Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Diary of Mademoiselle D'Arvers : Toru Dutt

Image Credit : Barnes and Noble
It's funny how life can just rush you by, and here I am, looking at my Shelfari bookshelf, and there is this little admonition - "You’ve read 5 books this year. Last year you read 30 books, so you’re behind your pace." That's what I get every time I log on to Shelfari. Last year, I took a career sabbatical, and spent 7 months in China, where I had little opportunity to read. I would have thought that this year would be better. Yet, here I am - just 5 books and already it's March! I am behind my pace. Behind life. Behind happiness. Behind every little nothing that counts as nothing. 

Toru Dutt on the right, with her sister Aru. 

But well, Shelfari will be happy to know that I did read Toru Dutt's quaint little novella The Diary of Mademoiselle D'Arvers. Toru Dutt is that rare Indian author - credited with writing what is considered the first French novel by an Indian author, and the first English novel by an Indian woman. I didn't know that she wrote novels- children in India grow up reading her poems, including the famous Our Casuarina Tree. It's that same poetry that breathes its way into The Diary of Mademoiselle D'Arvers as well. Set in France, the novel is an intimate look into the life and thoughts of 15-year-old Marguerite, fresh from her convent education, and extremely religious. 

Marguerite 'returns to her family and experiences the first stirrings of love, only to find herself entangled in a complicated net of relationships.' Interestingly, Toru Dutt wrote this novel in secret, and it was only discovered after her early death by her father, who then undertook the task of ensuring that these poignant works were not lost to posterity. It still amazes me how an Indian woman in the 18th century could have written with such depth while setting the novel in as foreign a setting as France. As noted in the introduction, Toru Dutt's Indian roots give themselves away sometimes - in the strong familial bonds to the piety shown by the women to their husbands - and even a little sentence like this : "His coloring was of an almost feminine fairness, that denotes his high birth." Ah! The deeply religious Christian that Toru Dutt was could not overcome the traditional Indian longing for 'fair skin.' 

What of the novel itself? There is beauty in every sentence. Marguerite displays a maturity beyond her years - her first tryst with love is shaded with doom, but she survives the terrible onslaught of circumstance and fate to find conjugal happiness. Yet, there is a funereal thought that runs through the book - and it gives the novel a poignancy that reminded me a bit of Wuthering Heights. 

Verdict : A little gem of Indian literature. 

Rating : 3.5/5 

PS: Isn't it strange? I wrote this review on Toru Dutt's birthday. (March 4, 1856 – August 30, 1877) 


  1. I'm glad you visisted my blog because now I found yours and the first post I read is so very interesting. I'm sadly ignorant when it comes to Indian books. I like the idea that this is a French novel from an Indian persepctive, so to speak.
    I can relate to your first paragraph. I feel behind everything as well.

  2. Wow!! Nice review... Now am tempted to read this work of fiction after a long hiatus... Yes nice coincidence that you wrote this review on Toru Dutt's birthday...
    And yes I too relate well to the "behind everything" feeling...

  3. Nice discovery and nice review, Soul. I haven't heard of Toru Dutt, and it is amazing that she was the first Indian woman to write a novel in English and French. That is quite an accomplishment! It is also amazing that she wrote in the 19th century. It is sad that she died young. One can only imagine how many more wonderful works she would have left for modern readers. That line you have quoted about 'feminine fairness' and 'high birth' made me smile :)

    My reading is going fine this year. But I am behind in everything else :) I hope your reading picks up in March. Hope you have a wonderful reading year!

  4. @Caroline - Indian literature is a vast field - I hope that you will delve into it someday. :-). And thanks for dropping in.

    @Thoughts - Haha, I think you can think of breaking out of your non-fiction mode. Much of my life reads like fiction anyway, so you are already well acquainted with it hehe.

    @Vishy - I thought that every kid in India read Toru Dutt! How ignorant I was in that assumption! Please do read some of her poems - she was an amazing woman, to write like that at that age.

  5. I knew nothing about this author before reading this review. This sounds like a delightful little book :)

  6. I have no idea that Shelfari did that to you? Did you sign up for a challenge or what? You can look me up at Jovenus. Although I'm not the most diligent one to update the books I read. I think Good Read are better, but I like shelfari's graphics.

  7. @Sam - I thought I replied to your comment, but it seems to have disappeared! I didn't know Toru Dutt was a novelist till I read this.

    @Jo - I will add you on Shelfari. :-)