Petty Troubles of Married Life by Honoré de Balzac

Petites Misères de la Vie Conjugale
Petty Troubles of Married Life

Saintsbury comments that “Petty Troubles of Married Life” and its companion piece “The Physiology of Marriage” “belong quite apart from the action of the “Comedie Humaine”, and can only be included therein by virtue of a special dispensation on the part of their author.” Saintsbury goes on to call them “grim, almost sardonic essays”. He also comments that “At times he [Balzac] seems honestly to be trying to analyze a particular phase of his subject; at other times he appears to be ridiculing the whole institution of marriage. “ This is ironic since Balzac was not married when writing the work, though Saintsburgy gives him credit for an occasional flash of keen penetration. This summary will try to provide a flavor of the work as might be appropriate in discussing a work of essay, but it will not be comprehensive because of the nature of the work.

PREFACE PART I: IN WHICH EVERY ONE WILL FIND HIS OWN IMPRESSIONS OF MARRIAGE

Marriage is contemplated for Adolphe in the manner of purchasing a horse: Caroline’s qualifications: “good family, well bred, pretty, and three hundred thousand in her own right.” Adolphe and Caroline exchange social niceties stiffly while the real work is done by the family notaries. Adolphe is the son of a rich landed proprietor, “what sensible families most seek”, and he will “someday” have an income of 60,000. Caroline is an only daughter (and yet later Balzac says Caroline has a sickly sister age 12). Her father is age 59, mother age 42. Through careful examination Adolphe’s mother has extracted the information from Caroline’s mother that she may have passed childbearing age, at least “I really hope I have” says Caroline’s mother. Caroline is to inherit from her maternal uncle through her mother, her mother, and her maternal grandfather a total fortune of 750,000 “someday”. Combined with her father and mother’s fortune of 500,000 Caroline is the potential heir of 1,250,000 francs “which surely cannot take wing!”

The match is on. “Such is the autopsy of all those brilliant marriages that conduct their processions of dancers and eaters, in white gloves, flowering at the button-hole, with bouquets of orange flowers, furbelows, veils, coaches and coach-drivers, from the magistrate’s to the church, from the church to the banquet, from the banquet to the dance, from the dance to the nuptial chamber, to the music of the orchestra and the accompaniment of the immemorial pleasantries uttered by relics of dandies, for are there not, here and there is society, relics of dandies, as there are relics of English horses? To be sure, and such is the osteology of the most amorous intent.”

Caroline becomes pregnant and displays her condition charmingly with an innocent artfulness of a first-time condition. Her mother meanwhile tightens her corsets because, uh-oh, she too is pregnant! “It’s as bad as being robbed on the highway!” says Adolphe’s family. Caroline has a little girl who will not live while her mother has a robust, twelve-pound baby boy, the son desired for sixteen years. Such are the dangers of matches by notary.

REVELATIONS

And so married life begins for Adolphe and Caroline. Balzac declares a young woman does not exhibit her true character until two or three years of marriage when she is no longer on her best behavior and occupied with her introduction as a married woman and is preoccupied with her role of mother. One by one she casts off her natural artifices to reveal…that she is dull!!

AXIOMS

A man is entirely responsible for his wife – and her dullness – and yet “the husband does not mould the wife.” Caroline is, it turns out, a social disaster. At the home of a distinguished lady she obstinately maintains that the newest addition to that distinguished family looks not at all like the family but rather like a family friend. She advises a poet to try to write something more likely to live. She complains of slow service at houses with few servants. She speaks ill of widows who remarry before a woman who has married a third time. She babbles. Adolphe with Caroline in attendance is “like a man who is riding a skittish horse and glares straight between the beast’s two ears”.

Adolphe tries to restrict Caroline to a small circle of friends. He cannot talk sense into her, and the battle begins. To keep Caroline in some sort of control, Adolphe must find the means of flattering her many self-loves, those self-loves of a married woman. Adolphe cajoles her to win social silence by telling her how charming she is at home and how timidity in company is a sign of being witty. Congratulating himself on improving his wife, they go to a party where they play a game, a sort of charades. Adolphe is on the block as the contestant who is to guess the appropriate word selected, and he fails miserably because he can’t figure out his wife’s clues, which don’t seem to match the other clues provided. Upon questioning Caroline, he discovers she has provided clues to the wrong word, and her clues (to the wrong world ‘male’) were of questionable taste. And so Adolphe gives up his plan of enlightening his wife. She is hopeless.

THE ATTENTIONS OF A WIFE

Adolphe fondly remembers his bachelor days when he was master of getting himself out of bed in the morning. He can make strange noises, luxuriate in extra moments in the down covers, decide to be master of his fate for the day. If he decides to be late for an appointment, so be it! His servant patiently awaitshis instruction. At some point “you emerge from the bed, spontaneously! Courageously! Of your own accord!”

But the married man stupidly tells his wife he has an appointment. So she mistakenly wakes him two hours early, after which he cannot sleep. She does everything for him, he doesn’t even get credit for getting himself out of the house. And when he returns to the house five hours later, she is back in bed, exhausted from making sure he kept his appointment. She declares to one and all that without her he never would get up in the morning. Soon the married man learns to not tell all he knows to his family, to have no confidant but himself. Could it be true that the inconveniences of the married state do not exceed its advantages?

SMALL VEXATIONS

Adolphe has traded in his fine English steed for a solid Norman horse with a steady, family gait and a domestic, four-wheeled carriage. Sort of like trading a sports car for a mini-van today! He has ventured to take the family on an outing – mother, mother-in-law, nurse, two children (they now have a boy and a girl). What a price he pays to fund this luxury, which consists of driving aimlessly from one place to another looking for the prettiest landscape. They have been out for some time, and the boy declares he is hungry. Caroline complains that Adolphe thinks more of his horse than his child because he won’t urge the horse to go faster and won’t spring for dinner on the road. Caroline and her mother talk among themselves about the selfishness of men. Adolphe is not having fun– what happened t those carefree days?

THE ULTIMATUM

Caroline turns the house upside down getting ready for a ball, for she means to be the belle of it all. She twists and turns, asks over and over how she looks, and no care is too great to make sure her hair, her gown, everything are perfect. Adolphe could do better in admiring her rather than saying over and over “Let’s go”. Caroline approaches the ball, loftily, but alas when she arrives she is just one of many pretty women, some better dressed and prettier than she is. No one asks her to dance. Adolphe is oblivious and occupies his time playing cards. When he sees Caroline, she demands HER carriage. She goes home deflated, and Adolphe does nothing to help. He keep asking what the matter is – when everyone knows a husband should always know what the matter is, “for she always knows what is not”.

Adolphe could change Caroline’s temper through flattery, but he has no clue. He has the indecency to declare the ball splendid! Caroline takes herself off to bed “wrapped up in her chemise, in her sack, in her night-cap, like a ball of clocks packed for the East Indies.” It is up to Adolphe to understand Caroline’s weak points, but he fails.

WOMEN’S LOGIC

Balzac declares “Sensitive beings are not sensible beings.” Adolphe is mistaken to think he has married a creature of reason. Balzac relates a long tale of Adolphe wanting to send his six year old son Charles to boarding school and Caroline opposing it with a scattered approach of diversionary topics. A woman’s “logic is extremely simple, inasmuch as it consists in never expressing but one idea, that which contains the expression of their will. Like everything pertaining to female nature, this system may be resolved into two algebraic terms – Yes: No.”

THE JESUITISM OF WOMEN

Balzac I think is referring to “Jesuitism” as a subtle and equivocating argumentative nature. Caroline complains excessively of not having enough money for true finery – a fancy carriage, ability to give fine balls, etc. These complaints finally make an impact on Adolphe, who decides to invest money in a risky business venture in hopes of acquiring more funds to satisfy Caroline’s desires. This idea thrills Caroline, and somehow this results in Charles being sent to boarding school. Caroline brags to all her friends of the finery she will have. But when the venture fails, Caroline proclaims she was against it from the first and that Adolphe would not listen to her. It’s enough to long for the unmarried life. “O bachelors, rejoice and be exceeding glad!”

MEMORIES AND REGRETS

Marriage has become placid, nothing can move Adolphe. He is tired of Caroline, for she is not what he thought she was. He guides his wife down the street as if he “were towing a Norman scow.” (A scow is a flat-bottom boat.) Exasperated as I am with Balzac’s tunnel view of women, I admit he sometimes writes delightful description.

Adolphe sees a new woman he desires: “she would always have flattered your little vanities, she would understand and admirably serve your interests.” We have no doubt that Alodphe and indeed Balzac views women as a property whose purpose is to flatter their interests. Adolphe fantasizes an early death for Caroline and makes love to her that night more passionately than usual while thinking of the new woman he saw earlier that evening. And then it is back to the routine of marriage while Adolphe begins to think of Madame de Fischtaminel, a friend of the family.

OBSERVATIONS

The signs of disinterest in the wife number in the thousands: when she notices other men: when she leans too heavily upon your arm or doesn’t take your arm at all; when you come home and she says to guests, “It’s just my husband”; when she puts on her stockings in your presence.

THE MATRIMONIAL GADFLY

The matrimonial gadfly is Caroline when she constantly compares the husband of her friend Madame Deschars to Adolphe. Monsieur Deschars spends 400 francs on a dress for his wife, he refurbishes his wife’s chamber and he has his wife’s diamonds set in the latest fashion. When Adolphe does something Caroline doesn’t like, she suggests he take Monsieur Deschars for a model. But when Adolphe is exasperation tries to use Madame de Fischtaminel as a comparable weapon Caroline declares him a monster. It is “a delicious joke, a new jest to enliven their married life” to compare Adolphe with M Deschars, but “it is a piece of cruelty worthy a Carib, a disregard of his wife’s heart, and a deliberate plan to give her pain” to bring up Madame de Fischtaminel.

To make peace in the family now Adolphe must win his wife over again “by trying to guess at things to please her, so as to act according to her whims instead of according to [his own] will”.

