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La Petite Personne Post by :doum3 Category :Essays Author :Maurice Hewlett Date :November 2011 Read :2039

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La Petite Personne

No letter-writer's stage can at any time be called empty, because upon it you necessarily have at all times two persons at least: the mover of the figures and the audience, the puppeteer and the puppetee, the letter-writer and the letter-reader. The play presented is, therefore, a play within a play: like the Mousetrap in Hamlet, like Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream, like the romantic drama of Gayferos and Melisandra which Don Quixote witnessed with a select company of acquaintance at an inn. The temperament of this presented spectator, himself or herself a person of the scene, is always reflected in the entertainment when the letter-writer is a sensitive artist. So Horace Walpole's comedy varies according as it goes before Sir Horace Mann in Florence or Lady Upper-Ossory at Ampthill; so, more delicately, does Madame de Sévigné's. There are blacker strokes in the dialogue when Bussy is to see the play; there is always idolatry implied, and sometimes anxiety, if the spoilt child of Provence is the audience. It is this chère bonne, this Madame de Grignan, nine times out of ten, who is queen of the entertainment. You have to reckon with her upon her throne of degrees, set up there like Hippolita, Duchess of Athens, to be propitiated and, if possible, diverted. For her sake, not for ours, her incomparable mother beckons from the wings character after character, and gives each his cue, having set the scene with her exquisite art. In a few cases her anxiety to please spoils the effects. As we should say, she "laboured" the Cardinal de Retz. The sour-faced beauty would have none of him. But that is a rare case, one in which predilection betrayed her. Madame de Sévigné had a weakness for the Cardinal. It is very seldom that the lightest hand in the world fails her at a portrait. Her great successes are her thumb-nail sketches: she will be remembered by Picard in the hayfield so long as the world knows how to laugh. One of her best, because one of her tenderest, is the petite personne.

The name is Charles de Sévigné's, but his mother takes it up after him, and makes better play with it. Charles writes from Les Rochers in December, 1675--Madame being really ill for once in her life with "a nice little rheumatism," and Charles her amanuensis--"in the room of la Plessis," that striving lady, too, was ill, or thought she was--"we have had lately a very pretty young party (une petite personne fort jolie) whose good looks don't at all remind us of that divinity. At her instigation we have started Reversis: now, instead of knaves, we talk about jacks." He adds a stroke too good to be lost, though his mother might have left it out. "To give you a notion of her age and quality, she has just confided to us that the day after Easter Eve was a Tuesday. She thought that over, then said, 'No--it was a Monday!' Then, judging by the look of us that that wouldn't do either, 'Heavens, how stupid! Of course--it was a Friday!' That is the kind of party we are. If you wouldn't mind sending us word what day of the week you believe it to have been, you will save us a great deal of discomfort." The stage is the brisker for the coming in of this pretty soubrette.

Madame de Sévigné, meantime, is in a discomfort of her own. It takes her some ten days to absorb the petite personne, but then she fixes her for ever. Nobody can wish to know more about a young party than this:

"Christmas Day (1675).... I still have that nice child here. She lives on the other side of the park; her mother is the good-wife Marcile's daughter--but you won't remember her. The mother lives at Rennes, but I shall keep her here. She plays trictrac, reversis; she is quite pretty, quite innocent, and called Jeannette. She is no more trouble than Fidèle."

Quite pretty, quite innocent and called Jeannette! Quid Plura? Need I say who Fidèle was? Fidèle is a shrewd touch of Madame's, put in, as I guess, to placate the hungry-eyed Goddess of Grignan; but it does clinch the portrait. All that one needs to know of the nature, parentage, and upbringing of a petite personne is in these two letters.

Immediately upon her entry the comedy begins, with Mademoiselle du Plessis in a leading part. "... La Plessis has a quartan fever. It is pretty to see her jealous fury when she comes here and finds the child with me. The fuss there is to have my stick or muff to hold! But enough of these nothings...."

It was of nothings that the vexed days of Mlle. du Plessis must exist. An elderly virgin, evidently; stiff, gauche, full of guinderie, says Madame, "et de l'esprit fichu." Everybody made game of her at Les Rochers. As we shall see, the servants knew that very well. Charles is always witty at her expense. Madame de Grignan once slapped her.

Meanwhile, here's another vignette, a Chardin picture--you will find nothing by Greuze of this petite personne. "... What do you think of the handy little lady we were telling you of, who couldn't make out what the day after Easter Eve was? She is a dear little rosebud of a thing who delights us."

"'In six years to come she'll be twenty years old!' I wish you could see her in the mornings, eating a hunk of bread-and-butter as long as from here to Easter, or, after dinner, crunching up two green apples with brown bread...."

But now the clowns come tumbling in, to turn over the poor du Plessis. "... Mlle. du Plessis will die of the petite personne. Being more than half dead of jealousy already, she is always at my people to find out how I treat her. Not one of them but has a pin ready. One says that I love her as much as I do you; another that I have her to sleep with me--which would assuredly be a notable sign of affection! They swear that I am taking her to Paris, that I kiss her, am mad about her; that the Abbé is giving her 10,000 livres; that if she had but 20,000 _écus I should marry her to my son. That is the sort of thing; and they carry it so far that we can't help laughing at it. The poor lady is ill with it all."

To the same letter Charles adds his scene in the farce: "La Plessis said to Rahuel (he was the concierge) yesterday that she had been gratified at dinner to find that Madame had turned the child out of her seat and put herself in the place of honour. And Rahuel, in his Breton way: 'Nay, Miss, there's no wonder. 'Tis an honour to your years, naturally. Besides, the little girl is one of the house, as you might say. Madame looks on her almost as she might be Madame de Grignan's little sister.'"

