an immoderate desire…

The Necklace, by Guy de Maupassant and The Pearls by Isak Dinesen

The Necklace and the Pearls are two short stories published by Pushkin Press in a single volume. The stories are by different authors, were written at different times, there’s no link between them – except that each is about how a piece of jewellery transforms the life of the woman who wears it.

First of the two tales is Maupassant’s The Necklace, published in 1884 and here translated from the French by Jonathan Sturges. It’s the tale of a young woman who, well, she’s beautifully described in the opening paragraph by de Maupassant and I can’t top that:

She was one of those pretty and charming young girls who sometimes are born, as if by a slip of fate, into a family of clerks. She had no dowry, no expectations, no way of being known, understood, loved, and wedded by any rich and distinguished man; so she let herself be married to a little clerk of the Ministry of Public Instruction.

She is unhappy, as so often in French literature her husband though a good man does not understand her. As the paragraph above shows, this is not a match born of love, on her part in any event (“so she let herself be married to a little clerk”, I’ve read nothing so chilling in any horror novel I’ve read). She dreams of Oriental Tapestries, dainty cabinets, perfumed reception rooms. Her actual surroundings are humble, something she is all too painfully aware of.

And yet, she and her husband are not poor. They have a servant, they eat comfortably, they are not prosperous but with time their fortunes should improve. Still:

She had no gowns, no jewels, nothing. And she loved nothing but that. She felt made for that. She would have liked so much to please, to be envied, to be charming, to be sought after.

Her husband then expects her to be pleased when he manages to arrange an invitation to a Ministry function, a grand affair to which few clerks are invited. He blanches at her demands for an expensive gown, but sacrifices his own pleasures to afford it. When then she says she cannot go without jewels too, he suggests she borrow some from an old school friend that his wife had stopped seeing since the friend’s fortune has long since outstripped her own.

The husband then, cares for the wife. The old friend too is sympathetic, lending her a marvellous diamond necklace for the occasion, and the wife dazzles on the night living for the evening as she feels she ought.

She danced with rapture, with passion, intoxicated by pleasure, forgetting all in the triumph of her beauty, in the glory of her success, in a sort of cloud of happiness composed of all this homage and admiration, and of that sense of triumph which is so sweet to a woman’s heart.

And that’s all I shall say of the plot, save that matters do not go well thereafter. The story is well written, that opening paragraph alone is wonderful, the problem with it is that from the mid point it went precisely where I expected it to and I wasn’t wholly convinced of all the characters’ actions. At the end, I felt it was enjoyable, but not great, a story that started powerfully but for me became a touch obvious.

Not that that’s put me off de Maupassant. I own a copy of Bel Ami, and once I’ve read that will almost certainly pick up a copy of Alien Hearts to follow.

So, I was a little disappointed when, some hours later, I read The Pearls. I shouldn’t have been.

The Pearls was written in 1942, in English, by Isak Dinesen (of Out of Africa fame). Dinesen was a Danish writer, whose real name was in fact Karen Blixen.

In the Pearls, matters of class are again at the forefront. Here, by way of comparison, is its opening paragraph:

About eighty years ago, a young officer in the guards, the younger son of an old country family, married in Copenhagen the daughter of a rich wool merchant, whose father had been a pedlar and had come to town from Jutland. In those days, such a marriage was an unusual thing, there was much talk of it, and a song was made about it, and sung in the streets.

An old story then, a match between class and money, but here it is soon made clear that for neither is this a cynical exercise. The couple really are in love. The benefits for their families are secondary. (I wonder by the way if there’s a significance to the grandfather coming from Jutland there that a local would pick up, but that is lost on me).

Soon after the wedding, having in their lives spent time unchaperoned in each other’s company on only three or four occasions, they honeymoon in Norway. The scenery is breathtaking – “wherever she looked there was running water, rushing from the sky-high mountains into the lakes, in silvery rivulets or in roaring falls, rainbow-adorned – it was as if Nature itself was weeping, or laughing aloud.” (By the way, having seen pictures of the Norwegian countryside, I suspect this description is no exaggeration.)

As the honeymoon progresses though, the bride – Jensine – becomes disturbed. She notes that her husband appears unconcerned by the dangers the landscape contains, indeed she realises that nothing in his life here or at home gives him any pause – he is fearless. A young woman of prudent stock, this terrifies her, he seems suddenly as an unprotected child. For his own good, he must be taught how to fear.

.. he made fun of the debts he had had, and the trouble he had taken to avoid meeting his tailor. This talk sounded really uncanny to Jensine’s ears. For to her, debts were an abomination, and that he should have lived on in the midst of them without anxiety, trusting to fortune to pay up for him, seemed against nature. Still, she reflected, she herself, the rich girl he had married, had come along in time, as the willing tool of fortune, to justify his trust in the eyes of his tailor himself.
He told her of a duel that he had fought with a German officer, and showed her a scar from it.

