Le Penitencier [The Reformatory], 1922

Part 2 of the Les Thibault series

Plot Summary

Here I present an overview of the main developments (with spoilers), but there are many small and beautiful details that cannot be captured in a plot summary. I do not, for example, mention the lovely little passages about the character Gise, the young half-Malagasy girl who lives with the Thibault family. Gise will become important in future parts of the series.

In this second novel in the 7-part Les Thibault series, the reader is again put in medias res (in the middle of the action). Antoine Thibault arrives unannounced at the Fontanin family home, where Daniel de Fontanin lives with his mother Thérèse and sister Jenny. It is one year to the day since Antoine collected his younger brother Jacques and Jacques’s classmate Daniel from the police station after the boys had run away from home only to be apprehended in Marseille and returned to Paris. The boys are now 15 years old and Antoine, a junior physician, is in his mid-twenties.  

Between the closing events of the first novel and the beginning of the second novel, Jacques was sent away to the provincial reformatory for wayward boys founded by his authoritarian father. He’s been there for 9 months and during this time, Antoine has neither seen Jacques nor had any contact. All information about him has been delivered by his father, who visits the reformatory once a month. His father says that visits are not permitted: “Dans le régime de ton frère, l’important, c’est la regularité de l’isolement” [“In your brother’s regime, the important thing is the regularity of the isolation”].

Antoine suddenly finds himself tortured by the idea of Jacques’s isolation and inability to communicate with the outside world: “cette idee m’est intolerable” [“that idea is intolerable to me”]. Antoine and Daniel had seen one another in passing the previous day and Antoine was struck by the fact that Daniel hadn’t asked for any news about Jacques. He surmised that Jacques must have written to Daniel which prompted his visit to the Fontanin home. Antoine explains the situation to Daniel and says “vous êtes le seul qui puissiez me rassurer- ou me faire intervenir” [“you are the only one who can reassure me—or make me intervene”].

In the Fontanin home, Antoine remembers the sensation that he felt when he was last there—a special warmth that encircled the mother and two children: “l’atmosphère où baignaient les Fontanin” [“the atmosphere in which the Fontanins bathe”]. Daniel is prompted by his mother to admit that he had received a few letters, each shorter and less detailed, and without a return address. Daniel believes that Jacques is living with a professor somewhere in the countryside, and has no idea of the truth.  Daniel shows Antoine the first and longest letter in which Jacques wrote that his father and brother visit every Sunday, a lie, and begged Daniel not to try to find him or write to him.

This letter, full of disinformation, upsets Antoine greatly and he decides that me must rescue Jacques as soon as possible, but how? He will visit Jacques unannounced and without his father knowing. He undertakes the 2-hour train journey to Crouy, a small town on the river Oise, north of the town of Soissons. It’s a beautiful spring day and the countryside is beautiful, a stark contrast to the high walls of the reform school with the words FONDATION OSCAR THIBAULT emblazoned in gold letters. All the windows have bars and Antoine is struck by its prison-like appearance. The staff are disconcerted by his visit and the Director finally arrives to greet him after a delay. Monsieur Faîsme is a fairly young man, very talkative and seemingly pleasant, but there is noticeable procrastination in letting Antoine see Jacques.  When he finally sees him, Antoine is surprised: “Etait-ce lui? Il avait tellement change, tellement grandi, qu’Antoine le regardait presque sans le reconnaitre” [“Is that him? He has changed so much, grown so much, that Antoine looked at him almost without recognizing him”].

The visit is unsatisfactory—on the surface everything seems well-run and agreeable, but Jacques is uncommunicative and Antoine feels that something is not right. He departs to catch his train back to Paris, but as he approaches the station, Antoine spontaneously decides to miss the train, return to the reformatory and spend the rest of the day with Jacques. M. Faîsme is flustered by his reappearance but receives permission to take Jacques out of the reformatory until 6pm. Antoine takes him for a long walk and lunch and finally, after a long silence, Jacques cries his heart out and reveals the truth of his unhappy existence: he receives almost no education and spends so much time alone that it’s having an effect on his physical and mental health. Antoine promises Jacques that he will get him out of the reformatory. Jacques hesitates, because of their father, so Antoine promises that he will look after Jacques himself.

