‘Irina is not the ordinary type of servant. Mrs. Clark told me on the ‘phone that she was really a very cultured person.’
‘Then why’s she doing this sort of work?’
‘She’s an emigre, dear. The revolution in Russia, you know. Why, in Paris there are grand duchesses who are waitresses and chambermaids’
Similar to the Karine family in Snow in Autumn by Irène Némirovsky, Irina is an exile from Russia who left her home and everything dear to her during the Russian Revolution. In The Exile written in 1935, the story begins when Irina arrives to serve the Moore household. Arthur, the younger brother of Mr. Moore is disappointed by Irina’s “pale, reserved” looks when in fact he was hoping for “some lovely refugee wearing an embroidered blouse, with painted eyes and dark, endearing mouth” – a notion he had harbored thanks to Hollywood!
But whatever Irina lacks in looks, she makes up for by being an excellent servant. Even Mr. Moore who is skeptical of Irina’s culinary skills at first becomes easily impressed when Irina serves creamed chicken and celery whipped up from leftover chicken for dinner. Irina drowns herself in work the way no previous help had done, so Mrs. Moore has to call her friends to tell them about the “real treasure” they have found!
But, alas, this happiness does not last long when Mrs. Moore tries to get Irina to open up and share human emotions! Irina tells Mrs. Moore of her tragic past – how she lost her lover while fleeing Russia, the difficulties they faced, while Mrs. Moore remains “secretly appalled by the starkness of the narrative, the curiously indifferent attitude of the woman telling it.”
Sure, the household runs much more smoothly ever since Irina’s arrival, but now with the knowledge of her past, her presence has changed the aura of the house and it makes the other household members take a closer look into their lives.
‘What sort of life are we living,’ Arthur began, passionately, ‘what meaning, what spiritual value -?’ He broke off, ashamed of these large words. For a moment he looked very young, sheepish. But his brow darkened again. ‘Just suffocating in day-to-day material things – doping ourselves comfortably, pretending we’ll never die. Doping ourselves as not to realize – and thinking the dope is all that matters.’
So with Irina’s presence reminding them that everything they cherish can be taken away at a moment’s notice, Mr. Moore has to decide what to do with her.
The Exile is a heavier read than Snow in Autumn. I think I would have liked the story more if there were signs that Irina’s life would turn better – that she will find happiness. Nevertheless, The Exile is a good story and still relevant.