Wilful Blindness: The Marriage of André and Madeleine Gide

André Gide was an only child whose father died when he was young. He was brought up by his mother, Juliette Gide, and the woman who had been his mother’s governess and was now her companion, Anna Shackleton. The absence of his father would prove a grave disadvantage to the young André; a pleasure-loving and playful man, he had balanced out his possessive and disciplinarian wife. Juliette Gide was a strict Protestant who micromanaged her son’s spiritual development, repeatedly thwarting his desires and interests in the name of morality. Anything that aroused the young Gide’s enthusiasm was viewed with mistrust, including, for instance, the Chopin that he longed to learn to play on the piano (he was a gifted musician). When Gide was twenty-five, his mother was still writing to his uncle complaining about the bad effect “this Goethe, of whom he speaks constantly” was having on his son. In a world where Chopin and Goethe could be viewed as pernicious influences, it is not surprising that Gide would grow up to declare bitterly: “Laws, proprieties, ruthless self-discipline, the love of mystical affections have constituted all my joys — the greatest of them solitary and care-ridden — and gave to every pleasure in living the bitterness of sin.” Like any child who has been forced to repress too much of his natural exuberance, the young André was prone to nervous ailments. Headaches, insomnia and difficulty eating often kept him out of school, but also away from bullies.

Sexuality was not without its attractions to André Gide, but they were dark and devilish, shameful and violent.

His nascent religious fervour found a more congenial outlet in his relationship to his cousin, Madeleine Rondeaux. Throughout his childhood he would spend long holidays and visits with his mother’s family at Cuverville, where his five cousins lived. Madeleine was the eldest, a reserved and sensitive girl who suffered intensely in her relationship to her beautiful, exotic and somewhat out-of-control mother. The Christmas he was thirteen, when the families were all in Paris, André returned home after a visit to his cousins only to find his own house empty. And so he turned around and went back. The household of his cousins was in disarray, his aunt “indisposed” on the sofa, being tended to by her two younger daughters, and Madeleine, crying and praying in the darkness of her room. “You shouldn’t have come back,” she told him, and in a moment of precocious revelation, Gide realised that her mother was having an affair. The image of Madeleine in her damaged innocence had a potent effect on the young André, who shouldered, at that point, the burden of courtly love for his cousin. This exact scene appears in the highly autobiographical La Porte étroite (Strait is the Gate), and the narrator declares: “Drunk with love, pity and a vague mixture of enthusiasm, abnegation, virtue, I called on God with all my strength and offered myself, no longer able to imagine any other aim in life than to protect that child against fear, against evil, against life.” From this point onwards, Gide devoted himself to Madeleine, reading the books she read, writing to her daily and conducting deep religious conversations with her, either on paper or in person. She provided an ideal of purity and goodness that he exalted and embellished in his mind. Describing his adolescent love Gide wrote: “It was as if there were nothing good inside me that did not come from her. My childish love became indistinguishable from my religious fervour… It also seemed to me that, as I came nearer to God, I came closer to her…”

Portrait of André Gide
BY Marie Laurencin
FROM Les Poésies d’André Walter
(Éditions de la Nouvelle Revue Française, 1922)
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Gide identified with Madeleine’s passionate piety, and he identified with her grief and confusion as a child stuck with a mother who did not suit. But he was less clear-sighted in identifying with the part of her that feared and reviled female sexuality. Only three years after the scene that affected him so deeply, Madeleine’s mother ran off with her lover and was never seen or spoken of again. All her life, Madeleine would live chastely, with a kind of obsessive purity that was clearly a reaction against her mother’s conduct. Gide was alerted by his own mother to the terrors of female sexuality, but in a different way. Anxiously policing every aspect of André’s life, Madame Gide warned one of his schoolfriends not to take a certain passage on his way home from school as it was “extrêmement mal fréquenté.” The words conjured up excessive depravity to Gide and made him both fearful and curious. He began noticing for the first time women who stood around hatless on the corners of the boulevards and who would call out cheekily to him if he strayed too close. “Years later, those questing creatures still inspired as much terror in me as vitriol-throwers,” Gide wrote in his memoirs. “I entertained the flattering thought that my repugnance was disapproval and attributed my aversion to virtue.” He knew otherwise, though. For by this time, Gide was a keen and energetic masturbator, a habit about which he wrote openly, to the point of over-sharing, in his memoir. And he was already experiencing close friendships with other boys that were romantic and intense. Sexuality was not without its attractions to André Gide, but they were dark and devilish, shameful and violent.

By the time he was twenty-one, Gide’s life had undergone a kind of triage into two dominating ambitions — marry Madeleine, become a writer — and one deeply subversive and irresistible pull towards socialising with the sort of friend who looked superficially suitable but who could be depended upon to track down vice. Gide tried to bring down both ambitions with one stone: a highly autobiographical first novel entitled Les Cahiers d’André Walter drawn heavily from his own diaries. In it, the eponymous narrator loves deeply, but from a respectful distance, his cousin, Emmanuèle. His mother is opposed to the match (as indeed she was in reality at that time), and orders her son on her deathbed to abandon his hopes. Emmanuèle marries and dies shortly afterwards, too, leaving André to a grief so great that it eventually transmutes into a fatal madness. Gide had a special copy made up for Madeleine in which the heroine bore her own name, as if she might have harboured any doubts. Although she found the book touching, Madeleine objected to her intimate life being recorded so faithfully in a story for public consumption, and promptly rejected Gide’s proposal of marriage. Quite what Madame Gide thought of being killed off in her son’s first literary attempt history does not record, but she did pay for the novel’s publication. The book sold barely any copies, but the critical response was generally warm. Gide took heart from all of this (and paid scant attention to Madeleine’s refusal). Then a few months later, the third strand of his life received an unexpected boost, when he made the acquaintance of Oscar Wilde.

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