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a daughter of eve

27 january 2020

"A Daughter of Eve," in Balzac's novella, is Marie de Vandenesse, wife of a nobleman who, unusually for Balzac, is a truly nice guy. Marie's sister, confusingly also named Marie, is the wife of a cruel, conspiratorial banker. But the latter Marie isn't the one with immediate problems. Marie de Vandenesse is the desperate one. She has fallen head over heels in love with the mercurial writer Raoul Nathan, and as the story opens, she needs umpteen thousand francs if she is to preserve her crush from debtor's prison.

The "two Maries," as Balzac relates in a copious backstory, were raised in a state of improbable virginal innocence by their high-, and narrow-, minded mother. Any husband they'd attract would acquire them mainly for the satisfaction of taking them out of their shrink-wrapping. But such repression has its unintended consequences. When Marie de Vandenesse meets Nathan, she falls hard. And, being innocent herself, she falls blindly: she doesn't tip to the fact that Nathan, a typical man of the theater, lives with his mistress Florine in a series of apartments that the couple keeps abandoning one step ahead of the duns looking to repossess their furniture.

Not that Nathan is without his scruples. He walks with Marie in the Bois de Boulogne, scandalously enough, but as our story opens, he has taken no liberties greater than one furtive kiss. It's a play romance, but they're playing with fire. Nathan, his friends Blondet and Rastignac, Marie's brother-in-law de Tillet (the evil banker), and many another Paris mover and shaker, are engaged in an impenetrable web of intrigues that threaten Nathan's reputation and solvency. Nathan embarks on publishing a daily political paper, and soon runs up the debt that is our initial problem in the story. Along the theme of unintended consequences, Tillet has maneuvered Nathan into great debt, but now risks having his own wife help her sister pay off the debts – with Tillet's own money.

Frankly, at one point the fiscal intrigue became too murky for me to follow, but of course detailed understanding of the shenanigans isn't vital to the plot. Balzac is more interested in how his sharply-drawn characters will struggle when they're thrown into the web.

And he is most interested in Raoul Nathan. A virtual epigram machine, impulsive, quixotic, with an eye to living out the piquant situations he devises for the stage, Raoul is surprisingly likable, for an idiot. If he's often clueless in his relationship with Marie, he's never interested in her for ulterior motives. He's not after her money or her political connections, and he's not even drawn to her by the vanity of conquest. Raoul seems honestly to desire Marie for her own person – which is of course why she falls in love with him.

Of course, Nathan has his flaws; among them, as Balzac depicts him, is that he is a lousy writer.

He is the best man for a flying shot at the ideas which swoop down on Paris, or which Paris starts. His teeming brain is not his own, it belongs to the period. He lives upon the event of the day, and, in order to get all he can from it, exaggerates its bearing. (322)
Balzac is a better writer than his own Nathan, but one can't help reading that character sketch as indicating Balzac's own anxieties. His work, like his creation's, can be extremely topical, and is often melodramatically wrought. Can detailed, realistic fiction endure? Balzac's is still ticking, almost 200 years later, but may demand from its readers at least a tolerance for, if not curiosity about, the arcana of everyday life in a bygone hothouse world.

Balzac, Honoré de. A Daughter of Eve. In At the Sign of the Cat and Racket. New York: Peter Fenelon Collier, 1900. 285-414.