Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1076
Shortly after renting a country house near Rennes, the narrator states, he came upon several notebooks in the house containing the story of a lady, presented in her own handwriting. At the request of his friends, he agreed to edit and publish her account. Marianne, the name the lady in the autobiography gives herself, is a countess, about fifty years of age at the time of her writing. She explains that she is describing her past because a dear friend has entreated her to tell the full story of her life.
While still an infant, Marianne is orphaned in an attack by brigands on the coach in which she and her parents are traveling. She is the only survivor of this brutal encounter, and as a result her identity is unknown. Passersby rescue the child and put her in the care of the sister of the local priest. Marianne remains the ward of that kind person until she is fifteen years of age, at which time, while she and her foster mother are visiting Paris, misfortune comes to her again. An epidemic breaks out, and all of those intimately concerned with Marianne’s welfare are fatally stricken.
Soon another benefactor appears, Monsieur de Climal, who offers to aid her out of charitable piety. By this time, Marianne is a beautiful young woman, and Climal shows his fondness by buying her expensive clothing and arranging for her lodging with a widowed shopkeeper, Madame Dutour. Marianne objects strongly to the bourgeois atmosphere of her new home, but her circumstances give her no other choice.
One day, on a religious holiday, she dresses in her finery and strolls about the city after church. The young men ogle her; one in particular is especially attracted to her and she to him, although no words pass between them. Bemused and distracted by the encounter, Marianne steps into the path of a moving carriage and is knocked down. Her young admirer, Monsieur de Valville, comes immediately to her aid. At the time, neither learns the other’s identity, for Monsieur de Climal arrives and jealously insists on taking his charge home.
Beside himself, Climal declares his undying love and offers to set Marianne up in an apartment. Proudly refusing this hypocritical proposal and also his protection, she goes to live in a nearby convent. Meanwhile, Valville sets about to learn her name and whereabouts. Successful in his search, he arrives at the convent soon after Marianne has acquired a loving benefactress, who turns out to be his mother. When Madame de Valville learns of the mutual attraction between her son and Marianne, she agrees that they could well be in love, but she counsels delay in the affair. In the meantime, Climal has succumbed to a fatal illness; as an act of repentance, he has bequeathed one-third of his estate to Marianne. The remainder is to go to his nephew, Valville.
As soon as Valville’s noble and influential relatives find out about Marianne’s dubious parentage and her brief stay with a shopkeeper, they take steps to prevent the young couple from marrying. In an elaborate abduction scheme, they succeed in luring Marianne away from the convent. They then tell her that she has two choices: to become a nun or to marry a young man they will provide. In the hope of gaining time, she agrees to talk with the prospective bridegroom, but she informs her captors that she will wed no one but Valville. At that moment, Madame de Valville and her son catch up with the plot and arrive to defend Marianne. At last the relatives, convinced of Marianne’s strength of character, nobility, and worthiness, withdraw their objections to the marriage, and plans for the wedding are made. Within a few weeks, Marianne is to leave the convent and become a bride.
A chance call upon friends brings Mademoiselle Varthon to the attention of Valville. During a brief illness Marianne is confined, and Valville becomes infatuated with Mlle Varthon, who promptly tells Marianne of her love for the young man. Deeply grieved by her son’s infidelity, Madame de Valville assures Marianne of her own love and affection, which she continues to shower upon the unfortunate young woman. Death ends Madame de Valville’s acts of kindness a short time later, however, and once more Marianne is alone in the world.
To take Marianne’s mind off her misfortunes and to give her some perspective on the many curious things that happen to human beings, a nun who has become very friendly with her suggests that Marianne should hear the story of the nun’s life. Depressed and lonely, Marianne agrees to listen to the nun’s account.
The nun, the daughter of Monsieur de Tervire and Mademoiselle de Tresle, learned early in life that her father was dead. Sometime later, her mother married a grand seigneur of the court, and the young girl was left to the care of a farmer. Although her mother sent money for her support and promised again and again to bring her daughter to live with her in Paris, the invitation was constantly delayed. When Mlle de Tervire was seventeen years of age, Baron de Sercour sought her hand in marriage. An unscrupulous trick by the baron’s heir disgraced the bride-to-be, however, and the marriage never took place. Madame de Dursan then became the young woman’s foster mother. She willed her estate to Mlle de Tervire, but an estranged son turned up as Madame de Dursan was dying, and the will was changed. When Madame de Dursan’s relatives refused to give Mlle de Tervire one-third of the property, as had been promised, she decided to go to Paris. On the stagecoach, she met a Madame Darcire. Ultimately, Mlle de Tervire discovered that Madame Darcire knew the young woman’s mother well. From a lawyer, they learned that Madame la Marquise, the mother, had been persuaded to turn her estates over to her son. He then took all the property and abandoned his mother to poverty. Furious at this turn of events, Mlle de Tervire went to her sister-in-law and demanded that her half brother take proper care of their parent. The nun ended her story with the recounting of a disastrous love affair and her ultimate decision to take the veil.
After years of tribulation, Marianne finally marries Valville. She also learns that she is of noble birth.