Friday, June 12, 2009

"La femme de trente ans..." d'après Balzac (II)


For a young man a woman of thirty has irresistible
attractions. There is nothing more natural, nothing
better established, no human tie of stouter tissue
than the heart-deep attachment between such a woman
as the Marquise d'Aiglemont and such a man as Charles
de Vandenesse. You can see examples of it every day in
the world. A girl, as a matter of fact, has too many
young illusions, she is too inexperienced, the instinct
of sex counts for too much in her love for a young man
to feel flattered by it. A woman of thirty knows all
that is involved in the self-surrender to be made. Among
the impulses of the first, put curiosity and other motives
than love; the second acts with integrity of sentiment. The
first yields; the second makes deliberate choice. Is not
that choice in itself an immense flattery? A woman armed
with experience, forewarned by knowledge, almost always
dearly bought, seems to give more than herself; while the
inexperienced and credulous girl, unable to draw comparisons
for lack of knowledge, can appreciate nothing at its just
worth. She accepts love and ponders it. A woman is a
counselor and a guide at an age when we love to be guided
and obedience is delight; while a girl would fain learn all
things, meeting us with a girl's naivete instead of a
woman's tenderness. She affords a single triumph; with a
woman there is resistance upon resistance to overcome; she
has but joy and tears, a woman has rapture and remorse.

A girl cannot play the part of a mistress unless she is so
corrupt that we turn from her with loathing; a woman has a
thousand ways of preserving her power and her dignity; she
has risked so much for love, that she must bid him pass
through his myriad transformations, while her too submissive
rival gives a sense of too serene security which palls. If
the one sacrifices her maidenly pride, the other immolates
the honor of a whole family. A girl's coquetry is of the
simplest, she thinks that all is said when the veil is laid
aside; a woman's coquetry is endless, she shrouds herself in
veil after veil, she satisfies every demand of man's vanity,
the novice responds but to one.

And there are terrors, fears, and hesitations - trouble and
storm in the love of a woman of thirty years, never to be
found in a young girl's love. At thirty years a woman asks
her lover to give her back the esteem she has forfeited for
his sake; she lives only for him, her thoughts are full of
his future, he must have a great career, she bids him make
it glorious; she can obey, entreat, command, humble herself,
or rise in pride; times without number she brings comfort
when a young girl can only make moan. And with all the
advantages of her position, the woman of thirty can be a
girl again, for she can play all parts, assume a girl's
bashfulness, and grow the fairer even for a mischance.

Between these two feminine types lies the immeasurable
difference which separates the foreseen from the
unforeseen, strength from weakness. The woman of thirty
satisfies every requirement; the young girl must satisfy
none, under penalty of ceasing to be a young girl. Such
ideas as these, developing in a young man's mind, help to
strengthen the strongest of all passions, a passion in
which all spontaneous and natural feeling is blended with
the artificial sentiment created by conventional manners.

The most important and decisive step in a woman's life
is the very one that she invariably regards as the most
insignificant. After her marriage she is no longer her
own mistress, she is the queen and the bond-slave of the
domestic hearth. The sanctity of womanhood is incompatible
with social liberty and social claims; and for a woman
emancipation means corruption. If you give a stranger the
right of entry into the sanctuary of home, do you not put
yourself at his mercy? How then if she herself bids him
enter it? Is not this an offence, or, to speak more
accurately, a first step towards an offence? You must
either accept this theory with all its consequences,
or absolve illicit passion. French society hitherto has
chosen the third and middle course of looking on and
laughing when offences come, apparently upon the Spartan
principle of condoning the theft and punishing clumsiness.
And this system, it may be, is a very wise one.'Tis a most
appalling punishment to have all your neighbors pointing
the finger of scorn at you, a punishment that a woman feels
in her very heart. Women are tenacious, and all of them
should be tenacious of respect; without esteem they cannot
exist, esteem is the first demand that they make of love.
The most corrupt among them feels that she must, in the
first place, pledge the future to buy absolution for the
past, and strives to make her lover understand that only
for irresistible bliss can she barter the respect which
the world henceforth will refuse to her.

Balzac, A Woman of Thirty (from chapter III),
translated by Ellen Marriage

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