Debts, duels, again of course class is an issue. The husband lives with the certainties he was raised to, the expectations of his station and of a Guards Officer. Jensine, however, is of a solid mercantile family raised from poverty in living memory. Her attitudes reflect that.

Matters crystallise when Jensine is given a gift by her husband, the one thing he fears for, a string of pearls that belonged to his grandmother and which he therefore cares about over all other material things. When the string breaks, and Jensine has the pearls restrung, the question arises as to whether all the pearls are still there…

Whether they are, whether they aren’t, it would spoil the story to disclose. What I can say is that unlike the de Maupassant, this time I didn’t know where the story was going, until the end I really had very little idea. For such a short tale (the whole volume combined is under 60 pages) there are a number of unexpected turns in it, and the closing pages had for me a haunting power that I was greatly impressed by and which I’m still thinking about.

So, two stories, both about women, about jewellery, about class and about things it would spoil the tales to disclose. The contrast between the two for me justified their being published together, I thought the Dinesen the more effective of the two but the de Maupassant was well written and the differing approaches to married life, to love, to desire and to the dangers of perhaps getting what one wishes for makes them an enjoyable paired read. This isn’t a major Pushkin Press title, but it’s an interesting small one, and provided you don’t expect too much from it it has its rewards.

On a final note, I will look into Dinesen more after this, a writer I was previously largely unaware of. I do still wonder if it was really necessary for Ibsen to have a walk-on part in her story however…

The Necklace, The Pearls


Filed under 19th Century, Danish fiction, de Maupassant, Guy, Dinesen, Isak, French, Short stories

9 responses to “an immoderate desire…

  1. Max,

    Thanks for sharing your experience with these two stories. It reminds me a little of an Italo Calvino story in the collection Numbers in the Dark which revolves, in part, around a necklace as well. These sound excellent, particularly the Denisen, which means I now would like to read something by Dinesen too. I had only ever heard the name (and, of course, of the movie/novel Out of Africa), so anything would be new. I don’t know if I will seek out this title, but I certainly enjoyed reading about it.


  2. The Necklace (Maupassant) is one of the stories in my dual-language collection so it should only take me about 10 years or so to finish it…

    I’ve had Dinesen recommended to me and I did read one thing (the title escapes me), but I couldn’t really stomach it–at least not the African stuff. Perhaps her other stuff is different, but all that colonialism, “her” africans, the casual slaughter and skinning of lions etc. Well I’m not interested in that.

    However, I did watch the film version of Babette’s Feast and throughly enjoyed it.

  3. My volume of Maupasssant short stories omits The Necklace on the grounds of its ‘notorious trick-ending’ which is ‘often regarded – quite unjustly- as typical of its author.’ Instead The Jewels is included. I haven’t read the former and so cannot make a judgement on the relative merits of each, but The Jewels is excellent and I recommend it.

    The Pearls sounds intriguing. I wonder how it would have fared, paired with The Jewels?

    I do like the idea of two themed stories in one volume. I am curious as to other pairings now, and will have to research the matter..

  4. GB Steve

    The only de Maupassant I’ve read is that old staple of horror collections, Le Horla. HPL was a fan and wrote of it in his survey of fantastic literature and I like it too, although not as much as Blackwood’s The Willows.

    The Necklace, also called The Diamond Necklace is available on Project Gutenberg along with pretty much everything de Maupassant wrote.

  5. It’s not an urgent one to seek out Kerry, it’s interesting and if you see it in a shop it’s worth picking up, but I wouldn’t go out of my way necessarily.

    Guy, thankfully those elements aren’t present here. I’d have struggled with them too.

    Sarah, it’s enjoyable, and the pairing does make it better. Notorious trick-ending, interesting, if you do end up with it at some point I’d suggest not thinking about that and just enjoying the prose. It’s not a terribly surprising twist.

    GB, I’d missed he was a horror writer too. I must look some of those up. I have some Blackwood, but have yet to read it and now winter is past it’ll probably be a while before I do. Been rereading some Hodgson recently on my iphone though, he’s a fun writer in that vein. Less serious than many of them (well, these are, it’s the Carnacki tales), but strangely rewarding.

  6. I don’t remember the name of my favourite de Maupassant. It’s about a woman who’s so beautiful her jealous husband feels the need to constantly impregnate her. I read it a long time ago, when I was thirteen or so, but to this day it remains one of the most beautiful short stories I’ve ever read.
    I’ve read the necklace, but it’s nothing compared to the other one.

  7. If you do sometime remember it Ronak, I’d love to hear what it was.

  8. Must say that I loved The necklace when I read it in my teens … I suppose it’s a bit obvious now, but it wasn’t to my romantic adolescent self!

  9. Pingback: Furthermore she was said to be full of the most inestimable talents. « Pechorin’s Journal

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