STUDY OF A WOMAN
STUDY OF A WOMAN
HONORE DE BALZAC
The Marquise de Listomere is one of those young women who have been
brought up in the spirit of the Restoration. She has principles she
fasts takes the sacrament and goes to balls and operas very
elegantly dressed; her confessor permits her to combine the mundane
with sanctity. Always in conformity with the Church and with the
world she presents a living image of the present day which seems to
have taken the word "legality" for its motto. The conduct of the
marquise shows precisely enough religious devotion to attain under a
new Maintenon to the gloomy piety of the last days of Louis XIV. and
enough worldliness to adopt the habits of gallantry of the first years
of that reign should it ever be revived. At the present moment she is
strictly virtuous from policy possibly from inclination. Married for
the last seven years to the Marquis de Listomere one of those
deputies who expect a peerage she may also consider that such conduct
will promote the ambitions of her family. Some women are reserving
their opinion of her until the moment when Monsieur de Listomere
becomes a peer of France when she herself will be thirty-six years of
age--a period of life when most women discover that they are the
dupes of social laws.
The marquis is a rather insignificant man. He stands well at court;
his good qualities are as negative as his defects; the former can no
more make him a reputation for virtue than the latter can give him the
sort of glamor cast by vice. As deputy he never speaks but he votes
RIGHT. He behaves in his own home as he does in the Chamber.
Consequently he is held to be one of the best husbands in France.
Though not susceptible of lively interest he never scolds unless to
be sure he is kept waiting. His friends have named him "dull
weather"--aptly enough for there is neither clear light nor total
darkness about him. He is like all the ministers who have succeeded
one another in France since the Charter. A woman with principles could
not have fallen into better hands. It is certainly a great thing for a
virtuous woman to have married a man incapable of follies.
Occasionally some fops have been sufficiently impertinent to press the
hand of the marquise while dancing with her. They gained nothing in
return but contemptuous glances; all were made to feel the shock of
that insulting indifference which like a spring frost destroys the
germs of flattering hopes. Beaux wits and fops men whose sentiments
are fed by sucking their canes those of a great name or a great
fame those of the highest or the lowest rank in her own world they
all blanch before her. She has conquered the right to converse as long
and as often as she chooses with the men who seem to her agreeable
without being entered on the tablets of gossip. Certain coquettish
women are capable of following a plan of this kind for seven years in
order to gratify their fancies later; but to suppose any such
reservations in the Marquise de Listomere would be to calumniate her.
I have had the happiness of knowing this phoenix. She talks well; I
know how to listen; consequently I please her and I go to her
parties. That in fact was the object of my ambition.
Neither plain nor pretty Madame de Listomere has white teeth a
dazzling skin and very red lips; she is tall and well-made; her foot
is small and slender and she does not put it forth; her eyes far
from being dulled like those of so many Parisian women have a gentle
glow which becomes quite magical if by chance she is animated. A
soul is then divined behind that rather indefinite form. If she takes
an interest in the conversation she displays a grace which is
otherwise buried beneath the precautions of cold demeanor and then
she is charming. She does not seek success but she obtains it. We
find that for which we do not seek: that saying is so often true that
some day it will be turned into a proverb. It is in fact the moral
of this adventure which I should not allow myself to tell if it were
not echoing at the present moment through all the salons of Paris.
The Marquise de Listomere danced about a month ago with a young man
as modest as he is lively full of good qualities but exhibiting
chiefly his defects. He is ardent but he laughs at ardor; he has
talent and he hides it; he plays the learned man with aristocrats
and the aristocrat with learned men. Eugene de Rastignac is one of
those extremely clever young men who try all things and seem to sound
others to discover what the future has in store. While awaiting the
age of ambition he scoffs at everything; he has grace and
originality two rare qualities because the one is apt to exclude the
other. On this occasion he talked for nearly half an hour with madame
de Listomere without any predetermined idea of pleasing her. As they
followed the caprices of conversation which beginning with the opera
of "Guillaume Tell" had reached the topic of the duties of women he
looked at the marquise more than once in a manner that embarrassed
her; then he left her and did not speak to her again for the rest of
the evening. He danced played at ecarte lost some money and went
home to bed. I have the honor to assure you that the affair happened
precisely thus. I add nothing and I suppress nothing.
