The Deserted Woman

THE HUMAN COMEDY – Honoré de Balzac Second volume of works of Honoré de Balzac edited by widow André Houssiaux, publisher, Hebert and Co, successors, 7 rue Perronet – Paris (1877) Scenes from private life Picture 1

THE DESERTED WOMAN – Study of a woman

TO MADAME THE DUCHESS OF ABRANTES, His affectionate servant, Honoré de Balzac. Paris, August 1835. La Femme abandonnée is a short story that appeared in the Revue de Paris in 1832. It was published in volume in 1833 in Volume II of Scènes de la vie de province des Etudes de moeurs by Madame Béchet. Reissued in 1839 by Charpentier, then in 1842 by Furne, with a dedication to the Duchesse d’Abrantès. She was then featured in Scenes from Private Life.

Analysis of the work La Femme abandonnée (The Abandoned Woman) is yet another “woman’s study”, but the most famous of all: because of its subject, the delicacy of its sentiments, the tone of its narrative, and its dramatic denouement. It was published in the Revue de Paris in September 1832, at almost the same time as La Grenadière appeared in the Revue des deux mondes. His literary merits were recognized even by contemporaries most hostile to Balzac. But the story is instructive in another way: what we know of Balzac’s feelings, and of the events he used, helps us to understand his way of working better than in other examples. At first, the very expression “abandoned woman” stirred her imagination. It’s an old tradition with him. The Hymne à la femme abandonnée is found in an 1822 manuscript: “There is something imposing and sacred about an abandoned woman. When we see her, we shudder and weep. She realizes this fiction of a world destroyed and without God, without sun, inhabited by a last creature who walks at random in shadow and despair… She is innocence sitting on the debris of all dead virtues.” These are powerful expressions. They certainly don’t suit the “single woman” of the 20th century. What deplorable fate could have moved Balzac so much as to wring this painful elegy from him? In 1822, we don’t have much to wonder about. This is obviously an unexpected stanza from the “Berny poem”. To abandon herself to a young lover who could have been her son (22 years her junior), Mme de Berny had to justify great pain and profound dereliction. She uses her broken home (after a 15-year affair with the “atrocious Corsican” Campi), her husband’s polite but total abandonment, and the destroyed world that has become her destiny – through no fault of her own, of course, an innocent who believed in oaths. Balzac, as you might expect, doesn’t argue with this presentation of the facts. He admits Mme de Berny’s poetry, exalts it, weeps with her over all the dead virtues. Hence the particular cult of the abandoned woman that we’ll find for many years in Balzac’s work. But the adventure Balzac uses to build his story is far less poetic. It also seems certain, or at least has been accepted as such. During the summer months of 1822, Balzac’s parents, worried about his affair with Mme de Berny, sent him to Bayeux for a while, to stay with his sister Laure Surville. During this stay, the presumptuous Balzac set out to triumph over another “abandoned woman”, less poetic than the previous one, but with the advantage of being on the spot. She was the Comtesse d’Hautefeuille, former mistress of the procureur général Guernon-Ranville, who later became Polignac’s minister. Balzac was rude, spurned, and didn’t have the presence of mind to forget his gloves like the character in the short story. This release put an end to an adventure that would hardly be worth mentioning if it weren’t as remarkable for its vulgarity as the previous one was for its poetic illumination. This doesn’t really matter, because as soon as his character is admitted to Mme de Beauséant, Balzac follows a different path and takes another model: the Marquise de Castries, whom he is due to join in Aix-les-Bains at the end of August, around the time of publication of his short story. She’s a magnificent “abandoned woman”, far more abandoned than Mme de Berny ever was, with everything to fire Balzac’s imagination. An illustrious birth, like Claire de Beauséant; a great passion for the son of Chancellor Metternich; a child from this affair, who had just died at twenty; unanimous disapproval, despite the power of her family; in short, everything that can make a woman a broken lily, everything that can make her, as in the 1822 elegy, “imposing and sacred”. In this transposition, the heroine regained all the sadness and poetry that had once moved Balzac: and even enhanced them with the triple prestige of misfortune, fame and sublime love. It is this exaltation that gives the short story an emotional quality that is never outwardly eloquent, but hidden and tender. Picture 2 There had to be an end, we couldn’t stay at these heights. This end is the self-inflicted punishment of the lover who has failed to prove himself worthy, through eternal fidelity, of the choice made for him. We had to look elsewhere. Recent research has shown that Balzac looked for it in a news item from 1793 that almost everyone had forgotten: the suicide of the Comte de Pons or de Pont after his marriage and break-up with his mistress, the Comtesse de Castellane. Balzac had found this denouement in Les Mémoires of the Duchesse d’Abrantès, in which the Countess de Castellane was described as follows: “She was then over forty years old, she was counterfeit, wore a wig, had rather pretty little eyes, no teeth, a curved chin, an inconceivable turn of mind, but a beautiful and great soul, a heart of gold and a most ravishing spirit.” These are the ingredients with which Balzac composed one of his finest stories: emotion, desecration, poetry and a news item. Clearly, it’s the initial emotion that sets the tone: all the rest is mere circumstance that the novelist bends to his will.