HARD LABOR

So Adolphe starts treating Caroline to intimate little dinners and nights at the theatre. At first it works, Caroline is delighted, and even Madame Deschars is jealous. But then Caroline begins to gain weight from the frequent dining out, and she’s becoming bored with the theatre as no one much looks at a woman with her husband anyway. Adolphe is frustrated because things were going so well!

FORCED SMILES

Balzac gives us a ‘general rule’: “No man has ever yet discovered the way to give friendly advice to any woman, not even to his own wife.” Adolphe has the misjudgment to comment on the redness of Caroline’s nose. He further suggests that perhaps the red nose is caused by her stomach, the central communicator of the body. Caroline retorts by offering him a tonic and suggests it will help his stomach since it is the central communicator of the body. Perhaps it will act upon his heart and his tongue. Adolohe wonders at the acuteness of his wife, could she be winning the Civil War? “Marriage appears to him like an immense dreary plan, with its crop of nettles and mullen stalks.”

When Adolphe becomes sullen, Caroline explains she was only joking. Adolphe comments that when in a married couple one makes concessions and the other doesn’t get angry it means they love each other less. So then Caroline accuses Adolphe of getting angry with her to make her believe he loves her. Balzac says that “instead of discovering therein what will please Caroline and what will attach her to him, he finds out what attaches him to her.” But I don’t have a clue.

NOSOGRAPHY OF THE VILLA

Adolphe and Caroline go the country villa of the Deschars. Carline is vibrant there, and Adolphe decides to buy Caroline her own villa when she tells him how much it will please his “little girly”. After great expense, it is discovered food and servants are expensive and the country neighbors are dull. Adolphe remembers an English proverb: “Don’t have a newspaper or a country seat of your own: there are plenty of idiots who will have them for you.” (We say that in the south about a boat and a horse.) The villa will be sold, and of course Caroline says, “What an idea that was of yours, to buy a country house!”

TROUBLE WITHIN TROUBLE

Adolphe and Caroline are still at their country villa, and Caroline assaults Adolphe after an absence of seven hours. Where has he been? Has he been to Madame de Fischtaminel’s? We suspect he has, and whatever he tells Caroline she doesn’t believe him. Putting her in a country villa was a diabolical plot to get away from her! Adolphe sells the villa at a great loss, for only seven thousand when he paid twenty-two thousand for it. The villa only provided amusement for Caroline for six months.

A HOUSEHOLD REVOLUTION

In desperation Adolphe turns over all things to do with the household to Caroline. Perhaps she can find out herself what she wants. Adolphe also was curious to see just how far she would go in mismanaging their assets. Caroline is all sweetness in the ”first epoch”. Everything is done for Adolphe. The meals are superb, he has everything renewed he might need, the household articles are upgraded, and Caroline has an ambition to be an incomparable housekeeper.

Then things change in the “second epoch”. Food suddenly is dear, there are problems with the cook, Caroline is anxious about money. Men are fortunate not having a house to keep. It is women who bear the burden of innumerable details. Caroline is in debt.

In the “third epoch” food is scarce, and Adolphe’s stockings are full of holes. His personal possessions are entirely neglected. Caroline on the other hand is beautifully dressed. In exasperation Adolphe utters in Caroline’s hearing those fatal words, “Ah! when I was a bachelor!” Caroline says she has merely tried to alleviate some of Adolphe’s cares, and if he wants the money-box key back she will “go to the stage” to earn money for the necessities of life.

THE ART OF BEING A VICTIM

Adolphe regains financial control, but Caroline tries to make him regret his victory every hour. When they are to go to a ball, Caroline appears in a dress too gloomy for description and tells Adolphe she has no other dress and wouldn’t think of asking him for anything, “after what has happened”. On another occasion they have 11 to dinner invited by Adolphe. Caroline is there looking like a guest, and Adolphe finds out she gave no dinner order to the cook. Caroline says she can’t take it upon herself to give orders here. On still another occasion when Madame de Fischtaminel visits, Caroline is working on embroidering slippers. When Madame de Fischtaminel asks her about them, she tells her she sells them to the tradesman to buy herself a few luxuries. Caroline is not nearly as dull as Adolphe has claimed.

And so it goes until finally Caroline’s mother decides to fund Caroline’s clothing. She reappears in society but makes sure everyone knows her mother is funding her dress. And it seems that Adolphe has spent even more money than Caroline did on household management. Caroline suddenly bursts into tears and says she’s unhappy. Adolphe offers to return household management to her. She tells him no and to go away. Adolphe answers, “Very well, just as you like, Caroline.” It is the beginning of indifference. Caroline “sees before her an abyss toward which she has been walking of her own free will.”

THE FRENCH CAMPAIGN

Caroline is worried and plots to regain the attention of Adolphe. She begins observing her neighbor, and lovely woman who appears to be so much in love. She studies the couple and wonders if she can use them to rekindle her relationship with Adolphe. She mentions the woman to Adolphe, and he tells her he knows the man, a Monsieur Foullepointe, and how much in love he is with his wife. Adolphe agrees tol invite the couple to dinner.

Caroline pulls out all the stops for a fine dinner and invites the Deschars and the Fischtaminels, the cream of her society, to the dinner. She tells her other guests about the lovely young couple. In walks Madame Foullepointe…and a fat gentleman with thin grey hair, who is introduced as her husband. Caroline mistakes him for the woman’s father-in-law, but a month later Caroline and Madame Foullepointe are intimate friends. Balzac closes with the axiom, “Women have corrupted more women than men have ever loved.”

A SOLO ON THE HEARSE

Caroline has decided to use illness as a weapon and declares she is sick with a variety of symptoms. She says she is suicidal. Finally a doctor is called, who tells Adolphe he should not neglect his wife. Adolphe assures his wife she is not seriously ill but doesn’t have a clue she is trying to get his attention. However, he is alarmed as to what would happen if Caroline gets to be “morbidly exacting”.

PREFACE PART II

Balzac states that in Part II he will give the wife’s point of view. This should be interesting as he made it all the way through “The Physiology of Marriage” and half through “Petty Troubles of Married Life” without once providing a female point of view.

HUSBANDS DURING THE SECOND MONTH

Caroline and a boarding-school friend Stephanie talk on a balcony at a ball with a male friend listening unknown to them. They have both recently married, Stephanie supposedly to an ideal gentleman Armand. But it seems that Armand chews tobacco (he quit for the seven months of their courtship, so Stephanie was unaware of the habit). And he’s col, particular, and uncommunicative. He has seven false teeth!! Stephanie refused to make love with him once, and he threatened to cut her allowance and keep back enough for him to satisfy his “needs” without her.

DISAPPOINTED AMBITION

This section is a bit puzzling. There’s a long story about Adolphe de Chodoreille storming Paris as a writer and a journalist. He makes the second-rate tier of hack writers, has a few respectable things published but is clearly not in the inner circle of talent and of writers. His story resembles other journalist stories in “The Human Comedy”. Surely this must be the Adolphe of our book, but this is the first hint in the book that he has a profession or that he is a writer.

Then there are letters exchanged between Madame Claire de la Roulandiere and Madame Adolphe de Chodoreille. We presume this is between Caroline and her friend Claire. They share stories of their less than glamorous lives, each imagining the other better off. Clair says, “When we were children, and used to look at those pretty little white mice, in the cobbler’s window in the rue St. Maclou, that turned and turned the circular cage in which they were imprisoned, how far I was from thinking that they would one day be a faithful image of my life!” Caroline responds with information about her and Adolphe that we hardly recognize: Adolphe doesn’t make much money, he is not accepted in the best society, no one knows him, Adolphe depends on her for financial advice, they are a supportive couple, for “Adolphe is young, and a charming fellow.”

A letter is found in a casket. It was written by Caroline to a friend. She describes her life as Adolphe’s wife. She loves him dearly, is his biggest supporter, but is hurt that he is invited so many places where she is not welcome. I do not recognize this Caroline or this couple. I can only suppose they are a later incarnation of the marriage once they are settled; perhaps Caroline has adopted a new viewpoint once she decides she does not love Adolphe.

THE PANGS OF INNOCENCE

Caroline as a woman of thirty is instructing a young woman about to be married. She tells her she has lost a tooth for each child she has born. She says when she married she loved her husband. “I have got over it since and acted differently for his happiness and mine. I can boast of having one of the happiest homes in Paris.” She then tells the story of Adolphe’s encouraging her to dress more like Madame de Fischtaminel, only to find later that she can only be a poor copy of Madame de Fischtaminel, who is Adolphe’s lover. The real blow was Caroline’s saving up for an expensive embroidered handkerchief like Madame’s, only to discover that Adolphe had purchased the one Madame has. “It was…as if I had seen an edifice built by fairy crumble into ruins.”

THE UNIVERSAL AMADIS

When Caroline confronts Adolphe about Madame de Fischtaminel, he assures her “it’s altogether moral”. After many tears, Caroline picks herself up and persuades a man about town Monsieur de Lustrac to court her. When Adolphe finds them holding hands in her boudoir, Caroline assures him “it’s altogether moral.” Adolphe gets the point, and there is no more Madame de Fischtaminel or Monsieur de Lustrac.

WITHOUT AN OCCUPATION

Madame de Fischtaminel writes a letter to her mother discussing her marriage. She married her husband upon the advice of her mother because he is rich (30,000 a year), respectable, and not terrible looking. But there is a fly in the ointment: he is boring, he has nothing to do, has no interests, and a real fear of learning anything. So he follows Madame around the house day and night, never letting her out of his sight. If she tries to read a book, he interrupts her constantly asking her if she is about finished. Monsieur has no bad habits: he does not gamble, he is indifferent to women, he doesn’t drink, has no expensive habits. But nevertheless he is driving his wife mad! “Two felons pinioned to the same chain do not find time hang heavy: for they have their escape to think of. But we have no subject of conversation; we have long since talked ourselves out.”

INDISCRETIONS

Some men are too familiar with their wives in public to denote their ownership of the woman. They bestow embarrassing endearments, inappropriately touch their wives, etc. Woman have killed for less!

