Balzac’s “Letters of Two Brides” and “A Daughter of Eve

An 1898 copy of Balzac’s A Daughter of Eve and Letters of Two Brides

In the introduction to the 1898 edition of Honoré de Balzac’s novel Letters of Two Brides, the critic George Saintsbury assures us it is not the best of Balzac.

It is far, far from his best.  Nonetheless, it has been reissued by NYRB,  in a new translation by Jordan Stump, under the title The Memoirs of Two Young Wives.  After reading a sample online of the new translation, which didn’t seem very different from my 1898 copy (translated by R. S. Scott), I stuck with the old:  and  chips of paper littered the floor as I cut the pages.  And that’s a reason to read the new!

Written in the form of letters between two best friends, this slight epistolary novel explores women’s attitudes toward marriage.  Two women of very different social strata went to convent school together.  Louise, intended by her aristocratic family to be a nun, is rescued from the convent by her Carmelite aunt’s knowledge that Louise is “in a decline.” Once she is home in Paris, her mother dolls her up in splendid clothes, she thrives at social events, and she is a belle. But Louise falls in love with her Spanish tutor, who turns out to be a former duc (exiled) but is still, I think, a count–or maybe the opposite–and let me say this romanticism is completely unlike Balazc.

I find Renee more sympathetic than Louise, because there’s none of this hanging from the balcony/hiding in a tree business–that’s what Louise and her lover (later her husband) go in for.  On the other hand, Renee’s family always intended her to marry. Once home in the country, she agrees to marry a traumatized war veteran, former prisoner-of-war, and landowner.  She doesn’t love him, but she wants a family.  And, though I’m surprised by this, her practicality is much more sympathetic than Louise’s drama.

Eventually, I became intrigued–especially by Renee, who is a philosopher.  And the two brides are so different that they bicker back and forth:  Louise tells Renee her marriage to the tutor is one long passion fest, and she pities Renee for not being in love. (Louise later has a second passionate marriage).  Renee tells Louise that she can’t expect the madly-in-love thing to last forever and needs to think about what will last.  Guess who wins in the end?

This book is very slight, and actually a bit gushy as well as romantic.   I am baffled as to why it was reissued.   Saintsbury, who writes the introduction to the 1898 translation,  doesn’t admire it either:  he thinks French writers don’t know how to write about women.   I simply thought it was a lesser work of Balzac.

If I were to reissue one of Balzac’s out-of-print novels about women, I would choose A Daughter of Eve, an entertaining novella in which a megalomaniac journalist exploits the infatuation of a countess and his mistress-actress to found a newspaper.  It is published in the same edition (1898 Gebbie Publishing Company) as Letters of Two Brides. After panning Letters of two Brides, Saintsbury writes, “There are, however,… considrable condolences and consolations in “Une Fille d’Eve.”   I agree.

A Daughter of Eve is engaging, if slight, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Two virtuous sisters who have led a sheltered life grow up in total innocence and are shocked when it comes time to marry.  Marie Eugenie marries a rich banker, Mr. Nucinigen, and Marie-Angelique marries a count. They thrive for a number of years–it’s better than living alone– until one day, after years of virtuous marriage,  Countess Marie de Vandenesse  takes a lover, the journalist Raoul Nathan.  And this becomes a problem, because soon everybody, especially Nathan, will need money.  Will the rich lose all their money?


I’ve never met a novel I didn’t like in Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy), a series of  approximately 95 novels and stories.  But Letters of Two Brides/The Memoirs of Two Young Wives is not especially memorable, so I would skip right to A Daughter of Eve.

Peace & Pillage: Pax Romana by Adrian Goldsworthy

The Roman empire was once the hub of the world .

It is still the hub for me sometimes. After a particularly bad-news day, I like to read Latin literature.  What can be saner than the odes of Horace (65 B.C. to 8 A.D.), who often in his lyric poetry celebrated wine, love, and even the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), which was first established by Augustus after years of civil war?  And Seneca’s letters, which are essays on Stoicism?

