The Thirteen: the Duchess of Langeais by Honoré de Balzac

The Thirteen: The Duchesse of Langeais
Histoire des Treize: La Duchesse de Langeais

This is clearly one of Balzac’s most dramatic openings. Some time after the Napoleonic Wars, a French general arrives on a sparsely populated Spanish island in the Mediterranean (perhaps one of the Balearic Isles) looking for someone. With the help of the Thirteen, he has been searching for five years across several continents for the woman he loves, who took the veil after a torrid love affair with him. The general arranges to attend mass, straining his eyes to look past the opening in the curtain revealing tantalizing glimpses of the Discalced Carmelite nuns in attendance. As soon as the peals of the organ begin, the general knows it is she. There is something French about her music and selection of airs, something that the general, whom we learn is called Armand, recognizes almost like a signature.

With some difficulty, he requests an interview the next day with the nun who played the organ. He asks the convent chaplain who indicates the difficulty of such an interview, but who promises to talk with the Mother Superior about his seeing Sister Therese (for that is her name as a religious). He gets his permission.

The interview is to be conducted through a grille with the Mother Superior present. When the latter asks her whether she knows the gentleman, Sister Therese says yes and is immediately ordered back to her cell. She then lies, saying the general is her brother. They talk in French, which the Mother Superior conveniently doesn’t understand. He asks Antoinette – for that is her real name – to come away with him. At this point, the nun turns to her Mother Superior and admits that she lied, and the man had been her lover. The curtain comes down and the two nuns vanish into the convent.

We are suddenly taken back in time to 1818 to the ultra-posh Faubourg Saint-Germain on the Left Bank of the Seine. Balzac provides us with a long meditation on the nobility of this relatively new neighborhood. Our author sees himself as a connoisseur of nobility:

“The people always wants to see them [their leaders] holding in their hands, their heart and their head, fortune, authority and action: speech, intelligence and glory. Without this triple might, all privilege vanishes. The popular classes, like women, love to see strength in those who govern them. Where they do not respect they cannot love. They will not accord obedience to those who cannot impose it.”

And Balzac looks forward to the Revolution of 1830 (he wrote the book in 1834) to make his point that the current aristocracy is a pretty punk bunch. “The Faubourg Saint-Germain has made great display of its batons, believing that in them resided all the power. It had reversed the very conditions safeguarding its existence. Instead of jettisoning insignia obnoxious to the people while quietly holding on to the power [compare the d'Esgrignons and their set in A Collection of Antiquities], it allowed the middle class to lay hands on the power, and with fatal obstinacy clung to the insignia, and consistently forgot the laws imposed on it by its numerical weakness.”

After this digression, Balzac introduces us to the lovely young Antoinette, Duchesse de Langeais, née Navarreins. At the age of 18, she married the Duc de Langeais. It was one of those marriages in which the husband leaves the wife to stew in her own juices while indulging in his own pleasures to the exclusion of all else:

“So then he played the part of an eighteenth-century grand seigneur, leaving to her own devices a woman of twenty-two, one who was conscious of having suffered a grave offence and whose character included one fearful trait, that of never forgiving an offence once all her feminine vanity, her self-love, perhaps even her virtue, had been impugned or secretly slighted.”

Balzac mentions a few pages further on that Antoinette is a tease, allowing herself to be loved, without giving anything of herself in return.

This does not bode well for the future.

The lonely Duchesse attends some festivities occasioned by the marriage of the Duc de Berry. There she meets one Armand de Montriveau, who is in demand for his adventures in Africa. Armand stands out from the typical run of Parisian nobles because of his uniqueness: “He had the curtness of speech characteristic of nobles and savages. His shyness was mistaken for haughtiness and went down well.” Antoinette is entranced. She invites him to come up and see her sometime.

Balzac informs us that Armande, a powerful man, great in spirit and resources (he WAS a member of the Thirteen), is a neophyte in love:

“When a man, virgin in heart and for whom love is becoming a religion, conceives such an idea [i.e., of making Antoinette his mistress], he little knows into what an inferno he is stepping.”

The Duchesse, in a word, was one of those women who are all coquetry and only enough commitment to keep the coquetry going — because it pleases their vanity. She quickly takes the measure of her lover’s sexual inexperience and decides to give him the full treatment:

“You can only be a FRIEND to me. Don’t you realize that? I wish I could discover in you the instinct, the tactfulness of true friendship, so that I lose neither your esteem nor the pleasure that I feel in having you near me.”

… to torture further, no doubt.

(Now for a quick reminder that the Duchesse de Langeais is married to the Duc de Langeais, who is off somewhere tasting of exotic pleasures of every variety.)

This goes on for some time. To keep him at the end of her puppet string, Antoinette gives some small token intimacy to keep Armande coming back, but then she shoves him away and requests that he come less often. She really would appreciate him more for it! (Piffle!)

Balzac at one point interjects his own feelings into her behavior: “Most women like to feel themselves morally violated: it is part of their self-flattery to yield only to force.” (Perhaps that’s why it took so long for Countess Hanska to finally consent to marry the author.)

At one point, Armande even threatens to have the Duc eliminated (due to his membership in the Thirteen), to Antoinette’s horror.

Finally, she plays the religion card and starts berating Armande for being a Godless Liberal. She even goes so far as to bring her confessor, the Abbé Gondrand, to her chambers when Armande is due. This provokes a crisis in their relationship, such as it is.