Balzac says, “In order to be happy in wedlock, you must either be a man of genius married to an affectionate and intellectual woman, or, by a chance which is not as common as might be supposed, you must both of you be exceedingly stupid.”

Balzac goes on to observe that as women get older they are more responsive to the indiscretion of physical love, even from their husbands. “Woman exists by sentiment where man exists by action.” He claims that “during their youth, women want to be treated as divinities, they love the ideal; they cannot bear the idea of being what nature intended them to be.” But women of a certain age “want to be treated as mortals, they love the actual: they cannot bear the idea of no longer being what nature intended them to be.”

BRUTAL DISCLOSURES

Sometimes things are discovered that seem startling, perhaps shocking. Caroline thinks Adolphe so handsome until she hears him referred to as “that fat man, dressed like a waiter I a café, frizzled like a barber’s apprentice…”.

Caroline wants to excel at something and works very hard on a short story, a feuilleton, which gets published in the local paper under an assumed name. Caroline anxiously waits for Adolphe to read it. He has no idea it is her work, and he proceeds to rip it to shreds. Caroline is devastated.

Caroline discovers a letter written by Adolphe to a friend in which he says, “I have resolved to lead my wife through paths beaten in the snow, until the happy day when infidelity will be difficult.”

A TRUCE

Caroline waits anxiously for the return of Adolphe from a several months’ journey. She can’t eat, she skips mass, she paces the floor from early morning. Each sound of horses causes her to leap up and exclaim that it is he. But he doesn’t come, and finally she falls into sleep at 3 am. Adolphe comes in, retires in the spare room, and leaves orders that he is not to e disturbed. Caroline is cross and snappish for days.

USELESS CARE

Caroline hears that her husband loves Italian-style mushrooms. She investigates mushrooms and goes to some trouble to acquire some Milanese mushrooms. Caroline waits with great anticipation serving the dish, but Adolphe doesn’t like them. They are not quite the right kind, you see. It seems poor Caroline can’t get it right.

SMOKE WITHOUT FIRE

Caroline is forever suspicious of Adolphe and leaves no stone unturned in detecting treachery. The maid discovers that Adolphe goes to see an old woman, and it turns out the old woman is the nurse of a young boy who looks a lot like Adolphe and is obviously Adolphe’s son. Caroline breathes easier because the mother of this child is obviously not on the radar screen.

THE DOMESTIC TYRANT

Women depend on their maids as spies on their husbands, but doing so makes the maid a tyrant. Caroline’s maid Justine is just that – she sleeps late, has coffee in bed, dresses well, goes out without permission, is extremely well-paid, etc. Finally Adolphe wants to dismiss her as it has become well-known that there must be some special reason she is in their service. When they try to dismiss her, Justine falls sick.

THE AVOWAL

Finally Caroline tells Adolphe that Justine is the one who found out about his natural son. They dismiss her, she goes off and marries a tradesman. Ten months later Justine writes an almost illegible note to Caroline telling her about Adolphe’s involvement with Madame de Fischtaminel. Caroline goes into a frenzy of investigation, and when she feels Adolphe has not misbehaved, she receives another letter from Justine accusing Adolphe of another affair.

HUMILIATIONS

Women will put up with a lot to save the status of their husband, for they love not only the husband but the family. Caroline goes to creditors and puts up with their trying to make sexual advances to her in order to make things easier for Adolphe.

THE :LAST QUARREL

There comes a time of the last quarrel, when the wife no longer cares Maybe she finds one note too many in her husband’s pocket. Or perhaps he calls her one time too many by the wrong name. Caroline has the last quarrel with Adolphe, and they agree to be comrades instead of husband and wife. “Adolphe thanks Caroline, and catches a glimpse of bliss; he has converted his wife into a sister, and hopes to be a bachelor again.” But the quarrel is a sort of perpetual motion as Caroline constantly refers to it in a witty manner in society and in private. She tells a lady, “We are happy…when we love each other no longer: it’s then that we learn how to make ourselves beloved.” Caroline is ready to take a lover.

A SIGNAL FAILURE

Caroline wants to take riding lessons. Adolphe doesn’t want her to do so – too expensive, too much bother. Caroline sulks and makes life uncomfortable. Caroline turns romantic and assumes that a night of lovemaking has brought her riding lessons. He tells her it does not. Upon her gaze, he thinks maybe he’d better let her take one lesson.

Caroline wants a carriage and Adolphe refuses. She pretends a dramatic sickness and the doctor (our young friend Bianchon) calls. He tells Adolphe that there is nothing wrong with Caroline but she will indeed make herself sick if she doesn’t get what she wants. Caroline listens at the door. “Even at the present day, the young doctor is obliged to clear his path of the calumnies which this charming woman is continually throwing into it.”

THE CHESTNUTS IN THE FIRE

Caroline plots with Adolphe’s women friends to keep Adolphe away when she wants to entertain her lover. They are all in this together and work well in tossing Adolphe around to fit their schedules. One day Caroline sends Adolphe off and awaits her lover, who is to join her in a sumptuous breakfast. She gets a letter saying her lover is ill. Adolphe returns unexpectedly and delights in eating the superior repast. Just for the fun of it, he tells Caroline that her lover isn’t sick, he’s been out partying. Caroline is hurt and Adolphe is amused. Caroline later in the day goes to visit her lover feeling furious, only to swoon when she find out he has been injured in a dual. “What abominable monsters men are.”

ULTIMA RATIO

After the last quarrel, things are different for men and women. “Though he no longer cares about her, she retains the right to care about him.”

COMMENTARY

freedom So we have the perfect couple who are friends and supporter of each other and allow each other the to do exactly what they want. Adolphe says “I am the happiest husband in the world. Caroline is a devoted friend, she would sacrifice everything for me, even my cousin Ferdinand [her lover], if it were necessary…You entangle yourself in your laughable ideas of dignity, honor, virtue, social order. We can’t have our life over again, so we must cram it full of pleasure.”

I find myself quite fatigued with all this cynicism, and I quite agree with Balzac’s friend, who accuses him, “You revenge yourself cruelly for your inability to write the history of happy homes.”

Read it here

Summarized by Pamela, April 2012

The Physiology of Marriage by Honoré de Balzac

Physiologie du Mariage
The Physiology of Marriage

This is an odd work. George Saintsbury comments that “The Physiology of Marriage” and its companion piece “Petty Troubles of Married Life” “belong quite apart from the action of the “Comedie Humaine”, and can only be included therein by virtue of a special dispensation on the part of their author.” Saintsbury goes on to call them “grim, almost sardonic essays”. He also comments that “At times he [Balzac] seems honestly to be trying to analyze a particular phase of his subject; at other times he appears to be ridiculing the whole institution of marriage. “ This is ironic since Balzac was not married when writing the work, though Saintsburgy gives him credit for an occasional flash of keen penetration. This summary will try to provide a flavor of the work as might be appropriate in discussing a work of essay, but it will not be comprehensive because of the nature of the work.

Balzac begins by stating that marriage is not an institution of nature and observing that marriage operates differently in different societies. These comments were made by someone in the presence of Napoleon, and Bazac says they made a ‘profound impression upon the author of this book.” Balzac seems centered on the issues of ADULTERY, which I capitalize as he does in his text. He claims that marriage is “generally modified by adultery” and that the number of unhappy homes is greater than the happy homes. To be honest, this premise as a hint as to what is to come in this work does not much make me want to read it. He talks of perhaps writing a satire upon marriage wherein a husband and wife find themselves in love with each other for the first time after 27 years of marriage. I can only wish he’ll include this satire in this work, but in browsing through it the pages look dismally absent of anything other than Balzac’s cynical and often poorly formed opinions of women and marriage.

I should note in fairness that after reading almost the entire “Comedie Humaine” I am not a fan of Balzac’s treatment of women and find his assumptions that he is an expert on women entirely without basis. While there are many aspects of Balzac’s works I admire, in my opinion this is his biggest failing: his flashes of insight are overwhelmed with his ignorance.

Balzac devotes a number of pages in the opening of “The Physiology of Marriage” to his vision in writing the book. He relates an anecdote about a dying Countess who becomes fixed on a spot on the floor where a log had rolled out of the fireplace. She springs up out of bed to put the log back into its place, and her eyes remain fixed on the spot on the floor until she dies. When her heirs dig up the plank, they find the remains of her husband, for whom she had been allegedly grieving the past 10 years. To further support his case against marriage, Balzac then tells about being privy to the conversation of two refined ladies who observe that women almost always take lovers and that their lovers are below their own intellect and selected mainly for their looks. Balzac states he is setting out to “arrange matters which represent what everybody thinks but no one dares to say [about marriage]”. He presents his case of marriage in essay form and supports it with the use of anecdotes. Scattered throughout are what he calls aphorisms, his own principles of truth about marriage.

MEDITATION I “The Subject”

The object of his work is to prove that “Marriage unites for life two beings who do not know each other…that life consists in passion, and that no passion survives marriage.” He goes on to say that marriage as an institution is necessary for the preservation of society and its property but is contrary to nature. He asks himself for whom is he writing this work. After all there are exhaustive numbers of writings on marriage. He declares he writes for the “Disciples of Panurge”. Panurge is a character from Rabelais’ “Pantagruel”. He’s a libertine and Wikipedia says

“In French, reference to Panurge occurs in the phrase mouton de Panurge, which describes an individual that will blindly follow others regardless of the consequences. This, after a story in which Panurge buys a sheep from the merchant Dindenault and then, as a revenge for being overcharged, throws the sheep into the sea. The rest of the sheep in the herd follow the first over the side of the boat, in spite of the best efforts of the shepherd.”

Balzac wants to classify the secret motives of women so that married men can “put their finger on each movement of their wives’ heart, as a table of logarithms tells them the product of a given multiplication.”

