The Velvet Hours
All the men I know dream of the Enjoli woman. The one from the 80s commercial who “can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man!” She’s the business woman who can work all day and transition easily into family cook/housekeeper, bedtime story reader and once the kids are down, full time sex-kitten. The Velvet Hours celebrates the exact opposite of that woman. And honestly, I would rather have spent hours watching that old Enjoli commercial than reading the story of Marthe, a woman who “earned” her money by being beautiful.
Marthe de Florian began her life in poverty but she didn’t end it that way. Watching her mother scrub other people’s laundry and loose her youth and beauty to steaming tubs of clothes and dirt inspired her to seize every opportunity. Handy with a needle and thread, she became a seamstress. Realizing that men were captivated by her red hair, pretty face and curvaceous figure, she used her talents to make dresses which highlighted her beauty. When that led to a job as a dancer in the theater she used her position to capture the attention of a wealthy patron. Titled and rich, Charles set her up as his mistress in an apartment full of beautiful things. A place with a full larder, pretty clothes and lovely possessions was the sum of Marthe’s ambitions and she delighted in the life she led there.
When our novel begins, Charles is long dead and Marthe is an old woman. The child she had given away in her youth has a daughter of his own and it is to that girl that Marthe decides to tell her story. As she explains to young Solange Beaugiron, it is a tale “not for the prudish or the faint of heart.” Solange is mesmerized by her grandmother whose wealth and beauty are so far removed from her own rather bleak and lonely middle class existence. As Marthe tells her the saga of her sordid past, Solange begins to seek out a life of her own. But the man she falls in love with is Jewish and Paris looks to soon be in the possession of the Germans. Solange will have to be a far different kind of woman than Marthe if she is to survive the path she has chosen for herself.
Thankfully, Solange is a far different person than Marthe or I don’t think I could have survived the reading of this novel. That’s melodramatic but sadly, also partly true. Marthe is a woman of almost no redeeming value. Her own son says of her that her only interests are “her own comfort and pleasure . . .her own beauty . . . her belief that she is somehow above the banality of this world” and that is absolutely true. This woman could give Narcissus a run for his money. Her core belief is summed up in the following quote:
“Every woman suffers in her own way . . . ,” she said as she fluffed up the ruffles of her sleeves. The faces of the two women floated in the glass like a portrait within an oval frame. “But to be born ugly . . ,” Marthe said more to herself than to Giselle. “ Can you imagine how wretched that would be?”
Most people would hide that belief; cover it over with false humility so they could at least appear to have depth but not Marthe. As the book tells us, “Her vanity didn’t shame her; quite the contrary, it gave her immense pleasure.”
What made this especially maddening is that for much of the book Marthe sees nothing wrong with the way she is. About half way through the novel she has a shot at redemption when she is painted by Italian artist Giovanni Boldini, a portrait painter who was the early 1900s equivalent of Glamour Shots. Giovanni is a man of spirit, intellect and kindness. She becomes his friend but of course she can’t sleep with him since he is ugly. She does use him to find other patrons, though. Clearly the old adage about women being attracted to the men whose character they admire skipped right over this lady.
The author does try to show us her positive side by throwing out comments regarding Marthe’s charm and her exquisite taste in art. The big problem with that is that we never see the evidence that would make those sentences into actual character traits. For example, we know Marthe loves Asian art but we receive no details to tell us of her knowledge, only scenes of her admiring vases and drinking tea with the owner of the gallery she frequents. He assures her that her taste is excellent but what salesman wouldn’t?
It is unfortunate that the book is primarily about Marthe when Solange is the more interesting of the two. Throughout the novel we see her blossom from a young, shy girl to a strong, competent, independent woman. She is a writer who loves books, she is a daughter and lover who cares for those around her and she is far more wise and clever at nineteen and twenty than Marthe is in her eighties. I would love to have spent more time exploring her character rather than learning about how Marthe acquired her sexual skills.
Technically, the book is well written with prose that is flawless and flowing. The characters are sketched with artistry and precision so that we always understand them and so that even the minor players have depth and clarity. The setting is rich and lovely, and the portions with Solange have a near perfect atmosphere to them, a just right mix of the hope of youth, joy of young love and tension and fear of Paris in the late 1930s to 1940.
Unfortunately, the author’s only mistake, in my opinion, is a rather large one. It was making her book primarily about a very shallow woman. I have read many books about courtesans and their humbler counterparts, prostitutes, and most show women of steel, grit, strong survival instincts and a cunning intelligence. Marthe has only the survival instinct and even that is fairly weak; if the men in her life had not taken care of her she would have been in a far, far different situation.
I did appreciate however, that the author shows how being a mistress is in no way more liberating than being a wife. Where Charles’ spouse could utter opinions with impunity and had the right to make demands on his time and money, Marthe received only what he wished to give her and could discuss only what he wished to discuss. Marthe was not free to flirt or dally but had to guard her reputation as carefully as any society lady since her patron demanded exclusivity. She made friends of the shopkeepers around her, treated her maid and the concierge kindly, but she had no close girlfriends and did not have the social outlet of teas and outings with other women that made up the existence of a society lady. She lived in an area where there were other courtesans but the delicate nature of their relationships with their patrons left them little time or desire to cultivate friendships. Many a romance tends to treat the mistress as a woman in charge of her own sexuality but few of these women were actually in charge of their own lives. It was refreshing to read a more realistic account of the lifestyle.
I should add that the story is based on the discovery of an apartment that had been unopened for seventy years and the real people who owned it. The details of their lives are made up but Marthe de Florian really existed, she was painted by Boldini and she had a granddaughter named Solange who fled Paris in 1940 when the Germans invaded.
The Velvet Hours has much of what is needed to be a DIK novel and only the fact that it devotes much of its page space to a story not worth telling is what keeps it from that status. I am torn between recommending it for the lovely prose and fascinating tale of Solange and advising readers it is not worth their time and money due to Marthe. In conclusion I would say that if you are someone who celebrates excellent writing and doesn’t mind difficult characters, I think you will enjoy it. If you are a reader who needs to connect with the people in the story, you probably won’t.