flaubert. They recover both, eventually, and read each for what he is, having learned that an artist’s limitations are quite as important as his powers; that they are a definite asset, not a deficiency, and that both go to form his flavour, his personality, the thing by which the ear can immediately recognize Flaubert, Stendhal, Mérimée, Thomas Hardy, Conrad, Brahms, César Franck.

The fact remains that Balzac, like Dickens and Scott, has a strong appeal for the great multitudes of humanity who have no feeling for any form of art, and who read him only in poor translations. This is overwhelming evidence of the vital force in him, which no rough handling can diminish. Also it implies the lack in him of certain qualities which matter to only a few people, but matter very much. The time in one’s life when one first began to sense the things which Flaubert stood for, to admire (almost against one’s will) that peculiar integrity of language and vision, that coldness which, in him, is somehow noble — that is a pleasant chapter of one’s life to remember, and Madame Franklin Grout had brought it back within arm’s length of me that night.

V

For that was her name. Next morning the valet de chambre brought me a visiting card on which was engraved:

                MADAME FRANKLIN GROUT

                       ANTIBES

In one corner Villa Tanit was written in purple ink.

In the evening we sat in the writing-room again, and Madame Grout’s talk touched upon many things. On the Franco–Prussian War, for instance, and its effect upon her uncle. He had seen to it that she herself was comfortably settled in England through most of that troubled time. And during the late war of 1914 she had been in Italy a great deal. She loved Italian best of all the languages she spoke so well. (She spoke Swedish, even; she had lived for a time in Sweden during the life of her first husband, who had business interests there.)

She talked of Turgeniev, of her uncle’s affection for him and great admiration for him as an artist.* She liked to recall his pleasant visits to Croisset, which were the reward of long anticipation on the part of the hosts. Turgeniev usually fixed the date by letter, changed it by another letter, then again by telegram — and sometimes he did not come at all. Flaubert’s mother prepared for these visits by inspecting all the beds in the house, but she never found one long enough to hold “le Moscove” comfortably.

Madame Grout seemed to remember with especial pleasure the evenings when he used to sit at the table with her, going over her translation of Faust: “That noble man, to give his time to my childish efforts!” She well remembered the period during which he was writing Les Eaux printanières, and her own excitement when she first read that work. Like Henry James, she seemed to resent Turgeniev’s position in the Viardot household; recalling it, even after such a long stretch of time, with vexation. “And when they gave a hunt, he looked after the dogs!” she murmured under her breath. She talked one evening of his sad latter years: of his disappointment in his daughter, of his long and painful illness, of the way in which the death of his friends, going one after another, contracted his life and made it bleak. But these were very personal memories, and if Madame Grout had wished to make them public, she would have written them herself.

Madame Viardot she had known very well, and for many years after Turgeniev’s death. “Pauline Viardot was a superb artist, very intelligent and engaging as a woman, with a great charm — and, au fond, very Spanish!” she said. Of Monsieur Louis Viardot she did not think highly. I gathered that he was agreeable, but not much more than that. When I asked her whether Monsieur Viardot had not translated some of Turgeniev’s books into French, the old lady lifted her brows and there was a mocking glint in her eyes.

“Turgeniev himself translated them; Viardot may have looked over his shoulder!”

George Sand she did not like. Yes, she readily admitted, her men friends were very loyal to her, had a great regard for her; mon oncle valued her comradeship; but Madame Grout found the lady’s personality distasteful.

I gathered that, for Madame Grout, George Sand did not really fill any of the great rôles she assigned herself: the devoted mistress, the staunch comrade and “good fellow,” the self-sacrificing mother. George Sand’s men friends believed her to be all these things; and certainly she herself believed that she was. But Madame Grout seemed to feel that in these various relations Madame Dudevant was self-satisfied rather than self-forgetful; always self-admiring and a trifle unctuous. Madame Grout’s distaste for this baffling kind of falseness was immediate and instinctive — it put her teeth on edge. Turgeniev, that penetrating reader of women, seems never to have felt this shallowness in his friend. But in Chopin’s later letters one finds that he, to his bitter cost, had become aware of it — curiously enough, through Madame Dudevant’s behaviour toward her own children! It is clear that he had come upon something so subtly false, so excruciatingly aslant, that when he briefly refers to it his sentences seem to shudder.

Though I tried to let Madame Grout direct our conversations without suggestion from me, and never to question her, I did ask her whether she read Marcel Proust with pleasure.

“Trop dur et trop fatigant,” she murmured, and dismissed the greatest French writer of his time with a wave of her hand.

When I made some reference to Anatole France she said quickly: “Oh, I like him very much! But I like him most where he is most indebted to my uncle!”

When she was tired, or deeply moved, Madame Grout usually spoke French; but when she spoke English it was as flexible as it was correct. She spoke like an Englishwoman, with no French accent at all.

