Curious if True. (Extract from a Letter from Richard Whittingham, Esq.)
The Cornhill Magazine, vol. 1, issue 2 (1860)
Introductory Note: “Curious if True” is a humorous story written by Elizabeth Gaskell and published in The Cornhill Magazine in February of 1860. A fairy tale, it is now known as one of the five “Strange Tales” written by Gaskell. This story follows a young, wandering man who happens upon a cottage. Within the cottage he meets many interesting people— all allusions to characters from popular French fairy tales, who would have been familiar to Victorian readers .1For more information about the allusions in “Curious if True,” see the following sources:
Kirkland, Janice, “Suggesting More,” The Gaskell Society Journal, Vol. 12, 1998, 21.
Yarrow, Phillip, “Mrs. Gaskell and France,” The Gaskell Society Journel, Vol. 7, 1993, 16-36.
For an in-depth look at Charles Perrault’s fairy tales and their history, see Jones, Christine A. Mother Goose Refigured: A Critical Translation of Charles Perrault’s Fairy Tales, Wayne State University Press, 2016.
Advisory: This story contains ableist language.
You were formerly so much amused at my pride in my descent from that sister of Calvin’s, who married a Whittingham, Dean of Durham, that I doubt if you will be able to enter into the regard for my distinguished relation that has led me to France, in order to examine registers and archives, which, I thought, might enable me to discover collateral descendants of the great reformer, with whom I might call cousins. I shall not tell you of my troubles and adventures in this research; you are not worthy to hear of them; but something so curious befell me one evening last August, that if I had not been perfectly certain I was wide awake, I might have taken it for a dream.
For the purpose I have named, it was necessary that I should make Tours my head-quarters for a time. I had traced descendants of the Calvin family out of Normandy into the centre of France; but I found it was necessary to have a kind of permission from the bishop of the diocese before I could see certain family papers, which had fallen into the possession of the Church; and, as I had several English friends at Tours, I awaited the answer to my request to Monseigneur de—, at that town. I was ready to accept any invitation; but I received very few; and was sometimes a little at a loss what to do with my evenings. The table d’hôte was at five o’clock; I did not wish to go to the expense of a private sitting-room, disliked the dinnery atmosphere of the salle à manger, could not play either at pool or billiards, and the aspect of my fellow guests was unprepossessing enough to make me unwilling to enter into any tête-à-tête gamblings with them.2Table d’hôte is French for “a meal given at a fixed price and with few choices; salle à manger is French for “dining room;” tête-à-tête is French for “a private conversation between two people.” So I usually rose from table early, and tried to make the most of the remaining light of the August evenings in walking briskly off to explore the surrounding country; the middle of the day was too hot for this purpose, and better employed in lounging on a bench in the Boulevards, lazily listening to the distant band, and noticing with equal laziness the faces and figures of the women who passed by.
One Thursday evening, the 18th of August it was, I think, I had gone further than usual in my walk, and I found that it was later than I had imagined when I paused to turn back. I fancied I could make a round; I had enough notion of the direction in which I was, to see that by turning up a narrow straight lane to my left I should shorten my way back to Tours. And so I believe I should have done, could I have found an outlet at the right place, but field-paths are almost unknown in that part of France, and my lane, stiff and straight as any street, and marked into terribly vanishing perspective by the regular row of poplars on each side, seemed interminable. Of course night came on, and I was in darkness. In England I might have had a chance of seeing a light in some cottage only a field or two off, and asking my way from the inhabitants; but here I could see no such welcome sight; indeed, I believe French peasants go to bed with the summer daylight, so if there were any habitations in the neighbourhood I never saw them. At last—I believe I must have walked two hours in the darkness,—I saw the dusky outline of a wood on one side of the weariful lane, and, impatiently careless of all forest laws and penalties for trespassers, I made my way to it, thinking that if the worst came to the worst, I could find some covert—some shelter where I could lie down and rest, until the morning light gave me a chance of finding my way back to Tours. But the plantation, on the outskirts of what appeared to me a dense wood, was of young trees, too closely planted to be more than slender stems growing up to a good height, with scanty foliage on their summits. On I went towards the thicker forest, and once there I slackened my pace, and began to look about me for a good lair. I was as dainty as Lochiel’s grandchild, who made his grandsire indignant at the luxury of his pillow of snow: this brake was too full of brambles, that felt damp with dew; there was no hurry, since I had given up all hope of passing the night between four walls; and I went leisurely groping about, and trusting that there were no wolves to be poked up out of their summer drowsiness by my stick, when all at once I saw a château before me, not a quarter of a mile off, at the end of what seemed to be an ancient avenue (now overgrown and irregular), which I happened to be crossing, when I looked to my right, and saw the welcome sight.3Donald Cameron of Lochiel (approx. 1700-1748) became laird of his clan when his Jacobite father fled to France. Scottish folklore depicts him as the “gentle Lochiel” whose generosity and gallantry were complemented by an insistence on rugged hardiness, as illustrated in the tale referenced here. Large, stately, and dark was its outline against the dusky night-sky; there were pepper-boxes and tourelles and what-not fantastically going up into the dim starlight. And more to the purpose still, though I could not see the details of the building that I was now facing, it was plain enough that there were lights in many windows, as if some great entertainment was going on.
