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30 november 2017

I will cheerfully admit that I was led to Barbey d'Aurevilly's L'ensorcelée (1852) by a Wikipedia page on 19th-century French novels. I wanted some old French fiction by authors I hadn't heard of before, and this one proved to be free on iBooks.

L'ensorcelée has a high ratio of frame to tale. At times it seems less a story than a chain of character sketches. Whenever the plot gathers momentum, Barbey introduces a new character who needs backstory and integration into the ensemble. But this is after all a 19th-century novel, where meandering structures and casts of hundreds are considered a feature.

The story proper doesn't even begin till a fifth of the way through. It's told by a first-person narrator who relays it as he's heard it from two other first-person narrators, who in turn collate old accounts drawn from many another witness (each narrator sometimes breaking through the accumulated frames to speak for him- or herself, or add other perspectives). In the process, L'ensorcelée becomes a story of what an entire village knew about some lurid events, a forerunner of William Faulkner's story "A Rose for Emily" or Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem "Eros Turannos."

The village is more than an community of witnesses, though. It is also an agent, and it can act with sudden collaborative violence. "Ils allaient comme la lave s'écoule … cette foule, cette légion, cet immense animal multiple," as the narrator says at one point (Chapter 13): "they moved like flowing lava … that mob, that army, that vast amalgamated creature."

But I'm getting ahead of things. Earlier on, we (very) gradually learn that a woman named Jeanne-Madelaine has fallen in love with a priest by the fiendish name of Jéhoël de la Croix-Jugan. She's not just any woman; her mother was famous for slicing someone in half with an axe. And he is not just any priest. He'd left his cassock behind when the French Revolution broke out, to join the Chouans, the royalist resistance.

We are now in the aftermath of the Revolution. (Or rather, the outer frame story takes place long after the Revolution, but the tale the narrators tell is set in its aftermath.) The churches have re-opened. But Jéhoël has not fully resumed his clerical life. At the worst moment of the Chouan counter-revolution, he had tried to kill himself, and some Jacobin soldiers had tried to finish the job. The trauma left Jéhoël horribly disfigured. But Jeanne-Madelaine is desperately in love with him, the more so because of his hideousness, of course. The narrator says:

Que si, au lieu d'être une histoire, ceci avait le malheur d'être un roman, je serais forcé de sacrifier un peu de la vérité à la vraisemblance.

[If this book had the misfortune to be a novel instead of non-fiction, I would need to sacrifice truth to plausibility.] (Chapter 9)
In other words, in fiction he would have to establish how Jeanne-Madelaine could have fallen in love with such a specter. But in real life, stuff just happens.

Jeanne-Madelaine, of aristocratic origin (though she gets her tough streak from her axe-wielding, servant-class mother), has married beneath her, opting for the well-off Thomas le Hardouey, a staunch Jacobin who profited by the dispossession of the churches during the Revolution. This makes her choice of a lover all the more fraught, because her husband and her crush are such natural enemies. Making matters still more fraught is that Jéhoël is happy to use Jeanne-Madelaine to run subversive errands for him, but otherwise refuses to get closer to her in the ways she'd prefer. He is a priest, after all. But he's a priest who steps in and out of his frock as it suits his political motives. Jeanne-Madelaine could wish that he would do the same for amorous motives.

I won't spoil the subsequent plot developments … though the chances of English-speaking readers picking up The Bewitched are slim. It appears to have been out of print almost since it was first translated in 1928, and I can't find any English copies available. Still, spoilers are not nice. Let's just say that things finally take a couple of gruesome turns in quick succession. The result is an enchanted landscape, a Norman wasteland that even badasses like our narrators fear to cross at night. In that landscape, a ghostly priest with Satanic features annually says a blasphemous anti-Mass in a haunted chapel on Easter Sunday night. Even at a distance of 165 years, filtered through Barbey's Gothic histrionics, that Mass is still pretty creepy.

Barbey d'Aurevilly, Jules-Amédéé. L'ensorcelée. 1852. Bibebook.