In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

By Elyse Graham

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (1919) tells a story of separation and emergence. The first half enacts the shifting perspectives of social initiation. The narrator, resuming his portrayal of his younger self at a point several years past the conclusion of the previous volume, dissects the cold sociability and blinkered pieties of his family’s upper-middle-class household. Where the previous volume looked over his family from the dreamy and inward perspective of childhood, now his family members stand more often in the different light of their social existence, like an orange extruded so that the peel turns inside out: even his mother, whom the narrator has been referring to as “Maman,” now enters the action, in the volume’s first sentence, as “my mother.” The same reversals of the familiar and the strange, the cooling of one’s family into any family and the opening of a world where any stranger might become a new intimate, animate his inquiry into the life of the Swanns, a distant and, for him, exotic household that initially denies him entry, but eventually embraces him.

The second half of the novel opens out the broader horizons that Proust needs for his ambition to write a human comedy, describing the narrator’s stay with his grandmother at the resort town of Balbec. Amid the niche species and petty hierarchies whose conflicts animate this ecosystem, the narrator finds friends who can actually pull him into higher circles and help guide his social education, including the nobleman Robert de Saint-Loup and his aunt, Mme de Villeparisis. What he will later recognize as more important is the education of another kind that he acquires through his acquaintance with an avant-garde painter, Elstir, and with the world of young women and their charms and gestures that seems suddenly to blossom all around the adolescent narrator, including one particular little clique that adopts him at Balbec. Initiating himself into modern art and the elusive poetry of women, Marcel discovers new ways to see.

Madame Swann at Home

If one of Proust’s cherished themes is the contradictoriness and inconstancy of human character, his plan to carry the reader through all the turns of Marcel’s path of misreading required that his full engagement with the subject wait until this second volume. Writing in 1913 to a prospective publisher of Swann’s Way, Proust explained: “…there are a great many characters; they are ‘prepared’ in this first volume, in such a way that in the second they will do exactly the opposite of what one would have expected from the first” (SL, 3: 158).

Yet the reasons the narrative offers for these reversals are far more diverse than such a broad statement of technique would suggest. For example, Swann, who makes one of the more obvious transformations, also appeared as a double figure in the previous volume, which laid much of the cause on the errors of social perception. Marcel’s family regarded Swann as a kind of poor cousin, as a friendless and somewhat fallen bourgeois, because their notion of class garbled the aristocratic gestures of discretion that he waved over his social life. In this volume, Swann does become the vulgar upstart, the seeker of social crumbs and dropper of what names he can, that they once believed him to be; yet he does so because, far from setting too worshipful a value on these names and events, he undervalues them so far as to mistake their designation. The meaner circles in which his new life as his wife’s husband requires him to move differ so sharply from what he knows at Buckingham Palace and the Champs-Elysées that he scarcely registers them as social affairs that therefore demand the usual social graces, a twitch of cognitive dissonance that the narrator compares with the startling pettiness of a great artist who, taking up a new hobby like gardening in his old age, refuses to hear regarding his plants the kind of criticism that he once patiently accepted regarding his canvases (3). In other words, what underlies his doubleness at this more developed stage of the narrative is not so external a cause as our shallow perceptions of each other, but rather the same principle that guided his earlier conduct, swinging this time to the other extreme of expression. Proust is moving the contradictions of human experience closer to the core of our character.

Other characters likewise play out inversions of their instinctive impulses, a circus of unlikely antics that Proust seems to use in part to playfully test and reassert the integrity of the universe of higher laws he wants to draw above his fictional world, pulling against the course he has charted as hard as possible, and yet always snapping back to reassure our terrain. Hence Dr. Cottard, whom we have already met, in Mme. Verdurin’s salon, as an awkward dunce who makes up for the holes in his conversation with bad puns, reappears in the second volume in the forbidding renown of a brilliant man of science. All too conscious of the ineptness he betrays in the salon, in the outside world he has adopted a policy of frigid silence, which has prompted his patients and colleagues to assume he is surveying them from the chill of Parnassian heights. Or again, a new character, the pompous diplomat M. de Norpois, promises to pass along a good word for Marcel to Mme. Swann, but then decides against it when he sees how important the offer is to the boy. His good deed is worthless to him if it helps someone else more than himself. Dr. Cottard eventually does praise Marcel to Mme. Swann, but only because he thinks Marcel does not care.

