An extremely collectible, sweet little book named for and written in honor of Balzac’s mother. Comtesse Honorine de Bauvan was married to the Comte at nineteen. She leaves him and is later abandoned by her lover when she becomes pregnant. She lives simply and earns money by making artificial flowers. What she doesn’t know is that her husband is paying exorbitant prices for her work, thus supporting her while letting her think she is independent of him. The story is perhaps a common one of a wife trapped in a marriage, but is approached in an interesting manner. „Honorine” is an 1843 novel by French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) and included in his series of novels (or „Roman-fleuve”) known as „La Comédie humaine” („The Human Comedy”) which parodies and depicts French society in the period of the Restoration and the July Monarchy (1815-1848).
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If the French have as great an aversion for traveling as the English have a propensity for it, both English and French have perhaps sufficient reasons. Something better than England is everywhere to be found; whereas it is excessively difficult to find the charms of France outside France. Other countries can show admirable scenery, and they frequently offer greater comfort than that of France, which makes but slow progress in that particular. They sometimes display a bewildering magnificence, grandeur, and luxury; they lack neither grace nor noble manners; but the life of the brain, the talent for conversation, the “Attic salt” so familiar at Paris, the prompt apprehension of what one is thinking, but does not say, the spirit of the unspoken, which is half the French language, is nowhere else to be met with. Hence a Frenchman, whose raillery, as it is, finds so little comprehension, would wither in a foreign land like an uprooted tree. Emigration is counter to the instincts of the French nation. Many Frenchmen, of the kind here in question, have owned to pleasure at seeing the custom-house officers of their native land, which may seem the most daring hyperbole of patriotism.
This preamble is intended to recall to such Frenchmen as have traveled the extreme pleasure they have felt on occasionally finding their native land, like an oasis, in the drawing-room of some diplomate: a pleasure hard to be understood by those who have never left the asphalt of the Boulevard des Italiens, and to whom the Quais of the left bank of the Seine are not really Paris. To find Paris again! Do you know what that means, O Parisians? It is to find–not indeed the cookery of the Rocher de Cancale as Borel elaborates it for those who can appreciate it, for that exists only in the Rue Montorgueil–but a meal which reminds you of it! It is to find the wines of France, which out of France are to be regarded as myths, and as rare as the woman of whom I write! It is to find–not the most fashionable pleasantry, for it loses its aroma between Paris and the frontier–but the witty understanding, the critical atmosphere in which the French live, from the poet down to the artisan, from the duchess to the boy in the street.
In 1836, when the Sardinian Court was residing at Genoa, two Parisians, more or less famous, could fancy themselves still in Paris when they found themselves in a palazzo, taken by the French Consul-General, on the hill forming the last fold of the Apennines between the gate of San Tomaso and the well-known lighthouse, which is to be seen in all the keepsake views of Genoa. This palazzo is one of the magnificent villas on which Genoese nobles were wont to spend millions at the time when the aristocratic republic was a power.
If the early night is beautiful anywhere, it surely is at Genoa, after it has rained as it can rain there, in torrents, all the morning; when the clearness of the sea vies with that of the sky; when silence reigns on the quay and in the groves of the villa, and over the marble heads with yawning jaws, from which water mysteriously flows; when the stars are beaming; when the waves of the Mediterranean lap one after another like the avowal of a woman, from whom you drag it word by word. It must be confessed, that the moment when the perfumed air brings fragrance to the lungs and to our day-dreams; when voluptuousness, made visible and ambient as the air, holds you in your easy-chair; when, a spoon in your hand, you sip an ice or a sorbet, the town at your feet and fair woman opposite–such Boccaccio hours can be known only in Italy and on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Imagine to yourself, round the table, the Marquis di Negro, a knight hospitaller to all men of talent on their travels, and the Marquis Damaso Pareto, two Frenchmen disguised as Genoese, a Consul-General with a wife as beautiful as a Madonna, and two silent children–silent because sleep has fallen on them–the French Ambassador and his wife, a secretary to the Embassy who believes himself to be crushed and mischievous; finally, two Parisians, who have come to take leave of the Consul’s wife at a splendid dinner, and you will have the picture presented by the terrace of the villa about the middle of May–a picture in which the predominant figure was that of a celebrated woman, on whom all eyes centered now and again, the heroine of this improvised festival.
