Wednesday, May 14, 2014

SUSAN ERTZ, Madame Claire (1923)

After gleefully encouraging myself and all of you lovely readers to explore our literary negativity in the past week or so (and thank you for such a lovely response, by the way), I can't resist one more little burst of reminiscent intolerance. If, under ordinary circumstances, I try to avoid being overly negative or critical of the works I discuss here, I have, I must confess, by no means always felt such hesitation. Reading Susan Ertz's debut novel (which, fear not, I quite enjoyed) brought to mind, for the first time in years, what is perhaps my favorite literary whipping boy of all time. Although the connection to Ertz is tenuous (at best), I can't resist sharing it with you anyway.

In my final semester as an undergrad, I had a "World Drama" course—one of those rather ridiculous survey courses in which one is supposed to learn everything that has happened in playwrighting from the beginning of time to the present by reading a total of nine or ten plays.  Right. 

Now, I wasn't particularly motivated that semester—I was finishing in a fall semester and memories of my summer backpacking trip across Europe, as well as eager anticipation of moving back to a more cosmopolitan existence in the big city once the semester ended, were both major distractions.  But I did manage to muster up some passion for one of the plays we read—Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.  That the passion I mustered up was entirely negative only, honestly, made it more enjoyable for me.  I loathed the play and, in particular, the title character—that supposed epitome of romantic love and chivalry, Cyrano himself. I wrote a short response paper describing Cyrano as a "moronic misogynist," and the professor—who must have been quite bored himself to take such an interest—wanted to hear more.  He even offered to share credit for a published article on the play, incorporating my views, but of course I was far too lazy in those days to take him up on the offer.

The source of my dislike of Cyrano was not merely that he begins by helping another man to seduce and marry the woman he loves—with no regard for Roxane's own feelings.  This would have been bad enough.  Rather, it was that, even when it begins to become clear that Roxane would love Cyrano himself despite his appearance, he still decides that he knows better than she and refuses to come out of hiding and declare that he's the man behind the pretty words—again with no regard for Roxane's own feelings.  He effectively ruins her chances of happiness as well as his own, and all without condescending to give Roxane the tiniest chance to think for herself or make her own decisions.  I wasn't particularly aware, as a twenty-something undergrad, of being a virulent feminist, but to this day Cyrano stands in my mind as a textbook example of a true blue misogynist, and the play stands as one of my most passionately disliked literary works.  Ugh.

[My apologies, by the way, if any of you harbor a passion for Cyrano, or see him as whatever sort of ideal he is apparently supposed to represent.  After this confession, I am strictly back to positivity, I promise!]

Now how on earth does such a rambling preamble on my dislike of a 19th century French play relate to a charming and addictive 1923 family drama by Susan Ertz?  Hmmm. Let's see if I can explain.

In early 1924, Bookman succinctly summed up Madame Claire:

Wise old age watches and adjusts the sorrows and tribulations of youth. A tender and moving piece of work.

The "wise old age" is Madame Claire herself, a 78-year-old widow now residing at the Kensington Park Hotel, who, as the novel opens, receives a letter from an old friend, Stephen de Lisle, who had proposed marriage right after her husband Robert's death, was refused, and disappeared from her life for 18 years.  In the course of Claire's correspondence with Stephen, off and on through most of the novel, we learn some of the background of her family: her son Eric and his wife of eight years, Louise, who is jealous of his social success and tries to be a hairshirt to keep his ego cut down to size; her prim and proper daughter Millicent, whose most characteristic moment was being torpedoed in WWI and playing hostess in the lifeboat in a negligee and overcoat—all while rendering the atmosphere as correct and conventional as a tearoom; her daughter Connie, who years before ran away from her first husband with a Russian composer, for whom she still retains a flame despite subsequent marriages to two other men, the last of whom, a count, is openly abusive and gambling away her money; and Millicent's three children—Gordon, a stuffy young man who works for the Foreign Office, Noel, whose WWI experiences cost him an arm but jarred him out of his youthful "fragility," and Judy, who in her mid-twenties is perceived to be in danger of becoming a spinster.

Apart from the correspondence between Madame Claire and Stephen, there are three main plotlines in the novel.  Judy's apparently hopeless attraction to the impoverished Chip, who is working on a book about world religions and whom she meets when her chauffeur hits him with the car, is clearly the romantic comedy plotline, while Madame Claire's attempts to reconcile Eric and Louise, and Connie's escape from her abusive Count and return to London, are both more along the lines of good old-fashioned melodrama.  Ertz does an excellent job of intertwining these plots, though, so that the alternation of romance and melodrama comes to seem rather more realistic than either plot might have been on its own.

The overarching theme of Ertz's novel might be summed up as love frustrated or mismatched.  But, looked at from a slightly different angle, it might also be an examination of love manipulated by others—perhaps even, at times, in rather Cyran-esque ways.  In particular, Chip's behavior—in love with Judy practically at first sight, yet determined that he is too poor to marry her, and finally nobly leaving her to the attentions of a man she finds unbearable (an American, of course, as so many unbearable characters are!) but who has plenty of funds at his disposal—fairly reeks of Cyrano.  Fortunately, however, Ertz allows Judy a bit more intelligence and backbone than Rostand allowed Roxane, and she feistily fights back against Chip's perceptions of what is best for her.  Ertz also makes Chip himself a far more charming and believable character than Cyrano, so that it was rather harder for me to sling alliterative insults at him.

