Edited and introduced by Jean-Yves Berthault (English version)
Last month, I was having lunch with my friend Elizabeth when she announced with enthusiasm: “I’m going to introduce you to Jean Yves Berthault, who is publishing a collection of letters written by Mademoiselle S.” I listened to her distractedly. To this day, with this little pink book between my hands, I have discovered the many marvelous lines recounting Simone and Charles’s love story.
The story began quite randomly, when one day, wanting to clean out an old cellar, Jean-Yves Berthault, stumbled upon the letters. Intrigued by the empty jars which had been protected by pages of old newspapers, Berthault hurriedly unwrapped them to reveal what the papers were covering, and what a “fabulous treasure” he found! In between and underneath the old papers was a monogrammed leather satchel containing an extraordinary amount of letters.
..But what point is there to conjure up these images, when such happiness is not possible… »
Stationed in Brunei, this ambassador would spend one year reading the letters, establishing their chronology and selecting the dates that most clearly appeared to depict the evolution of the relationship. In effect, out of the 200 letters that were initially found in the satchel, the book contains only 61 portraying the tragic love story between Simone and Charles. In reading the book, we enter the two lovers’ world and explore the devouring passion that united this young woman with this man, so handsome and yet so comfortably married, to whom Simone gives her all to the point of perversion in order to maintain their impossible love.
This young woman, coming from a well-established and modern family in the same time period as the heroine from Belle de Jour, slips into a gripping, raw, and unequaled prose during her correspondence with Charles. Through her transgressions, she seeks in vain to elicit bedazzlement and adoration from her lover by becoming his “darling whore! »
Immediately after reading the first few pages, I was taken by the beauty of the words which, naturally and as if by magic, harmonize with one another so perfectly. Elizabeth was right: the crudeness of these words does not shock the reader. Instead, the beauty of this epistolary literature fascinates, and even entraps, the reader in its interlacing phrases of declared love.
« …Whatever pleasures your desires dictate, you know I like them all. If you have new passions, tell me, I shall make them my own as I have already made your vices mine… »
Right away, I felt sad for this woman who dreamed of tender feelings and of one night spent with the man she was willing to do anything and everything for, but who considered her to be just a beautiful sex toy and coordinator of his fantasies.
What had “Simone”, as Jean-Yves Berthault had renamed her, hoped for in having kept and hidden her letters so carefully? Had she imagined that one day her story would be uncovered and become everlasting, or that it would instead fall back into the abyss, into being forgotten?
« …Next time we meet I want to prove to you that I truly am prepared to suffer to make you happy, as that is your wish… »
I want to emphasize the delicacy with which Jean-Yves Berthault portrays this great love and conveys the importance of its passion in his preface and postface. These letters present an extremely unique testimony of a passionate love at the end of the 1920s, and embody a rather strange sense of modernity all while being written in a sublime language. The letters teach us that transgression is not specific to only the 20th century (as Jean-Yves Berthault wrote, our era stagnates more than it moves forward). It is all the more troubling to read this prose, as the lover to whom it is directed is absent, and yet his silence makes him even more present.
« My dear love, I am filled with tenderness this evening and I have only one regret: I cannot rest my head in your lap and tell you all the thoughts rising up from my heart to my lips. I wish you were here this evening, how blissful it would be!… »
How does one reconcile what the Letters contain with the image of a pious Portuguese woman who expresses the intensity of all the stages of her passionate love? Mademoiselle S.’s letters are certainly carnal, pornographic in the most dignified sense of the word yet are liberated in the secrecy of a private correspondance.
Perhaps these letters also serve as a representation of an outdated form of communication that was used during the 1920s but has now been replaced and modernized with the appearance of social networks and the Internet. The book has already been translated into 11 languages, and the English version will be released in January of 2016 by Heinemann, the editing firm that published Fifty Shades of Grey.
An interesting detail is that, at the beginning of the work appears an appraisal by Frédéric Castaing (an expert in handwriting and historical documents) proving that the letters are in fact genuine, making the authenticity of this story seem unbelievable.
Will this Mademoiselle S. inspire the words of love we use today, in the 21st century?
Florence Briat Soulié
Translated by Brianna Reed, Vassar College, ’16