Modeste Mignon, by Honoré de Balzac



To Monsieur de Canalis:

My Friend — Your letter gives me as much pain as pleasure. But
perhaps some day we shall find nothing but pleasure in writing to
each other. Understand me thoroughly. The soul speaks to God and
asks him for many things; he is mute. I seek to obtain in you the
answers that God does not make to me. Cannot the friendship of
Mademoiselle de Gournay and Montaigne be revived in us? Do you not
remember the household of Sismonde de Sismondi in Geneva? The most
lovely home ever known, as I have been told; something like that
of the Marquis de Pescaire and his wife — happy to old age. Ah!
friend, is it impossible that two hearts, two harps, should exist
as in a symphony, answering each other from a distance, vibrating
with delicious melody in unison? Man alone of all creation is in
himself the harp, the musician, and the listener. Do you think to
find me uneasy and jealous like ordinary women? I know that you go
into the world and meet the handsomest and the wittiest women in
Paris. May I not suppose that some one of those mermaids has
deigned to clasp you in her cold and scaly arms, and that she has
inspired the answer whose prosaic opinions sadden me? There is
something in life more beautiful than the garlands of Parisian
coquetry; there grows a flower far up those Alpine peaks called
men of genius, the glory of humanity, which they fertilize with
the dews their lofty heads draw from the skies. I seek to
cultivate that flower and make it bloom; for its wild yet gentle
fragrance can never fail — it is eternal.

Do me the honor to believe that there is nothing low or
commonplace in me. Were I Bettina, for I know to whom you allude,
I should never have become Madame von Arnim; and had I been one of
Lord Byron’s many loves, I should be at this moment in a cloister.
You have touched me to the quick. You do not know me, but you
shall know me. I feel within me something that is sublime, of
which I dare speak without vanity. God has put into my soul the
roots of that Alpine flower born on the summits of which I speak,
and I cannot plant it in an earthen pot upon my window-sill and
see it die. No, that glorious flower-cup, single in its beauty,
intoxicating in its fragrance, shall not be dragged through the
vulgarities of life! it is yours — yours, before any eye has
blighted it, yours forever! Yes, my poet, to you belong my
thoughts — all, those that are secret, those that are gayest; my
heart is yours without reserve and with its infinite affection. If
you should personally not please me, I shall never marry. I can
live in the life of the heart, I can exist on your mind, your
sentiments; they please me, and I will always be what I am, your
friend. Yours is a noble moral nature; I have recognized it, I
have appreciated it, and that suffices me. In that is all my
future. Do not laugh at a young and pretty handmaiden who shrinks
not from the thought of being some day the old companion of a
poet — a sort of mother perhaps, or a housekeeper; the guide of
his judgment and a source of his wealth. This handmaiden — so
devoted, so precious to the lives of such as you — is Friendship,
pure, disinterested friendship, to whom you will tell all, who
listens and sometimes shakes her head; who knits by the light of
the lamp and waits to be present when the poet returns home soaked
with rain, or vexed in mind. Such shall be my destiny if I do not
find that of a happy wife attached forever to her husband; I smile
alike at the thought of either fate. Do you believe France will be
any the worse if Mademoiselle d’Este does not give it two or three
sons, and never becomes a Madame Vilquin-something-or-other? As
for me, I shall never be an old maid. I shall make myself a
mother, by taking care of others and by my secret co-operation in
the existence of a great man, to whom also I shall carry all my
thoughts and all my earthly efforts.

I have the deepest horror of commonplaceness. If I am free, if I
am rich (and I know that I am young and pretty), I will never
belong to any ninny just because he is the son of a peer of
France, nor to a merchant who could ruin himself and me in a day,
nor to a handsome creature who would be a sort of woman in the
household, nor to a man of any kind who would make me blush twenty
times a day for being his. Make yourself easy on that point. My
father adores my wishes; he will never oppose them. If I please my
poet, and he pleases me, the glorious structure of our love shall
be built so high as to be inaccessible to any kind of misfortune.
I am an eaglet; and you will see it in my eyes.

I shall not repeat what I have already said, but I will put its
substance in the least possible number of words, and confess to
you that I should be the happiest of women if I were imprisoned by
love as I am now imprisoned by the wish and will of a father. Ah!
my friend, may we bring to a real end the romance that has come to
us through the first exercise of my will: listen to its

A young girl with a lively imagination, locked up in a tower, is
weary with longing to run loose in the park where her eyes only
are allowed to rove. She invents a way to loosen her bars; she
jumps from the casement; she scales the park wall; she frolics
along the neighbor’s sward — it is the Everlasting comedy. Well,
that young girl is my soul, the neighbor’s park is your genius. Is
it not all very natural? Was there ever a neighbor that did not
complain that unknown feet broke down his trellises? I leave it to
my poet to answer.

