The Secrets of a Princess by Honoré de Balzac

Les Secrets de la Princesse de Cadignan
The Secrets of a Princess
Also translated as The Secrets of the Princesse de Cadignan

THE LAST WORD OF TWO GREAT COQUETTES
The Princess de Cadignan has the reputation of a coquette. The consequences of the July Revolution and a history of affairs have made the princess retire from the center of society. The house she shares with the Duc Georges de Maufrigneuse, a son, has all of the lovers in portraits. The Marquise, Mme d’Éspard, also a coquette, befriends her. Both easily inspired love from men but long in the autumn of life to feel happiness as well as the trepidation of first love. No one in society would believe that at heart they are complete innocents at love–except a man of genius, who might doubt after the initial rush of fascination. He would succumb to her beauty, feminine gestures, varying intonation, and steadfast adoration, but would require a lifetime of deception to blind him to the truth about her.

DANIEL D’ARTHEZ
The chosen man is an author, Daniel D’Arthèz, who has led until now life like a Benedictine and who has boarded with Michel Chrestien, a promising adorer of the princess for four years. Friends persuade him that he has already achieved fame and wealth; he should now come into society and enjoy it. The princess would fascinate him, but they forewarn him about ruinous extravagances. Mme d’Éspard sets up an intimate dinner at which the princess and D’Arthèz meet. He succumbs like the majority of men. The ease of conquest distresses her so that the women plan to become rivals to test the depth of his belief in her angelic innocence.

THE PRINCESS GOES TO WORK
The princess gets to work to create and sustain a love in Daniel D’Arthèz, who possesses genius and naiveness. At thirty-eight he has the simplicity and handsomeness of Bonaparte; he has talent and sociability. She is falling in love. She read the books he has written and compares them with contemporary literature. When he visits, she converses about his writing and the prince her son, his father’s expenditures, her womanly suffering, and other private confidences. She transfixes the writer and arouses his curiosity. He begins to visit during the days and evenings, and their conversation is about literature and other platonic topics. She incites him to expressiveness but holds off his advances. He compliments her and distinguishes her from the rest of womankind. The princess laughs to herself.

THE CONFESSION OF A PRETTY WOMAN
The confession of a pretty woman is spurred by an apparent letter from Monsieur de Cadignan her estranged husband. Though, she says, he has committed wrongs against her, she feels for his separation from native soil. She tells (invents) her life story after Daniel assures her of his trustworthiness and spiritual closeness. He kisses her hands as she weaves a web to snare his sympathy. The invented story goes that her selfish mother married her conveniently off at seventeen. She knew nothing of marriage, having been sent to a convent to be raised. Her joy after marriage became her son. Society gossiped about her amorous follies; she had to ask financial assistance from the king. Her mother finally repented the ill treatment toward Diane, but her husband belittled her, treating her like a child. She eventually lost pleasure with the world, finding solace in motherhood and solitude. She muses that Michel Chrestien, who revived hopes of love, died to save her insensitive and unloving husband. These revelations brought tears to Daniel’s eyes. She should revile men but still holds out hope for love, claiming herself a virgin and a martyr. Daniel assures her he will make up the love she has missed. She presents an aura of sacredness to him. She objects that a long time will be needed to get over her past misuse. Daniel then spends hours spelling out her particular beauty as she pretends surprise. He later reflects on what he has heard about the inhumanity of society.

A TRIAL OF FAITH
A month later Mme d’Éspard visits. Diane initially keeps secret the mention of Daniel but reminds the marquise of their conversation three months ago about the love of a genius. Diane has found love, requesting her friend not to mention Daniel in society yet suspects her friend might try to take him away. Diane therefore proactively sends him to Mme d’Éspard’s to give the impression of their being like brother and sister. At this gathering, he meets Maxime de Trailles, Marquis d’Esgrignon, Rastignac, and others of society who share an inside joke about the princess. He asks Madame de Montcornet to explain it and blurts to the group that Diane might commit the immoralities that men do but she will also save her victims from disaster. All admire his forthright words, having expected sentiment or imagination of him. He managed to avenge the insult against her without defending her actions. He returns to Diane, who initially does not know what to expect of the trial until she sees him. She experiences the tremors of extreme felicity, which she recognizes to be the feeling of love for Daniel. She knows what happened before he tells her; they live happily ever after in her secluded country villa.

Read it here

Summarized by Linnet, September 2010

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One comment on “The Secrets of a Princess by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    I wonder what Balzac intended to convey in this story. At first glance it would seem another tale of the disreputable character and behavior of women – in this case, the Princess de Cadignan. The Princess has been around the block one time too many but manages to snare one last man, Daniel D’Arthez. And they retire happily to her secluded country villa. Was she simply saved by this last action, or was this the first time she understood love. I disliked the society characters in the story but somehow I liked the Princess. Golda says that this story is a fine study of femine trickery. “Balzac wanted the plot to portray the last degree of depravation in human feelings. He believed that the subject related to all countries and to all times.” I see that in Balzac, but I can’t quite get past the fact that the Princess and Daniel lived happily ever after!

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