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30.12.15

À mon chevet: 'The Lily of the Valley'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
Alas! alas! was this the end of the keenest love that ever entered the heart of man? To the eyes of strangers my conduct might be reprehensible, but it had the sanction of my own conscience. It is thus that the noblest feelings, the sublimest dramas of our youth must end. We start at dawn, as I from Tours to Clochegourde, we clutch the world, our hearts hungry for love; then, when our treasure is in the crucible, when we mingle with men and circumstances, all becomes gradually debased and we find but little gold among the ashes. Such is life! life as it is; great pretensions, small realities. I meditated long about myself, debating what I could do after a blow like this which had mown down every flower of my soul. I resolved to rush into the science of politics, into the labyrinth of ambition, to cast woman from my life and to make myself a statesman, cold and passionless, and so remain true to the saint I loved. My thoughts wandered into far-off regions while my eyes were fastened on the splendid tapestry of the yellowing oaks, the stern summits, the bronzed foothills. I asked myself if Henriette's virtue were not, after all, that of ignorance, and if I were indeed guilty of her death. I fought against remorse. At last, in the sweetness of an autumn midday, one of those last smiles of heaven which are so beautiful in Touraine, I read the letter which at her request I was not to open before her death. Judge of my feelings as I read it.

Madame de Mortsauf to the Vicomte Félix de Vandenesse:

"Félix, friend, loved too well, I must now lay bare my heart to you,--not so much to prove my love as to show you the weight of obligation you have incurred by the depth and gravity of the wounds you have inflicted on it. At this moment, when I sink exhausted by the toils of life, worn out by the shocks of its battle, the woman within me is, mercifully, dead; the mother alone survives. Dear, you are now to see how it was that you were the original cause of all my sufferings. Later, I willingly received your blows; to-day I am dying of the final wound your hand has given,--but there is joy, excessive joy in feeling myself destroyed by him I love."

-- Honoré de Balzac, Le lys dans la vallée (trans. Katharine Prescott Wormeley)
After this novel, which I have just finished, the "Scènes de la vie de province" portion of Balzac's La Comédie Humaine has only the Illusions perdues sequence left for me to read. In this novel Félix de Vandenesse, whom we have already encountered in Une fille d'Ève, recounts the story of his youth and first love. In this character's background, Balzac drew most heavily on his own early life: Félix, like Balzac, is from Tours, and he suffers as a child from the coldness of his parents, who show him no affection, trundle him off to cruelty-filled schools without adequate funds, and leave him entirely to his own devices. Also like Balzac, he tumbles into his first love affair with an older married woman, the Comtesse de Mortsauf, who like Balzac's first and greatest love, Laure de Berny, loves Félix in a way that is both passionate and maternal. The descriptions of the valley, one of many by Balzac of his beloved native Touraine, are remarkably beautiful.

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