History It’s about the young Baron de Nueil’s passion for the Viscountess de Beauséant, exiled from the world for abandoning a husband she didn’t love in favor of her affair with Monsieur d’Ajuda-Pinto. Madame de Beauséant (Claire de Bourgogne), banished from the world, has found exile in her Courcelle countryside after marrying the Marquis d’Ajuda. Gaston de Nueil falls in love with this woman separated from her husband and shamed by nobility and high society. Madame de Beauséant tried in vain to escape this forbidden happiness, and it was in a rented villa on the shores of Lake Geneva that Madame de Beauséant and Monsieur de Nueil lived for three years. They loved each other, without seeing anyone, without anyone talking about them, taking boat trips, getting up late, happy at last. The loss of his brother and father brought Gaston back to France. They decided to settle near Manerville, a considerable property adjoining Valleroy de Gaston’s land, where they lived together. For nine whole years they enjoyed complete happiness. Madame la comtesse de Nueil, Gaston’s mother, refused to accept her son’s affair with Madame de Beauséant and decided to marry him off to a wealthy party in the person of Mademoiselle de la Rodière. Madame de Beauséant’s worried and suspicious letter arrived at a time when Gaston’s love was struggling against the seductions of a suitably arranged life in keeping with worldly ideas. This letter from Madame de Beauséant urging him to choose between her and Mademoiselle de la Rodière was decisive for Gaston, who resolved to leave the Marquise and marry. After seven months of lukewarm happiness, Gaston sought to see Claire again, but was refused access. His letters to the Marquise were returned unopened. The young Baron de Nueil will intentionally kill himself with his shotgun. People who have delightfully experienced the phenomena to which the perfect union of two beings gives rise will understand this suicide perfectly. Picture 3 Angoulême, September 1832

Genealogy of characters NUEIL: Norman noble family represented by a Count Nueil who died in 1825, hence a son who died in 1825, Gaston, born 1799, died 1831. Married Stéphanie de la Rodière. BEAUSEANT: Noble family represented by a Marquis de Beauséant who died at the beginning of the Restoration. Married a Champignelles, hence; A Count of Beauséant ; A viscount, then marquis, who married Claire de Bourgogne, born around 1791; Another Beauséant, born in 1733 and a nun. AJUDA: Portuguese noble family represented by : An Ajuda who married the Duc de Grandlieu; Marquis Miguel d’Ajuda Pinto. Married Berthe de Rochefide, who died around 1834. Widowed, Ajuda married Joséphine de Grandlieu. LA RODIERE: Stéphanie de la Rodière, heiress born in 1809.  

Source analysis/history: 1) Preface (volume IV) compiled from the full text of the Comédie Humaine published by France Loisirs 1985 under the auspices of the Société des Amis d’Honoré de Balzac –

2) Wikipedia universal encyclopedia.

Source for character genealogy: Félicien Marceau “Balzac et son monde” Gallimard.

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