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Irène Némirovsky: Jézabel (A Modern Jezebel; later: Jezebel)

The book opens with Gladys Eysenach on trial for murder of a student, Bernard Martin. Her reaction as, she is questioned by both the judge and prosecutor, is to hide her head in hands, accept that she is guilty, take her punishment and move on. However, the judge and prosecutor insist on questioning her and other witnesses about her private life and what led to the death of the man she has apparently killed. During the trial, we learn of her background. She is originally from Uruguay, where her father was a rich ship-owner. However, her parents divorced when she was very young and she lived with her mother. She had a glittering life and married Richard Eysenbach, a very rich man. He died when she was still quite young and brought up her daughter. Having inherited both from her mother and late husband, she is very wealthy and still very beautiful. Her daughter sadly died but she continued to enjoy the bright lights, living in Paris. She is courted by Aldo, Count Monti. We later learn that he has a famous, long-standing title, is good-looking and dashing and owns lots of land back in Italy but is somewhat short of cash. He proposes to her and is accepted but, shortly before the wedding, she calls it off. Despite her calling it off, they still seem to have a strong relationship.

Sometime recently, she has met the young, impoverished student, Bernard Martin, who was an orphan from a very young age. It is not clear what sort of relationship they had but she did visit him in his small room. Neither her maid nor any of Gladys’ friends, including Monti, seemed to be aware of his existence. Martin is something of a solitary person but we do know that he had had a girlfriend, Laurette, who died of tuberculosis only recently. It seems that Gladys gave Martin money but there seems no trace of the money or how he might have spent it, though it is suggested that he spent it on treatment for Laurette. One of his fellow students comments that after a visit by Gladys, Martin, on being asked to say what happened, quotes the Dream of Athalie, from Racine’s play Athalie (It was/During the horror of the night profound,/My mother, Jezebel, before me stood,/ Apparelled gorgeously, as on the day/Of her decease). We know that he visited her, after she had spent a night out with Monti and other friends, and the result was that she shot him. Gladys is found guilty and sentenced to five years imprisonment.

We then go back in time and follow Gladys’ early life in more detail. A key episode is when she came to London, aged eighteen, and stayed with her married cousin, Teresa, and attended a ball given by the Melbournes. She really enjoys herself and when her cousin tries to drag her home she resists. Finally, she is obliged to accept but gains her revenge by seducing her cousin’s husband and even getting him to tell her that he loves her, at which she spurns him. At this ball, she meets a dashing Polish count, Tarnovsky, and they are soon married and just as soon divorced. She later marries the Managing Director of the Mexican Petroleum Company, Richard Eysenach. The marriage seems to be happy but she does have affairs and she finds out later that he does, too. Their life was, as she says, spent almost entirely on steamers and in hotel rooms, a life style she enjoyed. She is very unhappy when he finally dies, in her arms, in a New York hotel. She is consoled by by her daughter, Marie-Thérèse. She is also consoled by her long-running affair with Sir Mark Forbes. However, his wife knows about the affair and is increasingly threatening him with divorce and, as that would ruin his career and his financial prospects, he ends the affair, the first time a man has taken the initiative to break off with her. More importantly, she realises that is getting old.

The rest of the book is about her increasing concern that she is getting old. She looks young for her age but still feels age creeping up on her. Her daughter growing up to become a woman, something she bitterly resents, the fact that she is no longer attracting men the way she used to and seeing her somewhat older friends, with their wrinkles, which reminds her of what she will look like, all cause her considerable upset. When she meets Monti, she is very much concerned that he thinks that they are about the same age when, in fact, she is nearly twenty years older She makes a hurried trip back to Montevideo to get her birth certificate and to have the date forged, to make her seem younger. When she is seemingly stalked by Bernard Martin, she is somewhat flattered. This is certainly a fascinating book, with an interesting twist, even if we are able to guess it fairly early on. By today’s standards, it would be considered very sexist but by the standards of the 1930s it is a detailed and lively portrait of a woman who is growing older and losing her charms and who does what she can to make people think that she is not as old as she actually is. The price she pays is high, on more than occasion.

Publishing history

First published in French in 1936 by Albin Michel
First published in English in 1937 by Henry Holt & Co
Translated by Sandra Smith