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VICTORINE
A novel
Catherine Texier
A non-review by J. Stefan-Cole


"They stone women like you," Victorine tells herself, facing a temptation that will take her away from a comfortable home, her students, a husband and two young children. It is 1899, and provincial French women do not run off to Indochina with men who make them dream. Unless they are selfish enough to commit the grand sin of putting love-or lust, or adventure or curiosity-ahead of maternal obligation. In that regard not much has changed. Victorine's ditching her children would be viewed as poorly today as it was then. Women can leave men, but can they leave their children? Catherine Texier's novel, VICTORINE; Pantheon Books, 2004, takes us on her great grandmother's impulsive journey.

Originally intended as the memoir of the real Victorine Texier, her great granddaughter, Catherine, found too little actual evidence to go on, was left with too many questions to solve once and for all the mystery that haunts her family. How could Victorine leave her children? Why did she leave? Where did she go? Rumors placed her in the French Colony of Indochine (Vietnam) and whisperings had a man involved, but nothing is proven, and there is no paper trail. Catherine Texier took her research all the way to Vietnam as the intended memoir evolved into a novel, an imaginary journey in Victorine's shoes. This is a smart novel in the lean and concise school of Flaubert and Stendhal; French to the teeth, tightly written with a feel for both the history and place of the Vendée region of France, and the French colony of Indochina. There is even a tantalizing dip into the opium trade, the French Government's dirty little secret: a glorious colony surviving on the opium tax.

What is factually known is that the real Victorine Texier abandoned her husband Armand and their children, Daniel and Madeleine, was gone a little over a year then suddenly returned. A 'reunion' child, Maurice, was conceived with Armand before they separated for good, leaving her to raise Maurice on her own. Nothing remains to explain Victorine's scandalous behavior. Catherine Texier paints the portrait of an intelligent woman who became a teacher at age sixteen. A good teacher who liked her work and whose students improved. The budding career is cut short by a flirtation with dark-haired Armand Texier, a known skirt chaser, which ends in pregnancy and a hasty walk down the isle. Victorine's father is furious, he tells Armand, "Has it ever occurred to you, young man, that my daughter, who is, as you were saying yourself, a remarkable young lady-and, make no mistake, I am extremely proud of her, proud that she is working, extremely proud, indeed, I encouraged her to pursue her studies, to teach-such a remarkable young lady that she is the youngest schoolteacher in the whole of France-no small feat you will admit no doubt. Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps she was destined to a bigger future than to marry a schoolmaster like yourself? That what you did, in effect, ruins her chances to have a future befitting her accomplishments with a man more worthy of her than you are?" Ouch. And the father refuses his daughter's hand. But Armand holds his own and in the end Victor-Paul does not stand in the way, and at seventeen his daughter Victorine's fate is sealed. Or should have been.

Does she love Armand? She loved the seduction, the excitement, the sex. She is attentive to Daniel and later to his sister, Madeleine. Attentive, but distant, as if she were looking in on her own life. Marriage and motherhood seem to suffocate. She announces one afternoon that she will return to teaching part time. Armand gives in after a few nastily worded objections and things seem to improve with Victorine working again until Antoine shows up. Does she love Antoine? Like Armand once had, Antoine excites her, but more deeply, more freely than Armand ever could. They'd met as children (before Armand was on the scene), as teens at La Tranche, the beach where Victorine and her sisters have gone while staying with an aunt who lives near the coast. Antoine came down from Paris to work the mussel beds during the summer. He has a Parisian accent, is confident, and a dreamer. He tells Victorine, who has let him take her hand, that he will go to Indochina, and will she go with him? She laughs; they are children, still in school. He kisses her. He is open and vulnerable and very unlike the provincials she has known. Her sister calls to her; the coach is ready to take them back to Tante Emilienne's, and Victorine runs off. Thirteen years later Antoine happens upon her again at La Tranche, this time visiting Tante Emilienne with her twelve year old son. Antoine pursues her. He made a mistake, he has never forgotten her, and should have found her sooner. He tells her he will go back to Indochina; will she go with him this time? Just like that. Can she refuse him a second time?