MEDITATION II “Marriage Statistics”

Balzac wants to provide a survey on the number of married women eligible for romantic entanglements in France. He calculates 30 million inhabitants of France, approximately 15 million females. He subtracts from this figure 9 million women to reduce the total to 6 million by claiming these 9 million women are disparaged as common, women without money, fineness of skin, and cleanliness. Women who do less than lounge around and think about how best to present themselves in society do not count in his figures. This is the side of Balzac that I personally cannot find pleasing. “But the man of sentiment, the philosopher of the boudoir, while he eats his fine bread, made of corn, sown and harvested by these creatures, will reject them [the common woman] and relegate them, as we do, to a place outside the genus Woman.”

Now Balzac subtracts another 2 million women from his calculation as being too old (over 40). We are down to 4 million women. Another two million is subtracted because the females are too young for romance: that makes the total now 2 million. And then he discusses that 100,000 as too ugly or sickly for consideration, another 100,000 are in the church, and an undetermined number aren’t quite the right age for serious romance There are also a half million prostitutes and women of the trades, actresses, chambermaids, etc. I’m not sure about Balzac’s math or process of elimination, but no matter. Balzac finally resolves that there are about one million married, refined women in the right age range in his world of society. He subtracts another 200,000 to account for the newly married, the ill, the pregnant, etc.

Balzac’s final total is 800,000 women who are likely to violate married faith, but in subsequent meditations he bounces back to the bottom line of one million women and then finally to 400,00 women. He proclaims that the following meditations will determine how many of the one million women are honest women, and how many are virtuous women.

MEDITATION III “Of the Honest Woman”

Balzac’s definition of an honest woman is not what one might expect. Rather it is a rather flippant description of characteristics of an acceptable lover for a young blade of Paris: she’s married, she’s under 40, she’s not paid for sex, she has a private carriage, she’s not her own cook, she’s married to someone with money, she’s well-spoken, etc. The bottom line is she has at least 6,000 francs a year if she lives in the country, 20,000 in Paris, in order to afford the list of characteristics of an honest woman. Somehow Balzac has trouble with his math again, for he reduces this population to about 400,000 of his one million women on account of lack of the proper funds. But it seems that he already reduced the women of France much earlier excluding those without money. Balzac never was very good with figures!

MEDITATION IV “Of the Virtuous Woman”

Balzac notes that women marry around the age of 20 and drop out of the romance market about 40, while men are romantic from about 17 to 52 or more. Without going through Balzac’s questionable numbers game, it is sufficient to note that there are about three million men available to “pay homage to honest women.” He reduces this by non-philandering husbands, unappealing, clergy, etc. to about one million. These men probably have at least a total of three million “adventures” – and there are only about 400,000 “honest” women.

Balzac upon revealing these numbers says that manners are the hypocrisy of nations. “If the God of goodness and indulgence who hovers over the worlds does not make a second washing of the human race, it is doubtless because so little success attended to first.” He declares physical love is a craving like hunger except more violent and less frequent. Balzac claims there are a few virtuous women – those who die young in their first child-birth, those who are exceptionally ugly, the religious, etc. Balzac seems to disparage these virtuous women as having something wrong with them.

Since men marry 10 years later than women, and there are more of them in the proper category, it is inevitable that they seek the passions of married women – their other choice being those common women who are beneath them. They could marry younger, but likely would make unwise choices in their youth. They could remain celibate, but that seems unlikely and wouldn’t be respected. So, married men, accept the knowledge that your wife will indeed have lovers in her prime.

MEDITATION V “Of the Predestined”

Certain characteristics incline a wife to entertain lovers. The man of business who is predictably gone at certain times leaves the door open, as does the preoccupied husband – a husband who is so involved in his business or science that he does not pay due attention to his wife. Beware also the old man who marries a young girl and also the tyrant.

Balzac tells an amusing story of a pet ape who picks up a violin and examines it, puzzled as to how it makes music. He turns it over and over, then tries to place it under his chin and play it. But he draws forth only discordant sounds. After a few more attempts “he takes the bow with both hands and snaps it into two pieces across the innocent instrument, source of harmony and delight…the monkey sat down upon the fragments of it and amused himself with stupid joy in mixing up the yellow strings of the broken bow.” And Balzac makes the comparison of the majority of the predestined husbands with “this orang-outang trying to play the violin.” Woman is a delightful instrument of pleasure, but “it is necessary to know its trembling strings, to study the position of them, the timid keyboard, the fingering so changeful and capricious which befits it.”

“Harlequin, when he tried to find out whether his horse could be accustomed to go without food, was not more ridiculous than the men who wish to find happiness in their home and yet refuse to cultivate it with all the pains which it demands. The errors of women are so many indictments of egotism, neglect and worthlessness in husbands.” Balzac goes on to say that men marry for property and/or children – but property and children do not make a man happy. Love is what makes happiness, and it is possible to always desire one’s wife – just as a famous musician does not need more than one violin to execute a piece of music. In short, Balzac provides a catechism of marriage which says for the man not to force himself on the woman, to feel passion for her, to allow her the free will to love him, to appreciate the uniqueness of each pleasure. These comments to be the first of only a few positive comments about women and romance in the entire work.

MEDITATION VI “Of Boarding Schools”

Women educated in boarding schools discuss love and sex and thus are not chaste even if still technically virgins. They develop intimate confidences which go with them into life, and then instead of just a wife to deal with one has several women watching you along with those women’s families and lovers. And what about the mothers of women sent to boarding schools – are they not devious in ridding their house of the wiles of a young girl? Better to marry a young girl cultivated at home.

Balzac also notes that most men marry with about as much concern as buying a stock on the market. He recommends (curiously I thought) “a young lady whose temperament resembles that of the women of Louisiana or the Carolinas.” Also it is better to choose someone not plain but not quite pretty.

Balzac wonders why we lock women up before marriage but allow them to have lovers afterwards – would not the system work far better reversed? She would make a wiser choice of husband if she weren’t driven to take the love of the first comer. We are cautious with young women to fear their submitting to a man who does not love her – but isn’t that often the result of the marriage of an inexperienced young woman? The French method of locking up the young girls and giving the most complete liberty to wives seems to indicate that the French are more solicitous about a woman’s past than her future.

He wonders “whether a wife is forced into infidelity by the impossibility of obtaining any change, or by the liberty which is allowed her in this connection.” I suppose what he means by impossibility of change is change in their husbands.

MEDITATION VII “Of the Honeymoon”

Balzac cautions against the new husband taking his pleasure in his wife physically with violence. She’ll submit in her innocence, but if she sees that there is to never be pleasure in the act she will eventually rebel. “She will no longer be silent when once she has learned the uselessness of her sacrifices”. Once she has determined this, it is impossible to repair the damage. Later on he notes that if a man – or we presume a woman – once feels aversion, he – she – never returns to love. This is the transition of the honeymoon to the “Red-moon”.

Suddenly Balzac leaps to another of his beliefs about love. The duration of passion is in proportion to how long it took to obtain the woman. If it was no trouble to get the woman, the passion disappears instantly .

Another principle is, “we receive only in proportion to what we give.” Do not give more or less than you receive. “Durable love is that which always keeps the forces of two human beings in equilibrium.”

Balzac cautions against the practice of slowly beginning to neglect one’s appearance, the details of marriage, etc. Indifference kills love. The wife may long for the passion not quite ever fulfilled by the careless husband.

MEDIATION VIII “Of the First Symptoms”

Balzac tells the story of the Minotaur where the half-man, half-bull became – or was all the time without realizing it – whole man and no bull. He now calls this the minotaurization of a husband, which I presume is when a wife starts taking lovers.

All the ‘hungry celibates’, that is the single men aiming to be lovers of married women, are in a conspiracy to work together to dup the husbands. They leave the newly married alone, letting the woman gain experience and then disillusionment with her husband. When the couple reemerges in society for society’s sake, it is time to strike because the wife with an unsatisfied heart has come in search of distraction. The husband is now in danger of being minotaurized and the wife is likely to become ‘inconsistent’. That is, she is now in a consistent plan to appear to fulfill all her wifely duties while taking a lover.

She dresses with more care than ever, but at home she can be gloomy and thoughtful, then laughing and gay. She’ll say she loves you as a sister, and she will be indifferent in lovemaking. Sometimes she’s exceptionally tender, at others sullen. She may take up long-abandoned religious practices. She’ll start asserting herself, no longer delighting in doing your bidding. She’ll start referring to the home as hers – my chamber, my bed, etc. She’ll tell you to butt out of the business of the home. All this will be done under the name of the dignity of women.

And perhaps worst of all she will engage in “rattle-power”. She’ll repeat the same idea over and over the same way on the theory that eventually you will admit them – such as that you have an excellent wife, women often see clearer than men, etc. The shrewd, intelligent, and sarcastic wife has the leisure to meditate a strategy which can turn her husband into ridicule. Once she’s laughed at him, his power has expired and it is the end. A woman lies on emotion, and when the first passion leaves marriage she seeks new passion to feel alive.

MEDITATION IX “Epilogue”

Balzac says the mixture of Roman, Gaul, and Frank heritage has produced an odd assortment of traditions in France in the treatment of women. Greece of the hot climate secluded their women, leaving courtesans connected with art and religion to satisfy the first passions of the few young men who weren’t preoccupied with military training. Rome enhanced this seclusion, stressing modesty as a moral obligation. The Gauls integrated respect for women and recognized them as oracles of God. The Francs brought a system of gallantry from the colder climates where the mingling of the sexes was permitted.

“To the East, then, belong the passion and the delirium of passion, the long brown hair, the harem, the amorous divinities, the splendor, the poetry of love and the monuments of love. – To the West, the liberty of wives, the sovereignty of their blond locks, gallantry, the fairy life of love, the sorcery of passion, the profound ecstasy of the soul, the sweet feelings of melancholy and the constancy of love.” These systems are in collision, and the addition of Christianity provided still more divisions in the two principles of servitude and the sovereignty of women.

