La Femme de Trente Ans
A Woman of Thirty
I will present for your gratification four scenes from a young woman’s life:
April 1813: Our heroine Julie is attending with her ailing father one of Napoleon’s reviews of his troops. It is after the debacle in Russia, but the Old Guard still knows how to put on a show. The lovely young girl is dazzled by Colonel Victor d’Aiglemont, a dashing young adjutant who gallops by. The father notices Julie’s fascination and shakes his head anxiously, knowing that the young man is unworthy of her.
March 1814: Balzac pays homage to the lush and beautiful land of his birth as the d’Aiglemonts, husband and wife, arrive in the Touraine. Alas, he is only dropping her off with her aunt as he goes off to war with Marshal Soult to fight a British incursion at Béarn. The aunt, the Marquise de Listomère-Landon, is a kind septuagenarian who sympathizes with her scapegrace nephew’s young wife, and the affection is returned. But unfortunately, there is already a rift between husband and wife as the latter realizes there’s something missing in her husband. At the same time, a young English nobleman interned in Touraine is fascinated by her, but the two do not meet–though he rides by at every opportunity for a look.
1815 (?): Napoleon has fallen, and Colonel d’Aiglemont has embraced Louis XVIII as his leader. He calls for his wife to join him. She takes a carriage to Paris. At Orléans, the carriage is stopped by the Prussians; but young Lord Arthur Grenville (the English nobleman of the preceding paragraph) is there in an English military uniform to facilitate the processing of her travel documents. Around this time, we learn that the old Marquise, Victor’s aunt, has died.
There follows a portrait of Victor d’Aiglemont under the monarchy. The empty-headed young man has adopted a reserved manner to delay others’ discovery of his deficits. In fact, he is considered very deep by some. Ah, but Julie knows that there is nothing substantive behind the pose.
1817-20: Victor and Julie’s daughter Hélène is born. By this time, Julie and Victor have taken the separate bedroom route; and Victor has taken up with another woman. Julie thinks it is Madame de Sérizy, who invites the uncoupled couple to a soirée. Julie offers to sing several songs, but is startled to see Arthur in the audience.
This segment has a strange combination of weird and interesting events. We start with Lord Arthur showing up at Madame de Sérizy’s just when Julie is singing. Apparently that’s enough to send Julie off into the stratospheric reaches of neurasthenia. Who should step forward and offer his assistance–because, naturally, he’s also a doctor, among his other talents–but Lord Arthur? He convinces the Marquis d’Aiglemont that he can help Julie and proceeds to cure her. The Marquis agrees.
Cut to another of Balzac’s Valentines to the Touraine region as Lord Arthur and Julie are atop a hill overlooking the River Cire. As she has improved markedly in Lord Arthur’s care, she insists that they must part; else, she could not answer for her actions as she is drawn to him. Lord Arthur returns to England.
Some time later, Julie is spending an evening at home, her husband having left on a hunting trip. Whose carriage should suddenly pull up at the gate but Lord Arthur Grenville’s. Julie had been informed that he is in Paris, at death’s door, and wanted to say farewell to his one true love. Unfortunately, the Marquis returns suddenly, the trip having been cancelled. Julie pushes Lord Arthur into her dressing-closet. Unbeknownst to her, she smashes his fingers when closing the door; and the stoical Lord doesn’t utter a sound. Naturally, he dies shortly after. A bathetic fate straight out of Sardou!
There follows another descent by Julie into depression. She and Hélène move (sans the Marquis) into the old Château de Saint-Lange in a less attractive part of France than the Touraine. Her solitude there is interrupted by the local curate who obtrudes his presence, but actually raises Julie’s spirits somewhat. Before joining the priesthood, he had lost all three of his sons in one day at the Battle of Waterloo.
In the best scene of the book thus far, Julie explains why she is a caring mother to her daughter but does not truly love her because she is her father’s daughter. “I have not even the mother’s desire to live to enjoy her child’s happiness.” This shocks the old priest.