Victorine does not decide. Just as she did not decide with Armand, or with her pregnancies, she does not decide with Antoine. One day she simply acts, not knowing herself what she will do until the moment she does it. Until the moment she leaves; cleaning the kitchen the night before, having made everyone's favorite dish, nothing out of the ordinary, the evening sun glowing on the copper pots in her warm kitchen as she finishes her work, not thinking she will go, but next morning, after church, she does. She has secreted a suitcase in the attic filled with items and clothing for a five week sail to Indochina. She goes without decision. "The whole day and night, as they pursue their journey, she tries not to think how many hours it will take them to realize she is gone. Gradually, in the early morning, images of the house, of the waxed table and the sun reflected on the copper pots, dissolve, until she falls asleep and the big man wakes her up in Bordeaux." She has left no note behind on that waxed table.

The book is not about a mother abandoning her children, it is not about early feminism, or bad men, nor is Victorine a Madame Bovary. There is something missing in the character Catherine Texier has created, a gap that keeps Victorine apart. Even Antoine tells her she has to confront her behavior, choose instead of hiding after she has run away; make a declaration of her intentions. Is she only a woman of whims? She was living in the moment, and, yet, in the depth of her passion for Antoine, for the world he has shown her and the freedom he offers, there is a place inside this character that is not present. I think the thing that separates Victorine from being a Madame Bovary, keeps her apart from her children, her mother, her husband-her whole provincial life-is that she thinks. Not brilliantly, but with a scintilla of originally. She sees her life and that seeing keeps her from fully committing. She doesn't so much walk away from her children for a selfish end as allow her sense of something different, like sheer possibility, to seduce her. What seems a hideous act, a mother not loving her children more than she loves herself, begins to seem like something less easily judged. Because of this gap, this indecision, she pulls away in Indochina, too. This is a character who his dutiful and at times passionate and at the same time utterly detached. In her prologue, Catherine Texier writes: "There are families of gamblers, families of leftists, families of womanizers. My family has its share of wayward women."

But what exactly does that mean? Wayward? In some interpretations of Shariah law, for example, stoning is recommended for adultnesses. If the world community had not been loudly outraged, the Nigerian, Amina Lawal, would felt the wrath of flying rocks for bearing a child out of wedlock. But in that system an intractable woman is only a piece of property gone bad, like a slave who has disobeyed the rules. Sort of wayward with extreme consequences, a concept the Old Testament is quite comfortable with. When Victorine says they stone women like her she means figuratively, she means internally, she means she will mentally stone herself even as she tells herself, "It isn't you, in this marriage, in this house. You have the right to another chance at life." What right? The pursuit if happiness if it means leaving a trail of unhappy victims behind? And if she had stayed, had not gone with Antoine, not taken her shot, however briefly, what of the unhappy victims among her smothering discontent?

Catherine Texier very wisely does not answer these questions. She takes Victorine out of the pretty village in the Vendée into the lethargy-producing steam heat of Saigon, from Armand's bed into Antoine's bed. Briefly, with Antoine, she comes fully alive. She thinks sharply, acutely, for herself; like objecting to the opium, to Antoine's taking a temporary job with the Opium Bureau. Studies calligraphy with a Buddhist monk, learns some Vietnamese, rides the third class carriage, tries to be free, liberal, new. But the dark secret, the lie that she is Antoine's wife, that she has no children eats at her few moments of joy and the gap reappears, widens and swallows her once again. There is no tragedy here, only the story of a woman who walked away. Flawed? Wayward? In the traditional interpretation, the tension Catherine Texier creates is subtle and powerful: how can she leave? Her life is good where she is, and there are the children, and Armand is not so bad; she has no idea what she is doing. That is what you tell yourself as you grow anxious; she will come to her senses, won't go! But she does. Is that wayward or crazy brave? Bound to fail, too much pressure, too much baggage, but what a year it was with Antoine. Better to have loved and sinned, than never to have loved at all? You decide.

I enjoyed this book. The place, the characters, the dilemma, and I really liked the lean piquant writing of it. Take Victorine's journey with you this summer, just watch out for
flying stones.

©2004 J. Stefan-Cole


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