And Roman history, too, enlightens us:  I recently read Adrian Goldsworthy’s brilliant history, Pax Romana:  War, Peace, and Conquest in the Roman World, a study of the remarkable achievement of Pax Romana (the Roman Peace first established by Augustus).  But he also writes about the paradoxes:  there was widespread peace in Rome and most of its provinces (rebellion was rare), while war was always waged elsewhere, as soldiers expanded the empire.

Although there are many comparisons between Rome and the U.S. (and of course the former British empire), the Roman Peace is no longer regarded as highly or romantically as it was in the 18th century when Edward Gibbon wroteThe Rise and the Fall of the Roman Empire.  Attitudes toward empire have changes.  Goldsworthy explains,

Peace is almost as rare today as it was for Gibbon and his contemporaries, and if the Romans truly did create a long period of peace over such a wide area then this deserves to be explained.  Praise of peace was commonplace for authors in the ancient world, Greek as well as Roman, but they also readily accepted that war would be frequent.  The word pax came to mean something very close to our “peace” by the first century B.C.  Peace was celebrated by  poets and often held up as the most desirable state.  Roman emperors boasted of preserving peace, and sometimes the expression “Roman peace’ was used when speaking of the good brought by the empire.  They also spoke a good deal of the glory of victory.  Imperator, the word from which we get our “emperor,” meant “victorious general,” and an emperor’s reputation was badly damaged if his troops suffered serious defeats, whether or not he was personally in command.

Goldsworthy’s writing is lucid, and though he is not as famous as Mary Beard, his books are just as readable.  Like Beard, he consults on documentaries for the History channel, National Geographic, and the BBC.  I very much admire the organization of the book: It is arranged not just chronologically, as in a traditional general history, but also by subject. In chapters like “How much did you make?–Government,” “Provincials and Kings,” “Rebellion,” “The Emperors,” “Life under Roman Rule,” and “Garrisons and Raids,” he describes trends, customs, and attitudes over a period of centuries.  And because he raises points about so many subjects, our favorite Roman characters,  Caesar, Cicero, Ovid, Trajan,  Paul (of the New Testament), Pliny, and even Pontius Pilate (the most famous governor) make many appearances.

The government of the empire was unique.  There were Roman governors, their small staffs, and garrisons in the provinces, but the provincial cities, villages, and other local groupings did much of the governing. And the expansion of the empire was, of course, for Roman profit. Provinces paid taxes, and commerce thrived;  aristocrats and the maddest of emperors, Caligula, Nero, and Domitian, liked their bangles as well as blood.

Goldsworthy reminds us that the Roman peace lasted till the fifth century, and did not disappear overnight.  He writes, , “Though the  Romans were very aggressive and well-armed, and were primarily interested in profit, there actually was a Roman peace, especially for those who lived in Rome.”

Travels to the Moors: “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte

The Folio edition of Wuthering Heights

Oh, dear, I’m behind on bookish posts. I’ve been musing about the mortality of classicists and wishing poets and novelists would write satire.

But you might want to know if I’ve read anything.  This week it’s been Emily Bronte’s hair-raising Gothic, Wuthering Heights.

An Illustration by Rovina Cai (Folio Society edition)

Wuthering Heights was my favorite Bronte novel until I switched in early middle age to Charlotte’s fierce spinster novel, Villette.  But I still  love Wuthering Heights:.  It transports me to the moors, which I’ll never probably see, and to a kind of love I haven’t, thank God, experienced in decades.   In 2014 I said of this gorgeous, intriguing novel about doomed love:  “It is a short, perfect novel, with lyrical yet muscular prose, brilliantly narrated by two unreliable narrators:   Lockwood, who rents Thrushcross Grange, spends a harrowing night at Wuthering Heights with his moody landlord, Heathcliff, after he is caught in a blizzard; and Nelly Dean, Lockwood’s housekeeper, tells him the story of Heathcliff.”

