Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part one)
Mathilde Alanic (1864-1948), a native of Angers, authored around thirty novels. She was a member of the Society of Letters; she was also an inductee into the Legion of Honor. Her work belonged to the category of popular fiction. Below, to give an idea of how she stood in her lifetime, is a translated excerpt, one of her new releases getting a treatment designed to echo the signature Alanic tone.
The Flight of Doves, reviewed in “Excelsior”, November 1917, reviewer not named.
[…] For the voyage to the Pyrenees proves fatal to this long-eared exile. Alas! It is his poor little corpse, reduced in flesh to paté by the opulent automobile of the rich biscuit-maker, Maillefeu-Limort, that precipitates, on waves of blood, the two-hundred and eighty-six pages of this ingenuous “Flight”. To save her adored pup, and at the risk of her life, Eva, the youngest of the demoiselles Servain, throws herself somewhat under the car, and her fate to the winds. Catastrophe! Oh, no! All is white and red in the world of Mathilde Alanic. Eva loses consciousness in a manner decent, inoffensive, and full of grace, while under the charmed eye of the automobile’s master—single, and a millionaire…
Love at first sight. Engagement… Marriage… Honeymoon… And then the red moon. Our king of the biscuits is not sweet; he is a fraud! The poor girl is quick to perceive it. He is a snob; he is a brute, a true tyrant… Would he have his wife renounce her poor relatives? The larger part of his actions persuades her to revolt. She deserts the marriage hearth, goes to the consolation of her mother, who is at the brink of death. Divorce? Eh! No! The heroines of Mathilde Alanic do not divorce.
And if you care, the day is saved (the writer tells us), by a hunchback sister with a grievance of her own, who kills Maillefeu-Limort in the nick of time, using a pair of scissors. The plotting of Flight sounds a lot like the chaste (which quality I think a lot of romance readers prefer) gothic tales in the Victoria Holt, Georgette Heyer, Anya Seton vein.
In the days when I read these, I came across two individual books where the hero believed his wife/fiancée had deserted him, only to have her body discovered walled up—or trunked, in the second case—in the labyrinthine depths of the manor house. (The skeletal remains discovered when the living heroine finds herself imprisoned with them, by her deranged rival.)
I am fond of popular novels from the 19th to mid-20th centuries, and I think it matters that we aren’t taught them. To make entertainment of history, as we do in books, TV shows, and movies…also cartoons…we need a sense of what life was like for everyday people. Canonical literature was never common taste.
Generations who have always had internet, always an audience of friendly strangers with whom to share their loves and hates, may not realize what criticism and the arbitration of gatekeepers was to the Boomer generation, and those before. When new TV, new novels, new movies and music came out, anything that was labeled “commercial”, which meant popular but held, for that reason, in contempt, was given a treatment similar to the above. Under the name of kitsch, entertainments could with irony be climbed down to. The cumulative effect from the tone of the times, was: Whatever you like is inferior. You are inferior for liking it. We bring you this message from the high seat.
I want to include a quote from Ken Barnes, who wrote the “book” accompanying a collection of music on CD called “The Disco Years” (1990):
[…] disco was the music of threatening subcultures. Women performed most disco hits… Blacks performed most disco hits… And the national constituency of disco…both record-buying and club-going…was blacks, Latinos, the urban working class… Disco was also the music of choice for a large proportion of gays, whose clubs nurtured the sound… All of which helps explain why the phrase “disco sucks” the universal catchphrase of the rock set circa 1978-81, was really a euphemistic way of saying “(ethno-sexual epithet of your choice) sucks!” Fear and loathing handily exorcised by leer and frothing.
Older disgruntled voters, in America, and many other countries, cut their teeth on this high/low dichotomy; they were raised on a zero-sum mentality, that said whoever was high put you low, that cultural taste was an enemy state between yourself and anyone different from you, a constant battle for ascendency. They were groomed and ready for the propaganda of the far-right, telling them “elites”, unfairly in control, were fully planning to look down on them.
As economies exist at the interface: the point where you, the consumer, buy something (and not the abstraction of stocks going up and down; why we’re all in trouble these days…), so it is with cultural moods. We feel welcomed, or we feel rejected. We are taught to love everything, or we are taught that love for your thing takes away from mine. And those feelings which develop from our individual experiences, color our politics.
All of which makes sufficient ado, but without any more, the opening page of Shine!
The House Without Sun
“Here! This is addressed to you, Mademoiselle Le Goël! Lucky thing I didn’t open it!”
From the mail just received, Mlle Ernestine Virot pulled an envelope, which she passed in ostentation to the young account clerk at the neighboring desk. Her caustic tone, her affected gesture, alerted the whole office. A personal letter, sent to the factory? What secret affair? Could it be a declaration?
The pens stopped scratching. The heads rose, surreptitiously.
Annie Le Goël, bent over her register-book, threw an indifferent glance towards the letter, and gave a light shrug. “It’s not likely to be anything important.”
Her calm disconcerted the listeners. She went back to the calculation she’d left off. The others returned to their own tasks, losing interest in the incident. Near Annie’s ears a bell went off; its noise was deafening. She didn’t dare look at the white rectangle that lay on the worktable. Did it contain the long-awaited letter?
She tamped her curiosity, unwilling to give license, through a show of anxiety, to the acid comments of that jealous bitch Ernestine. How stupid to have given her address as the factory’s! But she had wished to hide, to spare herself the I-told-you-sos of her aunt, should this tentative start prove a failure…
She’d been just as afraid to use a postbox, a dangerous medium in the provinces. Poor Annie had counted on the complaisance of the sportive Arsène, the office boy, her only defense. Who could have guessed an ill-timed bout of flu would keep him away, on the very day of the response from “Foyer”?
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)