Portrait of Françoise1

   Françoise was one of those servants who in a house are at the same time the ones that the masters hold onto the most and who most displease outsiders. Confident of their masters' holding onto them rather than onto you and falling out with you much more willingly since they were not to be dismissed, they make no effort to win you over and show you no servility whatsoever. Frequently too those that possess genuine capabilities do not possess that agreeableness of speech that pleases at the very first and which irritates an intelligent master who has quickly established the imperfectibility that goes with it. Françoise no longer frequented the kitchen other than to pass on "the tradition" to the young recruits, and only "took up the role again" when we had company. At such times she was like a great but elderly singer who no longer has the voice and who "pushes forward" all the debutantes. Mama said to the valet "Ah! Françoise has made the coffee tonight, I could tell straight away." And the valet saw in that a "conceit", and admired the bias and credulity of masters. The servants were not fond of Françoise, any more probably than oxen are fond of toil or children tubercular meningitis. They did not endure her for very long.
   It was not that she did not have immense pity for each and every misfortune but it had to be that the misfortune struck strangers, towards whom she quickly became sympathetic. If, whilst preparing breakfast, she heard someone say that there was a great deal of suffering taking place in Java she immediately pictured those unfortunate people and burst into tears. But misfortune seemed to her to be something that causes compassion and not irritation to the one who feels any mercy. And when she was woken up in the night by the wails of the chambermaid who suffered from renal colic and saw her stay in bed all the next day, she made it known by her ill humour that there was absolutely nothing to feel pity over and that it may well be a joke that the unfortunate wretch was playing on her by acting the grand lady and staying in bed like somebody's mistress. One night when the chambermaid was suffering in this way and Mama who had got up and told Françoise to look up the name of a sedative in a medical book, Françoise complied with an ill humour that shocked Mama. When she did not come back I went to see what she was doing. I found her sitting over the book in tears. She had fallen upon a description of a classic attack of renal colic, as felt by a sufferer. Immediately she had pictured to herself this poor stranger, she pitied her, she wept for her, and at every suffering depicted, and that was undoubtedly no worse than that felt by the poor chambermaid, she let out a sob: "How is it possible that such terrible things happen, that God sends down such tribulations to one of his creatures. Oh! the poor thing, the poor thing, and to think that nothing can give her relief." At that moment I called for her to attend to the chambermaid. Her compassion ceased and she returned in a bad temper.
   This creature who had a tenderness for her nephews and nieces that would easily go so far as to sacrifice her own life, had with regard to the other servants a cruelty as inflexible and refined as that that [blank]2, who is an admirable mother of her own little bees, has with regard to all species of bumblebees. One summer she made us eat asparagus every evening because their smell brought on terrible asthmatic attacks to one of the kitchen maids who was forced to leave because of it. Deep down even we were a little afraid of her. One time when she was no longer serving me my breakfast, I would frequently make some observations to the valet who was serving me. And Mama looked on smiling at the leaps of independence that had been so suppressed in me when I had been under the yoke of Françoise, and at every rather sharp observation that I made to the valet Mama murmured: "Latude, or twenty five years of captivity."3 Mama often thought that we should not say anything in front of Françoise that could be wounding to her, which she was quite wrong about, because after twenty five years of service we were never able to discover the cause of a single one of her rages. They came on certain days, without anyone suspecting why, just as when we wake up at the seaside and hear that the sea is rough. On those days we could hear from the kitchen a monotonous wail of ill omen and no one dared take the risk. From time to time just as a more violent wave noisily turns over the pebbles, a saucer or a poker, flung with force, would crash against the cooking-range. We knew that the atmosphere would be stormy the whole day. The next day there was no sign of it. It is sometimes disconcerting to see the efforts of exceedingly refined minds, come to a halt, like the last word of a work that is most complex in its meanings and subtle in its evolutions of taste, at some exquisite connection that is found in just the same way in the totally spontaneous refrain of a popular song. Françoise possessed hardly more than one dress and one bonnet and some old coat and old hat that had been Mama's, that had never been pretty and were completely threadbare. But in the way she wore them she communicated as much style and grandeur as Whistler painted in his mother's headdress or Carlyle's dressing gown. She appeared like those peasants' [houses?] which, at a turning in the road, with their large yellow or sulphur rose attached perpendicularly to the wall all around the door or the wild nest of smiling little white roses, leaning curiously out of a window, realize miracles of colour, of expression and of taste. One might leave for the most unexpected journey, without having had time to prepare anything, when one found oneself in the railway carriage, one was always sure that Françoise was "in her best". On her regular face, which must have been very beautiful, the most lofty feelings of tenderness for her own people, oblivious of herself, and respect for her masters, had imposed a nobility that seemed to extend even to the things she was wearing. Her bonnet, by the marvellous neatness with which she had repaired it, the infinite care with which it was put on, the timid vertical by which her head was held, in an effort to show off her "high forehead" but knowing also that it was "just silly" not to maintain her position, seemed to form part of her person. More frequently however in a situation that