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.

31 thoughts on “Balzac: The Deserted Woman – La Femme abandonnée (1832)

  1. I haven’t read this one yet. I’ve read Old Goriot, but since I started to get serious about Balzac, I’ve been taking the chronological approach–which isn’t how it’s supposed to be done. This made me think of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education.

    I’ll be watching Bel Ami this weekend

    • I felt I should have read this right after Le Père Goriot. I don’t read hi in any partcular order but sometimes in pairs. I haven’t read L’éducation sentimentale but bought it not too long ago.
      I have a feeling Bel-Ami might be a disappointment. Let me know.

          • Caroline: I really liked Bel-Ami. I’d say it’s an interpretation–esp as far as the character of Georges is concerned. I think the film is kinder to the character–yes he still does the bad things he did in the novel, but his major character flaws (he’s vain, shallow, self-centered) are not clearly drawn. There’s even a modicum of understanding for why he does what he does, and this is done through the repetitive scene of him sitting in the attic looking at a bit of bread and a few last coins.

              • If the French had made this, I think it would have been a more subtle production. I was curious about the casting of the main character, but then Georges was reworked for this version, and I think, overall, the film succeeded.

                  • A mini series would have much better potential, I think. With a film, the time is limited. The vanity of the character was distilled to him glancing twice in a mirror, and that could be interpreted innocently. Then the scene with the duel wasn’t there and that was one of the best in the book IMO. But complaints aside, I liked it.

  2. The plot here sounds especially good. One would expect a cliche where the man who has idealized the women would meet her and have his ideals dashed in some way. It sounds like Balzac took the atypical road here.

    Your commentary Caroline, along with Guy’s, has convinced me that it is high time that I get to Balzac.

    • I really liked it. And only wish I would have read it earlier. Old Goriot isn’t too long and if you like it, it’s really ne of those books which opens a door to the whole Balzac world as so many of the returning people are in it and it’s a great story too. I hope you get to read him soon.

  3. I haven’t read this one but you sure make me want to read it. (Is there an English equivalent of donner envie ?)
    On my way to download it.
    I want to read Mme de Mauves too.

  4. Oh Balzac! I haven’t read him in such a long time. You make me want to run and pick one of his novels up. I think La peau de chagrin is still my overall favourite, but I don’t think I’ve ever disliked any book I’ve read by him.

    • That’s one I still got to look forward too. I agree, he doesn’t disappoint often. I think La Fille aux Yeux d’or was the only one I really didn’t like.

  5. Very insteresting, I would love to see this in a movie. You know I don’t read romance/love story 😉

    I do, however, like the story of that man. Falling in love with someone he had never seen. And the life of that countess is really sad.

    Talking about falling in love with stars…have you ever heard the story of women who commited suicide just because Jackie Chan got married?
    You know how much I love Cillian Murphy, but it’s always a different kind of love…I don’t know what those women are thinking!!

  6. Now you’ve piqued my curiosity and make me want to read the story. Since I’ve only read the one novella, The Vendetta, I need to pick up Pere Goriot I see. He reminds me of Anthony Trollope–he wrote so much it’s hard to know just where to start with his work!

    • That’s true, although I haven’t read Trollope, they both have a vast body of work of interlinked stories. Père Goriot isn’t too long (hardly any of Balzac’s novels is very long, that’s a difference to Trollope). I think it’s an excellent starting point.

  7. Nice review, Caroline! I haven’t read any of Balzac’s books, but I think I have a short story collection by him. I will see whether this story is there in that collection. I remember once browsing through Somerset Maugham’s ‘Ten Novels and their Authors’ – it is a book of literary criticism / long book reviews, where Maugham had written about what he thought were the greatest books of alltime. ‘Old Goriot’ was there on that list and I have wanted to read it ever since. I also have ‘The Princesse de Clèves’ and ‘Chéri’ on my ‘to read’ list. There is a lot of French literature to catch up 🙂

    • Thanks, Vishy. They are all wonderful but you should try Balzac some day, you would like him. I think generally his novels are better than his short stories or novellas but there are exceptions, this is one of them.

  8. Pingback: La Bourse by Honoré de Balzac « Pleasure of Reading

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