A Daughter of Eve by Honoré de Balzac

Une Fille d’Ève
A Daughter of Eve

Dedication

The dedication is to the Comtesse Blignini, who Balzac seems to have met (and flirted with?) when travelling in Milan but she has now retired to a convent. She has a daughter, Eugenie, after whom the central character in this story is named. But the Eugenie of the story is denied happiness by a ‘rigid mother’…

Chapter 1: The Two Maries

In this chapter, Balzac introduces two sisters: Madame Felix de Vandenesse and Madame du Tillet, who are Marie-Angelique and Marie-Eugenie respectively. Angelique is weeping and Eugenie is trying to comfort her, but admits that her marriage is not a happy one and Angelique should not look to her for help. Balzac then explains their background. They are sweet girls, and very innocent, because their mother, the Comtesse de Granville is a religious fanatic. Prior to their marriage they had never been into society nor been to the theatre or a ball. Their father deplores his wife’s excesses but has largely abandoned the girls to their mother because he thinks there is no middle course with daughters: either they are educated, flighty, and have no religion or they are ignorant and innocent. So they have a limited education, and have read very little, for example, the very popular Fenelon’s Telemaque (Adventures of Telemachus, 1699, see http://ablemedia.com/ctcweb/showcase/kan…) is thought dangerous for the girls to read. (This story of a trip to the Underworld was a thinly veiled attack on absolute monarchy and Louis XIV banned Fenelon because of it.). His sons, on the other hand, get a normal education, go to balls and the theatre and become lawyers. They live with their father in a separate part of the house (Balzac calls this separation within the family ‘the great evil of individualism.’) His sole intervention on behalf of the girls is to insist on them having a music teacher, Schmucke, an elderly eccentric who is very poor. The girls love Schmucke dearly. These two girls marry young to escape their mother’s strictures. Balzac comments that many men like to marry innocent girls like this so that they can mould and manipulate them.

Chapter 2: A Confidence Between Sisters

Angelique is weeping because she loves her husband and fears she may have lost him. Eugenie is trying to comfort her, but admits that her marriage is not a happy one and Angelique should not look to her for help. Eugenie has married an ambitious banker, but did so without a dowry (called a ‘dot’) and he despises her for it. Eugenie (du Tillet)is unhappy because she is a mere ornament to her husband, and she must obey him in everything. She is rich – ‘covered in diamonds when I go to court, I wear the richest jewels in society but I have not one farthing I can use’ i.e. she has no money of her own and no choice about what to spend it on. He’s ‘as hard and polished as that piece of marble’ only interested in ‘what flatters his vanity and proclaims his wealth’. Angelique has married an aristocrat who never imagined that the revolution would change society so much that he could have a banker as a brother-in-law. The ‘bridle of piety’ weighs less heavily on Angelique: she goes into society and is a great success, though some of the other women are very jealous of her. These two men live in worlds at enmity with each other because one has benefited by the revolution and the other is in favour of the restoration. Du Tillet is a bad man. He is an associate of Baron de Nucingen and sometimes (because he thinks her opinion doesn’t matter) Eugenie sits in on their plots and plans to ruin other people so that over time Du Tillet will become ‘noble’. Du Tillet could easily lend Angelique 40,000 francs but she dare not ask him – and when he comes in, she refuses his money because she does not want to be in his power. . So Eugenie is not able to help Angelique with the money she needs. After Angelique leaves, Du Tillet reveals that he knows what she wants the money for: to save her lover from the debtor’s prison. Eugenie doesn’t believe it but Du Tillet cynically replies that girls brought up in piety like her make bad wives because they want to be happy and never are within marriage. He warns Eugenie not to interfere because it’s in his interest to see the man go to prison, but he decides to have her watched because he does not trust her.

Chapter 3: The History of a Fortunate Woman

Balzac introduces Felix de Vandenesse as a man of about 30 who has tired of bachelor life and chose Angelique because he wanted a wife he could mould – to mix a paternal role with a conjugal one. He is a decent husband who has tried to make his wife happy. But after four years she, having initially been very happy, became dissatisfied. Vandenesse, by satisfying every need, had suppressed desire – for if all needs are met then no desire exists and the person suffers. (Balzac puts up a not very convincing argument here that this is why women apply the arts of coquetry and invent quarrels in marriage.) Angelique felt the monotony of her marriage as Felix deliberately maintained ‘temperate regions of conjugal affection’ and was in need of a bit of passion! He takes her into society when salons were reopened after the events of 1830 and warns her against the jealousy of other women. Her pretended friends encourage her to take a lover…