When Marcel gains entry to the Swann home and becomes a frequent guest, he finds his lasting friends there to be delegates of the adult world. His crush on Gilberte Swann, which motivated much of his long campaign to ingratiate himself with her family, wanes and dies after he attains those great prizes, the approval of her parents and a secure place as her playmate. On returning home after an argument with her, which certain aspects of those very securities had made almost inevitable, and in which the two tormented each other by pointing their feelings with lack of feeling, answering frost with ice, Marcel resolves to pretend to resolve never to see her again, to rekindle her desire with a show of indifference. But the discipline with which he follows this plan is “doomed to failure,” as he remarks from the perch of his later distance and self-knowledge, since in the time it would take to revive her love, the separation will have caused his own to fade (225). When at last he crosses paths with her again, he no longer feels for her enough to care whether she notices his indifference.

Place-Names: The Place

The second section of the novel begins two years after the events of the first. Marcel travels with his grandmother to the resort town of Balbec on the Normandy coast, settling into the cheaper rooms near the top of the Grand Hotel. There, he finds himself the observer of a pageant of regional life: the wealthier guests who reach their rooms not by taking the lift, as he must, but rather by climbing a glamorous flank of imitation marble stairs; the local elite of petty officials and politicians, who so enjoy the snobberies they exercise at the top of the food chain that they decline better job offers elsewhere; the hotel reception clerks who bend upon new arrivals the unsparing stares of Minos, Aeacus and Rhadamanthus, weighing up their pocketbooks for assignment to a just level of the hotel; the obscure and flamboyant Frenchman, half fantastical, half pathetic, who has declared himself “king of a small island in the South Seas,” whom the other guests treat as a cause for laughter and who, rumor says, once tried, as foreign royalty, to get an audience with the King; visitors such as the de Cambremers, country aristocrats who flaunt their celebrity to the local bourgeoisie while scheming to climb into loftier circles in Paris; the hotel page whose job is to stand at the front gate in perpetual splendor, florid and unmoving, like a shrub, a dyad figure who even has vegetable qualities in his skin and hair; other waiters, servants, and clerks of various customs and mythologies — in short, a portrait of the town that is at once clinically incisive and fringed with enchantment, a comedy that embraces Balzac, Dante, and Ovid.

Most of these characters are small fry who judge their bulk and power from the narrow perimeter of the pond. But Marcel’s grandmother strikes up with an old friend, Mme. de Villeparisis, who belongs to the highest aristocracy, and who opens the way to a wider world, with access to deep history and cosmopolitan interests. Several of the new acquaintances Marcel meets through her, including her nephew, the Baron de Charlus, and her great-nephew, Robert de Saint-Loup, a great-hearted, noble, somewhat silly young aristocrat, will play significant parts in the events to come. In the meantime, Marcel, conscious of the tremors in his body of an obscure illness that may in time bar him from life’s pleasures, plunges himself into the beauties of the seaside: in particular, he takes account of a little tribe of girls that he sees from a distance, parading along in anarchic unity, graceful and mischievous and strange, like a flock of gulls.

While out together one day, Marcel and Saint-Loup spy the celebrated painter, Elstir, on one of his rare expeditions from his secluded studio, and quickly arrange to meet him. It is significant that Elstir lives not within the choral body of Balbec, but rather apart from it, in isolation, where he can open out the interior spaces of reflection that in public tend to shrink or close. (In one of the final reversals of the volume, we discover that Elstir, as well, has already come before us in different guise, when, in Mme. Verdurin’s salon, he was the clownish dolt whom everyone called Biche. His transformation in the years since has been no miracle, he tells the narrator, for the journey to wisdom, to an original and compelling perspective on the world, requires the acquisition and comparison of points of view that may at times be far astray. Biche perhaps might not inevitably have become Elstir, but Elstir requires a former existence as Biche. This speech seems to belong to Proust’s longer campaign against the biographical criticism of Sainte-Beuve, who would have found Elstir vulgar as an artist because he seemed vulgar to those who knew him best in life. It is also, perhaps, an apologia of a different kind: like Bergotte, Elstir cannot claim superior origins or an apprenticeship in the most favorable atmosphere. What matters in both cases is the capacity for reflective analysis.)