“They are hospitable people, at any rate,” thought I. “Perhaps they will give me a bed. I don’t suppose French propriétaires have traps and horses quite as plentiful as English gentlemen; but they are evidently having a large party, and some of their guests may be from Tours, and will give me a cast back to the Lion d’Or. I am not proud, and I am dog-tired. I am not above hanging on behind, if need be.”
So, putting a little briskness and spirit into my walk, I went up to the door, which was standing open, most hospitably, and showing a large lighted hall, all hung round with spoils of the chase, armour, &c., the details of which I had not time to notice, for the instant I stood on the threshold a huge porter appeared, in a strange, old-fashioned dress, a kind of livery which well befitted the general appearance of the house. He asked me, in French (so curiously pronounced that I thought I had hit upon a new kind of patois), my name, and whence I came. I thought he would not be much the wiser, still it was but civil to give it before I made my request for assistance; so in reply I said—
“My name is Whittingham—Richard Whittingham, an English gentleman, staying at —.” To my infinite surprise, a light of pleased intelligence came over the giant’s face; he made me a low bow, and said (still in the same curious dialect) that I was welcome, that I was long expected.
“Long expected!” What could the fellow mean? Had I stumbled on a nest of relations by John Calvin’s side, who had heard of my genealogical inquiries, and were gratified and interested by them? But I was too much pleased to be under shelter for the night to think it necessary to account for my agreeable reception before I enjoyed it. Just as he was opening the great heavy battants of the door that led from the hall to the interior, he turned round and said,—4Battants is French for “hinged part of a door.”
“Apparently Monsieur le Géanquilleur is not come with you.”
“No! I am all alone; I have lost my way,”—and I was going on with my explanation, when he, as if quite indifferent to it, led the way up a great stone staircase, as wide as many rooms, and having on each landing-place massive iron wickets, in a heavy framework; these the porter unlocked with the solemn slowness of age. Indeed, a strange, mysterious awe of the centuries that had passed away since this château was built, came over me as I waited for the turning of the ponderous keys in the ancient locks. I could almost have fancied that I heard a mighty rushing murmur (like the ceaseless sound of a distant sea, ebbing and flowing for ever and for ever), coming forth from the great vacant galleries that opened out on each side of the broad staircase, and were to be dimly perceived in the darkness above us. It was as if the voices of generations of men yet echoed and eddied in the silent air. It was strange, too, that my friend the porter going before me, ponderously infirm, with his feeble old hands striving in vain to keep the tall flambeau he held steadily before him,—strange, I say, that he was the only domestic I saw in the vast halls and passages, or met with on the grand staircase.5Flambeau is French for “torch.” At length we stood before the gilded doors that led into the saloon where the family—or it might be the company, so great was the buzz of voices—was assembled. I would have remonstrated when I found he was going to introduce me, dusty and travel-smeared, in a morning costume that was not even my best, into this grand salon with nobody knew how many ladies and gentlemen assembled; but the obstinate old man was evidently bent upon taking me straight to his master, and paid no heed to my words.
The doors flew open, and I was ushered into a saloon curiously full of pale light, which did not culminate on any spot, nor proceed from any centre, nor flicker with any motion of the air, but filled every nook and corner, making all things deliciously distinct; different from our light of gas or candle, as is the difference between a clear southern atmosphere and that of our misty England.
At the first moment, my arrival excited no attention, the apartment was so full of people, all intent on their own conversation. But my friend the porter went up to a handsome lady of middle age, richly attired in that antique manner which fashion has brought round again of late years, and, waiting first in an attitude of deep respect till her attention fell upon him, told her my name and something about me, as far as I could guess from the gestures of the one and the sudden glance of the eye of the other.
She immediately came towards me with the most friendly actions of greeting, even before she had advanced near enough to speak. Then,—and was it not strange?—her words and accent were that of the commonest peasant of the country. Yet she herself looked highbred, and would have been dignified had she been a shade less restless, had her countenance worn a little less lively and inquisitive expression. I had been poking a good deal about the old parts of Tours, and had had to understand the dialect of the people who dwelt in the Marché au Vendredi and similar places, or I really should not have understood my handsome hostess, as she offered to present me to her husband, a henpecked, gentlemanly man, who was more quaintly attired than she in the very extreme of that style of dress. I thought to myself that in France, as in England, it is the provincials who carry fashion to such an excess as to become ridiculous.
However, he spoke (still in the patois) of his pleasure in making my acquaintance, and led me to a strange uneasy easy-chair, much of a piece with the rest of the furniture, which might have taken its place without any anachronism by the side of that in the Hôtel Cluny.6The Hôtel Cluny houses a museum of the middle ages, established in 1843. Then again began the clatter of French voices, which my arrival had for an instant interrupted, and I had leisure to look about me. Opposite to me sat a very sweet-looking lady, who must have been a great beauty in her youth, I should think, and would be charming in old age, from the sweetness of her countenance. She was, however, extremely fat, and on seeing her feet laid up before her on a cushion, I at once perceived that they were so swollen as to render her incapable of walking, which probably brought on her excessive embonpoint.7Embonpoint is French for “overweight.” Her hands were plump and small, but rather coarse-grained in texture, not quite so clean as they might have been, and altogether not so aristocratic-looking as the charming face. Her dress was of superb black velvet, ermine-trimmed, with diamonds thrown all abroad over it.
