La comtesse de Mortsauf

La comtesse de Mortsauf

(The Lily of the Valley)

La comtesse de Mortsauf

Enfin, il me mena vers cette longue allée d’acacias … où j’aperçus, sur un banc, Mme de Mortsauf occupé avec ses deux enfants.

Furne, 1844, t. VII, p. 287
Signatures :  Bertall ; Barbant


Balzac’s Omelette by Anka Muhlstein

Balzac’s Omelette:
A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honoré de Balzac
by Anka Muhlstein



There are two grand themes in Balzac’s oeuvre, one is money — and most particularly debt — and the other is food. Of this second theme, Anka Muhlstein does full justice with her book Balzac’s Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honoré de Balzac. Even though I have read over 95% of Balzac’s work in a Yahoo! Group dedicated to him, I am still amazed by Ms. Muhlstein’s marshaling of a mass of information into a coherent, and I might even say tasty, whole.

There is, for example, this gem from Cousin Pons, one of my favorite novels by the master:

One of the keenest pleasures of Pons’ old life, one of the joys of the dinner-table parasite, was the “surprise,” the thrill produced by the extra dainty dish added triumphantly to the bill of fare by the mistress of a bourgeois house, to give a festive air to a dinner. Pons’ stomach hankered after that gastronomical satisfaction…. Dinner proceeded without le plat couvert, as our grandsires called it…. Pons had too much delicacy to grumble; but if the case of unappreciated genius is hard, it goes harder still with the stomach whose claims are ignored.

As M. de Mortsauf says in The Lily of the Valley, “all our emotions converge on the gastric centres.”

Curiously, despite its highly focused subject, I think Balzac’s Omelette is not only an excellent introduction to the work of Balzac in general, but also to Dumas, Zola, Flaubert, de Maupassant, and other French novelists of the 19th century.

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