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François Mauriac: Thérèse Desqueyroux (Therese; later: Therese Desqueyroux

This is certainly one of Mauriac’s best-known novels, partially helped by the two films of the book, both made by well-known directors with well-known actresses in the title role, and made exactly fifty years apart. But its theme also fascinated 1920s France. It tells the story, quite simply, of a woman from a respectable background who, for no apparent reason, tries to poison her husband. The story starts with Thérèse Desqueyroux acquitted for the crime, though we soon learn that she is, in fact, guilty, her husband, Bernard, having perjured himself and her father having hired an expensive lawyer, in both cases to avoid scandal and save the reputation of the family. We learn much of her life on the long journey back from the court to her house, where she reflects on her life and the events that led up to her poisoning her husband and also how she is going to explain herself to her husband.

Thérèse is the daughter, an only child, of one of the richest families in the area. Her mother is dead and her father has political ambitions (he is very glad that few people will connect her married name with his name). Two things matter to the rich families of that area – family and land. Thérèse is quite well-off in her own right and, as an adult, lives in a house in the country while her father prefers to spend most of his time in town for business and political reasons. However, it has always been expected that Thérèse will marry Bernard Desqueyroux, son of the second richest family in the area. Bernard’s father had died but his mother had remarried (not well according to Thérèse’s father) and this couple had had a daughter, Anne. Thérèse is on good terms with Anne but finds her somewhat flighty. Thérèse herself is given to reading many books, though does enjoy the countryside.

Eventually Bernard and Thérèse do get engaged though neither seems very excited by it. Bernard is a conservative man who enjoys good food, good wine and hunting and not much else. But both clearly feel that it is the right thing to do. However, as she walks down the aisle at the wedding, Thérèse feels that she has made a big mistake. This is confirmed on their honeymoon to the Italian lakes when both are clearly bored with one another and cannot wait to get back home. The matter is precipitated when Bernard receives a letter from his mother, who informs him that Anne has taken up with a neighbour, which is clearly unacceptable. Firstly, the man is, probably, a Jew and there is tuberculosis in his family and, secondly, there is someone else lined up for her. The couple hurry back and Thérèse is given the task of dissuading Anne of the folly of her ways.

It is soon after that that Thérèse starts poisoning her husband. He does survive, as we know from the very beginning. The second half of the novel tells of what happens when Thérèse arrives home, how she explains to Bernard what she did and why and how she is treated by Bernard, the family and the servants. Obviously, for Bernard, his mother and Thérèse’s father, saving the family honour is all important and that is what must prevail, so the marriage must be seen to go on as normal. Equally obviously, it cannot.

Once again, Mauriac tells a fairly gloomy story but with a ray of sunshine at the end, albeit a very small ray. The introduction to the book has an open letter from Mauriac to Thérèse, where he says that he hopes that the realisation of her wrong deed would lead her to God and that, if it does not, at least God would be watching over her. Despite this, God plays a very small role in this book, with only lip service to religion coming to the fore. Mauriac is more interested in telling a good story than preaching.

Publishing history

First published in French 1927 by Bernard Grasset
First English translation 1928 by Boni & Liveright