‘Madame Firmiani’ is a short story included in Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, classified under the Scènes de la vie privée (’Scenes from private life’) section of the multi volume work. As previously explored, the works appearing in ‘Scenes from private life’, as categorised by Balzac himself address “youth, adolescence, and their faults”.
This story is the fifth I have read from the ‘scenes from private life’ and it is one of the later published works of the five, ‘At the Sign of the Cat and Racket’, ‘The Sceaux Ball’ and ‘The Vendetta’ being published in 1830, this story and ‘The Purse’ in 1832.
Opening in a completely different style to the other stories, novellas, Balzac is addressing you, the reader:
If you are thinking by chance of the dear friends you have lost; if you are alone, and it is night, or the day is dying, read this narrative; otherwise, throw the book aside, here. If you have never buried some kind aunt, an invalid or poor, you will not understand these pages. To some, they will be odorous as of musk; to others, they will be as colourless, as strictly virtuous as those of Florian. In short, the reader must have known the luxury of tears; must have felt the wordless grief of a memory that drifts lightly by, bearing a shade that is dear but remote; he must possess some of those remembrances that make us at the same time regret those whom the earth has swallowed, and smile over vanished joys.
And now the author would have you believe that for all the wealth of England he would not extort from poetry even one of her fictions to add grace to this narrative. This is a true story, on which you may pour out the treasure of your sensibilities, if you have any.
The early part of the story explores the many angles of gossip about Madame Firmiani:
‘Madame Firmiani? Why, my dear boy, she was a mistress of Murat’s.’ This gentleman is a Contradictory. They supply the errata to every memory, rectify every fact, bet you a hundred to one, are cock-sure of everything. You catch them out in a single evening in flagrant delicts of ubiquity. They assert that they were in Paris at the time of Mallet’s conspiracy, forgetting that half an hour before they had crossed the Beresina. The Contradictories are almost all members of the Legion of Honour; they talk very loud, have receding foreheads, and play high.
‘Madame Firmiani, a hundred thousand francs a year? Are you mad? Really some people scatter thousands a year with the liberality of authors, to whom it costs nothing to give their heroines handsome fortunes. But Madame Firmiani is a flirt who ruined a young fellow the other day, and hindered him from making a very good marriage. If she were not handsome, she would be penniless.’
So instead of being a character study, it becomes a study in the rumour mills, gossip. It is impossible to determine the real Madame Firmiani, poor or rich, alluring or ugly, a flirt or chaste, married or single?
From Wikipedia, here’s part of the plot of this short story; Madame Firmiani is a beautiful young woman who is the subject of gossip in Paris. However, her husband’s whereabouts are unknown. One day she receives a visit from Monsieur de Bourbonne, who is concerned about a rumour that his nephew Octave de Camps is having an affair with her, and has ruined himself financially because of her. Monsieur de Bourbonne is charmed by Madame Firmiani, but when he mentions that Octave is his nephew, the conversation is brought to an abrupt end.
In the biography ‘Honoré de Balzac’ by Albert Keim and Louis Lumet (translated by Frederic Taber Cooper) – 1914 – it is mentioned that Madame Firmiani is modelled on his lover Madame Louise Antoinette Laure de Berny. “Balzac borrowed certain traits from her for the noblest heroines in his works; and she served successively as model for Mme. Firmiani, for Mme. de Mortsauf in The Lily in the Valley, and for Pauline in Louis Lambert; and he spoke constantly of her in his correspondence with Mme. de Hanska, yet always with a sort of reverence and passionate gratitude.”
Here his pen is dripping with his love (although he is describing a fictional character):
Have you ever met, for your happiness, some woman whose harmonious tones give to her speech the charm that is no less conspicuous in her manners, who knows how to talk and to be silent, who cares for you with delicate feeling, whose words are happily chosen and her language pure? Her banter flatters you, her criticism does not sting; she neither preaches nor disputes, but is interested in leading a discussion, and stops it at the right moment. Her manner is friendly and gay, her politeness is unforced, her eagerness to please is not servile; she reduces respect to a mere gentle shade; she never tires you, and leaves you satisfied with her and yourself. You will see her gracious presence stamped on the things she collects about her. In her home everything charms the eye, and you breathe, as it seems, you native air. This woman is quite natural. You never feel an effort, she flaunts nothing, her feelings are expressed with simplicity because they are genuine. Though candid, she never wounds the most sensitive pride; she accepts men as God made them, pitying the vicious, forgiving defects and absurdities, sympathising with every age, and vexed with nothing because she has the tact to forefend everything. At once tender and lively, she first constrains and then consoles you. You love her so truly, that is this angel does wrong, you are ready to justify her. – Then you know Madame Firmiani.
A moral tale – again, I am not going to give you the narrative, you’ll need to read it yourself, I’m simply documenting some highlights from each of the readings and attempting to string together some consistent themes in his work – here though, the obvious references to privacy, locked rooms, high walls, is missing, the privacy is portrayed through an inability to pin down a single opinion of Madame Firmiani.
Now that I have finished a collection of Balzac’s works, published in an early 1900’s edition, I am tempted to start reading La Comédie humaine in the order suggested by William Hobart Royce, I am under no illusions that I will complete all the works before I am side tracked to other books, I know I will tire of Balzac’s style at some stage. I still have my notes from ‘Sarrasine’ (1830) to type up and I never wrote any thoughts about the three works that make up ‘The Thirteen’ (Histoire des Treize), ‘Ferragus’ (1833), ‘The Duchess of Langeais’ (La Duchesse de Langeais, 1834), and ‘The Girl with the Golden Eyes’ (La fille aux yeux d’or, 1835). A re-read of these is probably in order.
Expect a few more Balzac posts from me in the coming weeks!!!
I do intend to also put together some highlights from Dorothy Richardson’s ‘Pilgrimage’ sequence of novels, as I have also been reading these over the last few months. 2022 looks like a year of “classics” for me!!!