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This report is taken from PN Review 47, Volume 12 Number 3, January - February 1986.

Villiers Comes to Town David Arkell
One of the many splendid asides in Flaubert's Parrot concerned the visit to London of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. But since Julian Barnes devoted a mere eight lines to the episode we may perhaps be excused here for giving it a little more body. After all, nothing should be skimped in connection with that great aristocrat of letters, the Comte de Villiers.

Here, then, is the story, as told (page 42) by Barnes:


Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, chronically poor yet crazily practical, came over in search of an heiress. A Parisian marriage-broker had kitted him out for the expedition with a fur overcoat, a repeating alarm watch and a new set of false teeth, all to be paid for when the writer landed the heiress's dowry. But Villiers, tirelessly accident-prone, botched the wooing. The heiress rejected him, the broker turned up to reclaim the coat and watch, and the discarded suitor was left adrift in London, full of teeth but penniless.


There were points about this that either puzzled or intrigued me. What was a repeating alarm watch? Why had the marriage-broker shown such compassion in leaving Villiers his teeth? It was clearly a case for the BM - or British Library as we are learning to call it.

My first enlightenment was about the watch: a repeater is a watch that strikes again the previous hour at the touch of a spring. The value of this to Villiers was obvious: ...


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