Out of the more than ninety novels that make up the so-called Human Comedy of Honoré de Balzac, only a handful are still widely read or assigned in schools, at least in the Anglo-American world: Père Goriot, Eugénie Grandet, Lost Illusions, perhaps Cousin Bette, the late novel from which I first learned to read French by dutifully looking up every other word. Yet Balzac was arguably the creator of the modern social novel, “the first and foremost member of his craft” and “the master of us all,” according to Henry James, who wrote about him again and again. His influence was pivotal for writers as varied as James, Flaubert, Zola, Dostoyevsky, and Dreiser, all of whom imitated yet rebelled against him. To his successors he was a rough-hewn genius with an immense appetite for life. “What a man he would have been had he known how to write,” said Flaubert. “But that was the only thing he lacked. After all, an artist would never have accomplished so much nor had such breadth.” They were awed by the scope and sheer abundance of his work, as well as his mastery of scenic detail. So were many social historians and radical writers, beginning with Marx and Engels. Marx lauded his “profound grasp of real conditions,” despite his self-proclaimed Catholic and monarchist views, while Engels felt he had written almost a complete history of French society from 1816 to 1848, novels from which Engels said he’d learned more than from any economist. For twentieth-century critics like Georg Lukács and Erich Auerbach, his work, with its intricate linkage between characters and their milieu, formed the very template of literary realism.
Balzac did not at first set out to write a portrait of his age. Always fluent and prolific, in the 1820s he churned out pulp and Gothic novels under pseudonyms before trying his hand as a printer and businessman. But inspired in part by the historical novels of Walter Scott, he became what he called the “secretary” of French society, the observer who cataloged its complex formations. In his 1842 preface to La Comédie humaine, the ambitious framework he now conceived for his work, he said he wanted to write “the history which so many historians have neglected, that of Moeurs [manners, morals].” On the model of a zoologist classifying animal life, he had become, as he saw it, a “painter of types of humanity, a narrator of the drama of private life, an archaeologist of social furniture, a cataloger of professions, a registrar of good and evil.” On this huge, multi-paneled canvas, which ultimately would include more than two thousand characters, many of them reappearing in book after book, he had hoped to “detect the hidden sense of this vast assembly of figures, passions, and incidents.”
While complete sets of Balzac’s work in English translation were once common, few contemporary readers have sought out many of his lesser-known books. Graham Robb concludes his prodigious 1994 biography of Balzac with the terse suggestion that “unknown masterpieces are waiting to be rediscovered.” The Memoirs of Two Young Wives, first published in 1842, is not exactly a masterpiece, but it’s a singular work, one of Balzac’s Scenes of Private Life, full of arresting detail yet cutting against the grain of his received image as a social realist. James himself wrote a long preface to a 1902 translation, but the novel soon dropped without a trace from the English-speaking world. It’s a gem of a book, occasionally florid and schematic yet engrossing, and this new translation by Jordan Stump makes for precisely the kind of rediscovery that Robb invited.
It’s not hard to see why the book has attracted little notice even in its own time. A novel like Père Goriot is a symphonic work with settings ranging from a faded pension to the great houses of Paris, with a broad spectrum of characters from naive to diabolical, a stark family drama with echoes of King Lear, and at its heart a coming-of-age story that exposes the whole fabric of a vicious, amoral society. The Memoirs of Two Young Wives, with only two main characters, is a small-scale chamber work, one of the last French epistolary novels, a mode that belongs more to the previous century than to the 1840s. It too is a coming-of-age story, but instead of the young man from the provinces who trades his innocence for vaulting ambition and lays siege to French society, it’s made up of the letters exchanged between two young women who leave a Carmelite convent before taking their vows, confronting the limited choices available to them in the wider world. Both spring from the minor aristocracy, their convent life the consequence of their social position, not any religious vocation. Despite the rights granted to women under Napoleon’s more egalitarian civil code, still in force after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, their inheritances were to be diverted to foster the fortunes of their brothers, the eldest sons who would carry the family title. In the convent they have developed a deep bond, a “secret inner life” that would be played out in their letters. At one level the novel would be a bold exploration of female friendship, surprising from so masculine a writer as Balzac, the titanic figure we know from Rodin’s sculpted image. The letters make up a rich tapestry of private life and feeling for women barred from playing any public role. They tell a story of the opposite paths the two of them take in love and marriage, mapping more intimate ground than the social novels for which Balzac has been most appreciated.