La Plessis, in fact, agonised, and the way was made for the great scene--so good a scene that I think it must have been bagged for the theatre. Labiche must surely have lifted it. It is Charles de Sévigné's masterpiece.

"The young party here, when she saw how my mother's pains increased towards night, thought that the best thing she could do for her was to cry--which she did. She is that sort, and always the focus of jealousy for la Plessis, who tries to recommend herself to my mother by hating her like the devil. This is what happened yesterday. My mother was dozing quietly in bed; the child, the Abbé and I were by the fire. In came La Plessis. We warned her to come quietly, and she did, and was half across the room when my mother coughed, and then asked for her handkerchief to get rid of some phlegm. The child and I jumped up to get it, but La Plessis was too quick for us, rushed to the bed, and instead of putting the thing to my mother's lips, caught hold of her nose with it, and pinched it so hard that the poor dear cried out with the pain. She couldn't help being sniffy with the old fuss who had hurt her so--nor laughing at her afterwards. If you had seen this little comedy you would have laughed too."

I should like to know who wouldn't have laughed to tears, after it was over. The scene is priceless.

But all the same, it is not Madame de Sévigné's genre. She is mistress of the chuckle, not of the fou rire; and La Plessis is not one of her best characters. The petite personne, however, is; and I must give a very pretty scene, quite in her own manner, where she is half laughing at the child and half in love with her too.

"The petite personne is still here, and always delightful. She has a sharp little wit of her own, too, as new as a young chick's. We enjoy telling her things, for she knows nothing at all, and it makes a kind of game to enlighten her on all sides--with a word or two about the Universe, or about Empires, or countries, or kings, or religions, or wars, or Fate, or the map. There's a pretty jumble of facts to put tidily away in a little head which has never seen a town, nor even a river, and has never really supposed that the world went any farther than the end of the park! But she is delicious. I was telling her to-day about the taking of Wismar; and she understands quite well that we are sorry about it because the King of Sweden is our ally. See how wildly we amuse ourselves."

The last sentence is for the chère bonne's benefit, who was very capable herself of being jealous of the petite personne. I fancy the touch about Fidèle was put in with the same object. She had to be infinitely careful with the chère bonne's black dogs.

In another month the petite personne is so far advanced that she can be secretary to her patroness, whose poor hand is too swollen to write. Elaborate perambulations introduce her to the chère bonne. "My son has gone to Vitré on some business or other. That is why I give his functions of secretary over to the little lady of whom I have often told you, and who begs you to be pleased to allow her, with great respect, to kiss your hands." That, I should think, was courtesy enough even for the pouting great lady of Provence. In a later letter she kisses Madame de Grignan's left hand; so it is written--by herself, but to dictation. Thus the proper distances were kept by one as humane as Madame de Sévigné when she was dealing with her daughter on the other side of idolatry.

But she herself and the child are on better terms than such discipline would imply. In February: "... My letters are so full of myself that it bores me to have them read over. You have too much taste not to be bored too. So I shall stop: even the child is laughing at me now." And then in March: "... My son has left us--we are quite alone, the child and I--reading, writing, and saying our prayers." A jolly little picture of still and gentle life. No Greuze there.

The idyll ends in tears, but not just yet. Two days before she leaves Brittany, having "neither rhyme nor reason in my hands," she makes use of the petite personne for the last time: "the most obliging child in the world. I don't know what I should have done without her. She reads me what I like--quite well; she writes as you see; she is fond of me; she is willing; she can talk about Madame de Grignan. In fact, you may love her on my assurance." And then the poor little dear puts in her little word for herself to propitiate this formidable Countess in Provence:

"That would make me very happy, Madame, and I am sure that you must envy my joy to be with your mother. She has been pleased to make me write all that praise of myself, though I was rather ashamed to do it. But I am very unhappy that she is going away."

Madame resumes the pen: "... The child, desired to converse with you ..."--which one may or may not believe. If, as I feel sure, she was bidden to the task, I don't see how she could possibly have brought it off better than in those demure phrases. But is she not a dear little creature?

Then came the dreadful day, the 24th of March, and Madame's coach and six horses carry her to Laval on her way to Paris. She stays there for the night and writes, of course, to her chère bonne: "... They carried off the petite personne early this morning to save me the outcries of her grief. They were the sobs of a child, so natural that they moved me. I dare say she is dancing about now, but for two days she has been in floods, not having been able to learn restraint from me!" Madame, as we know, had abundantly the gift of tears, and was assuredly none the worse for it.

In Paris, Corbinelli was secretary for a time; but she regretted the petite personne. "... I don't like a secretary who is cleverer than I am.... The child suited me much better."

And there the happy little figurine, having danced her hour at Les Rochers, leaves the stage. Other petites personnes there are--one the sister of La Murinette Beauté, who got on so well with M. de Rohan, and was a lady of Madame de Chaulnes', and presently married a respectable gentleman, a M. de le Bedoyère of Rennes. But these are too high levels for the granddaughter of the good-wife Marcile. That petite personne, moreover, was a rather sophisticated young lady. One would never have seen her, in the mornings, munching a hunk of bread-and-butter "as long as from here to Easter." No; Jeannette has fulfilled her part, providing a whiff of marjoram and cottage flowers for the castle chambers. She has read, written and said her prayers. She has the firm outline, the rosy cheeks, the simplicity of a Watteau peasant-girl--nothing of the Greuze languish, with its hint of a cruche cassée. She is as fresh as a March wind. Let us believe that she found a true man to relish her prettiness and sharp little wits.


(The end)
Maurice Hewlett's essay: Petite Personne

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