Friday, 7 August 2015

Matrimonial Comparison with the French Model

In 1859, the year of the events in The Law of Divorce, France was,ruled by Emperor Napoleon III. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-1873) was the son of Louis Napoleon (1778-1846), Napoleon I’s younger brother, and Hortense de Beauharnais (1783-1837), the daughter from Josephine Bonaparte’s first marriage. In the troublesome year of 1848, he was voted the first President of the Second Republic of France. In 1852 the Second Republic came to an end by a referendum and the Second Empire began, with Louis-Napoleon on the throne as Napoleon III. He transformed France into an industrialised nation having observed the British model during his years of exile in England. He was responsible for remodelling Paris with avenues, department stores and the opera house with the phantom. Napoleon III was equally busy abroad' both the Suez Canal (opened 1869) and the Crimean War (1854-1856) were among his overseas projects. 

In 1859 Napoleon would have been busy fighting the Austrians in northern Italy in aid of Italian unification. A decisive battle in this second war of Italian Independence was fought in Solferino on 24th of June 1859, and the carnage convinced Napoleon III to negotiate for peace with the Austrians with a treaty signed in November 1859 [the battle also led to the creation of the Geneva Convention (1864) and the founding of the Red Cross (1863)]. Incidentally, November 1859 is also the month when the story in The Law of Divorce comes to an end.

Roland's walk
On his way back from the visit to the Cure, Roland passes “under the long and graceful arcades of the Rue de Rivoli” (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 10), perhaps past Galignani’s book shop and reading room at number 224, “when he observed a crowd assembled at the entrance to the Tuileries.” (Ibid.) Roland sees Napoleon III ride out. The narrative gives a magnificent description of the powerful and mysterious Emperor, comparing him to a volcano. Above all, we are told, Napoleon III was brave: 

“He feared not death — for he believed in destiny. He thought not of danger, or, if he thought of it, he said within himself, 'La balle qui doit me tuer n' est pas encore fondue.'” (Ibid.

Needless to say, Roland’s love life pales in comparison to that of Napoleon III who had numerous mistresses and illegitimate children. Unlike Roland, he was not troubled by matrimonial ties in pursuing his desires

Harriet takes hold of Roland’s arm in the crowd. They rush to Harriet’s hotel, with her sister Lizzy in tow, and emotions are unleashed:

“Her feelings, no less than those of Roland, were perfectly uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Like torrents from mountain sources, they rushed into each other's embrace. They clung together with a cohesion the more persistent because Fate, Providence, and circumstances seemed to be bent on keeping them apart. As they sat side by side, their foreheads, their cheeks, their lips were pressed together fervently and closely, as if to reverse by resistance that cruel law which now made such endearments illicit.” (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 10)

Harriet “leaning her raven hair on his shoulder, and burying her gazelle-eyes in his breast,” sobs: “Fly with me, dearest Roland!” (Ibid.) But Roland is no Napoleon. He is afraid of the law and, even more afraid of Catherine: “She is as firm as a hill of granite, and perhaps as hard. She would follow me to the ends of the earth if I fled, and discover me though hidden in its remotest corner.” (Ibid.)

Instead, Roland suggest: “We must adopt a middle course.” (Ibid.)  He installs Harriet, Lizzy and the two children in Château d'St.Amand, a convenient “forty or fifty miles from Paris” (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 12).

Baron and Baroness de Barrère at St.Amand are forced to rent out part of their ancestral chateau to make ends meet (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 11). Cultural prejudices exist on both sides of the Channel in this narrative, for the Baron declares: “But who are these people who want to take the best part of the Chateau? Not English, I hope? I would as soon let it to Laplanders or Hottentots, as to those shop-keeping revolutionary heretics." (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 11).

The baron and his wife have their own secret: they are hiding the baron’s disabled, illegitimate daughter in the lodge house to the chateau. The story of this daughter is a digression in the narrative with no direct contribution to the main plot.

During the French revolution, the Baron’s father took his family to safety in England: “He had chosen Bath as his place of residence, and his son Louis, in their eighteenth year, had formed a violent attachment to the daughter of a yeoman, of Tiverton.” (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 11)

The liaison resulted in a daughter, known as “Mademoiselle Cyr”:

“The unfortunate little being so nearly resembled a monstrosity, that the midwife who was in attendance thought it necessary to consult a medical man as to whether it would be right to allow it to exist. … the deformity with which she was afflicted being so singularly hideous, it would be desirable, for others' sake as well as her own, that she should never be exposed to public view.” (Ibid.)

The sensational quality of this monster-in-the-lodge -scenario is undermined by the narrative’s careful explanation up front of her existence and her history. The detailed description of the excellent care she has received makes Mlle Cyr less of a Gothic character and more of a social embarrassment. She is stripped of mystery because we know too much about her. Only mild narrative tension is created by our knowledge that, unknown to Roland and Harriet, this unusual person is hiding nearby.

Mlle Cyr’s existence tells us something about the de Barrères and the French outlook on matrimony. The Baron’s affair with Luisa Loveton from Tiverton had been an “act of folly and sin” and the child “was destined to be her father's continual cross and shame.” (The Law of Divorce, Chapter 11) Both the Baron’s confession to the Baroness before their marriage and the care and education given to Mlle Cyr tell us that Baron de Barrère, despite all his Gallic grumpiness, is an honest man who meets responsibilities. The Baroness did not hesitate to marry the Baron and she did not hold the existence of Mlle Cyr against him.

Tiverton is in Devon, more than seventy miles from Bath, where the Baron’s family were in exile. They went into exile in 1793, and Mlle Cyr was sent to France after the Peace of Amiens, that is 1803 (Ibid.). Between these years, when Mlle Cyr was born, Tiverton was in decline. The peak period of the wool mills was already over and John Heathcoat (1783-1861) had not yet moved his lace-making operation to Tiverton (he did so in 1816).

There is no mention of the Baron ever having married the poor Louisa; the Baron returned to France to marry money to enable him to purchase back his ancestral chateau. Cesarine, Baroness de Barrère was the daughter of wealthy French tobacconist. Just like Napoleon divorced Josephine in order to make a politically astute match with Marie Louisa of Austria, Louis de Barrère moves on from his affair with Louisa Loveton and marries Cesarine to gain wealth and position. French marriages, the narrative seems to suggest, are sensible and practical. De Barrères’ story and the ysmpathetic treatment of Mlle Cyr in the narrative hint at the view that illegitimate children are not morally reprehensible, as long as they are acknowledged and well cared for. Relationships (and children) outside wedlock are a practical and common necessity, when wedlock is for life and divorce is not an option. Only the romantic, impulsive, English Roland has rushed from one marriage into another and has got himself into a matrimonial tangle.

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