A Woman of Thirty (La Femme de Trente Ans)
The Deserted Woman (La Femme Abandonnée)
The Message (Le Message)
There are not a few volumes of Balzac of which it is possible to speak with more editorial enthusiasm, perhaps indeed there is hardly any of which it is possible to speak with less, than of the volume which opens with La Femme de Trente Ans. All its contents, or all with the exception of Gobseck, are tainted with a kind of sentimentalism which, in Balzac’s hands and to English taste, very rarely escapes a smatch of the rancid; few of them exhibit him at his best as an artist, and one or two show him almost at his worst.
The least good of all – though its title and a very small part of its contents have had the honor to meet with an approval from Sainte-Beuve, which that critic did not always bestow upon Balzac’s work – is the first or title-story [A Woman of Thirty]. As M. de Lovenjoul’s patient investigations have shown, and as the curiously wide date 1828-1844 would itself indicate to any one who has carefully studied Balzac’s ways of proceeding, it is not really a single story at all, but consists of half a dozen chapters or episodes originally published at different times and in different places, and stuck together with so much less than even the author’s usual attention to strict construction, that the general title is totally inapplicable to the greater part of the book, and that the chronology of that part to which it does apply fits in very badly with the rest. This, however, is the least of the faults of the piece. It is more – thought still not most – serious that Balzac never seems to have made up anything like a clear or consistent idea of Julie d’Aiglemont in his mind. First she is a selfish and thoughtless child; then an angelic and persecuted but faithful wife; then a somewhat facile victim to a very commonplace seducer, after resisting an exceptional one. So, again, she is first a devoted mother, then an almost unnatural parent, and then again devoted, being punished par ou elle a pêché once more. Even this, however, might have been atoned for by truth, or grace, or power of handling. I cannot find much of any of these things here. Not to mention the unsavoriness of part of Julie’s trials, they are not such as, in me at least, excite any sympathy; and Balzac has drenched her with the sickly sentiment above noticed to an almost nauseous extent. Although he would have us take the Marquis as a brutal husband, he does not in effect represent him as such, but merely as a not very refined and rather clumsy “good fellow,” who for his sins is cursed with a mijaurée of a wife. The Julie-Arthur love-passages are in the very worst style of “sensibility;” and though I fully acknowledge the heroism of my countryman Lord Arthur in allowing his fingers to be crushed and making no sign – although I question very much whether I could have done the same – I fear this romantic act does not suffice to give verisimilitude to a figure which is for the most part mere pasteboard, with sawdust inside and tinsel out. Many of the incidents, such as the pushing of the child into the water, and, still more, the scene on shipboard where the princely Corsair takes millions out of a piano and gives them away, have the crude and childish absurdity of the Œuvres de Jeunesse, which they very much resemble, and with which, from the earliest date given, they may very probably have been contemporary. Those who are fortunate enough to find Julie, in her early afternoon of femme incomprise, attractive, may put up with these defects. I own that I am not quite able to find the compensation sufficient. The worse side of the French “sensibility” school from Rousseau to Madame de Staël appears here; and Balzac, genius as he was, had quite weak points enough of his own without borrowing other men’s and women’s.
La Femme Abandonnée, with its two successors, rather belongs to that class of Balzac’s stories to which I have elsewhere given the title of anecdotes. It is better than the title-story, or rather it has fewer and less variable faults. The first meeting of Madame de Beauséant and M. de Nueil is positively good; and the introduction, with its sketch of what Balzac knew or dreamed to be society, has the merit of most of his overtures. But the tale as a whole has the drawback of almost all this special class of love-stories, except Adolphe – from which so many of them were imitated, and which Balzac, I think, generally had in his mind when he attempted the style. Benjamin Constant, either by sheer literary skill, or as the result of transferring to his book an intense personal experience, has made the somewhat monotonous and unrelieved as well as illicit passion of his personages intensely real and touching. Balzac, here, has not. It is not Philistinism, but common-sense, which objects to M. de Nueil’s neglect of the most sensible of proverbs about the old love and the new.
“Sensibility” pursues us still in La Grenadière, and does not set us free in Le Message, a story which, by the way, was much twisted about in its author’s hands, and underwent transformations too long to be summarized here. It may be brutal to feel little or no sympathy with the woes and willow-wearing of the guilty and beautiful Madame Willemsens (otherwise Lady Brandon) by the water of Loire; but I confess that they leave me tearless, and I do not know that the subsequent appearances of Marie Gaston in Deux Jeunes Mariées and Le Député d’Arcis add to the attraction of this novelette. Jules Sandeau could have made a really touching thing of what was, I think, out of Balzac’s way. Le Message was less so; there is a point of irony in it which commends itself to him, and which keeps it sweet and prevents it from sharing the mawkishness of the earlier stories. But it is slight.
In Gobseck, though not entirely, we shake off this unwonted and uncongenial influence, and come to matters in which Balzac was much more at home. The hero himself is interesting, the story of Derville and Jenny escapes mawkishness, and all the scenes in which the Restauds and Maxime de Trailles figure are admirably done and well worth reading. It is not necessary to take into consideration the important part which the Dutch Jew’s granddaughter or grand-niece Esther afterwards plays in the Comeéie – he is good in himself, and a famous addition to Balzac’s gallery of misers, the most interesting, if not the most authentic, ever arranged on that curious subject. It is lucky that Gobseck comes in this connection for it tones up a dreary book wonderfully.
Pierre Grassou, which is included here for convenience, is a shorter sketch; but it is good in itself; it is very characteristic of its time, and is especially happy as giving the volume a touch of comedy which is grateful. The figure of the artist-bourgeois, neither Bohemian nor buveur d’eau, is excellently hit off, and the thing leaves us with all the sense of a pleasant afterpiece.
It takes M. de Lovenjoul nearly three of his large pages of small type to give an exact bibliography of the extraordinary mosaic which bears the title of La Femme de Trente Ans. It must be sufficient here to say that most of its parts appeared separately in different periodicals (notably the Revue de Paris) during the very early thirties; that when in 1832 most of them appeared together in the Scènes de la Vie Privée they were independent stories; and that when the author did put them together he at first adopted the title Même Histoire.
La Femme Abandonnée appeared in the Revue de Paris for September 1832, was a Scène de la Vie de Province next year, and was shifted to the Vie Privée when the Comédie was first arranged. La Grenadière followed it in the same review next month, and had the same subsequent history. The record of Le Message is much more complicated; and I must again refer those who wish to follow it exactly to M. de Lovenjoul. It is enough here to say that it at first appeared in the mid-February issue of the Deux Mondes for 1832, then complicated itself with La Grande Bretêche and its companion tales, and then imitated the stories which here precede it by being first a “provincial,” and then, as it had already been, a “private” scene. Gobseck, unlike all these, had no newspaper ushering, but was a Scène de la Vie Privée from the first use of that title in 1830. Its own title, however, Les Dangers de l’Inconduite and Papa Gobseck, varied a little, and it once made an excursion to the Scènes de la Vie Parisienne, but returned. Pierre Grassou was first printed in a miscellany named Babel in the year 1840, was republished with Pierrette in the same year, and joined the “Maison de Balzac” in 1844.
From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.