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.