Bronte also describes the ramifications of the intense love between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw, with whom he was brought up at Wuthering Heights.  The consequences of their separation after  Catherine’s marriage to mild Edgar Linton are tempestuous.  And Heathcliff’s rage affects the next generation, too.

So imaginative, wild, and terrifying!  Emily was a force unto herself.
It is Emily’s 200th birthday on July 30.  You’d better get a nice hat ad dress so we can mosey down to the bar to watch the ceremony.
Oh, wait.  That’s the Royal wedding.

Prudery & Promiscuity: In Which Juvenal & Comedians Take on the World

The Folio Society edition, translated by Peter Green & introduced by Simon Callow

“It is difficult not to write satire,” Juvenal wrote.

Yes, but where is it?  Who’s writing it?

Satire is rapidly vanishing in the U.S.  There’s not exactly censorship, but there has been a weird suppression of stand-up comics and comic actors:  flocks of them have been accused of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct and  banned from their careers.  And where are all the modern satiric poets and novelists? Are they banned, too? Are the publishers rejecting satirists? The pressure to quell voices has come from both the Left and the Right: if a book triggers a sob or a bad memory, if a comedian offends (and which doesn’t?), if a point of view is unpolitically correct, you must shut up the babblers. 

The poet Juvenal, who was exiled during Domitian’s reign of terror, began to publish his outrageous satires in 110 A.D.  In the introduction to the Folio Society edition, the actor Simon Callow writes about Juvenal’s outrageous stand-up comedy.  He writes,

I have a rather unusual qualification for introducing this edition of the Satires of Juvenal: I’ve been him.  This surprising manifestation occurred on the London stage, in 1976, in a one-man show called Juvenalia, and it proved to be the surprise sensation of the Fringe season that year, lauded with rare unanimity by all the major national newspapers.  The triumph was essentially Juvenal’s.  His scabrous commentary on his own times was perceived as startlingly pertinent and laugh-out-loud funny, filthy and deeply, gloriously unpolitically correct, even for 1976, when the concept had yet to be articulated.

Juvenal is hysterically funny in his unpolitically correct lampoons of Roman life.   He satirizes the decadence and depravity of Rome, pretentious poets, the allure of breads and circuses, the nouveau riche, the ubiquity of Greek immigrants, houses collapsing because of bad construction work, transvestites, eunuchs getting married, women who poison their husbands, homosexuality, legacy hunters, lawyers… Is there anyone or anything he didn’t satirize?

There must be an American Juvenal:  I don’t know him or her.  No, so instead I will make observations about two comedians.

Amy Schumer in “I Feel Pretty”

Critics are fond of the comedian and comic actor Amy Schumer, or so I’ve heard. But why are throngs of male critics bashing her silly summer movie, I Feel Pretty?  Having seen the trailer, I know it’s the kind of trifling entertainment you watch in an air-conditioned cineplex when it’s 90 degrees–not the kind of film to be reviewed in The New Yorker.

But this goofy satire of male-defined beauty has infuriated male critics.   Richard Brody at The New Yorker censures Schumer and writer-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein for wasting their talent.  He hates the plot, which centers on an overweight woman who, after falling down at spinning class and bumping her head,  hallucinates that she’s actually beautiful.  Naturally, she becomes more confident.  He writes,

It’s easy to see how the stereotypical view of beauty that’s satirized in “I Feel Pretty,” which Renee faces and then overrides, could have meshed with the persona, and the themes, that Schumer has developed on her own, but Kohn and Silverstein aren’t sufficiently lucid about the implications of the comedic premise. Schumer should simply be writing her own movies—and working with directors whose artistry matches her own.

Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian manages to demolish the film in three paragraphs.  No, it doesn’t work for him, and the third paragraph tells us why.

