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Monique Saint-Hélier: Bois-Mort (The Abandoned Wood)

This book was first published in 1934 in French and in 1936 in English translation. It has since been republished in French but not in English, so getting hold of the text in English is not particularly easy and quite expensive. This is a pity, as it is a fascinating book, telling the story of a downfall of an old-established family. The family concerned is the Alérac family, who had lived in the big house for far longer than anyone could remember. They were proud but old-fashioned. When the Graew moved into the area, they were not seen as competition. But the Graews were astute, cleverly making loans to the farmers and, when they could not pay, turning the farmers into their tenants. Meanwhile, the Aléracs had their old ways and, gradually, their fortunes sunk as the Graews rose. As the novel starts, there are just two left – Guillaume and his granddaughter Carolle. Guillaume is a cultured man – he reads The Times and English literature. His daughter was destined to marry well but, instead, she had an affair with a Spaniard and died giving birth to Carolle. The Spaniard disappeared, leaving Carolle to be brought up by her grandfather.

The novel paints a long but wonderful portrait of the intelligent, educated man and his intelligent and educated daughter, who seem to be aware of but not too concerned about their financial plight. They struggle to earn money – selling beetroot is one way – but they owe a lot of money, particularly to Jonathan Graew. The first part of the novel gives the Alérac perspective and they clearly look down on Jonathan Graew, sole survivor of the clan. He is known for his drinking habits and this is condemned. Much of this is done in front of Mademoiselle Huguenin, a thirty-eight year old single woman, who earns her living sewing and knitting (she always seem to be doing one or the other) who, at one time, considered herself to be the likely fiancée of Jonathan Graew but no longer does. When we switch to getting Jonathan Graew’s perspective, we learn that he is trying to woo the much younger Catherine but will have to make concessions to her if he is to succeed (this forms one of the plot strands of the novel). We also learns that, despite his hold over the Aléracs, he still feels very bitter towards them and resentful of them, primarily because the people of the area still look to the Aléracs as the leading family, even though they are aware that the Aléracs have fallen on hard times

After the exposition of the position of the two parties (and one or two additional characters, particularly Mademoiselle Huguenin), we get down to the serious matter of marriage. This is no Jane Austen matter of the parents trying to marry off their daughters to a richer man, though, given his parlous financial state, perhaps Guillaume Alérac might have given some thought to that. Rather it is a matter of who will marry Carolle (and who will she have) and who will Jonathan Graew marry, and at what cost. Saint-Hélier shows us a family, apparently in distress, yet seemingly relatively unconcerned by it, even though Guillaume accepts that he may have to sell off his paintings, including a van Gogh. Yet there is no sense of panic, no sense of bitterness even, just an acceptance of life’s problems and it seems as though the two families will somehow carry on, different and hating one another.

Publishing history

First published in French 1934 by Grasset
First English translation by Harcourt, Brace and Co in 1936
Translated by James Whitall