Women in the Life of Balzac/Conclusion
"I live by my friendships only."
Many people write their romances, others live them; Honore de Balzac did both. This life so full of romantic fiction mingled with stern reality, where the burden of debt is counter-balanced by dramatic passion, where hallucination can scarcely be distinguished from fact, where the weary traveler is ever seeking gold, rest, or love, ever longing to be famous and to be loved, where the hero, secluded as in a monastery, suddenly emerges to attend an opera, dressed in the most gaudy attire, where he lacks many of the comforts of life, yet suddenly crosses half the continent, allured by the fascinations of a woman, this life is indeed a roman balzacien par excellence!
He tried to shroud his life, especially his association with women, in mystery. Now since the veil is partially lifted, one can see how great was the role they played. It has been said that twelve thousand letters were written to Balzac by women, some to express their admiration, some to recognize themselves in a delightful personage he had created, others to thank him or condemn him for certain attitudes he had sustained towards woman.
For him to have so thoroughly understood the feminine mind and temperament, to have given to this subtle chameleon its various hues, to have portrayed woman with her many charms and caprices, and to have described woman in her various classes and at all ages, he must have observed her, or rather, he must have known her. He very justly says in his Avant-propos:
"When Buffon described the lion, he dismissed the lioness with a
few phrases; but in society the wife is not always the female of
the male. There may be two perfectly dissimilar beings in one
household. The wife of a shopkeeper is sometimes worthy of a
prince and the wife of a prince is often worthless compared with
the wife of an artisan. The social state has freaks which are not
found in the natural world; it is nature plus society. The
description of the social species would thus be at least double
that of the animal species, merely in view of the two sexes."
Thus, he made a special study of woman, penetrated, like a father confessor, into her innermost secrets, and if he has not painted the duchesses with the delicacy due them, it was not because he did not know or had not studied them, but probably because he was picturing them with his Rabelaisian pen.
He knew many women who were active during the reign of Louis XVI, women who were conspicuous under the Empire, and women who were prominent in society during the Restoration, hence, one would naturally expect to find traces of them in his works.
But it is not only this type of woman that Balzac has presented. He painted the bourgeoise in society, as seen in the daughters of Pere Goriot, and many others, the various types of the vieille fille such as Mademoiselle Zephirine Guenic (Beatrix) who never wished to marry, Cousine Bette who failed in her matrimonial attempts, and Madame Bousquier (La vieille Fille) who finally succeeded in hers.
The working class is represented in such characters as Madame Remonencq (Le Cousin Pons) and Madame Cardinal (Les petits Bourgeois), while the servant class is well shown in the person of the grand Nanon (Eugenie Grandet), the faithful Fanny (La Grenadiere), and many others. As has been seen, there is a trace of his old servant, Mere Comin, in the person of Madame Vaillant (Facino Cane), and Mere Cognette and La Rabouilleuse (La Rabouilleuse) are said to be people he met while visiting Madame Carraud. The novelist must have known many such women, for his mother and sisters had servants, and in the homes of Madame de Berny, Madame Carraud and Madame de Margonne, he certainly knew the servants, not to mention those he observed at the cafes and in his wanderings.
Balzac knew several young girls at different periods of his life. His sister Laure was his first and only companion in his earlier years, and he knew his sister Laurence especially well in the years immediately preceding her marriage. Madame Carraud was a schoolmate of Madame Surville and visited in his home as a young girl. He was not only acquainted with the various daughters of Madame de Berny, but at one time there was some prospect of his marrying Julie. Josephine and Constance, daughters of Madame d'Abrantes, were acquaintances of his during their early womanhood. He must have known Mademoiselle de Trumilly as he presented himself as her suitor, and being entertained in her home frequently, doubtless saw her sisters also. Since he accompanied his sister to balls in his youth, it is natural to suppose that he met young girls there, even if there is no record of it.
A few years later he became devoted to the two daughters of his sister Laure, and lived with her for a short time. He knew Madame Hanska's daughter Anna in her childhood, but was most intimate with her when she was about twenty. While Madame de Girardin was not so young, he met her several years before her marriage, called her Delphine, and regarded her somewhat as his pupil. He liked Marie de Montbeau and her mother, Camille Delannoy, who was a friend of his sister Laure and the daughter of the family friend, Madame Delannoy. Though not intimate with her, he met and observed Eugenie, the daughter of Madame de Bolognini at Milan, and probably was acquainted with Inez and Hyacinthe, the two daughters of Madame Desbordes-Valmore.
