Scenes from Contes Cruels: Les Demoiselles de Bienfilâtre

Constantin Guys, Demimondaines
Constantin Guys, Demimondaines
Contes cruels (Cruel Tales, sometimes also translated as Sardonic Tales) is a book that has been unexpectedly dear to my heart. I say "unexpectedly" because neither satire of bourgeois morality, nor horror in the style of Edgar Allan Poe have ever been among my favorite things, and this book deals in both. Moreover, it delivers them in the guise of short stories, a literary form I'm not exactly fond of. And yet my memory of Contes cruels is that of a book of exquisitely sharp and beautiful tales, a book that was a complete pleasure to read, made doubly so by the fact that it was discovered completely by chance. To test this impression, I am returning to it now for o.'s French February event (and I reading it in French for the first time, too). I will be writing here about the tales that strike me and I hope to find some time to discuss the author as well, Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste WHAT-were-my-parents-thinking de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, who was a pretty interesting character in his own right.

When it comes to Les demoiselles de Bienfilâtre, the first of the Cruel Tales (French version available here; English version available here), there are two things I appreciated. One is a turn a phrase that was so nice I felt the need to keep it - to write it down or memorize it, to carry it with me in some form. The other is the underhanded cleverness of its construction. Let me explain what I mean with this last point.

Les demoiselles de Bienfilâtre opens with a meditation on the cultural relativity of moral values, parodying Voltaire's style. Things that are allowed in one culture are forbidden in others and vice versa. It then proceeds to tell the tale of two sisters, Olympe and Henriette, who work as prostitutes. They are accepted and respected in the only social circle that seems to matter, that of non-bourgeois men who, for better or worse, are the movers and shakers in politics and arts. They are accepted by their parents, who are too poor to support them otherwise. The narrative itself praises their work, in a mock grave tone, as it would any other occupation, explicitly rejecting “certain prejudices people have.” Ostracism and moral scorn come into play only when Olympe falls in love and takes "A lover! For pleasure! Without a penny of gain!”, a sin that has her literally dying of shame in the end.

What is happening here, you are tempted to ask. Is this our society as the author sees it and he is using this story to mock it? Or is it a complete fictional reversal of the way things stand in our culture (the way the examples of Muslim practices in the opening paragraphs were)? At first glance, it seems to be the latter. Here is a world in which prostitution is not stigmatized and disinterested love is. Surely, we do the opposite. (And by "we" and "our," I totally understand 19th century middle-class people, the usual target of Romantic & co. irony.)

But, at a closer look, the reason why prostitution is accepted and free love is not, in the frame of this story, is because money is the most important value. Everything is defined in terms of it. Things that bring money are good; things that do not are bad. All of a sudden, this doesn’t look like a society so different from ours anymore, does it? This is a caricature of our society: our society with its values taken to their logical conclusion. This is where the satire gets its bite from.

And this story is built to bite, to sting, to be cruel, but it remains weirdly impersonal in doing so. It doesn't feel like Henriette and Olympe are personally mocked. It doesn't feel like prostitution is condemned in itself or moral positions staked. The only thing that's being held to the light and mocked is the hypocrisy of a materialistic society. It is about exposing a contradiction rather than taking a side (though, presumably, the author expects his readers to take one). This restraint, I think, is what allowed the story to age relatively well (meaning that you will be able to read it without cringing too much even if you think women are people).

As I mentioned, the other thing that I liked was a short passage. Here it is, the moment the prostitutes are first described (English translation from the link above):
Sur la terrasse, entre la rangée de fiacres et le vitrage, une pelouse de femmes, une floraison de chignons échappés du crayon de Guys, attifées de toilettes invraisemblables, se prélassaient sur les chaises, auprès des guéridons de fer battu peints en vert espérance. Out on the terrace, between the row of hackney-cabs and the window front, was a paddock of women, a flowering of chignons plucked from the pencil of Guys. Bedecked with the utmost extremes of fashion, they were ensconced in the chairs beside the round wrought-iron tables painted in bright green.
"Une pelouse de femmes." How suggestive that is and how nicely done the transition to "une floraison de chignons," carrying the same, let's call it botanical, metaphor. Although I sort of see where it came from, I don't think "paddock" is the best translation for "pelouse" ("lawn"). These women are not compared to enclosed pastures, but to lawns, which are halfway between decorative and utilitarian. Notice how this comparison refuses any differentiation between them, despite their extraordinary toilets. They are all the same. They also lounge or loll in those chairs ("prélassaient"); there is something lazy and fluid about them. Also notice how the only specific detail, the one that resists this vague fluidity and fixes the image more firmly at the end, is not a detail about the women, but about objects: the bright green of the wrought-iron tables.

The mention of Constantin Guys - the painter of modern life - functions both as a visual and as a cultural prop. It is there not only as a descriptive shortcut, but also to conjure an atmosphere. You can see this image before your eyes, see the world it evokes. This sentence is alive.

Constantin Guys, Parisienne Seen from the Back


  1. This is really a nice post :) I know Villiers de L'Isle-Adam and I actually have his "Cruel tales" in my bookshelf, but I still haven't managed to read them. After reading your post, though, I think I should give it a try very soon :)

    1. You should definitely try them. Even if you don't like all of them, I think you'll find one or two that are nice. Thanks for stopping by!