The Thirteen: The Girl with the Golden Eyes by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Ellen Marriage

Histoire de Treize: La fille aux Yeux d’Or
The Girl with the Golden Eyes

Balzac starts with a rather gloomy  view of Parisians: gloomy, pallid and dull, with no values other than a preoccupation with gold and pleasure. Everyone is striving to be better than his station, and the artist (who presumably includes Balzac himself) labours long and hard for little reward.  The air is foul, the streets are dirty and it’s not a pretty picture of Paris at all. Only people transcend these  negativities, and then only when they are young  and innocent. (Notwithstanding, Balzac still thinks that Paris is the ‘crown of the world’ which leads civilisation. An Englishman might argue about that….)

Henri de Marsay, natural son of Lord Dudley and the Marquise de Vordac strolls out one day into the Tuileries in this Paris.  His circumstances were unfortunate for Lord Dudley had married his mother off to an old gentleman called M. de Marsay who brought Henri up as his own (for the price of a life interest in the fund that Henri was to inherit).  Before long de Marsay died and his mother remarried, to de Vordac; she had lost interest in both her son and Lord Dudley (partly because of the war between France and England, and partly because fidelity was never fashionable in Paris). Dudley himself had never taken any interest in the product of his fling, and so it was that Henri had no father other than de Marsay, who, prior to his death was a gambler and a wastrel.

Things might have turned out badly for the boy but when de Marsay abandoned the boy to his sister, a Demoiselle de Marsay, she did her best with the meagre allowance for his keep and by sheer good luck arranged for him to have a good education though not exactly an academic one.  The Abbé de Moronis also took him to churches which were closed, to theatres where the courtesans were and to drawing-rooms where he learned about politics and government. Not only that, he also made the acquaintance of useful people in society so it didn’t seem to matter much that he did not know his father or even his mother.

The direction in which this story leads is hinted at when – almost as an aside – Balzac reveals that Lord Dudley had more than one fling.  He also has a natural daughter Euphemie, born of his liaison with a Spanish lady in Havana who likewise knows nothing about her parentage.  She had come  from Cube to Madrid, and from there to Paris when Spain was occupied by French troops…

Anyway, in 1814 when he was 22 Henri de Marsay was an attractive youth with few cares.  However when he exchanges glances with Ronquerolles, the reader knows that he is one of the Thirteen and therefore unburdened by morals or scruples. When he meets up with a naïve young man called Paul de Manerville from the provinces, the reader guesses that this young man will be lose the rest of his fortune too.

Henri chats about a young woman he admires in the Tuileries, and Paul knows her too.  Her distinguishing feature is her golden eyes, like a tiger’s.  Henri thinks she is fair game, but the tigerish eyes hint at her capacity to strike back. Paul thinks she resembles Henri, but he dismisses this as nonsense. Unlike the reader who is beginning to feel dubious about the plot.

They pass each other, and she behaves coquettishly, waving her hankie and making it obvious that they should follow her. Henri does, of course, but only to establish her address. The next day he sends his valet to make enquiries and learns that her name is Mademoiselle Paquita Valdes but that he is unlikely to able to penetrate the fortress where her virtue is so well guarded.   Nevertheless Henri is undaunted because he has grown weary of easy conquests and fancies a challenge. Paquita Valdes is all the more desirable because she is unattainable.

Once again he sees her in the Tuileries, and once again she flirts as much as she is able, given the constant presence of Dona Concha. Henri then organises the delivery of a love letter to set up an assignation by bribing the postman.  He does not, however, reveal his true name but rather calls himself Adolphe de Gouges.  The plan is for an opiate to be dropped over the wall, along with a bottle of ink (to write replies with).
The letter is delivered, and Henri and Paul are surprised early next day by a visit from a fearsome mulatto and his translator.  He purports to be from Paquita and the arrangements are that Henri should board a carriage in Montmartre using the password ‘cortejo’ which he says means ‘lover’.  It doesn’t, while it can mean courtship, it also means a procession, a cortege or a train. Henri thinks all this clock-and-dagger stuff is very amusing, but he parties hard that night to deflect any worries that might arise from the danger he is courting.

At the appointed hour he is conveyed to a gloomy, isolated place, worthy of an Ann Radcliffe novel. Paquita is there, but so is a miserable old woman whom Paquita identifies as her mother, brought as a slave bought in Georgia for beauty now long gone.  This first meeting is inconclusive despite their mutual attraction not least because they have to speak in English since Paquita speaks no French, bu also because Paquita feels some kind of restraint and her mother conveys an enigmatic disapproval, as well she might.

The second assignation is more dramatic.  The mulatto Cristemio demands this time that Henri be blindfolded.  He refuses and the carriage drives off; returning only when he submits.  Not only that, once inside Henri is thrown to the floor of the carriage and threatened with a dagger: this has the effect of subduing Henri considerably but he cheers up when he finds Paquita in sexy garb in the boudoir at the end of this perilous journey.
He has a lot of fun in what turns out to be a sort of Arabian love-nest but becomes disillusioned when he realises that Paquita has another lover, and the plot becomes very confusing and melodramatic because the other lover is Euphemie, and that of course in the 19th century means that the story has to end in her death.  Henri goes to her rescue with his mate Ferragus but it’s too late.

Does Henri care?  Not a bit of it.

The best bits of this novella are the descriptions of Paris and its inhabitants.  The story itself is worthy of an Ann Radcliife

Summarised by Lisa Hill, March 2011

Read it here