The Lily of the Valley by Honoré de Balzac

Le Lys dans la Vallée
The Lily of the Valley

As I begin my second reading of Lily of the Valley (LOTV), I immediately sense that something has changed in me from the first time. Since then, for one thing, I have actually visited the Touraine and seen some of the places that Balzac mentions, such as the chateau at Azay-le-Rideau.

But let us begin at the beginning. Felix de Vandenesse tells of his upbringing at the hands of a cold and hateful mother and an indifferent father. For whatever reason, Felix’s siblings are encouraged in every possible way, at the same time that Felix is treated like an unwanted child. He is sent to school in Tours, but is treated by his fellow classmates as an indigent. His parents have given him no money for the snacks beloved of schoolchildren. Later, he is sent to an Oratorian (an order of Catholic teaching clergy) at Pont-le-Voy near Tours, where the same pattern repeats itself. He finds a refuge in the Catholic religion – at least for a time.

Before he can get settled in, he is taken to a school in Paris in the Marais district (between the Place Bastille and what is now the Pompidou Center). Again, he is deprived of sufficient funds.

By now, he has reached the age of puberty and dreams of visiting the prostitutes at the Palais Royale about which his classmates talk so much. Just as he is about to make a getaway, however, he meets his mother outside the place he is staying and taken back to Tours. That’s when the story’s action really begins.

Interestingly, Felix’s name in Latin means happy or lucky – two terms that could not be farther from the truth in our hero’s case. He is at the age of twenty barely socialized, yet he has achieved some academic honors. There is an almost infantile craving for love in Felix which will drive the plot of LOTV.

Brought back to Tours by his parents, Felix manages to wrangle an invitation to a ball in honor of the Duc d’Angouleme, one of the luminaries of the newly re-establishment Bourbon royalty. Amid the boisterous crowd, Felix grows sleepy and almost dozes off.

“Then, all of a sudden, I met the woman who was to be a constant spur to my ambitions and who was to crown them by throwing me into the very heart of royalty…. Deceived by my puny appearance, a woman mistook me for a child about to fall asleep while awaiting his mother’s good pleasure, and sat down beside me with the grace of a bird alighting on her nest.”

The scent and beauty of the woman – who is none other than Mme de Mortsauf – enthralls young Felix, such that he kisses her perfect shoulder in a swoon of nascent sexual attraction. The woman stands up embarrassed, calls out “Monsieur!” to Felix, and moves on.

“It was then that I felt the absurdity of my position: only then did I realize that I was dressed up like an organ-grinder’s monkey.”

Felix is at once ashamed and aroused. Returning home, his mother decides to send him to a friend’s house at Frapesle to spend some time in the country. She had concluded that some girl had caught his eye at the ball, and it were probably best to send him away lest he embarrass the family.

Typically, she does not give him any money to take a conveyance; so he must walk. No matter, he is full of love for the countryside and the woman it contains.

“Never ask again why I love Touraine. I love it, not as one loves one’s cradle, nor an oasis in the desert; I love it as an artist loves art; I love it less than you [Mme de M]; but without Touraine, it is possible that I might not go on living.” And as he drinks in the countryside, his eyes search for a glance of that woman encountered at the ball.

And he finds her … seated in a garden at her home at Clochegourde, within hailing distance of his destination at Frapesle with M de Chessel. He no sooner arrives than he talks M de Chessel into introducing him to her. Chessel is complaisant enough to humor the young man and walks him over.

Of course, Mme de Mortsauf recognizes the young man from the ball. She sees that he is exhausted from the long walks and invites him to stay to dinner.

To compress a great deal of description, in comes the Comte de Mortsauf with his two rather sickly children, Jacques and Madeleine. Felix spends many pages describing Mortsauf and the children, and the wife’s solicitous care for them.

The first time I read LOTV, I had much the same reaction as I had attempting to read Dante’s Paradiso. In both cases, the author attempts to describe the ineffable and indescribable. On one hand, it makes for a rather static structure; on the other, the first person narrative is completely sincere and does not so far have any false notes.

Now that he has wormed himself into the good graces of the little family circle at Clochegourde, Felix de Vandenesse works at deepening those ties like a patient spider weaving a web to catch a particularly juicy fly.

