After our visit to Alexandre Dumas’ private castle in May, I was in the mood for a classic but not of the 600 pages variety. This Balzac novella, part of the Scenes of the Parisian life, was just right, like Goldilock’s bowl of porridge: not too long and not too short, not too depressing and not too dated. This one was sitting idle in my Kindle so I grabbed it first. Reading classics is all about finding quickly something readable, otherwise I lose the motivation (there are so many other more modern books vying for my attention!)
The novella was published in 1830 in newspapers and has been title A Double Family, as well as The Virtuous woman, and given Balzac’s cruel view of family and love stories, and the context of the period, I kinda expected a tragedy without much surprise. But old dear Honoré should not be taken for granted…
It has the weird structure of a slow burn love story (but is it right for a novella?) where we are introduced to a poor nice girl who gradually gets noticed by a wealthy man who passes by her window every evening. She is shown as pure and virtuous, but her mother obviously wants to throw her into his arms, if only for their economic survival. Fast forward to the poor nice girl, much less poor, being kept by the wealthy man in a fancy Paris flat, with 2 kids. Of course these two are not married, but still the portrait of domestic life is full of contented, warm happiness. Is the girl really the Virtuous woman of the title? How could Honoré get away with that in 1830?
The second part shows an ambitious young lawyer who is thinking of marrying a wealthy, well-connected young girl from a small town. But after a short time of marriage, the pure, well-bred young girl reveals herself as a total religious fanatic who sees everything as sin and only listens to her religious advisor (who has an eye for her money too). She rules their home with no pleasure, strict food restrictions, poor taste and no affinity to her husband’s intense social life and ambition. Of course she’s officially the Virtuous one of the title, but it’s also a domestic hell. I must say that I was a bit surprised by Balzac’s virulent attack against religion (not as faith, but as organized rules). It’s also a novella about marriage, ambition, hypocrisy and Paris life for poor people. It’s not Balzac’s best but it was well worth it.