So French women are still married against their taste and find themselves tempting to take the only reprisals within their power. Balzac again reiterates that young women should have more liberty. “Let us give back to youth the indulgence of those passions, those coquetries, love and its terrors, love and its delights…” Out of this will come experience, confidence, and love in marriage which will have the privilege of comparison. This will eliminate the plague of prostitution and provide through availability the experience of real love affairs. Balzac would support disinheritance so that men would “choose only those who promised happiness by their virtues, their character or their talents.” Women would create happiness in the household and the penalty for infidelity should be severe, that of extreme disgrace.

MEDIATION X “A Treatise on Marital Policy”

This is the beginning of the second part of “The Physiology of Marriage”, this part and the third part proclaiming to tell men how to counteract the subversive behavior of women in marriage.

First off, never believe what a woman says. Second, look for the spirit rather than the letter of her actions. Third, never forget that a woman “is never so garrulous as when she holds her tongue, and is never working with more energy than when she keeps quiet.” Once your suspicions are aroused, be like a man on a tricky horse – always watching the ears of the beast.

If you want to persuade a woman of anything, never try to directly convince her but rather allow her to convince you. Balzac gives as an example a wife who demands expensive jewelry which her husband directly denies due to budgetary concerns. Another wife asks for jewelry, the husband immediately provides her the money graciously, but he lets her overhear his budgetary problems when he asks the author for a loan. In the end, the first wife gets her jewelry and the second wife decided to forego hers – it was enough that her husband is willing to go broke providing her what she wants.

MEDIATION XI “Instruction in the Home”

In short, Balzac advises unless in the rare circumstance where you have married a woman who has been educated like a man, keep your wife away from books. They give her romantic and unrealistic ideas.

MEDITATION XII “The Hygiene of Marriage”

Balzac advises semi-starving the wife (no meat, no wine, etc.) and finding her something physical (perhaps dance) to keep her worn out. Thus she will have no energy for “celibates”. If you, her husband, do not break under the scourge of your will this weak and charming reed, there will be a celibate, capricious and despotic, ready to bring her under a yoke more cruel still; Under all considerations, therefore, humanity demands that you should follow the system of our hygiene.”

MEDITATION XIII “Of Personal Measures”

Insist before marriage that a wife nurse her own children – less time for affairs. Keep her pregnant – less time for exposure to the world.

When danger does arise, divert her intensions with a firestorm, which Balzac calls a blister. One example is a man who proclaims his fortune lost and thus the necessity of repairing to the country, where he diverts his wife with rebuilding the estate and giving her much attention. Similar diversions might be sudden physical complaints, journeys to the continent, etc. It is important to keep such a blister in the back pocket, and to vary them and to understand the necessity of graduating doses.

Subtly belittle the potential lover. Lead the lover to do silly things that will annoy your wife, for example. Tell the lover she likes insolence when she doesn’t, and the lover no doubt will exhibit boorish behavior that makes him intolerable to her. If one has friends in high places, arrange the transfer of the potential lover to another area.

“Study the happy art of being near her and yet not being near her; of seizing the opportunity which will yield you pre-eminence in her mind without ever crushing her with a sense of your superiority, or even of her own happiness. If the ignorance in which you have kept her does not altogether destroy her intellect, you must remain in such relations with her that each of you will still desire the company of the other.”

MEDITIAITON XIV “Of Apartments”

Balzac suggests that bringing home a wife is like bringing home a parrot and putting it in a cage, and he warns that the apartments must be refurbished frequently to keep happiness in the home. “The least accessory of her apartment ought, therefore, to breathe elegance and taste.”

He advises the husband to take extreme precautions in the way his home is designed so that there is no private access to his wife’s apartments, no place for a lover to hide, no servants not loyal to the master, no maze of bed curtains, etc. His admonitions in this regard are astonishing and extreme – he even bans sofas and ottomans! He suggests the servants keep a double-entry record of all visitors, and that the husband frequently examine his wife’s rooms for contraband – a gift, a note, anything out of place. All this is to be done from the first day of marriage and in a subtle enough manner that the wife assumes this is merely the habits of her husband.

MEDITATION XV “Of the Custom House”

“A husband is, like a spider, set at the centre of an invisible net, and receives a shock from the least fool of a fly who touches it, and from a distance, hears, judges and sees what is either his prey or his enemy.” Watch the celibate when he enters – does he adjust his hair, hum a French or Italian air, adjust his necktie? When inside, does he put on a mask of social convention which hides his relationship with your wife? Does he avoid your eye? Does he exit seemingly moved, perhaps casting a glance backwards? Watch all his movements carefully and you will know your danger.

Similarly watch the wife. Does her expression change suddenly upon noticing you? How does she appear when returning home – is her hair a bit amiss, is she too gay, does her complexion glow? Observation is key to success.

MEDITATION XVI “The Charter of Marriage”

Balzac tells us he has modeled his advice thus far on the behavior of a modern-day Othello, a Council of State, who has a “profound genius which so cleverly disguised the precautions of almost oriental jealousy under the elegance of furniture, beauty of carpets and brightness of painted decorations.”

But what happens when eventually even in this gilded cage the wife asks the right of coming and going at her will and of writing and receiving letters without censure? The Council of State tells him he solves this problem like the government does: he agrees to everything requested but does not provide the means for the execution of the requests. If Madame wants to go out, then she is by her status accompanied by servants. If she wants exercise, her husband always accompanies her, etc. But at the end of the story, it seems that the Council of State detects an intruder by finding a black hair, a color of hair not known in the household. A few days later the Council of State tells Balzac of the innocence of his wife. It seems the black hair is that of the general next door, who was seen this morning climbing over the wall between the two houses.

MEDITATION XVIII “The Theory of the Bed”

It is not natural for a husband and wife to occupy twin beds for sleeping as a man is almost always ridiculous when he is asleep. The twin bed “robs our love of all its illusions, strips it are of the majestic company of its delights and gives it in their stead nothing but what is ugliest and most odious.” If one is preoccupied and the other in the mood for love, there might be disastrous consequences communicated from the different beds. And what if the wife learns her husband is a very heavy sleeper? However, Balzac makes an exception for those older couples – twin beds particularly are convenient for those married 20 years or so – the better to treat illnesses, etc.

Balzac rather likes instead the idea of separate rooms, though he admits this is an uncommon practice. “The married couple who dwell in separate apartments have become either divorced, or have attained to the discovery of happiness. They either abominate or adore each other.” Balzac dismisses this idea as not practical – presumably for the opportunities it might provide for infidelity.

So we are left with the idea of one bed for both. Balzac notes that in England the nuptial chamber is a sacred place with the married couple alone having the privilege of entering it. The sense of touch, the closeness with your wife outweighs the inconveniences of a single bed. “In the single couch we have a faithful interpreter to translate with profound truthfulness the sentiments of a woman, to render her a spy over herself, to keep her at the height of her amorous temperature, never to leave her, to have the power of hearing her breathe in slumber, and thus to avoid all the nonsense which is the ruin of so many marriages.” Surely for all of these benefits a man can learn how to sleep gracefully and see that his slumber is light.

MEDITATION XVIII “Of Marital Revolutions”

At some point your wife will recognize the deceits you have played upon her – those activities which have tracked her movements . There is time before this happens to build a defensive operation. It is time to bring your operation in the open once the Civil War with your wife begins. To justify the secret tyranny of the initial policy and the now overt changes, claim jealousy. Balzac assures that the husband can successfully pose this, for “a man of the world must be an actual fool, if he fails in making a woman believe that which flatters her.” The delight of this strategy is the wife will think since you are jealous she can control you but instead you can bind her absolutely. “O comedy that has no audience, which yet is played by one heart before another heart and where both of you applaud because both of you think that you have obtained success!”

Balzac notes the similarity of this Civil War to a prince’s deception in going to war. “The highest degree of good play on the part of a prince lies in persuading his people that he goes to war for them, while all the time he is causing them to be killed for his throne.”

MEDITATION XIX “Of the Lover”

A lover offers an idealization of the wife, but a husband deals with the practicality of life. Balzac provides a series of aphorisms denoting this, such as “In a lover, the coarsest desire always shows itself as a burst of honest admiration.” Thus it is practically impossible for a husband to keep his wife without a lover after about the age of 30. Extreme measures are required.

MEDITATION XX “Essay on Police”

“The police of marriage consist of all those means which are given you by law, manners, force, and stratagem for preventing your wife in her attempt to accomplish those three acts which is some sort make up the life of love: writing, seeing and speaking.”

First one must set up some mousetraps to determine who is the lover. One technique which he calls “the irresistible” is to lead a dinner table discussion criticizing the profession of the suspected lover to see if the wife cannot resist coming to the defense of the disparaged profession. Another technique “the fallacious” is to catch the wife in faulty reasoning in regards to her movements – she may be careless of her reasoning when she wants to change her plans due to the availability of a lover. Or he might use a “touch and go” mousetrap in which he provides alarming and false information about the suspected lover to see if his wife reacts.

Next, one must examine the matter of correspondence. Balzac states that one cannot prevent correspondence, but that the fact there is correspondence can be used to determine the identity and confront the lover. He tells the tale of a husband feigning severe illness and requesting his wife to write about an urgent business matter. While writing, he detected her writing on the side a note to her lover. He managed to pilfer the letter and trick he lover into a meeting in which he persuades the young man to give up his quest.

The third policing matter is of spies. Servants aren’t good spies because one can’t be sure that the servants are more loyal to the husband than the wife. Children in their naivety however are excellent spies.

Another policing matter are the rules of the house, the most important seems to be is never let your wife go in the country or on the promenade alone. There are too many opportunities for intrigues that would exhaust a husband to track.

The final policing matter of importance is concerning the real amount of your income. Balzac advises that the husband secretly tuck away one-third of his income and give his wife the management of the rest. She will feel well treated and have a sense of responsibility to manage the money well, he won’t be burdened with constant requests and subterfuges for money, and if she does think of taking a lover her management of the money will provide valuable clues.

As a final note Balzac ends with a story that illustrates how such policing can go out of control. An old miser was such a policeman that he rakes at night and studies the footprints the next morning to make sure no stranger entered his domain. His wife falls in love with a man of town with no opportunity for fulfillment because of the husband’s diligence, and at last in desperation the lovers brought about the husband’s death by poison.

