Woman of the Pharisees is a complex weave of troubled and fallible characters, of suffering and redemption, both secular and spiritual. Above all, Louis Pian’s story is a study of his self-righteously religious stepmother, Brigitte Pian, and those whom she victimizes and destroys before she finally faces the truth of her loveless, vindictive “piety.”
The story opens at Louis’ school, at the end of the term and the beginning of his friendship with Jean de Mirbel. Jean’s brutal uncle has decreed that Jean, because of his poor performance at school, may not spend the summer holiday with his mother. Instead, he is to be sent to live and study with the Abbe Calou at Baluzac, a few miles from the Pian country estate at Larjuzon. Louis is excited that his friend will be so near, though when Jean and Louis’ sister, Michele, meet and fall in love, Louis becomes angry and jealous, inadvertently causing disastrous repercussions later for the young lovers.
Also staying at Larjuzon during the summer is M. Puybaraud, a teacher at Louis’ school. He has been invited by Louis’ stepmother supposedly to tutor Louis during the holiday; in fact, Brigitte wishes to break up an attachment Puybaraud has formed with Octavia Tronche, a delicate young woman who teaches at a Free School sponsored by Brigitte. She has learned of the love between Octavia and Puybaraud because of Louis’ betrayal of his teacher’s trust: He has told his stepmother of a letter to Octavia that Puybaraud asked him to post privately.
Brigitte fails to persuade either Octavia or Puybaraud to give each other up for what she sees as a higher calling to God in the convent and priesthood. When they marry, Brigitte punishes them by using her influence to deny them any employment, thus forcing them to live in poverty on her charity. Octavia later dies in childbirth, lacking even the basic comforts and the help that might have saved her child.
Meanwhile, Jean, living with the Abbe Calou, falls into difficulties of his own. His mother, the Comtesse de...
(The entire section is 845 words.)