Excuse me for the rather gross analogy, but we must remember that Felix is a very needy young man; and whatever fine thoughts he enunciates, and some of them are very fine indeed, his ultimate intention is to reward his efforts by sating his lusts on the fine white skin of Mme de Mortsauf. He even says: “My excessive desires had given me those swift spasms of feeling which resemble the sudden jolts of fear. It was not the fight that made me tremble, but I did not want to lose my life without having tasted the happiness of requited love.”

If it were only that simple! But it isn’t. En route to weaving his skein, Felix learns the secrets of the household. We have mentioned last week that the two children of the Mortsaufs are pale and sickly.

Now Felix also learns that the Comte de Mortsauf is mentally ill, with sudden attacks of spite and rage that don’t appear to have a clear object. “I discovered in this man an irascibility without cause and a promptness to action in hopeless situations which frightened me.”

Felix’s discoveries draw him closer to Mme de Mortsauf: “We touch each other on so many points! … Do we not belong to that little band of creatures, privileged in pain and pleasure, whose sensitive qualities vibrate in unison and produce great inner reverberations; whose highly strung natures are in constant harmony with the principle of things?”

As the two confess their lives of familial abuse and deprecation to each other, Mme de M hopes that she has found in Felix a true friend.

But then the serpent in the garden prompts the latter to intrude, “[W]ill you allow me to purify a memory of the past?” Mme de M immediately senses that Felix is referring to that kiss on the shoulders at the ball where the two met under odd circumstances.

Whereas Felix has as many bends and turns as a river delta, Mme de Mortsauf is straight as an arrow: “You will live happy, I shall die of pain. A man shapes his own circumstances. Mine are forever fixed. No power can break the heavy chain to which a woman is held by a gold ring, that symbol of wifely purity.” Mme de M continues that she deliberately chose to marry the Comte, and that she could have done far worse.

Her ultimate observation: “Real life is a life of anguish. Its image is in that nettle, growing at the foot of this terrace, which without sunlight, remains green on the stem.”

There is on one hand Felix’s sexual tension; on the other, Mme de Mortsauf’s real need for a friend who will serve as a bridge over troubled water for her. In this, I remember my own youth and those now laughable missteps that characterized my early love life.

Balzac is being remarkably true to both sides. Perhaps, in our own day, no woman outside a convent could be as true as Mme de Mortsauf – but then in the 1800s, women who were caught in flagrante suffered horribly for it at the hands of a vengeful society.

Felix has crossed the boundary of what Mme de Mortsauf considers appropriate. “I am yours, unreservedly, and I shall be whatever you want me to be,” says Felix. “Henriette,” as Felix now calls her (his secret name for her), asks her would-be lover to stay away from Clochegourde for five days. At the end of that time, the Comte will come to him on his own and apologize for some outrageous behavior on his part and he can continue his visits.

A lot happens during those five days – not to Felix, but to the Mortsaufs. In response to his continued loyalty, Louis XVIII has granted to the Count the rank of Camp Marshal, the Cross of St. Louis, and a pension of 4,000 francs. The parents of “Henriette,” the duke and duchess of Lenoncourt Givry have recovered two forests and been invited to attend at court, and his wife received a large grant of crown lands. The upshot of all this is that Mme de Mortsauf has suddenly become a rich heiress.

These deeds also make the Mortsaufs’ sickly son Jacques the ultimate heir to the Mortsauf and Lenoncourt fortunes. Mme de M tells Felix:

“Judging from your brow and eyes, how can one help but sense in you one of those birds destined to dwell in high places? Carve out your own career and, one day, be the guardian of our beloved child.”

The duchess, Henriette’s mother, has come to visit at Clochegourde; and Felix must be on his best behavior with the great lady. The duchess meets him and asks about his family. Apparently, she knows the Marquise de Listomere, his great aunt. “Her eyes lost that haughty look with which the princes of the earth make you measure the distance between yourself and them.”

Felix is torn between pleasing the Comtesse and indulging his own wants. This fight remains the tension that pervades LOTV through the events that unfold in the chapters to come.

On Felix’s side, it is all morose delectation on the perfections of his Henriette. On Blanche/Henriette’s side, it is encouraging the good aspects of Felix’s character without yielding to his importunate courtship.

