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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Woman Who Was Poor

Léon Bloy

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To purchase The Woman Who Was Poor

Title: The Woman Who Was Poor
Author: Léon Bloy
Genre: Novel
Written: 1897 (Eng. 1939)
Length: 356 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Woman Who Was Poor - US
The Woman Who Was Poor - UK
The Woman Who Was Poor - Canada
La femme pauvre - Canada
La femme pauvre - France
Clotilde Marechal - Deutschland
La donna povera - Italia
La mujer pobre - España
  • French title: La femme pauvre
  • Translated by I.J.Collins

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Our Assessment:

B : over-heated misery-wallow and grim world-view, but has its moments

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 20/5/1939 Montgomery Belgion

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)lthough Bloy was not a novelist -- the characters are dummies, the story is left inchoate, and its significance is unimpressive -- his novel retains after the lapse of years and even in English an odd fascination." - Montgomery Belgion, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Woman Who Was Poor is a two-part novel -- the novel's halves titled: 'Flotsam of the Shadows' and 'Flotsam of the Light'. And, yes, it's a lot of flotsam -- and most of it is dark and grim; what light Bloy offers comes in his own tortured twist on the dubious (because almost entirely suffering- and sacrifice-based) form of Catholic redemption.
       The woman of the title is Clotilde Maréchale, who is introduced in 1879 already thirty years old -- having already endured: "thirty years of poverty, cruelty, despair !" as Bloy (melo)dramatically sums up. Her mother is a "vile woman, who had never loved anyone", who destroyed her marriage and then shacked up with one Isidore Chapuis, who she is unaccountably devoted to -- to the extent that she: "delighted in being struck and bullied by him, and would have had her daughter burned alive to please him". He's certainly no catch, however.
       Much of the appeal of Bloy's writing is in just how easily ruthless he is, so particularly in his descriptions of the lowly and ugly. In just a a few words, sentences, or paragraph he brilliantly tars his characters with the broad strokes of his cruel brush:

     Physically, she had become hideous -- to the despair of the bankrupt Chapuis, who would not at all have minded marketing his loving partner, but could not see his way to offering her services now, except as a mop for cleaning mortuary slabs in a leper hospital.
       Clotilde still lives with the two, in their "verminous hovel"; she's even known as "Isidore's girl" -- and Isidore did try to force himself on her at one point, but she warded him off effectively enough to dissuade him from ever trying again. She has one failed romance behind her -- Isidore's intervention (in the hopes of squeezing some money out of it) helping to doom it -- but otherwise still has something of the bright young innocent to her, despite the mean squalor in which she has grown up:
     In short, the charming girl had, by her own nature, been so preserved from the contagious, trivialising influence of the Paris streets, that at thirty she still had the fine flower of enthusiasm of the most idealistic-minded adolescence.
       The story begins with Isidore having arranged for Clotilde to help bring in some much-needed money (to help subsidize his and Clotilde's mother's dissolute ways), just short of sending her out to sell herself on the streets. To Clotilde, his plan sounds almost as bad: he's pimping her out to an artist, as a nude model. But what's a poor girl to do ? Dutifully she heads to the house of the artist -- grand-named Pélopidas Anacharsis Gacougnol -- to meet her fate .....
       As it turns out, her fate isn't too bad. Gacougnol goes all Henry Higgins and transforms the gutter-girl -- getting her some presentable clothes, a room in a proper boarding house, taking her out for a proper restaurant meal. He delights in her reaction -- "She's a chrysalis, overjoyed at its coming metamorphosis" -- and how she doesn't pretend it's her due but rather simply embraces it joyfully: "the sheer child-like reactions of this grown-up woman just fascinate me".
       Of course, it helps that she really is a diamond in the rough, needing just a bit of surface-polish to reveal its wondrous perfection:
     Clotilde was so naturally, so simply, superior to her station, that the acutest Parisian observer, even if he had been given a hint beforehand, would never have discovered the slightest discordant note to reveal the occurrence of so sudden a transformation.
       Clotilde happily settles into this new fantasy-life, allowed to remain pure -- indeed, even as Gacougnol does have her sit and pose for him, she remains decorously clothed --, fitting right in with the intellectual-artistic crowd that Gacougnol surrounds himself with. (Among them is writer Cain Marchenoir -- the stand in for the author, who makes a big impression on Clotilde as she: "seeing and hearing him for the first time, was amazed at a man who seemed to speak from the depths of a volcano, and who brought in the Infinite as a matter of course, in the most casual conversation" .....)
       For a while, everything is coming up roses, the world set right, Clotilde finally enjoying the life and fate she had long deserved:
     Clotilde's awakening was as delightful as her sleep had been. The poor girl was born for well-being and that comfortable life which had long been beyond her hopes.
       Gacougnol wisely insisted from the first that she was not to have anything to do with her mother or Chapuis, and the mean old couple do, indeed, long leave her alone. But then Clotilde gets a letter from her 'loving mother', who claims she is on her deathbed and begs to see her child one last time. Clotilde isn't fooled -- "It is a lie !" she is certain -- but feels obliged to make sure -- and Gacougnol proposes that he go with her, and indeed go into the house first, to ascertain whether old lady Maréchale really is in a bad way .....
       There the first part of the book ends. The next picks up five years later -- and, boy, have things changed. Clotilde is now married -- happily, to a man she learned through Gacougnol, Léopold -- but otherwise things have not gone well; Bloy artfully takes his time in recounting the events of the past five years, all set in motion by that ill-fated trip to Clotilde's mother and Chapuis. It did not go well, and neither did much that came after .....
       At least Clotilde has love: Léopold is an admirable man -- though with a bit of baggage, too, including a previous love-affair that had not worked out (for which his father -- a man displaying: "a revolting Sadism" -- was doubly responsible). Unfortunately, the couple is poor, and soon poorer still. Bloy here goes into full-wallow mode, describing their miserable circumstances, complete with all its horrible smells and filth. Even escape to the countryside only brings with it a different kind of persecution.
       At least they have each other ! And there's the book Léopold is working on, which might bring about a change of their fortune when he completes it ..... But then comes the only chapter that is clearly dated -- 25 May 1887 --, opening ominously: "Clotilde is alone in the house. Her husband left her some hours ago". The date probably no longer means much to readers, but when the novel appeared in 1897 it was no doubt surely still fresh in readers' minds, and they could see what was coming -- though even present-day readers can easily guess, that Léopold won't be coming home .....
       Widow Clotilde then embraces her true fate to the hilt in the pseudo-redemptive conclusion. Typically for Bloy, even her being worse for the wear is all for the good:
     Clotilde is now forty-eight, and she looks as if she were at least a hundred. But she is more beautiful than before, and makes the beholder think of a column of prayers, the last column of a temple ruined by cataclysms.
       She sacrifices everything, and in such sacrifice of course finds completion and complete satisfaction. Even the religious professional doesn't get it -- "You must be very unhappy, my poor woman", a priest commiserates -- but she can honestly claim: "I am completely happy". Bloy completely embraces the Catholic ideal of abnegation and complete sacrifice, and foists it on his poor protagonist:
     She even learned to understand -- and that is little short of the sublime -- that woman only exists, in the truest sense, if she is without food, without shelter, without friends, without husband, without children; that only thus can she compel her Saviour to come down.
       She finds spiritual fulfillment -- and, hey, what could be better ? It's not a conventional happy ending, but for Bloy, none could be better ......
       This religious claptrap is of course problematic, and does get somewhat tiresome at times, but Bloy differs from most religious writers in how he presents the trials he forces his characters to endure, and that gives the novel an entirely different, bizarrely offbeat tone and arc. For one, there's a fundamental mean- and spitefulness to so much of his description. Typically, an incidental death of one of Clotilde and husband's tormentors isn't merely mentioned but fleshed-out with colorful Bloyian flair:
A little while later, she was found dead in her room, at the end of the village, with her entrails devoured by her dog, a horrible, wall-eyed mastiff, pike-nosed, and with a resemblance to its mistress.
       Bloy's palette is, like everything about his writing, extreme -- to often very impressive effect. Yes, it's ridiculous -- but the vivid scenes truly come alive.
       Bloy is all too well aware of the absurdity of his undertaking -- indeed, part of the power of it also comes from the writer's own inner turmoil that he lays bare on the page: there are a number of scenes of what amount to pure philosophical and artistic argument here, and Bloy even goes so far as to admit:
     Stories true to life have become not worth telling. Naturalism has descried them until there have been engendered among all intellectuals a habitual craving for literary hallucinations.
     Nobody will dispute that Gacougnol is an impossible artist, and Clotilde a young woman such as is never seen. The pedagogy and mutually Platonic nature of their ways is an obvious outrage against public psychology.
       No kidding .....
       It's unsurprising that it's Bloy's own stand-in, Marchenoir, that is the one to make the claim: "We are all creatures of misery and desolation, but few of us are capable of looking into the abyss of ourselves". With his focus on Clotilde, Bloy also avoids looking inwards, clinging instead into an unattainable ideal. It is Marchenoir, too, who maintains: "Art has nothing to do with the essence of the Church, plays no part in her real life [...] such a thing as Christian Art is bound to be impossible". But that doesn't mean Bloy isn't willing to have a go at it .....
       What results is a curiously misbegotten creation -- but one with some undeniable power. The leap ahead of five years, from the first part to the second, and the reveal of what has changed in the meantime is a sledgehammer-force blow of the finest sort, a novelist doing just the right thing for maximum impact, as memorable a sudden turn as any in modern fiction, built up so well in no small part because everything had been going so well .....
       Bloy's sheer audacity, in every respect, contributes to the power of the novel -- not least in his willingness to shift gears and, as if daring readers, even step forward, mid-story, with pronouncements such as:
     The author never promised that he would entertain anybody. He has sometimes even promised the opposite -- and kept his word. No judge has any right to ask any more of him than that. The end of this "story", moreover, is so gloomy -- though lit up with some strange and vivid gleams -- that it will, in any case, come quite soon enough, to rouse pity or horror in those horrid sentimentalists who are interested in love-stories.
       Strange and vivid gleams, indeed: The Woman Who Was Poor is one hot mess of a novel, but does burn very brightly in quite a few spots. From the tangential well-turned observation -- "That awful pedant, Shopenhauer, who spent his life studying the horizon from the bottom of a well" -- to his reveling in the worst sorts of filth, Bloy's writing is perhaps best described as irrepressible, bubbling forth and over. Way over. The Catholic message half comes across, but he's so interested in other things as well -- not least in art, in how to capture and present the world as he sees it (not a pretty picture ...) -- that even those with no patience for the spiritual side of this can find enough that impresses (for better and worse). Astonishing is also his bitterness and bile -- there's some impressive railing here, especially against the Paris of the day and its denizens, with Bloy almost unmatched as a master of depicting the worst in mankind.
       It makes for a fascinating piece of work, though not exactly one that is easily recommended. But there's certainly a lot to it -- both good and bad.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 September 2020

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The Woman Who Was Poor: Reviews: Books by Léon Bloy under review: Books about Léon Bloy under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Léon Bloy lived 1846 to 1917.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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