was in any way public it was replaced by black lace, perhaps not such expensive lace but which brought to her grey hair the beauty that Chardin would have given it. Even in her Sunday best she maintained her style. From the first day in a hotel, no matter where, my dumbfounded Mama would say to her: "But Françoise, where did you find that?" Then she would remind Mama of some old hat, some old dress that Mama had given her. When they were quite new and rather too rich they were quite ugly. But like certain monuments they had known how to age. The bird and pieces of fruit that had disfigured the hat had got too old, had been taken off and there remained only a small hood that framed marvellously the regular face of Françoise and upon which she had had the taste to stitch on some forty sous nasturtiums. She had reversed a bodice whose inside was as simple, original and pretty as the outside was pretentious and ugly. We know that certain plants live in a symbiotic relationship with certain animals that take it upon themselves to develop for them the principles by which they are able to live. In the moral world we all live symbiotically. Françoise lived in a symbiotic relationship with us. It was we who were charged with developing the satisfactions of dignity, pride and contentment that were indispensable to her life. This life was made up of very simple pleasures but which she clung onto firmly. A great deal of them were concentrated into the few minutes that followed lunch. Which explains the utter fruitlessness of ringing the bell at that moment. If Mama tried, she soon gave up, knowing that Françoise would no more come on the fifth ring than the second. After she had folded up her napkin, drunk a last mouthful and with a languorous air thanked the young valet who in order to make himself appear more zealous was offering her a few more grapes, she got up and went to open the window because it was too hot "in this wretched kitchen". As she opened it she cast a disdainful and impassioned glance over the Comtesse's mansion and courtyard. She noticed two holy sisters and said: "They're going to see the Comtesse."4 She heard some bawdy ditties being sung through the open window and said: "They're having company at the Comtesse's." She saw some pheasants hung up in the kitchen window opposite and said: "Somebody has been giving the Comtesse some game." It was generally the time when the Comtesse's coachman was harnessing the horses in the courtyard; hearing the noise of the window being opened he raised his head, and Françoise gave him a friendly wave because he was "a man for whom she had a high regard". But if he spoke to her she would only respond with a wave of her hand, because she knew that Mama did not like her to talk out of the windows and she herself thought it was common. The Comtesse's carriage and horses were a source of great satisfaction for her. I could not say that this satisfaction was not without an element of pain, the regret that we ourselves were not possessed of such a carriage. But she enjoyed perhaps a more refined pleasure at the knowledge that "we could have had one just the same if we had wanted", a more intimate and secret pleasure in one sense, but which, however, was oddly strengthened by the fact that the concierge, the bread delivery woman, and even the boys who brought our parcels, all knew that "we could have had one just the same if we had wanted". Sometimes she made a sign to the concierge or the coachman indicating that the Comtesse's horses were very handsome ones. And they would reply with a gesture and in a low voice, putting their hand over their mouth, "But you could too if you wanted," (you, that is to say "they", or we), "perhaps even better, only you don't care for all that". She assumed a modest and impenetrable air, at most saying "each to is own, simplicity is the rule here", but in reality intense rays of happiness were ripening [illegible] inside her at that moment, feelings that she conveyed to the concierge of the property, to the Comtesse's coachman and, when we spoke of them she would say: "Oh! they are such good people." And during the few moments that a boy who was delivering a parcel had to wait in the kitchen, it was very unusual, without her making any precise ostentation of it, that he left without the certainty being strongly impressed upon him that "we could have had one, or even ten, if we had wanted". After this brief glance cast over the things of the earth, before leaving the window she lifted her eyes to the heavens. Then she let out a fresh sigh saying: "Oh! Gelos, Gelos!"5 (which was the name of her birthplace), "when will I see you again, when will I see the hawthorns in blossom in my father's garden, when will I spend the whole sainted day there without hearing that devilish bell from the master or from Monsieur Marcel!" And making certain once again of the weather, of the mildness of the air, of the warmth of the sun on the window-sill, she wiped her mouth where a little watered wine remained and starting to set the table in order she said: "Oh! it will be fine right now in Gelos, my little ones, you can make out the Pyrenees like clouds in the sky, and when I went to fish for trout with my brothers, I can assure you that it was a lot cooler than in this kitchen." Poor Françoise, who knows, perhaps you will never see Gelos again before you die, or perhaps before your brothers are at rest in the little cemetery in the shade of the great syringa. "The boys are back from the fields, all you can hear is the nightingale and the cuckoo and the mountain stream like a murmur, maybe a poor church bell; I can assure you it's a lot cooler under the cherry trees or fishing for trout than it is in this damned kitchen, next to the stove." She often spoke the name Gelos with a smile on her face, as though in some way in her public life she found it amusing to say the name of a part of the country which was so intimate to her and like those school children breaking out laughing when a school teacher from the height of his chair makes an allusion to a political event of the day to amuse the pupils, and as if to speak about something that was so particular to herself was the source of an infinitely veiled comedy. But more often, thinking that she would never see it again, thinking about the happy days she had spent there beside her "poor mother" who was buried there in the cemetery together with her brothers that she had not seen