But Chip's not the only one in the novel who grants himself the right to make decisions about other people's lives.  Claire and grandson Noel coolly make a decision to influence Connie's future—without her input, naturally—and Claire maneuvers behind the scenes to change Louise's perceptions of Eric and make her a more understanding wife.

In both of those latter cases, it's hard not to feel that the manipulations really are for the best, but somehow the manipulation itself nevertheless remained a bit irritating for me.  There was just a bit too much of it, and the manipulators all seemed to have such smug certainty that they knew what was best for others—even when, on occasion, they clearly didn't know what was best for themselves.  But of course, all of that could have been Ertz's point.  

I couldn't quite make up my mind how much depth to credit Ertz with on that point.  Or do such things even bother other readers?  Is it just that my Cyrano sensitivity is making these elements of Madame Claire jump out at me too much?  What do those of you who have read the novel think?

Regardless, I certainly did enjoy the novel a lot.  Ertz seems to me—based on this one novel alone—to be a kind of lighter version of Dorothy Whipple: a skillful storyteller and talented entertainer with a bit of a tendency toward melodrama.  Sometimes the latter tendency did seem to get the best of her.  How about this as an example?:

She was half frightened when she saw the look of exaltation on his face. It was his great—his supreme moment. The moment that comes to nearly every man once, of awe and ecstasy.

Or this, about the renewed friendship of Claire and Stephen in their older years?:

To savor these moments, these perfect, winged moments that would never be less than perfect; moments that Time had brought to a fine flowering—"Without the end of fruit"—without the end of disillusion, too, and what scent that flowering had! No, there could be no falling off, no dimming of that brightness. They could trust to Death for that. Their curtain would be run down on a fine gesture, on a perfect note.

Whew!  But such passages, worthy of any Mills & Boon romance, are relatively few and far between, and they are sometimes interspersed with such delightful passages as this one—Claire's musings, in one of her letters to Stephen, on plant and disease names—which made me laugh out loud:

Did you ever stop to think that the names of diseases and the names of flowers are very similar? For instance, I might say, 'Do come and see my garden. It is at its best now, and the double pneumonias are really wonderful. I suppose the mild winter had something to do with that. I'm very proud of my trailing phlebitis, too, and the laryngitises and deep purple quinsies that I put in last year are a joy to behold. The bed of asthmas and malarias that you used to admire is finer than ever this summer, and the dear little dropsies are all in bloom down by the lake, and make such a pretty showing with the blue of the anthrax border behind them!'

If Ertz lacks, for me, some of the brilliant depth of character that makes Whipple so riveting despite her melodramatic tendencies, I still doubt if I'll be able to resist adding any Ertzes I happen across at future book sales to my library.


  1. Whew! Sounds like a busy, almost exhausting, set of events. Enticing, but I don't think I need to add it to my TBR stacks.

    Meanwhile, Cyrano. Okay, I read it in high school, and I LOVED it. (I also wrote a book review on it for English class, but my teacher didn't suggest publication.) I might change my mind if I read it again now, but I won't. Though I did see the televised stage play with Kevin Kline a few years ago. KK in ANYTHING is a treat.

    Speaking of manipulating passions, one of my all time favourite movies is IQ, wherein Albert Einstein and his buddies (all brilliant scientists) decide his niece Catherine (also a brilliant scientist) should NOT marry the stuffed-shirt behavouralist she's engaged to, but the nice guy garage mechanic who's crazy about her. They set about making HIM look like a brilliant scientist too.

    1. I didn't see the Kevin Kline version of Cyrano, Susan, but I do remember that even when watching Steve Martin's film version a number of years ago all of my loathing was reawakened and I couldn't finish watching. And that was the "light-hearted" version!

  2. "'s hard not to feel that the manipulations really are for the best, but somehow the manipulation itself nevertheless remained a bit irritating for me."

    My thoughts exactly...

    In George Gissing's "Thyrza" (1887), Mrs. Ormonde strikes a "bargain" with her protege Walter Egremont, one in which he agrees not to see Thyrza Trent for two years. She is proved to be right with regard to the former's depth of feeling, but very much mistaken in the case of the latter's, who is devastated. I still mightily resent Mrs. Ormonde for having initiated such an experiment, but now I positively detest Walter for his participation in it. Lol

    1. Interesting. I haven't read the Gissing, but perhaps there was just something in the air in the late 19th century, a fascination with characters who feel justified in being puppetmasters? Just definitely not something I can easily stomach in literature OR in real life.

  3. I just got back from London, where I found a Penguin of Madame Claire, as well as a hardback of Julian Probert. I'll be sure to save it for you! I should be back in SF by the end of March. :)

    1. I'm green with envy at your trip to London, Lisa, but I will congratulate you on your finds anyway!


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