Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 11: No 2) >> An Early Novel of Detection, Marie de Berniere >> Page 11

image of pageExplore Inside

Page 11

Scholarship | 2003
Transcription 1853 appearance—a book containing two other novelettes. The Literary World
printed a letter from Philadelphia, stating "Nowhere else may we find so good a
picture of life in New Orleans as in Marie de Berniere its author has seen and
appreciated everything. It is novel too; for society there is not as we cold
Northerners can comprehend it without long familiarity, and even then we rarely
possess the open-sesame to knowledge of life, sympathy" (as quoted in Letters III,
241; see also Guilds 1992, 217; Butterworth and Kibler, 87-89).
Like Poe's Dupin and Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, the resulting
novelette is narrated by the somewhat dense assistant sleuth, to whom everything
must be explained by the amateur detective. The narrator William, a naif from west
Tennessee, finds an entree into society through his friend Brandon, whose sister
has married into the city's highest social class. The two Tennesseans attend a
masked ball at Marie's, "one of the most splendid affairs that had ever taken place
in New Orleans. It was decidedly beyond anything that I had ever dreamed of as
likely to occur in our time and country" (34). Events are largely witnessed by the
narrator himself, who is assigned to spy on Marie's servants while she is away, and
who accompanies Brandon in his detective exploits. While Simms is not perfect in
the execution of point of view, the reader surmises that the amateur detective is the
source of the information ("For a long time that night, until the short hours, we
conferred together" [80]; "Of the long and serious conversation which I had that
night with Frederick Brandon, I shall say nothing; as much of the material was
necessarily employed the next day in his conference with Marie de Berniere" [86-
86]; a letter "which I was permitted to read as he wrote. . ." [167], and others).
Marie de Berniere is set in an eighteenth-century house in old New Orleans
around 1825. "The mansion ... was a huge antique double establishment, situated
in the rue de , the `court' precinct in the old French city. Its dimensions were
sufficiently ample even for the vast entertainment which it now afforded" (34). It
had a "broad passage-way" (34), many apartments, a piazza and porches, and
flights of stairs between several floors (37). An "old Spanish structure" (116), the
mansion was "gloomy and mysterious.... large, lofty, and of antique character. It
was probably one of the very oldest fabrics of this already ancient city" (143).
Most of the action occurs within the house as the two "detectives" seek to
disprove the city's conjecture and Marie's fear that she is being visited by the
ghost of her husband.
The central character Marie de Berniere is a young woman, now guilt-
ridden over the death of her husband. A classic abused wife, she was driven to hate
him because of his abuse, a fictional theme quite ahead of its time in the
nineteenth-century (Shillingsburg, SiN). She suffered his "tyranny," scorn,
"jealousy and intoxication,""caprice and violence" (67). He separated her from her
friends and parent, and at last "seized [her] by the hair," and "smote" her, bringing