Antoine must battle to get Jacques released. He speaks to his father and tells him about the visit to the reformatory, but M. Thibault is angered and obstinate. Antoine turns to Father Vécard, who had originally acquiesced to Jacques being sent away, but Antoine knows the priest’s help is his only recourse. Rather than spelling out an elaborate argument to the priest, he simply describes the day he spent with Jacques and says: “le sort de Jacques est maintenant entre vos mains, Monsieur l’abbé. Vous seul pouvez faire entendre raison a mon père” [“Jacques’s fate is now in your hands, Father. Only you can make my father hear reason”]. The priest is moved by Jacques’s plight and does know how to get M. Thibault to change his mind: not through fatherly love but instead through Thibault’s snobbery and ambition. Having a son in a reformatory might appear suspect to members of the French Institute, to which Thibault wants to be elected, and elections are fast approaching. The priest promises to help Antoine oversee Jacques, the boys will move to a different apartment within the same building and family meals will be taken together.

In the Fontanin home, there have also been developments. Thérèse receives a surprise visit from the daughter of her cousin Noèmie. Nicole is an attractive teenager who has endured the embarrassment of her mother’s scandalous love life. Noèmie is having an affair with Thérèse’s husband Jérôme, but has followed another lover to Belgium and Switzerland, dragging Nicole with her. Jérôme also followed and lived in a menage à trois with Noèmie and her lover. This is difficult information for Thérèse, hearing the depths to which Jérôme has sunk and knowing that this could affect her children. She invites Nicole to live with her on condition that the children don’t learn the truth, to which Nicole is all too happy to agree. Daniel, who looks older than is 15 years, is now fixated on his attraction to Nicole and tries aggressively to seduce her. She gently rebuffs him.

Pastor James Gregory, the British Christian Scientist, again intervenes in the Fontanin family. He has received a message from Jérôme which expresses the hope of being forgiven by Thérèse and allowed home. Gregory tries to persuade Thérèse to grant this. He uses religious arguments about forgiveness and justice. Thérèse, though moved by these points, explains to Gregory what Jérôme has done and how he has used large amounts of family money to pay off Noèmie’s debts. Pastor Gregory does not care about Jérôme’s past behaviour or his potential impact on the children. When Thérèse ultimately tells him ‘no’: “il se taisent, son regard, son visage exprimaient cette universelle pitié où se complaisant ceux qui croient être en possession de la Verité” [“he didn’t reply, his face expressed that universal pity by which pleasure is given to those who believe themselves in possession of The Truth”]. We are disappointed at the novel’s end when Thérèse changes her mind and writes an apology to Gregory and announces that she will stop divorce proceedings against Jérôme. Gregory has used his power over her in a way that will likely bring harm.

The next major development in the novel is the long-awaited reunion of Jacques and Daniel. Antoine brings Jacques to the Fontanin home (against the orders of his father) and they all spend the afternoon together. Although Antoine and Jacques still find comfort from contact with Mme de Fontanin, the afternoon is awkward: Daniel is obsessed with Nicole and Jacques is still recovering from his year of institutionalization; Jenny is turning into a young woman and doesn’t know what to make of Jacques, who is painfully gawky; and Nicole struggles with Daniel’s unwanted attention. Jacques is hurt by Daniel’s coolness: “De minute en minute son ami lui devenait étranger” [“Minute by minute his friend was becoming a stranger”]. As the Thibault brothers are about to leave, Daniel pulls Jacques aside and apologizes. Where will the friendship go from this low point?

Back in the boys’ apartment, Antoine struggles to balance his responsibilities as a junior doctor with his responsibilities towards Jacques. Jacques cannot go to school because he is too far behind in his education. Tutors come to the apartment to give him instruction, but otherwise he spends many hours alone, just like in the reformatory. He develops a relationship with the young attractive housekeeper, Lisbeth, a substitute for her aunt, the usual housekeeper, who is recovering from a fall. The novel finishes as Jacques and Lisbeth consummate their relationship just ahead of Lisbeth’s return home to Alsace.  So now, like Daniel in The Grey Notebook, Jacques is also secretly sexually experienced.

