The Diary of a Chambermaid – Octave Mirbeau (tr. Douglas Jarman)

‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ was originally published in 1900, during what was known as the “fin de siècle” period, the “end of century” or as the English refer to it, the “turn of the century”. A period considered one of degeneracy, whilst also looking towards the hope for a new beginning, the closing of one era and the opening of another. As Wikipedia tells us:

Works such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886); Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891); Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894); H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) all explore themes of change, development, evolution, mutation, corruption and decay in relation to the human body and mind. These literary conventions were a direct reflection of many evolutionary, scientific, social and medical theories and advancements that emerged toward the end of the 19th century.

It is also a period where rejection of religion and the acceptance of the evolution of science, was reflected in numerous literary works, notably the decadent works of JK Huysmans:

‘What about Paul Bourget, Father?’
‘Bourget? Well, he’s certainly turned over a new leaf . . . I wouldn’t say no, I wouldn’t say no. But he’s not a genuine Catholic, not yet at least . . . He’s still very muddled . . . He seems to me, this Bourget, rather like a wash-basin . . . Yes, that’s it . . . a wash-basin that all sorts of people have been washing in, where you’re apt to find olives from Mount Calvary floating amongst bits of soap and hair . . . It would be better to wait a bit . . . And Huysmans? Well, he’s a bit steep. . . Still, he’s quite orthodox.’

This novel was also written and released at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, an anti-Semite miscarriage of justice and a huge political scandal. Whilst there are small references to the affair itself the book does contain a character who is deeply anti-Semite, him reading newspaper articles about the affair, having his walls plastered with nationalistic images etc.

As the name implies, ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ is a diary of a chambermaid’s, Célestine’s, present-day employment peppered with memories of previous engagements:

I shall spend this night reviving once again, perhaps for the last time, memories of my past. IT is the only way to stop myself brooding about my present problems, or plaguing myself with dreams about the future. These memories amuse me, yet at the same time they deepen my feeling of contempt. After all, what singular and monotonous faces I have encountered in my life of servitude! . . . When I see them again, in imagination, they no longer strike me as being really alive. They only live, or at least create the illusion of being alive, through their vices . . . Take away their vices, which preserve them like the bandages that preserve a mummy, and they are no longer even ghosts . . . merely dust and ashes . . . death . . .

The memories are of past lovers, past employers who sexually harass, abuse or mistreat their staff, a scandalous collection of bourgeois exploitation:

Servants are not normal social beings, not part of society. The lives they lead are disjointed, and they themselves are made up of bits and pieces that do not fit together. They are worse than that, they are monstrous hybrids. They have ceased to be part of the common people from whom they spring and they will never become part of the bourgeoisie whom they live amongst and wait on. They have lost the generous responses, the native strength, of the people they have rejected, and have acquired the shameful vices of the bourgeoisie without the necessary means of satisfying them; they have adopted their vile feelings, their cowardly fears, their criminal appetites, without the background, and therefore without the excuse, of their wealth. Living in this ‘respectable’ bourgeois world, simply from breathing in the fatal atmosphere that rises from this putrid drain, they lose all sense of spiritual security, and cease to be aware of their own separate existence. They wander like ghosts of themselves amongst a crowd of strangers, and when they search their memories all they can find there is filth and suffering. They are always laughing, but the laughter is forced; and, realized, it always wears the bitter grimace of revolt, the cruel sneer of sarcasm. Nothing is so heart-rendingly ugly as this laughter – it burns and withers . . . Perhaps it would have been better if I had cried! Yet I don’t know . . . Anyhow, to hell with it!

Using standard first person literary devices such as eavesdropping, partaking in the country gossip or being present whilst arguments amongst the bourgeoisie occur, this work holds a mirror up to late 19th Century society, the servant’s role, the degeneration of society, whilst also containing Célestine’s dreams of a better future, the fin de siècle, a new beginning.

Another interesting element is the occasional foray into naturalism, pastoralism, where the horrors of the current day filth, the putrid existence, the decadent lifestyle is set aside for a romantic view of the past:

Nevertheless, I was happy, and longed for June to come. Oh, the daisies growing in the meadows, and the little footpaths through the woods, and the fluttering leaves . . . And then the birds’ nests that you find in the clumps of ivy, hanging from old walls . . . And the nightingales singing in the moonlight, as you sit on the wall of a well, covered with maidenhair fern and moss and honeysuckle climbing all over it, holding hands and talking quietly to one another . . . And the great bowls of warm milk, and the big straw hats, and the baby chicks, and going to mass in the village church, and the sound of bells, and all the rest of it . . . Why, it makes you feel as though your heart would burst with happiness, like those lovely songs they sing in the cafés in Paris! . . .

These slight respites occasionally appear against the backdrop of an anarchist view of the world, a place where there is no justice for the working classes, a world where the bourgeoisie treat the servants worse than their pets:

… whichever way you tun, it’s always the same, and naturally it’s always those that have got the least that get robbed the worst . . . But what can you do about it? You can rage as much as  you like, you can try and revolt, but in the end you just have to admit that it’s better to be cheated than to starve, and die in the street like a dog . . . There’s only one thing certain, and that is that the world’s damned badly organized . . .

I’ve only lightly touched on the dominant theme of the exploitation of servants, sexually, physically, financially, however it is this dark undercurrent that pervades throughout the novel, Célestine merely portraying tales of debauchery, for example her shoes are taken by an old man, who is found dead in his bed, naked, in his teeth the leather, or the scraps the servants eat whilst the bourgeoisie feed prime beef to their dogs.

Célestine’s diary also contains her tales of promiscuity, including manipulation of her employers, loves, fraternizations with fellow employees as well as her unfulfilled desires, the rape and murder of a young girl, and so many more reflections on a society that has fallen into disgrace.

There’s enough late 1800’s spice to ensure decent circulation, for example, at one stage she catches up with an old friend Clémemce, “Cléclé I used to call her”, at accommodation for unemployed, destitute servants the “Sisters of Our Lady of the Thirty-Six Sorrows”, a place where they are exploited even further, working for gruel and if getting a placement having to pay back a sum plus interest for their board and lodgings:

As our cubicles were next to one another, on the second night she came into my bed . . . After all, what else could you expect? Force of example, perhaps . . . but also, perhaps, the craze to satisfy a curiosity that had for a long time been plaguing me . . . And, besides with Cléclé it was a passion . . . ever since she had been seduced, four years ago, by one of her mistresses, a General’s wife.

‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ is a not a difficult read, it addresses social issues of the late 1800’s, adds in the decadent elements of an era of degeneracy, whilst also looking towards Célestine’s hope for a new beginning. Using a style that is not simply a diary, there’s the non-linear approach with the flashbacks, eavesdropping, social commentary and scandal you are engaged throughout. If you have seen the Luis Buñuel film that is based on this book, I suggest you read this work as it contains a whole lot more depth of riches (the flashbacks) and the story of Célestine’s redemption, if it can be called that, is significantly different. For anybody who is intrigued by the literature of the French decadent period this is a worthwhile novel to add to the list of possible reads. Currently, I am continuing with the writers of that era, presently focusing on JK Huysman’s four semi-autobiographical novels about Durtal and his rise from decadence to Roman Catholic saving and I will write up my thoughts about these books over the coming weeks.

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