But does the lofty reasoner after the fashion of Moliere want
still better reasons? Well, here they are. My dear Geronte,
marriages are usually made in defiance of common-sense. Parents
make inquiries about a young man. If the Leander — who is supplied
by some friend, or caught in a ball-room — is not a thief, and has
no visible rent in his reputation, if he has the necessary
fortune, if he comes from a college or a law-school and so fulfils
the popular ideas of education, and if he wears his clothes with a
gentlemanly air, he is allowed to meet the young lady, whose
mother has ordered her to guard her tongue, to let no sign of her
heart or soul appear on her face, which must wear the smile of a
danseuse finishing a pirouette. These commands are coupled with
instructions as to the danger of revealing her real character, and
the additional advice of not seeming alarmingly well educated. If
the settlements have all been agreed upon, the parents are
good-natured enough to let the pair see each other for a few
moments; they are allowed to talk or walk together, but always
without the slightest freedom, and knowing that they are bound by
rigid rules. The man is as much dressed up in soul as he is in body,
and so is the young girl. This pitiable comedy, mixed with bouquets,
jewels, and theatre-parties is called “paying your addresses.” It
revolts me: I desire that actual marriage shall be the result of a
previous and long marriage of souls. A young girl, a woman, has
throughout her life only this one moment when reflection, second
sight, and experience are necessary to her. She plays her liberty,
her happiness, and she is not allowed to throw the dice; she risks
her all, and is forced to be a mere spectator. I have the right,
the will, the power to make my own unhappiness, and I use them, as
did my mother, who, won by beauty and led by instinct, married the
most generous, the most liberal, the most loving of men. I know
that you are free, a poet, and noble-looking. Be sure that I
should not have chosen one of your brothers in Apollo who was
already married. If my mother was won by beauty, which is perhaps
the spirit of form, why should I not be attracted by the spirit
and the form united? Shall I not know you better by studying you
in this correspondence than I could through the vulgar experience
of “receiving your addresses”? This is the question, as Hamlet

But my proceedings, dear Chrysale, have at least the merit of not
binding us personally. I know that love has its illusions, and
every illusion its tomorrow. That is why there are so many
partings among lovers vowed to each other for life. The proof of
love lies in two things — suffering and happiness. When, after
passing through these double trials of life two beings have shown
each other their defects as well as their good qualities, when
they have really observed each other’s character, then they may go
to their grave hand in hand. My dear Argante, who told you that
our little drama thus begun was to have no future? In any case
shall we not have enjoyed the pleasures of our correspondence?

I await your orders, monseigneur, and I am with all my heart,

Your handmaiden,

O. d’Este M.

To Mademoiselle O. d’Este M. — You are a witch, a spirit, and I
love you! Is that what you desire of me, most original of girls?
Perhaps you are only seeking to amuse your provincial leisure with
the follies which are you able to make a poet commit. If so, you
have done a bad deed. Your two letters have enough of the spirit
of mischief in them to force this doubt into the mind of a
Parisian. But I am no longer master of myself; my life, my future
depend on the answer you will make me. Tell me if the certainty of
an unbounded affection, oblivious of all social conventions, will
touch you — if you will suffer me to seek you. There is anxiety
enough and uncertainty enough in the question as to whether I can
personally please you. If your reply is favorable I change my
life, I bid adieu to all the irksome pleasures which we have the
folly to call happiness. Happiness, my dear and beautiful unknown,
is what you dream it to be — a fusion of feelings, a perfect
accordance of souls, the imprint of a noble ideal (such as God
does permit us to form in this low world) upon the trivial round
of daily life whose habits we must needs obey, a constancy of
heart more precious far than what we call fidelity. Can we say
that we make sacrifices when the end in view is our eternal good,
the dream of poets, the dream of maidens, the poem which, at the
entrance of life when thought essays its wings, each noble
intellect has pondered and caressed only to see it shivered to
fragments on some stone of stumbling as hard as it is vulgar? — for
to the great majority of men, the foot of reality steps instantly
on that mysterious egg so seldom hatched.