Some thoughts on Le Pénitencier [The Reformatory]

The novel is only 175 pages long, but is filled with huge dramatic pull as we gradually discover what has become of Jacques. The scenes of Antoine’s surprise visit to his father’s reform school are powerful and well-paced to ensure maximum anticipation from the reader. Is everything at the school not quite as it seems? Why is Jacques so subdued? Will Antoine be able to rescue him? Will Jacques and Daniel resume their intense friendship? In 2003, the television channel France 2 broadcast a mini-series based on Les Thibault, adapted by (among others) the celebrated screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, and one can see how the novel’s dramatic qualities are well-suited for a screen adaptation [https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0327369/].

M. Thibault and Jacques at the reformatory. Still from the 2003 series, Les Thibault

Between the first and second novel Jacques and Daniel have gone from age 14 to 15, a time that is full of physical change for boys, and both have grown and matured substantially. Jacques had been smaller than Daniel, but when reunited, they are now the same height. Over the year of separation, their lives had moved in starkly different directions, but both are now secretly fixated on the young women who are under their roofs. During the passionate friendship depicted in the first novel, their feelings were poured out into the grey notebook, not in person. Are those feelings now subsumed within the romances they are pursuing at home? We are left unsure of what will become of their friendship.

It is noted that Daniel is now a student at the famous Louis-le-Grand school. Simply mentioning the name Lycée Louis-le-Grand would have significant connotations to French readers—it is where Voltaire, Molière, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Degas and Gustave Caillebotte (the subject of another of my articles) received their education, not to mention the many famous politicians, military officers and industrialists. It would be the British equivalent of Eton College. This is another way in which Daniel and Jacques have diverged, and it remains to be seen how they can find common ground. One feels bereft for Jacques, who was powerless to control the events in his life and is struggling to overcome the effects of institutionalization.

The Lycée Louis-le-Grand

Another interesting detail that comes up regularly involves the town of Maisons-Lafitte, an affluent suburb west of Paris. In the novel, it is the tranquil location of country homes for Parisians wishing to escape the city on weekends or during the summer. It was formerly known as Maisons-sur-Seine [“Houses on the Seine”], but was renamed Maisons-Lafitte in 1882 after the banker Jacques Lafitte who established a housing development on the 17th century estate of Chateau de Maisons. In Les Thibault, both the Thibault and Fontanin families have properties in Maisons-Lafitte, and it was here, not in school, that Jacques and Daniel first became friends. It’s interesting to see that although the Fontanin family is no longer affluent, they must have possessed wealth and still have certain trappings and expectations.

Finally, I’ll return to a question I raised in my first piece on The Grey Notebook; I noted that Pastor James Gregory is a member of the Christian Science Church and wondered how common that would have been in 1904 (when the events of the novel begin). A little research has shown me that it would not have been very common, but the church was certainly making inroads in Europe. The Boston-based church was founded in 1879 by the Mary Baker Eddy. In 1896, 100 copies of Baker Eddy’s founding text Science and Health were ordered from Brentano’s Bookstore in Paris, giving an indication of the level of interest. Most early practitioners were a mix of Americans and English-speaking French people because the book had not yet been translated into French. Services were held in the Hotel Continental and it wasn’t until 1906 that 26 members created the First Church of Christ Scientist in Paris. We’ve seen how Gregory used a fervent Christian Science style of prayer when Jenny was seriously ill and how it appeared to have brought about her recovery. Gregory is developing a Svengali-like hold over Thérèse and it remains to be seen how he will use his power.

Next: Part 3, La Belle Saison [which has been translated as The Springtime of Life or High Summer] 1923

Published by londonbelletrist

Writer, scholar and artist

5 thoughts on “Le Penitencier [The Reformatory], 1922

    1. Hi Shira, thank you for reading and commenting! I really look forward to you reading this series and hearing your thoughts! I’m enjoying the series very much and find it such an interesting glimpse into that period just before WWI.
      Karen 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My pleasure, Karen! I’ve been desperately tired, and trying to get more Beta Readers so that I can finish the final edits and publish Do Better into the public domain (non-commercial). Then, I’ll feel freer to read and enjoy more, and this book, with comments, will be at the top of my list! I don’t think I’ve found you on GoodReads, if you are there, could you add me, please (I’m ShiraDest everywhere…), so that I can add a note that you recommended the book to me?

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I’m not on GoodReads, though perhaps I should be since I’d love to have more people following the Les Thibault series with me. I’ll look for you when I get around to setting up an account. I hope you get a chance to rest and recharge soon, your project sounds very worthwhile!


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