Dear Mr. Stein, May I take advantage of the hospitality of your letters column to ask if you or your readers can help me to solve a small puzzle? I have come across an epigraph ascribed to Proust that heads the first chapter of Hamish Miles’s English translation of Édouard VII et son temps by André Maurois (King Edward and His Times, London: Cassell, 1933, p. 1). It reads: “Every social status has its own interest, and to the artist it can be just as compelling to show the ways of a Queen as the habits of a dressmaker. —Marcel Proust.” An excellent colleague of mine remarks that this certainly sounds genuine, and he even wondered if the aperçu came from the bit in Le Côté de Guermantes where Proust talks sniffily about grocers writing aristocratic novels, but I am afraid it is not there. Now we find that the epigraph is nowhere to be found in Maurois’s original French text, so the plot thickens. Much as I am tickled by the idea of an industrious and I daresay underappreciated translator recklessly concocting a spurious epigraph for the purpose of self-promotion, or worse, something tells me that there is an alternative explanation. So can anyone, do you think, identify these lines about “the ways of a Queen” and “the habits of a dressmaker,” and pin them on Proust? Thank you, Angus Trumble
We all hoped it was made up. But no. The epigraph comes from “An Historical Salon,” an essay—really, a celebrity profile—that Proust wrote for Le Figaro in late 1902. His subject is the Princesse Mathilde Bonaparte, a niece of Napoleon’s and the last Bonaparte to remain in Paris after the fall of the Second Empire. She was known for her literary salons, which included Mérimée, Flaubert, and the Goncourts. In the sentences you quote, Proust has just finished his you-are-there description of one of the princess’s soirées and he’s gearing up for the mini bio (which, in the case of Princesse Mathilde, is slightly delicate, since she left her first husband, a Russian tycoon, for another man, with the connivance of yet another uncle: Czar Nicholas I; it’s good to know people).
As translated in F.W. Dupee’s edition of Pleasures and Days, the entire paragraph reads:
An artist will serve the truth only, and have no respect for rank. In his portrayals he will take rank into account as a principle of differentiation like nationality, race, or environment. All stations in society have their interest for an artist, and it is as exciting for him to picture the ways of a queen as the habits of a dressmaker. Read More