Saintsbury Introduction, Volume IX – Part I

The Lily of the Valley (Le Lys dans la Vallée)
The Firm of Nucingen (La Maison Nucingen)

Le Lys dans la Vallée has considerable importance in the history of Balzac’s books, and not a little in that of his life, independently of its intrinsic merit. It brought on a lawsuit between him and the Revue de Paris, in which the greater part of it was published, and in which he refused to complete it. As the actual suit was decided in his favor, his legal justification is not matter of dispute, and his adversaries put themselves hopelessly in the wrong by reviewing the termination of the book, when it appeared elsewhere, in a strain of virulent but clumsy ridicule. As to where the right or wrong lay, independent of questions of pure law on one side and poor taste on the other, it is not so easy to come to any conclusion. Balzac published an elaborate justification of is own conduct, which does not now appear with the book, but may be found, by any one who is curious, among the rejected prefaces which fill a large part of the twenty-second volume (the third of the Œuvres Diverses) of his Works. It is exceedingly long, not by any means temperate, and so confused that it is difficult to make head or tail of it. What is clear is that the parties went on the dangerous and unsatisfactory plan of neither complete performance of the work before payment nor complete payment beforehand, but of a per contra account, the author drawing money as he wanted it, and sending in copy as he could or chose. Balzac seems to allow that he got into arrears, contending that if he paid those arrears the rest of the work was his own property. But there were complicating disagreements in reference to a simultaneous publication at St. Petersburg; and, on the whole, we may fairly conclude in the not very original terms of “faults on both sides.” The affair, however, evidently gave him much annoyance, and seems to have brought him into some discredit.

The other point of personal interest is that Madame de Mortsauf is very generally said to represent Madame de Berny, his early friend, and his first instructress in aristocratic ways. Although there are strong expressions of affection in his letters with regard to this lady, who died early in his career, they do not definitely indicate what is commonly called love. But the whole scenery and atmosphere of Le Lys Dans la Vallée are those of his own early haunts. Frapesle, which is so often mentioned, was the home of another platonic friend, Madame Zulma Carraud, and there is much in the early experiences of Félix de Vandenesse which has nearly as personal a touch as that of Louis Lambert itself.

Dismissing this we may come to the book itself. Balzac took so much interest in it – indeed, the personal throb may be felt throughout – that he departed (according to his own account, for the second time only) from his rule of not answering criticism. This was in regard to a very remarkable article of M. Hippolyte Castillès (to be found in M. de Lovenjoul’s invaluable bibliography, as is the answering letter in the Œeuvres Diverses), reflecting upon the rather pagan and materialist “resurrection of the flesh” in Madame de Mortsauf on her deathbed. His plea that it was the disease not the person, though possessing a good deal of physiological force, is psychologically rather weak, and might have been made much stronger. Indeed this scene, though shocking and disconcerting to weak brethren, is not merely the strongest in the novel, but one of the strongest in Balzac’s works. There is farther to be noted in the book a quaint delineation, in the personage of M. de Mortsauf, of a kind of conjugal torment which, as a rule, is rather borne by husbands at the hands of wives than vice versa. The behavior of the “lily’s” husband, sudden rages and all, is exactly that of a shrewish and valetudinarian woman.

This, however, and some minor matters, may be left to the reader to find out and appreciate. The most interesting point, and the most debatable, is the character of the heroine with, in a lesser degree, that of the hero. Of M. Félix de Vandenesse it is not necessary to say very much, because that capital letter from Madame de Manerville (one of the very best things that Balzac ever wrote, and exhibiting a sharpness and precision of mere writing which he too frequently lacked) does fair, though not complete justice on the young man. The lady, who was not a model of excellence herself, perhaps did not perceive – for it does not seem to have been in her nature to conceal it through kindness – that he was not only, as she tells him, wanting in tact, but also wanting, and that execrably, in taste. M. de Vandenesse, I think, ranks in Balzac’s list of good heroes; at any rate he saves him later from a fate which he rather richly deserved, and introduces him honorably in other places. But he was not a nice young man. His “pawing” and timid advances on Madame de Mortsauf, and his effusive “kissing and telling” in reference to Lady Dudley, both smack of the worst sides of Rousseau: they deserve not so much moral reprehension as physical kicking. It is no wonder that Madeleine de Mortsauf turned a cold shoulder on him; and it is an addition to his demerits that he seems to have thought her unjust in doing so.

As for the “lily” we come once more to one of those ineradicable differences between French and English taste – one of those moral fosses not to be filled which answer to the physical Channel. I have said that I do not think the last scene unnatural, or even repulsive: it is pretty true, and rather terrible, and where truth and terror are there is seldom disgust. But, elsewhere, for all her technical purity, her shudderings, and the rest of it, I cannot help thinking that, without insular narrowness or prudery, one may find Madame de Mortsauf a little rancid, a little like stale cold cream of roses. And if it is insular narrowness and prudery so to find her, let us thank God for a narrowness which yet leaves room for Cleopatra, for Beatrix Esmond, and for Becky Sharp. I should myself have thought Madame de Mortsauf a person of bad taste in caring at all for such a creature as Félix. But if she did care, I should have thought better of her for pitching her cap over the very highest mill in her care for him, than for this fulsome hankering, this “I would, but dare not” platonism. Still, others may think differently, and that the book is a very powerful book they cannot hold more distinctly than I do.

A personal interest also attaches to La Maison Nucingen, which it is convenient to include here. The story of Madame Surville, and the notary, and his testimony to Balzac’s competence in bankruptcy matters, have been referred to in the General Introduction. La Maison Nucingen is scarcely less an example of this than César Birotteau. It is also a curious study of Parisian business generally, showing the intense and extraordinary interest which Balzac took in anything speculative. Evil tongues at the time identified Nucingen with the first Rothschild of the Paris branch, but the resemblances are of the most general and distant kind. Indeed, it may be said that Balzac, to his infinite honor both in character and genius, seldom indulged in the clumsy lugging in of real persons by head and shoulders, which has come into fashion since his time, especially in France. Even where there are certain resemblances, as in Henri de Marsay to Charles de Rémusot, in Rastignac to Thiers, in Lousteau to Jules Janin, and elsewhere, the borrowed traits are so blended and disguised with others, and the whole so melted down and reformed by art, that not merely could no legitimate anger be aroused by them, but the artist could not be accused of having in any way exceeded his rights as an artist and his duty as a gentleman. If he has ever stepped out of these wise and decent limits, the transgression is very rare, and certainly Nucingen is not an example of it. For the rest, the story itself is perhaps more clever and curious than exactly interesting.

La Maison Nucingen (which the author also thought of calling La Haute Banque) originally appeared with La Femme Supérieure (Les Employés) and that part of Splendeurs et Misères entitled La Torpille, in October 1838, published by Werdet in two volumes. Six years later it took rank as a Scène de la Vie Parisienne in the first edition of the Comédie.

Some bibliographical details about Le Lys have been anticipated above. It need only be added that the appearances in the Revue de Paris were in the numbers for November and December 1835, and that the book was published by Werdet in June of next year. The date of the Envoi (afterwards removed), August 8, 1827, may have some biographical interest. Charpentier republished the book in a slightly different form in 1839, and, five years later, it was installed in the Comédie.

Note.–It may be barely necessary for me to protect myself and the translator from a possible charge of mistaking Lilium candidum for Convallaria majalis. The French for our “lily-of-the-valley” is, of course, muguet. But “Lily in the Valley” would inevitably sound in England like a worse mistake, or a tasteless variation on a consecrated phrase. And “Lily of the Valley” meets the real sense well.

George Saintsbury

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


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