To admit you to the “little
nucleus,” the “little group,” the “little clan” at the Verdurins’, one
condition sufficed, but that one was indispensable: you must give tacit
adherence to a Creed one of whose articles was that the young pianist whom Mme
Verdurin had taken under her patronage that year and of whom she said “Really,
it oughtn’t to be allowed, to play Wagner as well as that!” licked both Planté
and Rubinstein hollow, and that Dr Cottard was a more brilliant diagnostician
than Potain. Each “new recruit” whom the Verdurins failed to persuade that the
evenings spent by other people, in other houses than theirs, were as dull as
ditch-water, saw himself banished forthwith. Women being in this respect more
rebellious than men, more reluctant to lay aside all worldly curiosity and the
desire to find out for themselves whether other salons might not sometimes be
as entertaining, and the Verdurins feeling, moreover, that this critical spirit
and this demon of frivolity might, by their contagion, prove fatal to the
orthodoxy of the little church, they had been obliged to expel, one after
another, all those of the “faithful” who were of the female sex.
Apart from the doctor’s young wife, they were reduced almost exclusively that season (for all that Mme Verdurin herself was a thoroughly virtuous woman who came of a respectable middle-class family, excessively rich and wholly undistinguished, with which she had gradually and of her own accord severed all connection) to a young woman almost of the demi-monde, a Mme de Crécy, whom Mme Verdurin called by her Christian name, Odette, and pronounced a “love,” and to the pianist’s aunt, who looked as though she had, at one period, “answered the door”: ladies quite ignorant of society, who in their naivety had so easily been led to believe that the Princesse de Sagan and the Duchesse de Guermantes were obliged to pay large sums of money to other poor wretches in order to have anyone at their dinner-parties, that if somebody had offered to procure them an invitation to the house of either of these noblewomen, the concierge and the cocotte would have contemptuously declined.
The Verdurins never invited you to dinner; you had your “place laid’ there. There was never any programme for the evening’s entertainment. The young pianist would play, but only if “the spirit moved him”, for no one was forced to do anything, and, as M. Verdurin used to say: “We’re all friends here. Liberty Hall, you know!” If the pianist suggested playing the Ride of the Valkyries or the Prelude to Tristan, Mme Verdurin would protest, not because the music was displeasing to her, but, on the contrary, because it made too violent an impression on her. “Then you want me to have one of my headaches? You know quite well it’s the same every time he plays that. I know what I’m in for. Tomorrow, when I want to get up—nothing doing!” If he was not going to play they talked, and one of the friends—usually the painter who was in favour there that year—would “spin,” as M. Verdurin put it, “a damned funny yarn that made ‘em all split with laughter,” and especially Mme Verdurin, who had such an inveterate habit of taking literally the figurative descriptions of her emotions that Dr Cottard (then a promising young practitioner) had once had to reset her jaw, which she had dislocated from laughing too much.
Evening dress was barred, because you were all “good pals” and didn’t want to look like the “boring people” who were to be avoided like the plague and only asked to the big evenings, which were given as seldom as possible and then only if it would amuse the painter or make the musician better known. The rest of the time you were quite happy playing charades and having supper in fancy dress, and there was no need to mingle any alien ingredient with the little “clan.”
But as the “good pals” came to take a more and more prominent place in Mme Verdurin’s life, the bores, the outcasts, grew to include everybody and everything that kept her friends away from her, that made them sometimes plead previous engagements, the mother of one, the professional duties of another, the “little place in the country” or the ill-health of a third. If Dr Cottard felt bound to leave as soon as they rose from table, so as to go back to some patient who was seriously ill, “Who knows,” Mme Verdurin would say, “it might do him far more good if you didn’t go disturbing him again this evening; he’ll have a good night without you; tomorrow morning you can go round early and you’ll find him cured.” From the beginning of December she was sick with anxiety at the thought that the ”faithful” might “defect” on Christmas and New Year’s Days. The pianist’s aunt insisted that he must accompany her, on the latter, to a family dinner at her mother’s.