Not far from her stood the least little man I had ever seen; of such admirable proportions no one could call him a dwarf, because with that word we usually associate something of deformity; but yet with an elfin look of shrewd, hard, worldly wisdom in his face that marred the impression which his delicate regular little features would otherwise have conveyed. Indeed, I do not think he was quite of equal rank with the rest of the company, for his dress was inappropriate to the occasion (and he apparently was an invited, while I was an involuntary guest); and one or two of his gestures and actions were more like the tricks of an uneducated rustic than anything else. To explain what I mean: his boots had evidently seen much service, and had been re-topped, re-heeled, re-soled to the extent of cobbler’s powers. Why should he have come in them if they were not his best—his only pair? And what can be more ungenteel than poverty? Then again he had an uneasy trick of putting his hand up to his throat, as if he expected to find something the matter with it; and he had the awkward habit—which I do not think he could have copied from Dr. Johnson, because most probably he had never heard of him—of trying always to retrace his steps on the exact boards on which he had trodden to arrive at any particular part of the room. Besides, to settle the question, I once heard him addressed as Monsieur Poucet, without any aristocratic ‘de’ for a prefix; and nearly every one else in the room was a marquis, at any rate.8Poucet means “thumb,” and is Gaskell’s version of Charles Perrault’s character, “Little Thummie,” from his story, “Hop O’ My Thumb” or “The Little Thumblette.” In translation, Thummie has often been mistaken for “Tom Thumb,” but is a different character entirely.
I say, “nearly every one;” for some strange people had the entrée; unless, indeed, they were, like me, benighted. One of the guests I should have taken for a servant, but for the extraordinary influence he seemed to have over the man I took for his master, and who never did anything without, apparently, being urged thereto by this follower. The master, magnificently dressed, but ill at ease in his clothes as if they had been made for some one else, was a weak-looking, handsome man, continually sauntering about, and I almost guessed an object of suspicion to some of the gentlemen present, which, perhaps, drove him on the companionship of his follower, who was dressed something in the style of an ambassador’s chasseur; yet it was not a chasseur’s dress after all; it was something more thoroughly old-world; boots half way up his ridiculously small legs, which clattered as he walked along, as if they were too large for his little feet; and a great quantity of grey fur, as trimming to coat, court mantle, boots, cap—everything.9A chasseur is a cavalry man. Fur and boots identify this chasseur as the cat from Perrault’s “The Master Cat,” sometimes translated as “Puss In Boots.” It follows too, that his master is De Carabas, the cat’s owner in the same story. You know the way in which certain countenances remind you perpetually of some animal, be it bird or beast! Well, this chasseur (as I will call him for want of a better name) was exceedingly like the great Tom-cat that you have seen so often in my chambers, and laughed at almost as often for his uncanny gravity of demeanour. Grey whiskers has my Tom—grey whiskers had the chasseur: grey hair overshadows the upper lip of my Tom—grey mustachios hid that of the chasseur. The pupils of Tom’s eyes dilate and contract as I had thought cats’ pupils only could do, until I saw those of the chasseur. To be sure, canny as Tom is, the chasseur had the advantage in the more intelligent expression. He seemed to have obtained most complete sway over his master or patron, whose looks he watched, and whose steps he followed, with a kind of distrustful interest that puzzled me greatly.
There were several other groups in the more distant part of the saloon, all of the stately old school, all grand and noble, I conjectured from their bearing. They seemed perfectly well acquainted with each other, as if they were in the habit of meeting. But I was interrupted in my observations by the tiny little gentleman on the opposite side of the room coming across to take a place beside me. It is no difficult matter to a Frenchman to slide into conversation, and so gracefully did my pigmy friend keep up the character of the nation, that we were almost confidential before ten minutes had elapsed.
Now I was quite aware that the welcome which all had extended to me, from the porter up to the vivacious lady and meek lord of the castle, was intended for some other person. But it required either a degree of moral courage, of which I cannot boast, or the self-reliance and conversational powers of a bolder and cleverer man than I, to undeceive people who had fallen into so fortunate a mistake for me. Yet the little man by my side insinuated himself so much into my confidence, that I had half a mind to tell him of my exact situation, and to turn him into a friend and an ally.
“Madame is perceptibly growing older,” said he, in the midst of my perplexity, glancing at our hostess.
“Madame is still a very fine woman,” replied I.
“Now, is it not strange,” continued he, lowering his voice, “how women almost invariably praise the absent, or departed, as if they were angels of light while as for the present, or the living”—here he shrugged up his little shoulders, and made an expressive pause. “Would you believe it! Madame is always praising her late husband to monsieur’s face; till, in fact, we guests are quite perplexed how to look: for, you know, the late M. de Retz’s character was quite notorious—everybody has heard of him.”10Gilles de Retz (also “de Rais”) was well known in France for his military heroism, costly lifestyle, and his eventual execution for serial child murders. He is popularly believed to be the original inspiration for Perrault’s “Blue Beard.” All the world of Touraine, thought I, but I made an assenting noise.