One of the two Frenchmen was the famous landscape painter, Leon de Lora; the other a well known critic Claude Vignon. They had both come with this lady, one of the glories of the fair sex, Mademoiselle des Touches, known in the literary world by the name of Camille Maupin.
Mademoiselle des Touches had been to Florence on business. With the charming kindness of which she is prodigal, she had brought with her Leon de Lora to show him Italy, and had gone on as far as Rome that he might see the Campagna. She had come by Simplon, and was returning by the Cornice road to Marseilles. She had stopped at Genoa, again on the landscape painter’s account. The Consul-General had, of course, wished to do the honors of Genoa, before the arrival of the Court, to a woman whose wealth, name, and position recommend her no less than her talents. Camille Maupin, who knew her Genoa down to its smallest chapels, had left her landscape painter to the care of the diplomate and the two Genoese marquises, and was miserly of her minutes. Though the ambassador was a distinguished man of letters, the celebrated lady had refused to yield to his advances, dreading what the English call an exhibition; but she had drawn in the claws of her refusals when it was proposed that they should spend a farewell day at the Consul’s villa. Leon de Lora had told Camille that her presence at the villa was the only return he could make to the Ambassador and his wife, the two Genoese noblemen, the Consul and his wife. So Mademoiselle des Touches had sacrificed one of those days of perfect freedom, which are not always to be had in Paris by those on whom the world has its eye.
Now, the meeting being accounted for, it is easy to understand that etiquette had been banished, as well as a great many women even of the highest rank, who were curious to know whether Camille Maupin’s manly talent impaired her grace as a pretty woman, and to see, in a word, whether the trousers showed below her petticoats. After dinner till nine o’clock, when a collation was served, though the conversation had been gay and grave by turns, and constantly enlivened by Leon de Lora’s sallies–for he is considered the most roguish wit of Paris to-day–and by the good taste which will surprise no one after the list of guests, literature had scarcely been mentioned. However, the butterfly flittings of this French tilting match were certain to come to it, were it only to flutter over this essentially French subject. But before coming to the turn in the conversation which led the Consul-General to speak, it will not be out of place to give some account of him and his family.
This diplomate, a man of four-and-thirty, who had been married about six years, was the living portrait of Lord Byron. The familiarity of that face makes a description of the Consul’s unnecessary. It may, however, be noted that there was no affectation in his dreamy expression. Lord Byron was a poet, and the Consul was poetical; women know and recognize the difference, which explains without justifying some of their attachments. His handsome face, thrown into relief by a delightful nature, had captivated a Genoese heiress. A Genoese heiress! the expression might raise a smile at Genoa, where, in consequence of the inability of daughters to inherit, a woman is rarely rich; but Onorina Pedrotti, the only child of a banker without heirs male, was an exception. Notwithstanding all the flattering advances prompted by a spontaneous passion, the Consul-General had not seemed to wish to marry. Nevertheless, after living in the town for two years, and after certain steps taken by the Ambassador during his visits to the Genoese Court, the marriage was decided on. The young man withdrew his former refusal, less on account of the touching affection of Onorina Pedrotti than by reason of an unknown incident, one of those crises of private life which are so instantly buried under the daily tide of interests that, at a subsequent date, the most natural actions seem inexplicable.
