A Woman of Thirty by Balzac

Balzac’s flawed novel, A Woman of Thirty, is essentially a character study of a woman named Julie who makes incorrect choices, ruins her life and the consequences of those choices to her children. The plot starts off very well but then loses its focus, finally wandering into dodgy soap territory laced with coincidence. The story title implies that we will see Julie as a woman of thirty, and it’s true, we do see Julie as an unhappy thirty-year-old, but the story spans over thirty years and continues until 1844 when Julie is about 50. Balzac draws a portrait of a miserable marriage–a marriage of unequal sensibilities. Julie is an intelligent, sensitive woman paired with a man of mediocre talents which are masked by his rank and wealth. The observations Balzac makes on this subject were worth a post of their own, and while A Woman of Thirty is flawed, it has moments of sheer Balzac brilliance.

The story opens in 1813, April, on “a morning which gave promise of one those bright days when Parisians, for the first time in the year, behold dry pavement underfoot and a cloudless sky overhead.” This perfect weather is a glorious backdrop for the spectacle about to take place at the Tuileries–a “magnificent review” of Napoleon’s forces just before he sets out on  “upon the disastrous campaign” which ended in Napoleon’s defeat. Balzac specifically tells us which battles will be won and which battles will be lost, but all this is in the future as crowds, pumped up with patriotism, gather to watch the colourful “military manoeuvres.”

In the crowd is a beautiful young girl named Julie who’s excitedly dragging her father along to watch the spectacle. It’s clear that she’s there to see someone very specific–Colonel Victor D’Aiglemont. Julie cannot hide her emotions, and her father, guessing that his daughter is in love, warns her not to marry D’Aiglemont. Julie argues, and her father predicts only misery if Julie insists on marrying this man:

Girls are apt to imagine noble and enchanting and totally imaginary figures in their own minds; they have fanciful extravagant ideas about men, and sentiment, and life; and then they innocently endow somebody or other with all the perfections of their day-dreams and put their trust in him. They fall in love with this imaginary creature in the man of their choice; and then, when it is too late to escape from their fate, behold their first idol, the illusion made fair with their fancies, turns to an odious skeleton. Julie, I would rather you fall in love with an old man than with the colonel. Ah! If you could but see things from the standpoint of ten years hence, you would admit that my old experience was right. I know what Victor is, that gaiety of his is simply animal spirits–the gaiety of the barracks. He has no ability, and he is a spendthrift. He is one of those men whom Heaven created to eat and digest four meals a day, to sleep, to fall in love with the first woman that comes to hand, and to fight. He does not understand life. His kind heart, for he has a kind heart, will perhaps lead him to give his purse to a sufferer or a comrade; but he is careless, he has not the delicacy of heart which makes us slaves to a woman’s happiness, he is ignorant, he is selfish. There are plenty of buts–

After this initial scene, each of the subsequent periodic glimpses into Julie’s life reveal the consequences of the choices she made in the previous section. The opening sequence shows Napoleon’s armies gathering, the final glories of the Napoleonic Empire just as it’s about to fall. Interestingly, Balzac parallels this by placing Julie on the brink of her life–about to make a disastrous choice in falling for Victor. Fast forward a year. Julie’s father is dead, Julie is married to Victor, and she’s already thoroughly miserable….

The marriage between Victor and Julie stumbles along; she’s bitterly unhappy and grows pale and ill, and he, complaining to his friends about his delicate wife, consoles himself with other women.

One of the interesting aspects of the story is Balzac’s frank approach to marital sex. At one point Julie, left by Victor with an elderly aunt, writes a letter to a friend warning her of the miseries of marriage, and the old Marquise reads the letter. In the letter Julie warns her friend, Louisa, that after “a few days of marriage, [and] you will be what I am already–ugly, wretched, and old.” A major complaint is sex with an oblique reference to “the last outburst of delicious merriment” right before Victor gets into the marital bed for the first time. After reading Julie’s letter to Louisa, Victor’s aunt, the worldly, elderly Marquise tells Julie:

“If a dish at table is not to our taste, there is no occasion to disgust others, with it, child.”

The Marquise grasps that when it comes to sex with Victor, Julie finds “it impossible to share his pleasures.” At one point, after winning back Victor’s attentions, Julie manages to convince him that sex is no longer part of their relationship. Victor and Julie grow apart; he has affairs and he tells his friends that they would act as he does is they “had a pretty wife so fragile that for the past two years you might not so much as kiss her hand for fear of damaging her.”  We hear Victor’s side of the matter in a speech with an interesting analogy as he confides to a friend:

Do not you encumber yourself with one of those fragile ornaments, only fit to put in a glass case, so brittle and so costly that you are always obliged to be careful of them. They tell me that you are afraid of snow or wet for that fine horse of yours; how often do you ride him? That is just my own case. It is true that my wife gives me no ground for jealousy, but my marriage is purely ornamental business; if you think that I am a married man, you are grossly mistaken. So there is some excuse for my unfaithfulness.

A Woman of Thirty is a study in character. We know that Victor is weak and not particularly intelligent. There’s no substance underneath that flashy uniform. At first it’s fairly easy to blame all of Julie’s woes on her husband-after all she was warned about Victor by her father. But then Balzac raises the fascinating issue of sexual incompatibility. There’s a hint that Victor’s just a tad too brutish for Julie. Julie and Victor’s incompatibility is underscored by her love for two other men; in the case of one man, this is not the sort of love that includes passion and sex. It’s agape love–self-sacrifice, devotion and worship. Julie’s passion for the second man brings dire consequences to her family. Some female characters in Balzac pour all their passion into religion, but that’s an option that fails for Julie. She tries to find consolation in religion but cannot.

