Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief (1843) [also known as Le Mouchoir; or, an Autobiographical Romance]

Warren S. Walker (Texas Tech University)

Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 130-133.

Copyright © 1978 by Warren S. Walker.  Placed online with the kind permission of Warren S. Walker, and of Shoe String Press, Inc.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Chapter numbers [in square brackets] have been inserted by the webmaster at approximately the point where each chapter begins, to facilitate locating particular plot incidents in the text.

— Hugh C. MacDougall

[1] Set in Paris and New York in the 1830s, this fable is narrated by a pocket handkerchief, an article which at that time was used more for show than for blow. It is, thus, distinguished for its beauty rather than for the function of ordinary handkerchiefs. It begins its autobiography by establishing its ancestry back through several generations of flax plants, starting in America and then moving to France when a large shipment of flaxseed was captured by a French privateer. Every flax plant and its linen offspring enjoy a special kind of clairvoyance which unites their perceptions with those of both their vegetable ancestors and their human associates. For this reason all pieces of linen are wiser and better informed than is generally supposed, and the observations of a sophisticated pocket handkerchief provide a most fitting vehicle for the broad social satire of the story.

[2-3] Part of a bolt of fine cambric, the pocket handkerchief is to be purchased, while still in its undecorated state, by Adrienne de la Rocheaimard, the orphaned granddaughter of the Viscountess de la Rocheaimard. [4] It is her intention to trim it with fine lace as a gift for the dauphine, who, some time after the restoration of the Bourbons, had arranged a small pension for the aged and widowed viscountess. The July Revolution of 1830 intervened, however, causing the deposition of Charles X and a termination of the pension. [5] The old woman sells precious items from her trousseau to maintain herself and her granddaughter in very frugal circumstances, and Adrienne becomes a seamstress for a milliner. [6] Sensing Adrienne’s inexperience in the workaday world, the milliner exploits the girl ruthlessly. She pays the refined young noblewoman fifteen sous a day, less than she pays her other employees, even though she makes a greater profit from Adrienne’s superior workmanship. When her grandmother falls ill, Adrienne spends all her remaining cash, twenty-eight francs, to purchase the piece of fine cambric, no longer to be used as a gift but to be sold for a profit. After each day’s work for the milliner, Adrienne spends several hours of the night trimming the pocket handkerchief with precious antique lace. She is reduced to a diet of bread and water, though she manages to buy small quantities of wine for her dying grandparent. [7] The old viscountess dies just as Adrienne finishes the exquisitely beautiful needlework. Having sold all of their other valuables in order to survive, Adrienne now sells the pocket handkerchief to get enough money to give her grandmother a decent burial. [8] A commission agent, Désirée, pays her forty-five francs for the handkerchief and immediately resells it for a hundred francs to Colonel Silky, a Yankee purchaser (and smuggler) for the fashionable shop of Bobbinet and Gull. This is a New York business firm in which Silky owns a large interest.

[9] In New York City the pocket handkerchief is purchased by Eudosia, daughter of Henry Halfacre, land speculator and flamboyant member of the nouveaux riches. Eudosia is fascinated by this bit of linen finery when she learns from Bobbinet that its price of $100 will exceed considerably that of the most expensive handkerchief hitherto sold in America. [10] Her millionaire father feels it quite appropriate that Eudosia be indulged in this little venture in conspicuous consumption. Such a status symbol should expedite her acceptance among elite circles in the metropolis. Ironically, Eudosia, having now spent her allowance, cannot meet her three-dollar subscription payment due to the Widow’s and Orphan’s Society fund; so she asks her close friend Clara Caverly, daughter of a moderately successful lawyer, to take care of this obligation for her.