Actually, Schumer is pretty, and the casting wouldn’t work otherwise, but despite the disconnect between how she is portrayed and how she feels, she is never really abashed and there is no comic friction. In fact, it is more a parable of how celebrities like Schumer, on becoming successful, suddenly get an inkling of how beautiful people have always felt. I Feel Famous would be an alternative title.

Ouch!  So he says Schumer cannot satirize male-defined beauty because she’s pretty–and then he stabs her in the back and says she only feels famous.  Bitchy, Mr. Bradshaw.

Aziz Asani in “Master of None”

At our house we are fans of Aziz Ansari.  His brilliant Netflix comedy, Master of None, is not only hilarious but insightful: in one episode, he explores the issue of racism against Indians (his American-born Indian character is  offered acting roles in which he must play an Indian with an accent) ; in another episode, he delightfully satirizes The Bicycle Thief (his phone is stolen in Italy, and the episode is even filmed in black and white). But after Ansari won a Golden Globe for lead actor in a comedy, he was accused of “sexual misconduct” by an adult woman who said she felt uncomfortable about having had mutual oral sex with Ansari.  All I can say is:  At least you didn’t get pregnant!  Because it is harder to get an abortion than you think these days.  (And don’t date celebrities, and especially don’t go home with them on dates, if you feel it’s going too fast!).

If all the comedians and satirists  must shut up because they (a) make us uncomfortable, (b) they are nasty people, or (c) they are too raunchy, where will we be?  This is America, where we have free speech. Do you think Lenny Bruce or Joan Rivers were nice people? Lighten up, people

Meanwhile, I’m rereading Juvenal’s satires.   They are funny.  Try Peter Green’s translation, in the Penguin or the Folio Society editions.

Ellie & Horace

There are many ways to interpret the life and work of Eleanor Winsor Leach (1937-2018), a classics professor at Indiana University.   I see her as a character in a modernist novel by Hermann Broch, not The Death of Virgil but The Death of a Virgil Scholar.

She was one of my professors.

In Bloomington, Indiana, where we all ran 10Ks and drank pints at Nick’s, I was a graduate student in classics.  I was there to read as much poetry as possible, so I took Ellie’s Horace seminar.  There was Ellie, an alumna of Bryn Mawr and Yale, teaching in the heart of Indiana, sitting with a group of silent graduate students, most from the Midwest and South. Ellie’s manners were impeccable, but she did not yet understand the culture.  Very few of us–dare I say none of us?–participated in the scholarly chats about Horace.  Once I spoke to fill a silence, and was teased about it.  “Well, could you have done better?” I learned to be silent, but I vigorously translated in class and parsed grammar and syntax.

Ellie was a kind soul.   She invited us to a dinner party (maybe more than one) at her house in the country.  It was a rickety one-story house, reminiscent of a converted chicken coop, and furnished with dusty books and old furniture, perhaps antiques.  She wanted us to feel at home, not just in her house but in the small classics department.  When I  received a high pass on the Ph.D. Latin exam, she congratulated me warmly.

She was still teaching at the age of 80.

Ave atque vale, Ellie.  (“Hail and farewell”–Catullus 101)

Horace and the Death of a Professor

Google is a two-edged sword.  Sometimes the news is good, other times it depresses us.  And when we learn a friend or colleague of the older generation has died, it is painful.

Eleanor Winsor Leach

I was saddened to learn that Eleanor Winsor Leach, a classics professor at Indiana University, died last winter at the age of 80.  She was a Virgilian scholar whose graceful writing took my breath away.  She kept teaching till the very end, a Ms. Chips of the 21st century.  According to the IU newspaper, students loved her parties on Horace’s birthday (Dec. 8), at which time they also decorated her Christmas tree.

I tried to find a poem to celebrate her life and was deep into Horace’s Ode 2.XIV before I realized it was inappropriate.  Horace’s attitude to death is not comforting, not what I wanted to read after learning about her death alone in her house, found six days after her death.  But here goes anyway:  it is a tribute to Leach’s generation that we are still reading the Roman poets.  Here is my  translation:

This ode is addressed to a man named Postumus.

