Balzac’s story, The Study of a Woman, is slight–a character study of the young Marquise de Listomere. Balzac tells us that she is a product of the Restoration, and that her morals and behaviour reflect her time. We’re told that she “fasts and takes the Sacrament.” She also has a confessor. The way Balzac describes her behaviour and its veneer of morality, it is as though the Marquise has all the right boxes checked. The moral tone of Study of a Woman, with its mention of the level of piety of Madame Maintenon, is in complete contrast to the atmosphere of Domestic Peace which is set during the reign of Napoleon. Impermanence appeared to form moral behaviour in Domestic Peace, but now in the Restoration, piety and impeccable behaviour support the notion of permanence. But if piety and morality are just the fashionable cloaks of the time, just how solid are they? And of course, after bringing that thought to the table, Balzac begins to test the Marquise to see just how deep those notions are:
At the present moment she is strictly virtuous from policy, possibly from inclination. Married for the last seven years to the Marquis of Listomere, one of those deputies who expect a peerage, she may also consider that such conduct will promote the ambitions of her family.
It seems that the jury is out on the matter of the Marquise’s true nature:
Some women are reserving their opinion of her until the moment when Monsieur de Listomere becomes a peer of France, when she herself will be thirty-six years of age,–a period of life when most women discover that they are the dupes of social laws.
Now there’s a fascinating statement quietly embedded in a sentence: women “the dupes of social laws,” and in that statement we see both how Balzac loves and admires women and his radical view of their position in society. Balzac goes on to tell us that the Marquise sometimes became the object of attempted flirtations but all efforts are met with “insulting indifference.” The Marquise is attractive and interesting rather than beautiful. She possesses many excellent qualities, but she’s also the sort of woman who is easy to overlook. So we have a woman who is pious and faithful to her husband in spite of the occasional sieges laid to her virtue. But the “moral” of the tale, Balzac tells us, is that “we find that which we did not seek.”
One evening, Eugene de Rastignac enters the story and pays the Marquise some attention. The incident appears to go nowhere, but then the next day an event occurs. We could say it’s a Freudian slip–although of course Balzac does not name it as such, but there’s a mix up which indicates that Rastignac’s mind is elsewhere….
The incident serves to spark some strange feelings in the Marquise, but it also reveals how little Rastignac understands the nature of women.
It seems as though Balzac never tires of examining the various angles of marriage, and in Study of a Woman, he shows how the seeds of discontent are accidentally and casually sewn. This is a very short story, but it’s still quite brilliant because, once again, Balzac shows how well he understands human nature.
Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley and free for the kindle