The Lady in Pink


The Lady in Pink presents a problem to the reader. She is a courtesan that Marcel meets when visiting his uncle Adolphe.  She is evidently Odette de Crecy, given the references back to this scene later in the novel. Yet she cannot be Mme de Crecy but must be, instead, Mme Swann. But Mme Swann is at this point in the novel intent on building her salon and gaining acceptability in Swann’s circles. Further, Odette and uncle Adolphe had ruptured their relationship prior to this scene taking place. How can these contradictions be explained?

Our first knowledge of Madame Swannis near the beginning of the goodnight kiss episode and anticipates Odette’s questionable reputation: “For many years, during the course of which–especially before his marriage–M. Swann came often to see them at Combray…” (I,18). Soon after, Marcel’s mother resolves to talk to Swann about his daughter: “My mother fancied that a word from her would wipe out all the distress which my family had contrived to cause Swann since his marriage….’Now, M. Swann,’ she said, ‘do tell me about your daughter….;'” (I,30). So we know that by this point in the very young Marcel’s life Swann is married to the woman we will later know is Odette and that he is the father of their daughter.

Marcel in his younger years would visit his uncle Adolph’s sitting room in Combray. “But for some years now I had not gone into my uncle Adolphe’s sanctum, for he no longer came to Combray on account of a quarrel which had arisen between him and my family, through my fault, in the following circumstances…” (I,99).  In Paris Marcel would, once or twice a month, walk to his uncle’s apartment for a visit. Once, not on the usual visiting day, he arrived to discover his uncle with a visitor. Adolphe reluctantly allows Marcel to enter, at the entreaty of his female guest, where he sees “opposite him, in pink silk dress with a great necklace of pearls about her throat…” (I,104). Nothing in this passage explicitly identifies the lady as Odette, but the connection is made explicit later. In the final volume, Marcel attends a dinner party where he discovers that Odette has become the mistress of Duc de Guermantes. “…in spite of all that she had accomplished in building up a social position, she was tending under pressure of new circumstances to become once more, as she had first appeared to me in my earliest childhood, the lady in pink.” (VI,481).

The relationship of the lady in pink to Marcel’s uncle Adolphe is curious in another respect. We are re-introduced to Odette and Adolphe in Swann in Love.

My uncle advised Swann not to see Odette for some days, after which she would love him all the more, and advised Odette to let Swann meet her whenever and as often as he pleased. A few days later Odette told Swannthat she had just had a rude awakening, on discovering that my uncle was the same as other men: he had tried to take her by force. She calmed Swann down when he wanted to rush out to challenge my uncle to a duel… (I,444)

So we are left with two jarring incongruities. The Lady in Pink scene follows, chronologically, a break between Odette and Adolphe. And the Lady in Pink must already be Mme Swann, who is horrified of revelations of her courtesan past and quite unlikely to continue to have been one.

The break between Odette and Adolphe could conceivably be repaired, although we are not made aware of this. The Mme de Crecy vs Mme Swann is a harder conflict to resolve. Proust is known to have been occasionally sloppy in composition,notably in Time Regained where several discrepancies are found in the concluding soiree scene. These were most likely due to rushed editing near the end of his life. My own suspicion is that Proust wanted the protagonist to have seen Odette as a courtesan so that he can complete the circle of her as a courtesan in the final volume. This formal point of construction was simply so uppermost in his mind that he was probably not aware of the contradiction he had created.

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8 Responses to “The Lady in Pink”

  1. Patrick Alexander Says:

    There is also the incident described by the narrator’s contemporary, Bloch, in which he describes an amorous encounter on a train with Odette “…three times running, and in the most refined manner, between Paris and the Point-du-Jour. I am bound to see her again, some night.” This would imply that she remained socially active long after she had married Swann and become a mother.

  2. Jim Everett Says:

    In these two cases are we dealing with Odette de Crecy (with a chronological problem) or Odette Swann (with a character problem)? In other words, was Proust careless in presenting Odette this way since it appears to be so out of keeping with her uppward mobility trajectory or was he commenting on her fundamental immorality? I lean toward the former but then the narrator slams her morality in the final matinee scene, so I’m not sure.

  3. Jim Everett Says:

    I was wrong. Proust does indeed present Odette as a courtesan after she becomes Mme Swann. From The Captive:

    …while Morel was the son of that old valet who had introduced me to the lady in pink and enabled me, years after to identify her as Mme Swann. (V,353)

    and this, describing Odette’s walk in the Bois at the end of Swann’s Way:

    …it was preminently the smile of the courtesan, which she graciously bestowed on the men who greeted her. This smile was in reality saying, to one: “Oh yes, I remeber very well; it was wonderful!” to another: “How I should have loved to! It was bad luck!” to a third: “Yes, if you like!…”

  4. Jim Everett Says:

    And here is another citation of Odette’s continuing infidelity to Swann:

    Beautiful still, she had become–what she had never been in the past–inifinitely pathetic; she who had been unfaithful to Swann and to everybody found now that the entire universe was unfaithful to her… (VI,383)

  5. Jim Everett Says:

    The definitive citations of Mme. Swann as unfaithful to Swann:

    …Mme Swann in a pink dress in my great-uncles study.. (VI,413)

    …just as, beginning with the lady in pink, there had existed several Mme Swanns, separated by the colorless ether of the years…(VI,442)

    …and the other with the lady in pink because a well-informed man within me assured me that this was so…(VI,443)

    …she was tending under pressure of new circumstances to become once more, the lady in pink (VI,481)

    …this Second Empire courtesan swathed in one of the wraps which he liked, the lady in pink would interrupt him with a sprightly sally… So for a moment the Duke glared at the audacious lady in pink. (VI,486)

    And Mlle de Saint-Loup led to many other points of my life, to the lady in pink, for instance, who was her grandmother and whom I had seen in the house of my great-uncle. (VI,503)

  6. Jim Everett Says:

    It must be added that Odette was unfaithful to M. de Guermantes in the same fashion that she looked after him, that to say without charm and without dignity. She was commonplace in this role as she had been in all her others. Not that life had not frequently given her good parts; it had, but she not known how to play them. (VI,488)

  7. Marcelita Swann Says:

    Kalliope lead be back to you via GoodReads | 2013: The Year of Reading Proust. (message #165 http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1046857-through-sunday-10-feb-swann-s-way?page=4#comment_number_162)

    Jim, it’s so calming to know that you have already answered our questions with honesty, consideration and insight…three years before we even became curious.

    • Jim Everett Says:

      Thanks. I’ve been reading the periodic digests of posts that gets emailed to me with interest. Since the group has a large number of first time readers (who should be left in peace to make their own discoveries), I have been reluctant to join in with ideas that I have been mulling over for a number of years. But I must say you have found a way to add to the discussions with all sorts of resources I never knew about. I appreciate your contributions.

      On Fri, Feb 8, 2013 at 10:22 PM, Proust Reader

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