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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

III. The Novelist

Gabrielle de Bergerac (1869). Towers and Oubliettes

Texte intégral

  • 1 Gabrielle de Bergerac, Complete Tales, II, 144.

At the first glance we see nothing but the great proportions, the show, and the splendour; but when we come to explore, we detect a vast underground world of iniquity and suffering. Only half this castle is above the soil; the rest is dungeons and vaults and oubliettes.1

  • 2 The tale appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, XXIV (July-Sept. 1868), 55-71, 231-241, 352-361. It was (...)
  • 3 James enumerates these items in his book on Hawthorne: “No State, in the European sense of the wor (...)

1If James’s first story with French characters and a French setting belongs to a group of tales in which he expresses his mistrust of women, his second story, Gabrielle de Bergerac,2 is connected with those in which he tells of the discovery of Europe by nostalgic Americans: Italy in Travelling Companions and in At Isella, written respectively in 1870 and 1871, England in A Passionate Pilgrim, written in 1871. In Europe his characters find the “picturesque” and all the items of civilization lacking in America.3 It is Europe, rather than France in particular, which James opposes to the New World. But again if he chose France instead of England or Italy for the setting of Gabrielle de Bergerac it is because France represented for him, better than any other country in Europe, the place where the highest refinement of manners was combined with the greatest social tyranny and injustice.

  • 4 Gabrielle de Bergerac, op. cit., p. 144.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 145.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 158.

2The ruins of the castle of Fossy where Gabrielle de Bergerac (the aristocracy) and Coquelin (the people) discover their impossible love appear in the middle of the story as the symbol of feudal arrogance. Coquelin is perfectly aware of their significance and hates the “abominable past” that hides behind their picturesqueness, the “vast underground world of iniquity”4 under the beautiful proportions, the unseen dungeons under the visible splendour. Coquelin has a very strong sense of the past and in this he is more American than French and not very different from James’s “passionate pilgrims” from the New World. The past plays a very important part in this tale, not only because it is historical fiction (James was not to have another try at the genre) but because of the characters’ intense consciousness of it. It extends into the present, and the two young people are what their past has made them. Coquelin feels in himself all the pains and all the burden under which his ancestors struggled. He understands that if he had been born in the shadow of the great castle of which he contemplates the ruins he would never have been able to rise and would have “stuck with [his] feet in the clay.”5 Likewise, Gabrielle de Bergerac feels bound to submit to the power of the past. In spite of her love for Coquelin something prevents her from breaking the traditions that have been kept sacred in her family: “something in the air forbids it,” she says, “something in the very look of these old walls, within which I was born and I’ve lived.”6 The caste system has produced them both, but if the beautiful, refined and melancholy Gabrielle comes from that part of the castle that stands above the soil, the poor homeless Coquelin has to rise painfully from the obscurity of the lower part.

  • 7 Ibid., p. 130.

3The duality which James dramatizes in this tale in terms of the contrast between the French lower class and the French aristocracy before the Revolution foreshadows the international contrast between Europe and the New World which will constitute the subject of so many of his works. Indeed Pierre Coquelin, though a Frenchman, clearly represents the new rising democracy and all that James’s Americans in Europe will stand for. He has been the preceptor of M. de Bergerac, who narrates the story and who relates that Coquelin kindled in his childish breast “a little democratic flame which has never quite become extinct” and that he taught him “the beauty of humanity, justice, and tolerance.”7 If humanity, justice, and tolerance were the ideals of the French Revolution they were also those of young America, which set its notions of personal merit against the European notions of inherited distinctions. Coquelin is a child of the people but thanks to his intelligence and his breadth of outlook nothing remains closed to him. So his drawings testify:

  • 8 Ibid., p. 127.

Coquelin had drawn anything and everything—peasants and dumb brutes, landscapes and Parisian types and figures, taken indifferently from high and low life.8

4Not even the conquest of the higher classes is denied him since he succeeds in gaining Gabrielle’s love and in taking her away from her family, a success which neither Newman nor his successors, in spite of their money, will be able to achieve. To this new rising world of Coquelin James opposes the closed world of Bergerac. It is composed of the Baron, his wife, his sister Gabrielle and his son (the future M. de Bergerac by whom the story is told). Once a week the Vicomte de Treuil is invited to dinner, and his arrival breaks the monotony of the Baron’s table. James had only to draw from the English novel to find a model for his French nobleman. But he may also have found him in George Sand’s Valentine, in the person of the Comte de Lansac:

  • 9 Ibid., p. 108.

