Balzac’s short story Madame Firmiani isn’t one of his best, but I enjoyed it nonetheless not for what it says about the characters, but for what it says about Balzac. It begins with a rambling preface and leads up to a discussion of the character of a certain Madame Firmiani, a woman who’s the subject of a great deal of speculation and gossip. Perhaps part of the interest is due to the fact that there seems to be no Monsieur Firmiani, or if he exists, he’s conveniently absent. Balzac spends some time discussing the sort of things said about this mysterious woman, and while the various versions of Madame Firmiani are interesting, Balzac shows us that it’s not so much what is said that’s interesting, but that the gossip can be captured and qualified by the type of person who makes the comments. Balzac, that great observer and chronicler of human nature, breaks down the “genus Parisian” into “various species.” So while “the species Practical” analyses Madame Firmiani according to her worldly goods, the “species Lounger” snobbily discusses her parties and the quality of her tea.
“Oh, Madame Firmiani, my dear fellow! She is one of those adorable women who serve as Nature’s excuse for all the ugly ones she creates. Madame Firmiani is enchanting, and so kind! I wish I were in power and possessed millions that I might_” (here a whisper). “Shall I present you?” The speaker is a youth of the Student species, known for his boldness among men and his timidity in a boudoir.
“Madame Firmiani?” cries another, twirling his cane. “I’ll tell you what I think of her; she is a woman between thirty and thirty-five; faded complexion, handsome eyes, flat figure, contralto voice worn out, much dressed, rather rouged, charming manners; in short, my dear fellow, the remains of a pretty woman who is still worth the trouble of a passion.” This remark is from the species Fop, who has just breakfasted, doesn’t weigh his words, and is about to mount his horse. At that particular moment Fops are pitiless.
The speculation about Madame Firmiani’s character and circumstances is at the heart of this story. It’s 1824, and Monsieur de Bourbonne has traveled to Paris from his country estate in Touraine “to satisfy his curiosity” about the woman who’s somehow or another entangled his nephew and heir, Octave de Camps, in a relationship. Octave “without consulting his uncle had lately sold an estate belonging to him to the Black Band.” Following this alarming incident, a relative, possibly a relative jealous of Octave’s position as sole heir “informed” Monsieur de Bourbonne that Octave who has “wasted his means on a certain Madame Firmiani” is teaching mathematics for a living and waiting for his uncle to die so that he can loot the estate and waste it. Irate, the old man travels to Paris to discover the truth…..
There’s a note that The Black Band–otherwise known as the Bande Noire “was a mysterious association of speculators, whose object was to buy in landed estates, cut them up, and sell them off in small parcels to the peasantry or others.” Reminds me of Gone-with-the Wind carpetbagging.
The story also showcases Balzac’s love for the female sex. Madame Firmiani is a veritable goddess here–a woman who inspires …well … read the story and you’ll see.
Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley