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On Balzac's The Lily of the Valley

4 December 2023

Honoré de Balzac, The Lily of the Valley

Balzac’s Purpose in La Comédie Humaine: To represent in a book/series the whole realm of society and all men/women within it, written in “a threefold form—men, women,, and things; that is to say, persons and the material expression of their minds.” Balzac talks about how humanity is more complex, even, than biology in various ways—and that this complexity needs to be represented in writing; still, he (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) falls into the trap of labeling, categorizing, generalizing even to the point of portraying certain aspects humanity in binaries (woman/man, angel/whore, English/French).

What he accomplishes is an account of human history/society (as many realms of it as he managed in this opus before he died) in narrative form, such that it becomes more comprehensive of human behavior and nuance than a list of dates and facts. In that sense, my brain wants to liken La Comédie Humaine to Herodotus’s The Histories. His depictions are broken into various groupings: Scenes from Private Life, Scenes from Provincial Life, Scenes from Parisian Life, Scenes from Political Life, Scenes from Military Life, Scenes from Country Life, and Philosophical Studies. The Lily of the Valley appears within the Scenes from Provincial Life.

The Lily of the Valley’s structure made me happy. It is a tale bookended by correspondence—missives from one lover (Félix de Vandenesse) to another (Comtesse Natalie de Manerville). Therefore, the first page is a letter from Félix; the last pages are a return letter from Natalie. The opening message is Félix answering Natalie’s question, which appears to have been, “What’s your story, boy?” Natalie seems interested to know why Félix so often daydreams when they are together.

Okay so the bulk of the tale is Félix telling his story—why he feels plagued by a phantom, why he has sworn off women for so long. The story is that he fell in love with a woman in the provinces, a woman who was already married and had children. This woman, our Lily of the Valley, Comtesse Henriette de Mortsauf, loves him too but restrains herself from loving him in any way other than platonically or maternally because of her sworn duties to her husband and children. As such, she believes she retains her incorruptibility; their love is never consummated.

In the meantime, Henriette sends Félix out into the world (Paris, specifically) as the King regains power—he becomes a powerful political man and another (English) woman, Lady Arabella Dudley, falls in love with him. Arabella, although married to a Lord, makes Félix her lover. When Henriette, our Lily, finds out that Félix has been with another woman, a series of events occur leading to her death of grief (a broken heart). The entire countryside mourns with the family when she dies, for she lived an unimpeachable life.

When Félix then returns to Arabella after Henriette’s death, she’ll no longer have him; she snubs him socially.

Félix recounts all of this to Natalie and here’s the kicker: in the very final letter of the novel, Natalie’s like, “Um naw. I’m good. I won’t live in the shadows of your two phantoms—and I’ll never be interested in competing with them. Go on your merry way. I’m out. Oh, and maybe don’t tell this story to the next lady who falls in love with you, either.” I died. I cannot tell you how hard I laughed at this unexpected ending. So great. So true, too.

As might be expected, the novel is deeply interwoven with Historical events. Those were predominantly lost on me since history overwhelms me. But it seems Napoleon was conquered and King Luis XVIII comes back into power. This book would’ve been excellent had I wished to know more about the world during that time; it provides narratives of social and courtly nuance to that end. The historical accuracy was lovely, even when it went over my head.

The point of view of this story is almost entirely Félix’s. There are moments when we read letters from Henriette and Natalie, but otherwise it’s all Félix. The problem with that is we don’t necessarily love to be in Félix’s head. He was emotionally abandoned by his whole family as a child, and reading that backstory was much like reading a revenge narrative. It’s something I’ve been taught to avoid—to be very careful about—because it can become distasteful to the reader. And the truth is that even though it is fiction, it is written as a memoir because Félix is telling his life story to Natalie. So it doesn’t surprise me that I get that feeling from it. It did, in fact, make me resent Félix from the start. His upbringing was horrible, no doubt; still, the way it’s told leaves no room for compassion for his parents (who would have had to have suffered to treat him as they did). And this, coming from me—someone who had parents just like his. Ugh. It’s insane how distasteful it is to read slander against someone’s parents, even when it is accurate. Mental note, here.

So we get this narrator who is like, “woe is me!” from the start. But it doesn’t get any better. It’s like, “woe is me!” throughout. As though the world has set against him. But frankly, Henriette’s character is not much better. She has a “woe is me!” story too, she just doesn’t ever complain about it—and doesn’t ever change her circumstances. She has this Job-like acceptance of her status that feels so pride-fueled it made me want to barf. I literally wrote “barf” on multiple pages where she spoke. Sure, she was perfect and moral and unimpeachable, but she was totally insufferably boring to read. Human only in her unacknowledged excessive pride.

Arabella might’ve been a bit better if she hadn’t been pitted against Henriette as her opposite the entire story. In that sense, it was as though Balzac was making a mockery of Félix’s perception of these women. It was like Félix complained, “oh this woman is too virtuous, but oh that woman is too loose,” and there were no middle ground, or that these women shared nothing in common. We all know that cannot be true; it’s unnatural to believe so. Henriette suffered her flaws in pride; Arabella, her virtues in appreciating pleasure. Somehow Félix missed that—but Natalie, did not. Her letter at the end implies it. And I think this is where Balzac’s perspective flows through. There’s no such thing as polar opposites. Everything is far too nuanced, and nothing—nobody—is perfect.

Félix himself suffered too much pride to be borne. Why tie this boulder of a tale around poor Natalie’s throat? He felt himself so important that it must be done. It makes no sense—and it blows my mind that our protagonist pretends to be so humble. Strange how we are so blind to our own faults.

As with many of the stories I’ve read recently, Balzac spends an excessive amount of time in backstory. I fact, I guess you could say the entire story is backstory. The present-day story takes up about five pages and can be found in Félix and Natalie’s letters to one another: it is a short-lived love story. Okay so that jives then with what Ben Percy suggests: avoid backstory unless your story IS the backstory. That’s what happens here.

Finally, I chose this book specifically to inspect the theme of the Lily of the Valley within it. I am thinking of making this a thread in my own novel, and so I needed to spend some time with it and see if there were any literary allusions I could use. See what the symbolism is, precisely. I kinda love this book for that Lily symbolism, actually, and will use it as well as I can. I love that Balzac makes his Lily so incorruptible and virtuous; yet we know that the plant is deadly poisonous. There’s something fantastically helpful in this for my own story. I’ll be using it!

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