Antoinette has done a pretty thorough job of turning her Armande into something of a laughingstock. For many pages, we have seen no one outside the two except for a couple of bit players. Now, Armande runs into his fellow member of the Thirteen, M de Ronquerolles. He has heard of Armande’s attempts to assail the Rock of Gibraltar with a Gummy Bear and is not amused.

“Learn this first of all: the women of our Faubourg, like all other women, like to take a bath of love; but they like to possess without being possessed. They have made a compromise with nature. Parish-church discipline has permitted them almost everything short of actual adultery. The dainties to which your duchess treats you are venial sins which she washes off in the waters of penance.”

M de R gives Armande some fatherly advice to avoid him coming all like a fool in the lists of love:

“A man who knows the game and has a few tricks at his command makes it mate in three moves, just as he wants. If I went in for a woman of her kind [which he most emphatically does not], I should make this my aim….”

He then whispers in Armande’s ear, so we must wait to find out the nature of his advice. In the next paragraph, Armande bulls his way right into Antoinette’s bedroom. She is upset at this and lets him know. He is acting now under a different plan, however. Still, his duchess holds out on him.

When Armande asks to meet with Antoinette at that evening’s ball, Antoinette says she has asked Henri de Marsay (another member of the Thirteen) to take her. Armande is undeterred. He definitely has something nasty up his sleeve. He says to himself: “I will take you by the nape of the neck, Madame la Duchesse, and you shall feel a blade that is keener that that of the guillotine. Steel for steel; we will see.

By his recent behavior, Armande has clearly spooked the Duchesse de Langeais. At a ball given by the Comtesse de Sérizy, sister of Ronquerolles, Armande confronts Antoinette and tells her she has “touched the axe.” Here, he refers to a story about a guide at Westminster who shows off the axe with which the Stuart monarch Charles I was beheaded: he would tell visitors to touch not the axe. (Now this is also the original name of this book: Touch Not the Axe.) Montriveau claims that Antoinette has touched the axe, and, looking at his watch, threatens, “This day will not end without an appalling calamity overtaking you.”

Pretending to discount the threat, Antoinette goes on as before. As she steps out of the ballroom, however, she is whisked away by several masked bravos who warn, “Madame, we have orders to kill you if you cry out.” When she is unmasked, she is in the presence of Armand in what appears to be his apartment, but which suspiciously resembles a monk’s cell. Smoking a cigar, Armande informs her that she can scream if she wishes, but that no one would hear her.

Off in the next room, three masked men are operating a bellows to make a fire flare up. Armand threatens to have Antoinette branded in the forehead like a galley slave with the Cross of Lorraine.

When she weeps, Armande replies: “Why weep? Remain true to your nature. You had no qualms while you watched the tortures of the heart you were breaking. No more tears, Madame, console yourself. I am now beyond suffering. Others will tell you that you have brought them to life. I have the exquisite pleasure of telling you that you have brought me to annihilation.”

Nonetheless, he does not brand her. He even has her returned to the ball unharmed.

After having kidnapped her and returned her unharmed, Armande de Montriveau drops out of sight. This is unfortunate for Antoinette, because (oh classical bad timing!) she now falls in love with the romantic French general. She writes him daily, but he never writes back.

Finally, she decides to sacrifice her reputation in a vain attempt to catch his eye. She has her servant drive her carriage to his quarters and sit there all day in plain view. As the Duchesse is titled nobility, the carriage is emblazoned with her family arms.

Instead of Armande, it is her family that suddenly sits up and takes notice. In one of Balzac’s best pictures of faded nobility, a family council is held including the Duc de Navarreins (her father), the aging Princesse de Blamont-Chauvry, the Vidame de Pamiers, and the Duc de Grandlieu. The Princesse’s opinion is memorable: “All of us know that marriage is an imperfect institution which has to be tempered with love. But when you take a lover, must you really make your bed in the public thoroughfare?”

It is this council that floats the idea of salting Antoinette away in a remote nunnery, where her behavior will cease to offend the people who count.

We return to the scene at the beginning of the book. As you may recall, Armand has been allowed to talk to Sister Therese (aka Antoinette, Duchesse de Langeais) with the Mother Superior present. At the end of the interview, Sister T admits to her chaperon that Armand had been her lover. The curtain celebrating the nuns from the visitor drops and then …

It is now several days later. Armand has gotten together a party of bravos to help him kidnap the nun. They ascend the steep cliff of the convent from a boat anchored nearby and break into the convent. They enter only to find … a funeral service in progress. And the body belongs to none other than … Sister Therese.

No matter, Armand wants her dead or alive (why?). They carry the body to the edge and lower it into the boat.

After having disposed of the corpse below deck, Armand has the following conversation with the Marquis de Ronquerolles, who of course is one of the bravos:

“‘Ah well! … She was a woman. Now she is nothing. We will tie a cannon-ball to each of her feet and throw her overboard. Think no more of her than we think of a book we read in our childhood.’
“‘Yes indeed,’ said Montriveau. ‘Only a poem remains.’
“‘That’s a sensible view. From now on be content with passion. Love is an investment which we should think out cautiously. And only the last love of a woman can satisfy the first love of a man.’”

 

Read it here

Summarized by Jim, April 2009

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