Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Eugénie Danglars (paca)

I just finished re-reading Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo again. I take it up every couple years ago and plough through the 850 pages of the unabridged version. It's a very well plotted book in that it can both be summarized in a single line "Man is falsely imprisoned and escapes to get revenge upon his accusors", such a simple plot that works almost as a myth (see The Simpsons Count of Monte Cristo take-off here), but simultaneously is enormously complex. The imprisonment, escape, and treasure are all complete by about page 150 in my edition, which leaves 700 pages for the revenge -- the part that is always completely rewritten in movie versions because it's far too involved for the 90 minutes left in screen time. Dumas wrote Monte Cristo as a serial novel in 1844, the same year as The Three Musketeers, which means he wrote some 1500 pages of two of the most famous novels of the century in the same year. Nora Roberts and Stephen King, take that.

Warning: Spoilers coming up if you've never read the book.

One of the minor characters in Monte Cristo who has always been fascinating to many is Eugénie Danglars. Her role for the story of the Count if fairly unimportant. She is the daughter of one of the people Monte Cristo is getting revenge upon, Baron Danglars. She is also engaged to the son of another revengee, the Count de Morcerf.

Again, warning: spoilers!

The major way in which Monte Cristo gets revenge upon the father-in-law-to-be of Eugénie is to expose that the man was a traitor during the Greek war for independence from Turkey, turning a Greek city over to the Turks and selling off the Pasha's daughter into slavery. When Eugénie's dad, Danglars, learns of this disgrace, he breaks off the betrothal and, in a matter of days, betrothes her to the seeming-Prince Andrea Cavalcanti. At the contract signing ceremony between Eugénie and Cavalcanti, however, Monte Cristo reveals that Cavalcanti is actually a murderer using a false identity (which Monte Cristo just happens to have provided). Cavalcanti is also her half-brother, but that is, bizarrely, never revealed as part of the revenge. From this, you would think that Eugénie's role is just to be a victim of the plots of those around her, but she feels no disgrace at all.

In many ways, Eugénie seems to live in another world from everyone else. She is quite haughty and believes in her Baron's daughter station in life, but at the same time she shares virtually no interest with anyone else. Instead, she is interested in only two things really, her art and her friend and music teacher Louise D'Armilly. She had no desire to ever be married to either man and had no choice in the matter ever. She was promised to the first guy when she was nine or so. (She's seventeen in the novel.)

Later when she is to be engaged to the false Prince, she sets a formal appointment with her father and in no uncertain terms declares that she will not marry him, thank you. Apparently, French law had changed enough in 1844 that her father cannot force her to marry, even if fathers are still arranging them, and so what proceeds is a business negotiation. Her father explains to her, charmingly, that she is not being married to the prince because he cares in any way about her. Instead, he needs the money from the Prince's family to revive his financial standing. Eugénie understands this tack, as she has little personal regard for her father either, and then negotiates how much of the principal would be left to her and how much would be invested by the father. When terms are sufficient she agrees to go forward with the business transaction, i.e, marriage. Eugénie can make this decision because she decides during the conversation she is going to escape to make her way in the world with her music, her friend, and little else. So her marriage will mean little to her anyway. Indeed after the Prince's revealing, she and Louise leave together.

For the modern world with our current interests, what is most often discussed about Eugénie is that she is apparently lesbian. If you accept the stereotypes of what being a lesbian is, then this is almost a foregone conclusion. When Eugénie is making her escape, she cuts off her hair and puts on men's clothing and pretends to be Louise's brother. Louise is delighted with how much better she looks as a man. Dumas describes Eugénie several times as masculine and lacking in "the gentler qualities of the fair sex." In short, it's a classic butch/femme relationship. However, it really isn't so straightforward if you ignore the stereotyped connection between sexual orientation and gender roles -- i.e., not everyone who dresses as the other gender is, in fact, gay and vice versa. After all, if you saw the movie Shakespeare in Love, the main character dresses as a man so that she can have a chance to act, not because she is attracted to women or even because she wishes to adopt the make gender role as a piece of identity.

Many of Dumas' descriptions of Eugénie as masculine are rather careful and go against such stereotyes as well. She is stunningly beautiful in a traditional feminine manner; she doesn't look like a man. What is masculine about her is supposed to be her determination, resolve, and interests in things that only men are supposed to be interested in. Most women in her society were supposed to take language lessons and learn a bit of music so that they could entertain and greet guests in the parlor. But Eugénie is interested not in playing a few pretty tunes but in becoming a true composer -- something only men were supposed to be. And while other women in the novel know enough Italian or English to carry a conversation and are praised for it, Eugénie is decribed as a "perfect linguist". It's like all of a sudden the 19th century Parisian housewife doesn't want to just cook hardy meals for her family but instead wants to be the world's greatest chef and celebrated for her accomplishments throughout the world. To everyone around Eugénie, this is being masculine. She doesn't back down except by her own choice; devoted to her intellect; she's forceful; and has little interest in society and its doings.

