Claire de Duras
Not much is known about the life of Claire de Duras. What we do know of her is that she was a duchess of Duras. She was born in France but had moved to London during the French Revolution. There she met another French exile who will influence her career greatly Chateaubriand. He would encourage her to write and he also helped her publish her works.
This work, Ourika was one of the few of her works that were published during her lifetime. It was published in 1823, with little pomp or acclaim.
Ourika, like much of her work handle with complex subjects, often portraying the oppressed and marginalized characters. Reading this book, one can’t help but think that she was a woman born in the wrong times. From the first few sentences, you can tell how brilliant of a writer she is. But people in her times didn’t care. She was seen as a writer of little regard, who primarily writes sentimental novels with little real artistic value.
The plot of the novella follows a sick nun, retelling her life story to a doctor. She’s a child of a slave from Senegal, saved by an aristocratic French lady.
One thing that is truly striking about this novella is how the author can understand and portray what it is like to be “The Other”. It shows just how devastating the realization can be. Ourika is the ideal of her age. Both from the outside and the inside, she is everything one might desire from a woman in that era. But, she’s black. That single fact erases every other thing about her. And, once she becomes aware of her “Otherness”, it will destroy her.
Bit by bit she fades. Her depression becomes despair. That abyss of despair becomes a wish, a wish that she was never adopted. She tells herself that she would rather have been a slave, tolling for others her whole life and not this. Like this, she could never be a mother, a wife, someone who is with her equals. Being a slave, she would have all that. Freedom does not exist for her. At least that is what she thinks. That is probably my biggest take away from this book, the way this realization of “Otherness” can derail somebodies life in its totality.
I would recommend this forgotten, but none the less true, work of art to anyone who loves great writing. Sentence by sentence Claire de Duras is an impressive writer. She blends learned wisdom with an aesthetic quality in a very impressive way.
Equally, if you have lived your life and never felt like you are truly a minority, someone whose true self does not belong there, this book is for you. This is the closest thing you will get to living in someone else’s skin.