“A man ought not to marry without having studied anatomy, and dissected at least one woman.”
Although I’m a Balzac fan, I’m going to admit that I didn’t find The Physiology of Marriage an easy read, but that said, it’s an important and interesting book. It shows a young Balzac in embryo–still in the process of becoming the great writer who created Cousin Bette and The Black Sheep. The book also shows Balzac’s fascination with human behaviour–particularly the behaviour of women–even as he plays with and organises some of his major themes and ideas.
The Physiology of Marriage, published in 1829, is not a novel. Instead it’s a hodge podge of lectures, aphorisms, stories and observations on the institution and power dynamics of marriage. The basic theme is that marriage is not “an institution of Nature” but is an arrangement fraught with difficulties. There were times when Balzac seemed to lurch into Masters and Johnson territory–especially when he started working the numbers and calculating just how many French wives commit adultery. At the end of the book, a Duchess rather appropriately calls Balzac a “doctor of conjugal arts and sciences.” If he earns this title, it should certainly accompany the disclaimer that Balzac’s science is the science of observation.
Balzac seems to explore every possible category under the heading of marriage. Here’s Balzac on women and headaches:
Now headache is an affection which affords infinite resources to a woman. This malady, which is the easiest of all to feign, for it is destitute of any apparent symptom, merely obliges her to say: “I have a headache.” A woman trifles with you and there is no one in the world who can contradict her skull, whose impenetrable bones defy touch or ocular test. Moreover, the headache is, in our opinion, the queen of maladies, the pleasantest and the most terrible weapon employed by wives against husbands. There are some coarse and violent men who have been taught the tricks of women by their mistresses, in the happy hours of their celibacy, and so flatter themselves that they are never to be caught by this vulgar trap. But all their efforts, all their arguments end by being vanquished before the magic of these words: “I have a headache.” If a husband complains , or ventures on a reproach, if he tries to resist the power of this Il buondo cani of marriage, he is lost.
And there’s more. Balzac paints a scenario of a young woman “lying voluptuously on a divan” while her husband paces around the room. Although the word ‘sex’ does not appear, Balzac’s inclusion of the word “voluptuously” sneaks in the idea that sex (a lack thereof and the subsequent frustrations felt by the husband) is at the root of the headache problem. What’s more, Balzac accuses the medical profession of being in cahoots with the headache sufferers. Freud would call this hysterical illness no doubt. The passages on the problems of headaches within marriage reminded me of a professor who peppered his lectures on Victorian literature with salacious slices of information about his married life. He too held forth on the subject of headaches. The professor advised all men to keep a bottle of aspirin on hand, and then, when a wife complained of a headache at bedtime, the husband could toss her the bottle and tell her to swallow a couple before proceeding on with the business at hand.
Ah, the delicacy of marital politics….
Balzac arrives at the somewhat obvious conclusion (obvious these days, that is) that most marriages are unhappy, and that adultery is the natural result. Here he is discussing what percentage of the married female population commit adultery:
Adultery does not establish itself in the heart of a married woman with the promptness of a pistol-shot. Even when sympathy with another rouses feelings on first sight, a struggle always takes place, whose duration discounts the total sum of conjugal infidelities. It would be an insult to French modesty not to admit the duration of this struggle in a country so naturally combative, without referring to at least a twentieth in the total of married women: but then we will suppose that there are certain sickly women who preserve their lovers while they are using soothing draughts, and that there are certain wives whose confinement makes sarcastic celibates smile. In this way we shall vindicate the modesty of those who enter upon the struggle from motives of virtue. For the same reason we should not venture to believe that a woman forsaken by her lover will find a new one on the spot; but this discount being much more uncertain than the preceding one, we will estimate it at one-fortieth.
Balzac is saying that women don’t intend to commit adultery, but that it happens after a period of inner struggle and with cause (spousal mistreatment which is also discussed). After crunching the numbers, he lands on the figure that approx. 800,000 French women commit adultery. Dostoevsky would not agree with Balzac’s idea that women don’t have serial lovers. In The Eternal Husband, Natalya Vasilyevna cuckolds both a husband and a lover when a new man arrives on the scene. Natalya has to get rid of her old, boring lover, Velchaninov, in order to conduct an affair with a newcomer.
In Prometheus: The Life of Balzac, author Andre Maurois states that Balzac, a bachelor at the time the book was written, was privy to the confidences of many women, including the Duchesse d’Abrantès, Fortunée Hamelin, and Sophie Gay. Maurois argues that Balzac sees marriage as “a civil war requiring weapons and strategy in which victory (meaning personal liberty) goes to the better general,” and he further argues that Balzac is on the side of the wife. While I think Balzac was a remarkably enlightened man for his time, from a 21st century perspective, I don’t agree that The Physiology of Marriage places Balzac wholeheartedly on the side of the wife. The book was extremely popular with women at the time of its publication and no doubt it seemed revolutionary then. There are certainly many pro-wife statements but the book could well amount to a handbook of strategy for husbands. The Maurois bio, by the way, was written in 1965, and societal attitudes towards women have undergone a sizeable shift.
Given how the bikini-clad Helen Mirren has suddenly become a sex object at the age of 66, I’d say that this is no longer true:
The average age at which women are married is twenty years and at forty they cease to belong to the world of love.
But, according to Balzac, men enjoy a longer shelf life, and here’s a powerful observation:
On the other hand, a man at fifty-two is more formidable than at any other age. It is at this fair epoch of life that he enjoys an experience dearly bought, and probably all the fortune that he will ever acquire. The passions by which his course is directed being the last under whose scourge he will move, he is unpitying and determined, like the man carried away by the current who snatches at a green and pliant branch of willow, the young nursling of the year.
Can’t argue with that….
The Physiology of Marriage is available FREE for the Kindle, on the internet and at Project Gutenberg.