The episode of the madeleine, the most widely known passage in the novel, started out as a notebook entry in 1909. But instead of a cake, the food that prompted the unforced memory was a piece of rusk, something like Melba toast or zweiback. The French psychoanalyst (and much more) Julia Kristeva speculates on how the humble rusk became the madeleine in her book Proust and the Sense of Time.
The original reference in the name dates back, of course, to the well-known female sinner of the Gospels, a woman from Magdala, hence Magdalena. However, the common name of ‘madeleine’ was applied in the seventeenth century to the fruits sold around the season of St Mary Magdelene–peaches, plums, apples and pears–and it continued its alimentary career in the nineteenth century by being used for cakes (according to the Bescherelle dictionary, this was a tribute to the cook called Madeleine Paulmier). Even now, this ancestry is evocative enough to explain its interest for the writer. But, given Proust’s sustained attention to names (‘Place-names: the name’ is the title of the third section of Swann’s Way), and the meticulous care that went into choosing the proper names of the characters in the novel, we might be justified in taking the inquiry further and asking what lurks behind the transformation of the prosaic biscuit into a name possessed by a female sinner, then by a saint, and finally by a common sweetmeat. (33)
George Sand’s novel François le champi appears in the opening volume’s good night kiss episode and in the closing volume in the Guermantes library. As Proust did not much care for Sand the author, why the prominent mention of her novel?
Less ‘pastoral’ than the other three novels, François le champi (1850) tells the story of a foundling child (champi is the term for ‘foundling’ in the Berry dialect) who is taken in by the miller’s wife, Madeleine Blanchet, becomes the object of her unwitting love, and later, on his return to the village as an adult, her lover and husband, his adoptive mother having become a widow.
Proust was to be a severe critic of George Sand in his later writings, but he nevertheless retained this central reference to François le champi, continuing to allow the reading of it a structural role in the scaffolding of A la recherche. Even in Time Regained, when the narrator is in the library of the Prince de Guermantes, it is this ‘pastoral’ volume that provoke the fourth of his reminiscences and lead to this aesthetic revelation. There is therefore good reason to think that, however much he may have disapproved of George Sand’s style, it is precisely the theme of incest, the sinning mother, that secured and maintained Proust’s interest in François le champi. The role of the miller’s wife, Madeleine Blanchet, would be one of communicating, through her floury whiteness, the taste of the forbidden love that will find its way into the narrator’s main aesthetic credo–a taste which has been metamorphosed into an apparently anodyne object: the little madeleine. (35-36)
Kristeva found a second literary madeleine, this one in the novella L’Indifférent, written by Proust himself and published in 1895.
A noble lady falls in love with a young man who shows nothing bu indifference towards her. Increasingly attracted by this individual, whose surname features in a famous painting by Watteau, she ends by find out that young Lepré’s coldness is a cover for his passionate attachment to prostitutes: ‘He loves the ignoble women who are found in the gutter and he loves them to distraction.’ The connection between this plot and the love life of Swann is a plausible one, and Kolb [JE: who brought the novella to light] demonstrates it convincingly. Swann is indeed the lover of a tart, Odette de Crécy, whom he rescues from the street and prepares for a brilliant career; one that will be difficult at first, but in the end crowned with worldly success–all the more so after the death of her husband and the altered society that succeeds the war. Odette could be seen as an amalgam of the women loved by Lepré and the noble lady to whom he is entirely indifferent–a high and mighty aristocrat whose prototype may well have been the Comtesse Greffulhe: covered in flowers, ‘without a single jewel, her corsage of yellow tulle covered with cattleyas, and she had also attached a few cattleyas to her dark coiffure’….Yet it happens that the commentators who see her living again in Odette have forgotten to mention the name of this high and mighty aristocrat. She is called Madeleine de Gouvres. (38-39)