The improvement in the Mortsaufs’ finances has led to a bumper harvest. Felix and the Mortsauf children, Jacques and Madeleine, have joined in the harvest; and the children, to everyone’s joy, seem to be glowing and healthy. It is Blanche who is in effect managing the estate. At one point, she tells Felix: “I am too happy. For me happiness is like an illness. It overwhelms me and I am afraid it should fade like a dream”

Predictably, a small reverse – the collapse of a wall and rotten flooring at one of the new farms under the Mortsauf control – results in the Comte going off the deep end. He complains of his wife, “I disgust her, she hates me, and devotes all her skill to remaining a virgin! … She is killing me by inches and she takes herself for a saint!”

Felix takes this occasion to write his beloved Henriette a letter. The recipient’s wry response is an appropriate one: “Will the friend always be too loving, then?” Later she adds: “Pain is infinite, joy has its limits.”

Balzac suddenly surprises us. The endless summer apparently has an end. Felix informs the Mortsaufs that he must leave in a week to comply with his father’s plans for him (about which we have not yet been informed).

Henriette writes a long letter to Felix which she enjoins him not to read until he is in Paris. In the meantime:

“In return for my flesh, left lying in pieces in her heart, she lavished the ceaseless, incorruptible beams of that love, which satisfies the soul alone. She rose to heights where the speckled wings of that passion which had thrown me ravenously on to her shoulders could not carry me. To reach her, a man would need to win the white wings of the seraphim.”

Later, when Felix says that Henriette will be his religion and light, in effect his everything, Henriette answers: “No … I cannot be the source of pleasure to you.”

Ah, now the infamous letter! Mme de Mortsauf writes a long letter to Felix, enjoining him on how to comport himself out there in the Big Bad World. Not surprisingly, Mme de M says, essentially, don’t be yourself. Here are some of the highlights:

“To explain society in terms of personal happiness, cleverly grasped at the expense of everybody else is a fatal doctrine, the grim deductions of which lead man to believe that everything he can obtain, on the quiet, without the law, society or the individual being aware of any felony, is well and rightfully won. According to this charter, the nimble thief is blameless, the woman who fails in her wifely duty unbeknownst to anyone is virtuous and happy. Kill a man without the law’s having one single shred of proof of it, and if by so doing you win some diadem…. For a man who views society like this, my dear, the stakes are a million or a prison sentence, political eminence or dishonour. Then again, the green baize will not accommodate all those who want to play and it takes the forcefulness of genius to plan a winning throw.”

Vautrin could not have put it better. She goes on to say:

“Always be as reserved as if you expected, some day, to have those men as competitors, opponents or enemies; the hazards of life make this so. So behave in a way which is neither cold nor effusive; learn to steer that middle course which a man can maintain without committing himself to his detriment.”

Then she returns to character when she advises that “all cunning, all double-dealing gets found out and harms the doer in the end; whereas any situation is less risky, to my mind, when a man takes his stand on the terrain of candour.”

As a woman who is a certain number of years older than her admirer, Me de M goes on:

“Shun young women! Do not think there is the slightest personal interest in what I am saying. The woman of fifty will do everything for you. [I wonder how old Mme de Mortsauf is at this point that she should know this.] The woman of twenty nothing. The latter wants your entire life, the other will only ask for a moment of your time, a small mark of attention. Laugh at young women, treat whatever they say as a joke, they are incapable of a serious thought. Young women, my dear, are self-centred, small-minded, incapable of real affection.”

Finally: “Serve them all, love but one.”

I believe that I wrote earlier that this letter is about how NOT to be a Balzacian hero. In fact, Henriette wants Felix to succeed in society, but not be utterly ruined like poor Lucien de Rubempré in Lost Illusions or chased to within an inch of his life like Vautrin. She wants her young tiger’s continued loyalty, but not at the expense of her happiness.

Felix has acquitted himself well in Paris. He gets to meet the King (Louis XVIII), wins his approval, and gets appointed to the position of recorder of the Council of State. The position is one of some responsibility, yet something of a sinecure as he occupies the position six months and a colleague the remaining six months out of each year. The King, by the way, has discovered from his own sources Felix’s passion for Mme de Mortsauf. (“Does that old devil of a Mortsauf insist on staying alive, then?” he asks slyly.”)

The time is during the perilous Hundred Days after Napoleon has escaped from Elba but before he has been decisively smashed at Waterloo. Felix has been given a diplomatic assignment that involved some danger, as Napoleonic agents are on his trail; but he manages to avoid them and land himself back at Clochegourde with the Mortsaufs.

