A Woman of Thirty by Honoré de Balzac

La Femme de Trente Ans
A Woman of Thirty


Hmm, Part I is not a good start. It’s melodramatic and the characterisation is not at all convincing. Julie, Marquise d’Aiglemont, is warned by her father not to marry the dashing officer that she admires when they go to farewell Napoleon’s troops but she does and, well, gosh, daddy was right and so is his auntie, the guy is a dolt and a cad. The discovery that he is Not a Nice Man makes Julie take to her bed with the vapours, but somehow she manages to get pregnant and have a child, Helene.
But Julie recovers and – none too worried about the sanctity of marriage either – she takes a lover, Lord Grenville, though they never actually, er, consummate their love because She is Too Good and He is Too Noble. But goodness me, there’s a quick-hide-in-the-cupboard scene when hubby comes back unexpectedly. (You can’t expect him to believe they’re just sighing A Lot and Loving in Purity, can you?) So poor Lord G ends up having to wait out the night on the windowsill to Save her Honour, and (while I’m sure this would never happen to a Frenchman) he catches cold and dies.

On to part 2
Julie decamps to a gothic pile in a desolate spot and tries hard to die. The villagers are captivated at first because no one has been living in the mansion for ages but soon they lose interest. The local cure, who has suffered the loss of his entire family through illness and war, tries to rouse her out of it by appealing to her motherly instincts but no, Jules hasn’t got any. Helene (the daughter) is her husband’s child, not her lover’s, and she can’t bear having the kid around.

Part 3

Charles Vandenesse surveys Paris before departing for Naples (where women are as vibrant as tigers!!) and is introduced to Julie – who has after 4 years of seclusion recovered enough to look Pale and Interesting at social occasions. They get on, and things begin to look interesting. This is because (note the story title here) Julie is now 30, and women of 30 have more options than young women. Womanhood, Balzac reminds us, is incompatible with social liberty – emancipation means corruption. So that first visit when she allows a man not her husband to call on her is a decisive moment. O ho?
Well, no, not for quite a while anyway. Jules is still Harking Back to the Past. Charles vacillates between thinking she loves him and thinking she only wants friendship but she’s wedded to her memories of He Who is Dead. And Charles is about to shoot through for Naples anyway and Julie would be a fool to fall for someone about to abandon her anyhow, right? But (as we knew she would) she does, tremulously of course, and who knows what might have happened there and then if her dolt of a husband had not come in, indifferent to what is going on under his very nose.

Part 4 – The Finger of God

Fate steps in again. In this part the narrator seems to be a participant observer, who witnesses jealous Helene shove into the river her little brother Charles who, (o ho!) bears no family resemblance to her at all. This event then segues none too neatly into a scene some years later where Julie and Vandenesse are dining together (desperately wishing that the notary Crottat would leave so that they can Indulge Their Passion) when the children (Helene and Gustave) and their father (d’Aiglemont) come back prematurely from a play which bears a spooky resemblance to the river scene.

Part 5
, and there is a scene of idyllic domestic contentment consisting of d’Aiglemont now a General, and Julie Marquise and now at the age of 36 mother to more children, Abel and Moina. Helene is now a beauty and Gustave is absorbed in his book. Can this contentment be true? Is Julie fond of her husband now? She’s certainly still not fond of Helene if the cold looks between them are anything to go by…
Suddenly there is commotion, a stranger at the door. D’Aiglemont, against his better judgement gives the fellow sanctuary for he has been fighting a duel and the gendarmerie are after him for the murder of Baron de Mauny. While d’Aiglemont is disracted by the arrival of (a) the police and (b) the servants coming back from their night off, Julie sends Helene off upstairs to see who the stranger is…
From here on the plot gets sillier and sillier. Helene takes it into her head to run away with the murderer, and her parents let her go. (The implication is that for Helene anything is better than her mother’s coldness).
From that moment on everything goes wrong: the Marquis loses his money, he borrows Julie’s to retrieve it and loses that too. He leaves France and six years go by. (That makes Julie 42). Having made his fortune he sets off for home again but on his return journey to France the Spanish ship he’s travelling on is beset by pirates, and who should the Pirate-in-Charge be but The Murderer, accompanied by his happy wife Helene and their four children?! (I’m not making this up!!)
Another awkward leap forward in time and the Marquis is dead and Moina and Julie are on holiday, complaining about the vulgar people in the room. Yes, you guessed it and so did I, it’s Helene with a dying child, hoping to get back to make her peace with her father. But it is Too Late, alas, and she dies in tears and recriminations.

Part 6
and Julie is old. (Well, 50ish). Moina has married well; the other children are all dead, Gustave of cholera, and Abel in Algeria. Gustave had left a widow and children, but Julie, true to form, isn’t very interested in them and has settled her fortune on Moina. The pundits of Paris are dubious about this, as well they might be, because while Moina might always care for her mother, there’s nothing to say that her husband will. Ominously, Moina is flirting with Alfred Vandenesse, and Julie can’t do anything about his continued presence because of her secret relationship with his father. She tries to warn Moina, who repulses her, and so Julie goes out into the garden and dies.
And that served Moina right, eh?

And to think that I had thought that The Mysteries of Udolpho was daft!


Read it here

Lisa Hill, 29th September 2011


One comment on “A Woman of Thirty by Honoré de Balzac

  1. Marcin says:

    Cheers for this hilarious summary Lisa. I’ve just finished listening to the audiobook and for the most part couldn’t believe how ridiculous each consecutive turn of events was. The crushing of her lover’s fingers by Julia and him freezing his arse to death deserve a special mention. But poor old husband/dad’s being almost thrown over board by the pirate captain who in the last second recognises his saviour from Paris and father of his queen-of-pirates-swimming-in-pearls-with-their-children wife could take the cake as well. “Balzacian” – that’s how these sort of improbable series of events happening one after another should be named!


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