Read MEDITATION VII - THE CHARTER OF MARRIAGE. of The Physiology of Marriage‚ Part II., free online book, by Honore de Balzac, on

I acknowledge that I really know of but one house in Paris which is managed in accordance with the system unfolded in the two preceding Meditations.  But I ought to add, also, that I have built up my system on the example of that house.  The admirable fortress I allude to belonged to a young councillor of state, who was mad with love and jealousy.

As soon as he learned that there existed a man who was exclusively occupied in bringing to perfection the institution of marriage in France, he had the generosity to open the doors of his mansion to me and to show me his gyneceum.  I admired the profound genius which so cleverly disguised the precautions of almost oriental jealousy under the elegance of furniture, beauty of carpets and brightness of painted decorations.  I agreed with him that it was impossible for his wife to render his home a scene of treachery.

“Sir,” said I, to this Othello of the council of state who did not seem to me peculiarly strong in the haute politique of marriage, “I have no doubt that the viscountess is delighted to live in this little Paradise; she ought indeed to take prodigious pleasure in it, especially if you are here often.  But the time will come when she will have had enough of it; for, my dear sir, we grow tired of everything, even of the sublime.  What will you do then, when madame, failing to find in all your inventions their primitive charm, shall open her mouth in a yawn, and perhaps make a request with a view to the exercise of two rights, both of which are indispensable to her happiness:  individual liberty, that is, the privilege of going and coming according to the caprice of her will; and the liberty of the press, that is, the privilege of writing and receiving letters without fear of your censure?”

“Yes, such is the ingratitude of woman!  If there is any thing more ungrateful than a king, it is a nation; but, sir, woman is more ungrateful than either of them.  A married woman treats us as the citizens of a constitutional monarchy treat their king; every measure has been taken to give these citizens a life of prosperity in a prosperous country; the government has taken all the pains in the world with its gendarmes, its churches, its ministry and all the paraphernalia of its military forces, to prevent the people from dying of hunger, to light the cities by gas at the expense of the citizens, to give warmth to every one by means of the sun which shines at the forty-fifth degree of latitude, and to forbid every one, excepting the tax-gatherers, to ask for money; it has labored hard to give to all the main roads a more or less substantial pavement ­but none of these advantages of our fair Utopia is appreciated!  The citizens want something else.  They are not ashamed to demand the right of traveling over the roads at their own will, and of being informed where that money given to the tax-gatherers goes.  And, finally, the monarch will soon be obliged, if we pay any attention to the chatter of certain scribblers, to give to every individual a share in the throne or to adopt certain revolutionary ideas, which are mere Punch and Judy shows for the public, manipulated by a band of self-styled patriots, riff-raff, always ready to sell their conscience for a million francs, for an honest woman, or for a ducal coronet.”

“But, monsieur,” I said, interrupting him, “while I perfectly agree with you on this last point, the question remains, how will you escape giving an answer to the just demands of your wife?”

“Sir” he replied, “I shall do ­I shall answer as the government answers, that is, those governments which are not so stupid as the opposition would make out to their constituents.  I shall begin by solemnly interdicting any arrangement, by virtue of which my wife will be declared entirely free.  I fully recognize her right to go wherever it seems good to her, to write to whom she chooses, and to receive letters, the contents of which I do not know.  My wife shall have all the rights that belong to an English Parliament; I shall let her talk as much as she likes, discuss and propose strong and energetic measures, but without the power to put them into execution, and then after that ­well, we shall see!”

“By St. Joseph!” said I to myself, “Here is a man who understands the science of marriage as well as I myself do.  And then, you will see, sir,” I answered aloud, in order to obtain from him the fullest revelation of his experience; “you will see, some fine morning, that you are as big a fool as the next man.”

