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The origins of this extraordinary book are sufficiently curious and sufficiently interesting to be stated in detail. They go back to some ten years ago, when the author, after the rustic adventures which she describes in the following pages, had definitely settled in Paris as a working sempstress. The existence of a working sempstress in Paris, as elsewhere, is very hard; it usually means eleven hours’ close application a day, six full days a week, at half a crown a day. But already Marguerite Audoux’s defective eyesight was causing anxiety, and upsetting the regularity of her work, so that in the evenings she was often less fatigued than a sempstress generally is. She wanted distraction, and she found it in the realization of an old desire to write. She wrote, not because she could find nothing else to do, but because at last the chance of writing had come. That she had always loved reading is plain from certain incidents in this present book; her opportunities for reading, however, had been limited. She now began, in a tentative and perhaps desultory fashion, to set down her youthful reminiscences. About this time she became acquainted, through one of its members, and by one of those hazards of destiny which too rarely diversify the dull industrial life of a city, with a circle of young literary men, of whom possibly the most important was the regretted Charles Louis Philippe, author of “Bubu de Montparnasse,” and other novels which have a genuine reputation among the chosen people who know the difference between literature and its counterfeit. This circle of friends used to meet at Philippe’s flat. It included a number of talented writers, among whom I should mention mm. Iehl (the author of “Cauet"), Francis Jourdain, Paul Fargue, Larbaud, Chanvin, Marcel Ray, and Regis Gignoux (the literary and dramatic critic). Marguerite Audoux was not introduced as a literary prodigy. Nobody, indeed, was aware that she wrote. She came on her merits as an individuality, and she took her place beside several other women who, like herself, had no literary pretensions. I am told by one of the intimates of the fellowship that the impression she made was profound. And the fact is indubitable that her friends are at least as enthusiastic about her individuality as about this book which she has written. She was a little over thirty, and very pretty, with an agreeable voice. The sobriety of her charm, the clear depth of her emotional faculty, and the breadth of her gentle interest in human nature handsomely conquered the entire fellowship. The working sempstress was sincerely esteemed by some of the brightest masculine intellects in Paris.

This admiring appreciation naturally encouraged her to speak a little of herself. And one evening she confessed that she, too, had been trying to write. On another evening she brought some sheets of manuscript the draft of the early chapters of “Marie Claire” and read them aloud. She read, I am told, very well. The reception was enthusiastic. One can imagine the ecstatic fervour of these young men, startled by the apparition of such a shining talent. She must continue the writing of her book, but in the mean time she must produce some short stories and sketches for the daily papers! Her gift must be presented to the public instantly! She followed the advice thus urgently offered, and several members of the circle (in particular, Regis Gignoux and Marcel Ray) gave themselves up to the business of placing the stories and sketches; Marcel Ray devoted whole days to the effort, obtaining special leave from his own duties in order to do so. In the result several stories and sketches appeared in the Matin, Paris Journal (respectively the least and the most literary of Paris morning papers), and other organs. These stories and sketches, by the way, were republished in a small volume, some time before “Marie Claire,” and attracted no general attention whatever.

Meanwhile the more important work proceeded, slowly; and was at length finished. Its composition stretched over a period of six years. Marguerite Audoux never hurried nor fatigued herself, and though she re-wrote many passages several times, she did not carry this revision to the meticulous excess which is the ruin of so many ardent literary beginners in France. The trite phrase, “written with blood and tears,” does not in the least apply here. A native wisdom has invariably saved Marguerite Audoux from the dangerous extreme. In his preface to the original French edition, M. Octave Mirbeau appositely points out that Philippe and her other friends abstained from giving purely literary advice to the authoress as her book grew and was read aloud. With the insight of artists they perceived that hers was a talent which must be strictly let alone. But Parisian rumour has alleged, not merely that she was advised, but that she was actually helped in the writing by her admirers. The rumour is worse than false it is silly. Every paragraph of the work bears the unmistakable and inimitable work of one individuality. And among the friends of Marguerite Audoux, even the most gifted, there is none who could possibly have composed any of the passages which have been singled out as being beyond the accomplishment of a working sempstress. The whole work and every part of the work is the unassisted and untutored production of its author. This statement cannot be too clearly and positively made. Doubtless the spelling was drastically corrected by the proof-readers; but to have one’s spelling drastically corrected is an experience which occurs to nearly all women writers, and to a few male writers.

The book completed, the question of its proper flotation arose. I use the word “flotation” with intent. Although Marguerite Audoux had originally no thought of publishing, her friends were firmly bent not simply on publishing, but on publishing with the maximum of eclat. A great name was necessary to the success of the enterprise, a name which, while keeping the sympathy of the artists, would impose itself on the crowd. Francis Jourdain knew Octave Mirbeau. And Octave Mirbeau, by virtue of his feverish artistic and moral enthusiasms, of his notorious generosity, and of his enormous vogue, was obviously the heaven-appointed man. Francis Jourdain went to Octave Mirbeau and offered him the privilege of floating “Marie Claire” on the literary market of Paris. Octave Mirbeau accepted, and he went to work on the business as he goes to work on all his business; that is to say, with flames and lightnings. For some time Octave Mirbeau lived for nothing, but “Marie Claire.” The result has been vastly creditable to him. “Marie Claire” was finally launched in splendour. Its path had been prepared with really remarkable skill in the Press and in the world, and it was an exceedingly brilliant success from the start. It ran a triumphant course as a serial in one of the “great reviews,” and within a few weeks of its publication as a book thirty thousand copies had been sold. The sale continues more actively than ever. Marguerite Audoux lives precisely as she lived before. She is writing a further instalment of her pseudonymous autobiography, and there is no apparent reason why this new instalment should not be even better than the first.

Such is the story of the book.

My task is not to criticise the work. I will only say this. In my opinion it is highly distinguished of its kind (the second part in particular is full of marvellous beauty); but it must be accepted for what it is. It makes no sort of pretence to display those constructive and inventive artifices which are indispensable to a great masterpiece of impersonal fiction. It is not fiction. It is the exquisite expression of a temperament. It is a divine accident.

Arnold Bennett.