Stefan Zweig was rather impressed by her poems, according to his “Begegnungen mit Büchern”. (See Stefan Zweig) But Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, autodidact romantic poet, not only wrote poetry. Marc Bertrand’s selection of texts will also introduce you to her short stories, children stories, novellas, and letters.
Mr Bertrand ordered the texts in this introduction to Marceline Desbordes-Valmore and often gives a few lines of accompanying explanations with each text. His book starts with a Préface by Yves Le Hir, followed by an Avant-propos and Chronologie of Marceline Desbordes. Then follow the selected texts, arranged in six categories:
- Les petits Flamands;
The book ends with a short “Eléments Bibliiographiques” listing various publications of works by Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, from which the selected texts or excerpts were taken.
Marceline was born in Douai. She refers to the region as Flemish and it borders Belgium. Some northern parts of France do share a Dutch or Flemish dialect with their neighbouring countries. Douai and the region where Marceline spent her short youth feature regularly in her writings such as in “Les petits Flamands“.
Memories of her dreadful voyage with her mother to Guadeloupe, her short stay on the island and the even worse return journey Marceline had to make alone, also influenced some of her writings. This anthology for instance contains her poem “l’Esclave”.
The short stories can be divided in those written to instruct or educate children, and those aimed at adult readers. There are excerpts from her novels, as well as from letters to friends, husband, and children. All in all, this book contains a very impressive, diverse, and fascinating selection of writings.
Marceline was an autodidact, but what certainly must have helped her, was her stage experience as an actress and singer. Her wrote elegies, sonnets, ballads – some of her poems were written to be sung to popular tunes – and used various other forms.
One of her poems, “Les Séparés“, deals with her feelings about being left behind by her lover. The poem was later interpreted and set to music by French singer Julien Clerc. Not surprising, as several of the selected poems were written to contemporary tunes. Other poems not only deal with love, but with religion, politics, wars and revolutions, motherhood, her children.
There is the very stirring “Le Drapeau Tricolore” written in July 1830 during one of the many revolutions Marceline lived through:
Les voilà, ces couleurs peintes dans ma mémoire,
Qui flottaient dans l’air libre autour de mon berceau!
Le voilà, ce doux prisme où j’ai vu tant de gloire!
Railliez-vous, Français! voilà votre drapeau.
The other couplets of this poem are just as stirring. But as Marceline not only witnessed revolutions but also wars, other poems deal with this subject. One of the most moving is “Un Déserteur“, which describes the stealthy return of a deserter to his home village on a quiet Sunday. He observes the peaceful church from a safe distance and imagines his mother praying inside. This poem has a haunting and very moving refrain which changes slightly after each eight lines to echo the feelings of the preceding lines:
Ma mère! ma mère!
Qui priez lá-bas,
Dans votre prière
Ne m’accusez pas!
This moving poem is truly timeless and could well have been written during World War I, or during all the other wars humanity has witnessed.
One of the selected poems which has her home-town as subject is “Le Puits de Notre-Dame” which is dedicated to Douai. This book also includes an excerpt of “Sol Natal”. Another poem “Les Regrets” deals not only with the loss of a lover, but also with the death of the illegitimate child Marceline bore him:
J’ai tout perdu! mon enfant par la mort,
Et, dans quel temps! mon ami par l’absence;
Je n’ose dire, hélas! par l’inconstance;
Ce doute est le seul bien que m’ait laissé le sort.
Mais cet enfant, cet orgueil de mon âme,
Je ne le devrai plus qu’ aux erreurs du sommeil:
De ses beaux yeux j’ ai vu mourir la flamme,
Fermés par le repos qui n’ a point de réveil.
From her description of the loss of her child, she touches upon the loss of an inconstant lover to return to her dead child.
Marceline wrote educational or instructional short stories for children and very short stories for adults as well. Four of her stories are included in this book.
“La Jambe de Damis“, from “Le Livre des Mères et des Enfants“, is only two pages long. Like her poem “l’Esclave” it deals with slavery. The story ends with a moral lesson: both children are sent to France to receive an equal education. The former slave “guéri et grandi, s’appela un jour le Sauveur des blancs.” The white little terror does less well.
Romans and Nouvelles
The excerpt from “l’Atelier du Peintre” focusses on Marceline’s youth. However, like many authors, she “tampered” with her recollections to create a romanticized version. In both texts selected and published under “Romans“, Marceline is part of the story under the name Ondine. In fact, Ondine was the name of one of her daughters.
The chapter “La Royauté d’un jour“, taken from “Les petits Flamands“, is another piece based on Marceline’s memories. It describes a traditional feast, celebrated according to Flemish rituals during Holy Innocents’ Day. Marceline figures in the story as Agnès Aldenhof. “Les petits Flamands” describes Marceline’s life among her extended family, before her mother and she left for Guadeloupe to get financial support from their relative.
All the prose selections show Marceline to have been a very able writer. The selected “contes” fit in with a contemporary taste to instruct children through moral pieces setting examples. Her reworked memories are interesting and really portray contemporary life among the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century poor.
One expects her letters to be just as entertaining. The short selection contains excerpts from letters to friends and family members. Marceline is a chatty writer. Her letters contain information for the absent husband on how the children are doing, giving friends descriptions of foreign places (lodgings in Milan are frightfully expensive and the climate is just as bad as in Lyon), meetings with such people as Madame Récamier and others.
They are also evidence of the difficulties Marceline faced in trying to make ends meet in Paris. Stefan Zweig counted the number of moves she had to make in Paris: between 15 to 20 in roughly as many years. She mentions the problems of finding affordable lodgings and having to make-do with living in the attics on the fifth or sixth floor – with no elevator, of course. Not much seems to have changed regarding high rents and affordable places in Paris.
But there are also heartrending paragraphs addressed to friends: she is in despair about the loss of a beloved child. For all Marceline’s children, the illegitimate and legitimate ones, were truly loved.
All in all, this small anthology is a fascinating introduction to this nineteenth century romantic poet and author. It certainly clarifies why Stefan Zweig dedicated so many pages to her. However: what a shame he concentrated on her poetry. For it is not her poetry which stands out in Marc Bertrand’s anthology.
Her prose writings such as the excerpts from novellas and letters and her short stories impress most. These show what life was like in 19th century France, for the people living through wars and revolutions while trying to make ends meet and facing a possible slide down society’s ladder into abject poverty.
Too bad there is no English biography available, nor English translations of Marcelina Desbordes-Valmore’s poems, short stories, novellas, or letters.
“Marceline Desbordes-Valmore Textes Choisis”, Marc Bertrand, pp 260, HB Ëditions, 2001
Youtube: “Les Séparés”, Julien Clerc, from the album “Julien”