Balzac: The Deserted Woman – La Femme abandonnée (1832)

When I read Le Père Goriot Old Goriot years ago I was fascinated by the tragic story of Mme de Beauséant. I knew Balzac had dedicated a novella to her which is included in the Scenes from Private Life. After reading one of Guy’s recent Balzac reviews, I decided it was about time to finally read the story. For those who read French you can find the story of The Deserted Woman or La Femme abandonnée in  Les Secrets de la Princess de Cadigan et autres études de femmes.

Gaston de Nueil, a young noble man, leaves Paris for Bayeux, a provincial city located in the Basse-Normandie region. His health is rather poor and he has to stay away from the capital until he recovers. Used to more interesting society than the one he finds in Bayeux, he is soon terribly bored and his imagination is set on fire by the story of the countess de Beauséant who lives like a recluse in her château in the Normandy. She is said to be a young woman of great beauty and even greater esprit who fled to Bayeux after having been abandoned by her former lover, the marquis d’Ajouda-Pinto. The separation was devastating and as she is trapped in a loveless marriage which cannot be divorced, the only way to keep at least some of her self-esteem was to withdraw from the world and dedicate her days to reading and praying.

Young, bored and curious about love, de Nueil falls in love with the unhappy countess before he has even set eyes on her. He walks in her gardens in the night, tries to catch a glimpse of her and is finally so love-sick that he decides to use a ruse in order to get access to her house.

When he finally stands before the woman he fell in love with because of her story and her reputation, he finds her even more beautiful and tragic than he expected.

The countess is 30 years old by now, while de Nueil is barely 23. She is trapped in a void, a loveless life, no contact to society, no future joy in sight. It’s not surprising that de Nueil’s infatuation moves her and finally leads her to accept him as her lover.

Writing more would spoil the story which is one of the best of Balzac’s short stories. You can read it on its own but when you are familiar with the Comédie Humaine you will like it even more. The countess is a key figure in Old Goriot and therefore important for the whole oeuvre. The story as such reminded me of many others. It bears some resemblance with Mme de Lafayette’s The Princesse de Clèves. The countess sounds just like the princesse when she first meets de Nueil. I was also reminded of  Henry James’ Mme de Mauves but most of all it reminded me of Colette’s Chéri. The end however is entirely different from all of these.

I like it when the title has a special significance, is complex and multi-layered. The title of this story seems simple but is excellent. To fully appreciate it, you will have to read the story.

As excellent as this story is, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is not familiar with Balzac. I would still recommend Old Goriot as the best starting point. Paired with this novella, it would be an amazingly great introduction to Balzac’s work and convey a good feeling for the diversity of his talent. The Deserted Woman also contains all of the themes which are important in Balzac’s work such as the mechanics of society, the role of women, marriage, adultery, money and some sub-themes like the “inheritance”, the “fallen woman”, the “aging woman” etc.

I liked the story a great deal. I thought the way Balzac described how de Nueil falls in love is perceptive and uncanny at the same time. Falling in love of an idea, or ideal, may unfortunately very often be the reason for falling in love. I haven’t seen it described as eloquently very often. I think this part of the story applies to all sorts of idealisations; people falling in love with stars or other people they hardly know like people in chat rooms, internet forums or blogs.

If you’d like to read the novella in English and are interested in an overview of Balzac’s work and how it is grouped here is an excellent link The Human Comedy – La comédie humaine.