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À mon chevet: 'La Muse du département'

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

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There was in their lives a first phase, lasting six years, during which Dinah, alas! became utterly provincial. In Paris there are several kinds of women: the duchess and the financier's wife, the ambassadress and the consul's wife, the wife of the minister who is a minister, and of him who is no longer a minister; then there is the lady--quite the lady--of the right bank of the Seine and of the left. But in the country there is but one kind of woman, and she, poor thing, is the provincial woman.

This remark points to one of the sores of modern society. It must be clearly understood: France in the nineteenth century is divided into two broad zones--Paris, and the provinces. The provinces jealous of Paris; Paris never thinking of the provinces but to demand money. Of old, Paris was the Capital of the provinces, and the court ruled the Capital; now, all Paris is the Court, and all the country is the town.

However lofty, beautiful, and clever a girl born in any department of France may be on entering life, if, like Dinah Piedefer, she marries in the country and remains there, she inevitably becomes the provincial woman. In spite of every determination, the commonplace of second-rate ideas, indifference to dress, the culture of vulgar people, swamp the sublimer essence hidden in the youthful plant; all is over, it falls into decay. How should it be otherwise? From their earliest years girls bred in the country see none but provincials; they cannot imagine anything superior, their choice lies among mediocrities; provincial fathers marry their daughters to provincial sons; crossing the races is never thought of, and the brain inevitably degenerates, so that in many country towns intellect is as rare as the breed is hideous. Mankind becomes dwarfed in mind and body, for the fatal principle of conformity of fortune governs every matrimonial alliance. Men of talent, artists, superior brains--every bird of brilliant plumage flies to Paris. The provincial woman, inferior in herself, is also inferior through her husband. How is she to live happy under this crushing twofold consciousness?

But there is a third and terrible element besides her congenital and conjugal inferiority which contributes to make the figure arid and gloomy; to reduce it, narrow it, distort it fatally. Is not one of the most flattering unctions a woman can lay to her soul the assurance of being something in the existence of a superior man, chosen by herself, wittingly, as if to have some revenge on marriage, wherein her tastes were so little consulted? But if in the country the husbands are inferior beings, the bachelors are no less so. When a provincial wife commits her "little sin," she falls in love with some so-called handsome native, some indigenous dandy, a youth who wears gloves and is supposed to ride well; but she knows at the bottom of her soul that her fancy is in pursuit of the commonplace, more or less well dressed. Dinah was preserved from this danger by the idea impressed upon her of her own superiority. Even if she had not been as carefully guarded in her early married life as she was by her mother, whose presence never weighed upon her till the day when she wanted to be rid of it, her pride, and her high sense of her own destinies, would have protected her. Flattered as she was to find herself surrounded by admirers, she saw no lover among them. No man here realized the poetical ideal which she and Anna Grossetete had been wont to sketch.

-- Honoré de Balzac, La Muse du département (trans. James Waring)
The "Scènes de la vie de province" portion of Balzac's La Comédie Humaine has offered no disappointments yet. The pettiness of provincial life is expressed in the characters' often vicious obsession with inheritance, which keeps poor Pierrette under the thumb of her relatives in Pierrette, ruins the life of a small-town priest in Le Curé de Tours (a short, but especially brilliant portrait of life around the Cathedral of Tours), and fills the early life of the gifted painter Joseph Bridau (a mixture of actual artists Xavier Sigalon and Eugène Delacroix) with misery in La Rabouilleuse.

The portrait of Dinah de La Baudraye (née Piédefer) in The Muse of the Department, including the excerpt shown above, is of an intelligent woman trapped in a bad marriage, whose talent is largely wasted on her surroundings. Balzac's work is so striking because of its brutal honesty, and that quality comes across here in Dinah, thought to be a thinly veiled portrait of Caroline Marbouty, a writer who had an affair with Balzac. During their trip to Italy together, Balzac ordered Marbouty to dress as a boy so she could masquerade as his page. The ruse worked for the most part, but Marbouty was none too happy to see herself portrayed in this novel as a sort of second-rate George Sand (who was herself the inspiration for the writer character Félicité des Touches in Béatrix).

Happy Thanksgiving to all our American readers!

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