That intimacy, with its direct access to the inner life behind the social mask, is a hallmark of the epistolary novels on which Balzac modeled this work, especially Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747–1748), the longest English novel, perhaps the first psychological novel, and its French offshoot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), two celebrated works centered on women, both of them among Balzac’s most cherished books. Falling in love with her tutor, an exiled, impoverished Spanish nobleman, one of Balzac’s protagonists, Louise, like Rousseau’s Julie, actually reenacts some of the medieval Heloise story, her forbidden romance with the philosopher and rising churchman Peter Abelard. Meanwhile, her bosom friend Renée quickly makes a marriage of convenience to the frail son of Provençal gentry, twenty years her elder. Both women embark on discreet missions of redemption, lending their strength to the damaged men they marry. The Spaniard Felipe, heir to a dukedom but deemed an enemy by Spain’s Bourbon king, has ceded to a younger brother both his title and the woman he loved. Repeatedly described as physically ugly, “an old young man,” he can’t imagine attracting another woman until he falls for the witty, vivacious, and passionate Louise. Renée’s husband Louis is even more needy, for he’s returned a broken man from Russian captivity in Napoleon’s wars. With support from her friend Louise, she deftly manages both his family life and his advancement to a title and a parliamentary position.
All this backstory is sketched in only briefly since the men in the book are dim figures, rarely heard from directly, seen almost entirely through the lens of the confiding women. Socially, these women take care to recede into the shadows, especially Renée, who is eager to maintain the appearance of a proper wife and mother. But the letters, free of any third-person narration, highlight their inner strength, their depth of feeling, and their starkly conflicting views of love and marriage. Louise is very much the romantic heroine, determined to live out a grand passion with the men she loves. Felipe himself is a figure out of romance, not only a Spaniard, hence broodingly grave and hot-blooded, but “the last Abencerrage,” descended from the fiery Moors who conquered parts of Spain from North Africa until they were expelled or Christianized toward the end of the fifteenth century. (Their legend had only recently been popularized on the stage and in an 1826 tale by Chateaubriand.) Louise’s second great love, even more intense and possessive, involves another romantic figure, barely realized, a stereotypical poet. With him she leaves Paris for a bucolic love nest, not far from the city, that excludes society altogether.
Renée, on the other hand, in her own deep provincial life, blends in effortlessly with both nature and society. Pragmatically, she accepts marriage to a man she does not love, a marriage of companionship, social ambition, and common interest. “My life may never be great, but it will be tranquil, smooth, and untroubled,” or so she imagines. She takes care to create a beautiful landscape, directs her passion toward motherhood and her busy mind to advancing her weakened husband’s position. When children do come, Balzac’s physical evocation of pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and childcare make up some of the most astonishing pages in the book, written completely from a woman’s point of view. (Balzac saw himself as an androgynous figure with a “woman’s heart.”) Renée lives in her body, in her maternal feeling, while leading from behind. Her approach to marriage is thoroughly rational—though far too “calculating,” in the view of her friend—but her tormenting anxieties about the children, especially when one of them falls ill, parallel the anxiety Louise has about her lovers. The pangs of jealousy threaten Louise’s romantic dream and drive her to a theatrical, almost operatic denouement anticipated from the very first page of the novel.