At this instant, monsieur our host came up to me, and with a civil look of tender interest (such as some people put on when they inquire after your mother, about whom they do not care one straw), asked if I had heard lately how my cat was? How my cat was! What could the man mean? My cat! Could he mean the tailless Tom, born in the Isle of Man, and now supposed to be keeping guard against the incursions of rats and mice into my chambers in London? Tom is, as you know, on pretty good terms with some of my friends, using their legs for rubbing-posts without scruple, and highly esteemed by them for his gravity of demeanour, and wise manner of winking his eyes. But could his fame have reached across the Channel?11The Richard Whittingham in this story is a traditional characterization of the politician and merchant, Richard “Dick” Whittington, mythologized in English popular culture as an orphan whose fortune was made by his cat. The character would have been well known to a Victorian audience. However, an answer must be returned to the inquiry, as monsieur’s face was bent down to mine with a look of polite anxiety; so I, in my turn, assumed an expression of gratitude, and assured him that, to the best of my belief, my cat was in remarkably good health.
“And the climate agrees with her?”
“Perfectly,” said I, in a maze of wonder at this deep solicitude in a tailless cat who had lost one foot and half an ear in some cruel trap. My host smiled a sweet smile, and, addressing a few words to my little neighbour, passed on.
“How wearisome those aristocrats are!” quoth my neighbour, with a slight sneer. “Monsieur’s conversation rarely extends to more than two sentences to any one. By that time his faculties are exhausted, and he needs the refreshment of silence.12After his death, Gilles de Retz’ wife, Catherine de Thouars, married Jean de Vendome. Poucet’s comment here is likely a play on the fact that very few records of Jean de Vendome’s life exist, leaving historical knowledge of him scant. You and I, monsieur, are, at any rate, indebted to our own wits for our rise in the world!”
Here again I was bewildered! As you know, I am rather proud of my descent from families which, if not noble themselves, are allied to nobility—and as to my “rise in the world”—if I had risen, it would have been rather for balloon-like qualities than for mother-wit, to being unencumbered with heavy ballast either in my head or my pockets. However, it was my cue to agree: so I smiled again.
“For my part,” said he, “if a man does not stick at trifles, if he knows how to judiciously add to, or withhold facts, and is not sentimental in his parade of humanity, he is sure to do well; sure to affix a de or von to his name, and end his days in comfort. There is an example of what I am saying”—and he glanced furtively at the weak-looking master of the sharp, intelligent servant, whom I have called the chasseur.
“Monsieur le Marquis would never have been anything but a miller’s son, if it had not been for the talents of his servant. Of course you know his antecedents?”
I was going to make some remarks on the changes in the order of the peerage since the days of Louis XVI—going, in fact, to be very sensible and historical—when there was a slight commotion among the people at the other end of the room. Lacqueys in quaint liveries must have come in from behind the tapestry, I suppose (for I never saw them enter, though I sat right opposite to the doors), and were handing about the slight beverages and slighter viands which are considered sufficient refreshments, but which looked rather meagre to my hungry appetite. These footmen were standing solemnly opposite to a lady,—beautiful, splendid as the dawn, but—sound asleep in a magnificent settee.13Gaskell’s “Sleeping Beauty,” one of her more obvious allusions, is the princess from Perrault’s “Princess of the Sleeping Wood.” A gentleman who showed so much irritation at her ill-timed slumbers, that I think he must have been her husband, was trying to awaken her with actions not far removed from shakings. All in vain; she was quite unconscious of his annoyance, or the smiles of the company, or the automatic solemnity of the waiting footman, or the perplexed anxiety of monsieur and madame.
My little friend sat down with a sneer, as if his curiosity was quenched in contempt.
“Moralists would make an infinity of wise remarks on that scene,” said he. “In the first place, note the ridiculous position into which their superstitious reverence for rank and title puts all these people. Because monsieur is a reigning prince over some minute principality, the exact situation of which no one has as yet discovered, no one must venture to take their glass of eau sucré till Madame la Princesse awakens; and, judging from past experience, those poor lacqueys may have to stand for a century before that happens.14Eau sucré is French for “sugar water.” Next—always speaking as a moralist, you will observe—note how difficult it is to break off bad habits acquired in youth!”
Just then the prince succeeded, by what means I did not see, in awaking the beautiful sleeper. But at first she did not remember where she was, and looking up at her husband with loving eyes, she smiled and said:
“Is it you, my prince?”
But he was too conscious of the suppressed amusement of the spectators and his own consequent annoyance, to be reciprocally tender, and turned away with some little French expression, best rendered into English by “Pooh, pooh, my dear!”
After I had had a glass of delicious wine of some unknown quality, my courage was in rather better plight than before, and I told my cynical little neighbour—whom I must say I was beginning to dislike—that I had lost my way in the wood, and had arrived at the château quite by mistake.
He seemed mightily amused at my story; said that the same thing had happened to himself more than once; and told me that I had better luck than he had on one of these occasions, when, from his account, he must have been in considerable danger of his life. He ended his story by making me admire his boots, which he said he still wore, patched though they were, and all their excellent quality lost by patching, —because they were of such a first-rate make for long pedestrian excursions. “Though, indeed,” he wound up by saying, “the new fashion of railroads would seem to supersede the necessity for this description of boots.”
