Stefan Zweig’s novella, Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, opens with guests at a French Riviera resort gossiping and “obsessing” over an incident that took place at the Grand Palace Hotel. A new guest, a handsome, charming young Frenchman man, arrived one day a little after noon and spent his time in a whirl of activity. The young man left abruptly that same evening, claiming that he’d “been suddenly called away.” Imagine the shock, when the guests learn late that night that a married woman, Madame Henriette, the wife of “a stout, thick-set manufacturer from Lyon,” has left her husband and two children to run off with the young Frenchman she just met. Tongues start wagging with the delicious gossip which is fed by a dramatic scene from the husband, and the gossip leans to earnest discussion about whether or not the married woman, a “minor Madame Bovary,” is crazy to leave her husband and family behind or whether her actions can be understood.
You will understand that such an event, striking like lightning before our very eyes and our perceptions, was likely to cause considerable turmoil in persons usually accustomed to an easygoing existence and carefree pastimes. But while this extraordinary incident was certainly the point of departure for the discussion that broke out so vehemently at our table, almost bringing us to blows, in essence the dispute was more fundamental, an angry conflict between two warring concepts of life.
The debate between the guests takes a very specific form which focuses on morality:
But what aroused so much indignation in all present was the circumstance that neither the manufacturer nor his daughters, not even Madame Henriette herself, had ever set eyes on this Lovelace before, and consequently their evening conversation for a couple of hours on the terrace, and the one-hour session in the garden over black coffee, seemed to have sufficed to make a woman about thirty-three years old and of blameless reputation abandon her husband and two children overnight, following a young dandy previously unknown to her without a second thought.
Some of the guests, who struggle to accept that Madame Henriette ran off with a man she just met, believe that there was a “clandestine affair” conducted long before the assignation at the hotel, and the dominant opinion is that “it was out of the question for a decent woman who had known a man a mere couple of hours to run off just like that when he first whistled her up.” The narrator, however, perhaps a romantic, takes the position that it was “probable in a woman who at heart had perhaps been ready to take some decisive action through all the years of a tedious, disappointing marriage.”
Our narrator, defending Madame Henriette, who he believes was “delivered up to mysterious powers beyond her own will and judgement,” finds himself in the minority opinion while the other married couples “denied the existence of the coup de foudre with positively scornful indignation, condemning it as folly and tasteless romantic fantasy.” An elderly widow, an Englishwoman, Mrs C, who has an “eccentric obsession” with the behaviour of the now-absent Madame Henriette, seems fascinated by the narrator’s moral stance. As the narrator’s holiday comes to an end, Mrs C tells her own story of twenty-four hours of madness….
This superb novella argues that married women, especially of a certain privileged class, are cocooned from life’s passions and ugly realities, and are, therefore, vulnerable to love affairs. Are they kept like little pets in gilded cages? The story of Madame Henriette and Mrs C echo all stories of other great fictional heroines: Anna Karenina leaps to mind–although of course, Zweig’s story doesn’t follow the aftermath of Madame Henriette’s decision. While Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is concerned solely with the impulsive decisions of two women, nonetheless, there’s an arc to the story that continues beyond the first page. Anna Karenina, one of literature’s great tragic heroines, threw aside her tedious marriage for love, and we all know how that story ended. Madame Henriette’s fate will most probably be ignominious. Zweig allows us to imagine the consequences of her rashness, but he tells us, instead, the story of Mrs C’s extraordinary behavior.
Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is a beautifully constructed, almost perfect tale of two women who went off the rails. There’s a 19th century feel to this story, and the narrator tells us almost immediately that the events he describes took place “ten years before the war.” So it’s a tale told in retrospect by someone who can’t forget either Madame Henriette or the confidences of Mrs C, a woman haunted by her actions decades after they took place.
Translated by Anthea Bell