Saintsbury Introduction, Volume V – Part I

A Daughter of Eve (Une Fille d’Ève)
Letters of Two Brides (Mémoires de Deux Jeunes Mariées)

Opinions of the larger division of this book will vary in pretty distinct ratio with the general taste of the reader for Balzac in his more sentimental mood, and for his delineations of virtuous or “honest” women. As is the case with the number of the Comédie which immediately succeeds it in Scènes de la Vie Privée, I cannot say of it that it appeals to me personally with any strong attraction. It is, however, much later and much more accomplished work than La Femme de Trente Ans and its companions. It is possible also that opinion may be conditioned by likes or dislikes for novels written in the form of letters, but this cannot count for very much. Some of the best novels in the world, and some of the worst, have taken this form, so that the form itself can have had nothing necessarily to do with their goodness and badness by itself.

Something of the odd perversity which seems to make it so difficult for a French author to imagine a woman, not necessarily a model of perfection, who combines love for her husband of the passionate kind with love for her children of the animal sort, common-sense and good housewifery with freedom from the characteristics of the mere ménagère, interest in affairs and books and things in general without, in the French sense, “dissipation” or neglect of home, – appears in the division of the parts of Louise de Chaulieu and Renée de Maucombe. I cannot think that Balzac has improved his book, though he has made it much easier to write, by this separation. We should take more interest in Renée’s nursery–it is fair to Balzac to say that he was one of the earliest, despite his lukewarm affection for things English, to introduce this important apartment into a French novel – if she had married her husband less as a matter of business, and had regarded him with a somewhat more romantic affection; and though it is perhaps not fair to look forward to the Député d’Arcis (which, after all, is not in this part probably Balzac’s work), we should not in that case have been so little surprised as we are to find the staid matron very nearly flinging herself at the head of a young sculptor, and “making it up” to him (one of the nastiest situations in fiction) with her own daughter. So, too, if the addition of a little more romance to Renée had resulted in the subtraction of a corresponding quantity from Louise, there might not have been much harm done. This very inflammable lady of high degree irresistibly reminds one (except in beauty) of the terrible spinster in Mr. Punch’s gallery who “had never seen the man whom she could not love, and hoped to Heaven she never might.” It was not for nothing that Mlle. de Chaulieu requested (in defiance of possibility) to be introduced to Madame de Staël. She is herself a later and slight modernized variety of the Corinne ideal – a sort of French equivalent in fiction of the actual English Lady Caroline Lamb, a person with no repose in her affections, and conceiving herself in conscience bound to make both herself and her lovers or husbands miserable. It is true that in order to the successful accomplishment of this cheerful life-programme, Balzac has provided her with two singularly complaisant and adequate helpmates in the shape of the Spaniard-Sardinian Felipe de Macumer and the French-Englishman and lunatic Marie Gaston. Nor do I know that she is more than they themselves desire, being, as they are, walking gentlemen of a most triste description, deplorable to consider as coming from the hand that created not merely Goriot and Grandet, but even Rastignac, Flore Brazier, and Lucien de Rubempré. If this censure seems too hard, I can only say that of all things that deserve the name of failure, “sensibility” that does not reach the actual boiling-point of passion seems to me to fail most disagreeably.

There are, however, even for those who are thus minded, considerable condolences and consolations in Une Fille d’Éve. It is perhaps unfortunate, and may not improbably be the cause of that abiding notion of Balzac as preferring moral ugliness to moral beauty, which has been so often referred to, that he has rather a habit of setting his studies in rose-pink side by side with his far more vigorous exercitations in black and crimson. Une Fille d’Éve is one of the best of these latter in its own way. It is no doubt conditioned by Balzac’s quaint hatred of that newspaper press from which he never could quite succeed in disengaging himself; and we should have been more entirely rejoiced at the escape of Count Félix de Vandenesse from the decoration so often alluded to by our Elizabethan poets and dramatists if he had not been the very questionable hero of Le Lys dans la Vallée. But the whole intrigue is managed with remarkable ease and skill; the “double arrangement,” so to speak, by which Raoul Nathan proves for a time at least equally attractive to such very different persons as Florine and Madame de Vandenesse, the perfidious manœuvres of the respectable ladies who have formerly enjoyed the doubtful honor of Count Félix’s attentions – all are good. It can hardly be said, considering the nature of the case, that the Count’s method of saving his honor, though not quite the most scrupulous in the world, is contrary to “the game,” and the whole moves well.

Perhaps the character of Nathan himself cannot be said to be quite fully worked out. Balzac seems to have postulated, as almost necessary to the journalist nature, a sort of levity half artistic, half immoral, which is incapable of constancy or uprightness Blondet, and perhaps Claude Vignon, are about the only members of the accursed vocation whom he allows in some measure to escape the curse. But he has not elaborated and instanced its working quite so fully in the case of Nathan as in the cases of Lousteau and Lucien de Rubempré. I do not know whether any special original has been assigned to Nathan, who, it will be observed, is something more than a mere journalist, being a successful dramatist and romancer.

Mémoires de Deux Jeunes Mariées first appeared in the Presse during the winter of 1841-42, and was published as a book by Souverain in the latter year. The Comédie in its complete form was already under way; and the Mémoires being suitable for its earliest division, the Scènes de la Vie Privée were entered at once on the books, the same year, 1842, seeing the entrance.

Une Fille d’Éve was a little earlier. After appearing (with nine chapter divisions) in the Siècle on the last day of December 1838 and during the first fortnight of January 1839, it was in the latter year published as a book by Souverain with Massimilla Doni, and three years later was comprised in the first volume of the Comédie.

 George Saintsbury

From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.

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