By the end it has long been clear that the book is less about two women and their stories than a trenchant dialogue about love and marriage by a writer who never hesitated to weave direct commentary and social argument into his story, contrasting these women not by their style or their voices, as Rousseau himself urged (and as a modern writer surely would), but by their clashing ideas. This makes The Memoirs of Two Young Wives as much a dialectical as an epistolary novel, built on the contrasts and binaries embodied in the two women’s unfolding lives, for all their nourishing friendship. Louise first emerges as a “blithe and worldly girl” in glittering society, witty and sardonic, something of a Jane Austen heroine. As they privately chronicle their hopes and experiences to each other, they highlight the differences between the city and the country, Paris and the provinces, society and domesticity. Once Renée settles quickly on marriage while Louise falls in love with her exiled tutor, their letters turn into a clash between imagination and reason, headlong passion and sober calculation. As Renée invests all in creating a family, Louise pursues an ideal vision of romance, an insufficient word for the kind of “boundless” transcendence she seeks in love. Her marriage is a conflagration, burningly sexual but also beyond the sexual. She longs for a completely transfiguring intimacy of souls, something that would suffer no aging or abatement, no descent into the routine or the familiar, no intrusion from workaday social relations or child-rearing. Hers is a version of the cult of romantic love, the Tristan myth explored by Denis de Rougemont in Love in the Western World, a consummation beyond the body that can only be ratified by death, seen as a final perfection, beyond loss or change.
Renée, on the other hand, has “embraced Devotion as a shipwrecked sailor desperately clings to the mast.” To her Louise has been “depraving the institution of marriage,” living out the “voluptuous excesses that the law unwittingly allows,” trying “to be both the wife and the mistress.” She warns her friend that “an immense, boundless happiness will destroy you in the end.” For Renée, such “devouring” passion—or passion in general—must inevitably decline; permanence in marriage rests instead on a “deep, serene mutual familiarity.” She briskly chooses duty over desire, the bond of friendship, companionship over heedless love, yet her call to “devotion” exposes an underlying desperation. One fascinating feature of the book is the reversals that occur as these two women—by now less women than counters in a philosophical debate—live each other’s lives vicariously: Louise, otherwise content, cries out in the end for never having had children while Renée unexpectedly laments having missed out on love, being reduced to routine. This is only one of the many doubling effects that gives the novel a classical sense of symmetry.
Baudelaire, in some startlingly incisive remarks about Balzac’s work not long after his death, pointed to another feature of this duality. “It often surprises me that Balzac’s greatest claim to fame is to pass as an observer; it always seemed to me that his principal merit lay in being a visionary, a passionate visionary. All of his characters are endowed with that life force by which he himself was animated. All of his tales are as vibrantly colorful as dreams.” This is why his characters, like those of Dickens, seem so exaggerated, not simply specimens of social types but, as Baudelaire says, the palpable result of Balzac’s own visionary intensity. All of them are “more fiercely alive, more active and cunning in their struggles, more patient in their misfortunes, more gluttonous in their pleasures, more angelic in their devotions, than any real-world comedy might reveal to us…. Every soul is a weapon loaded to the muzzle with willpower. Indeed, this is Balzac himself.” James, in his introduction, made a similar point about Balzac the historian or reporter and Balzac the “originator,” with “his unequalled power of putting people on their feet, planting them before us in their habit as they lived,” but doing so “with the inner vision all the while wide-awake.” By the “secret of an insistence,” says James in his inimitable late style, Balzac “warms his facts into life.” Both Baudelaire and James see Balzac’s apparent flaws, his heated exaggerations, as secret strengths.
It is not hard to take the argument at the heart of The Memoirs of Two Young Wives as a representation of these two sides of Balzac’s creative mind, as dramatized in the friction between Louise the visionary, drawn to peak experience, uncompromising and intense in her demands upon life, and Renée the realist, strictly practical, with her iron sense of limits. Together, these two qualities were the source of what commentators have sharply noted: Balzac’s visceral presence in his work. As one of his best biographers, V.S. Pritchett, put it, “Balzac is always felt as a sanguine presence in his writing, breathless with knowledge, fantasy, and things seen.” Describing his “ubiquity” as a novelist, he adds, “There is a spry, pungent, and pervasive sense that in any scene he was there, and in the flesh.” In the range of his empathy, in the busily peopled world he creates, with characters recurring like real people from book to book, Balzac can be compared not only to Dickens but to Shakespeare. Even as spare a novel as The Memoirs of Two Young Wives, with its weighty themes but limited cast, helps explain just how he did it, for its inner drama could well be a reflection of his own divided self.
Morris Dickstein’s introduction to Honoré de Balzac’s The Memoirs of Two Young Wives is published by New York Review Books.