“Sir,” he gravely replied, “allow me to finish what I was saying.  Here is what the great politicians call a theory, but in practice they can make that theory vanish in smoke; and ministers possess in a greater degree than even the lawyers of Normandy, the art of making fact yield to fancy.  M. de Metternich and M. de Pilat, men of the highest authority, have been for a long time asking each other whether Europe is in its right senses, whether it is dreaming, whether it knows whither it is going, whether it has ever exercised its reason, a thing impossible on the part of the masses, of nations and of women.  M. de Metternich and M. de Pilat are terrified to see this age carried away by a passion for constitutions, as the preceding age was by the passion for philosophy, as that of Luther was for a reform of abuses in the Roman religion; for it truly seems as if different generations of men were like those conspirators whose actions are directed to the same end, as soon as the watchword has been given them.  But their alarm is a mistake, and it is on this point alone that I condemn them, for they are right in their wish to enjoy power without permitting the middle class to come on a fixed day from the depth of each of their six kingdoms, to torment them.  How could men of such remarkable talent fail to divine that the constitutional comedy has in it a moral of profound meaning, and to see that it is the very best policy to give the age a bone to exercise its teeth upon!  I think exactly as they do on the subject of sovereignty.  A power is a moral being as much interested as a man is in self-preservation.  This sentiment of self-preservation is under the control of an essential principle which may be expressed in three words ­to lose nothing.  But in order to lose nothing, a power must grow or remain indefinite, for a power which remains stationary is nullified.  If it retrogrades, it is under the control of something else, and loses its independent existence.  I am quite as well aware, as are those gentlemen, in what a false position an unlimited power puts itself by making concessions; it allows to another power whose essence is to expand a place within its own sphere of activity.  One of them will necessarily nullify the other, for every existing thing aims at the greatest possible development of its own forces.  A power, therefore, never makes concessions which it does not afterwards seek to retract.  This struggle between two powers is the basis on which stands the balance of government, whose elasticity so mistakenly alarmed the patriarch of Austrian diplomacy, for comparing comedy with comedy the least perilous and the most advantageous administration is found in the seesaw system of the English and of the French politics.  These two countries have said to the people, ’You are free;’ and the people have been satisfied; they enter the government like the zeros which give value to the unit.  But if the people wish to take an active part in the government, immediately they are treated, like Sancho Panza, on that occasion when the squire, having become sovereign over an island on terra firma, made an attempt at dinner to eat the viands set before him.

“Now we ought to parody this admirable scene in the management of our homes.  Thus, my wife has a perfect right to go out, provided she tell me where she is going, how she is going, what is the business she is engaged in when she is out and at what hour she will return.  Instead of demanding this information with the brutality of the police, who will doubtless some day become perfect, I take pains to speak to her in the most gracious terms.  On my lips, in my eyes, in my whole countenance, an expression plays, which indicates both curiosity and indifference, seriousness and pleasantry, harshness and tenderness.  These little conjugal scenes are so full of vivacity, of tact and address that it is a pleasure to take part in them.  The very day on which I took from the head of my wife the wreath of orange blossoms which she wore, I understood that we were playing at a royal coronation ­the first scene in a comic pantomime! ­I have my gendarmes! ­I have my guard royal! ­I have my attorney general ­that I do!” he continued enthusiastically.  “Do you think that I would allow madame to go anywhere on foot unaccompanied by a lackey in livery?  Is not that the best style?  Not to count the pleasure she takes in saying to everybody, ‘I have my people here.’  It has always been a conservative principle of mine that my times of exercise should coincide with those of my wife, and for two years I have proved to her that I take an ever fresh pleasure in giving her my arm.  If the weather is not suitable for walking, I try to teach her how to drive with success a frisky horse; but I swear to you that I undertake this in such a manner that she does not learn very quickly! ­If either by chance, or prompted by a deliberate wish, she takes measures to escape without a passport, that is to say, alone in the carriage, have I not a driver, a footman, a groom?  My wife, therefore, go where she will, takes with her a complete Santa Hermandad, and I am perfectly easy in mind ­But, my dear sir, there is abundance of means by which to annul the charter of marriage by our manner of fulfilling it!  I have remarked that the manners of high society induce a habit of idleness which absorbs half of the life of a woman without permitting her to feel that she is alive.  For my part, I have formed the project of dexterously leading my wife along, up to her fortieth year, without letting her think of adultery, just as poor Musson used to amuse himself in leading some simple fellow from the Rue Saint-Denis to Pierrefitte without letting him think that he had left the shadows of St. Lew’s tower.”

“How is it,” I said, interrupting him, “that you have hit upon those admirable methods of deception which I was intending to describe in a Meditation entitled The Act of Putting Death into Life! Alas!  I thought I was the first man to discover that science.  The epigrammatic title was suggested to me by an account which a young doctor gave me of an excellent composition of Crabbe, as yet unpublished.  In this work, the English poet has introduced a fantastic being called Life in Death.  This personage crosses the oceans of the world in pursuit of a living skeleton called Death in Life ­I recollect at the time very few people, among the guests of a certain elegant translator of English poetry, understood the mystic meaning of a fable as true as it was fanciful.  Myself alone, perhaps, as I sat buried in silence, thought of the whole generations which as they were hurried along by life, passed on their way without living.  Before my eyes rose faces of women by the million, by the myriad, all dead, all disappointed and shedding tears of despair, as they looked back upon the lost moments of their ignorant youth.  In the distance I saw a playful Meditation rise to birth, I heard the satanic laughter which ran through it, and now you doubtless are about to kill it. ­But come, tell me in confidence what means you have discovered by which to assist a woman to squander the swift moments during which her beauty is at its full flower and her desires at their full strength. ­Perhaps you have some stratagems, some clever devices, to describe to me ­”

