A Chambermaid’s Diary

A Chambermaid’s Diary

Octave Mirbeau
Octave Mirbeau

Author: Mirbeau, Octave, 1848-1917
French fiction — Translations into English
A Chambermaid’s Diary




Translated from the French by



A French chambermaid, who has served in Paris, in the houses of the nobility, the bourgeois, and professional people, finally enters the service of a rich couple living in the country, and there begins to keep a diary. In describing the events of her daily life and the people about her, she is frequently reminded of episodes in her past, and digresses to relate them. Thus her diary becomes a piquant panorama of social life and institutions. It is a terrific social exposure, a grim social satire, crammed with humor, bitterness, and truth. It has been described by a French critic as “an attempt to show that nearly all the masters are low-lived wretches, and that nearly all the servants are as near like them as they know how to be.”



I offer you my sincere apology for mutilating your brave and admirable work. In publishing it in English, I have omitted certain portions, much against my inclination. Perhaps you, who live in a land that enjoys a greater freedom of the press than we know in the United States, will wonder why I was forced to do this. Let me, then, explain to you that the men whose ugly souls your Célestine does not hesitate to lay bare are types, to a greater or less extent, of most of the men whom we place in our halls of legislation to make our laws, in our halls of administration to execute them, and in our halls of so-called justice to interpret and enforce them, and that among the laws which they have made are some, aimed ostensibly at the suppression of obscene literature, that are really intended to protect from exposure their own obscene lives and those of others of their ilk, and to protect from attack the social evils and political institutions upon which they thrive. These lawless law-givers hope, by obscuring the sufficiently sharp line that divides the vulgar appeal to eroticism from the earnest narrative of the honest thinker and the truthful picture of the conscientious artist, to brand both with the same condemnation, and thus secure immunity for those who, by all the various forms of exploitation, deal, as Célestine bluntly says, in human meat. This is why it is unsafe to publish in the English language those portions of her diary which I have omitted. But, if, as I hope and believe, the portions that are here printed shall do something to change the public opinion that sanctions the claim of these law-givers to legislative power, I am sure that you will excuse a liberty which under other circumstances would be an inexcusable act of vandalism.



My dear friend:
For two reasons, very strong and very precise, it is my wish to inscribe your name at the head of these pages. First, that you may know how dear your name is to me. Second,—and I say it with a tranquil pride,—because you will like this book. And you will like it, in spite of all its faults, because it is a book free from hypocrisy, because it portrays life, life as you and I understand it. I have always in my mind’s eye, my dear Huret, many of the faces, so strangely human, which you have arrayed in procession in a long series of social and literary studies. They haunt me. It is because no one better than you, and more profoundly than you, has felt, when surveying these human masqueraders, how sad and how comical a thing it is to be a man. May you find again in these pages that sadness which makes lofty souls laugh, that comicality which makes them weep.
May, 1900.

The book that I publish under this title, “A Chambermaid’s Diary,” was really written by Mlle. Célestine R———, chambermaid. When I was asked to revise the manuscript, to correct it, and to rewrite some parts of it, I refused at first, thinking, not without reason, that, just as it was, in all its disorder, this diary had a certain originality, a special savor, and that I could only render it commonplace by putting into it anything of myself. But Mlle. Célestine R——— was very pretty. She insisted. I finally yielded, for, after all, I am a man.
I confess that I was wrong. In doing this work which she asked of me,—that is, in adding here and there some accents to this book,—I am very much afraid that I have impaired its somewhat corrosive grace, diminished its sad power, and, above all, substituted simple literature for the emotion and life which these pages contained.
I say this to answer in advance the objections which certain grave and learned, and how noble, critics will not fail to raise.
O. M.