There he finds Blanche/Henriette as obdurate as ever about surrendering to his passion.

Quite suddenly, M de Mortsauf has come down seriously ill. Felix and Henriette stay up alternate nights for almost two months nursing him slowly back to health. Eventually, he returns to some semblance of health, but remains nonetheless frail – and still subject to strange, destructive moods as ever.

At one point, Felix rhapsodizes in his framing letter to Natalie de Manerville: “Does not love flow through the infinite expanses of the soul like a great river in some lovely valley, collecting the showers, the streams, the waterfalls, the trees and flowers that fall, the loose gravel of the banks and the high rocks tumbling down the hillside? It swells with storms and with the slow trickle of limpid fountains too. Yes, when one is in love,  love’s tide sweeps all before it.” And yet four pages earlier, he had said, “A lover has everything or nothing at all.”

The two serpents in this Eden are the madness of the Comte de Mortsauf and the bad faith of his wife’s would-be lover, Felix. Between them, Henriette is driven to emotional extremities.

They finally have it out again. Henriette asks which one of her selves does Felix love. She is, among other things, the mother of Jacques and Madeleine. If she were to give in to Felix, her life would be ruined; and the children would not “survive three months under the insane domination” of the now cuckolded husband. Her final rejoinder to Felix, “Get married do, and let me die!”

An urgent request from the King has arrived; and Felix is called back to Paris. There, word of his love for the Comtesse de Mortsauf has leaked out, and attractive young women of good family are beginning to take an interest in him.

Which path will Felix choose?

In Paris, Felix hears that both Jacques and Madeleine went through serious periods of illness. How did oh-so-sincere Felix react?

Suddenly: “You [Natalie de Manerville] know what is behind all this. My affair with the Marchioness of Dudley acquired a disastrous notoriety.” The Marchioness is a catlike creature who radiates sex appeal, and it is Felix’s misfortune that his mooning over Mme de Mortsauf has drawn the attention of the notorious courtesan. Not since Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes have we seen such utter depravity.

Balzac does a number of comparisons between the English and the French, to the detriment of the former: “And so I suddenly came to know,in the heart of this English luxury,  a woman, perhaps unique of her sex, who caught me in the toils of a desire which had almost died in me, and to the lavishness of which I brought an uncompromising continence; it was the kind of love that admits you to paradise through the ivory gates of semi-slumber, or snatches you up on its winged back and flies there with you. A hideously thankless love, that bestrides the corpses of its victims, laughing: a love that has no memory, a cruel love, cruel like the English foreign policy and to which nearly all men succumb.”

Naturally, Felix hides this partying between the sheets from his beloved Henriette. But she found out – her mother told on Felix without mincing any words.

So Felix rides to Clochegourde on a magnificent white horse borrowed from the lovely Arabelle Dudley no less. Henriette has visibly changed, from the combination of her children’s illnesses and the news of her admirer’s gross infidelities.

There is a lot of very unconvincing patter between the two, in which Felix and Henriette are on again, off again. What is especially unconvincing to Henriette is her (correct) guess that Arabelle is in the neighborhood and that Felix was planning on trysting with her while trying to rebuild the ruined walls of his relationship with her.

Part of this ongoing conversation is a fact that I have picked up earlier but yet to mention: Henriette had meant for Felix to marry her daughter Madeleine “whom I brought up so well for you.”

Henriette decides to go on a late night carriage ride with Felix and instinctively chooses a route which is sure to bring her in contact with her rival: “Halfway across the heath, I heard the barking of Arabelle’s favourite dog; a horse sprang suddenly from behind an oak; cleared the path at one leap; … and Lady Dudley rode on to the heath to see the carriage go by.”

When Henriette asks where she is headed, Felix answers: “To La Grenadiere, a little house near Saint-Cyr.” Doesn’t that remind you of a short story of the same name that we read a few scant weeks ago. The heroine of that story is the selfsame Lady Dudley a decade or so later.

Actually, Arabelle follows the carriage back to Clochegourde, where she speaks with Felix. When he is angry that she avoided a meeting, Lady D answers: “Are you mad, my Dee [her pet nickname for him]? I would go from Paris to Rome disguised as a lackey, I would do the most outrageous things for you; but how can I talk in the street to a woman to whom I have not been introduced and who was about to embark on a three-point sermon?”

