Histoire de Treize: La fille aux Yeux d’Or
The Girl with the Golden Eyes
I am happy to be reading this wonderful novelette again. Although it has a fair amount of the theatrical flummery that one expects from early Balzac, there is a steeliness to the characters and story that is quite wonderful.
Balzac begins with a portrait of the Parisians of his day as peoples of different classes who yet are all enslaved to the twin idols of Gold and Pleasure. I remember that, the first time I read this story, I would quote passages from the opening to my friends as an example of what constitutes great description. Now, while I still like it, it no longer sends me to the stratosphere.
We are introduced to Henri de Marsay, illegitimate son of the famous rake Lord Dudley. Henri is a young Adonis and a bit of a fop. One day, while walking in the Tuileries Gardens, he espies a beautiful young woman with strikingly gold-colored eyes (both Gold and Pleasure at the same time!). She is struck by Henri as much as he is struck with her — almost as if she wanted to throw herself at his feet.
Henri asks his friend Paul de Manerville if he knows who she is. Paul not only knows of her, calling her “The Girl with the Golden Eyes,” but claims that the woman with her was a hundred times more beautiful. Henri discounts this, but resolves to get to know her. The next time they meet in the garden, he follows her carriage to her home and then sends his man Laurent to spy on her.
Laurent suborns a mailman and discovers that her name is Paquita Valdes, and that she is well protected from predatory young men like Henri. Nonetheless, Henri sends her a note and awaits word from her how they could meet.
Once Henri de Marsay has contacted Paquita Valdes, she sends a mulatto and a strange ratty-looking clerk to set up a tryst. The mulatto speaks only Spanish, and the clerk acts as translator. Henri is to go to the Boulevard Montmartre near the café the next night and say “cortejo” (lover) to the coachman.
Paquita meets Henri in a strange delapidated room in a “damp, evil-smelling, unlit apartment.” An old woman wearing a turban is sitting off to the side. It turns out she is Paquita’s mother, a slave from the state of Georgia. (This is strange as at two different points in the story, her daughter Paquita is described variously as an ash blonde and as having lustrous black hair.)
After some verbal fencing, Henri asks Paquita to be his. She asks him for patience because she had not given La Concha (?) enough opium and to come back two days later at the same time, same carriage. He returns two days later. In a typical early Balzacian act of unnecessary mystification, the mulatto asks that Henri allow himself to be blindfolded. (Why? We all know where he’s going.) De Marsay finally accedes with a bad grace.
This time, Paquita and Henri finally fall into each other’s arms and perform an act of euphemism with wild abandon. Strangely, during that first night of love, Paquita begs to dress Henri up as a woman. (This actually becomes significant.)
Essentially, Paquita and Henri can make love only until a certain person returns from a trip. Henri rounds up three other members of The Thirteen, and they decide to pay Paquita a visit. He is undecided whether to kill her (for making him “pose” as a woman) or make love to her.
It is, however, too late. Paquita has been stabbed to death by her official lover of record, the Marquise of San Real. Despite the fact that the latter is disheveled and bloody, Henri immediately recognizes her as … his sister, both sharing the same father, the roué Lord Dudley. Well, here’s a fine how-do-you-do! Lesbianism, nudity, cat fight, a mysterious secret society. Joe Bob Briggs says “Check it out!”
A note: Remember Lord Dudley. His wife, Lady Dudley, plays a major (and similar) role in the otherwise stuffy LILY OF THE VALLEY with Felix Vandenesse, brother of the Charles Vandenesse of A Woman of Thirty.
Summarized by Jim, July 2007
Hi, Cory. We have a yahoo group which is developing this blog but no facebook or twitter. We’ve been working on the blog quite a bit because there is not much material on the net about Balzac’s work. Thanks for posting, come back often!
“The Girl with the Golden Eyes” was one of the more successful of Balzac’s works. Henry James’ “The Bostonians” was based on the novel.
When reviewing this work, I was surprised to find a great deal of critical commentary on it – there is not much out there on most of Balzac’s works. One of the best commentaries was “Short Story Criticism”, edited by Jelena O. Krstovic, vol. 102. Detroit: Gale, 2008, which I pulled from my library’s Gale resources. It provides an enlightening summary and excellent critical commentary. This commentary points out that Balzac with this work “overturns assumptions about sexuality and gender.” The commentary also says that “All the characters are deeply flawed, but their story is compelling and carries readers along on a breathless ride to its outrageous conclusion. While the novella examines Henri’s relentless quest for an idealized sexual object, it serves also to comment on post-Napoleonic French society, with its insatiable desire to consume and its fixation on possession. In its description of the world of the young protagonist, the tale censures the decadence of nineteenth-century Parisian society, driven by love of money and pleasure….At the heart of the novella is Henri’s obsessive desire, not for Paquita herself but for an ideal, and more importantly, for an ideal that is difficult to attain.” The yellow of Paquita’s eyes “is the color of decaying Parisian society.”
While sometimes criticized for its melodramatic style, brutality, and long passages, it is praised for its commentary on “French mores of the nineteenth century, and its portrait of Paris in the opening pages is frequently cited by historians as offering an accurate portrait of the social, economic, and cultural climate of post-Napoleonic France.”