“You don’t suppose she’ll die, your mother,” exclaimed Mme Verdurin bitterly, “if you don’t have dinner with her on New Year’s Day, like people in the provinces!”
Her uneasiness was kindled again in
Holy Week: “Now you, Doctor, you’re a sensible, broad-minded man; you’ll come
of course on Good Friday, just like any other day?” she said to Cottard in the
first year of the little “nucleus”, in a loud and confident voice, as though
there could be no doubt of his answer. But she trembled as she waited for it,
for if he did not come she might find herself condemned to die alone.
“I shall come on Good Friday—to say good-bye to you, for we’re off to spend the holidays in Auvergne.”
“In Auvergne? To be eaten alive by fleas and vermin! A fine lot of good that will do you!” And after a solemn pause: “If you’d only told us, we would have tried to get up a party, and all gone there together in comfort.”
And so, too, if one of the “faithful” had a friend, or one of the ladies a young man, who was liable, now and then, to make them miss an evening, the Verdurins, who were not in the least afraid of a woman’s having a lover, provided that she had him in their company, loved him in their company and did not prefer him to their company, would say: “Very well, then, bring your friend along.” And he would be engaged on probation, to see if he was willing to have no secrets from Mme Verdurin, whether he was susceptible of being enrolled in the “little clan.” If he failed to pass, the faithful one who had introduced him would be taken on one side, and would be tactfully assisted to break with the friend or lover or mistress. But if the test proved satisfactory, the newcomer would in turn be numbered among the “faithful”. And so when, that year, the demi-mondaine told M. Verdurin that she had made the acquaintance of such a charming man, M. Swann, and hinted that he would very much like to be allowed to come, M. Verdurin carried the request at once to his wife. (He never formed an opinion on any subject until she had formed hers, it being his special function to carry out her wishes and those of the “faithful” generally, which he did with boundless ingenuity.)
“My dear, Mme de Crécy has something to say to you. She would like to bring one of her friends here, a M. Swann. What do you say?”
“Why, as if anybody could refuse anything to a little angel like that. Be quiet; no one asked your opinion. I tell you you’re an angel.”
“Just as you like,” replied Odette, in an affected tone, and then added: “You know I’m not fishing for compliments.”
“Very well; bring your friend, if he’s nice.”
Now there was nothing whatsoever in common between the “little nucleus” and the society which Swann frequented, and true socialites would have thought it hardly worth while to occupy so exceptional a position in the fashionable world in order to end up with an introduction to the Verdurins. But Swann was so fond of women that, once he had got to know more or less all the women of the aristocracy and they had nothing more to teach him, he had ceased to regard those naturalisation papers, almost a patent of nobility, which the Faubourg Saint-Germain had bestowed upon him, except as a sort of negotiable bond, a letter of credit with no intrinsic value but which enabled him to improvise a status for himself in some out-of-the-way place in the country, or in some obscure quarter of Paris, where the good-looking daughter of a local squire or town clerk had taken his fancy. For at such times desire, or love, would revive in him a feeling of vanity from which he was now quite free in his everyday life (although it was doubtless this feeling which had originally prompted him towards the career as a man of fashion in which he had squandered his intellectual gifts on frivolous amusements and made use of his erudition in matters of art only to advise society ladies what pictures to buy and how to decorate their houses), which made him eager to shine, in the eyes of any unknown beauty he had fallen for, with an elegance which the name Swann did not in itself imply. And he was most eager when the unknown beauty was in humble circumstances. Just as it is not by other men of intelligence that an intelligent man is afraid to be thought a fool, so it is not by a nobleman but by an oaf that a man of fashion is afraid of finding his social value underrated. Three-quarters of the mental ingenuity and the mendacious boasting squandered ever since the world began by people who are only cheapened thereby, have been aimed at inferiors. And Swann, who behaved simply and casually with a duchess, would tremble for fear of being despised, and would instantly begin to pose, when in the presence of a housemaid.