Old Ladies

D.A.N. Jones

  • Dear Departed: A Memoir by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Maria Louise Ascher
    Aidan Ellis, 346 pp, £18.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 85628 186 7
  • Anna, Soror by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Walter Kaiser
    Harvill, 256 pp, £7.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 00 271222 9
  • That Mighty Sculptor, Time by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Walter Kaiser
    Aidan Ellis, 224 pp, £18.00, June 1992, ISBN 0 85628 159 X
  • Coming into the End Zone: A Memoir by Doris Grumbach
    Norton, 256 pp, £13.95, April 1992, ISBN 0 393 03009 1
  • Anything Once by Joan Wyndham
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 178 pp, £15.95, March 1992, ISBN 1 85619 129 X
  • Within Tuscany by Matthew Spender
    Viking, 366 pp, £16.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 670 83836 5

Marguerite Yourcenar was a highly honoured French writer, the first woman to be elected to the Académie Française, but her mother came from the Low Countries. The mother died in 1903, eight days after the daughter’s birth: her married name was Fernande de Crayencour (from which the pen name ‘Yourcenar’ was constructed) and her maiden name was de Cartier de Marchienne. In 1974, Marguerite Yourcenar published Souvenirs pieux (the first volume of her memoirs, Le Labyrinthe du monde), but it is a ‘memoir’ that never deals directly with the author. The book is about Fernande, her family and ancestors, over several centuries in what is now called Belgium. They were people who could take the concept of ‘pious memories’ quite seriously or, at least, formally.

Yourcenar read and emended eight chapters of this new English version before her own death in 1987, and it was she who decided that the title, Souvenirs pieux, should be rendered as Dear Departed, ‘with all its resonant irony’. She might almost have been thinking of the sour, dingy titles of British chuckle-shows in her time. On television we have been offered the ‘resonant irony’ of Till death us do part and In Sickness or in Health and One Foot in the Grave. There was a show (in the Seventies, I believe) called Valued Friends: it was about property values, home ownership, the housing market. Dear Departed is not such a rib-tickler as these, but it does offer an archaic smile, along with its stoicism. Yourcenar seems determined not to shed, nor to provoke, a sentimental tear. Instead she writes: ‘I take issue with the assertion commonly heard that the premature death of a mother is always a disaster or that a child deprived of its mother feels a lifelong sense of loss and a yearning for the deceased.’ Fernande had been the second wife of Yourcenar’s proud father, Michel de Crayencour: the young daughter subsequently enjoyed sisterly or motherly relationships with her father’s ‘mistresses or quasi-mistresses and later his third wife’.

As a septuagenarian in 1974, Yourcenar noted that she was more than twice as old as Fernande had been in 1903, and that she could ‘look at her as at a daughter whom I am trying my best to understand’. Set against this passage is a reproduction of Fernande’s souvenir pieux – ‘a small religious card that could be inserted between the pages of a missal’, a printed reminder of the deceased, with prayers and texts, which was sent to her Roman Catholic friends and kinsfolk, urging them to pray for her soul, her departed spirit. Such printed pieties may well seem sentimental to outsiders – rather like the halting rhymes we find in the ‘In Memoriam’ columns of newspapers.

After reporting the death of this young mother, the birth of this child, Yourcenar embarks on a ‘tour of the chateaux’, the stately strongholds in the neighbourhood of Liège and Namur where members of Fernande’s family, de Cartier de Marchienne, had quietly sheltered or sallied forth. All seem equally ancient, equally modern, in Yourcenar’s disorienting prose, her glimpses. In 1792, a house of the family was commandeered by the terrible young Saint-Just, commissioner to the armies of the North. Yourcenar admits: ‘Like a number of French men and women of my generation, I worshipped Saint-Just when I was very young.’ She had liked to fancy that her great-great-grandmother fell in love with the handsome revolutionary: later the author’s admiration for ‘Robespierre’s cruel friend’ changed to ‘a tragic pity’. In the 19th century, when events and manners seem more dowdy, recent enough to be ‘old-fashioned’, she detects a sort of fatuity in her forebears’ piety: their real gods were all Roman and pagan, Plutus and Terminus, Lucina and, most certainly, Libitina, goddess of burials, ‘pushed as far away as possible, but ever-present at family funerals and devolutions of inheritance’. A remembered ancestor, active on the battlefield at Crécy, leads her to quote from Sacheverell Sitwell, evoking ‘the shock of the suddenly revealed past’ from the effigy, at Tewkesbury Abbey, of another Crécy warrior, a ‘man of prey’, displaying ‘the cruel eagerness of a wild cat’.

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