He was short and slight, without any color, and with eyes as blue and lustrous as sapphires. He was so careless and gracious and mirthful, that to an unenlightened fancy he seemed the model of a joyous, reckless, gallant, impenitent veneur. But it sometimes struck me that, as he revolved an idea in his mind, it produced a certain flinty ring, which suggested that his nature was built, as it were, on rock, and that the bottom of his heart was hard.9

  • 10 Loc. cit.

5His conversation is “a constant popping of corks,” his savoir-vivre is infallible and his manners exquisite: “He possessed an irresistible charm, and that of itself is a virtue.”10 We easily recognize here the English stereotype of the French nobleman, light, irresponsible, frivolous but also able, when on the scaffold, to show that he knows how to die as well as how to live. It is this young man who is intended as a contrast to the poor, shabby Coquelin in Gabrielle’s heart. Indeed, in order to help both his sister and his friend by providing the former with a husband and the latter with a regular income, the Baron has decided to marry Gabrielle off to the Vicomte. This marriage is arranged in the best French tradition, that is, without asking the young woman’s opinion. Since she is French and belongs to the aristocracy only two courses are open to her: either establish herself in the world by accepting the husband of her family’s choosing or withdraw to a convent. The Baronne is clear about it:

  • 11 Ibid., p. 117.

A young girl should believe what she’s told. I believed my mother when she told me that your brother loved me. He didn’t but I believed it, and as far as I know I’m none the worse for it.11

  • 12 Ibid., p. 120.

6Gabrielle de Bergerac is a queer mixture of timidity and determination, of resignation and free will. She has the limited experience of life generally attributed to the young girls of her rank. She is a kind of Eugénie de Guérin who prays God to help her, knowing, however, that “prayer helps [her] not to choose, but only to be resigned.”12 Pierre Coquelin brings a breath of fresh air in her life of unbroken melancholy, and his being a son of the soil renders him even more interesting in her eyes because she has only seen gentlefolks and peasants before:

  • 13 Ibid., p. 114.

Marked as he was, in aspect and utterance, with the genuine plebeian stamp, he opened a way for the girl’s fancy into a vague, unknown world. He stirred her imagination, I conceive, in very much the same way as such a man as Gaston de Treuil would have stirred—actually had stirred, of course—the grosser sensibilities of many a little bourgeoise.13

7The ignorant girl allows her imagination to be stirred and does not beware of this dawning love but, to her family’s stupefaction, she suddenly manifests her independence by refusing to be the Vicomte’s wife. Yet she would probably never have eloped with the penniless preceptor had she not been offended by her brother and the Vicomte who, finding her in Coquelin’s room, suspect her of being the young man’s mistress. A discussion ensues from which she discovers the immorality of her brother and of the man she was to have married. This makes her immediately change her mind. Realizing what the “tradition” to which she was ready to sacrifice her happiness is worth, she breaks with it and decides to be Coquelin’s wife. We may wonder whether she was happy after all; all her nephew, who is now old M. de Bergerac, tells us is that they had three children, lost them all and died both on the scaffold among the Girondists.

  • 14 James reviewed Sainte-Beuve’s Portraits of Celebrated Women in 1868. His reviews of Eugénie de Gué (...)
  • 15 Gabrielle de Bergerac, op. cit., p. 120.
  • 16 Cornelia P. Kelley, The Early Development of Henry James (Urbana, 1965), p. 90.
  • 17 Gabrielle de Bergerac, op. cit., p. 105.

