giovedì 8 febbraio 2018


A sociological analysis of the novel Maigret and the old Lady 

Un' analisi sociologica del romanzo Maigret e la vecchia signora  
Une analyse sociologique du roman Maigret et la vieille dame

In 1950, a reviewer of Maigret et la vieille dame noted ‘the extent to which this novel freezes the image of a lost France testified to in Simenon’s novels, a point of reference in the sentimental geography of France’. While it is true that the notion of a sentimental attachment to childhood memories and the loss of innocence is a strong one in the commissaire’s only Etretat inquiry, I will argue below that the novel also realises another powerful theme, that of class conflict. 
In early September, Maigret receives a visit in his office from a certain Madame Valentine Besson, an engaging and formerly colossally wealthy widow from Etretat, who begs him to come to the town to investigate the death of her maid, Rose, poisoned by a night-time drink intended for her employer. Minutes later, he receives the same request from the head of the police judiciaire who has been approached by the minister on behalf of Charles Besson, Valentine’s step-son and député for the Seine-Inférieure constituency including Fécamp and Etretat. On his arrival in Etretat, Maigret encounters the two other members of the Besson family, a second step-son Théo and Valentine’s daughter Arlette, along with Rose’s family, the Trochus, fishing folk from nearby Yport. Maigret will discover that Valentine is not what she seems and that the Besson family has a number of secrets, although it will take a further death before the case is resolved.  
In addition to the police investigation in the strictest sense of discovering who killed Rose and why, Maigret uncovers the underlying opposition between the Bessons and the Trochus based on the conflict between their respective social classes, the bourgeoisie and the working class. Like another Norman bourgeois, Philippe Deligeard in ‘La Vieille dame de Bayeux’, Théo Besson has failed in his business ventures but is nevertheless ‘the biggest snob in the world’. Charles Besson has also been a failure in business but has somehow ‘been elected by some stroke of luck’ and stands to acquire a substantial sum following the death of his mother-in-law. To Maigret, he is a ‘weakling, ill-adjusted to reality’ who is more concerned by the possibility of a political scandal following the death of Rose than by the fact that a young girl has lost her life, and at the end of the story Maigret seems to take pleasure in telling him ‘You can explain it all to your constituents’. Yet, worst of all the Bessons is Valentine who despite (or perhaps because of?) her own humble origins will stop at nothing, including murder, to preserve what remains of her fortune. 
In direct opposition to the Bessons, is Rose’s family, the Trochus: the two older brothers are both crewhands in the Fécamp herring fishing fleet, as had been their father before turning to inshore fishing, a sister works in a café in Le Havre and Rose had become Madame Besson’s servant at the age of fifteen. While the Bessons typify bourgeois dog-eat-dog individualism, with each family member looking out for his or her own interests and not hesitating to make scathing remarks each about the other, the Trochus present a united front of working class solidarity, first at Rose’s funeral, then when questioned by Inspector Castaing and finally during Maigret’s visit to their home. This solidarity is an expression of a certain class consciousness, although this is never verbalised in explicitly political comments. Henri, the eldest brother, refuses to shake Madame Besson’s hand at Rose’s funeral before turning his back on her and the family are united in their belief that the main motivation of the police is to protect the bourgeois Bessons rather than discover who has killed Rose. Despite Maigret’s best efforts to convince them otherwise, when he ends his interview with the Trochus, although he may no longer be an ‘enemy’, he is still, because of the difference in social class, an ‘outsider’.  
This class-consciousness of the Trochus is a realisation of political developments in a post-war France in which the working class had entered onto the political scene in a way not seen since the factory occupations and popular front government of 1936, a phenomenon which extended from the traditional socialist and communist heartlands of the big cities and industrial areas to even the small towns of the Normandy coast, pitting working class fishing communities against the more bourgeois holiday resorts. As Castaing observes after Rose’s funeral: ‘In the villages, mainly those around the châteaux, you still find respectful, humble people who speak of “the master”. There are another sort who put on a tougher air, suspicious, sometimes cantankerous folk.’ Maigret may have been informed that ‘they adore her [Valentine] at Etretat’, but, as Castaing recognises, ‘Yport is not Etretat and Rose […] is dead’.  
So, the antagonism between the two families is less a matter of differing individual personalities than of conflicting social classes, nowhere symbolised more clearly than in the contrast between the vintage calvados in a cut-glass decanter proffered by Valentine to Maigret when he visits her and the home-made cider which Monsieur Trochu grudgingly offers towards the end of the commissaire’s trip to Yport. Finally, Maigret realises what has happened and is forced to take a side: he ‘grabbed [the decanter of calvados] roughly from her hands and threw it violently on the floor’. Justice is done and Madame Besson is arrested but at a terrible price to the Trochus who, in the space of a few days, have lost two children to the avarice and manipulation of Valentine and Théo Besson.  

William Alder 

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