In time, Julie’s depression abates somewhat, even in the grim pile of the old château. She returns to Paris.
Julie is now a woman of thirty, and a potential new lover enters the lists. It is Charles de Vandenesse, brother of Felix de Vandenesse of Lily of the Valley. There is a large soirée given by Mme Firmiani at which the two meet. Julie and Charles de Vandenesse fall in love with each other after some initial verbal fencing, some of which is quite good:
‘We are bond slaves.’
‘You are queens.’
This was the gist and substance of all the more or less ingenious discourse between Charles and the Marquise [Julie], as of all such discourse–past, present, and to come. Allow a certain space of time, and the two formulas shall begin to mean ‘Love me,’ and ‘I will love you.’
As the two fly into each other’s arms, General d’Aiglemont, the offended husband, walks in, finds them in a clinch, and more or less shrugs.
The next scene represents a complete change of point of view. The narrator appears to be Balzac himself, as he describes in loving detail some of his favorite views of Paris, especially from Père Lachaise cemetery. We see a scene that ranks with the crushing of Arthur Grenville’s fingers in the wardrobe and ensuing death:
Charles de Vandenesse kisses Louise good-bye and leaves her with her daughter Hélène and son (?) Charles. When Louise’s attention is diverted, Hélène shoves little Charles into the dark river, where he drowns to death. The implication is that little Charles was Charles de Vandenesse’s illegitimate son with Louise.
In the next scene, we see Louise with Charles de Vandenesse, now a Marquis, having succeeded to his father’s estate. There is a long scene with a pathologically obtuse notary named Crottat who perists in not understanding the complicated three-person relationship situation.
Next, d’Aiglemont is re-introduced to the reader. He is now described as a “good father.” There are now two more children, including an Abel and a Moïna.
There is a sudden knock at the door. The servants not having returned from an outing yet, the Marquis/General answers the door himself to a fugitive who has just murdered the elderly M. le Baron de Mauny with an axe. What can d’Aiglemont do, but lead him to a room and give him some water to drink. He then lies to the gendarmerie, and Hélène creeps up to see who is there.
The focus shifts from Julie at this point. Hélène has silently snuck up to the room where the murderer is waiting for the chase to die down before making his escape. Chafing under her mother’s lack of regard for her (because she is her father’s daughter, the “child of duty”), Hélène decides to leave with the murderer. The Marquis and Julie are disconsolate, but she leaves them nonetheless. The Marquis calls for the gendarmerie, but they are unable to find the runaways.
There follows another one of those creaky shiftings of the scenery that characterize A Woman of Thirty: “The terrible Christmas night when the Marquis and his wife lost their oldest daughter, powerless to oppose the mysterious influence exercised by the man who involuntarily, as it were, stole Hélène from them, was like a warning sent by fate. The marquis was ruined by the failure of his stockbroker; he borrowed money on his wife’s property, and lost it in an endeavor to retrieve his fortune. Driven to desperate expedients, he left France. Six years went by.”
By the way, he comes back wealthy. The Marquis is on board a Spanish ship from the Americas when–suddenly–it is overtaken by a pirate vessel captained by the Notorious Victor and his Pirate Queen, who happens to be–Hélène. Tears are shed, miscreants are thrown overboard, the Marquis is allowed to leave with his money. [He dies shortly thereafter, no doubt of gratitude.]
Oh, I can’t take it any more, but there remains one last scene: The woman of thirty is now fifty. [Time does so pass when one is having fun!] Daughter Moïna is now a Countess who is entering an affair with one Alfred de Vandenesse who is–let me see if I’m getting this straight –the son of Charles de Vandenesse, who is very likely also the father of Moïna. Hmmm, brother and sister, unless I am very mistaken. Julie chooses this time to suddenly die without imparting the vital information to Moïna. Oh, well!
Here endeth a verie imperfect and at times gonzo novel.
Summary by Jim, June 2007