Profile of a Duchesse


With a few deft strokes, the narrator gives us the essential Duchess de Guermantes.

The historian made a low bow, as I did too, and since he seemed to suppose that some friendly remark ought to follow this salute, his eyes brightened and he was preparing to open his mouth  when he was chilled by the demeanour of Mme de Guermantes, who had taken advantage of the independence of her torso to throw it forward with an exaggerated politeness and bring it nearly back to a position of rest without letting face or eyes appear to have noticed that anyone was standing before them; after breathing a little sigh she contented herself with manifesting the nullity of the impression that had been made on her by the sight of the historian and myself by performing certain movements of her nostrils with a precision that testified to the absolute inertia of her unoccupied attention. (III,267)

And it was true that  the Duchess was bored by other women, if their princely rank did not give them an exceptional interest. (III,277)

Moreover the type of mind illustrated by Mérimée and Meilhac and Halévy, which was also hers, led her, by contrast with the verbal sentimentality of an earlier generation, to a style of conversation that rejects everything to do with fine language and the expression of lofty things, so that she made it a sort of point of good breeding when she was with a poet or a musician to talk only of the food that they were eating or the game of cards to which they would afterwards sit down….And presently the luncheon came to an end and the party broke up, without a word having been said about poetry which they nevertheless all admired but to which, by a reserve analogous to that of which Swann had given me a foretaste, no one referred. This reserve was simply a matter of good form. (III,278)

Mme de Guermantes formed a smile by contacting the corners of her mouth as though she were biting her veil. (III,281)

Mme de Guermantes emitted a sort of raucous noise which meant that she was laughing for form’s sake. (III,282)

Mme de Guermantes muttered something in M. d’Argencourt’s ear which I could not catch but which must have referred to Bloch’s religion, for there flitted at that moment over the face of the Duchess that expression to which one’s fear of being noticed by the person one is speaking of gives a certain hesitancy and falseness mixed with the inquisitive, malicious amusement inspired by a human group to which one feels oneself to be fundamentally alien. (III,333)

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