[11] At the most fashionable ball of the season that night, Eudosia is the center of attention, all of the women present wishing to examine the country’s most expensive pocket handkerchief. But at this most demonstrative moment of materialistic success, the Halfacres are toppled from their financial pinnacle, for this is the day in 1832 when President Jackson withdraws government deposits from the Bank of the United States. [12] A momentary panic ensues during which creditors call for payment on their loans to speculators. Greatly overextended on credit, Henry Halfacre suddenly finds himself bankrupt. With a show of piety and humility, he sells his personal property to pay his creditors, but in reality he pays only those who are most influential and then places enough of his hard cash in the hands of his brother-in-law for safekeeping so that after the bankruptcy proceedings are completed, he will still have a competency. Under such circumstances he cannot, of course, flourish status symbols; so the famous pocket handkerchief is sold back to Bobbinet — it is considered a gesture of noble sacrifice — for $50.

[13] Within a day the linen narrator is purchased again for $100, this time by Julia Monson, daughter of an older, more financially secure family than the Halfacres. [14] At home with her treasure, Julia shows it to her family and to young Betts Shoreham, a friend of the Monsons; but she has better taste than to mention its price. Shoreham, in whom Julia could be interested, is scornful of all possessions acquired for the purpose of prestige. His attitude becomes quite evident in his dismay that Mademoiselle Hennequin, French governess for the two younger Monson children, should be emotionally moved by the pocket handkerchief. Secretly in love with the genteel governess, Shoreham asks her why she is so affected by such an object. Her response disturbs him even more, for, pressed for an answer, she says it is envy that has brought tears to her eyes.

[15] That evening, at another ball, the splendid handkerchief again enjoys flattering attention, but its owner fails to receive the particular attention which she seeks, that of Betts Shoreham. Betts spends all of his time with the French governess, who, because of her education and modest charm, is always invited to accompany the Monsons at such soirees. In an effort to draw Betts’s attention to herself, Julia engages in exaggerated flirtation with an acquaintance named Tom Thurston. The Thurston/Monson and Shoreham/Hennequin romances provide the framework for the satire of: the concluding episodes of the story.

[16] When Betts proposes to Mademoiselle Hennequin, the governess demurs because of her poverty and her lowly position. Betts insists that however pertinent such distinctions might be in France, they are not applicable in America. After further discussion, the governess reveals that she is Adrienne de la Rocheaimard and recounts the history of her misfortunes and sufferings, all of which were painfully recalled, she says, by her first glimpse of Julia’s lace-trimmed pocket handkerchief. This identification scene reveals not only Adrienne’s aristocratic lineage but also — even more surprising — her relationship to Betts: they are third cousins! His great-grandmother had had the name Rocheaimard. Though Adrienne knew that there had been an American branch of the family, she had never learned the names or whereabouts of her New World kinsmen. Betts and Adrienne are soon married in a fine wedding at the Monson home. Betts purchases from Julia the pocket handkerchief which has meant so much in the life of his beloved, and Julia uses the money to buy the couple a wedding gift of equal market value.

[17] Contrasting sharply with this happy romance is that of Julia and Tom. A penniless fortune seeker who has already proposed to twenty-six heiresses, Tom mistakenly assumes that the heart of Julia has capitulated to his amorous advances. He is informed of his error not by Julia but by her father, and in an indirect way. [18] When Tom asks for the hand of his daughter, Monson does not flatly refuse his request. Instead, he describes the financial arrangement he intends to make with Julia and the husband of her choice. He will settle upon the couple any sum up to $50,000 provided that the amount is matched before the marriage by the prospective bridegroom. The affair ends at once, but the farce is carried on mercilessly to its conclusion. Tom marries the daughter of a wealthy butcher whose business fails the day after the wedding. When the young opportunist fails in his attempt to have the marriage annulled, he commits the ultimate act of desperation: “Tom went to Texas” (p. 32).

Bobbinet, Clara Caverly, Adrienne de la Rocheaimard, Viscountess de la Rocheaimard, Désirée, Mrs. Eyelet, Mrs. Halfacre, Eudosia Halfacre, Henry Halfacre, Mrs. Leamington, Monson, Mrs. Monson, John Monson, Julia Monson, Honor O’Flagherty, Betts Shoreham, Silky, Tom Thurston, Mrs. Trotter, Mary Warren.