The House of Madame Tellier
I acquired the book at a wedding recently where old books had been harvested for use as part of the wedding decoration and guests were welcome to take away what they liked. I’d heard of the author but never read anything of his, hence this hardback coming home with me. I try not to judge a book by its cover and with a book as plain as this you might assume it’s difficult to make any assumptions on the content. However, as I read it, I brought assumptions to the page of what a man from the Victorian era would write about, the moral tone that would be in evidence and the potentially narrow space female characters would have to inhabit. What a pleasure to find a voice from the past who seemed far more accepting and forgiving of women than other contemporary male writers. Don’t get me wrong, the writing still has the voice of the patriarch about it in that women are often lumped together under one description, expected to be beautiful, falling out of favour when not – but de Maupassant was far more open about their sexual choices than any Victorian male author I can recall encountering.
The title story features a brothel whose denizens shut up shop for a couple of days to attend a wedding and cause quite a stir in the church though not for the reasons you might expect. The most entertaining of the whole collection for me, now added to my list of favouriteshort stories, was ‘At A Price’ where a husband finds himself in the position of buying back his wife’s affections as he has found he has fallen in love with her again, and she won’t have him back for anything less than he pays his mistresses. 'The Relic' is an epistolary story that deals with a character caught out in an elaborate lie about a holy relic he claims to have stolen for his love. In 'The Dear Departed', a man wanders a graveyard at night, stricken with the death of his mistress, and in the dark he sees the dead rise from their graves to strike out the messages on their headstones and write out truer epithets for themselves. There are two dozen stories in this collection and I enjoyed them all and would recommend this book and this author to those who love a good short story.
After reading this collection I did a little research on the writer. The majority of his tales deal with love in some way – and I don’t mean a spiritual love. His love is flesh and bone and sex. Lots of sex. With husbands/ wives or lovers or both. It wasn’t a surprise to learn that he spent a large amount of time with prostitutes and was promiscuous in his prime. I enjoyed the variety of his short stories and the fact that the characters were real people with real feelings, emotions and physical needs. I don’t recall any English writer I have encountered from the Victorian era capturing that without a huge range of emotional strife and heavy moral judgement to go with it. I read an essay on the internet that said Guy de Maupassant was a bleak realist – I would not have used the word bleak to describe this collection. Life is what life is; people are what people are. There is action and consequence, and every voice and character encountered felt real to me.
Would I read more of this author? Yes. Especially as a glance on Amazon has revealed some free kindle offerings by the author, including a set of complete short stories.