Silence is a characteristic that is often expected of women. It makes women into whatever someone else wants them to be—a particular kind of pliability that is often required of women who wish to survive. Lilliet Berne, the orphan turned courtesan turned opera star living in late nineteenth century France, who serves as the protagonist of Alexander Chee’s novel The Queen of the Night, embodies the complicated interchange of power and weakness that accompanies silent women, while also serving as a exploration of a societal norm that has not gone away.
Berne, we learn, was born in Minnesota to a Scottish father and Swiss mother—the latter of whom is extremely religious. While Berne is clearly an astonishingly talented singer from a very young age, this talent is not, in Berne’s mother’s eyes, a gift. After Berne fails a Bible test, her mother ties a piece of velvet around Berne’s mouth as punishment. When Berne is allowed to sing again in church after finally passing her exam, she says:
I hadn’t sung in so long, the noise of my voice startled me, but it was there, not only undiminished, but perhaps even changed into something more powerful than before. I wanted more than anything to use it, but instead I held it back, tightening my throat slightly. I made a deliberately thin, weak noise that blended quietly, like the noise of another girl.
I could tell, for all I was trying to blend my voice, that my mother heard every effort. I stood out even now. But as the second chorus began, she looked over at me and nodded her head, pleased at last again.
Not long after, Berne pretends to have lost her voice entirely, much to her mother’s pleasure. She can, however, only go on so long with that pretense, and so she goes out to the far end of her family’s property to let loose. Her mother hears her and is not pleased; the ribbon goes on again, and in protest, Berne pretends to have had a fever and to have gone entirely mute. Soon after, everyone in her family but Berne falls ill of an actual fever and dies. Thus begins Berne’s belief in her voice being cursed, a belief that will follow her throughout the rest of The Queen of the Night.
Berne then leaves Minnesota to try to find her mother’s family in Lucerne, Switzerland, but instead ends up in Paris. Along the journey and throughout the remainder of the novel, Berne uses silence as a means of protection and a means of seduction. When Berne becomes a courtesan in Paris she notes that she had “tricks [that helped her] get by,” and that, “The less I told men, the better they thought they knew me.” Her silence then, “let…[her] be whatever or whomever they needed…[her] to be.” This is true, as well, when she becomes one of the most pursued and talented—and wealthy—opera singers of the late nineteenth century.
Berne’s story is not unlike those of other courtesans of the time—women like Marie Duplessis, who was born to a family of poor Norman peasants, with an entirely different name, and finds her way to Paris after being sold to a seventy-year-old man at the age of fourteen by her father. Duplessis determined that her new role was better than the alternative—a shop girl, working for thirteen hours a day, six days a week for only twenty-two francs a month. She did very well for herself, in comparison to this other fate, and married into nobility.
Duplessis’s story is not the only one to which Berne’s has similarities—there are other stories upon which Chee likely based some of her story, as acknowledged in his extensive afterword. Cora Pearl, who makes an appearance in The Queen of the Night, along with La Païva and Apollonie Sabatier, other famous courtesans who found their way out of being kept women and into wealth, are models for Berne. In a way, all of these women, including Berne, are fantasies, both for their former clients and for us, the readers. The idea that a woman, living in an unjust society in which she is unlikely to break out of a system that requires her dependence on men—let alone become wealthy off of men’s predilections for varied sex—is seductive. These women appear to have escaped the confines of society’s expectations and, in doing so, fabulously clothed and bejeweled, speak to our own need to break free.
It is the stories of these lucky few that keep us going, even if their endings are far from ideal. The idea that maintaining the roles thrust upon us until we can assume our true forms, having bought real freedom, is one that is still pervasive; if we are lucky, these stories seem to say, we can use our silence to get the lives we want. But the end of these stories make clear that to have a voice is our actual strength—not a curse.