Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Mavis Gallant’s “The Deceptions of Marie-Blanche”

If the story were titled “Les Deceptions de Marie-Blanche”, it might be translated as “The Disappointments of Marie-Blanche”: an apt choice.

SanFran Earthquake Gallant

San Francisco Earthquake, 1907 – Click for source details

And, yet, as it stands, there is the added implication that Marie-Blanche has not only been disappointed by her love affairs, but that the gentlemen have disappointed AND deceived her.

There have been quite a few of them: all disappointments AND deceivers, from the perspective of Miss. and Mrs. Dumard.

“Marie-Blanche is deception-prone the way some people keep bumping their heads or spraining their ankles.”

Only four of the deceptions are in this story. Only four have spent substantial time in that Montreal parlor, with its coloured picture of the San Francisco Earthquake over the imitation fireplace. (Disaster looms.)

The first was an Irish boy called Georgie O’Ryan.

Then, Wilfrid (whose friend, Jean-Jacques, tearfully passed Wilfrid’s regrets to Marie-Blanche).

Next, Télésphore Ouimette.

He was followed by many smaller deceptions who visited for only a few Fridays.

And, amongst those, was Sylvestre Dancereau, who was not only a deceitful disappointment but also a farmer. (I’m imagining not just a sprain here, but a full-on break.)

The narrator once sat in that parlour with the Dumards, even accompanied Marie-Blanche on some of her dates during the way, and has now received news of her engagement. Another engagement, that is. “The reminder of her engagment is, for me, only a reminder of her deceptions”.

It’s hard to take Marie-Blanche’s losses too seriously. Even though those Friday evenings must be very tedious, with or without a suitor.

She once wrote to a newspaper to ask for specific instructions on how to make Shirley Temple curls and now wears thirty-one curls in her light fluffy yellow hair, which set off her innocent blue eyes, alert and inquisitive.

But the effort to secure a husband has taken nearly twenty-five years: those curls have surely lost some of their spring. Although some of Marie-Blanche’s innocence remains.

“[H]er information was pieced together from romantic magazine stories, the prudishly censored confidences of her married sister, and the unprudish stories of salesmen in the shops where she works. Madame Dumard, of course, would rather have died on the spot than utter one enlightening word to an unmarried daughter; and even had she chosen to do so, at Mariie-Blanche’s age it would have seemed rather silly.”

Gallant Other ParisThe reality is, however, that some of those people observing Marie-Blanche’s adventures believe that they are better able to assess her prospects. In some cases, this is rooted in long-standing prejudice.

“The superiority of city over country people was too established to require pointing out; they would wait and see.” But Marie-Blanche’s city relatives are not actually waiting to see; when Sylvestre Dancereau comes for Christmas dinner, they are simply waiting for the comedy to begin.

The last of Marie-Blanche’s suitors refused a glass of wine, but Sylvestre not only accepts, but he accepts many times. And then he gushes about his horse.

This is particularly galling for Marie-Blanche, whose curls hint at vanity. She loves to have her photograph taken, and is furious when her suitor expresses a clear preference for a four-legged kind of beauty.

The fact that the scene plays out over a large holiday meal temorarily adds a light touch to the comedy, but ultimately this is yet another deception. Marie-Blanche enjoys neither the meal nor the company, and she openly acknowledges her disillusionment.

And, yet, although the story ends on that sad note, it begins at some future time, after Marie-Blanche has agreed to try again. The narrator muses upon some of the excuses which have broken Marie-Blanche’s engagements in the past, and readers are left to wonder at their banality (and muse upon the “real” reasons).

I wonder if the illustration on my 1986 copy of this collection could be attempting to update Marie-Blanche’s story. The woman pictured there is kinda Kathleen-Turner-ish, her curls loose but very blonde, her makeup precise and vibrant, her gaze determined and inviting.

She stands near the foot of the stairs, their destination unclear, with her back turned to an admiring man with a generous mustache and a jaunty cap. His shirt is crimson red, matching the band on her stylish fedora-styled hat.

He could be the one. He could be just another one.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the sixth story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “Wing’s Chips” (which also appears in some other collections as outlined in the schedule).

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