Wilful Blindness: The Marriage of André and Madeleine Gide

Oscar Wilde, full-length portrait, standing
with hands behind back, facing front,
leaning against a wall, c. 1882
BY Napoleon Sarony
1 photographic print on card mount: albumen.
Library of Congress
Prints & Photographs Division
LOT 12385

In the autumn of 1892, Oscar Wilde’s appearance in the salons of Paris was a big event; he had recently published The Picture of Dorian Gray and was an object of both scandal and admiration. Gide fell into an intoxicating infatuation with him and knew it was dangerous. In an unpublished note, he wrote that Wilde was “always trying to insinuate inside you the authorization of evil.” For the son of a tireless puritan, it must have been quite potent to be told, as Wilde told him: “I don’t like your lips; they are straight, like those of someone who has never lied. I want to teach you to lie, so your lips might become beautiful and twisted like those of an ancient mask.” Small wonder that once Wilde left Paris, André Gide was sighing to his friend Paul Valéry in a letter: “Forgive my silence: since Wilde I exist only very little.” Then there was a backlash, and Gide suffered a reaction to all that Wilde had awoken in him. He was determined to work harder, to stiffen his moral backbone, and to cleave to Madeleine. But Madeleine was not having any of it. She was fighting against the fondness she felt for André, more clear-sighted than he that their loving sibling relationship was not a basis for marriage. She wrote putting him off firmly, intuitively aware that he would not make good husband material. But he was steadfastly determined they should marry. Madame Gide who had always opposed the marriage was beginning to have second thoughts. She felt her moral authority was slipping away, and that only Madeleine had any useful influence over her son.

Gide was beginning to travel a great deal, and would do so for the rest of his life. One of his early trips with his friend Paul Laurens was to North Africa where both young men were determined to lose the virginity that, at twenty-four, was an embarrassing burden. Not as embarrassing, however, as Madame Gide who came in hot pursuit once she learned that André was suffering from a lung infection. Inevitably, her beady eye spotted the prostitute leaving her son’s room (quite chastely on that occasion) and she had the vapours, sobbing uncontrollably. But Gide was moving steadily out from under his mother’s dominance, and what lay beyond her laws were the erotic experiences he craved. Tunisia had proved a revelation for him, a land of free sexuality where all relations were open and accepted. When he returned two years later, he fell in by sheer chance with Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, reluctantly at first but with growing enthusiasm. Wilde took him to a Moorish café where a “marvellous youth” played on a flute. Wilde correctly identified the emotion Gide was struggling under and asked him if he would like the boy. In a strangled voice, Gide answered yes, and Wilde arranged it all. They returned to Wilde’s apartment at the hotel and the flute player arrived for Gide, with a fellow musician in tow for Oscar. In his memoir, Gide described it as one of the most significant events of his early life. “Since then, whenever I have sought pleasure, it is the memory of that night that I have pursued,” he wrote.

Much later, Gide would wonder why he ever believed that ethereal love, which was all he had to offer Madeleine, would be enough for her.

Relations with his mother were growing ever more hostile and harried. Madame Gide simply could not relinquish the attempt to control her son, and her methods were unsubtle and tenacious. The issue in question now was André’s determination to bring his North African servant, Athman, back with him to Paris, which Madame Gide declared amounted to “child abuse” given the change in climate and culture which he would have to undergo. Gide replied furiously: “I have obtained many of the best things in my life only by an obstinate resistance to the invasion of your will.” In return, Madame Gide pulled out all the stops: “Your nerves must be unbalanced… Let’s hope it doesn’t all end in some disease — cerebral fever, typhoid fever, nervous fever!” And more cannily, she suggested that Madeleine would view his actions as irresponsible and callous. Gide did eventually abandon the plan, but this last act of policing may have proved too much for his mother. She died quite swiftly of a cerebral haemorrhage only a couple of months later, with her son beside her. Gide was stunned by her death. “I felt dazed, like a prisoner suddenly set free, like a kite whose string has suddenly been cut, like a boat broken loose from its moorings, like a drifting wreck, at the mercy of wind and tides.” There was only one thing to do: he replaced her with the person most like her. Finally, Madeleine agreed to marry him.

Much later, Gide would wonder why he ever believed that ethereal love, which was all he had to offer Madeleine, would be enough for her. “Desires, I thought, were peculiar to men; I found it reassuring to believe that women — except ‘loose’ women, of course — did not have similar desires.” In fact, Gide had picked on the one woman who completely agreed with him. In the past Madeleine had written to him expressing “a mortal terror” at the thought of marriage. The scandal of her mother’s behaviour had left her with what amounted to a phobia about sexuality. But in an age where sexuality was rarely spoken about, even between married couples, and given the inevitable innocence of Madeleine, coupled with André’s own convenient beliefs about women, it is not surprising that their marriage settled down into a chaste, unconsummated union. Tellingly, Gide wrote in his journal after three months of marriage “How often when Madeleine is in the next room, I forget that she is not my mother!” It was easy for a familiar pattern to beckon, one where he had a lodestar of purity and constraint that he could leave behind for erotic adventure. Although he inherited his mother’s house in Normandy and Madeleine had Cuverville, it was not long before he was fixing himself up a place to stay in Paris. It was ostensibly somewhere to work and to socialise, but it also meant he could cruise the pissoirs and the Turkish baths with his friends, looking for action.

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