8Although all the characters in this short story are French, the image of France is almost entirely second-hand. In 1869 James’s knowledge of that country was still purely literary. In A Tragedy of Error he had given us a clumsy imitation of the French manner but since the emphasis was all on the plot the contradictions in the characters were less apparent. It was a bad imitation and nothing else. In Gabrielle de Bergerac the contradictions arise from the fact that, in his effort to characterize, James put—unconsciously—much of himself in the picture. This does not happen when he creates such characters as the Baron or Gaston de Treuil, in whom he is not directly interested and whom he merely copies from some literary stereotype of the French nobleman. But it is different when he comes to Gabrielle de Bergerac or Coquelin, whose inner life and moral richness far more appeal to him. He can feel these characters from within but at the same time his having made them French sets limits to his freedom and obliges him to endow them with French characteristics, of which he knows practically nothing. That is why his Gabrielle strikes us as a kind of patchwork of literary reminiscences, a mixture of Eugénie de Guérin, of George Sand’s heroines and of Sainte-Beuve’s Celebrated Woman14. But she already possesses the moral energy that distinguishes James’s American heroines, and that is quite inconsistent with the education based on authority she is supposed to have received. It is hardly credible indeed that a girl described as melancholy and ignorant of life should suddenly prove so practical that she refuses to marry the Vicomte before he has inherited and that the same ignorant jeune fille, who, when asked to take a decision exclaims that “a poor girl like [her] doesn’t make up her mind,”15 should elope with the preceptor. Coquelin is the other unconventional character in the tale. We have already shown that his sense of the past connected him with the American passionate pilgrims discovering Europe. What also strikes us is that he is really too wise, too gentle, too harmless for a young Frenchman living before the Revolution. Miss Kelley has rightly noted the similarities between George Sand’s Valentine and Gabrielle de Bergerac,16 but the differences are still more illuminating. Benedict belongs, like Coquelin, to an inferior social class and he is, like him, in love with a daughter of the aristocracy. This awakens in him a hatred for the world out of which he is trying to rise and for the higher sphere to which the beautiful Valentine de Raimbault belongs. In George Sand’s novel both classes have their representatives, and Benedict’s repudiation of his own is illustrated by his breaking with Athénaïs, the farmer’s daughter whom he was to marry. In James’s tale Coquelin is the only representative of his class, lost in the aristocratic world of Bergerac without any background to sustain him. He is a kind of Noble Savage lost in the middle of civilization, a “firm devotee of Jean-Jacques,”17 compelled, in order to earn his living, to teach equality to the son of a family whose wealth and name are based on the very opposite notions. He stands above social distinctions and national frontiers; he is a Citizen of the World, convinced that personal merit is the only criterion by which a man is to be judged.

9Only later was James to realize how difficult it is to create foreign characters. A foreign culture can only be apprehended in its external manifestations and it is therefore difficult to paint foreign people from within. In his later works James will go on using France as a setting but he will avoid creating French characters: Madame de Mauves is an American married to a Frenchman, the Proberts are of Carolinian origin and both Claire de Cintré and Marie de Vionnet have English mothers. In Gabrielle de Bergerac all the characters are French but we see what has happened to those in whom James was most interested: under their French disguise Gabrielle de Bergerac and Coquelin have the moral complexity of his American characters.


1 Gabrielle de Bergerac, Complete Tales, II, 144.

2 The tale appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, XXIV (July-Sept. 1868), 55-71, 231-241, 352-361. It was not published in book form until 1918.

3 James enumerates these items in his book on Hawthorne: “No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor mannors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities, nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epson nor Ascot”! (Hawthorne [London, 1879], p. 43.)

4 Gabrielle de Bergerac, op. cit., p. 144.

5 Ibid., p. 145.

6 Ibid., p. 158.

7 Ibid., p. 130.

8 Ibid., p. 127.

9 Ibid., p. 108.

10 Loc. cit.

11 Ibid., p. 117.

12 Ibid., p. 120.

13 Ibid., p. 114.

14 James reviewed Sainte-Beuve’s Portraits of Celebrated Women in 1868. His reviews of Eugénie de Guérin’s Journal in 1865 and of her Letters in 1866 show his interest in the personality of a young woman who had more piety than imagination.

15 Gabrielle de Bergerac, op. cit., p. 120.

16 Cornelia P. Kelley, The Early Development of Henry James (Urbana, 1965), p. 90.

17 Gabrielle de Bergerac, op. cit., p. 105.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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