Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Private Memoirs of Mademoiselle Bourienne

A thing people do sometimes is write novels where the main character is a minor character in another novel, usually one that is out of copyright, telling the story of that minor character. I suppose the most famous example of this might be Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (which is not a novel, but you get the idea). I wonder if you could do something similar with the likes of War and Peace, perhaps with someone like… Mademoiselle Bourienne.

As readers of Tolstoy's classic will recall, the French Mlle Bourienne lives with Old Prince Bolkonsky and his daughter Marya and is described as the latter's companion for all that their relationship is rather fraught. She also seems to have no first name. Mlle Bourienne is a fairly minor character, painted rather unsympathetically as a coquette and a gold-digger whose behaviour towards Marya can be a bit nasty, whether it is trying to cop off with some shifty character who has come to propose to the wealthy Marya or, later, preventing Marya from having a true tête-à-tête with her brother's fiancée. And of course she later seems to shack up with the Old Prince and assist him in his cruel behaviour towards his daughter.

Still, now that I have reached the part of War and Peace where Napoleon is invading Russia, I have found myself thinking of how things must look from Mlle Bourienne's position. She is a Frenchwoman in a country that is becoming rabidly anti-French. She seems to have no independent means of support and is entirely dependent on the generosity of the Bolkonskys, in particular that of the Old Prince. Given how erratic he has become, she could find herself cast out into destitution at any moment. I wonder, therefore, could you write an interesting book from her point of view? It could focus on her precarious life and her ever-present fear of finding herself without a roof over her head.

A first person narrative might work well for such a book, particularly if you made Mlle Bourienne a self-serving and not-entirely reliable narrator. She might be at pains to make her actions seem more honourable than Tolstoy does. So, perhaps, her dalliance with the shifty Anatole Kuragin was designed so that Marya would discover it and be spared the horror of marriage into that sinister clan. Her apparent taking up with the Old Prince becomes not the action of a gold digger, but an abusive relationship forced on a vulnerable woman, with her subsequent actions towards Marya being forced on her by the sadistic Old Prince.

I am not sure how this could develop. With War and Peace little over half way through, it is not yet clear how Mlle Bourienne's story will play out. She might not even be in a position to write her memoirs by the time the book ends. We will see.

An inuit panda production


Romi Elnagar said...

This would be an interesting novel indeed. Does WAR AND PEACE touch upon what happens to her during the French invasion of Moscow? Would she run off with one of the French soldiers, or stay with the Bolkonski's?
At any rate, I think she is named Amelie. At least, Princess Mary refers to someone name Amelie at the end of Chapter Four, Book Three, and in the context, it could only be Mlle. Bourienne.

Romi Elnagar said...

P.S. Also in Book IV, Chapter 10, Princess Mary calls someone Amelie Karlovna and in the context, it could be Mlle. Bourienne.

ian said...

I think Mlle Bourienne stays with the Bolkonskies when they run east. From memory she urges Marya to put her trust in the French, but Marya rejects the advice. I think Bourienne is mentioned later in passing as being still with the Bolkonskies (this when they have fled east of Moscow) and after that she disappears from the narrative.

When I was reading the book I was expecting that she would throw in her lot with the French and then disappear from the book as they retreat from Moscow, probably to meet some terrible fate, so I was glad that this did not happen to her.

ian said...

Thanks for revealing Mlle Bourienne's first name. Not sure how I missed that. It must be only mentioned a couple of times.