The next morning Rastignac woke late and stayed in bed giving himself
up to one of those matutinal reveries in the course of which a young
man glides like a sylph under many a silken or cashmere or cotton
drapery. The heavier the body from its weight of sleep the more
active the mind. Rastignac finally got up without yawning over-much
as many ill-bred persons are apt to do. He rang for his valet ordered
tea and drank immoderately of it when it came; which will not seem
extraordinary to persons who like tea; but to explain the circumstance
to others who regard that beverage as a panacea for indigestion I
will add that Eugene was by this time writing letters. He was
comfortably seated with his feet more frequently on the andirons
than properly on the rug. Ah! to have one's feet on the polished bar
which connects the two griffins of a fender and to think of our love
in our dressing-gown is so delightful a thing that I deeply regret the
fact of having neither mistress nor fender nor dressing-gown.
The first letter which Eugene wrote was soon finished; he folded and
sealed it and laid it before him without adding the address. The
second letter begun at eleven o'clock was not finished till mid-day.
The four pages were closely filled.
"That woman keeps running in my head" he muttered as he folded this
second epistle and laid it before him intending to direct it as soon
as he had ended his involuntary revery.
He crossed the two flaps of his flowered dressing-gown put his feet
on a stool slipped his hands into the pockets of his red cashmere
trousers and lay back in a delightful easy-chair with side wings the
seat and back of which described an angle of one hundred and twenty
degrees. He stopped drinking tea and remained motionless his eyes
fixed on the gilded hand which formed the knob of his shovel but
without seeing either hand or shovel. He ceased even to poke the fire
--a vast mistake! Isn't it one of our greatest pleasures to play with
the fire when we think of women? Our minds find speeches in those tiny
blue flames which suddenly dart up and babble on the hearth. We
interpret as we please the strong harsh tones of a "burgundian."
Here I must pause to put before all ignorant persons an explanation of
that word derived from a very distinguished etymologist who wishes
his name kept secret.
"Burgundian" is the name given since the reign of Charles VI. to
those noisy detonations the result of which is to fling upon the
carpet or the clothes a little coal or ember the trifling nucleus of
a conflagration. Heat or fire releases they say a bubble of air left
in the heart of the wood by a gnawing worm. "Inde amor inde
burgundus." We tremble when we see the structure we had so carefully
erected between the logs rolling down like an avalanche. Oh! to build
and stir and play with fire when we love is the material development
of our thoughts.
It was at this moment that I entered the room. Rastignac gave a jump
"Ah! there you are dear Horace; how long have you been here?"
He took up the two letters directed them and rang for his servant.
"Take these" he said "and deliver them."
Joseph departed without a word; admirable servant!
We began to talk of the expedition to Morea to which I was anxious to
be appointed as physician. Eugene remarked that I should lose a great
deal of time if I left Paris. We then conversed on various matters
and I think you will be glad if I suppress the conversation.
When the Marquise de Listomere rose about half-past two in the
afternoon of that day her waiting-maid Caroline gave her a letter
which she read while Caroline was doing her hair (an imprudence which
many young women are thoughtless enough to commit).
"Dear angel of love" said the letter "treasure of my life and
At these words the marquise was about to fling the letter in the fire;
but there came into her head a fancy--which all virtuous women will
readily understand--to see how a man who began a letter in that style
could possibly end it. When she had turned the fourth page and read
it she let her arms drop like a person much fatigued.
"Caroline go and ask who left this letter."
"Madame I received it myself from the valet of Monsieur le Baron de
After that there was silence for some time.
"Does Madame intend to dress?" asked Caroline at last.
"No-- He is certainly a most impertinent man" reflected the marquise.
I request all women to imagine for themselves the reflections of which
this was the first.
Madame de Listomere ended hers by a formal decision to forbid her
porter to admit Monsieur de Rastignac and to show him herself
something more than disdain when she met him in society; for his
insolence far surpassed that of other men which the marquise had ended
by overlooking. At first she thought of keeping the letter; but on
second thoughts she burned it.
"Madame had just received such a fine love-letter; and she read it"
said Caroline to the housemaid.
"I should never have thought that of madame" replied the other quite
That evening Madame de Listomere went to a party at the Marquis de
Beauseant's where Rastignac would probably betake himself. It was
Saturday. The Marquis de Beauseant was in some way a connection of
Monsieur de Rastignac and the young man was not likely to miss
coming. By two in the morning Madame de Listomere who had gone there
solely for the purpose of crushing Eugene by her coldness discovered
that she was waiting in vain. A brilliant man--Stendhal--has given the
fantastic name of "crystallization" to the process which Madame de
Listomere's thoughts went through before during and after this