I cannot speak to you any more of myself; not of my past life, nor
of my character, nor of an affection almost maternal on one side,
filial on mine, which you have already seriously changed — an
effect upon my life which must explain my use of the word
“sacrifice.” You have already rendered me forgetful, if not
ungrateful; does that satisfy you? Oh, speak! Say to me one word,
and I will love you till my eyes close in death, as the Marquis de
Pescaire loved his wife, as Romeo loved Juliet, and faithfully.
Our life will be, for me at least, that “felicity untroubled”
which Dante made the very element of his Paradiso — a poem far
superior to his Inferno. Strange, it is not myself that I doubt in
the long reverie through which, like you, I follow the windings of
a dreamed existence; it is you. Yes, dear, I feel within me the
power to love, and to love endlessly — to march to the grave with
gentle slowness and a smiling eye, with my beloved on my arm, and
with never a cloud upon the sunshine of our souls. Yes, I dare to
face our mutual old age, to see ourselves with whitening heads,
like the venerable historian of Italy, inspired always with the
same affection but transformed in soul by our life’s seasons. Hear
me, I can no longer be your friend only. Though Chrysale, Geronte,
and Argante re-live, you say, in me, I am not yet old enough to
drink from the cup held to my lips by the sweet hands of a veiled
woman without a passionate desire to tear off the domino and the
mask and see the face. Either write me no more, or give me hope.
Let me see you, or let me go. Must I bid you adieu? Will you
permit me to sign myself,

Your Friend?

To Monsieur de Canalis — What flattery! with what rapidity is the
grave Anselme transformed into a handsome Leander! To what must I
attribute such a change? to this black which I put upon this
white? to these ideas which are to the flowers of my soul what a
rose drawn in charcoal is to the roses in the garden? Or is it to
a recollection of the young girl whom you took for me, and who is
personally as like me as a waiting-woman is like her mistress?
Have we changed roles? Have I the sense? have you the fancy? But a
truce with jesting.

Your letter has made me know the elating pleasures of the soul;
the first that I have known outside of my family affections. What,
says a poet, are the ties of blood which are so strong in ordinary
minds, compared to those divinely forged within us by mysterious
sympathies? Let me thank you — no, we must not thank each other for
such things — but God bless you for the happiness you have given
me; be happy in the joy you have shed into my soul. You explain to
me some of the apparent injustices in social life. There is
something, I know not what, so dazzling, so virile in glory, that
it belongs only to man; God forbids us women to wear its halo, but
he makes love our portion, giving us the tenderness which soothes
the brow scorched by his lightnings. I have felt my mission, and
you have now confirmed it.

Sometimes, my friend, I rise in the morning in a state of
inexpressible sweetness; a sort of peace, tender and divine, gives
me an idea of heaven. My first thought is then like a benediction.
I call these mornings my little German wakings, in opposition to
my Southern sunsets, full of heroic deeds, battles, Roman fetes
and ardent poems. Well, after reading your letter, so full of
feverish impatience, I felt in my heart all the freshness of my
celestial wakings, when I love the air about me and all nature,
and fancy that I am destined to die for one I love. One of your
poems, “The Maiden’s Song,” paints these delicious moments, when
gaiety is tender, when aspiration is a need; it is one of my
favorites. Do you want me to put all my flatteries into one? — well
then, I think you worthy to be me!

Your letter, though short, enables me to read within you. Yes, I
have guessed your tumultuous struggles, your piqued curiosity,
your projects; but I do not yet know you well enough to satisfy
your wishes. Hear me, dear; the mystery in which I am shrouded
allows me to use that word, which lets you see to the bottom of my
heart. Hear me: if we once meet, adieu to our mutual
comprehension! Will you make a compact with me? Was the first
disadvantageous to you? But remember it won you my esteem, and it
is a great deal, my friend, to gain an admiration lined throughout
with esteem. Here is the compact: write me your life in a few
words; then tell me what you do in Paris, day by day, with no
reservations, and as if you were talking to some old friend. Well,
having done that, I will take a step myself — I will see you, I
promise you that. And it is a great deal.

This, dear, is no intrigue, no adventure; no gallantry, as you men
say, can come of it, I warn you frankly. It involves my life, and
more than that — something that causes me remorse for the many
thoughts that fly to you in flocks — it involves my father’s and my
mother’s life. I adore them, and my choice must please them; they
must find a son in you.