When I consulted him as to whether I ought to make myself known to my host and hostess as a benighted traveller, instead of the guest whom they had taken me for, he exclaimed, “By no means! I hate such squeamish morality.” And he seemed much offended by my innocent question, as if it seemed by implication to condemn something in himself. He was offended and silent; and just at this moment I caught the sweet, attractive eyes of the lady opposite,—that lady whom I named at first as being no longer in the bloom of youth, but as being somewhat infirm about the feet, which were supported on a raised cushion before her. Her looks seemed to say, “Come here, and let us have some conversation together;” and, with a bow of silent excuse to my little companion, I went across to the lame old lady. She acknowledged my coming with the prettiest gesture of thanks possible; and, half apologetically, said, “It is a little dull to be unable to move about on such evenings as this; but it is a just punishment to me for my early vanities. My poor feet, that were by nature so small, are now taking their revenge for my cruelty in forcing them into such little slippers . . . Besides, monsieur,” with a pleasant smile, “I thought it was possible you might be weary of the malicious sayings of your little neighbour.15The mention of small slippers identifies the lady as the young heroin of Perrault’s story, “The Little Glass Slipper,” now popularly adapted as “Cinderella.” He has not borne the best character in his youth, and such men are sure to be cynical in their old age.”16Here, Gaskell’s Cinderella character casts the same judgment on Thummie as the young dedicatee, “Madamoiselle,” of Perrault’s tales.
“Who is he?” asked I, with English abruptness.
“His name is Poucet, and his father was, I believe, a woodcutter, or charcoal burner, or something of the sort. They do tell sad stories of connivance at murder, ingratitude, and obtaining money on false pretences—but you will think me as bad as he if I go on with my slanders. Rather let us admire the lovely lady coming up towards us, with the roses in her hand—I never see her without roses, they are so closely connected with her past history, as you are doubtless aware. “Ah, beauty!” said my companion to the lady drawing near to us, “it is like you to come to me, now that I can no longer go to you.” Then turning to me, and gracefully drawing me into the conversation, she said, “You must know that, although we never met until we were both married, we have been almost like sisters ever since. There have been so many points of resemblance in our circumstances, and I think I may say in our characters. We had each two elder sisters—mine were but half-sisters, though—who were not so kind to us as they might have been.”17Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast” resembles “The Little Glass Slipper” in that her Belle/Beauty is also plagued by two bullying sisters.
“But have been sorry for it since,” put in the other lady.
“Since we have married princes,” continued the same lady, with an arch smile that had nothing of unkindness in it, “for we both have married far above our original stations in life; we are both unpunctual in our habits, and, in consequence of this failing of ours, we have both had to suffer mortification and pain.”
“And both are charming,” said a whisper close behind me. “My lord the marquis, say it—say, ‘And both are charming.’”
“And both are charming,” was spoken aloud by another voice. I turned, and saw the wily cat-like chasseur, prompting his master to make civil speeches.
The ladies bowed with that kind of haughty acknowledgement which shows that compliments from such a source are distasteful. But our trio of conversation was broken up, and I was sorry for it. The marquis looked as if he had been stirred up to make that one speech, and hoped that he would not be expected to say more; while behind him stood the chasseur, half impertinent and half servile in his ways and attitudes. The ladies, who were real ladies, seemed to be sorry for the awkwardness of the marquis, and addressed some trifling questions to him, adapting themselves to the subjects on which he could have no trouble in answering. The chasseur, meanwhile, was talking to himself in a growling tone of voice. I had fallen a little into the background at this interruption in a conversation which promised to be so pleasant, and I could not help hearing his words.
“Really, De Carabas grows more stupid every day. I have a great mind to throw off his boots, and leave him to his fate. I was intended for a court, and to a court I will go, and make my own fortune as I have made his. The emperor will appreciate my talents.”
And such are the habits of the French, or such his forgetfulness of good manners in his anger, that he spat right and left on the parquetted floor.
Just then a very ugly, very pleasant-looking man, came towards the two ladies to whom I had lately been speaking, leading up to them a delicate, fair woman, dressed all in the softest white, as if she were vouée au blanc.18Vouée au blanc is French for “devoted to white.” I do not think there was a bit of colour about her. I thought I heard her making, as she came along, a little noise of pleasure, not exactly like the singing of a tea-kettle, nor yet like the cooing of a dove, but reminding me of each sound.
“Madame de Mioumiou was anxious to see you,” said he, addressing the lady with the roses, “so I have brought her across to give you a pleasure!”19Mioumiou is a French onomatopoeia for the sound a cat makes. What an honest, good face! but oh! how ugly! And yet I liked his ugliness better than most persons’ beauty. There was a look of pathetic acknowledgement of his ugliness, and a deprecation of your too hasty judgement, in his countenance that was positively winning. The soft, white lady kept glancing at my neighbour the chasseur, as if they had had some former acquaintance, which puzzled me very much, as they were of such different rank. However, their nerves were evidently strung to the same tune, for at a sound behind the tapestry, which was more like the scuttering of rats and mice than anything else, both Madame de Mioumiou and the chasseur started with the most eager look of anxiety on their countenances, and by their restless movements—madame’s panting, and the fiery dilation of his eyes—one might see that commonplace sounds affected them both in a manner very different to the rest of the company.20Madame de Mioumiou is the title character from “The White Cat,” by Madame d’Aulnoy. The ugly husband of the lovely lady with the roses now addressed himself to me.21The ugly husband is here identified as “The Beast,” from Beaumont’s “Beauty and The Beast.”
