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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Diary of a Chambermaid

Octave Mirbeau

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To purchase The Diary of a Chambermaid

Title: The Diary of a Chambermaid
Author: Octave Mirbeau
Genre: Novel
Written: 1900 (Eng. 1966)
Length: 316 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Diary of a Chambermaid - US
The Diary of a Chambermaid - UK
The Diary of a Chambermaid - Canada
Le Journal d'une femme de chambre - Canada
The Diary of a Chambermaid - India
Le Journal d'une femme de chambre - France
Tagebuch einer Kammerzofe - Deutschland
Diario di una cameriera - Italia
DVD - Renoir: Diary of a Chambermaid - US
Diary of a Chambermaid - UK
DVD - Buñuel: Diary of a Chambermaid - US
Diary of a Chambermaid - UK
  • French title: Le Journal d'une femme de chambre
  • Translated by Douglas Jarman
  • With an Introduction by Richard Ings
  • Previously translated as A Chambermaid's Diary by Benjamin R. Tucker (1900)
  • Filmed twice:
    • Diary of a Chambermaid (1946): directed by Jean Renoir, and starring Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith
    • Diary of a Chambermaid (1964): directed by Luis Buñuel, and starring Jeanne Moreau and Michel Piccoli

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Our Assessment:

B : solid, quite enjoyable Belle Époque portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Spectator . 23/6/1966 Martin Seymour-Smith
TLS . 30/6/1966 Robert J. Baldick

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is well worth reviving, in this competent translation (.....) Despite its title and its too contemporary dust-jacket, Diary of a Chambermaid is a subtle novel that operates successfully on two planes, the satirical, and the psychological, and it retains its pertinence and its power to move." - Martin Seymour-Smith, The Spectator

  • "Unfortunately for Mirbeau's thesis, he attacks the employers so violently and uniformly that the reader finally feels a perverse sympathy for the lechers and shrews he is invited to hate. (...) Disappointing both as satirical and as erotic literature (...) The Diary of a Chambermaid survives chiefly as an interesting picture of French society at the turn of the century, seen from below the stairs." - Robert J. Baldick, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Diary of a Chambermaid is, indeed, presented as a diary, chambermaid Célestine R. beginning her account on 14 September, as she starts a new job, and lasting just to 24 November, when she's moved on again. Her account is, however, not just of the day-to-day events in the Normandy town where she is currently situated, but also includes recollections of many of her previous experiences.
       Célestine isn't thrilled to: "land up in a place like this, among such awful people, and miles from everything I like". Her employers are the Lanlaires -- "Monsieur and Madame Head-in-air Lanlaire" --, with the appropriately ridiculous names of Isidore and Euphrasie. The husband is friendly -- but only because he'd like to get more intimate with the youg female help; the dominant wife is the one in charge, and thoroughly unpleasant.
       Promisingly, Célestine admits that:

there are times when I suddenly feel within myself a kind of need, a mania, to behave outrageously ... A perversity, that drives me to turn the simplest things into irreparable wrongs. I can't help it ... even when I'm aware that I am acting against my own interests, that I shall only do myself harm.
       Generally dutiful, she's certainly not meek and stands up for herself (and others) when the need arises. But she also enjoys her fun -- indeed: "I enjoy making love too much to be able to make a living from it". Yet:
though I like listening to dirty stories, I don't like reading them. The only books I enjoy are those that make me cry.
       Having her exposed to some literature and also to some literary types from her previous employment, Mirbeau even uses Célestine to poke fun at some authors -- especially Paul Bourget (who, she finds, is oblivious to the poor and their inner and outer lives: "I'm not really concerned with such people", he tells her).
       Mirbeau tries to delve where Bourget won't go, finding very much an inner life to his protagonist, with much of her defined by class and situation. Célestine acknowledges: "Servants are not normal social beings, not part of society" -- yet privy to so much of society, and to how: "really crazily indecent in their private lives" many of those of high standing are she can offer insight into the times and the culture.
       Mirbeau has an easygoing, natural style, and if perhaps not entirely convincing as the voice of a chambermaid, his Célestine is nevertheless an entertaining guide with some good stories to tell. Not surprisingly, there are some shocking goings-on. Célestine fends off a lot of unwanted attention (and gives in to some, too), but she's no victim. The most shocking events tend to be more distant: the coldness of her employer's reaction when Célestine's mother dies, and then the rape and murder of a young girl, which provides some of the tension as the novel moves forward, as Célestine suspects she knows who is responsible -- and finds herself drawn to the man.
       The novel is undeniably salacious, yet also fairly harmless; little of the description goes beyond: "And what had to happen, happened ..." What decadence this fin de siècle novel offers isn't in detailed intimate-encounter descriptions -- there's a touch of the erotic here, but nothing even close to explicitly pornographic -- as in its broad condemnation of society as a whole. It is not so much the loose sexual morals that Mirbeau focuses on (which he seems to take issue with only in how differently they are seen, depending on who is involved), but rather the faults and hypocrisy of class. "Oh, these bourgeois ! Always the same old comedy !" Célestine observes -- and that's exactly what the novel presents.
       Célestine recognizes the root of the problem -- and admits her own weakness in this regard:
     The worship of money is the lowest of all human emotions, but it is shared not only by the bourgeoisie but also by the great majority of us ... little people, humble people, even those who are practically penniless. And I, with all my indignation, all my passion for destruction, I, too, am not free of it.
       For all its social criticism, Mirbeau never forgets that he has to keep the reader engaged by telling a good story, and he manages that well. The episodes from Célestine's past make for a nice variety, while the events at her present-day job offer a good mix of small and larger domestic drama, too. Some criminal activity -- the young girl's rape and murder, and then a theft -- add to the tension, even as they, like so much, remain almost incidental. It's a bit much to juggle, at some points, but overall Mirbeau manages well, and The Diary of a Chambermaid is consistently a quite enjoyable read.
       Of course, in the present-day the social criticism doesn't sting quite as hard or in the same way -- the needling of Paul Bourget is sharp and very funny, but surely only if you know and have read Paul Bourget, and who still does ? -- and those looking for a bawdy tale will also be rather disappointed. Mirbeau's writing holds up well, however, and there's still enough to all this to amuse and entertain contemporary readers.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 March 2015

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The Diary of a Chambermaid: Reviews: Diary of a Chambermaid - the films: Octave Mirbeau: Other books by Octave Mirbeau under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Octave Mirbeau lived 1858 to 1917.

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© 2015 the complete review

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