A Promise of Light to Come: Franck Bouysse’s Born of No Woman
BY BETHANY LATHAM
In nineteenth-century France, Gabriel has a secret, “the terrible story that I keep inside and that has been gnawing at me for so many years, that I could never share with anyone, because for that I would have needed a great friend, and also not to be a priest.” This terrible story begins when Gabriel is called from his clerical duties to a nearby asylum for the criminally insane, once a Carthusian monastery, to bless the body of a recently-deceased inmate. Gabriel has been cryptically forewarned that the body of this inmate will be concealing notebooks, notebooks he must smuggle out without the knowledge of the asylum’s insidious director. What these notebooks contain is Rose’s story, a tale which forever changes the priest’s life.
Rose has just turned fourteen, and her existence on a farm in the Landes with her parents and three sisters includes its share of laughter, though is not without hardship. “Girls aren’t worth much to farmers, in any case they’re not what parents hope for to make a farm run… If I heard my father say that girls were the ruin of a house once, I heard him say it a thousand times.” Rose’s father has an unthinkable solution: without warning, he sells her to a fat, rich landowner, ostensibly to serve as a maid on his estate. This man whisks the terrified girl away from everything she has ever known: “From now on, you will call me Master, and you will obey everything we say.” Rose soon learns that the “we” includes the Master’s glacial mother; there will be no sympathy for the devastated girl from either of these twisted individuals. The Master’s wife, Rose is told, is an invalid behind a locked door – in a room Rose is forbidden to enter. The only sympathetic figure in Rose’s new home is Edmond, a kindly but reticent groom over whom the Master seems to hold some dreadful sway. Though barely out of childhood, Rose’s own intuition tells her she’s in danger; Edmond knows more than he will share, and he tries to convince her to flee. By the time she decides to do so, her fate is already sealed…
Originally published in French as Né d’aucune femme (La Manufacture de Livres, 2019) Franck Bouysse’s Born of No Woman (Other Press, 2021) is dark even for a Gothic novel, full of disturbing subject matter. When asked about his approach for the aspects of horror, abuse, and cruelty in this tale, Bouysse explains: “All my novels draw inspiration from a feeling of rebellion that, at a certain point, I can’t keep to myself anymore, and it has to brim over, permeating pages and pages. I’ve always promised myself that I would work through to the end of what I intended to write, I wouldn’t protect myself, I wouldn’t shield the reader. It’s a sign of my complete sincerity. If a character prompts me to write the worst form of horror, then there’s a reason that I’m not yet aware of, like a promise of light to come from the most profound darkness.”
This novel is, in Bouysse’s own words, character-driven. “I didn’t undertake any special research to write this book,” he says. “The writing was dictated by the characters.” Even the monastery turned asylum which, along with the manor house, lends much of the Gothic atmosphere, feels like a character rather than a location. Bouysse experienced “an emotion during childhood, when I found myself right in front of the monastery during a simple walk in the wood. The last time we met,” says Bouysse of his encounter with the centuries-old setting, “was more than thirty years ago. Everything I was told, everything I read about this period has enabled me to tell the story as I went along. I only had to reconstruct my memories.”
In this way, Bouysse essentially combined his feelings upon “meeting” the monastery with imagination and insight gleaned from a variety of literary sources (eg, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Cormac McCarthy, et al.) to craft the atmosphere and “le rythme de mon écriture” [“the rhythm of my prose”]. Bouysse notes that he doesn’t keep a record of his influences while writing; books read twenty or thirty years before may unexpectedly come to be useful. He explains, “The compost in a novelist’s mind can take time to become fertile, and even then, sometimes nothing germinates.”
One of the overarching themes in the novel is that of classism and the power dynamics it engenders – the divide between people of the Master’s station, that of Rose, and that of characters such as Edmond and Gabriel, who fall somewhere in between. Bouysse describes how his reading of nineteenth-century authors informed this element of the tale: “I’ve read many books from the nineteenth century that deal with class and with the inequality of relations between men and women. The novels of Zola, Hugo, Dickens and many others also have a documentary value. But beyond this novelistic aspect, you only need to watch the news to realize that much still needs to be put right in many corners of our world. The difference between the nineteenth century and today is that class differences were more institutionalized and approved by society. Nowadays, things are changing, but there’s still a long way to go.”
Oddly enough, in all this reading of nineteenth-century literature, the one genre that Bouysse never explored in detail was the Gothic. “I’ve read very little Gothic literature,” he notes, “and apart from Dracula, I can’t think of another example.” Instead, he drew on stories told to him by his paternal grandmother: “Tom Thumb, Snow White … We think of them as children’s stories, but they mark you forever. It’s hard to forget this symbolism of good and evil, of what is beautiful and what is ugly. These childhood terrors haunt us for many lifetimes.”
Despite the terrors that haunt Rose, the profound darkness in this tale, there is, as Bouysse says, “a promise of light to come.” As Gabriel, in his old age, undertakes one final task to unburden himself, he imagines that those who have undergone these events are “happy somewhere, perhaps near an ocean, a sea, in the mountains, or anywhere else, far from the suffering of the past.”
About the contributor: Bethany Latham is a Professor, Librarian, and Managing Editor of Historical Novels Review.
Translation Note: Grateful thanks to Lucinda Byatt, Features Editor of Historical Novels Review, for her translation of the author’s comments from French into English.