6 June 2013

Constance de Salm: Vingt-quatre heures d’une femme sensible ou Une grande leçon (1824; repr. 2007)

Constance de Salm (1767-1845), who was born Constance de Théis, wrote poetry and plays and came to be known as the 'Boileau des femmes.' She was an influential figure in intellectual and political spheres and her salon – one of the most frequented in Paris – was noted for such guests as Alexandre Dumas fils and Stendhal.*

In 1824 Salm anonymously published her first and only novel, the epistolary Vingt-quatre heures d’une femme sensible ou Une grande leçon ('A Sensitive Woman's Twenty-four Hours: or, an Important Lesson'), which was rescued from oblivion several years ago by Claude Schopp, incidentally an expert on Dumas.

Salm – who wrote Vingt-quatre heures a number of years before it was published – was something of a proto-feminist who disliked sentimentalism and subservient women, and wrote this novella as a reply to reproaches she had received about her work being too serious and philosophical. She wanted to paint a complete picture of what it is to be a woman, or show the heart of a woman, at the same time as giving women a lesson, showing them to what point they can be driven by the passing 'disorder' that is love.

The work consists of forty-six letters, almost all of which are written by the narrator to the man she loves, during one night and angst-ridden day in which she reveals her jealous torments after seeing her lover leave a concert on the arm of another woman: madame de B.... The fact that her lover doesn't come to her later that night triggers off the series of letters by this increasingly desperate and even (in her later stages) deranged woman.

In the course of twenty-four hours the narrator not only writes the letters (some of which are very short) but fruitlessly visits her lover's house and has to be taken back home unconscious: her lover has left for the country with madame de B...; she later learns that her lover is marrying madame de B... and prepares to kill herself. However, through a twist in the story she is saved by her lover's letters informing her that madame de B... is clandestinely marrying his uncle – a man whose earlier intention was to marry the narrator – and that her lover's main desire is to marry her.

This short novel is written in a very powerful language and is in fact much better than my unfortunately very reductive summary of it might sound.

*Salm was previously married to Jean-Baptiste Pipelet, whom she divorced in 1799, and a 'Mme Constance Pipelet' appears in Stendhal's autobiographical work, the unfinished Vie de Henry Brulard (1890).

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