In his various works, he has portrayed quite a number of young girls varying greatly in rank and temperament, among the most prominent being Marguerite Claes (La Recherche de l'Absolu), noted for her ability and her strength of character, headstrong and much petted Emilie de Fontaine (Le Bal de Sceaux), Laurence de Cinq-Cygne, the very zealous Royalist (Une tenebreuse Affaire), romantic Modeste Mignon, pitiable Pierrette Lorrain, dutiful and devout Ursule Mirouet, unfortunate Fosseuse (Le Medecin de Campagne), bold and unhappy Rosalie de Watteville (Albert Savarus), and the well-known Eugenie Grandet.
The novelist has revealed to us that he modeled one of these heroines on a combination of the woman who later became his wife, and her cousin, a most charming woman. It is quite possible that some if not all of the other heroines would be found to have equally interesting sources, could they be discovered.
Concerning the much discussed question as to whether Balzac portrayed young girls well, M. Marcel Barriere remarks:
"There are critics stupid enough to say that Balzac knew nothing of
the art of painting young girls; they make use of the inelegant,
unpolished word rate to qualify his portraits of this genre.
To be sure, Balzac's triumph is, we admit, in his portraits of
mothers or passionate women who know life. Certain authors,
without counting George Sand, have given us sketches of young
girls far superior to Balzac's, but that is no reason for scoffing
in so impertinent a manner at the author of the Comedie humaine,
when his unquestionable glory ought to silence similar
pamphletistic criticisms. We advise those who reproach Balzac for
not having understood the simplicity, modesty and graces so full
of charm, or often the artifice of the young girl, to please
reread in the Scenes de la Vie privee the portraits of Louise de
Chaulieu, Renee de Maucombe, Modeste Mignon, Julie de
Chatillonest, Honorine de Beauvan, Mademoiselle Guillaume, Emilie
de Fontaine, Mademoiselle Evangelista, Adelaide du Rouvre,
Ginervra di Piombo, etc., without mentioning, in other Scenes,
Eugenie Grandet, Eve Sechard, Pierrette Lorrain, Ursule Mirouet,
Mesdemoiselles Birotteau, Hulot d'Ervy, de Cinq-Cygne, La
Fosseuse, Marguerite Claes, Juana de Mancini, Pauline Gaudin, and
I hope they will keep silence, otherwise they will cause us to
question their good sense of criticism."
Balzac said it would require a Raphael to create so many virgins; accordingly, from time to time the type of woman of the other extreme is also seen. She is portrayed in the grande dame and in the courtisane, that is, at the top and the bottom of the social ladder. On the one side are the Princesse de Cadignan, the Comtesse de Seriby, etc., while on the other are Esther Gobseck, Valerie Marneffe, and others. Some of the novelist's most striking antitheses were attained by placing these horrible creatures by the side of his noblest and purest creations.
In his Avant-propos, he criticized Walter Scott for having portrayed his women as Protestants, saying: "In Protestantism there is no possible future for the woman who has sinned; while, in the Catholic Church, the hope of forgiveness makes her sublime. Hence, for the Protestant writer there is but one woman, while the Catholic writer finds a new woman in each new situation." Naturally, most of the women of the Comedie humaine are Catholic, but among the exceptions is Madame Jeanrenaud (L'Interdiction), who is a Protestant; Josepha Mirah and Esther Gobseck are of Jewish origin. In portraying various women as Catholics, convent life for the young girl is seen in Memoires de deux jeunes mariees, and for the woman weary of society, in La Duchesse de Langeais. Extreme piety is shown in Madame de Granville (Une double Famille), and Madame Graslin devoted herself to charity to atone for her crime.
Various pictures are given of woman in the home. Ideal happiness is portrayed in the life of Madame Cesar Birotteau. Madame Grandet, Madame Hulot (La Cousine Bette), and Madame Claes (La Recherche de l'Absolu) were martyrs to their husbands, while Madame Serizy made a martyr of hers. Beautiful motherhood is often seen, as in Madame Sauviat (Le Cure de Village), yet some of the mothers in Balzac are most heartless. A few professions among women are represented, actresses, artists, musicians and dancers being prominent in some of the stories.
It is quite possible and even probable that Balzac pictured many more women whom he knew in real life than have been mentioned here, and these may yet be traced. For obvious reasons, he avoided exact portraiture, yet in a few instances he indulged in it, notably in the sketch of George Sand as Mademoiselle des Touches. And lest one might not recognize the appearance of Madame Merlin as Madame Schontz (Beatrix), he boldly made her name public.