As it turns out, Elstir is a friendly acquaintance of the tribe of girls that Marcel noticed earlier, and through him, Marcel at last makes the contact he has long coveted. He spends the remainder of his holiday as an odd bird in the flock, wheeling rapturously in the obscure mischief of their movements and expressions, even one night rushing forward, unsuccessfully, to give one of them a kiss. “Such was for me this state of love divided among several girls at once,” he says. “Divided, or rather undivided, for more often than not what was so delicious to me, different from the rest of the rest of the world, what was beginning to become so precious to me that the hope of encountering it again the next day was the greatest joy of my life, was rather the whole of the group of girls, taken as they were all together on those afternoons on the cliffs, during those wind-swept hours, upon the strip of grass on which were laid those forms, so exciting to my imagination, of Albertine, of Rosemonde, of Andrée; and that without my being able to say which of them it was that made those scenes so precious to me, which of them I most wanted to love” (676).

Drafting and Composition

The novel that Proust thought of himself as writing in 1913 was a trilogy whose parts, Swann’s Way, The Guermantes Way, and Time Recaptured, were already substantially worked out in proof and draft. The second volume would feature two trips to the seaside, with a third to open the final volume. The main business would be snobbery and social climbing, following the narrator from his early impressions of Madame de Villeparisis and Saint-Loup to his alliance with them, and through them to the higher heavens of the faubourg Saint-Germain. 4 That his social education might include meeting a group of girls at the resort, who would initially tease and elude him, but would eventually bring him into the fold, is a concept that Proust had toyed with for years, even giving over several weeks in 1910 to filling out notebook pages with turns and steps between them, but he found little room for it in the prevailing structure. Instead, in the manuscript sent to proof, the girls appear only on the second trip and at an enigmatic distance, setting up their more humid influence to come. The section that would begin the third volume, Proust told his publisher in October 1913, would bear the title “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower” (Pugh, 733).

In August 1914, after Proust had received from his publisher the galley proofs of the second volume, but before he had gotten around to correcting them, the outbreak of war abruptly shut down the presses (Pugh, 707). During the years of stasis that followed, when wartime privations prevented publishers from printing new works, Proust vastly revised and expanded the middle section of his manuscript.

To begin with, he returned to the group of girls that had given him such trouble, rearranging and elaborating their scenes with the narrator, and expanding the first summer at Balbec so that it could organically accommodate their first appearance. The best way do this, Proust found, was to shift back the narrator’s first meeting with Elstir, and with it his education in Impressionism, to an earlier part of the action than the outline had dictated, so that the painter could supply a connection to the little band (Pugh, 737). These alterations, which not only stretched out both summers, but also changed a novel of social politics into a novel of painting and the mysteries of adolescence, enabled Proust to cut from the next volume the third examination of Balbec. (Later he would use similar methods to evolve, out of passages already floating around that addressed the subject of homosexuality, the Sodom and Gomorrah cycle, which would add three further volumes to the series.)5

His most important change during the war years, however, was to develop the character of Albertine, who for years had flitted through his drafts in a walk-on role, as a young girl upon whom the narrator briefly visits one of his infatuations. Now Albertine became the ground for a deeper and more sustained exploration of a subject that Proust had reason to have recently considered: the pathogenesis of jealousy. Starting in 1914, in sections of his notebooks that he set apart for the theme, he drafted out a series of events that galvanize the relevant emotions: the narrator, whose interest in Albertine has been flagging, notices something odd about her manner and flashes to the startling thought that she may be attracted to women, which raises the disturbing possibility of a rival claimant for her favor, one whose allurements and pleasures lie beyond his power to imagine, let alone outdo; and Albertine mentions to him her close friendship with Mlle Vinteuil, a woman the narrator knows for a definite fact to be a lesbian, which revelation throws him into such a state of alarm that he tries to convince Albertine to come away with him to Paris, where he will be able to guard her movements. When she walks away from the offer, the early flames flicker for an inferno of jealous desire (Pugh, 750). All this Proust set aside for later volumes, of course, although he knew enough of its course to plant important clues in the present one. In June 1919, the publisher Gallimard released the second of a newly projected four volumes, following the narrator from TK and his initiation into Balbec to his budding interest in this new girl: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.

