Comte Octave has realized that he should have paid attention to “the graces of Honorine’s mind and heart” before she wrote him a letter of farewell and eloped with a lover. “I love, and I wait!” he tells Maurice, his secretary. The story opens with the singularity of the Genoese–the beauty of the Ligurians. Honorine of Genoa has beauty as well as fortune, a rarity beyond the borders of France. The setting is Genoa and Paris, and the narrative has stories within a story.
The first is the visit by Frenchmen (Leon de Lora, Claude Vignon, Mlle des Touches) to Genoa, where the French Consul-General, a diplomate married to Onorina Pedrotti, resides. To them the Consul-General tells a tale, which contains another by the Comte Octave. The similarity of names, Onorina and Honorine, raises the question whether the narrative of the French Consul-General is an autobiography and whether in his visible absentmindedness he might love Amélie de Courteville rather than Honorine. The main character is Maurice, who having studied law becomes the apprentice of the Comte Octave, a politician (“statesman, judge, orator”) for whom “discretion” is a principle. He is brought by an elderly uncle, Abbe Loraux (l’Abbe of the White Friars). The mansion of the Comte has fallen into decay. Its master has spells of melancholy and tearfulness and disappears during the nights. Maurice fixes up the place, pays attention, finishes the apprenticeship, and can represent the Comte. Maurice greatly admires the character of the Comte whose behavior is sometimes a mystery.
In the tale of the Consul-General, Balzac uses a gathering of characters to express views on the sins of women (adultery), the tendency toward leniency since Napoleon distinguished the laws of state and religion, and the creation of adultery by theologians who denied the dissolution of marriage and gave souls to women. The topic of problems in marriage crops up, and Grandville lets the cat out of the bag that the wife of the Comte, Honorine, ran off with a lover. Until now the “truth” was that Honorine perished in a shipwreck. The Comte decides to fill in Maurice, telling what happened to Honorine, blaming himself for inattentiveness and lack of intimacy, describing the secret supplement to the living she makes with floral designs, and bringing him to Honorine’s housekeeper Mme Gobain to hear the details about Honorine’s daily activities and meals. The plot thickens when the Comte attempts to contact her and she recognizes the handwriting and refuses the letter. He arranges alternatively for Maurice to occupy the gardener’s cottage on her Rue-St-Maur property and to disguise him as a florist of dahlias in particular, as a man whose experience has soured him to women, and as a “lunatic” who has overworked himself into frenzy. When Mme Gobain tells Honorine that Maurice intends to divide the garden with a wall, she requests to meet him.
The second half of “Honorine” begins as the housekeeper Mme Gobain introduces the neighbors Maurice and Honorine. The story had raised questions in the first half, most of which get answered by the ending. The reader discovers for instance that the perceptive Frenchwoman Mlle des Touches is on to something while watching the absent-minded Consul-General (Baron de l’Hostal, Maurice), and that he married a wife with the name of Onorina, who does differ from the deceased heroine. Honorine died, capping her belief that to adopt the Ideal of love yet to live without it is an impossibility. A supposition builds up that she and Maurice might have developed into lovers if mutual true love prevailed over duty.
By the story’s end Balzac also clarifies the characters’ relationships, elaborated their possibly symbolic characters, and continued the plot. Of the Comte, he “had understood that actions, deeds, are the supreme law of social man. And he went on his way in spite of secret wounds, looking to the future with a tranquil eye, like a martyr full of faith.”
Comte Octave also says that the measure of our sufferings is in ourselves. Of Honorine, she can love the Comte like a friend instead of a lover even while she pretends to adapt to the role of a Comtesse. Body and soul wither from the hypocrisy. Maurice, realizing that Honorine errs in the female role, prefers her personality to that of calm Amelie de Courteville, who would faithfully accept the feminine role without thought or feeling. Balzac thus settles the vagueness about Onorina, the mutuality between Maurice and Honorine, and Maurice’s initial attraction toward Octave’s cousin Amelie.
The second half also develops Honorine, who appears in person. The narrator describes the way in which she makes artificial flowers and befriends him. Their topic of conversation begins with a mutual interest in flowers and gardens. Honorine, believing Maurice’s disguise as a disgruntled florist, eventually invites him into the recesses of her house and workshop where he participates in the manufacture of artificial blooms and stems and also reads to her. They converse about the role of women (all have a say except women). Her disgust with life finds solace in flower-making but she expects an “impending change”.
Toward that change, Maurice, in league with her estranged husband Octave, encourages her to think about becoming a mother again–she had lost a love child. He boasts that he can enlighten her about herself then unveils the truth about the subsidy of her independence and freedom. The Comte has been subsidizing and arranging her business success and has invented a white lie about her disappearance. Maurice suggests that he and his uncle (the Curé) could listen to her confession, uncovering the reason for her refusal to return to the Comte and hiding her if her safety necessitates such a measure. She counters that the convent will be her escape. Maurice will agree to that seclusion if she can convince him why she refuses to accept the role of Comtesse. Her reply is that to act like a married couple would prostitute her. The kind of love she bears the Comte is esteem and respect. She rejects the offer of confession to the Curé since she already knows all the abbe will say. She will instead write a letter to explain her feelings on the matter, then will flee.
The Consul-General (Maurice) halts the narration to the French visitors to display a copy of this letter to one of the listeners Camille Maupin (Mlle des Touches). The original of the letter Maurice had secretly handed over to Octave. The letter’s content is that Honorine knows the religious and civil laws ask her return to the Comte. Society will accept her when the Comte does. Duty would command her to increase the Comte’s happiness, to sustain his social position, as well as to accept marriage and motherhood. To live thus however would be a lie because the experience and memory of passionate love would always betray her. She would be a courtesan in the Comte’s house rather than a virtuous woman. She would have to hide her teary repentance from the Comte.
To Maurice, such a woman would be a catch. With Honorine life would have challenge rather than sameness. Of this difference between Honorine and Amelie de Courteville he says: “Alas! only the experience of life can teach us that marriage excludes passion, that a family cannot have its foundation on the tempests of love. After having dreamed of impossible love, with its infinite caprices, after having tasted the tormenting delights of the ideal, I saw before me modest reality.”
He however requests of the Comte that his role in the reunion with Honorine should remain a secret and that Octave should also send him abroad on an assignment. Of Honorine he asks that she should read the Comte’s reply to her explanatory letter, which Maurice admits having secretly given to the Comte. Maurice’s uncle in addition brings Honorine another letter from the Comte. In this one Octave says that she should have read the letter he sent five years ago. He agrees to live with her like a sister and friend unless she wants to change the status quo. He bought a new house on the Faubourg Saint–Honore. She will have complete freedom to do whatever she likes. Her reply is a test of its assertions. She decides to remain where she is on the Rue Saint-Maur and to continue what she does for a living. She then begins to receive visits from Octave, deciding to return to him and to bear a child. “Love, religion, pity” separate her from the Ideal of one love. To believe something and to live contrary to that belief is something against nature. She asks Maurice to care for her son if Octave also dies.
Summarized by Linnet, September 2010