Where this began
Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 118-129.
Thus far, Aunt Léonie and Françoise have been rather narrowly defined comic figures, so set in their routines as to be almost mechanical. But now Proust delves into their psychology, adding perverse and contradictory qualities to their characters. For Proust, as for Austen, George Eliot, Flaubert, Faulkner and any number of other novelists, provincial life, with its limited and circumscribed relationships, provides a laboratory for character analysis and moral commentary.
Léonie's utter self-absorption leads to the narrator's conclusion that "she would have taken pleasure in mourning us," that if the rest of the family were wiped out in one fell swoop, it would have allowed "her to savor all her tenderness for us in an extended grief and to be the cause of stupefaction in the village as she led the funeral procession, courageous and stricken, dying on her feet." He asserts that "she would from time to time resort to introducing into her life, to make it more interesting, imaginary incidents which she would follow with passion," Françoise being a prime player in these fantasies, which Léonie would act out over the board on which she played solitaire, speaking the roles aloud.
"Sometimes, even this 'theater in bed' was not enough for my aunt, she wanted to have her plays performed." So she would set Françoise and Eulalie against one another to watch the consequences. She demonstrates the paranoia of the idle imagination, or as the narrator calls her, "an old lady from the provinces who was simply yielding to irresistible manias and to a malice born of idleness."
Françoise, the dutiful servant, is similarly perverse. She "would for her daugher, for her nephews, have given her life without a murmur, [but] was singularly hard-hearted toward other people." So when the kitchen maid who has given birth is seized by postpartum pains, Françoise is sent for the medical book to find a treatment and is discovered weeping over the "hypothetical" patient in the book, but she treats the maid herself with harshness and indifference. And she drives away another kitchen maid who is allergic to asparagus by repeatedly forcing the girl to clean them.
This section ends with the family's puzzlement over the behavior of M. Legrandin, who had "barely responded" to the father's greeting him after church, "walking by the side of a lady from a neighboring château whom we knew only by sight." Then the next evening, Legrandin greets them in a friendly manner, paying especial attention to the narrator. But several Sundays later, they have an encounter with Legrandin similar to the one that puzzled them earlier, in which he is walking with the same lady, and exhibits "a love-smitten eye in a face of ice," as he pretends not to see them. Despite the family's doubts, they allow the narrator to accept an invitation to dinner that Legrandin has extended to him, and him alone, the day before.