As it’s the first month of a new year, the Tuesday Night bloggers, a group of crime fiction fans doing a themed entry each, we have chosen ‘firsts’, a nice wide-ranging topic.
As ever, Bev at My Reader’s Block did the splendid logo.
And Kate at Cross-Examining Crime is collecting the links this month.
In previous weeks I have looked at the first Dr Fell book by John Dickson Carr, and the first mystery from American crime writer Mary McMullen.
This week I am doing something quite different, and will have to ask readers to bear with me till the connection becomes apparent. I was reading a piece of serious classical literature from a great German writer, and then started comparing it with a masterpiece of crime fiction…
Marquise of O by Kleist
[The home of the Marquise of O is under attack by Russian soldiers]
The Marquise found herself, with her two children, in the outer precincts of the castle where fierce fighting was already in progress… Just as she was trying to escape through the back door, she had the misfortune to encounter a troop of enemy riflemen, who as soon as they saw her suddenly fell silent, slung their guns over their shoulders and, with obscene gestures, seized her and carried her off… Dragging her into the innermost courtyard they began to assault her in the most shameful way, and she was just about to sink to the ground when a Russian officer, hearing her piercing screams, appeared on the scene and with furious blows of his sword drove the dogs back from the prey for which they lusted.
To the Marquise he seemed an angel sent from heaven. He addressed the lady politely in French, offered her his arm and led her into the other wing of the palace where, having already been stricken speechless by her ordeal, she now collapsed in a dead faint. Then – the officer instructed the Marquise’s frightened servants, who presently arrived, to send for a doctor; he assured them that she would soon recover, replaced his hat and returned to the fighting.
This novella is probably his most famous work, and it is endlessly fascinating because it is quite clear and comprehensible, but leaves you with more questions than you might guess. It tells a funny but thought-provoking story, is completely of its time, but still has some very modern features.
The first point is that most of the characters are going to be astounded during most of its length that the Marquise, a virtuous & highly respectable widow, has ended up pregnant with no idea who the father is or how it happened. Her family have little faith in her, and her father actually throws her out of his house, and tries to take her children away from her. She constantly maintains her innocence, but nobody believes her. A doctor and midwife are both consulted, and like an excellent lower-class chorus make their down-to-earth comments:
[The midwife] spoke of warm-blooded youth and the wiles of the world: young widows always believed themselves to have been living on desert islands- her ladyship could rest assured that the gay corsair who had come ashore in the dark would come to light in due course. On hearing these words the Marquise fainted.The reader, however – purely because of the selection of facts by the writer – knows that the guilty party can only be the gallant Russian officer above, Count F. He is desperate to put right his offence against her – he is in love with her and wants to marry her.
When the whole situation comes out into the open (after the Marquise, of all things, has advertised for the father in a newspaper…) the family is greatly relieved: now the couple can marry and respectability will be restored. (To be fair – it does seem as though the young people do love each other, there is no element of a forced marriage.) But now the Marquise says No, she rejects the Count. In the end they marry in name only, in order to protect the unborn child. And then he starts courting her, and eventually wins her round, and they live happily ever after.
But the more you think about it, the more questions come up, and the story has been the subject of endless speculation, with many different interpretations put on the situations. There are Freudian readings, feminist readings, incest-based readings; critics put every possible motive and element of innocence and guilt on various characters.
The story flashes along, very readable and told in a mocking but good-natured way. There are almost no details of anyone’s lives, only the most sketchy picture of anyone (I notice these things, because of the blog purpose). Virtually the only identifiable item mentioned is the hat above.
And this brings me to the connection with Golden Age fiction. As I say, any reader will very quickly realize who must be responsible for the impregnation. And then they will page back to find the exact description of what happened.
She now collapsed in a dead faint. Then – the officer instructed the Marquise’s frightened servants, who presently arrived, to send for a doctor; he assured that she would soon recover, replaced his hat and returned to the fighting.The secret is in that dash - , covering everything. And then one more clue: why did he have to replace his hat, when did it come off?
And what this reminds ME of is some of Agatha Christie’s most famous lines
I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone...
I won’t give the title of the book, but any Christie fan will know exactly what I mean.
I did what little had to be done.
So as well as the many many other ideas people have about this 50-page story, I’m going to add another: that it was a first attempt at a proper mystery with clues and an attempt to mislead – and then turns into the first reverse mystery, where the readers know more than the innocent dupes in the story. And, there is also a ‘false’ solution (featuring Leopardo the groom), put forward by the Marquise’s mother to try to get to the truth.
So an early form of ‘crime’ story. But also a very interesting female character – we barely see the thoughts of any of the people in the story. And many people speculate as to whether the Marquise really knew what was going on, had pretended to be unconscious. Kleist himself commented on this in a way that makes it clear that is NOT what he intended – but he did it in an ironic manner, satirizing the commenters:
‘Unconscious?!Which some of the anti-Marquise party insist on seeing as an admission, but was plainly meant as the opposite.
What a shameless farce! All she did was shut her eyes’
The mystery is what exactly she thinks about it all, and why she refuses him. What she says is that it was his changing from an angel to a devil that she hated.
But think of the Marquise’s situation: once she realizes the Count F is a possibility she is caught in a horrible vicious circle: EITHER he is a very bad man, but then he can save her through marriage, OR he is the angel she always thought him, but then what? Does she give him another’s child? It is a dilemma and a half, and a shame we never get to know her thoughts…
The story is set in Italy, but Kleist says it is ‘based on a true incident. The setting of which has been transposed from the north to the south.’ There are a number of similar folk tales and anecdotes in world literature – but none with such memorable characters, who live on in your mind long after you finish the stories. Quite an achievement when by usual literary standards they are just ciphers, or pieces on a chessboard…
I looked at plenty of pictures of Marquises of the era – as no details are given of her appearance, and the historical setting of the tale is unclear, I felt free to make my own decisions and chose this one, she looked right to me. It’s the Marquise de Becdelievre by Alexander Roslin from the athenaeum site.
The photograph is a still from an Eric Rohmer film of the story. (I think the story would make a wonderful opera.)