MEDITATION XXI “The Art of Returning Home”

If one is suspicious, one should enter home in an upbeat but controlling manner. Balzac gives an example where a nobleman spies his wife at a park with her lover on a fine horse. He throws the lover over the fence and says to his wife, “I blame you very much, my dear creature, for not having told me that I was to love you for two. Hereafter every other day I shall love you for the gentleman yonder, and all other days for myself.”

MEDITATION XXII “Of Catastrophes”

Balzac recommends creating a catastrophe when the stakes are high: “The conjugal catastrophe may be compared to one of those high fevers which either carry off a predisposed subject or completely restore his health. Thus , when the catastrophe succeeds, it keeps a woman for years in the prudent realms of virtue.” His examples seem a little vague, but the idea is to beforehand make sure the wife knows he might kill her or a lover, and when he detects treachery keep the upper hand in how he deals with it. He wants to make sure it doesn’t happen again but not go to such an extreme it will actually threaten the life of his wife.

MEDITATION XXIII “Of Manifestoes”

This is the beginning of Part III, which Balzac labels ‘Relating to Civil war”. Balzac lays out some basic principles by which women in love operate: anything may be expected, her actions are not dictated by reason, she advances erratically, etc.

Balzac declares that “the life of a woman is either of the head, of the heart, or of passion. When a woman reaches the age to form an estimate of life, her husband ought to find out whether the primary cause of her intended infidelity proceeds from vanity, from sentiment or from temperament. Temperament may be remedied like disease; sentiment is something in which the husband may find great opportunities of success; but vanity is incurable.”

The task of the husband is to appear to believe in his wife’s fidelity and to preserve an air of patience, the better to fight the problem and maintain public avoidance of ridicule. She has as allies other women and their celibates, so it is better to remain calm to fight the war.

MEDITATION XXIV “Principles of Strategy”

A woman can create her own catastrophe. One diabolical ruse is to pretend love for someone to whom she is indifferent and dislike for someone she loves. Balzac illustrates the feminine artifice this with several tales, the most elaborate of which involves a countess taking a young man on a journey to meet her husband, with whom she has just agreed to reconcile. The husband thinks the young man is her lover, and before the night is over he is, at least for that night. But the next day another man comes, whom the husband welcomes and eagerly sends away the young man whom he thinks her lover. However, the new visitor is the Countess’ long-time lover, and now her husband welcomes him as a relief from her supposed (and actual for one night) lover. And of course the long-time lover doesn’t have a clue that the Countess made love with the young man the night before.

MEDITATION XXV “Of Allies”

Balzac discusses the allies a wife might have in the Civil War of marriage. Balzac first lists religion and confession, quoting La Bruyere in saying “Is it too much for a husband to have ranged against him both devotion and gallantry; a woman ought to choose but one of them for her ally.” Balzac appears to disagree but his response is a cryptic dance upon the typewriter keyboard resulting in nonsensical strings of letters and ending …”and in similar vein to the end of the paragraph.”

Next in potential allies is the mother-in-law, who is naturally allied to her daughter. Usually a woman over 40, she is formidable and cannot be checked with techniques useful on a woman under 40. Keeping the mother-in-law at a distance, perhaps in the country if you are in the city, is an excellent idea. Attempting to cause strive between the two is also effective but not for the faint of heart. He cautions the husband against using a policy of living officially on bad terms with the mother-in-law as it usually draws the daughter and mother closer. The resources of a mother in supporting the daughter are vast and varied, and Balzac recommends never allowing an unsupervised visit.

Another source of allies is the boarding school and other intimate friend. Balzac tells a startling tale of an elderly baron married to a young, seemingly devoted wife. Attracted by a society matron, she encourages his affections but then refuses him based on his devotion to his wife, who visits the matron professing her devotion while the baron is hidden in a closet. So the baron separates himself from his wife (which allowes her to have the long-sought company of a lover) in an attempt to win the matron. The matron suddenly takes a tour for her health, and the baron dies shortly afterwards. And the entire scenario had been plotted and executed by the two women, and never suspected by the baron.

Another weapon in the Civil War of marriage is the wife’s maid. Balzac shockingly explains that the wife may put the maid in the way of the husband in hopes that a sexual liaison may result, thus relieving the wife of unwanted sexual duties while at the same time putting her husband in the wrong. The wife will pay her maid extraordinarily well though probably never admitting her knowledge of the liaison. “What husband is stoical enough to resist such fires, such frosts? There, when you see a new harvest of pleasure, the young innocent sees an income, and your wife her liberty.”

A final powerful ally is the doctor, who always caters to his female patients because he knows they make the decisions on who is to be the household doctor. He can intimate ill health which requires a change of scenery (and to a location where a lover is present), or he can recommend extreme tranquility that banishes the husband from the marriage bed.

MEDITATION XXVI “Of Different Weapons”

Balzac’s cynicism is becoming quite oppressive. “Every one of the sentiments which nature has endowed our heart with, in their gentlest form, will become a dagger in the hand of your wife. You will be stabbed every moment, and you will necessarily succumb; for your love will flow like blood from every wound.”

The wife understands your generous sentiment which leads you to respect those who are in pain. She will thus upon demand “metamorphose herself into a pale and sickly woman.” A headache is the weapon of choice as it is easy to feign. “A headache seizes Madame when she chooses, where she chooses, and as much as she chooses.”

Nervous affections are also quite useful. We may call them “vapors”, a recent phenomenon in France. On the plea of her ill health the wife seeks out some distraction which is likely to result in expensive trips to the country, choice gifts, etc. There cannot be a husband so brutal to oppose such desires! And wives use sighs and weeping, or have nervous attacks.

Balzac closes this section with a treatise on modesty. The meaning is not entirely clear, but the general idea is a wife should preserve her modesty in toilet to preserve her allure, and she is despicable if she deliberately exposes herself to immodest behavior to push him away. And yet he later says that lovers ignore modesty.

MEDITATION XXVII “Of the Last Symptoms”

There are two kinds of deception which result in a minotaurized husband: the unicorn Minotaur in which the lovers are platonic, and the bicorn in which the lovers consummate their love. Balzac lists the symptoms of the bicorn love. Symptoms include among others a willingness of the wife to suddenly send her child away to school, suddenly after a long time of aloofness making a marked overture to the husband, a change in energy level, a display of being nonjudgmental, and spending more money than her husband gives her without being in debt.

MEDITATION XXVIII “Of Compensations”

A husband when he has detected he is a bicorn Minotaur has only two recourses: resignation or vengeance. If he decides on vengeance, it should be complete.

However, resignation has its benefits, especially if delivered with a bit of gallantry. The husband might even get benefits of connection and purse from the lover. His wife from exposure to a new lover may even develop more social skills and wit. “Like cosmopolitan travelers she tells tales of all the countries which she has traversed.” She may even undertake to again seduce her own husband at some point in the future..

MEDITATION XXIX “Of Conjugal Peace”

Balzac looks with gloom upon his own description of marriage. He observes a couple, the wife in her fifties and the husband seventy – it is an old friend, a Marquis. The Marquis assures Balzac that in the winter of his life a man denies that love has any existence ever in life. He finds his wife useful to care for him in his old age, and to ensure that she does so he enriches her while he is alive but leaves her nothing after he is dead. He declares that love promises everything and fulfills nothing. He says, “If you could enjoy for two minutes the riches which God dispenses to the enlightened men who consider love as merely a passing need which it is sufficient to satisfy for six months in their twentieth year; to the men who, scorning the luxurious and surfeiting beefsteaks of Normandy, feed on the roots which God has given in abundance, and take their repose on a bed of withered leave, like the recluses of the Thebaid! – AH! You would not keep on three seconds the wool of fifteen merinos which covers you…”

Balzac suspects he is right but defiantly refuses to state this in his book. He’d rather attempt to “discover some social utility in their [the celibates and honest women] passions and follies.”

MEDITATION XXX “Conclusion”

And indeed Balzac decides the business of infidelity contributes greatly to the economy of France in gifts purchased, debts paid, theatre tickets bought, special foods purchased, etc. He declares his book is written “by advising husbands, to make women more self-restrained and consequently to impart more violence to passions, more money to the treasury, more life to commerce and agriculture.” He observes as a final comment Napoleon’s comment about marriage: “If man never grew old, I would never wish him to have a wife!”

Balzac includes with a postscript in which he tells one final story about a wife outwitting her husband. He assures the woman telling the story: “If I marry, I am bound to be unexpectedly outwitted by some infernal trick or other; but I shall in that case, you may be quite sure, furnish a model household for the admiration of my contemporaries.”

A final personal comment which I cannot resist: as a woman very happily married for over 40 years, I feel very, very sorry for Balzac and his society friends. To not know what love is, to never have the feeling of unconditional love, is to not know life.

Read it here

Summaried by Pamela, February 2012

La Grenadiére by Honoré de Balzac

La Grenadiére

 

Balzac provides as usual a picturesque description of a little cottage, named La Grenadiere after the surrounding profuse pomegranate trees, in the country close to Tours. It is a simple country paradise of a small vineyard, fruit trees, and a beautiful view of the Loire River. In the spring of a Restoration year a Mme Willemsens rents the cottage for herself, her housekeeper, and her two children. Mme Willemsens dresses simply as if in mourning and devotes herself completely to her two sons – Louis-Gaston, 13, and Marie-Gaston, 8. Continue reading

Poor Relations: Cousin Pons by Honoré de Balzac

Les Parents pauvres: Le Cousin Pons
Poor Relations: Cousin Pons

 

It is October 1844, and a sixty-year old man in respectable but threadbare and extremely out of fashion clothes is hurrying down the Boulevard des Italiens in Paris. He has a pleasant look on his face and is in a good humor. The man is, shall we say, ugly, but not so that anyone would laugh at him. But too ugly to gain the love of a woman, alas. Continue reading

Ursula by Honoré de Balzac

Ursule Mirouët
Ursula 

 

Balzac dedicates the book to his niece Sophie, curiously observing that such a pious young girl “must never be suffered to read any book less pure” than she is and that she is “not allowed to see society as it really is.” And yet Balzac is writing his works about society as he sees it: are we in for more restraint in this work? Balzac editor George Saintsbury says Balzac was not afraid to show things “more or less as there are” but there is evidence of restraint and convention in the novel. “Ursule Mirouet” is considered one of Balzac’s better works. Continue reading

The Jealousies of a Country Town: The Old Maid by Honoré de Balzac

Les Rivalités: La Vieille Fille
The Jealousies of a Country Town: The Old Maid

Alencon is a small town in Normandy in northern France This story is about the rivalry for “The Old Maid” of Alencon’s hand and is part of Balzac’s provincial scenes.