Chapter 4: A Celebrated Man

At the salon of Comtesse de Montcornet, Angelique meets the celebrated author Raoul Nathan. Not particularly handsome and rather scruffy in a Byronesque kind of way, he is lionised by Emile Blondet and is rather conceited though the success of his novels and plays is mixed. Not a man of principle his politics blow with the prevailing winds and at the moment he is a republican hoping for preferment. He dazzles Angelique and is flattered when the other women tell him he has made such a conquest. He and his friends mock her behind her back once she has left. (Nathan already has a mistress, an actress called Florine). At breakfast the next day Angelique asks her husband about Nathan but doesn’t take any notice of his warnings about him. (This, Balzac says, is because women have ‘elastic’ minds which rebound after being given information they don’t like.) At a subsequent ball, Nathan decides that Angelique’s influence could be useful to him and he flirts with her. Felix isn’t happy about this…

Chapter 5: Florine

This chapter introduces the actress Florine who has supported Nathan by sharing her home with him, lending him money, paying for things he needs – and of course he is using her. She works long hours to get herself out of poverty while he lazes about and sneers about her behind her back. He helps only by writing favourable reviews for publicity for her. She is as loyal as she can be given her circumstances but she has to supplement her income through prostitution. (She isn’t an elegant courtesan.) It is through Florine that Nathan learns that there is a possible vacancy for a government position and on Blondet’s advice he writes the sort of articles in his new newspaper journal that he thinks will lead to preferment. He decides to borrow money from a usurer to finance this paper because he is so certain he will be elected and will be able to pay it back – Florine sells everything she has to try to prevent him from doing this and is feted for it.

Chapter 6: Romantic Love

At Lady Dudley’s ball, Nathan is quizzed by Madame d’Espard who (along with Lady Dudley and Madame Manerville) is encouraging the scandal behind the scenes but defending Angelique’s honour in public. Nathan lets her think they are madly in love, and she tries to get him to write a play about it. She is a bit alarmed when Lady Dudley reveals his carefully concealed background: a bankrupt Jewish father and a Catholic mother who brought him up Christian; she feels she should not receive a man like that in her house. Angelique and Nathan meet up again at Madame D’Espard’s salon the following week He takes umbrage at some light-hearted remarks and has to be reminded of his manners by Blondet. He chafes at this, dithers about whether to keep going to these salons but ends up returning anyway. Rastignac and Marsay are there and they discuss politics…Nathan is losing a lot of precious work time by attending these social functions; society women – who act as if it were still the 18th century when things were settled – have no idea how much work has to be done by men who need to make a living. He is burning the midnight oil in order to get the paper out on time (and wearing himself out trying to ride the tides of political change). Nathan arranges to meet Angelique daily in the seclusion of the Bois but stands her up three times because he wants to impress her by arriving in a cabriolet and charge the cost of it to the paper. His partners (du Tillet and Massol) readily agree (because they want to bankrupt him). When he does turn up to meet her with the air of a man at leisure, he is a bit peeved that she doesn’t understand the ‘enormous costs of his little attentions’ . When he reveals to her that he is a harried man, rushing from the paper, evading his creditors, and attending society functions he is rewarded with a kiss.

Chapter 7: Suicide

Vandenesse takes Angelique to the countryside as usual, where she exchanges letters with Nathan. Meanwhile he is under siege from his erstwhile friends. His newspaper staff hate him, and Florine – who would have realised that his friends are really his enemies – is away. Massol the lawyer and Du Tillet the banker have let him have full control in order to let him hang himself. (Du Tillet uses the paper only for his stock-gambling). Nathan lords it over everyone, believing that he is managing them, but he’s naïve, as most men of imagination are. He is angling for a position as ‘chair on the Board of Education and a place in the Council of State’ and and the office of Master of Petitions – and they have promised it to him if his editorial stance complies with their purposes. Politically, Nathan is manipulated by Nucingen and Rastignac, and by du Tillet and Blondet, to give ostentatious support to the “doctrinaires” of their new and ephemeral cabinet. To appear independent he refuses money for the paper from other sources and so has to take it from Du Tillet instead. He is presented to the de Nucingens where the Baroness receives him for Angelique’s sake – but when she tries to talk to him about her he puts her off by talking about Florine instead, claiming to be devoted to her. Florine returns to Paris but is persuaded by Nathan that all is well and uses the money she’s earned to splash out on new furnishings. He is attentive to her and she has no idea that he is flirting with Angelique: he leaves a portfolio of their correspondence lying about and it never occurs to her not to trust him. His debts fall due but Du Tillet renews them for a short period – all seems to be going well. But there are political ructions in Paris, (Rastignac loses his position after the death of de Marsay) and when Angelique (who has returned to Paris and resumed contact with Nathan) asks Felix about their impact, he warns that Nathan will ruin his business if he ‘sits on the fence’ editorially. He still suspects nothing. And then in December the debts fall due again and this time Du Tillet demands payment. Nathan has to go to a usurer to get the money and never suspects that Du Tillet has made this easy for him for his own purposes. He pays back Du Tillet, but then when the debt to the usurer falls due, the banker makes the usurer instigate court proceedings because he doesn’t want Nathan to be a rival in the electoral college – and Nathan can’t stand for election if he’s bankrupt. Florine can’t help him because her spending has put her in debt too. Entrapped, he sees everything crumbling around him, and he thinks there is no alternative but suicide (which is very fashionable in Paris at the time). He makes a melodramatic farewell to Angelique who then realises something is badly wrong. She pursues him to his rooms, has the door broken down and finds him almost suffocated with the smoke from a pan of charcoal. She has him removed to a hotel and then seeks help from her sister Eugenie.

