“After dinner they went into the sitting room, where the cook announced the Viscountess de Montmort. This lady, naturally, did not associate with the middle-class people of the village; she wouldn’t invite them into her home any more than she would her farmworkers. When she needed a favour, however, she would come to their homes to make the request with the simplicity, ingenuousness and innocent superiority of the “well-bred.” The villagers didn’t realise that when she dropped by, dressed like a chambermaid, wearing a little red felt hat with a pheasant feather that had seen better days, she was demonstrating the profound scorn she felt towards them even more clearly than if she had stood on ceremony: after all, they didn’t get dressed up to go to a neighboring farm to ask for a glass of milk. Her deception worked. “She’s not stuck-up,” they all thought when they met her. Nevertheless, they treated her with extraordinary condescension–and they were just as unaware of it as the Viscountess was of her feigned humility.
Madame de Montfort strode into the Angelliers’ sitting room; she greeted them cordially; she didn’t apologise for coming so late; she picked up Lucile’s book and read the title out loud: Connaisance de l’Est by Claudel.
“Very good indeed,” she said to Lucile with an encouraging smile, as if she were congratulating one of the schoolgirls for reading The History of France without being forced to. “You like reading serious books, very good indeed.”
She knelt down to pick up the ball of wool the elder Madame Angellier had just dropped.
“You see,” the Viscountess seemed to say, “I’ve been brought up to respect my elders; their background, their education, their wealth mean nothing to me; I see only their white hair.”
Meanwhile, Madame Angellier, with an icy nod of the head, barely moving her lips, invited the Viscontess to sit down. Everything inside her seemed silently to scream, “if you think I’m going to be flattered by your visit you’re mistaken. My great-great-grandfather might have been one of the Viscount de Montmort’s farmers, but that’s ancient history and no one even knows about it, whereas everyone knows the exact number of hectares of land your dead father-in-law sold to my late husband when he needed money; what’s more, your husband managed to come back from the war, while my son is a prisoner. I am a suffering mother and you should be showing respect to me.” To the Viscountess’s questions she replied quietly that she was in good health and had recently heard from her son.
“You have no hope?” asked the Viscountess, meaning “hope that he’ll soon come back home.”
Madame Angellier shook her head and raised her eyes to heaven.
“It’s so sad,” said the Viscountess and added, “We’re going through such hard times.”
She said “we” out of that sense of propriety which makes us pretend we share other people’s misfortunes when we’re with them (although egotism invariably distorts our best intentions so that in all innocence we say to someone dying of tuberculosis, “I do feel for you, I do understand, I’ve had a cold I can’t shake off for three weeks now”).
“Very hard times, Madame,” murmured Madame Angellier coldly. “We have a guest, as you know,” she added, indicating the next room and smiling bitterly. “One of these gentlemen…you’re putting someone up as well, no doubt?” she asked, even though she and everyone else knew that thanks to the Viscount’s personal contacts there were no Germans at the chateau.
The Viscountess did not reply to this question, but said indignantly, “You will never guess what they have had the nerve to request….access to the lake for fishing and swimming! And I , who love the water so much, will be forced to stay away all summer.”
“Are they forbidding you to use the lake? Well that’s a bit much,” exclaimed Madame Angellier, vaguely comforted by the humiliation inflicted upon the Viscountess.
“No, no,” she insisted, “on the contrary, they behaved quite correctly. Please tell us when we may use the lake so we will not disturb you,” they said. “But can you imagine me running into one of those men in my bathing suit? You know they even eat half naked? They take their meals in the courtyard of the school with bare chests and legs and wearing a kind of jockstrap! The older girls’ classroom looks out over the courtyard so they have to keep the shutters closed so the children don’t see…..what they shouldn’t see. And you can imagine how pleasant that must be in this heat!”
She sighed; she was in a very difficult position.”
–Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise, 1941