Simone de Beauvoir: The Inseparables

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Simone de Beauvoir wrote of her friendship with Elisabeth Lacoin in her autobiography Memoirs Of A Dutiful Daughter(highly recommended) and made several attempts at bringing her to life in fiction, including in this novella which she wrote and rewrote, never to her satisfaction.  It was published after her death by her heir Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir.  It gives a fascinating view of French society in the early 1900’s and a fascinating insight into the power of French Catholicism. I wonder if the similarity to André Gide’s The Strait Gate ever occurred to de Beauvoir; it certainly did to me. 

Elisabeth, Andrée in this version, is the daughter of a wealthy, extremely conservative Catholic family, a great dynasty of militant Catholics, while Sylvie (Simone), though she attends a Catholic school and is for a time very pious, has an agnostic father and a mother more concerned with making ends meet than with religion.  By the age of 9 Sylvie has realised she doesn’t believe in God; Andrée, for all her irreverent wit, is so devout that Sylvie wonders if she might one day enter the convent.  Sylvie adores Andrée, who is a cooler, more distant figure: she seems to prefer Sylvie to all the other girls, but that might just be because they’re miles ahead of the others in their intellectual interests.  

De Beauvoir is so much a feminist icon to us that it’s scarcely credible that in her childhood a clever girl like Andrée could be so willingly subservient to her parents’ values – or more specifically, the plans of her controlling mother, whom Andrée adores.   Her mother will decide whether she can pursue higher education and who she’ll marry. A girl either goes into the convent or gets married. There’s no other possible way of life, and it’s the mother who chooses the husband.   A teenage love is decisively quashed because the boy is unsuitable, and a more serious love when Andrée is 20 is put in a strait jacket where it can’t flourish. Andrée remains the obedient daughter but is torn apart inside; the situation isn’t helped by the prissiness of her young lover, another devout Catholic: 

The kind of intimacy that arises between two people who are engaged to be married greatly tests a Christian’s resolve.

I was interested in the lover, Pascal, because in real life he was the philosopher Merleau-Ponty.  He and de Beauvoir remained friends, but he doesn’t come out of the book unscathed.  Charming and decent as he is, he’s calmly selfish in the way he privileges his own plans for the future over the intensity of Andrée’s love. This is, of course, exactly what de Beaouvoir sees in The Second Sex: it’s men who assume they manage the serious business of life while women play the roles allocated to them. And women like Andrée’s mother are the gatekeepers of this system. 

Elisabeth was enormously important to de Beauvoir and her death at the age of 23 was devastating. And yet her life demonstrates precisely the oppression of women that de Beauvoir wrote so much about. Maybe it was jarring to have the two come together, as if she were exploiting Elisabeth’s story. Maybe that was why she never published The Inseparables.  But it’s good. It may lack the killing chill of Gide’s book, but Andrée and André aren’t so far apart.  

10 thoughts on “Simone de Beauvoir: The Inseparables

    1. And I think Catholicism in these grand French families was a different beast from the Irish-based Catholicism we grew up with. In Aus Catholics were looked down on, but in France they were (and I think still are) an aristocracy.

      1. That would indeed make a difference! Our town was small, no Catholic school, and mostly Protestant, so there was not much sense of a Catholic community, let alone an Irish Catholic community. France a couple of generations ago would have been so different.

  1. I’d really like to read this at some point, so it’s fascinating to see your piece. Could it be read as a standalone or would it be better to have some familiarity with de Beauvoir’s other work before going in? (I *think* I read The Second Sex in my youth, but like so much of my reading from that era, I’m struggling to remember!)

  2. It’s a cultural thing I suppose, as it is in many countries. Andree is this book is devout, but there’s no particular sign that her parents are. It’s just part of their tradition.

      1. I appear to have ‘liked’ your review so I don’t know why it didn’t make a lasting impression — maybe as a Catholic so lapsed that I’m unlikely to climb out of that bottomless pit I blanked it from my memory. Anyway, my translated version of the Gide will have to do even if the French is not too demanding!

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