Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Balzac, "Autre Étude de femme" (1842)

While there is no explicit connection between this story and Balzac’s (1830) "Étude de femme”, several common issues strike me.

First, the setting is in the dazzling high society of the most fashionable and titled Parisians. I must say that Balzac is at his most original when discussing the commercial classes, provincials, the artists, and the down-and-out, areas he doubtless more familiar with. I have a feeling that the glamour of the Duke of this and the Princess of that is a little too tinselly at times. Rastignac in the boarding-house and on the way up, for example, is far more interesting than the established Rastignac.

Second, the narrative approaches of the two stories are related. In “Étude de femme”, the narrator is Doctor Horace Bianchon, that raisonneur figure who moves lightly from high society to the poorhouse, an observer and scientist.. In "Autre Étude de femme", the narrator is also clearly Bianchon. (Furthermore, this work takes one of Balzac favorite narrative forms, a conversation after dinner (like “Une Conversation entre onze heures et minuit” and La Maison Nucingen). Several stories (both about unfaithful women punished) and a discourse follow, the story tellers and hearers are familiar names from the Comédie humaine. (de Marsay, Montriveau, Blondet, d’Arthez, Nucingen among others.)

The discourse is on the subject of society women, particular the definition of the term “une femme comme il faut”, the very specific society lady that Balzac is obsessed with. The pretext is that several foreigners at the dinner don’t quite understand the term. The days of the grande dame are finished, according to journalist/politician Émile Blondet., the days when a woman with the right family and fortune could do what she wanted. What has taken her place is the much more constrained “femme comme il faut”, a woman admitted to the best society, a woman of the greatest taste and grace, but one whose life is severely hemmed in.

The woman “comme il faut” may be of noble birth, but this is not a requirement. However, unlike a grande dame of the old aristocracy, she is held to the strictest standard of beauty and fashion.
vous voyez la figure fraîche et reposée d’une femme sûre d’elle-même sans fatuité, qui ne regarde rien et voit tout, dont la vanité blasée par une continuelle satisfaction répand sur sa physionomie une indifférence qui pique la curiosité.

you see the fresh and rested face of a woman sure of herself without conceit, who does not looks and yet sees all, whose vanity, jaded by a continual satisfaction, renders an intriguing look of indifference to her face.
For every aspect of her life, where she goes, what plays she attends, what clothes she wears, who she marries, who she visits with, this woman must obey a code – no less than for what lover she takes and the course of the affair. This code creates the fine borderline between the scandalous and the fashionably daring, a borderline repeatedly exploited by her lovers.

Little of this, it is made clear, is intended for the pleasure of the woman in question. The victor is always the ruthless young man (and de Marsay’s after dinner tale about the punishment of his unfaithful first mistress illustrates this), The code of the woman “comme il faut", it is made clear clear, is as prescribed as is that of an English “gentleman”. For the young French men, provided they have money, no such narrow code exists.

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