“We are much disappointed,” he said, “in finding that monsieur is not accompanied by his countryman—le grand Jean d’Angleterre; I cannot pronounce his name rightly”—and he looked at me to help him out.
“Le grand Jean d’Angleterre!” now who was le grand Jean d’Angleterre? John Bull? John Russell? John Bright?
“Jean—Jean”—continued the gentleman, seeing my embarrassment. ‘Ah, these terrible English names—‘Jean de Géanquilleur!’”
I was as wise as ever. And yet the name struck me as familiar, but slightly disguised. I repeated it to myself. It was mighty like John the Giant-killer, only his friends always call that worthy “Jack.”22This is the same Jean de Géanquilleur inquired after by the giant porter at the start of Gaskell’s story. I said the name aloud.
“Ah, that is it!” said he. “But why has he not accompanied you to our little reunion to-night?”
I had been rather puzzled once or twice before, but this serious question added considerably to my perplexity. Jack the Giant-killer had once, it is true, been rather an intimate friend of mine, as far as (printer’s) ink and paper can keep up a friendship, but I had not heard his name mentioned for years; and for aught I knew he lay enchanted with King Arthur’s knights, who lie entranced until the blast of the trumpets of four mighty kings shall call them to help at England’s need.23Along with other fairy tale characters present in Gaskell’s story, Dick Whittington and Jack the Giant-Slayer appeared together in popular children’s alphabet books during the mid 19th century. But the question had been asked in serious earnest by that gentleman, whom I more wished to think well of me than I did any other person in the room. So I answered respectfully that it was long since I had heard anything of my countryman; but that I was sure it would have given him as much pleasure as it was doing myself to have been present at such an agreeable gathering of friends. He bowed, and then the lame lady took up the word.
“To-night is the night when, of all the year, this great old forest surrounding the castle is said to be haunted by the phantom of a little peasant girl who once lived hereabouts; the tradition is that she was devoured by a wolf.24This child is easily identifiable as the girl from “The Little Red Cap,” or “The Little Red Tippet,” now commonly known in English as “Little Red Riding Hood.” The time of year is significant as a reference to a photograph taken of Agnes Grace Weld dressed as Little Red Riding Hood in August 18th 1857. The photographer, Charles Dodgson, displayed the photograph publically in London the following year, and it is reasonable to believe that Gaskell may have been familiar with it. In former days I have seen her on this night out of yonder window at the end of the gallery. Will you, ma belle, take monsieur to see the view outside by the moonlight (you may possibly see the phantom-child); and leave me to a little tête-à-tête with your husband?”
With a gentle movement the lady with the roses complied with the other’s request, and we went to a great window, looking down on the forest, in which I had lost my way. The tops of the far-spreading and leafy trees lay motionless beneath us in the pale, wan light, which shows objects almost as distinct in form, though not in colour, as by day. We looked down on the countless avenues, which seemed to converge from all quarters to the great old castle; and suddenly across one, quite near to us, there passed the figure of a little girl, with the “capuchon” on, that takes the place of a peasant girl’s bonnet in France. She had a basket on one arm, and by her, on the side to which her head was turned, there went a wolf. I could almost have said it was licking her hand, as if in penitent love, if either penitence or love had ever been a quality of wolves—but though not of living, perhaps it may be of phantom wolves.
“There, we have seen her!” exclaimed my beautiful companion. “Though so long dead, her simple story of household goodness and trustful simplicity still lingers in the hearts of all who have ever heard of her; and the country-people about here say that seeing that phantom-child on this anniversary brings good luck for the year. Let us hope that we shall share in the traditionary good fortune. Ah! here is Madame de Retz—she retains the name of her first husband, you know, as he was of higher rank than the present.” We were joined by our hostess.
“If monsieur is fond of the beauties of nature and art,” said she, perceiving that I had been looking at the view from the great window, “he will perhaps take pleasure in seeing the picture.” Here she sighed, with a little affectation of grief. “You know the picture I allude to,” addressing my companion, who bowed assent, and smiled a little maliciously, as I followed the lead of madame.
I went after her to the other end of the saloon, noting by the way with what keen curiosity she caught up what was passing either in word or action on each side of her. When we stood opposite to the end wall, I perceived a full-length picture of a handsome, peculiar-looking man, with—in spite of his good looks—a very fierce and scowling expression.25Gaskell’s description aptly captures a real portrait of Gilles de Retz painted by Éloi Firmin Féron in 1835. My hostess clasped her hands together as her arms hung down in front, and sighed once more. Then, half in soliloquy, she said:
“He was the love of my youth; his stern yet manly character first touched this heart of mine. When—when shall I cease to deplore his loss!”
Not being acquainted with her enough to answer this question (if, indeed, it were not sufficiently answered by the fact of her second marriage), I felt awkward; and, by way of saying something, I remarked,—
“The countenance strikes me as resembling something I have seen before—in an engraving from an historical picture, I think; only, it is there the principal figure in a group: he is holding a lady by her hair, and threatening her with his scimitar, while two cavaliers are rushing up the stairs, apparently only just in time to save her life.”26Here, he is recalling an illustration of the culminating moment in Perrault’s “Blue Beard.”