September 14.
To-day, September 14, at three o’clock in the afternoon, in mild, gray, and rainy weather, I have entered upon my new place. It is the twelfth in two years. Of course I say nothing of the places which I held in previous years. It would be impossible for me to count them. Ah! I can boast of having seen interiors and faces, and dirty souls. And the end is not yet. Judging from the really extraordinary and dizzy way in which I have rolled, here and there, successively, from houses to employment-bureaus, and from employment-bureaus to houses, from the Bois de Boulogne to the Bastille, from the Observatory to Montmartre, from the Ternes to the Gobelins, everywhere, without ever succeeding in establishing myself anywhere, the masters in these days must be hard to please. It is incredible.
The affair was arranged through an advertisement in the “Figaro,” and without any interview with Madame. We wrote letters to each other, that is all; a risky method, often resulting in surprises on both sides. Madame’s letters are well written, it is true. But they reveal a meddlesome and fastidious character. Ah! the explanations and the commentaries that she insisted upon, the whys and the becauses. I do not know whether Madame is stingy; at any rate she is hardly ruining herself with her letter-paper. It is bought at the Louvre. I am not rich, but I have more elegance than that. I write on paper perfumed à la peau d’Espagne, beautiful paper, some of it pink, some light blue, which I have collected from my former mistresses. Some of it even bears a countess’s coronet engraved upon it. That must have been a crusher for her.
Well, at last, here I am in Normandy, at Mesnil-Roy. Madame’s estate, which is not far from the country, is called the Priory. This is almost all that I know of the spot where henceforth I am to live.

I am not without anxiety, or without regret, at having come, in consequence of a moment’s rashness, to bury myself in the depths of the country. What I have seen of it frightens me a little, and I ask myself what further is going to happen to me here. Doubtless nothing good, and the usual worries. To worry is the clearest of our privileges. For every one who succeeds,—that is, for every one who marries a worthy young fellow or forms an alliance with an old man,—how many of us are destined to ill-luck, swept away in the great whirlwind of poverty? After all, I had no choice, and this is better than nothing.