Chapter 8: A Lover Saved and Lost

Du Tillet realises that the rumours about Angelique and Nathan are true and takes steps to find out what’s going on. He learns where Nathan is but it takes him three days. This buys Nathan a little time. Meanwhile Angelique has to find the money to help him. Felix asks what she is distressed about but she is evasive, alluding to ‘that matter at her sister’s’ (without explaining that she had gone to Eugenie to borrow money). Felix warns her that Eugenie’s husband is a bad man and that it’s a pity he’s a member of their extended family. At the opera Eugenie reveals that she has been able to get the money: the Baroness de Nucingen will lend it on condition that someone else guarantees it. Du Tillet is furious when Nathan seems cheered, he knows the women are behind it. Heedless of the risk to their old music-master Angelique gets Schmuck to guarantee the 40000 francs. She promises to visit again with her sister – but we know she won’t because his poverty is too extreme. She rushes back to the baroness, and gets the money. It is only afterwards that the baroness realises she has frustrated her own husband’s plans (because he hadn’t told her anything about them). Rastignac visits and she tells him about it as a bit of gossip, and he explains what’s going on and that she has interfered with her husband’s chances of preferment. She decides to keep quiet about this. When Du Tillet finds out that the debt is paid he is furious but for the first time Eugenie stands up to him and recognises that it is her sister’s problems which have finally given her the courage to do this. She flees to her sister’s.

Chapter 9: A Husband’s Triumph

Eugenie fears that Angelique may now flee with Nathan, and confesses the whole story to Felix. He is tolerant and understanding, and wants Angelique to give up Nathan of her own free will . He pays back the baroness, and – promising his support for Nucingen to get the position he wants, persuades her to tell him everything she knows. He uses the same promise to get Rastignac to tell him about Florine. Felix is then able to manipulate a conversation in which Nathan’s relationship with Florine is revealed to Angelique, and shows her the notes that were Schmucke’s guarantees and burns them, She confesses everything, including that they have been writing letters to each other. He makes a long paternal speech and she is suitably contrite. Nathan’s letters to her are burnt, but how to retrieve hers to him? They go to Florine. Florine doesn’t believe Nathan has betrayed her, and in order to get her to give up Nathan’s letters there is an elaborate scene in which the characters go to a masked ball where Florine sees Nathan flirting with Angelique. Furious, she takes Felix and the still-masked Angelique back to her house and for a payment of 50000 francs surrenders the letters so that they can be destroyed and Angelique’s reputation will be safe. Nathan, rescued from ruin tries to go about in society again but Angelique spurns him and his ‘friends’ make cynical remarks about life and love. He only gets five votes at the election and Du Tillet is elected instead. By the time Angelique and Felix get back from a long holiday in Italy he has lost the newspaper and is working for the government instead.

 

Read it here

Summary by Lisa Hill, July 2010

2 comments on “A Daughter of Eve by Honoré de Balzac

  1. […] woman who flirted with marital peril because she was bored by the niceness of her husband in A Daughter of Eve. Angelique at least had an excuse because her mother’s reliogiosity had ill-prepared her for […]

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  2. scamperpb says:

    This is a sort of morality tale. In it Balzac doesn’t just show the seamy side of Parisian life as he often does but provides an opportunity for redemption. Poor Marie-Angelique has been the dup of a scheming group who wanted to hurt her husband Felix and advance her lover Nathan. Balzac allows Felix to rescue his wife from her misguided support of Nathan and return to marital happiness. Beware the machinations of society, and, husbands, leave your wife something to desire in your own domain.

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