What astonished me in her was her keen and sympathetic interest in modern music; in Ravel, Scriabin, Albéniz, Stravinsky, De Falla. Only a few days before I quitted Aix I found her at the box office in person, getting exactly the seats she wanted for a performance of Boris Godounov. She must change her habitual seat, as she had asked some friends to come over from Sallanches to hear the opera with her. “You will certainly hear it? Albert Wolff is conducting for the last time this season, and he does it very well,” she explained.

It was interesting to observe Madame Grout at the opera that night, to watch the changes that went over her face as she listened with an attention that never wandered, looking younger and stronger than she ever did by day, as if the music were some very potent stimulant. Any form of pleasure, I had noticed, made her keener, more direct and positive, more authoritative, revived in her the stamp of a period which had achieved a great style in art. In a letter which Flaubert wrote her when she was a young woman, he said:—

“C’est une joie profonde pour moi, mon pauvre loulou, que de t’avoir donné le goût des occupations intellectuelles. Que d’ennuis et de sottises il vous épargne!”

Certainly those interests had stood her in good stead, and for many more years than the uncle himself lived through. She had still, at eighty-four, a capacity for pleasure such as very few people in this world ever know at all.

VI

The next morning I told Madame Grout that, because of the illness of a friend, I must start at once for Paris.

And when, she asked, could I return and go south to Antibes and the Villa Tanit, to see her Flaubert collection, and the interior of his study, which she had brought down there thirty-five years ago?

I told her I was afraid that visit must be put off until next summer.

She gave a very charming laugh. “At my age, of course, the future is somewhat uncertain!” Then she asked whether, on her return to Antibes, she could send me some souvenir of our meeting; would I like to have something that had belonged to her uncle, or some letter written by him?

I told her that I was not a collector; that manuscripts and autographed letters meant very little to me. The things of her uncle that were valuable to me I already had, and had had for years. It rather hurt me that she should think I wanted any material reminder of her or of Flaubert. It was the Flaubert in her mind and heart that was to give me a beautiful memory.

On the following day, at déjeuner, I said goodbye to Madame Grout; I was leaving on the two o’clock train. It was a hurried and mournful parting, but there was real feeling on both sides. She had counted upon my staying longer, she said. But she did not for a moment take on a slightly aggrieved tone, as many privileged old ladies would have done. There was nothing “wayward” or self-indulgent about Madame Grout; the whole discipline of her life had been to the contrary. One had one’s objective, and one went toward it; one had one’s duty, and one did it as best one could.

The last glimpse I had of her was as she stood in the dining-room, the powder on her face quite destroyed by tears, her features agitated, but her head erect and her eyes flashing. And the last words I heard from her expressed a hope that I would always remember the pleasure we had had together in talking unreservedly about les oeuvres de mon oncle. Standing there, she seemed holding to that name as to a staff. A great memory and a great devotion were the things she lived upon, certainly; they were her armour against a world concerned with insignificant matters.

VII

When I got back to Paris and began to reread the Lettres de Flaubert à sa Nièce Caroline, I found that the personality of Madame Grout sent a wonderful glow over the pages. I was now almost startled (in those letters written her when she was still a child) by his solicitude about her progress in her English lessons — those lessons by which I was to profit seventy-three years afterward!

The five hundred pages of that book were now peopled for me with familiar figures, like the chronicles of a family I myself had known. It will always be for me one of the most delightful of books; and in none of his letters to other correspondents does Gustave Flaubert himself seem so attractive.

In reading over those letters, covering a stretch of twenty-four years, with the figure of Madame Grout in one’s mind, one feels a kind of happiness and contentment about the whole situation — yes, and gratitude to Fate! The great man might have written very charming and tender and warmly confidential letters to a niece who was selfish, vain, intelligent merely in a conventional way — because she was the best he had! One can never be sure about such things; a heartless and stupid woman may be so well educated, after all!

But having known Madame Grout, I know that she had the root of the matter in her; that no one could be more sensitive than she to all that was finest in Flaubert’s work, or more quick to admit the qualities he did not have — which is quite as important.

During all his best working years he had in his house beside him, or within convenient distance for correspondence, one of his own blood, younger and more ardent than he, who absolutely understood what he was doing; who could feel the great qualities of his failures, even. Could any situation be happier for a man of letters? How many writers have found one understanding ear among their sons or daughters?

Moreover, Caroline was the daughter of a sister whom Flaubert had devotedly loved. He took her when she was an infant into his house at Croisset, where he lived alone with his old mother. What delight for a solitary man of letters and an old lady to have a baby to take care of, the little daughter of a beloved daughter! They had all the pleasure of her little girlhood — and she must have been an irresistible little girl! Flaubert spent a great deal of time attending to her early education, and when he was seated at his big writing-table, or working in bed, he liked to have her in the room, lying on a rug in the corner with her book. For hours she would not speak, she told me; she was so passionately proud of the fact that he wanted her to be there. When she was just beginning to read, she liked to think, as she lay in her corner, that she was shut in a cage with some powerful wild animal, a tiger or a lion or a bear, who had devoured his keeper and would spring upon anyone else who opened his door, but with whom she was “quite safe and conceited,” as she said with a chuckle.