again, she invoked it all in a religious accent. She loved religion, royalty, and certain advancements the idea of which appeared noble to her, so much so that having lost almost everything she had on the Panama, her eyes would fill with tears of emotion saying that she could not blame M. de Lessets who had built something as beautiful as the Suez canal which avoided so much distance being travelled by "our poor ships", (she had a nephew who was a sailor). Also whilst liking all my friends to a greater or lesser degree according to what she thought of them, she had a marked preference for the aristocratic ones. When she heard that one of these aristocrats who was dearest to my heart was "republican", she felt the same disappointment as if a pearl that I had given her turned out to be fake. She immediately withdrew her esteem for him, but soon restored it, after having reflected that it certainly was not sincere on his part, and that he was making himself appear to be republican out of self-interest. She said with a smile, "he's a hypocrite", she had forgiven him. She spoke with great respect of aristocrats, except for princes of the blood whose alliances in any case she knew infinitely better than we did, but about whom she spoke with a becoming familiarity, because they were fathers of the people, saying, if we asked one another who was the queen of Portugal: "But that's Amélie, the sister of Philippe, who is well thought of everywhere, a great and beautiful lady." Her ideas on aristocratic society would have been quite clear, had they not been, like all of her ideas, the prisoners of words. And certain words had remained obscure in her mind, having retained a "fault", like certain gem stones that had been imperfectly cut, her idea on this point languished in a certain mystery. Thus it was that one day when she had exchanged a few words with Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld who had come to see me, she told me, which came as no surprise to me given her armorial knowledge: "That's a great family, Monsieur, the La Rochefoucaulds." And she added: "There are some of them over there, and also some in the rue de l'Université6 where Monsieur goes, and also some from the rue St. Dominique who come to visit the Comtesse and still plenty more so it would seem. It's a great family!" I would not like to suggest that what she understood be a great family was that there were a lot of them. Pascal founded religious truth upon [blank]7 and on the authority of miracles. In the same way Françoise founded the greatness of the La Rochefoucaulds on the antiquity of their origins and the number of their descendants. But Sainte-Beuve quite correctly remarks that miracles [...]8
   Thus the number of members of the de La Rochefoucauld family was perhaps a poor basis for Françoise's snobbism towards the greatness of their house. Because in that regard the Durands could perhaps have outweighed them. Other ideas about society remained impenetrable to us. A friend of my father's had a book-keeper called M. Bloch about whom I knew nothing else. One day he came to the house to tell my father something. After he had left and she had learned his name she recoiled in astonishment: "How can that be M. Bloch!" she cried out with stupefaction, as if an individual of such supernatural power as M. Bloch must be possessed of an enchanting appearance that would have "made him recognized" immediately. And she kept on muttering to herself: "How can that be M. Bloch!" with the impassioned tone of somebody comes to see an historical figure and is disappointed at not finding the spectacle at the height of his reputation, and with a kind of ill humour towards us, as if we had always "overpraised" M. Bloch to her: "Well Monsieur! and was it really worth telling so many stories about your M. Bloch!" And she added: "Whatever M. Bloch might be, M. Marcel is better turned out than him," (as she would have said that sometimes a shepherd could be just as well dressed as an emperor). It was impossible to know whether she was confusing him with someone else. In any case all explanation was futile, because in her mind when one word united two different ideas it united them for ever and was never separated from them again. I had carefully explained to her that François de Paris9 was no relation either of the Comte de Paris or Gaston Paris, and when he came to the house she never missed the opportunity to say: "All the same, Monsieur would have been a much better king than the Comte de Paris, the father of Philippe. And they are great intellectuals, there are lots of beautiful books by Gaston Paris in Monsieur's library."
   But in spite of all this she had a gift of knowing immediately who people are, through a sort of ultra rapid servant's knowledge that to us remained utterly mysterious and disconcerting, so that one is tempted to see in it a premonition, like the news of a victory or defeat, that perhaps thanks to signals that are unknown to us uncivilized persons acquire at almost that very moment - a few moments before the event at vast distances from the place where it took place. If I were entertaining an old regimental comrade, someone of "inferior station", and if, so that she would have no suspicion of it, I took the lead and made a joke of his "shabby" appearance, as if it were through some caprice that he was dressed like that, she would say with feigned uncertainty: "The poor boy, maybe it's not his fault, not everyone has the means" and through irritation I could declare that he was a millionaire twenty times over, but my words would have absolutely no importance, she maintained her profound gravity which with her was the respectful token of the irreducible incredulity that she made manifest moreover by a formula of non-persuasion such as: "It is God's will. Riches are not always everything." If I gave her a letter to take to a Comtesse whose circumstances were not entirely comfortable, she would say to me with a sad and serious look which opposed in advance the most painful disappointment at my words: "That lady, she is a Comtesse." By way of contradiction I would say: "And everything that is the utmost in chic." At which her voice would become pathetic with submissive resignation saying: "So much the better for her if she is a good person. The poor lady, and if she isn't may God have mercy on her." This instinct was not found wanting in her unless by chance everybody was out and she had to go and open the door. In which case she would leave a thief alone in the drawing-room because she thought he had an important look about him, and would leave on a bench in the hallway, coming back every five minutes to check that he had not stolen anything, a member of the Academy of Science because he did not inspire any confidence in her.