“The Old Maid” is Mlle Rose Marie Victoire Cormon, supposedly one of the richest women in town, now in her forties. She lives with her uncle and has been his ward and will one day inherit his fortune. She is the last representative of a house which, “plebeian though it was, has associated and often allied itself with the noblesse, and ranks among the oldest families in the province.” The Cormons have contributed magistrates and bishops, and Mlle Cormon’s grandfather and father had been invited to represent (and respectfully declined) to represent the States-General and Third Estate respectively. The house Mlle Cormon and her uncle live in is the possession that appeals the most to her elderly suitors – it is a handsome heritage, an architectural marvel, in the very center of town, comfortable within, and surrounded by attractive things. Mlle Cormon zealously maintains it, and suitors when approaching it think it fit for a peer or a mayor. She’s had plenty of suitors but in the turbulent political times she could never quite commit herself to any man of power. And then the wars and her increasing age brought a change in suitors, and she could never quit marry an elderly or a very young man. She even secretly wanted to be loved for herself. “Every time a marriage project came to nothing, the unfortunate girl, being gradually led to despise mankind, saw the other sex at last in a false light.” She grew bitter and rigid and as compensation sought to perfect herself. “She would polish and cut for God the rough diamond rejected by men.” And yet she grew older and fatter, and it began to be assumed she would not ever marry.

The suitors start with the Chevalier de Valois d’Alencon, perhaps the last of a line of noble Valois but most likely not. When the Revolution broke in Paris, he retreated to Alencon, where he is accepted as a true Valois in spite of dubious credentials. Penniless, he lives in an upper floor of the most prominent laundress’ house, dresses impeccably, and through impressive diplomacy, discretion, and flattery manages to dine out and play cards daily in good society. His manners are impeccable and his stories entertaining. Chevalier speaks of Princess Goritza who has been famous for her beauty towards the end of the reign of Louis XV and talks of his love for her in his youth and for whom he had fought a duel. His snuff box has her portrait on its lid, and he has a habit of taking snuff from the box and gazing pensively at the portrait. The Chevalier is 58 and pretends to be 50, pale, thin, a rather large nose the two halves of which seemed to operate independently – it flushes only on the left side with exertion. He eats voraciously, isn’t all that healthy, and is thought to have a ‘hot liver’ which is the sign of excessive sentiment of the heart. He has a full, pleasant baritone voice that is in contrast to his delicate fairness. He keeps himself extremely well groomed for the ladies and except for his nose looks rather like a doll. He has one oddity – he wears pierced earrings of tiny negro heads set with jewels.

Chevalier arrived in Alencon penniless but made sure everyone thought he had a small income. He surreptitiously accumulated income from card playing until he could then actually create this income. Later on when he’s stashed a sizeable amount he let it be known that an old fellow military friend had repaid his debt to him. He also claimed a government pension, the Cross of St. Louis, and a noble crest. He keeps on living his same life style in his rooms over the laundry, the same dinners and cards, and no one doubts him in the least. Balzac included much more about Chevalier, one of his better descriptions of a personage. “Surely in no known country of the globe did parasite appear in such a benignant shape.” [Surprisingly Balzac tells us up front that Chevalier eventually got his laundress girlfriend Cesarine pregnant and had to marry her. Can’t quite imagine why he wrote that as whether or not Chevalier gets the old maid seems to be central to this story.] In our story Chevalier has designs on Mlle Cormon to further his ambitions, but no one knows it at this point.

Next up is M de Bousquier. He too is older and came from Paris after making some money from the affairs of the Revolution and afterwards in army contracts. He lived it up during the times of Napoleon with mansions, women, riches untold. But with the fall of Napoleon he lost his political base and escaped from Paris with only an income of 1200 francs a year. He narrowly avoided bankruptcy. He turned Royalist but could not quite get acceptance by the Royalist nobles in Alencon. He’s a big man, with a small voice, a bit of the opposite of the Chevalier. He came to Alencon to marry a rich woman and has been turned down twice, once by Mlle Cormon. He became well recognized for his financial skills and business speculations, and there was even talk of his becoming mayor – though his lack of acceptance at the top of society will probably prevent this. When the Royalists came in power for good, M de Bousquier was bitterly disappointed that he was not accepted, and he became the secret leader of the Liberal party in Alencon. In this role he is the invisible controller of elections and worked considerable harm to the restored Monarchy.

The third suitor is Athanase Granson, the son of a deceased military man. He’s 23 and a bit of a genius, though frustrated by poverty. He lives with his mother Mme Granson. “Shut in by the narrow circle of provincial life, without approbation, encouragement, or any way of escape, the thought within him was dying out before its dawn.” He is distantly related to Mlle Cormon, who got him a job in the registrar’s office. And it seems he is in love with Mlle Cormon – he wants to marry her to rise in society, to ease his mother’s burden, and because he longs for her physically. And yet he’s poor and many years younger than Mlle Cormon and certainly doesn’t know how to proceed. Whatever his defects, he comes closest of the three to loving Mlle Dorman for herself.

A woman called Suzanne from the laundry comes to Chevalier and asks for money, telling him she is pregnant and wants to go to Paris. Chevalier just laughs – he isn’t going to be caught in that trap. But he suggests that Suzanne go to run her con on M de Bousquier and suggests she tell M de Bousquier that she will go to the Maternity Fund for help if he doesn’t give her enough money to get out of town. This was a bit of mischief on Chevalier’s part as he knows the president of the Fund was Mlle Cormon. She’d be sure to know about it and such knowledge would knock M de Bousquier out of the possibility of the acceptance of a second proposal.

It works: M de Bousquier gives Suzanne 600 francs with a little persuasion. But she wants 1000, so she decides to go to the Maternity Fund anyhow. And it turns out that Mme Granson, Athanase’s mother, is treasurer of the Maternity Fund. She’s guessed her son’s desire for Mlle Cormon and wants to further his cause, and now she has been given a weapon to completely blast M de Bousquier out of the picture. Perhaps she thinks it will be smoother sailing for her son to marry Mlle Cormon, but she doesn’t know that Chevalier has designs on Mlle Cormon too. Mme Granson agrees to help Suzanne and makes sure all the ladies know about M de Bousquier’s (supposedly) getting her pregnant. We doubt that Suzanne is pregnant, though. She caught a glimpse of Athanase when she was applying to Mme Granson, and was a bit struck by love for him. Suzanne wonders if she was messing her life up by acquiring a bad reputation with this scam, but she continues her plan and leaves for her adventures in Paris. Balzac says she became known as Mme du Val-Nbole and was associated with a distinguished writer of the Restoration who will probably marry her someday

The scene shifts to a dinner party at Mlle Cormon’s house, where all the locals of prominence (but not nobility) meet regularly. The Chevalier de Valois is there as is M du Bousquier, Athanase Grandson and Mme Granson. The Chevalier and du Bousquies look at Mlle and want to marry her: “To both gentlemen she meant a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, with a peerage for the Chevalier, a receiver-general’s post for du Bousquier.” Indeed to marry her would make her husband lord of Alencon. “Finally, Athanase, the only one of the three suitors that had ceased to calculate, cared as much for the woman as for her money….There is something grotesque…in the idea of three rival suitors eagerly pressing about an old maid who never so much as suspected their intentions, in spite of her intense and very natural desire to be married…”

We learn more about Mlle Rose Cormon, the old maid. She is lonely and sexually frustrated, she has ‘heated blood’. Her confessor recommends self-scourging, and her uncle and the confessor both say virginity is a higher cause. She apparently shares some of her concerns with the Chevalier. The Chevalier recommends “a good and handsome husband”. She is afraid to trust a man. Mlle Cormon appears hot-blooded and desperate for a husband, though Balzac says she is a bit stupid about many things and can’t even pick up on the fact that Athanase is in love with her. Again she is described is being ungracious to potential suitors, which is interpreted by the townspeople as resentment. She wants a husband but is apparently woefully ignorant as to how to get one.

The military is scaling down, and she holds out one last hope that someone eligible will be returning home. But the men returning weren’t the right age, or were of bad character, or of lowly station, or the wrong politics. Rose finally concludes she is going to have to settle for a native. Chevalier is lining her up for the kill, he thinks. He talks with her a lot and casts loving glances at his snuff box to demonstrate fidelity for a long-lost love. But Rose is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and simply doesn’t notice – apparently he is not even on her radar as a potential husband as she considers him too old and unattractive and definitely not an exciting rake she could reform. There’s even a suggestion that piety has stupefied her. At night Rose tosses and turns in frustration and vows she’ll take any man that is available, but in the mornings she recovers her dignity and resets her standards to a man having land of about the age of 40 or so. But she seems to lack the simplest feminine wile to attract a man -she doesn’t have the coquetry of a girl of six!! “Mlle. Cormon kept to the straight path, preferring the misfortunes of a maidenhood infinitely prolonged to the misery of untruthfulness, to the sin of small deceit.”

Rose is good, she supports the town, she’s kind, she’s not ostentatious. The town loves her and with just cause. But she is a terrible conversationalist. She’s made worse by the fact that she feels it is her Christian and female duty to converse and be agreeable to her neighbors. She tries so hard to think of something interesting to say that she comes up with odd questions and phrases that make the town think she’s a bit off – and perhaps she is. The Chevalier often rescues her from difficult conversations and tries to make her look a bit more aware than she really is.