This is not the first time that I have had a place in the country. Four years ago I had one. Oh! not for long, and in really exceptional circumstances. I remember this adventure as if it had occurred yesterday. Although the details are slightly indecorous, and even horrible, I wish to relate it. Moreover, I charitably warn my readers that it is my intention, in writing this diary, to keep nothing back, in relation either to myself or to others. On the contrary, I intend to put into it all the frankness that is in me, and, when necessary, all the brutality that is in life. It is not my fault if the souls from which we tear the veils, and which then appear in all their nakedness, exhale so strong an odor of rottenness.
Well, here it is.
I was engaged in an employment-bureau, by a sort of fat governess, to be a chambermaid in the house of a certain M. Rabour, in Touraine. The conditions accepted, it was agreed that I should take the train on such a day, at such an hour, for such a station; which was done, according to the programme.
As soon as I had given up my ticket at the exit, I found, outside, a sort of coachman with a rubicund and churlish face, who asked me:
“Are you M. Rabour’s new chambermaid?”
“Have you a trunk?”
“Yes, I have a trunk.”
“Give me your baggage ticket, and wait for me here.”
He made his way to the platform. The employees hastened about him. They called him “Monsieur Louis” in a tone of friendly respect. Louis looked for my trunk in the pile of baggage, and had it placed in an English cart that stood near the exit.
“Well, will you get in?”
I took my seat beside him, and we started. The coachman looked at me out of the corner of his eye. I examined him similarly. I saw at once that I had to do with a countryman, an unpolished peasant, an untrained domestic who had never served in grand establishments. That annoyed me. For my part, I like handsome liveries. I dote on nothing so much as on white leather knee-breeches tightly fitting nervous thighs. And how lacking in elegance he was, this Louis, without driving-gloves, with a full suit of grayish-blue drugget that was too big for him, and a flat cap of glazed leather, ornamented with a double row of gold lace. No, indeed, they are slow in this region. And, with all, a scowling, brutal air, but not a bad fellow at bottom. I know these types. At first they assume a knowing air with the new people, and later a more friendly footing is arrived at. Often more friendly than one would like.
We sat a long time without saying a word. He assumed the manners of a grand coachman, holding the reins high and swinging his whip with rounded gestures. Oh! how ridiculous he was! For my part, with much dignity I surveyed the landscape, which had no special feature; simply fields, trees, and houses, just as everywhere else. He brought his horse down to a walk in order to ascend a hill, and then, suddenly, with a quizzing smile, he asked:
“I suppose that at least you have brought a good supply of shoes?”
“Undoubtedly,” said I, astonished at this question, which rhymed with nothing, and still more at the singular tone in which he put it to me. “Why do you ask me that? It is a rather stupid question, don’t you know, my old man?”
He nudged me slightly with his elbow, and, gliding over me a strange look whose two-fold expression of keen irony and, indeed, of jovial obscenity was unintelligible to me, he said, with a chuckle:
“Oh! yes, pretend that you know nothing. You are a good one, you are,—a jolly good one!”
Then he clacked his tongue, and the horse resumed its rapid gait.
I was puzzled. What could be the meaning of this? Perhaps nothing at all. I concluded that the good man was a little silly, that he did not know how to talk with women, and that he had been able to think of no other way to start a conversation which, however, I did not see fit to continue.
M. Rabour’s estate was sufficiently large and beautiful. A pretty house, painted light green, and surrounded by broad lawns adorned with flowers and by a pine forest which gave forth an odor of turpentine. I adore the country, but, oddly enough, it makes me sad and sleepy. I was utterly stupid when I entered the vestibule where the governess was awaiting me,—she who had engaged me at the Paris employment-bureau, God knows after how many indiscreet questions as to my private habits and tastes, which ought to have made me distrustful. But in vain does one see and endure things stronger and stronger; they never teach you anything. The governess had not pleased me at the employment-bureau; here she instantly disgusted me. She seemed to me to have the air of an old procuress. She was a fat woman, and short, with puffed-up yellowish flesh, hair brushed flat and turning gray, huge and rolling breasts, and soft, damp hands as transparent as gelatine. Her grey eyes indicated wickedness, a cold, calculating, vicious wickedness. The tranquil and cruel way in which she looked at you, searching soul and flesh, was almost enough to make you blush.
She escorted me into a little reception-room, and at once left me, saying that she was going to notify Monsieur, that Monsieur wished to see me before I should begin my service.
“For Monsieur has not seen you,” she added. “I have taken you, it is true, but then it is necessary that you please Monsieur.”
I inspected the room. It was extremely clean and orderly. The brasses, the furniture, the floor, the doors, thoroughly polished, waxed, varnished, shone like mirrors. No clap-trap, no heavy hangings, no embroidered stuffs, such as are seen in certain Paris houses; but serious comfort, an air of rich decency, of substantial country life, regular and calm. But my! how tiresome it must be to live here!
Monsieur entered. Oh! the queer man, and how he amused me! Fancy a little old man, looking as if he had just stepped out of a band-box, freshly shaven, and as pink as a doll. Very erect, very sprightly, very inviting, in fact, he hopped about, in walking, like a little grasshopper in the fields. He saluted me, and then asked, with infinite politeness:
“What is your name, my child?”
“Célestine, Monsieur.”
“Célestine!” he exclaimed. “Célestine? The devil! It is a pretty name,—that I do not deny,—but too long, my child, much too long. I will call you Marie, if you are willing. That is a very nice name, too, and it is short. And besides, I have called all my chambermaids Marie. It is a habit which it would distress me to abandon. I would rather abandon the person.”
