Balzac is a writer of remarkable power, even in translation. The Duchess of Langeais is one of his love stories in the Comedie Humaine, and it’s a love story of the greatest intensity—only without consummation. That, indeed, is probably the source of the intensity.
Despite being published in 1834, the book felt almost like the screenplay for a film—and I was not surprised to discover that it has been filmed seven times, first in 1910. There has, however, been no English film, probably because the intensity might seem impossible to the English.
The book begins with General Armand de Montriveau completing his search for his Parisian lover, the Duchess, Antoinette. He has searched every convent and finally arrives at one on a Spanish island set high on a vertical cliff. It’s a Carmelite convent, no men can be admitted wthout the greatest difficulty. He can tell from the passion in the music played by a nun behind the screens in the church where the people can go that it is Antoinette.
“Religion, love, and music—what are they but a threefold expression of the same fact, of that craving for expansion which stirs in every noble soul.”
He manages to arrange a visit, but it is cut short when Anoinette confesses to the Abbess that Armand was her lover. Armand knows, however, that she still loves him and determines to return and capture her.
Balzac then takes us back to the beginning with a long section on the shallowness of the Faubourg St Germain. After the headiness of the Revolution and Napoleon’s reign all has become artificial. Armand, we learn, fought with Napoleon and is a fearless adventurer, having walked across the desert for weeks on end and spent years in Africa. But he has never been in love.
Nor has the Duchess, although she has played at love a hundred times. She’s attracted to the boldness of Armand and determines to trap him, as she has done many men—only to discard them. Her husband married her for money and position, as aristocrats did (and still do), and cares not what she does, so long as she doesn’t cause a scandal. She succeeds in trapping Armand, who not understanding the ways of the Faubourg falls deeply in love with her. He courts her daily. She coquettes him, allowing him sometimes to come close and kiss her forehead—but no more. Her religion and her marriage stop her, she tells him, from going further. Armand’s frenzy grows.
Eventually a “friend,” one who knows the ways of the Faubourg, says Armand must seize her, turn the tables. Armand indicates to Antoinette that he might do this by talking about the axe that was used to behead Charles I. Nobody can touch it or they too will lose their head. “Madame,” he says, “you have touched the axe.”
He abducts her during a ball, accuses her of coquetting him and committing a crime. He succeeds in turning the tables in that she will now do anything for him; she loves him. He releases her.
Thereafter she pursues him, writing him passionate letters. He doesn’t respond. She can’t find him. She even orders her carriage to wait outside his home for the whole day, creating a great scandal that is around Paris in hours. Her elderly relatives, all steeped in the ways of the Faubourg, try to sort things out for her, but all she wants is her lover. She cares for nothing else. She sends a letter to Armand, saying visit her within three hours or she will disappear forever.
He has always intended to go to her after teaching her a lesson, but he gets the timing wrong. He arrives 15 minutes late, and she is gone. He spends the next five years searching for her.
Once he has found her and known that she still loves him, he plans to take her back. It’s the boldest of plans, with friends he hires a boat, sails to the bottom of the cliffs, and at night over some three weeks builds steps up the impossibly steep cliff. There’s just one small crack, it’s enough.
At last in the middle of the night they scale the cliff, break into the convent (which has no bars on the cliff side), and find her room. There she lies—pale, wasted, beautiful, and dead. They carry off her body.
As you can see, this is a ripping, romantic, gothic, filmic yarn. There is perhaps the simple moral of “do not hold back when true love arrives,” but more it’s a criticism of the Faubourg St Germain—and most of all a griping story for all who have loved or aspire to love (all of us).
There are great quotes:
There are no small events for the heart; the heart exaggerates everything; the heart weights the fall of a fourteen-year-old Empire and the dropping of a woman’s glove in the same scales, and the glove is nearly always the heavier of the two.
Equality may be right, but no power on earth can convert it into a fact.
The Frenchman is less given than anyone else to undervalue himself.
As in the last days of the Byzantine Empire, everyone wished to be emperor. They mistook their uniform weakness for uniform strength.
In France a tardy success is no better than fiasco.
Literature, that living expression of a time.
Imprudent to the verge of poetry.
No beauty, however undoubted, no face, however fair, is anything without admiration. Flattery and a lover are proofs of power.
Women know how to say everything among themselves, and more of them are ruined by each other than corrupted by men.
Love and passion are two different conditions, which poets and men of the world, philosophers and fools, alike continually confound. Love implies a give and take, a certainty of bliss that nothing can change; it means so close a clinging of the heart, and an exchange of happiness so constant, that there is no rom left for jealousy. The possession is a means and not an end; unfaithfulness may give pain, but the bond is not less close; the soul is neither more nor less ardent or troubled, but happy at every moment; in short the divine breath of desire spread from end to end of the immensity of Time steps it all for us in the selfsame hue; like takes the hue of the untainted heaven. But Passion is the foreshadowing of love, and of that Infinite to which all suffering soul aspire. Passion is a hope that may be cheated. Passion means both suffering and transition. Passion dies out when hope is dead. Men and women may pass through this experience many times without dishonour, for it is natural to spring towards happiness; but there is only one love in a lifetime. All discussions of sentiment conducted on paper or by word of mouth may therefore be resumed by two questions—“Is it passion? Is it love?”
She grew thinner and paler and more dejected every day. The vague ardour of love, the smart of wounded pride, the continual prick of the only scorn that could touch her, the yearning towards joys that she craved with a avid continual longing—all these things told on her, mind and body; all the forces of her nature were stimulated to no purpose.
When a woman is in love she becomes an artless simpleton.
No man is worth a single one of the sacrifices which we women are foolish enough to make for their love.
Perhaps it is the highest height to which we can rise—to give all and receive no joy; perhaps there is no merit in yielding oneself to bliss that is foreseen and ardently desired.
Is there not a beauty of suffering which is the most interesting of all beauty to those men who feel that within them there is an inexhaustible wealth of tenderness and consoling pity for a creature so gracious in weakness, so strong with love?