“Alas, alas!” said she, “you too accurately describe a miserable passage in my life, which has often been represented in a false light.27Madame de Retz identifies herself as the young wife in one of Perrault’s more disturbing tales, “Blue Beard.” It follows too that her notorious first husband is the tale’s title character. The best of husbands”—here she sobbed, and became slightly inarticulate with her grief—“will sometimes be displeased. I was young and curious, he was justly angry with my disobedience—my brothers were too hasty—the consequence is, I became a widow!”28With the suggestion that Madame de Retz regrets Blue Beard’s death, Gaskell offers a unique reinterpretation of Perrault’s original heroine.
After due respect for her tears, I ventured to suggest some commonplace consolation. She turned round sharply:—
“No, monsieur: my only comfort is that I have never forgiven the brothers who interfered so cruelly, in such an uncalled-for manner, between my dear husband and myself. To quote my friend Monsieur Sganarelle—“Ce sont petites choses qui sont de temps en temps nécessaires dans l’amitié; et cinq ou six coups d’épée entre gens qui s’aiment ne font que ragaillardir l’affection.”29French for “These are little things that are sometimes necessary in friendship; and five or six swords between people who love merely perk affection. Unrelated to any of Perrault’s characters, Monsieur Sganarelle is a character from Molière’s 17th c. comedy play, The Imaginary Cuckold. You observe the colouring is not quite what it should be?”
“In this light the beard is of rather a peculiar tint,” said I.
“Yes: the painter did not do it justice. It was most lovely, and gave him such a distinguished air, quite different from the common herd. Stay, I will show you the exact colour, if you will come near this flambeau!” And going near the light, she took off a bracelet of hair, with a magnificent clasp of pearls. It was peculiar, certainly. I did not know what to say. “His precious lovely beard!” said she. “And the pearls go so well with the delicate blue!”
Her husband, who had come up to us, and waited till her eye fell upon him before venturing to speak, now said, “It is strange Monsieur Ogre is not yet arrived!”
“Not at all strange,” said she, tartly. “He was always very stupid, and constantly falls into mistakes, in which he comes worse off; and it is very well he does, for he is a credulous and cowardly fellow. Not at all strange! If you will”—turning to her husband, so that I hardly heard her words, until I caught—“Then everybody would have their rights, and we should have no more trouble. Is it not, monsieur?” addressing me.30Gaskell’s ogre may be one of several characters known in french fairy tales. Ogre villains feature in two of Perrault’s tales, “Hop o’ My Thumb” and “The Master Cat.” The title character of Louise Michel’s “Les croque-mitaines” or “l’ogre”was popularly linked to Gilles de Retz, similarly to “Blue Beard.” Michel’s tale was published in 1872, well after Gaskell wrote “Curious If True,” but may have been part of a larger literary conversation in France. For information about Louise Michel’s collection, see Koehler, Julie J., et al. Women Writing Wonder: An Anthology of Subversive Nineteenth-Century British, French, and German Fairy Tales, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2021. Her tale has not been translated into English, but can be read in French: “Troisiéme Legend: Les Croque-Mitaines,” Le livre du jour de l’an : historiettes, contes et légendes pour les enfants / par Louise Michel, Paris: J. Brare, 1872, 57-69.
“If I were in England, I should imagine madame was speaking of the reform bill, or the millennium—but I am in ignorance.” And just as I spoke, the great folding-doors were thrown open wide, and every one started to their feet to greet a little old lady, leaning on a thin black wand—and—
“Madame la Féemarraine,” was announced by a chorus of sweet shrill voices.31“Madame la Féemarraine” is French for “fairy godmother.” While two of Perrault’s tales include a fairy godmother character (“The Little Glass Slipper” and “Donkeyskin”), Gaskell’s fairy godmother retains her wand, identifying her as the godmother from “The Little Glass Slipper.”
And in a moment I was lying in the grass close by a hollow oak-tree, with the slanting glory of the dawning day shining full in my face, and thousands of little birds and delicate insects piping and warbling out their welcome to the ruddy splendour.
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How To Cite (MLA Format)
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell. “Curious if True. (Extract from a Letter from Richard Whittingham, Esq.).” The Cornhill Magazine, vol. 1, no. 2, 1860, pp. 208-19. Edited by Katie Parker. Victorian Short Fiction Project, 10 June 2023, https://vsfp.byu.edu/index.php/title/curious-if-true-extract-from-a-letter-from-richard-whittingham-esp/.
8 June 2020
9 June 2023
|↑1||For more information about the allusions in “Curious if True,” see the following sources:
Kirkland, Janice, “Suggesting More,” The Gaskell Society Journal, Vol. 12, 1998, 21.
Yarrow, Phillip, “Mrs. Gaskell and France,” The Gaskell Society Journel, Vol. 7, 1993, 16-36.
