Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1432
In the spring of 1819, Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds and her parents go to live in an old chateau, The Poplars, on the Normandy coast. Baron Simon-Jacques Le Perthuis des Vauds was left a large inheritance, but he so reduces it by his freehandedness that he is eventually forced to reconcile himself for the remainder of his days to a simple country life.
Jeanne, who spent the preceding five years in a convent, looks forward happily to her new life and dreams of the day when she will find the man who loves her. All her expectations are fulfilled. She finds a beautiful countryside to wander over and the sea to bathe in and to sail on. She meets a neighbor, the handsome young Viscount Julien de Lamare, who comes to call, and they quickly become good friends. When the baron presents his daughter with a boat, he invites the village priest and his acolytes to christen it. To Jeanne, the ceremony seems like a wedding, and under the spell of her illusion, she accepts his proposal when Julien asks her to marry him. The wedding takes place that summer, six weeks after they became engaged.
At Jeanne’s wish, the couple journeys to Corsica on their honeymoon. She was romantically in love with her husband before her marriage, but during the two months she is away from home with him her emotion grows into a passion. Thus she is amazed, when they stop in Paris on their way home, to find that Julien is not perfect. She gives him her filled purse, her mother’s present, to look after, and when she requests it back to buy some gifts for her family, he gruffly refuses to dole out more than a hundred francs. Jeanne is afraid to ask for more.
When Jeanne and Julien return to The Poplars, Julien takes over the management of the estate. During the long, monotonous days of winter, he begins to wear old clothes and he no longer bothers to shave. He pays little attention to his wife. Having sold the carriage horses to save the cost of their feed, he uses the tenants’ nags and becomes furious when Jeanne and her parents laugh at the ugly team.
In January, Jeanne’s parents go to Rouen and leave the young couple alone. It is then that Jeanne becomes completely disillusioned with her husband. One day, the maid, her foster sister Rosalie, has a child. Julien insists that the mother and her illegitimate infant should be sent off immediately, but Jeanne, who is fond of Rosalie, opposes him. A few weeks later, she finds the pair in bed together.
The shock is so great that Jeanne can only think of getting away from her husband. Still in her nightclothes, she runs out of the house to the edge of the cliffs that hang over the sea. There Julien finds her and brings her back to the house before she can jump. For several weeks, the young wife is ill as the result of her exposure. When she begins to recover and has an opportunity to convince her parents of her discovery, Rosalie confesses that Julien seduced her on the first day he came to call at the house.
The maid and her baby are sent away. Jeanne prefers separation from her husband, but the knowledge that she is pregnant and the priest’s intercession on Julien’s behalf cause her to agree to a reconciliation.
Jeanne’s baby is born in July, nearly a year after her marriage. She lavishes all the love that Julien does not accept on the infant Paul. After the baby’s birth, the de Lamares become friendly with their neighbors, the Count and Countess de Fourville. The count is passionately in love with his wife, Gilberte de Fourville, but she rides alone with Julien almost every day. One morning, as Jeanne is walking her horse through the woods where Julien proposed, she finds her husband’s and Gilberte’s horses tied together.
Shortly afterward, the baroness dies after an illness that kept her partly crippled for many years. To Jeanne, who was deeply attached to her mother, it comes as a great shock to find that she, too, was not above an affair, documented in the letters she saved.
Jeanne keeps the secret of Julien’s latest affair to herself, fearful of the steps the count might take if he ever discovers his wife’s unfaithfulness. The old village priest, Abbé Picot, also holds his peace. Unfortunately, Abbé Picot is called elsewhere. His successor is not so liberal in his views. Abbé Tolbiac is conscious of his parishioners’ morals and is determined to guard them. By chance he discovers the affair between Julien and Gilberte. He has no hesitation about discussing the subject with Jeanne, and when she refuses to desert her husband or to inform the count, he takes the story to Gilberte’s husband. One day, while the couple is in a shepherd’s hut, the count, a powerful giant, pushes the building down an incline and into a ravine. He then dashes home without being seen. Under the wreckage of the hut lie the two mangled bodies.
That night, after Julien’s body is carried home, Jeanne has her second child, a stillborn girl. Although she suspects that Julien’s death was not an accident, she remains silent. The memories of her husband’s infidelities fade quickly, leaving her at peace with her recollections of their early life together, as it was on Corsica. Soon even these memories begin to dim, and she turns all of her attention to her son. Paul does not go to school until he is fifteen years old. At home, he is petted and indulged by his mother, grandfather, and a maiden aunt who comes to live at The Poplars after the death of the baroness. When he is finally sent off to Le Havre to school, Jeanne visits him so frequently that the principal begs her to restrict her visits.
In Paul’s third year away from home, he stops spending his Sundays with his mother. When a usurer calls on her to collect money for the young man’s debts, Jeanne visits his school and learns that he has not been there for a month. He is living with a mistress and he signs his mother’s name to letters stating that he is ill.
After this escapade, Paul is taken home to The Poplars and closely watched. He manages to escape, however, and two days later Jeanne receives a letter from him from London. It is the first of many begging notes he sends her. In addition to asking for money, he announces that the woman he knew in Le Havre is living with him.
For more than a year, Paul sends a series of requests for financial help that are never ignored, even though they mean the mortgaging of The Poplars and the two farms that go with the estate. Anxiety over his grandson and his property causes the baron’s death from apoplexy.
Soon after the baron’s death, Jeanne’s aunt follows him to the grave. Jeanne would be alone if Rosalie, who was married and widowed, did not return to look after her. Her foster sister insists on working without pay and on putting a much-needed check on Jeanne’s expenditures. It is necessary to sell The Poplars, however, and the two women settle down in a small farmhouse.
Although Jeanne is forced to limit the sums she sends Paul, her affection for him does not decrease. When he has been away for seven years, she writes, begging him to come home. Paul’s reply is that before he will return he wants her consent to marry his mistress, with whom he is living in Paris. Jeanne, who is not without a strain of jealousy, decides that she will persuade him to come without the woman. As quickly as possible she sets out for Paris. Although she writes to announce her visit, Paul does not meet her. To avoid his creditors, he moves without leaving a forwarding address. His disconsolate mother returns to Normandy.
Some months later, Jeanne hears from her son once more. His wife, whom he married without his mother’s blessing, is dying, and he entreats Jeanne to come for their little daughter. This time, it is Rosalie who goes to Paris. When she returns, she has the infant with her, and she brings the news that Paul will follow her the next day.
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