It's also hard to know precisely what Dumas truly thinks and what is his sense of humor. Much of what he writes is firmly tongue-in-cheek. Dumas writes a few chapters that take place in the various boxes and lobbies of the Paris Opera House. He patiently explains how no one shows up until the first act is almost complete and that watching the opera is simply an excuse to study the audience in their box seats as a social occasion. It is also stated that Eugénie spends all of her time at home with her music teacher Louise, but cannot be seen in public with her as Louise is almost certainly destined for life as a singer / actress, and it is not possible for someone of Eugénie's station to be seen with a future member of the theatre. What must be remembered in such discussions, however, is that Dumas was first and continued to be a playwright. He spent much of his life in theaters hanging out with actresses whom he presumably had great respect for. In other words, he is making fun of his own audiences who always show up late and talk through his plays, as well as making fun of other people's perception of actresses. And since he clearly in real life respects people just like Eugénie and associates with them, when he describes her as masculine, he might be poking as much fun at Parisian society's perceptions of a Eugénie as actually describing her.

If one has to get back to whether or not Eugénie is truly attracted to women, the answer is probably yes. There is going to be no direct way to see it, as even the hetero couples in lust address each other in full title and are formally received. It's not just a matter of going into the couple's bedroom and closing the door on the reader. Dumas never shows them in the bed room at all, even when they are in the middle of a torrid love affair. There are two possible moments when Eugénie and Louise's relationship is revealed. The seemingly obvious one is in Eugénie's last scene. Eugénie and Louise are on the first night of their escape and have checked into an inn using the brother and sister disguises and requested two beds. However, in the morning, someone running from the police (Cavalcanti in fact) falls into their room through the chimney and they are sleeping in the same bed. Even this, however, isn't an ironclad case. While today, it's pretty rare for two female friends to sleep in the same bed when there is a choice, I am not sure it was all that unusual for female friends in the 19th century. Moreover, this is not just any night. This is the first night of their new lives when they are running from the families and society, and under some emotional stress. Louise is portrayed as quite nervous and shy and you can imagine them sleeping next to each other for comfort.

The more revealing part is actually in Eugénie's very first scene in the entire book. She and her mother have gone to the opera along with the rest of society. The two women cannot attend the opera by themselves, because two women should not travel alone like this. (A good reminder for the later part of Eugénie's life where she dresses as a man to escape. Was there any other choice? As a writer, this is also stunning on Dumas' part because this was a serial novel published chapter by chapter as they were written. Did he have this so well plotted out in his head that he knew to add such a tiny hint to explain Eugenie's future actions months before that later scene was even written?) Therefore, they are accompanied by her mother's publicly known lover Monsieur Lucien Debray. Or as Dumas amusingly puts it:

"There is no gainsaying the fact that a very unfavourable construction would have been put upon the circumstance if the two women had gone without escort, while the addition of a third, in the person of her mother's admitted lover, enabled Mademoiselle Danglars to defy malice and ill-nature. One must take the world as one finds it."

The Count has just entered his box with his female companion Haydee who we all know to be the Greek / Albanian princess sold into slavery years ago. She is dazzingly beautiful and exotic and people do notice her, but everyone in the whole opera turns to see the mysterious Count who is the talk of all of society. The whole chamber murmurs with discussion of the Count. And the very first thing Eugénie says in the whole book?

"Have you noticed the remarkable beauty of the young woman, M. Lucien?" enquired Eugénie.

On the next page, the conversation continues. The participants are the Baroness Danglars, Eugenie Danglars, Lucien Debray (the baroness' lover) and Albert de Morcerf (Eugénie's betrothed who is visiting their box; he is little more attracted to Eugénie than she is to him, as he finds her cold). The baroness begins:

"Well, then," said the baroness, "if slave she be, she has all the air and manner of a princess."

"Of The Arabian Nights?"

"If you like; but tell me, my dear Lucien, what is it that constitutes a princess. Why, diamonds - and she is covered with them."

"To me she seems overloaded," observed Eugénie, "she would look far better if she wore fewer, and we would then be able to see her finely formed throat and wrists."

"See how the artist peeps out!" exclaimed Madame Danglars. "My poor Eugénie, you must conceal your passion for the fine arts." (Dumas must have been giggling continuously writing this. Fine arts, yeah, that's it.)

"I admire all that is beautiful," returned the young lady.

"What do you think of the count?" enquired Debray; "he is not much amiss, according to my idea of good looks."

"The count?" repeated Eugénie, as though it had not occurred to her to observe him sooner; "the count? - oh he is so dreadfully pale."

