Sunday, March 4, 2018

Ourika, 1823, Claire de Duras- A Book Review of an Almost 200 Year Old Book

I love reading newly published books. The ones that people can't wait until they are on the bookstore shelves or available on Amazon Prime. I love the smell of new books, the firm bindings, the ability for each new book to alter my current state by changing how I think and feel. But I also love old books. Books that were written 20 years ago, 40 years ago, even 100 years ago or more. Timeless treasures that transport the reader but deliver eternal truths.

When I review books, I often look for not only something that I would be interested in, but also a book that would appeal to the masses. Someone of any religious background, from any nationality and from any socioeconomic beginning.

One of my favorite books these past 15 years is  entitled Ourika by Claire de Duras (nee: Claire-Louis Lechat de Coetnempren de Kersaint) Duchess Duras was a fascinating woman from France born into upper society in 1777.  Her family fled France after her father was killed during the French Revolution for refusing to vote in favor of Louis 15th. She married The Duke de Duras in 1797 but wasn't able to return to France until 1808.  In 1814, The Duke was given an important role in French court, where the Duchess de Duras oversaw a brilliant Salon in the Palace. Sick and depressed in 1822, she left French court with her husband and retired to the country. She wrote and began anonymously publishing before her untimely death in 1828.

The Duchess's most popular book is entitled Ourika. She published it privately and only printed 25 to 40 copies. It was then reprinted many times and became a best seller throughout the 1820's in Europe. By 1824, 4 plays were created based on the book. In the last 200 years, many writers have quoted and expanded on Ourika including Goethe. The book Ourika was the first book to have a Black Female Heroine based in Europe.

In 1977, the famous author John Fowles, translated the book into English and it inspired him to write The French Lieutenant's Woman.  He was immediately drawn to the story of Ourika and said that, "It was the first serious attempt by a white novelist to enter a black mind."

Based on a true story, the short book begins from the perspective of a doctor (not identified by name) being called to a French convent to a see a young African nun who was ill. Depressed, struggling with insomnia and fevers, the young nun was extremely small and thin, but was of complete sound mind. The doctor understood that she had found happiness and speaks of curing the past. (page 5)  The doctor knew the young African nun was dying, but went so far as to talk about recovering quickly.  The doctor continues to visit her many times and hears all of Ourika's story.

Ourika was rescued from a slave ship returning from Senegal at the age of 2. She was raised by a very wealthy French family. Ourika loved her guardian and all that surrounded her as she never knew anything different. She was told she was an angel and never thought she was different from all of the light skinned people that surrounded her. She had very little exposure to other children and grew up quite quickly. She was taught English and Italian, painting and dancing and was very well read.

Ourika's benefactor had two grandsons , the youngest named Charles who grew to be Ourika's closest and treasured friend. Charles and his older brother were sent away to school and Ourika mourned the separation.  At the age of 15, she overheard a conversation and came to the realization that, "[I] was black. Dependent, despised, without fortune, without resource, without a single being of my kind to help me through life."  (page 12)  When she became aware of her "negritude", (def.-development of racial consciousness) she began covering her skin and wearing a hat with a veil in public because she was aware that her dark skin tone separated her from all of French society. She never spoke to anyone about how she toiled privately over the realization that her life wouldn't be as she once thought.

In the summer of 1792, the French Revolution was stirring throughout all French societal classes and talks of emancipation began. To Ourika, she wasn't sure about how this would affect her, as she was neither slave nor free.  Charles and his older brother returned home in February of 1793 just after the execution of Louis the 16th.  Ourika and Charles's friendship made them inseparable. "To him, my companionship was like existence itself. He enjoyed it without noticing it. (page 26)
The Terror in France was in 1795, and their family of 4 was left to their own defenses. They knew a very solitude life during that terrible time in France history.

Charles fell in love with a young woman named  Anais, aged 16, he was 21.  Ourika felt so very alone as their marriage loomed. "Nobody needed me, I was isolated from all." (page 33)  Ourika fell very ill and missed the wedding. After Charles and Anais were married, they returned home often to visit. Anais had a beautiful baby boy and Ourika slipped into deeper despair and even questioned if her life wouldn't have been better if she were a black slave of a wealthy landowner.

She prayed that God would take her and help her be void of pain. She continued to be constantly ill. The same friend of her mistress whom she had heard all those years ago speaking of her skin color confronted her about her love and passion for Charles, "...all of your suffering comes from just one thing: and insane and doomed passion for Charles. And if you weren't madly in love with him, you could come perfectly to terms with being black." (page 42)

Ourika had always thought her affections for Charles were sisterly or matronly and this confrontation exposed the root cause of her eternal suffering. She then became gravely ill at this realization believing she had wasted her life away. She fought and hung on desperately to life. "Some instinct drove me toward God. I felt the need to throw myself into his arms and find peace there." (page 44) Ourika eventually did find that peace and her mind and body stabilized. She became a nun and lived peacefully but never fully physically recovered.  As soon as she finished telling her entire story to the doctor, she passed away.

To be honest, I wasn't able to write an actual book review and do this small treasure  the justice I believe it is due.  Most book reviews write themselves, but I felt I needed to explain more about the the author, provide additional historical background and give a detailed account of the life of Ourika.

Why is this story of an African woman living in France so important today even tough it was published close to 200 years ago? Not only was it based on a true story, it has given all of Europe and the Western World a glimpse into the life, the joys, the struggles and heartache of African people. Before this book was published in 1823, most white people had only ever seen black people of African origin in slave or servant positions. It brought about a shift of understanding that we were all human beings and that the idea of some day being equal wasn't an unrealistic idea to throw around. This so appropriately depicted African woman's struggle brought to light that she only found herself in turmoil when she began to think that she was different from everyone that surrounded her in her daily life. The feeling of being different, of being alone can cause the strongest of people to wallow in grief.

To this day, racism, sexism, and inequality abound and are ever present even in the farthest reaches of our world. As a Caucasian American woman (of Sicilian and Dutch descent) I have such a limited finite view of what being alone, sheltered, or without prospects or hope would actually look like. I have never experienced the feeling of being set apart or different or without anyone to call my own. But like Ourika, I have loved deeply, mourned continuously, adored family, been so very thankful to God for the life that has been given to me. Like Ourika, I did not understand what I was thinking or feeling until someone pulled me aside to explain their observations. Because of what she felt, feelings that every human being experiences, I was able to connect with this heroine and feel even if for a moment that I understood her heart. Ourika speaks to my heart, to my soul, to my desire to see things differently.

I have read this treasure 4 times and can honestly say, each time I find something new. Sometimes a quote, sometimes a visual picture of what Claire de Duras is trying to communicate to the reader. This is such an eye opening book for me and it touches my heart each time I devour its pages.  I can not recommend this book enough and all works by Claire de Duras.  Because with the reading of each new book, we often discover something about ourselves. I discovered a love for historical writing.

Works by Claire de Duras
Ourika (1823)
Edouard (1825)
Pensees de Louis XIV extraites  de ses ouvrages et de ses lettres manuscrites (1827)

Posthumous Works
Le frere ange (1829)
Reflexion e prieres inedites (1839)
Olivier, ou le secret (1971)

Unpublished Works
"Les memoires de Sophie"
Le moine, ou l'abbe du Mont Saint-Bernard"

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