Not that we haven’t been led to expect it, but Felix’s Henriette is dying. As soon as he hears the news at court, he requests permission of the king to make another pilgrimage to Clochegourde, which Louis XVIII, calling him a “milord” (showing that he knows about Lady Dudley) reluctantly allows.

On the way, Felix meets Henriette’s physician Origet, who tells him “Make no mistake! Madame de Mortsauf is dying of some unknown sorrow.”

Wouldn’t you know it? She’s contracted the nameless idiopathic disease that has conveniently carried off lovers since the beginning of time. Felix recalls other victims of love, including the Duchesse de Langeais, Lady Brandon (who has just died in her little house in Touraine described in <i>La Grenadiere</i>), and Mme d’Aiglemont (A Woman of Thirty). “Nobody, it seems, dies of grief; or despair; or love; or barren hopes, incessantly replanted and uprooted. The new nomenclature has ingenious terms to explain it all: gastritis, pericarditis; the countless ailments of women, whose names are spoken in whispers; all these serve as passport for the hearses escorted by hypocritical tears, which the lawyer’s hand soon wipes away.”

After numerous last words – and even a rather excessive last letter not to be opened until after her death – Mme de Mortsauf dies and is buried. Her children, Jacques and Madeleine have come to dislike Felix intensely – perhaps for coming too often between them and their mother?

Felix is now a changed man: “This is how the finest feelings, the highest dramas of youth, come to an end. Nearly all of us set out in the morning as I did from Tours on my way to Clochegourde, grasping at the world, the heart craving for love. Then when our riches have been put through the crucible, when we have mingled with men and events, everything dwindles by imperceptible degrees; we find a very little gold among a lot of ashes. That is life, life as it really is: great hopes and small realities. I meditated long and deeply about myself, wondering what I was going to do, now that the scythe had cut down all my flowers. I decided to fling myself into politics and science, on to the tortuous plans of ambition, to  remove women from my life and to become a man of state, cold and without passions and remain faithful to the saint whom I had loved.” I almost heard the music welling up, as in that last scene at Pere Lachaise cemetery that closes Pere Goriot.

At the tail end of the book, we get Natalie de Manerville’s delightful response to the long letter to her that we have been reading about the life and loves of Felix. It is very evident that Felix had fallen in love with Natalie; but Natalie sees clearly through his melancholy pose and feels that she would have no chance as a third lover following the Virgin of Clochegourde and the scandalous lady Dudley.

Her feet, at least, are solidly on the ground!

“Let us forgo love between us two, since you can no longer taste its joys save with the dead and let us remain friends, I insist on it.”  Now there’s a woman I could fall in love with! Tant pis for Felix, who must now cart his sad history to find another taker. Fat chance!

Read it here

Summarized by Jim, December 2008 – January 2009


Facino Cane by Honoré de Balzac

Facino Cane


Written in 1836, this is another of Balzac’s very short stories, but it’s one that reveals Balzac’s life as a writer.  By day the narrator studied at the Biblioteque d’Oreans, but by night he watched the manners and customs of the people around him, gathering the stories that he would one day use to create his masterwork, La Comedie Humaine.

He was poor, but not quite as poor as his charwoman, who supplemented the family income by tending to his basic needs.  Despite her poverty she and her husband were honest and hardworking, and he valued the relationship.  When one day they invited him to her sister’s wedding, he decided to honour their friendship by attending, and while he was there, he met a most interesting man… Continue reading

Facino Cane by Honoré de Balzac

Facino Cane


The first person narrator of this story, who lives in a garret and studies all the time, has as his only hobby people-watching. He claimed “a faculty of penetrating to the soul without neglecting the body; or rather, a power of grasping external details so thoroughly that they never detained me for a moment, and at once I passed beyond and through them. I could enter into the life of the human creatures whom I watched . . .” 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

The Commission in Lunacy by Honoré de Balzac

The Commission in Lunacy
Also translated as The Interdiction

Late one night in 1828, Rastignac and Bianchon are walking home and discussing the hostess they have just left, the Marquise d’Espard who has captured Rastignac’s attention.

The Marquise d’Espard is very vain and takes great pains with her appearance. She has fooled most of society as to her age, but not Dr Bianchon who enlightens his friend. Rastignac is interested in not only her looks, but her fortune and her influence. Continue reading