La Femme Abandonnée
The Deserted Woman
A young man who, of all things, is sent to rural Normandy near Bayeux to recover his health fits into the aristocratic scene easily. He is the Baron Gaston de Nueil, and he has good teeth and some prospects in life.
While in Normandy, he hears that the notorious Madame de Beauseant, who has been thrown over by the Marquis d’Ajuda-Pinto, has moved into town. The Baron is intrigued and manages to wrangle an introduction from one of her kinsmen. The Baron is a very young and inexperienced 23; Mme de Beauseant, 30 — and married, but not to excess, and not living with her husband.
He manages to get into her chateau with his letter, but it quickly becomes apparent to the Vicomtesse that he is practicing his wiles on her. At first, she instructs her servant to show him out; but he comes back and worms his way into her heart.
When Mme de Beauseant suddenly decamps and moves to Switzerland, the Baron follows her and sets up living with her — for nine years. When his father dies, the Baron and his noble mistress move south into France and continue living together.
In the meantime, the Baron’s widowed mother takes a dim view of the Vicomtesse and, in fact, refuses to acknowledge her: Instead, she dangles a much younger woman in front of the Baron, a Mlle Stephanie de Rodiere, “a somewhat insignificant, pink-and-white young person, as straight as a poplar.”
The Vicomtesse intuitively feels that she is becoming something of a burden to the Baron. By now he is 30, and she is 40. (Those numbers don’t add up right, do they? The Victomtesse has aged ten years to Gaston’s seven.) When her lover sends her a temporizing letter, she merely returns one of the letters he wrote with the comment, “Monsieur, you are free.”
Gaston wastes no time in marrying Stephanie, but then: “The Comte [I guess he now has his father’s title] de Nueil sank a few days after his marriage into something like conjugal apathy, which might be interpreted to mean happiness or unhappiness equally easily.” The Vicomtesse, in the meantime, does not move from the neighborhood.
Typically Promethean Balzacian hero that he is, Gaston can’t quite let go of his old love and bursts in to visit her. She seems to have aged and become like a nun in her cell; and she threatens to throw herself out of the window if Gaston comes any closer. Upon which, Gaston returns home, where his new wife is still “butchering” the same very piece on the piano, goes into a drawing room and shoots himself to death with his rifle.
At the end, Balzac reads us a lesson on the nature of love:
“A woman does not bend and form herself in a day to the caprices of passion. The pleasure of loving, like some rare flower, needs the most careful ingenuity of culture.” What Balzac does not come out and say explicitly is that neither can this particular man, Gaston de Nueil bend and form himself to the caprices of a new passion and merely abandon the old passion just like that.
Summarized by Jim, August 2009