They all have this queer mania of never calling you by your real name. I was not too much astonished, having already borne all the names of all the saints in the calendar. He persisted:
“So it will not displease you if I call you Marie? That is agreed, is it?”
“Why, certainly, Monsieur.”
“A pretty girl; good character; very well, very well.”
He had said all this to me in a sprightly and extremely respectful way, and without staring at me, without seeming to undress me with his eyes, after the fashion of men generally. Scarcely had he looked at me. From the moment that he entered the room, his eyes had remained obstinately fixed upon my shoes.
“You have others?” he asked, after a short silence, during which it seemed to me that his eyes became strangely brilliant.
“Other names, Monsieur?”
“No, my child, other shoes.”
And with a slender tongue he licked his lips, after the manner of cats.
I did not answer at once. This word shoes, reminding me of the coachman’s salacious joke, had astounded me. Then that had a meaning? On a more pressing interrogation I finally answered, but in a voice somewhat hoarse and thick, as if I were, confessing a sin of gallantry:
“Yes, Monsieur, I have others.”
“Yes, Monsieur.”
“Highly, highly glazed?”
“Why, yes, Monsieur.”
“Good, good! And of yellow leather?”
“I have none of that kind, Monsieur.”
“You will have to have some; I will give you some.”
“Thank you, Monsieur.”
“Good, good! Be still!”
I was frightened, for dull gleams had just passed over his eyes, and drops of sweat were rolling down his forehead. Thinking that he was about to faint, I was on the point of shouting, of calling for help. But the crisis quieted down, and, after a few minutes, he continued in a calmer voice, though a little saliva still foamed at the corner of his lips.
“It is nothing. It is over. Understand me, my child. I am a little of a maniac. At my age that is allowed, is it not? For instance, I do not think it proper that a woman should black her own shoes, much less mine. I have a great respect for women, Marie, and cannot endure that. So I will black your shoes, your little shoes, your dear little shoes. I will take care of them. Listen to me. Every evening, before going to bed, you will carry your shoes into my room; you will place them near the bed, on a little table, and every morning, on coming to open my windows, you will take them away again.”
And, as I manifested a prodigious astonishment, he added:
“Oh! now, it is nothing enormous that I ask of you; it is a very natural thing, after all. And if you are very nice….”
Quickly he took from his pocket two louis, which he handed to me.
“If you are very nice, very obedient, I will often make you little presents. The governess will pay you your wages every month. But between ourselves, Marie, I shall often make you little presents. And what is it that I ask of you? Come, now, it is not extraordinary. Is it, then, indeed, so extraordinary?”
Monsieur was getting excited again. As he spoke his eyelids rapidly rose and fell, like leaves in a tempest.
“Why do you say nothing, Marie? Say something. Why do you not walk? Walk a little, that I may see them move, that I may see them live,—your little shoes.”
He knelt down, kissed my shoes, kneaded them with his feverish and caressing fingers, unlaced them. And, while kissing, kneading, and caressing them, he said, in a supplicating voice, in the voice of a weeping child:
“Oh! Marie, Marie, your little shoes; give them to me directly, directly, directly. I want them directly. Give them to me.”
I was powerless. Astonishment had paralyzed me. I did not know whether I was really living or dreaming. Of Monsieur’s eyes I saw nothing but two little white globes streaked with red. And his mouth was all daubed with a sort of soapy foam.
At last he took my shoes away and shut himself up with them in his room for two hours.
“Monsieur is much pleased with you,” said the governess to me, in showing me over the house. “Try to continue to please him. The place is a good one.”
Four days later, in the morning, on going at the usual hour to open the windows, I came near fainting with horror in the chamber. Monsieur was dead. Stretched on his back in the middle of the bed, he lay with all the rigidity of a corpse. He had not struggled. The bed-clothing was not disarranged. There was not the slightest trace of shock, of agony, of clinched hands striving to strangle Death. And I should have thought him asleep, if his face had not been violet, frightfully violet, the sinister violet of the egg-plant. And,—terrifying spectacle, which, still more than this face, caused me to quake with fear,—Monsieur held, pressed between his teeth, one of my shoes, so firmly pressed between his teeth that, after useless and horrible efforts, I was obliged to cut the leather with a razor, in order to tear it from him.
I am no saint; I have known many men, and I know, by experience, all the madness, all the vileness, of which they are capable. But a man like Monsieur? Oh! indeed, is it not ridiculous all the same that such types exist? And where do they go in search of all their conceits, when it is so simple and so good to love each other prettily, as other people do?

I do not think that anything of that kind will happen to me here. Here, evidently, they are of another sort. But is it better? Is it worse? As to that, I know nothing.
There is one thing that torments me. I ought, perhaps, to have finished, once for all, with all these dirty places, and squarely taken the step from domesticity into gallantry, like so many others that I have known, and who—I say it without pride—had fewer “advantages” than I. Though I am not what is called pretty, I am better; without conceit I may say that I have an atmosphere, a style, which many society women and many women of the demi-monde have often envied me. A little tall, perhaps, but supple, slender, and well-formed, with very beautiful blonde hair, very beautiful deep-blue eyes, an audacious mouth, and, finally, an original manner and a turn of mind, very lively and languishing at once, that pleases men. I might have succeeded. But, in addition to the fact that, by my own fault, I have missed some astonishing opportunities, which probably will never come to me again, I have been afraid. I have been afraid, for one never knows where that w

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