The viscount began to laugh at this literary disappointment of mine, and he said to me, with a self-satisfied air: 

“My wife, like all the young people of our happy century, has been accustomed, for three or four consecutive years, to press her fingers on the keys of a piano, a long-suffering instrument.  She has hammered out Beethoven, warbled the airs of Rossini and run through the exercises of Crammer.  I had already taken pains to convince her of the excellence of music; to attain this end, I have applauded her, I have listened without yawning to the most tiresome sonatas in the world, and I have at last consented to give her a box at the Bouffons.  I have thus gained three quiet evenings out of the seven which God has created in the week.  I am the mainstay of the music shops.  At Paris there are drawing-rooms which exactly resemble the musical snuff-boxes of Germany.  They are a sort of continuous orchestra to which I regularly go in search of that surfeit of harmony which my wife calls a concert.  But most part of the time my wife keeps herself buried in her music-books ­”

“But, my dear sir, do you not recognize the danger that lies in cultivating in a woman a taste for singing, and allowing her to yield to all the excitements of a sedentary life?  It is only less dangerous to make her feed on mutton and drink cold water.”

“My wife never eats anything but the white meat of poultry, and I always take care that a ball shall come after a concert and a reception after an Opera!  I have also succeeded in making her lie down between one and two in the day.  Ah! my dear sir, the benefits of this nap are incalculable!  In the first place each necessary pleasure is accorded as a favor, and I am considered to be constantly carrying out my wife’s wishes.  And then I lead her to imagine, without saying a single word, that she is being constantly amused every day from six o’clock in the evening, the time of our dinner and of her toilet, until eleven o’clock in the morning, the time when we get up.”

“Ah! sir, how grateful you ought to be for a life which is so completely filled up!”

“I have scarcely more than three dangerous hours a day to pass; but she has, of course, sonatas to practice and airs to go over, and there are always rides in the Bois de Boulogne, carriages to try, visits to pay, etc.  But this is not all.  The fairest ornament of a woman is the most exquisite cleanliness.  A woman cannot be too particular in this respect, and no pains she takes can be laughed at.  Now her toilet has also suggested to me a method of thus consuming the best hours of the day in bathing.”

“How lucky I am in finding a listener like you!” I cried; “truly, sir, you could waste for her four hours a day, if only you were willing to teach her an art quite unknown to the most fastidious of our modern fine ladies.  Why don’t you enumerate to the viscountess the astonishing precautions manifest in the Oriental luxury of the Roman dames?  Give her the names of the slaves merely employed for the bath in Poppea’s palace:  the unctores, the fricatores, the alipilarili, the dropacistae, the paratiltriae, the picatrices, the tracatrices, the swan whiteners, and all the rest.  ­Talk to her about this multitude of slaves whose names are given by Mirabeau in his Erotika Biblion.  If she tries to secure the services of all these people you will have the fine times of quietness, not to speak of the personal satisfaction which will redound to you yourself from the introduction into your house of the system invented by these illustrious Romans, whose hair, artistically arranged, was deluged with perfumes, whose smallest vein seemed to have acquired fresh blood from the myrrh, the lint, the perfume, the douches, the flowers of the bath, all of which were enjoyed to the strains of voluptuous music.”

“Ah! sir,” continued the husband, who was warming to his subject, “can I not find also admirable pretexts in my solicitude for her heath?  Her health, so dear and precious to me, forces me to forbid her going out in bad weather, and thus I gain a quarter of the year.  And I have also introduced the charming custom of kissing when either of us goes out, this parting kiss being accompanied with the words, ’My sweet angel, I am going out.’  Finally, I have taken measures for the future to make my wife as truly a prisoner in the house as the conscript in his sentry box!  For I have inspired her with an incredible enthusiasm for the sacred duties of maternity.”

“You do it by opposing her?” I asked.

“You have guessed it,” he answered, laughing.  “I have maintained to her that it is impossible for a woman of the world to discharge her duties towards society, to manage her household, to devote herself to fashion, as well as to the wishes of her husband, whom she loves, and, at the same time, to rear children.  She then avers that, after the example of Cato, who wished to see how the nurse changed the swaddling bands of the infant Pompey, she would never leave to others the least of the services required in shaping the susceptible minds and tender bodies of these little creatures whose education begins in the cradle.  You understand, sir, that my conjugal diplomacy would not be of much service to me unless, after having put my wife in solitary confinement, I did not also employ a certain harmless machiavelism, which consists in begging her to do whatever she likes, and asking her advice in every circumstance and on every contingency.  As this delusive liberty has entirely deceived a creature so high-minded as she is, I have taken pains to stop at no sacrifice which would convince Madame de V----- that she is the freest woman in Paris; and, in order to attain this end, I take care not to commit those gross political blunders into which our ministers so often fall.”