   It was not that wealth without virtue was the supreme good for Françoise, that she required us to make her participate in. But virtue without wealth no more appeared to her to be a completely good thing, no her ideal was such a perfect fusion of the two that each ended up by taking the qualities of the other, that virtue had its material comforts and wealth its moral edification rather was her ideal and she did not make too much distinction between the one and the other. This ideal had never deviated and even in Gelos when she was young it was already so. When she was mourning the death of some person or other whom she had known from that time her funeral oration was always: "Truly good people, who never gave bad advice, who always kept everything you could need in their homes, the best quality meat, and as much as you wanted, and the most beautiful linen I had ever seen, religious people who would tell us it's this and it's that and it's not this and it's not that, pure hearted people, and the poor priest would say: they are quite sure of going to heaven." She liked the rich to be good and to maintain their position and preserve their rank. If Mama were to shake her hand, or if one of my friends had begged her not to call him prince, this egalitarian conquest would have been in no way precious to her but would have deducted all value from their kindness and even from their gifts. Because like all the best creatures who are down here on earth, she lived above all through the imagination and through respect.
   Her political opinions gave me the opportunity to tease her. But to shatter them by the triumphs of the Republic, I portrayed them as more grandiose, more unjust, more insolent than they were. I told her: "Really the clergy has no luck, the government has decided to steal the presbyteries and bishops' palaces from them. The poor bishops are going to be put out of the door." And hypocritically I pitied them. "But Monsieur, they won't dare do such a thing, the people will be in revolt."
   "Oh! the people won't be able to do anything about it. You know perfectly well that the government is stronger." If the newspaper announced an event that seemed to presage the defeat of the government, I made it appear that I had not read it and announced that this event was something that people took for a defeat but was in reality just what the government had sought and wanted. This changed her joy to grief. We talked politics every day as we would have played cards, and I felt so much more pleasure in winning when I thought how disagreeable it was to her.
   I loved her but she irritated me terribly and I took pleasure in offending all her ideas. If we had a cousin who was ill, she spoke in a pitying tone of voice and would have been shocked if we played music or indulged in some games. At such times I deliberately spoke to her in the gayest manner, I opened the piano and sang a little ditty as I dressed, and I announced in passing that I intended to take Mama to the Café Concert. Then she talked about parenthood (which she called parenthesis). And indeed what she said would have seemed beautiful and touching had I read it in a book. But when she talked to me about it like that it had the sole effect of making me say that parenthood counted for nothing, that it could be perfectly all right not to love one's father, that nothing could be more natural, and for a trifle I would have told her that I knew perfectly well that Papa loathed his own father. Because frequently I had to make use of a lie in order to make what I told her more terrible. I had observed that she took a barbarous pleasure in the announcement of the fall of the Republic. Thus talking politics became a game in which the fun was to make her lose. So as to make the defeats on her part more cruel, I explained to her that it was better still that she did not believe it and more troublesome, the Republic more wicked, and more joyous in its insolent and certain triumph. And if the bishops refused to submit to the anodyne formalities that would have enabled them to hold onto their bishops' palaces and churches, I neglected to tell her that they had been offered the means, saying: "Oh such injustice that they are going to hound the bishops out of their palaces."
   "Oh Monsieur! they wouldn't dare do such a thing! The people will be in revolt!"
   "Oh! the people can do nothing, the government is stronger, it knows that full well." In a book I would have had sympathy with her beliefs; in real life I took pleasure in provoking them. And all the same she who was possessed of a heart that was open to all the suffering of each and every ill was indifferent to ours. Because for her the suffering of others was not something that caused her discomfort but something that caused her to feel pity. She imagined the misery of a woman in Java so keenly that she burst into tears reading the newspaper. But if I had an asthma attack, the annoyance of having to get up in the night, of having to light the stove, perhaps, something a thousand times more horrible, to have to wake up the concierge, these things seemed to her completely undeserving of compassion and inspired in her no element of pity whatsoever. One day she was looking after me like this with the greatest ill temper, and she made it clear to me that when all was said and done all this seemed to her to be some ridiculous farce invented expressly to torment a servant, and she went to look up a medication of which I had asked her to find the name in a book of medicine. After a few moments I found her in tears. She was in the middle of reading in the medical book the description of a typical asthma attack as experienced by a sufferer, much less severe than the one I was undergoing at that moment. But the book made appeal to her imagination and immediately she had felt torrents of pity for the imagined person that I in no way inspired in her.
   But deep down she loved us and when she had left us, when she had gone back to Gelos, then she forgot all about the length of the corridor, the smallness of the sink, the darkness she had to work in, the lack of a gas stove.

