Le journal d’une femme de chambre (A Chambermaid’s Diary) is a subversive book in several respects. Its author, Octave Mirbeau (1848–1917) was an experimental avant-garde writer of transgressive novels which among other themes explored violence, abuse and psychological detachment. An anarchist, revolutionary, and fervent supporter of the Dreyfus faction in French political life, as a critic he also wrote in support of avant garde artists and writers including Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Félicien Rops, Auguste Renoir, Félix Vallotton, Pierre Bonnard and Vincent van Gogh.
In Le journal Mirbeau takes on the hypocrisy of the French upper classes, portraying them through the eyes of the highly intelligent chambermaid Célestine. Her first employer fetishises her boots, a post which ends when she discovers him dead with one of her boots stuffed into his mouth. She then becomes the maid of an upper class couple, the Lanlaires, and is aware that she is being entangled in the power struggles of their marriage. But Célestine is not above class issues herself; in the end she becomes a café hostess who mistreats her servants as badly as she was treated herself.
Le journal was the most successful of Mirbeau’s novels, eventually being translated into nearly thirty languages. You can read the 1900 English translation by Benjamin Tucker online here. For a male writer to be able to understand so well what it was like to be a chambermaid was a considerable achievement.
Gaston de Sainte-Croix’s illustrations for Mirbeau’s text intelligently capture the colour and liveliness of Célestine’s experiences.
This edition of Le journal d’une femme de chambre was published by Les Grands Textes Français in a limited numbered edition of 2,000 copies.
We are very grateful to Philippe Isoard of Librairie In Quarto, Marseille, for these illustrations. The In Quarto catalogue can be found here; where you can buy the book if it is still in stock.