The One with the Sadly Vicious Maid

Octave Mirbeau, Le Journal d’une Femme de Chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1900)

It’s not a good sign when you pass the 25%, then the 40% mark of a book and you don’t really know why you’re reading it, right? Well, I wanted to read a classic that I had not read in class, because there’s always a good reason that they have withstood the proverbial test of time, and after reading Belle Epoque, I was in the mood for more turn-of-the-century upstairs/downstairs drama.

Now, if upstairs/downstairs drama makes you think of Downton Abbey, think again. This is about sex (not feelings), and Célestine, the maid, is having a lot of it. It’s about hypocrisy, and Celestine is not the least of the hypocrites, even if the masters are the champions. Everybody in this book is vicious, both upstairs and downstairs. Of course, it’s a sad tale, very dark and cynical. Célestine has had an unhappy childhood, then she was trained as a maid and she got an opportunity to find a position in Paris, among bourgeois wealthy families. Bourgeois pretend to be wholesome, faithful, honest people and demand the same from their servants, but they’re mean, lying, ungenerous and vicious. The servants in turn hate and envy their masters, both when these are too strict or too lax.

The sex part is not even fun, because all the characters are such caricatures. Not only is the social criticism not very subtle (Mirbeau is rather one to underline everything twice with a yellow highlighter, if those had existed in 1900) but the political context is also important: all the evil bourgeois and servants are violently antisemitic and anti-Dreyfusards (pro-Army and pro-Catholics), in reference to the French Antisemitic scandal (l’affaire Dreyfus) that made one half of France clash against the other between 1894 and 1906. I didn’t know much about Mirbeau’s personal life or convictions before reading the book, but it is obvious that he was an anarchist. I just wished he could make his point quicker.

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