In presenting the women whom we know, the novelist was usually consistent. As has been seen, he regarded the home of Madame Carraud at Frapesle as a haven of rest, and went there like a wood-pigeon regaining its nest. The suffering Felix de Vandenesse (Le Lys dans la Vallee) could not, therefore, find calm until he went to the chateau de Frapesle to recuperate. The novelist could easily give this minute description of Frapesle with its towers, as well as the chateau de Sache, the home of M. de Margonne, having spent so much of his time at both of these places.
The reader, having seen in the early pages of this book, Balzac's relation to his mother,—in case Felix de Vandenesse represents Balzac himself—is not surprised to learn that the mother of Felix was cold and tyrannical, indifferent to his happiness, that he had but little or no money to spend, that his brother was the favorite, that he was sent away to school early in life and remained there eight years, that his mother often reproached him and repressed his tenderness, and that to escape all contact with her he buried himself in his reading.
Felix was in this unhappy state when he met Madame de Mortsauf, whose shoulders he kissed suddenly, and whose love for him later made him forget the miseries of childhood; in the same manner, Balzac made his first declaration to Madame de Berny. Madame de Mortsauf could easily be Madame de Berny with all her tenderness and sympathy, or she could be Madame Hanska. The intense maternal love of the heroine could represent either, but especially the latter. M. de Mortsauf could be either M. de Berny or M. de Hanski. Balzac left Madame de Berny and became enraptured with Madame de Castries, and had had a similar infatuation for Madame d'Abrantes, just as Felix made Madame de Mortsauf jealous by his devotion to Lady Arabelle Dudley. It will be remembered that Madame Hanska was suspicious of Balzac's relations with an English lady, Countess Visconti, although the novelist states that he had written this work before he knew Madame Visconti. The novelist has doubtless combined traits of various women in a single character, but the fact still remains that he was depicting life as he knew it, even if he did not attempt exact portraiture.
While the famous Vicomtesse de Beauseant (La Femme abandonnee) has many characteristics of the Duchesse d'Abrantes, and some of those of Madame de Berny, and La Femme abandonnee was written the year Balzac severed his relations with his Dilecta. But it is especially in the gentleness and patience portrayed in Madame Firmiani, in the affection and self-sacrifice of Pauline de Villenoix for Louis Lambert, and the devotion of Pauline Gaudin to Raphael in La Peau de Chagrin that Madame de Berny is most strikingly represented. She was all this and more to Balzac. Furthermore, he may have obtained from her his historical color for Un Episode sous la Terreur, just as he was influenced by Madame Junot in writing stories of the Empire and Corsican vengeance.
It was perhaps to avoid recognition of the heroine and to revenge himself on Madame de Castries that he made the Duchesse de Langeais enter a convent and die, after her failure to master the Marquis de Montriveau, while for his part the hero soon forgot her.
Soon after introducing Madame de Mortsauf (Le Lys dans la Vallee), Balzac compares her to the fragrant heather gathered on returning from the Villa Diodati. After studying carefully his long period of association with Madame Hanska, one can see the importance which the Villa Diodati had in his life. This is only another incident, small though it be, showing how this woman impressed herself so deeply on the novelist that almost unconsciously he brought memories of his Predilecta into his work. It has been shown that she served as a model for some of his most attractive heroines; was honored, under different names, with the dedication of three works besides the one dedicated to her daughter; and was the originator of one of his most popular novels for young girls, while many traces of herself and her family connections are found throughout the whole Comedie humaine.
Though by far the most important of them all, she was only one of the many etrangeres he knew. As has been observed, he knew women of Russia, Poland, Germany, Austria, England, Italy and Spain, and had traveled in most of these countries; hence one is not surprised at the large number of foreign women who have appeared in his work. Among the most noted of these are Lady Brandon (La Grenadiere); Lady Dudley (Le Lys dans la Vallee); Madame Varese (Massimilla Doni); la Duchesse de Rhetore (Albert Savarus), who was in reality Madame Hanska, although presented as being Italian; Madame Claes (La Recherche de l'Absolu), of Spanish origin though born in Brussels; Paquita Valdes (La Fille aux Yeux d'Or); and the Corsican Madame Luigi Porta (La Vendetta).
In regard to Balzac's various women friends, J. W. Sherer has very appropriately observed: "And the man was worthy of them: the student of his work knows what a head he had; the student of his life, what a heart."