Wilful Blindness: The Marriage of André and Madeleine Gide

Did Madeleine know? Gide was often far from subtle about his inclinations. At the start of their marriage they travelled a great deal together, to countries whose attitude towards sexuality was more relaxed. Madeleine was a poor traveller, often ill, always fatigued, and Gide would take every opportunity thus presented to go in search of pleasure. There were late nights in bars, long walks in lonely places, boat rides. In Italy, he would go out on “photography” trips, finding his camera a good way to procure young men. Sometimes, it didn’t seem to matter that Madeleine was there. On their way to Algiers one sultry Easter, the Gides found themselves in one compartment of a train with three schoolboys in the next. At each stop the half-naked schoolboys would lean out of their window, and before long, Gide was leaning out of his own, “playing a game” of running his fingers up and down their bare arms. “Madeleine, who was sitting opposite me, said nothing, as if she had not seen me, did not know me… In Algiers, when we were alone in the omnibus that took us to the hotel, she finally said, in a tone of voice that seemed to express more sorrow than blame: ‘You looked like a criminal or a madman.’” Then there were the lengthy visits to Paris, when Gide brought his sexual activities much closer to home. Henri Ghéon was Gide’s constant cruising companion in Paris, and on realising her husband was in a state of exhaustion, Madeleine was once moved to write to him, declaring she felt sure it “has some connection, direct or indirect, with you.” She was making no criticism, she insisted, and was certainly not asking for information, but she begged him to remember that André’s “passionate curiosity” did “in itself involve great danger.” Madeleine was very quiet, she was very restrained and fearful of much of life, but she was not stupid and she was not unobservant. She knew.

It was the thin end of a slow, gradual but irreversible withdrawal from her husband’s life.

On yet another trip to North Africa, when Gide and Ghéon left her alone for a week while they crossed the desert, Madeleine suffered a breakdown in their absence. Not long afterwards, she stopped travelling altogether, sick at heart, one imagines, from watching her husband enjoy himself at her expense. It was the thin end of a slow, gradual but irreversible withdrawal from her husband’s life. She spent all her time at Cuverville, a place that Gide found increasingly suffocating. “Dreadful torpor,” he wrote, facing the prospect of visiting his wife. “I think with a sort of distress of the life that Cuverville holds in store for me and from which I don’t see how I will be able to escape, except by breaking bonds and freeing myself from the most revered and cherished obligations.” His last words referred to Madeleine, who continued to represent a precious attachment, but one that became ever more abstract. As their marriage progressed, Gide ended up in no better state of health than Madeleine. His nervous illnesses returned, his creativity was increasingly blocked, depression and anxiety gnawed at him. He wrote to a friend describing how one night “I wrapped myself in anguish, actually believing I was going mad… Sometimes I’m terrified to feel in my heart such a need for love…” In his journal he described the compulsion he suffered to drop everything at the sight of certain faces in the street, comparing it to a drunkard’s relationship to absinthe. “There is a compulsion here that is so imperious, a counsel so insidious, so secret, a habit so inveterate that I often wonder if I can escape it without help from outside.” In the end a different sort of help came from outside: Gide fell seriously in love.

The boy — he was all of sixteen — was Marc Allégret, a son of the Pastor who had befriended Gide in his own youth. Now it was 1914 and Pastor Allégret was away in the Cameroons, organising Protestant missions. He left “Uncle” André as a surrogate guardian to his four children remaining at home, in what looked like a neat reversal of roles. Gide was delighted to repay the man who had been a source of support and guidance in his youth, and he was also happy to have a family to stay with in Paris during the war. In no time at all the forty-eight-year-old Gide had fallen for Marc and they began a relationship that was both loving and sexual and that lasted for many years, though Marc would eventually express his preference for woman and marry at the age of thirty-seven. The intuitive Madeleine knew which way the wind was blowing. “Don’t devote yourself too excessively to the Allégrets,” she wrote to Gide. “I think there is some danger there.” Gide was altogether too euphoric, too passionate, and too desperate to heed her tentative hints. She was not speaking a language he wanted to hear. He ran away with his lover, leaving Madeleine in no doubt as to his feelings for him, and in consequence it was not his fingers that were burnt, but his letters.

“For a whole week I wept; … I wept without stopping, without trying to say anything to her other than my tears, and always waiting for a word, a gesture from her… But she continued to busy herself with petty household chores, as if nothing had happened, passing to and fro, indifferent to my presence, as if she did not even notice I was there. I hoped that the constancy of my pain would triumph over that apparent insensitivity; but no; and she doubtless hoped that my despair would bring me back to God, for she admitted no other outcome.”

Et nunc manet in te

Et nunc manet in te
BY André Gide
(Ides et Calendes, 1951)

Gide wrote this account of the days that followed the discovery of his lost letters a year after Madeleine died, in a memoir of their marriage that he published as Et nunc manet in te. Extraordinarily, he still seemed to see himself as the sole victim, and Madeleine’s pain, the loss of self-esteem she must have suffered as a woman married to an unacknowledged homosexual who was hardly ever home, made no impression on his mind. This was at least in part because Gide never stopped professing his love for Madeleine, and it was a love that he believed to be magnificent and unimpeachable, if essentially invisible to the naked eye. “The love I have for my wife,” he told his friend, Roger Martin du Gard, “is like no other, and I believe only a uranist [a homosexual] can give a creature that total love, divested of all physical desire… an integral love, in all its limitless purity.” But do we believe what Gide said, or what he did? He may well have loved Madeleine, but he spent less and less time with her, and indulged in affairs and behaviours that he must have known at some level would shock, disturb and hurt her. The burning of the letters, the sole act of protest that Madeleine ever made, was an irreversible turning point, and whether he understood it or not, Gide had to accept that his wife was hurt beyond repair. “What is the use of protesting that I love her more than anything in the world?” he wrote in his Journal. “She would not believe me.” That Madeleine may have needed actions rather than words was not a possibility Gide entertained.

Page 4 of 5 1 2 3 4 5 View All

Printed from Cerise Press: http://www.cerisepress.com

Permalink URL: http://www.cerisepress.com/05/13/wilful-blindness-the-marriage-of-andre-and-madeleine-gide

Page 4 of 5 was printed. Select View All pagination to print all pages.