Balzac’s novel isn’t a general statement against marriage (Julie’s friend Louisa does marry in spite of her friend’s advice and is very happy), but it is a cautionary tale about the misery of marriage between two people of varying sensibilities. Julie possibly could have been happy if she’d married a different sort of man. Interestingly Victor seems to grow a little better with age while Julie’s disappointments warp her relationship with her daughter and lead to tragedy.

The plot goes on for far too long and the woman of thirty becomes a bitterly, unhappy woman of fifty who struggles with lifelong disappointments and depression. The plot turns soapy at the end with an implausible coincidence involving pirates.

The idea behind the novel is excellent–Balzac creates a series of snapshots of a woman’s unhappy life, and due to the timing of those snapshots the reader sees the direct cause and effect connection. Balzac’s attack on unhappy marriage and sexual incompatibility must have caused tongues to wag in the salons of Paris. Julie complains that her husband “seeks me too often,” and Balzac poses the question that perhaps Julie’s “abhorrence of passion,” is a result of her “girlish first love” latching on to the first object of her adoration before she knew “the forbidden but frenzied bliss for which some women will renounce all the laws of prudence and the principles of conduct upon which society is based.” Of course, Julie does get to taste that “forbidden but frenzied bliss” only to pay for those moments of madness dearly later.

There are many marvelous passages here even though the plot falls off the deep end by the book’s conclusion, and here’s Julie speaking her mind to a Curé on the subject of marriage–specifically a loveless marriage in which she compares sex between husband and wife to sex between a prostitute and her customers:

You pour scorn on the miserable creatures who sell themselves for a few coins to any passer-by, though want and hunger absolve the brief union; while another union, horrible for quite other reasons, is tolerated, nay encouraged, by society, and a young and innocent girl is married to a man whom she has only met occasionally during the previous three months. She is sold for her whole lifetime. It is true that the price is high! If you allow her no compensation for her sorrows, you might at least respect her, but no, the most virtuous of women cannot escape calumny. This is our fate in its double aspect. Open prostitution and shame; secret prostitution and unhappiness. As for the poor, portionless girls, they may die or go mad, without a soul to pity them. Beauty and virtue are marketable in the bazaar where souls and bodies are bought and sold–in the den of selfishness which you call society.

It’s a wonderful speech, and through Julie’s voice we can hear Balzac loud and clear. But in this impassioned speech Julie seems to forget that her marriage to Victor was not arranged–in fact she insisted upon it against her father’s wishes. She seems to be absolving herself of any personal responsibility now that she faces a life sentences for a decision she made as an inexperienced young girl. In spite of the book’s flaws (it should have ended with Julie at thirty), it’s interesting for its revolutionary view of the misery of married life and its frank approach to married sex.

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18 Comments

Filed under Balzac, Fiction

18 responses to “A Woman of Thirty by Balzac

  1. Brian Joseph

    What sounds good about this one is the complexity of the characters and their interactions. Too bad it ended as you describe. I wonder why Balzac concluded it that way. I know that you have read him extensively Guy, do any of his other works follow this pattern?

  2. While I am a fan of Balzac, he wasn’t the most disciplined of writers. Sometimes he seems to be carried away by his own enthusiasms.

  3. It is a bit of a curate’s egg kind of book – excellent in parts, too melodramatic in others. Great social commentary, though!

    • Now that’s an interesting phrase: a curate’s egg.. what does that mean?

      • This is a Victorian expression (I believe), and comes from a story or anecdote in which the curate, who is subordinate to the bishop and local landlord, is invited to dinner and is given a rotten egg. When he is asked how his egg was, he daren’t tell them it was dreadful, so he says it was excellent in parts. But in this case, I didn’t mean that it was dreadful, just that it’s partly bad, but also has some redeeming features. I think it was a cartoon in Punch that was at the origin of the expression perhaps.

  4. “Balzac’s flawed novel” – you can use that phrase a lot. But how few involve pirates!

  5. I liked this a great deal and didn’t find it all that flawed. Patchy, yes.
    I can’t remember melodrama. I read it in French, so I wonder.

  6. acommonreaderuk

    This sounds marvellous, despite it’s flaws. Perhaps a little polemical (the speech in which HdB puts his own words into the mouth of Julie), but as always with such writers, the qualities far exceed the faults.

    I love you phrase, the “implausible coincidence involving pirates”. Oh dear, perhaps HdB veered from his usual standards here.

    • There’s something endearing about Balzac–even when he’s not as his best.

    • I would investigate the Brazilian boyfriend character in Cousin Bette, or just about anything that goes on in A Harlot High and Low, before setting those “usual standards” in stone. Those pirates are not all that far off from Balzac’s standard operating procedure.

      • I’ve yet to read A Harlot High and Low, but it’s one I’m really looking forward to. I’ve read Cousin Bette a few times. It’s one of my favourites. Talk about bite the hand that feeds you…

  7. Jonathan

    I noticed on my recent read of the NYRB collection that there was quite a variation in quality. My reaction to the last story in that collection (The Duchess of Langeais) was similar to your reaction with this one. I wonder if Balzac was writing these ‘novellas’ for a specific audience/publication which required more melodrama and surprise endings?

  8. I really liked this one when I read it. Like Caroline, I don’t remember melodrama. I do remember that Balzac, for once, was championing the cause of women.
    That description of Victor by Julie’s father sounds a lot like Sergent Troy in Far From the Madding Crowd.

  9. Really interesting that you came to this one a few reviews after “Tony Hogan Stole My Ma…”, another story of a woman undone by a series of poor choices but with the consequences playing out in a very different society.

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