Hawthorne on Jarry ed. Schuh (2018)


Jarry, Charlotte. Lettres à Rachilde et Alfred Vallette (1907–1918). Suivies de notes inédites par Noël Arnaud. Texte établi et annoté par Julien Schuh. Société des Amis d’Alfred Jarry/Du Lérot Éditeur, 2018, pp. 141, ISBN 978-2-35548-129-1

Melanie Hawthorne, Texas A&M University

The relationship between Rachilde (Marguerite Eymery Vallette, 1860–1953) and Alfred Jarry (1873–1907) is one of the most under-explored literary friendships of all time. Were they lovers, as some have speculated, or were they soulmates of a different stripe entirely, on a different plane, in a different dimension, two platonic halves seeking completion? Whatever the nature of the ties that drew them together, the result was good for literature: Rachilde brought out the Ubu in Jarry (she played an important role in getting the play staged) and Jarry taught Rachilde to get out of Paris and let her hair down once in a while (sometimes literally). As Jarry’s sister Charlotte (1865–1925) put it in a letter to Rachilde’s husband Alfred Vallette, now published in this collection of letters, her brother “vous a fait faire du vélo, aller à la campagne sentant le danger du travail de bureau ininterrompu” (55).

Alfred died young and prematurely, on 1 Nov. 1907, leaving his older sister as his only heir. Settling his financial affairs was a mammoth undertaking. He had debts left and right, such as a huge unpaid wine bill, not surprisingly (29n3), but more complicated was the decision as to whether to accept the legacy or not. Charlotte could have dodged the debtors by renouncing the inheritance, but this would have meant giving up her claim to any future earnings from his publications, too, and this was a gamble she was reluctant to take (a tribute to her continued belief in her brother’s talent). Since Alfred Vallette was the executor of Jarry’s will, these letters are mostly concerned with the state of her “phynances” after her brother’s death: requests for advice (and loans), reports on the wranglings with lawyers, and thanks for the continued support. The Vallettes, for their part, reassured her that their review, the Mercure, would never reclaim what Jarry owed (20), and even went so far as to renounce their claim to a piece of land at Corbeil that had been sold to Rachilde. The sale was never officially registered, so the claim was on a legally doubtful footing anyway, but the gesture cleared the way for Charlotte to assert her claim to the property, which she could therefore sell to raise money. Unfortunately, the land was not much in demand, and Alfred had paid more than it was worth to begin with (35). In the end, it would be 1923 before Charlotte finally paid off the bill for the construction of her brother’s famous “Tripod” country shack (131).

The Vallettes’ side of the correspondence is already known, but Charlotte’s letters were only recently re-discovered, still uncatalogued, in the collections of the Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet, resulting in this publication, expertly introduced and exhaustively annotated by Julien Schuh. The new material now available does not change anything substantial in what we know about Alfred Jarry, though “trainspotters” can sift through the minutiae of the disposition of his estate, such as it was, as well as other matters. For example, Jarry was a keen amateur gun enthusiast, and one of the anecdotes that always surfaces about him was the offer to “make more children” with the woman who complained about the dangers of his wild target practice around her already existing children. Who got that gun after Jarry died? Picasso, or, as established here, his sister Charlotte (23n8)?

There is another narrative to be read in these letters, one not unique to the Jarry family, nor to writers. It is a story about the fate of genteel single ladies at the fin de siècle, or, as Schuh phrases it, the story of a woman “[s]eule, poursuivie par des huissiers […] sans travail, sans mari, exploitée par sa famille […] l’utilisant comme bonne à tout faire sans gages” (7). One of Charlotte’s first sacrifices after her brother’s death is to sell the family home she and her brother had inherited in Laval (the idea was in the works before Alfred died, as the bailiffs were already circling, 15n2). She rents a more modest accommodation and tries to make a living at embroidery, but it is badly paid piecework (57), and settling financial matters drags on. By all accounts, “Hubu” (as Charlotte refers to Alfred) was a considerate and affectionate brother: he took care of such matters while alive: “c’était un professeur, un conseiller de tous les instants qui réglait jusqu’aux détails du ménage” (50). And Charlotte wishes she could still confide in him, as “il trouverait des mots utiles et consolateurs” (62). But it is not to be; Charlotte must face it all alone, and “malheur à la femme seule” (41). As Schuh is at pains to point out, the letters do not only reveal “la lente échéance d'une vieille fille [Charlotte is in her forties] perdue dans le souvenir de son frère célèbre” (9). The narrative is also one of “la découverte de l’écriture” (9) as Charlotte tried to complete her brother’s last novel, La Dragonne. An account of her life still reads like a nineteenth-century realist novel: she moved to Paris in 1916, and worked for the rest of her life before dying, still single, of tuberculosis on 17 March 1925.

This beautifully produced edition of Charlotte’s letters to the Vallettes (the thick, creamy, uncut pages will be the delight of bibliophiles of the old school) is enhanced with a number of black and white postcard illustrations, and in addition to the useful and detailed footnotes provided by Schuh, it comes with a helpful chronology at the end, and some previously unpublished notes by Jarry scholar, the late Noël Arnaud.