The town gathers at her house before her quarterly journey to her country house, the Prebaudet, to say their good byes. Rose prepares for this last gathering with her servants Jacquelin, Josetta (who would marry Jacquelin except for the fact that she would be dismissed), and Mariette the cook. The excitement builds at her dinner as the whole town knows about Suzanne and du Bousquier and figures by now she too must know. What will she do? Some are suspicious that up to now she might have accepted du Bousquier if he asked for her hand again, something about the way Rose glances at him. At the dinner Chevalier finally figures out that Mme. Granson and her son Athanase have designs on Rose – Chevalier detected self-interest in the expression of Mme. Granson when she talked about the Suzanne scandal.

I’m a bit lost here: Balzac speaks of the Cure and how he’d taken the oath of allegiance in the time of the Revolution. But Mlle. Cormon and her uncle the Abbe de Sponde refused to recognize the Church that had submitted to force and made terms with the Constitutionnels. So the Cure was never invited to their house. Somehow du Bousquier is mixed up with both sides. And there’s a group that Athanase is involved in which wants to build a theatre. The Chevalier needs to make Athanase, his new competition look bad, so he tells Rose that Athanase is headed down the wrong path because he supports the Cure AND he’s involved in the theatre support. He advises Rose to warn his mother. He even says he’s not to be trusted because he doesn’t look Rose in the eye, when we know that he’s so love-struck he lowers his head when she’s around. Rose buys it all and promises to talk to his mother (and eventually talks to Athanase himself about reforming.) Chevalier remarks to himself, “If there is a stupider woman, I should like to see her. On the honor of a gentleman, if virtue makes a woman so stupid as this, is it not a vice?”

The situation with Suzanne and du Bousquier is discussed, but it doesn’t seem to have much effect on Rose except her wanting to give Suzanne a rather generous amount of money to help. “It is so natural to have a child,” she says. Mme Granson tries to explain the scandal of it all, but it all goes over Rose’s head. Mrs. Granson suggests Rose refuse to see du Bousquier again until he takes a wife. She will consult with her uncle. After the party the Chevalier decides it is time to spread a rumor that he is to marry Mlle. Cormon. He figures that is enough to start the ball rolling towards an engagement. He’s already counting his income he will have as Rose’s husband.

The next morning Rose and her servants make their journey to Prebaudet with their beloved and faithful horse Penelope. But they no sooner get there than Rose receives a letter. She turns red, becomes very excited, and starts uncharacteristically flailing about and demanding they return home immediately. When the servants object that Penelope is not ready for a return trip, she shockingly says “what does it matter to me” and demands they rush off. The servants are astounded, this is not Mlle Cormon behavior. We learn that the news in the letter is that a M. de Troisville, a retired Russian soldier returning to Alencon, is to visit her uncle’s house immediately. An eligible bachelor just may have arrived on the scene!! Rose drives Penelope unmercifully back home and tells Mariette to rush to down and buy every delicacy in sight – and even to have a special bed moved into the house if there is enough time. Poor Penelope is exhausted, foaming at the mouth, and unfed, but Rose doesn’t even notice. A bachelor, she’s betting she can secure an engagement before the end of the visit! Suddenly she has become a ball of fire. “Have you not noticed how mature spinsters, under these circumstances, grow as intelligent, fierce, bold, and full of promises as a Richard III.?”

The best of everything is ready for M de Troisville, and Mlle Cormon is beside herself with excitement. Servant Jacquelin, hoping that the marriage of his mistress will allow his own marriage to take place, throws open the gates with gusto. “Never did two chemicals combine with a greater alacrity than that displayed by the house of Cormon to absorb the Vicomete de Troisville.” He looks pretty good to Rose, “a du Bousquier of noble family.” He’s just about 46, and he has the manner of a diplomat. While M de Troisville is resting, Rose and the Abbe take a stroll. Rose asks her uncle if M de Troisville is married. The Abbe, not really listening because he’s thinking about a conversation he had earlier, says he must be single or he would have brought his wife with him.

Rose shows off the house to its best advantage and begins hinting that this could all be M de Troisville’s if the right words were spoken. Although Rose normally is not a good conversationalist, she arises to the occasion for once in her life. She’s solicitous as the queen of Alencon and she thinks the trap is set. So do the townspeople, and in fact they are wondering if the tie might have been prearranged. Du Bousquier cries, “Egad! Nothing but Mme Amphoux’s liquers, which only come out on the four great festival days.” He feels all is lost. The prominent townspeople are there for the evening’s at-home, and they all are chatting with M de Troisville.

And then it happens: the Chevalier asks M de Troisville if he is married. And he says “Yes, I have been married for sixteen years. My wife is the daughter of the Princess Scherbelloff.” Rose promptly faints, out cold on the floor.!) Du Bousquier carries her to her room, trying not to collapse under her, uh, ample figure. Josette the maid cuts her stays, du Bousquier throws cold water over her, and her ample bust “broke from its bounds like Loire in flood.” Rose opens her eyes and gives a cry of “alarmed modesty” and du Bousquier retreats with the women clustered around Rose.

Back in the drawing room the Chevalier cleans up as usual, telling everyone that Rose has been sick from the heated blood for some time and would not be bled. (Meanwhile the servants begin withdrawing the ‘best’ liquors from the married Troisville.) Eventually the party breaks up, and the events are all the talk of the town. Later Rose finds out the Abbe knew all along the de Troisville was married, he just absentmindedly forgot to tell her!

What to do, what to do. Rose decides she must marry to get over her humiliation. And du Bousquier and the Chevalier both come to the same conclusion. They both come calling the next morning, but du Bousquier arrives earliest because the Chevalier took the time to apply a little rouge. The early bird gets the worm, of course, and Rose immediately accepts du Bousquier’s proposal. She asks him to proclaim they have been engaged for six months to save her pride. Soon after the Abbe tells du Bousquier that M de Troisville is looking at his house, and du Bousquier glibly says he can buy it as he and Rose have been engaged for six months and are about to be married. The Chevalier pretty much believes this and is crushed: “it was like the victory won at Pultowa by Peter the Great over Charles XII. And thus du Bousquier enjoyed a delicious revenge for hundreds of pin-pricks endured in silence.” However, to complete this farce du Bousquier runs his fingers through his false toupee, and it comes off in his hand, LOL. The Chevalier reminds him of it in front of Rose, and du Bousquier vows to someday crush him. Rose tells the Abbe of her engagement, and to complete the lie of six months’ engagement, asks him to say that he already knew du Bousquier’s house was for sale because of the engagement.

Have we forgotten Athanase? He’s crushed, all hope is lost. He haunts a lonely walk on the Sarthe River. He acts rather lethargically but his mother can’t see that he’s devastated. Suzanne pops briefly back up in the picture. She’s apparently acquired money in Paris and thinks of anonymously sending money to Athanase. There’s a hint of the love that could have been between them, but they never really cross paths. When Rose hears of Suzanne’s false claims, she changes the rules of the Maternity Charity to provide help only AFTER the baby is produced.

Things start wrapping up. Rose and du Bousquier marry and du Bousquier makes a fortune using Rose’s money as a start. He brings in Paris fashion and generally makes the House Cormon look modern. Penelope dies without much ceremony. Jacquelin and Mariette marry. And Athanase puts two stones in his pocket and drowns himself in the river. (I wonder if that is where Virginia Woolf got that idea, I’m pretty sure she read Balzac.) He intended for his mother to think he had only gone away, but his body caught on some fishing apparatus and was found the next day. The old Cure arranges a secret burial in the churchyard (since suicides were not allowed to be buried on church grounds.) Athanase’s mother is of course devastated. One day Suanne and Mme Granson meet accidentally at the spot of the suicide on the river and weep over him. It was odd to me that little if any reaction to Athanase’s death was given by Rose. She just never had him on her radar at all!

Suzanne figures out that Rose’s marriage remains unconsummated and “she was the first to assert that Mme du Bousquier would be Mlle Cormon as long as she lived. And with one jibe she avenged both Athanase and the dear Chevalier de Valois.”

The Abbe feels displaced by the modernization of his house, and he dies in about two years. The Chevalier suddenly goes downhill and begins to look and act like an old man. Rose has pretty much lost control of her environment. Du Bousquier is nice to Rose while the Abbe is alive, but not very nice later as he doesn’t love her. Rose is attentive, bizarrely so, to him even though he is a despot at home. But she knows she should have married the Chevalier, and she grieves that she will never have children. She turns to religion and feels that being married to her husband is her just punishment for her sins – her desire for marriage, Athanase’s death, hastening her uncle’s end. Chevalier shortly before he dies gives his money to the King and comes back to die in Alencon just as “Charles X set foot on foreign soil” to flee the Republicans presumably. The Chevalier’s snuff box was bought at a thousand francs and later sold to a young man of fashion.

Read it here

Summarized by Pamela, February 2009

Lost Illusions: A Distinguished Provincial at Paris by Honoré de Balzac

Illusions Perdues: Un Grand homme de province à Paris
Lost Illusions: A Distinguished Provincial at Paris
Also translated as Lost Illusions: A Great Man of the Provinces in Paris

 

Mme Louise de Bargeton and Lucien travel to Paris – together, scandalously even though they are well chaperoned by the manservant Gentil and Albertine the maid. There is no real opportunity to talk since they are always in the company of others. They take rooms at an inn – Lucien in a room directly above Louise – and sleep exhaustingly (and separately) much of the day away. At 4pm Lucien stumbles out of bed, hurriedly dresses, and descends from his room to see Louise, who somehow doesn’t look so grand in the more humble surroundings of the rather shabby inn. Louise acts a bit standoffishly to Lucien, and we find that she has been paid a visit by Sixte du Chatelet, her former elderly suitor who had introduced Lucien to Louise. He has actually followed her carriage to Paris and the inn. A clever fellow! Continue reading