Ah, Postumus,
the fleeting years glide by, and piety will
not delay wrinkles, or
old age, or indomitable death;

Not if you sacrifice
three hundred bulls a day, my friend,
to pitiless Pluto, the god who confined
three-bodied monster Geron and Tityon

with the Stygian wave, the water certain for us all
who enjoy the gifts of Earth;
the waters must be crossed, whether
we are kings or poor farmers.

In vain we will escape bloody war
and the crashing waves of the Adriatic;
in vain we will fear the illness the South wind
brings in autumn.

We must behold the black wandering river
Cocytus, and Danaus’s infamous daughters,
and Sisyphus condemned to long labor,

The earth and home and your
lovely wife must be left, and none of the trees
you fostered will follow their short-lived master
except the hated cypresses.

A “worthier” heir will drink the Cacuban wine
you locked up with a hundred keys, and he will
stain the floor with unmixed wine
superior to that served at the haughty
banquets of priests.

What Does It Mean to Be Well-Read?

In a “Book Clinic” column at The Guardian, the critic Robert McCrum recently addressed the question, “What does it mean to be well-read?”  And he does not bow to pop fiction or internet poetry as he lays out the tenets of the canon.

He writes,

I’d suggest that three kinds of reading define the well-read mind. First, I’d want to include the immortals from the classics of Greece and Rome: Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, Virgil, Plutarch, Ovid, Juvenal and Sappho…

Next, from the Anglo-American literary tradition, we can’t forget Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Byron, Austen, Keats, Dickens, Twain, Thoreau, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Spark, Beckett, Woolf… and certainly another score of contemporary greats, including Baldwin, Pinter, Morrison, Miller, Bellow and Naipaul.

Finally, and this is where it gets contentious, there’s great writing in translation, from Proust, Freud, Fanon and Bulgakov to Grass, Márquez, Kundera and Levi.

I am always lost in a book, and the canon has powerfully affected my life, to the extent that I have lugged The Collected Poems of Adrienne Rich in a bike pannier and perused Virgil in coffeehouses.  But I do have a few criticisms of the list, as I do of all lists.  Why so heavy on the Greeks when Roman literature had the greater influence?  Let me add the readable Roman writers Apulieus, Suetonius, and Seneca.

McCrum has chosen a superb collection of Anglo-American writers, but he is light on “women’s work,” so let me recommend the Brontes, George Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, and Caroline Gordon.

Judging from the translation category, he needs to read more in translation (I’m being flippant!  He’s well-read.).  But since the following are not on his short list, let’s add Machiavelli, Dante, Stendhal, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Flaubert…and somebody please add some women!

Yes, reading and rereading the canon shapes us and changes us.  What I love about this list is that the recommended classics are readable without academic intervention. (Perhaps there should be a Penguin “Well-Read” kit?)   But does being well-read mean different things to different people? Let me hazard that…

…for professional book reviewers, it means reading the latest books; and they must know, or feign to know, Karl Ove Knaussgard, Rachel Cusk, Jhumpa Lahiri, Julian Barnes, Marilynne Robinson, and perhaps, as their wild card, George R. R. Martin. (British male writers have lauded Martin in the Guardian, the LRB, and the TLS.)

…for university professors, it means reading the classics according to their narrow specialty, whether that is ancient Greek drama or modernist poets, as well as every book of criticism on the subject.

…for bloggers, it means writing emoticon-heavy blurbs about romance novels; long personal responses to  Victorian novels; short reviews of the soon-to-be-forgotten best books of the month; or even learned essays on, say, the influence of Péter Nádas on European literature.

We women writers and bloggers have much work to do now on important  issues like saving abortion rights and reversing global warming (there’s not much time left!), but,  in our free time, let’s add great women writers to the canon.