The Lily in the Valley
A new translation of one of Balzac’s finest novels, this tale of misguided passion centers on a young aristocrat who falls into a cloaked, coded entanglement with an older countess—a relationship that is upended when he becomes involved with a new lover.
A story of baffled and irrepressible desire, Balzac's The Lily in the Valley opens with a scene of desire unleashed. His protagonist, Felix de Vandenesse, the shy teenage scion of an aristocratic family, has been sent by his family to a ball in honor of a local dignitary. A wallflower at the party, his eyes are drawn to a beautiful woman in fashionable undress. She turns away from him, and, helpless, he stands, covering her bare back with kisses. In shock, she pushes him off. He leaves the party in shame.
The woman at the party is Henriette de Montsauf, married to a much older count, the mother of two children whose health has been compromised by their father's past debauchery. Time passes, and Felix is reintroduced to her. Nothing is said of what transpired, though nothing is forgotten, and a courtship begins between the younger man and the still young mother, a courtship whose premise is that Felix will worship her without displaying the least sign of desire. He waits upon her. He plays endless board games with her impossible husband. He develops a language of flowers and presents her with elaborately coded bouquets. Felix and Henriette are in a swoon, until he departs for Paris to pursue a career in politics and takes up with the all too unconventional and uninhibited Arabella Dudley. Returning to the provinces, he learns Henriette is dying. She writes him, "Do you still today remember your kisses? They have dominated my life. They cut a furrow through my soul.... I am dying because of them."
Balzac the great realist is an incomparable witness to the fantasies that are the stuff of ordinary life and of the countless excuses that so-called virtue makes for eagerly imagined vice. The Lily in the Valley is a terrible fairy tale of two people lost in a game of love—and hate. Peter Bush's new translation, the first in over a century, brings out psychological dynamics of one of Balzac's masterpieces.