Continuing my reprints of old podcast scripts, this one is from the Appalling Women series, about a Storm Jameson novel from 1955. The Hidden River is set in France just after the Second World War, and sucks narrator and reader into a chilling family drama. Marie Regnier, the devoted cousin and housekeeper to the Monnerie family, is an amoral monster of cruelty and sacrifice when it comes to the maintenance of the family, and of revenge. Her disdainful opinion of the English is relentlessly driven home, and we hear a lot about collaborators. When we emerge at the other end, our mouths are agape with appalled amazement at how perfectly the French can be so rude.
Jean Monnerie is the head of the family. He’s been wounded in the war, but the war has been over for some years and he’s trying to get the family estate working again (a metaphor for France’s post-war reconstruction). The family estate is the dominant factor in Monnerie life, because it is the land, the house, the family’s position in the area for generations: it represents everything.
Jean is engaged to marry Elizabeth, his much younger cousin, but he doesn’t really love her. He’s marrying her because somehow it has been dictated by Mme Regnier, Cousin Marie, that this is the necessary thing to do, to keep the family going, and the estate going. So who is Mme Regnier? She is the mother of Jean’s cousin Robert Regnier, who died during the war in the Resistance. She isn’t a Monnerie proper, she’s only an in-law, but the family is everything to her, and she dotes particularly on François, the charming little boy of the family, now a young man looking to make a life for himself after living through a very boring war.
Compounding these family tensions, we have the situation of the French after the war. Collaboration is a horrible communal memory that hangs in the air, and retribution is closing in. Early on in the novel, we hear a chilling example of this: the family of a girl who took up with a German solider, and who caused the arrest and death of a local boy, is being held liable for damages by the boy’s family, because the sins of the daughter go back to the parents. Community thinking goes: if the girl had been brought up decently she would never have taken to bad ways, and so her mother is responsible for the death of the boy. The horror of how a community might operate under social thinking like this is quite shocking, if this really was the case in modern French history.
Another thing we don’t often read in English novels about France is connoisseurship of beautifully weighted rudeness to express French disapproval. Mme Regnier is an extraordinary artist in quelling criticism through her smiling polite conversation. She considers it her duty to control the young and to ensure the stability of civilised living through correction. She calmly dismisses immodesty, ungraciousness, and offensiveness: anything that offends her preferred French tradition of a glacial public temperament is an offence against civilised values.
The event at the heart of The Hidden River that unravels this family is the arrest and death by torture of Mme Regnier’s son Robert. He wasn’t arrested by accident: someone betrayed him to the Gestapo, under whom he died horribly, and naturally his mother, and Jean, would like to know how this happened. The deus ex machina in this novel is an Englishman, Adam Hartley, a Resistance contact of Jean’s and Robert’s, who was to have met Robert in Orléans the day he was arrested. Adam saw many people in Orléans that day, including someone who ought not to have been there, and I can’t tell you any more without spoiling the plot, but the revelation is explosive, and insidious: it reveals hidden truths about the family, and it also rips away the civilised veneer that Marie is trying to maintain over her hatred for whoever betrayed her son. She refuses to move on, to forget, because to do that would be to fail her son. She is like one of the Furies: implacable, unforgiving, demanding vengeance and restitution, and if that means that someone else has to die, well that’s what will happen.
This hatred burns away inside her to make her implacable about everything else in life. Routines of family grandeur must be maintained, Elizabeth must marry Jean to continue the family. Marie cooks the French way because it is the only way: she is contemptuous of the very idea of English cooking. It’s impossible to pay her a compliment, or to please her, because everything that is done right, in her eyes, is merely done correctly, and therefore no praise is due.
Her attitude to another Monnerie, the aged and dying Daniel, is also implacable. He is of the family, he is cultured, but she hates him with a passion because he was a collaborator. He maintained friendships with German generals during the war. Marie, and Jean, see this as betrayal, though Jean is willing to forgive it. Daniel sees it as the maintenance of civilised values in a war that nobody wanted. Nobody wants Daniel, but he wants to come home to die. Marie plans to leave the house so she won’t have to see him, but he arrives early, and then begins some hair-raising family discussions, conducted in the quietest and most civilised of tones. Marie and Daniel have a hidden history, but her implacability extends to herself as well: she won’t allow herself to forget anything and she tears at what she thinks are her own failings as well as everyone else’s.
This is a pretty intense novel, and is so well written. Storm Jameson is a marvellous writer, and this novel, getting so expertly under the skin of different nationalities, is tremendous. It was an unexpected best-seller in the 1950s, being reprinted again and again in the USA and in the UK, probably because its unputdownable qualities meant that its owners wouldn’t lend their copies out. The story is told mostly through dialogue and perfect, spare descriptions of rooms and faces. Because of this focus on speech and revelation, rather than action, it was rewritten for the theatre.
So much in this novel is hidden: not just the secrets from the war, but also motivations, likes and dislikes, what people think, and what they have done. We unpick the story from the hints that are dropped, and the narrative becomes increasingly exciting as we move from one tragic revelation to the next. Marie Regnier moves through the story like an angel of destruction: every time an accord is built up, an agreement made, something allowed to be laid to rest, she appears in the doorway, requests that the shutters be closed, and demands correct behaviour, justice and vengeance, all over again. She hates in the way that other people might day-dream: for pleasure, for relaxation, to satisfy an unstoppable need to convince herself that she has done the right thing. She’s terrifying. You really wouldn’t want her in your house, even if she is a superb cook, housekeeper and model of rectitude, because she wants everyone to suffer as much as she and Robert have suffered. No-one must escape: everyone has to be tortured with truths and accusations, just like Robert was tortured. It’s hard to feel sympathy with her, but it’s hard to hate her as well. It’s probably best just to get away.