Tell me, to what extent can the superb spirits of your kind, to
whom God has given the wings of his angels, without always adding
their amiability — how far can they bend under a family yoke, and
put up with its little miseries? That is a text I have meditated
upon. Ah! though I said to my heart before I came to you, Forward!
Onward! it did not tremble and palpitate any the less on the way;
and I did not conceal from myself the stoniness of the path nor
the Alpine difficulties I had to encounter. I thought of all in my
long, long meditations. Do I not know that eminent men like you
have known the love they have inspired quite as well as that which
they themselves have felt; that they have had many romances in
their lives — you particularly, who send forth those airy visions
of your soul that women rush to buy? Yet still I cried to myself,
“Onward!” because I have studied, more than you give me credit
for, the geography of the great summits of humanity, which you
tell me are so cold. Did you not say that Goethe and Byron were
the colossi of egoism and poetry? Ah, my friend, there you shared
a mistake into which superficial minds are apt to fall; but in you
perhaps it came from generosity, false modesty, or the desire to
escape from me. Vulgar minds may mistake the effect of toil for
the development of personal character, but you must not. Neither
Lord Byron, nor Goethe, nor Walter Scott, nor Cuvier, nor any
inventor, belongs to himself, he is the slave of his idea. And
this mysterious power is more jealous than a woman; it sucks their
blood, it makes them live, it makes them die for its sake. The
visible developments of their hidden existence do seem, in their
results, like egotism; but who shall dare to say that the man who
has abnegated self to give pleasure, instruction, or grandeur to
his epoch, is an egoist? Is a mother selfish when she immolates
all things to her child? Well, the detractors of genius do not
perceive its fecund maternity, that is all. The life of a poet is
so perpetual a sacrifice that he needs a gigantic organization to
bear even the ordinary pleasures of life. Therefore, into what
sorrows may he not fall when, like Moliere, he wishes to live the
life of feeling in its most poignant crises; to me, remembering
his personal life, Moliere’s comedy is horrible.

The generosity of genius seems to me half divine; and I place you
in this noble family of alleged egoists. Ah! if I had found
self-interest, ambition, a seared nature where I now can see my
best loved flowers of the soul, you know not what long anguish I
should have had to bear. I met with disappointment before I was
sixteen. What would have become of me had I learned at twenty that
fame is a lie, that he whose books express the feelings hidden in
my heart was incapable of feeling them himself? Oh! my friend, do
you know what would have become of me? Shall I take you into the
recesses of my soul? I should have gone to my father and said,
“Bring me the son-inlaw whom you desire; my will abdicates — marry
me to whom you please.” And the man might have been a notary,
banker, miser, fool, dullard, wearisome as a rainy day, common as
the usher of a school, a manufacturer, or some brave soldier without
two ideas — he would have had a resigned and attentive servant in
me. But what an awful suicide! never could my soul have expanded
in the life-giving rays of a beloved sun. No murmur should have
revealed to my father, or my mother, or my children the suicide of
the creature who at this instant is shaking her fetters, casting
lightnings from her eyes, and flying towards you with eager wing.
See, she is there, at the angle of your desk, like Polyhymnia,
breathing the air of your presence, and glancing about her with a
curious eye. Sometimes in the fields where my husband would have
taken me to walk, I should have wept, apart and secretly, at sight
of a glorious morning; and in my heart, or hidden in a
bureau-drawer, I might have kept some treasure, the comfort of poor
girls ill-used by love, sad, poetic souls — but ah! I have you, I
believe in you, my friend. That belief straightens all my thoughts
and fancies, even the most fantastic, and sometimes — see how far
my frankness leads me — I wish I were in the middle of the book we
are just beginning; such persistency do I feel in my sentiments,
such strength in my heart to love, such constancy sustained by
reason, such heroism for the duties for which I was created — if
indeed love can ever be transmuted into duty.

If you were able to follow me to the exquisite retreat where I
fancy ourselves happy, if you knew my plans and projects, the
dreadful word “folly!” might escape you, and I should be cruelly
punished for sending poetry to a poet. Yes, I wish to be a spring
of waters inexhaustible as a fertile land for the twenty years
that nature allows me to shine. I want to drive away satiety by
charm. I mean to be courageous for my friend as most women are for
the world. I wish to vary happiness. I wish to put intelligence
into tenderness, and to give piquancy to fidelity. I am filled
with ambition to kill the rivals of the past, to conjure away all
outside griefs by a wife’s gentleness, by her proud abnegation, to
take a lifelong care of the nest — such as birds can only take for
a few weeks.

Tell me, do you now think me to blame for my first letter? The
mysterious wind of will drove me to you, as the tempest brings the
little rose-tree to the pollard window. In your letter, which I
hold here upon my heart, you cried out, like your ancestor when he
departed for the Crusades, “God wills it.”

Ah! but you will cry out, “What a chatterbox!” All the people
round me say, on the contrary, “Mademoiselle is very taciturn.”

O. d’Este M.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51