For an in-depth look at Charles Perrault’s fairy tales and their history, see Jones, Christine A. Mother Goose Refigured: A Critical Translation of Charles Perrault’s Fairy Tales, Wayne State University Press, 2016.
|↑2||Table d’hôte is French for “a meal given at a fixed price and with few choices; salle à manger is French for “dining room;” tête-à-tête is French for “a private conversation between two people.”|
|↑3||Donald Cameron of Lochiel (approx. 1700-1748) became laird of his clan when his Jacobite father fled to France. Scottish folklore depicts him as the “gentle Lochiel” whose generosity and gallantry were complemented by an insistence on rugged hardiness, as illustrated in the tale referenced here.|
|↑4||Battants is French for “hinged part of a door.”|
|↑5||Flambeau is French for “torch.”|
|↑6||The Hôtel Cluny houses a museum of the middle ages, established in 1843.|
|↑7||Embonpoint is French for “overweight.”|
|↑8||Poucet means “thumb,” and is Gaskell’s version of Charles Perrault’s character, “Little Thummie,” from his story, “Hop O’ My Thumb” or “The Little Thumblette.” In translation, Thummie has often been mistaken for “Tom Thumb,” but is a different character entirely.|
|↑9||A chasseur is a cavalry man. Fur and boots identify this chasseur as the cat from Perrault’s “The Master Cat,” sometimes translated as “Puss In Boots.” It follows too, that his master is De Carabas, the cat’s owner in the same story.|
|↑10||Gilles de Retz (also “de Rais”) was well known in France for his military heroism, costly lifestyle, and his eventual execution for serial child murders. He is popularly believed to be the original inspiration for Perrault’s “Blue Beard.”|
|↑11||The Richard Whittingham in this story is a traditional characterization of the politician and merchant, Richard “Dick” Whittington, mythologized in English popular culture as an orphan whose fortune was made by his cat. The character would have been well known to a Victorian audience.|
|↑12||After his death, Gilles de Retz’ wife, Catherine de Thouars, married Jean de Vendome. Poucet’s comment here is likely a play on the fact that very few records of Jean de Vendome’s life exist, leaving historical knowledge of him scant.|
|↑13||Gaskell’s “Sleeping Beauty,” one of her more obvious allusions, is the princess from Perrault’s “Princess of the Sleeping Wood.”|
|↑14||Eau sucré is French for “sugar water.”|
|↑15||The mention of small slippers identifies the lady as the young heroin of Perrault’s story, “The Little Glass Slipper,” now popularly adapted as “Cinderella.”|
|↑16||Here, Gaskell’s Cinderella character casts the same judgment on Thummie as the young dedicatee, “Madamoiselle,” of Perrault’s tales.|
|↑17||Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast” resembles “The Little Glass Slipper” in that her Belle/Beauty is also plagued by two bullying sisters.|
|↑18||Vouée au blanc is French for “devoted to white.”|
|↑19||Mioumiou is a French onomatopoeia for the sound a cat makes.|
|↑20||Madame de Mioumiou is the title character from “The White Cat,” by Madame d’Aulnoy.|
|↑21||The ugly husband is here identified as “The Beast,” from Beaumont’s “Beauty and The Beast.”|
|↑22||This is the same Jean de Géanquilleur inquired after by the giant porter at the start of Gaskell’s story.|
|↑23||Along with other fairy tale characters present in Gaskell’s story, Dick Whittington and Jack the Giant-Slayer appeared together in popular children’s alphabet books during the mid 19th century.|
|↑24||This child is easily identifiable as the girl from “The Little Red Cap,” or “The Little Red Tippet,” now commonly known in English as “Little Red Riding Hood.” The time of year is significant as a reference to a photograph taken of Agnes Grace Weld dressed as Little Red Riding Hood in August 18th 1857. The photographer, Charles Dodgson, displayed the photograph publically in London the following year, and it is reasonable to believe that Gaskell may have been familiar with it.|
|↑25||Gaskell’s description aptly captures a real portrait of Gilles de Retz painted by Éloi Firmin Féron in 1835.|
|↑26||Here, he is recalling an illustration of the culminating moment in Perrault’s “Blue Beard.”|
|↑27||Madame de Retz identifies herself as the young wife in one of Perrault’s more disturbing tales, “Blue Beard.” It follows too that her notorious first husband is the tale’s title character.|
|↑28||With the suggestion that Madame de Retz regrets Blue Beard’s death, Gaskell offers a unique reinterpretation of Perrault’s original heroine.|
|↑29||French for “These are little things that are sometimes necessary in friendship; and five or six swords between people who love merely perk affection. Unrelated to any of Perrault’s characters, Monsieur Sganarelle is a character from Molière’s 17th c. comedy play, The Imaginary Cuckold.|
|↑30||Gaskell’s ogre may be one of several characters known in french fairy tales. Ogre villains feature in two of Perrault’s tales, “Hop o’ My Thumb” and “The Master Cat.” The title character of Louise Michel’s “Les croque-mitaines” or “l’ogre”was popularly linked to Gilles de Retz, similarly to “Blue Beard.” Michel’s tale was published in 1872, well after Gaskell wrote “Curious If True,” but may have been part of a larger literary conversation in France. For information about Louise Michel’s collection, see Koehler, Julie J., et al. Women Writing Wonder: An Anthology of Subversive Nineteenth-Century British, French, and German Fairy Tales, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2021. Her tale has not been translated into English, but can be read in French: “Troisiéme Legend: Les Croque-Mitaines,” Le livre du jour de l’an : historiettes, contes et légendes pour les enfants / par Louise Michel, Paris: J. Brare, 1872, 57-69.|
|↑31||“Madame la Féemarraine” is French for “fairy godmother.” While two of Perrault’s tales include a fairy godmother character (“The Little Glass Slipper” and “Donkeyskin”), Gaskell’s fairy godmother retains her wand, identifying her as the godmother from “The Little Glass Slipper.”|