Why did Proust choose to give this movement such a strange title? That he connected the phrase with the little tribe at Balbec makes it broadly apparent, to begin with, that he meant in part to play on the theme of feminine influence. Traditionally, critics have taken the invocation of flowers as a metaphor for the stage of life this community is passing through: the girls are blossoming into womanhood. (English translations sometimes soften the title to Within a Budding Grove.) Barry McCrea has suggested the outside possibility that the title, which in French reads A l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs, uses the final word in the plural: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flowers. The image being evoked in this case may be the flowers that girls and women wear, emblems that they fasten in their clothes and hair as men do in their buttonholes. These would conjure a very different sense of community, not only as signifiers of taste and fashion in the formal dance of social grace, but also as accoutrements that blur the line between what is natural and what is not: flowers that are perhaps cultivated, like orchids, or artificial, like the flowers on hats. In this sense, to stand in the shadow of the girls and their floral attributes, whether they suggest natural vitality besotting itself with its own image or cultural insiders speaking to each other in code, is to occupy an uncertain ground between wilderness and cultivation, the green fuse of adolescence and the hothouse bloom of preternatural maturity.

What is clearer is that the shift from the previous volume has taken us into a richer and stranger social world, one that is also, in important ways, feminized. The delicacy of manners that Saint-Loup acquires from Rachel inspires the proposition that the virtues that exemplify men of the higher orders of society actually derive from the secret influence of their mistresses (493). Or again, the narrator, for whom the Swann household holds almost supernatural fascination as the first of the forbidden social realms that he finds the means to penetrate, describes the enchantments of their house in terms that focus on the perfume, the gestures of disguise and artifice, of Odette: vases of hothouse flowers, such as orchids and oversized chrysanthemums; rich and bewildering rugs and drapery; little figures fashioned out of porcelain. (The lady herself, in a detail that playfully evokes her former life as a coquette, becomes more coifed and polished as she dresses down from her furs to her peignoir.)

It is in such domains, McCrea argues, under the rule of women, that Marcel finds a productively unstable framework of human relationships, at once intimate and irreducibly odd, in the hidden connections that weave among shadow selves and the artificial families of the salon. The gestures and poses that play out in these spaces belong not to the procreative, biological, perishing side of femininity, as do the narrator’s mother and grandmother, but rather to something “theatrical, deceptive, seductive.” More, in significant ways, Proust associates this performance of sexualized femininity with the figure of the artist. The delight in the pigments of artifice, the display of one’s effects as though some magician has called them into being rather than hours of labor, the engagement with Orientalist registers of enchantment and metamorphosis, the lofty insistence on small matters of detail, the ambition to hone and magnify the sensibility, the sportive play of social knowledge, the appropriation of other styles for one’s own—the artist makes use of all these things, perhaps especially the ability to masquerade the languages inscribed on the gestures of others, to know them and translate them elsewhere for new kinds of reading. 6 Of the influence Odette has on Bergotte, a celebrated writer who belongs to her salon, the narrator remarks: “it must be admitted that she did inspire him, though not in the way that she supposed. But when all is said there are, between what constituted the elegance of Mme Swann’s drawing room and a whole aspect of Bergotte’s work, connexions such that each of them may serve, among elderly men today, as a commentary upon the other” (185).

4 Anthony R. Pugh, The Growth of  A la recherche du temps perdu: A Chronological Examination of Proust’s Manuscripts from 1909 to 1914, Vol. II: 1911-1914 (University of Toronto Press, 2004): 541-44. Hereafter cited as Pugh, with page numbers.

5 Richard Bales, The Cambridge Companion to Proust (Cambridge University Press, 2001): 67. Hereafter cited as Bales, with page numbers.

6 An excellent study on this subject is: Katherine Eugenia Stern, “Feminine Artifice and the Fate of the Man in Makeup: Wilde, Mann, and Proust on the Problem of Male Metamorphosis” (PhD dissertation, Princeton University, 1991).