What makes Mademoiselle stand out from the rest of the governesses and nannies that Nabokov had in Speak, Memory?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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One of the dominant reasons that Cécile Miauton, called Mademoiselle, lives as she does in Nabokov's memory is that she was the first in his life to express spontaneous affection to him. As he tells it, when she first came to the their home and was presented to the Nabokov, she patted his cheek; she reached out and in an act of spontaneous affection stroked his cheek.

Before her time no stranger had ever stroked my face. Mademoiselle, as soon as she came, had taken me completely aback by patting my cheek in sign of spontaneous affection.

Thus, his first association with her is with her hands. Perhaps as a way of explaining to himself his attraction to her, he explains that he recalls hands as he knew a lot about hands since "hands live and hover at the level of our stature" in childhood. Even though he found Mademoiselle's hands unappealing because of their shinny tight skin and brown spots, these hands gave him a memory-embedding emotional shock that was at one and the same time pleasant and unpleasantly surprising. In the end analysis, the element that lived to speak in his memory was that she had expressed spontaneous affection for him by touching him kindly on his face.

She deepened her impact and made herself more memorable through her reading voice as they sat on the veranda while she read volume after volume of French works aloud. Her asthma seemed separate from her "slender voice" as she read continually without interference from her lungs. In later years, it was into the memory of her reading voice that he longed "to peer."

But of all the windows this the the pane through which in later years parched memory longed to peer.
   Mademoiselle never found out how potent had been the even flow of her voice.

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