“It is a dreadful misfortune not to be loved when we are in love, but it is a very great one to be loved passionately when we have ceased to love.”
My Penguin Classics edition of Adolphe includes a long introduction from translator Leonard Tancock regarding the life of its author, Benjamin Constant and his relationships with three women: Mme de Charrière, Madame de Staël and Anna Lindsay. Tancock notes that Adolphe’s Ellenore is an “amalgam of Benjamin’s experience with women,” and no doubt that explains why this novella is so powerful.
Adolphe is not a particularly appealing protagonist, and this is in spite of, or perhaps even because, he has control of the narrative, so that we only see things from his one-sided view. The story begins when Adolphe is 22 and has just concluded his university studies. He’s bored and in society, he feels that nothing is “worthy of attracting” his attention. Influenced by his father’s attitude towards women, and in a “state of vague emotional torment,” he longs for a love affair. He is invited by a friend of his father’s, Count P, to visit, and it’s here that Adolphe meets Ellenore, a Polish woman “whose family had been ruined.” In spite of the fact that Ellenore is the Count’s mistress and they live openly together, she is socially accepted by the Count’s circle. Ellenore and the Count have two children together, and it’s mainly due to Ellenore’s persistence that the Count’s fortunes have been restored following a successful lawsuit. So Ellenore is an unusual prospect for Adolphe–a woman of high station who has risked everything for love. Because of scandal and social stigma, Ellenore would normally have the sort of ignominious position that demands that she be stashed away from society, but no, she’s rather unusually not hidden–accepted yes but with a stain. This makes Ellenore an intriguing and also a vulnerable prospect for seduction.
Adolphe lays siege to Ellenore. At first his attentions are pleasant:
I did not think I was in love with Ellenore, but already I could not endure the thought of not pleasing her. She was continually in my thoughts: I made countless plans and invented countless ways of winning her, with that callow fatuity which is so confident of success because it has never attempted anything.
When Adolphe is rejected, instead of taking the hint and cooling down, he doubles down on the pressure:
I was stunned. Inflamed by this setback, my imagination took possession of my whole life. Suddenly I found myself racked by the torments of love which but an hour before I had been simulating with such-self-congratulation.
Poor Ellenore, Adolphe is determined to have her and so he resorts to the ultimate threat. Ellenore is moved, gives in, and so the affair begins. It’s a relationship that’s doomed from the start, and the road towards that finality begins with a bump or two but then becomes tortured, troubled and loaded with self deceit. There are times when Adolphe deceives himself (not the reader) and there are times when he’s blisteringly honest. It becomes all too easy to see that one person is the root of all your problems. One person is holding you back from the brilliant career you know awaits you.
Nearly always , so as to live at peace with ourselves, we disguise our own impotence and weakness as calculation and policy; it is our way of placating that half of our being which is in a sense a spectator of the other.
This wonderful novella explores the crucial issues of any relationship: where exactly the ME and the US begins and ends and how novelty adds glitter to an affair while routine and obligation bury the thrill.
And yet the affairs of ordinary life cannot be forced to fit in with all our desires. It was sometimes awkward to have my every step marked out for me in advance and all my moments counted. I was obliged to hurry through everything I did and break with most of my acquaintances. I did not know what to say to my friends when they invited me to take part in some social activity in normal circumstances I should have had no reason for declining. When I was with Ellenore I did not hanker after these pleasures of social life which had never appealed to me very strongly, but I would have liked her to leave me freer to give them up of my own accord. It would have been pleasanter to go back to her of my own free will, without telling myself that time was up and she was anxiously waiting, and without the thought of my happiness at rejoining her being mingled with that of her displeasure. Ellenore was a great joy in my life, of course, but she was no longer an objective, she had become a tie.
For its focus on a turbulent dying relationship Adolphe reminded me of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Une Vieille Maîtresse.