_____We begin our post-madeleine exploration of Combray, a village not that different from the ones in Austen and Trollope or Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford. Or rather we begin in the bedroom of Aunt Léonie, who gradually retreated there after the death of her husband, Octave, and can be found there "always lying in an uncertain state of grief, physical debility, illness, obsession, and piety."
The vehicle that conveys the narrator there is the sense of smell, "the thousand smells given off by the virtues, by wisdom, by habits, a whole secret life, invisible, superabundant, and moral, which the atmosphere holds in suspension." Proust is careful to undercut the sentimentality evoked by these "linen smells, morning smells, pious smells" by characterizing them as "happy with a peace that brings only an increase of anxiety and with a prosiness that serves as a great reservoir of poetry for one who passes through it without having lived in it." It's a nice life, but you wouldn't necessarily want to live it, as Proust, himself a famous semi-recluse, is aware.
Aunt Léonie, the daughter of the narrator's imperious great-aunt, who was his grandfather's cousin, "always talked rather softly because she thought there was something broken and floating in her head that she would have displaced by speaking too loudly." But she talks constantly "because she believed it was beneficial to her throat," and "she attributed to the least of her sensations an extraordinary importance." She could be dismissed as a stock figure, the malade imaginaire, except that Proust devotes so much nuance to her portrayal. As he does with Léonie's dutiful servant Françoise, who
was one of those servants who, in a household, are at the same time those most immediately displeasing to a stranger, perhaps because they do not bother to win him over and are not attentive to him, knowing very well they have no need of him, that one would stop seeing him rather than dismiss them; and who are, on the other hand, those most valued by masters who have tested their real capacities, and do not care about the superficial charm, the servile chatter that makes a favorable impression on a visitor but that often cloaks an ineducable incompetence.It is, I think, because Proust tells us so much about these relatively minor characters, analyzes them so individually, that we come to take them as real -- or rather as a remembered reality. Otherwise, they could be just dismissed as "comic relief" for their bits of idiosyncratic provincialisms, such as the conviction that "in Combray, a person 'whom one does not know at all' was a creature as scarcely believable as a mythological god."
One knew everybody so well, in Combray, both animals and people, that if my aunt had chanced to see a dog pass by 'whom she did not know at all,' she would not stop thinking about it and devoting to this incomprehensible fact all her talents for induction and her hours of leisure.