The Girl at the Lion d’Or, by Sebastian Faulks

by Robert A. Parker

This 1989 work is a perfect little novel. The reader is drawn into the story of two fine people, and wonders what will happen to them. The novel does nothing else; it simply explores their story and probes their desire for human contact. While they belong to different social levels, their affair is not a metaphor of a clash between those levels. Nor, with one person being married, is there a reference to the morality of their situation.   It is simply the story of Anne, the servant girl at the Lion d’Or inn, and Charles Hartmann, a married, more wealthy bar patron at the inn. They meet casually and are slowly drawn to one another. She is alone in a world that has abandoned her, and he is married to a wife he no longer loves. Each seems to provide what the other needs, and they take advantage of a burgeoning friendship to fill the emptiness in their lives.

The reader wonders, given the couple and their situation, how this affair could possibly arrive at a romantic conclusion. One even wonders—remember the perfection—if this could be a modern version of Madame Bovary; that is, whether or not both Anne and Hartmann will survive their affair.

Indeed, it is clear from one late scene that Faulks himself considered the impact of the Flaubert novel. In that scene, one character picks up a knife, and the reader senses that person’s world about to end. What I think this scene is is a young novelist’s salute to Flaubert.

At the end, however, he resorts to neither romanticism nor tragedy, as he resolves with empathy the outcome of this ”impossible” affair.

The background is just substantial enough to highlight the difficulties that their affair represents. It is not the society that each belongs to that is in conflict, but the separate needs of this couple from contrasting backgrounds. That background is the 1930s in a France weakened by the world-wide depression, and a France that looks nervously on the threat from Hitler’s Germany.

In the background is also the terrible toll that World War I took on the manhood of France. And this is made tangible by the story of Anne’s father, who refused an officer’s order for a futile charge of the German lines. Anne has long kept secret her father’s fate, fearing that knowledge of it would create scandal and destroy her own hopes for the future. But as finally she reveals her secret to Hartmann, she becomes more human—and we realize the need she has for human commitment, as well as the need he has for a deep emotional connection to another human being.

Faulks probes just deeply enough in the psychology of Anne and Hartman to make their affair convincing. And despite the “impossibility” of their affair, he does make the resolution effective, as he explores the internal psychology that brought them together and now may or may not separate them. In one case it is the threat of abandonment, and in another it is a matter of conscience.

And whatever the resolution, the reader feels that both have benefitted from their affair. Both have profited from the kind of deep human contact that they had previously denied themselves. And both come to a better understanding of themselves as a result.

And yet the peripheral characters also have substance. We see the inn owner in a different, less dominant light, as well has the inn’s brutal manager in a softer light, at prayer. There is also the incompetent contractor Roussel, and the predator Mattlin who takes advantage of young women. And most of all, there is Hartmann’s wife, the patient Christine, a good but dull woman, who sees she is losing her husband and realizes she can only wait for the outcome. Her strategy is to rely on her husband’s conscience. She becomes a sympathetic character, despite our primary concern for the fate of the two lovers.

Perhaps the simplicity of this work is typical of an early novel, as Faulks focuses on his two main characters, particularly on Anne. Of note is that this is the first of three novels that Faulks set in modern France, three novels built around the emotional lives of three young women of need. The other two works, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, are superior because they are conceived on a grander scale, particularly with their military environment. And their heroines face a far greater challenge than their search for love.

If this had been my first Faulks novel, it would have piqued my interest, but nothing more. Since it was not, it reveals to me the foundation of his later and more powerful work. (August, 2013)

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