1. This passage is taken from Cahier V, NAF 16645. Reprinted in Revue d'Histoire Littéraire de la France, 1971. Probably dating from 1908-1909. Because it is an early sketch it contains some repetitions of ideas.

2. In Du Côté de chez Swann he uses the word "hymenoptera": the burrowing wasp.

3. The exact name of the play, by G. de Pixérécourt and A. Bourgeois (1834), Latude ou trente-cinq ans de captivité (Latude, or thirty five years of captivity). Mama is making a joke of the twenty five years of Françoise's service.

4. ie The Comtesse de Guermantes. In the published version she is a Duchesse.

5. Gelos is a commune in the Basse-Pyrénées on the Gave de Pau.

6. Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld, a friend of Proust's, lived with his parents, Comte and Comtesse Aimery de La Rochefoucauld, at 93, rue de l'Université.

7. In Le Côté de Guermantes: "Reason and the authority of the scriptures". Proust may have intended to write "doctrine", cf Sainte-Beuve, Port-Royal, vol III, chap. 21.

8. Sainte-Beuve writes that where Pascal "sees more clearly than the sun, our eye does not distinguish, excepting a few great dazzling features, anything but a base of mingled lights and shadows." (which corresponds to the weakness of the argument about the number of relatives).

9. Whose family owned the Château de Guermantes.


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