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...
(The entire section is 1076 words.)