Monday, July 7, 2008
A French Mrs. Miniver
In the Dining Room by the French painter Berthe Morisot (1848-1891), sister-in-law and colleague of Eduard Manet and a French Impressionist.
A French Mrs. Miniver is the subject of a short story, "Through Pity and Terror," by Dorothy Canfield Fisher in her The Bedquilt and Other Stories. The story concerns a model wife and mother in France in the days just before and immediately after the outbreak of World War I.
The heroine's name is Madeleine, and in the first few pages of the story, Dorothy Canfield describes her and how she keeps her home. The linen closet inventory is described in details: the beautiful linens, wool blankets, and other exquisite household items that had been handed down to her by her family and that she had brought to her marriage with the town pharmacist, Jules Brismantier. As a child and youth, Madeleine had been "put through the severe and excellent" French public school but had married before going on to higher education and when her first child was born, "reverted rapidly to type, forgot most of her modern education, and became a model wife and mother on the pattern of of all the other innumerable model wives and mothers in the history of her family. She lived well within their rather small income, and no year passed without their adding to the modest store of savings which had come down to them because all their grandmothers had lived well within their incomes."
"Such intelligent comfort that reigned in the Brismantier household," notes Canfield, "is only to be had at the price of diligent and well-directed effort.... Madeleine planned her busy day the evening before and was up early to begin it. The house was always immaculate, the meals always on time... and always delicious and varied.... The children were always as exquisitely fresh and well cared for as only European children of the better classes used to be, when household help was available at preindustrial pittance payments.... Madeleine's religion was to keep them spotless and healthful and smiling; to keep Jules' mouth always watering in anticipation [of meals]; to help him with his accounts in the evenings; ... to keep her old garden flowering and luxuriant; to keep her lovely old home [an apartment above the pharmacy] dainty and well-ordered; and, of course, to keep herself invariably eat with the miraculous neatness of French women, her pretty, soft chestnut hair carefully dressed, her hands white and all her attractive person as alluring as in her girlhood."
In the summer of 1914, Madeleine was preparing for the birth of her third child in September, sewing and embroidering the baby clothes and blankets to greet the newborn and waiting in anticipation for her mother to come and help her give birth. But then, in August, hour by hour, Madeleine's life was engulfed with terror. Her husband was mobilized to go to war. When the town's inhabitants fled the oncoming Germans, Madeleine, about to give birth, stayed in her home with her children as the town was drained of all but its religious and the mayor. The rest of the story tells how Madeleine survived the German invasion and destruction of the town and her home, how she gave birth alone in the midst of it all, and how she outwitted her German tormenters. Model wife and mother found the determination and courage to defend herself and her children and her country.