During his short stays in Paris, Flaubert writes to Caroline about her favourite rabbit, and the imaginary characters with whom she had peopled the garden at Croisset. He sends his greetings to Caroline’s doll, Madame Robert:—

“Remercie de ma part Mme. Robert qui a bien voulu se rappeler de moi. Présente-lui mes respects et conseille-lui un régime fortifiant, car elle me paraît un peu pale, et je ne suis pas sans inquiétude sur sa santé.”

In a letter from Paris, dated just a year later, when Caroline was eleven, he tells her that he is sending her Thierry’s Récits des temps mérovingiens, and adds:—

“Je suis bien aise que les Récits mérovingiens t’amusent; relis-les quand tu auras fini; apprends des dates, tu as tes programmes, et passe tous les jours quelque temps à regarder une carte de géographie.”

One sees from the letters with what satisfaction Flaubert followed every step of Caroline’s development. Her facility in languages was a matter of the greatest pride to him, though even after she is married and living abroad he occasionally finds fault with her orthography:—

“Un peu d’orthographe ne te nuirait pas, mon bibi! car tu écris aplomb par deux p: ‘Moral et physique sont d’applomb,’ trois p marqueraient encore plus d’énergie! Ça m’a amusé, parce que ça te ressemble.”

Yes, it was like her, certainly; like her as she walked across the floor of that hotel dining-room in Aix-les-Bains, so many years afterward.

Though she had been married twice, Madame Grout, in our conversations, did not talk of either of her husbands. Her uncle had always been the great figure in her life, and even a short acquaintance with her made me feel that she possessed every quality for comradeship with him. Besides her devotion to him, her many gifts, her very unusual intelligence and intuition in art, she had moral qualities which he must have loved: poise, great good sense, and a love of fairness and justice. She had the habit of searching out facts and weighing evidence, for her own satisfaction. Her speech, when she was explaining something, had the qualities of good Latin prose: economy, elegance, and exactness. She was not an idealist; she had lived through two wars. She was one of the least visionary and sentimental persons I have ever met. She knew that conditions and circumstances, not their own wishes, dictate the actions of men. In her mind there was a kind of large enlightenment, like that of the many-windowed workroom at Croisset, with the cool, tempered northern light pouring into it. In her, Flaubert had not only a companion, but a “daughter of the house” to cherish and protect. And he had her all his life, until the short seizure which took him off in an hour. And she, all her life, kept the handkerchief with which they had wiped the moisture from his brow a few moments before he died.

VIII

I sailed for Quebec in October. In November, while I was at Jaffrey, New Hampshire, a letter came from Madame Grout; the envelope had been opened and almost destroyed. I have received letters from Borneo and Java that looked much less travel-worn. She had addressed it to me in care of an obscure bookseller, on a small street in Paris, from whom she had got one of my books. (I suppose, in her day, all booksellers were publishers.) The letter had been forwarded through three publishing houses, and a part of its contents had got lost. In her letter Madame Grout writes that she is sending me “ci-joint une lettre de mon oncle Gustave Flaubert adressée à George Sand — elle doit être, je crois, de 1866. Il me semble qu’elle vous fera plaisir et j’ai plaisir à vous l’envoyer.”

This enclosure had been removed. I regretted its loss chiefly because I feared it would distress Madame Grout. But I wrote her, quite truthfully, that her wish that I should have one of her uncle’s letters meant a great deal more to me than the actual possession of it could mean. Nevertheless, it was an awkward explanation to make, and I delayed writing it until late in December. I did not hear from her again.

In February my friends in Paris sent me a clipping from the Journal des Débats which read:—

             MORT DE MME. FRANKLIN-GROUT

Nous apprenons avec tristesse la mort de Mme. Franklin–Grout, qui s’est éteinte à Antibes, à la suite d’une courte maladie.

Nièce de Gustave Flaubert, Mme. Franklin–Grout a joué un rôle important dans la diffusion et le succès des œuvres de son oncle. Exécutrice testamentaire du grand romancier, qui l’avait élevée et instruite, Mme. Franklin–Grout a publié la correspondance de son oncle, si précieuse pour sa psychologie littéraire, et qui nous a révélé les doctrines de Flaubert et sa vie de travail acharné. Mme. Franklin–Grout publia aussi Bouvard et Pécuchet. . . . Mme. Franklin–Grout était une personne charmante et distinguée, très attachée à ses amis et qui, jusqu’à la plus extrême vieillesse, avait conservé l’intelligence et la bonté souriante d’une spirituelle femme du monde.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/cather/willa/not_under_forty/chapter1.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30