How does war affect the women characters in Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise?
Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise consists of the first two volumes of an intended series, and covers the periods of the invasion and occupation of France. While the two novellas provide distinct stories, they overlap, as would be expected in what was intended to be a coherent historical series. Unsurprisingly given Nemirovsky’s gender, her stories reflect a feminine perspective and the main characters, at least the French ones, are women.
“Storm in June” is the story of Charlotte Pericand, mother of five children, the oldest a Roman Catholic priest. Charlotte, as did thousands of other Parisians, flees the city with her children, their sole source of emotional support. Nemirovsky describes her as follows:
“Charlotte Pericand, who ruled the family’s daily life with an iron hand (whether it was managing the household, her children’s education or her husband’s career), was not in the habit of seeking anyone’s opinion.”
A proper woman whose normally well-ordered life is thrown into disarray by the German invasion, Charlotte is suddenly forced to draw upon resources she never envisioned to ensure her and her children’s survival.
Jeanne Michaud and her husband Maurice, employees of an exceedingly self-absorbed banker, are primarily preoccupied with the welfare of their missing son, Jean-Marie, a soldier in the French Army presumed dead but whose survival from his wounds and journey home provide a common thread throughout the two novellas.
Lucile is the focus of “Sweet.” Living with her mother-in-law in the rural town of Bussy while her chronically unfaithful husband Gaston languishes in a German prisoner-of-war camp, Lucile finds herself drawn romantically to the German officer who takes up residence in her house during the occupation. The notion of collaboration and the hostility towards the officer, Bruno von Falk, on the part of her mother-in-law presents Lucile with perhaps the novella’s most compelling moral quandary. The war’s effect on Lucile is to force her to question the humanity in her country’s mortal enemy, Germany. Towards the end of “Sweet,” as the German garrison occupying Bussy prepares to depart to take part in the invasion of the Soviet Union, the two leave no doubt as to their common feelings:
“Reason and emotion, they both believed, could make them enemies, but between them was a harmony of the senses that nothing could destroy; the silent understanding that binds a man in love and a willing woman in mutual desire.”
Finally, there is Madeleine, whose story connects the two novellas. In “Storm in June,” it is Madeleine who nurses Jean-Marie back to health while her husband, Benoit, escapes from a German prisoner-of-war camp and begins his journey home. Madeleine is torn between the soldier she restored to health and the husband for whom her feelings are emotionless:
“Madeleine Sabarie was alone in the house; she was sitting in the room where Jean-Marie had lived for several weeks. Everyday, she made the bed where he had slept. This irritated Cecilie. ‘Why bother! No one ever sleeps here, so you don’t need to put clean sheets on everyday, as if you were expecting someone. Are you expecting someone?’”
The women in Suite Francaise struggle to survive under the most terrifying of circumstances: foreign occupation by a country that would destroy entire villages without hesitation under the slightest pretext. They cope in any way they can, and recognize that, in war, relationships can be very fleeting.