“I can see you,” said I, “when you wish to cheat your wife out of some right granted her by the charter, I can see you putting on a mild and deliberate air, hiding your dagger under a bouquet of roses, and as you plunge it cautiously into her heart, saying to her with a friendly voice, ‘My darling, does it hurt?’ and she, like those on whose toes you tread in a crowd, will probably reply, ‘Not in the least.’”

He could not restrain a laugh and said: 

“Won’t my wife be astonished at the Last Judgment?”

“I scarcely know,” I replied, “whether you or she will be most astonished.”

The jealous man frowned, but his face resumed its calmness as I added: 

“I am truly grateful, sir, to the chance which has given me the pleasure of your acquaintance.  Without the assistance of your remarks I should have been less successful than you have been in developing certain ideas which we possess in common.  I beg of you that you will give me leave to publish this conversation.  Statements which you and I find pregnant with high political conceptions, others perhaps will think characterized by more or less cutting irony, and I shall pass for a clever fellow in the eyes of both parties.”

While I thus tried to express my thanks to the viscount (the first husband after my heart that I had met with), he took me once more through his apartments, where everything seemed to be beyond criticism.

I was about to take leave of him, when opening the door of a little boudoir he showed me a room with an air which seemed to say, “Is there any way by which the least irregularity should occur without my seeing it?”

I replied to this silent interrogation by an inclination of the head, such as guests make to their Amphytrion when they taste some exceptionally choice dish.

“My whole system,” he said to me in a whisper, “was suggested to me by three words which my father heard Napoleon pronounce at a crowded council of state, when divorce was the subject of conversation.  ‘Adultery,’ he exclaimed, ‘is merely a matter of opportunity!’ See, then, I have changed these accessories of crime, so that they become spies,” added the councillor, pointing out to me a divan covered with tea-colored cashmere, the cushions of which were slightly pressed.  “Notice that impression, ­I learn from it that my wife has had a headache, and has been reclining there.”

We stepped toward the divan, and saw the word FOOL lightly traced upon the fatal cushion, by four

  Things that I know not, plucked by lover’s hand
  From Cypris’ orchard, where the fairy band
  Are dancing, once by nobles thought to be
  Worthy an order of new chivalry,
  A brotherhood, wherein, with script of gold,
  More mortal men than gods should be enrolled.

“Nobody in my house has black hair!” said the husband, growing pale.

I hurried away, for I was seized with an irresistible fit of laughter, which I could not easily overcome.

“That man has met his judgment day!” I said to myself; “all the barriers by which he has surrounded her have only been instrumental in adding to the intensity of her pleasures!”

This idea saddened me.  The adventure destroyed from summit to foundation three of my most important Meditations, and the catholic infallibility of my book was assailed in its most essential point.  I would gladly have paid to establish the fidelity of the Viscountess V----- a sum as great as very many people would have offered to secure her surrender.  But alas! my money will now be kept by me.

Three days afterwards I met the councillor in the foyer of the Italiens.  As soon as he saw me he rushed up.  Impelled by a sort of modesty I tried to avoid him, but grasping my arm:  “Ah!  I have just passed three cruel days,” he whispered in my ear.  “Fortunately my wife is as innocent as perhaps a new-born babe ­”

“You have already told me that the viscountess was extremely ingenious,” I said, with unfeeling gaiety.

“Oh!” he said, “I gladly take a joke this evening; for this morning I had irrefragable proofs of my wife’s fidelity.  I had risen very early to finish a piece of work for which I had been rushed, and in looking absently in my garden, I suddenly saw the valet de chambre of a general, whose house is next to mine, climbing over the wall.  My wife’s maid, poking her head from the vestibule, was stroking my dog and covering the retreat of the gallant.  I took my opera glass and examined the intruder ­his hair was jet black! ­Ah! never have I seen a Christian face that gave me more delight!  And you may well believe that during the day all my perplexities vanished.  So, my dear sir,” he continued, “if you marry, let your dog loose and put broken bottles over the top of your walls.”

“And did the viscountess perceive your distress during these three days?

“Do you take me for a child?” he said, shrugging his shoulders.  “I have never been so merry in all my life as I have been since we met.”

“You are a great man unrecognized,” I cried, “and you are not ­”

He did not permit me to conclude; for he had disappeared on seeing one of his friends who approached as if to greet the viscountess.

Now what can we add that would not be a tedious paraphrase of the lessons suggested by this conversation?  All is included in it, either as seed or fruit.  Nevertheless, you see, O husband! that your happiness hangs on a hair.