This involution of causes sometimes affects the most serious events of history. This, at any rate, was the opinion of the town of Genoa, where, to some women, the extreme reserve, the melancholy of the French Consul could be explained only by the word passion. It may be remarked, in passing, that women never complain of being the victims of a preference; they are very ready to immolate themselves for the common weal. Onorina Pedrotti, who might have hated the Consul if she had been altogether scorned, loved her sposo no less, and perhaps more, when she know that he had loved. Women allow precedence in love affairs. All is well if other women are in question.
A man is not a diplomate with impunity: the sposo was as secret as the grave–so secret that the merchants of Genoa chose to regard the young Consul’s attitude as premeditated, and the heiress might perhaps have slipped through his fingers if he had not played his part of a love-sick malade imaginaire. If it was real, the women thought it too degrading to be believed.
Pedrotti’s daughter gave him her love as a consolation; she lulled these unknown griefs in a cradle of tenderness and Italian caresses.
Il Signor Pedrotti had indeed no reason to complain of the choice to which he was driven by his beloved child. Powerful protectors in Paris watched over the young diplomate’s fortunes. In accordance with a promise made by the Ambassador to the Consul-General’s father-in-law, the young man was created Baron and Commander of the Legion of Honor. Signor Pedrotti himself was made a Count by the King of Sardinia. Onorina’s dower was a million of francs. As to the fortune of the Casa Pedrotti, estimated at two millions, made in the corn trade, the young couple came into it within six months of their marriage, for the first and last Count Pedrotti died in January 1831.
Onorina Pedrotti is one of those beautiful Genoese women who, when they are beautiful, are the most magnificent creatures in Italy. Michael Angelo took his models in Genoa for the tomb of Giuliano. Hence the fulness and singular placing of the breast in the figures of Day and Night, which so many critics have thought exaggerated, but which is peculiar to the women of Liguria. A Genoese beauty is no longer to be found excepting under the mezzaro, as at Venice it is met with only under the fazzioli. This phenomenon is observed among all fallen nations. The noble type survives only among the populace, as after the burning of a town coins are found hidden in the ashes. And Onorina, an exception as regards her fortune, is no less an exceptional patrician beauty. Recall to mind the figure of Night which Michael Angelo has placed at the feet of the Pensieroso, dress her in modern garb, twist that long hair round the magnificent head, a little dark in complexion, set a spark of fire in those dreamy eyes, throw a scarf about the massive bosom, see the long dress, white, embroidered with flowers, imagine the statue sitting upright, with her arms folded like those of Mademoiselle Georges, and you will see before you the Consul’s wife, with a boy of six, as handsome as a mother’s desire, and a little girl of four on her knees, as beautiful as the type of childhood so laboriously sought out by the sculptor David to grace a tomb.
This beautiful family was the object of Camille’s secret study. It struck Mademoiselle des Touches that the Consul looked rather too absent-minded for a perfectly happy man.
Although, throughout the day, the husband and wife had offered her the pleasing spectacle of complete happiness, Camille wondered why one of the most superior men she had ever met, and whom she had seen too in Paris drawing-rooms, remained as Consul-General at Genoa when he possessed a fortune of a hundred odd thousand francs a year. But, at the same time, she had discerned, by many of the little nothings which women perceive with the intelligence of the Arab sage in Zadig, that the husband was faithfully devoted. These two handsome creatures would no doubt love each other without a misunderstanding till the end of their days. So Camille said to herself alternately, “What is wrong?–Nothing is wrong,” following the misleading symptoms of the Consul’s demeanor; and he, it may be said, had the absolute calmness of Englishmen, of savages, of Orientals, and of consummate diplomatists.
In discussing literature, they spoke of the perennial stock-in-trade of the republic of letters–woman’s sin. And they presently found themselves confronted by two opinions: When a woman sins, is the man or the woman to blame? The three women present–the Ambassadress, the Consul’s wife, and Mademoiselle des Touches, women, of course, of blameless reputations–were without pity for the woman. The men tried to convince these fair flowers of their sex that some virtues might remain in a woman after she had fallen.
“How long are we going to play at hide-and-seek in this way?” said Leon de Lora.
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