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François Mauriac: La Pharisienne (A Woman of the Pharisees)

Brigitte Pian knows what God expect of people and feels that it is her duty to tell them. The story of this novel is told by her stepson, Louis, many years after the events described in the novel. Louis and his sister, Michèle, lived with their parents in large house in a village in the Landes area of France. Their mother was apparently killed in an accident though Louis learns afterwards that she had been having an affair and that her death may well have been suicide, after her lover broke up with her. Her father had known Brigitte before – she had been a distant cousin and friend of his wife – and he married her sometime later. The couple did not have children of their own. She had agreed to live with Octave, her husband, in his house in the country but when Louis is sent to a religious boarding school in Bordeaux, she persuades him to acquire a flat in Bordeaux so that Louis does not have to board full time. Octave reluctantly agrees, though he spends little time there himself. Louis gets on fairly well with his step-mother, unlike Michèle who dislikes her and is constantly insolent to her but gets away with it as she is her father’s pet.

The story starts at the school where there are two key figures in Louis’ life. Louis is well-behaved and hard-working and, as a result, he is the pet of the teacher, M. Puybaraud. But M. Puybaraud is thinking of leaving the college and renouncing his vows, in order to get married to a young woman who is somewhat beholden to Brigitte Pian. The situation of M. Puybaraud and Octavie Tronche, the young woman he wishes to marry, provides one sub-plot to the novel. The other key person is Jean de Mirbel, the complete antithesis to Louis. Jean is lazy, insolent and slovenly. He is constantly in trouble. His father has died and he is brought up by his mother and his father’s brother, Adhémar, who hopes to marry his sister-in-law. Adhémar continually abuses and strikes the boy. At the end of term it is decided that M. Puybaraud will come to the Pian country house and teach Louis some Latin while Jean will go to work with M. Calou, a priest specialising in difficult boys, who lives not far from the Pian house. Louis is overjoyed as he can have two playmates – Jean and Michèle.

Unfortunately for Louis, things do not work out the way he planned. Jean and Michèle, both a couple of years older than Louis, inevitably become close and often disappear without them. Louis is naïve about what they are up to. Brigitte is not. Things get even more complicated when Jean’s mother visits and he wants to spend more time with her than she wants. When he finds out why she does not want him around, he has a breakdown and is very ill. Things go from bad to worse and, inevitably in Mauriac novel, nearly all of the main characters end up worse than they were at the beginning of the novel.

What this novel is really about is the title character – Brigitte Pian. Though we follow the story of Louis and his family, the focus is on Brigitte Pian. Mauriac is far too good a novelist to paint Brigitte Pian merely as a Balzacian sanctimonious hypocrite, though she is certainly that. She does, at times, show a heart and she does worry about her behaviour, even while telling others what they should do and, in particular, should have done. Has she been too harsh? How should she repent? She even turns to Louis for advice and follows his advice on more than one occasion. Mauriac leaves us guessing to the end as to whether she will repent or, at least, relent, whether she will die an old maid or stay the same as she has been. Cleverly, World War I intervenes to change things. While this was not his last novel, it was his last great novel and a very fine novel it is, too.

Publishing history

First published in French 1941 by Bernard Grasset
First English translation 1946 by Holt
Translated by Gerard Hopkins