"I quite agree with you," said Morcerf; "and the secret of that very pallor is what we are here to find out. The Countess G- insists upon it that he is a vampire."

"Then the Countess G- has returned to Paris, has she?" asked the baroness.

"Is that she, mamma?" asked Eugénie, "almost opposite to us, with that profusion of beautiful light hair?"

Well, somehow this essay became a detective story about Eugénie's sexuality, though that isn't what I intended to write. She's a fascinating character and I've always intended to tell her story. One candidate novel is clear. What happens to Eugénie and Louise after they abandon society for a life in the arts? The other idea is to write Eugénie's story during the events of the Monte Cristo novel, as sort of a parallel novel. Go, public domain! Despite the space I have devoted to her here, Eugénie probably occupies not more than 30 pages, at most, of the 850 page tome that Dumas wrote. Even if I never get to it, she remains a little jewel of a character hidden within this classic adventure novel from 1844.

As a final note, if you decide to read an abridged version, you will find Eugénie in it, but much of this material will likely be absent as it is not critical to the Count's story. I also have read that many of her parts were often cut out of other translations precisely because of the issues I've been talking about which didn't go over well with Victorian England. I purchased the original French in a Paris bookshop several years ago, but I haven't spent the effort yet to attempt the reading of it. I would guess I will get a completely new take from it once again.

10 comments:

N said...

So apparently there were lots of sequels written by various people. According to Wikipedia there were several unofficial sequels written by other authors. Many of these were published under Dumas' name, to increase sales.

Jean Charles Du Boys wrote The Countess of Monte Cristo in 1869.
Edmund Flagg wrote a three-part set of sequels, beginning with Edmond Dantes in 1878.
Jules Hippolyte Lermina wrote The Son of Monte Cristo in 1881.
Paul Mahalin wrote Mademoiselle Monte-Cristo in 1896.

And a slew of others in other languages.

Just random info...I should be working.

Lonely Coyote said...

Damn you Paca.... *drives over to Barnes and Nobles to pick up an un-abridged edition* now another thing to be reading...

writtenwyrdd said...

I'm tempted to get this myself, but the 140 book high stack is threatening to avalanche...

Anonymous said...

I was always intrigued by Eugenie Danglars myself. It just seems so odd that she pops up in this long novel for a few pages and seems to be a lesbian. I'm really surprised someone hasn't published a novel based on her adventures with Louise.

Anonymous said...

Old post, I know, but I've just read TCOMC for the first time, having seen the Jim Caviezel movie several years ago. Noting differences between the two, I enjoyed both, although I believe I enjoyed the book more. I found this post, however, looking for discussions about Eugenie and Benedetto (Cavalcanti). I can't believe no one else noticed that the ultimate revenge may have been to allow the two to marry before revealing their relationship to one another (half brother/sister) and then, naturally, his relationship to M. Villefort and Mdm. Danglars. It seems this plot scenario would have more thoroughly embarrassed M. Villefort, M Danglars, and Madame Danglars and wonder about others' thoughts on this topic.

pacatrue said...

Hi anonymi, I just happened to re-read this old blog post of mine. Don't know why I didn't get an email.

A1: I am also surprised by the lack of follow-up on Eugenie by others. When you google for her, the top page is this post, with a bunch of random character references otherwise. Maybe one of us will take up the challenge one day.

A2: It's interesting that Dumas didn't followup on that biological relationship angle at all. Maybe he thought that would be over the top cruel for the Count to the relative innocents like Eugenie?

musicalchef said...

I just finished the book, and was looking for discussions on Eugenie. Thanks for this post!

I guess the count didn't reveal the biological relations between Eugenie and Andrea/Benedetto because that would have meant exposing Madame Danglars' role in the matter. While Madame Danglars was no angel, she hadn't done anything really wrong from the COMC's point of view (marital infidelities weren't really his concern) and wasn't intended to be a primary victim of his vengeance.

Anyways, I liked Eugenie and was happy when she escaped safely!

Reader said...

Yeah, I’m not the only one who thought that Eugenie was a lesbian! But well, it was too obvious!

Btw: My unabriged (german) version has 1500 pages. 850 seems pretty short…

Anonymous said...

I'd beg to differ. I honestly don't think any of what he was writing had anything to do with lesbianism. And the fact that after going to all that effort to say you ought not force preconceived notions that current society has of that trope onto an older society's literature- you ultimately do exactly that. Noting beauty was a matter of her obsession over art and her love of exhibitionism in terms of strutting her superior taste in front of people. I'd see her as a reactionary character- she neglects men and commenting on them because she disdains the women around her that obsess over that. Its not necessarily indicative of lesbianism as much as a long habit of hating certain behaviors in other women.

JaredMithrandir said...

Dumas does exactly what a 19th Century minds would consider code for Lesbianism, with the Breastplate of Minerva talk.