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.