This is the first post in the Hidden Gems series, dedicated to books I stumbled upon. I started reading each by chance, not expecting anything special and not having heard of them previously. Each caught me by surprise with something and I’d like to share my impressions and the influence they had on me. I use a fixed set of questions for highlighting the most intriguing aspects of the novel in question and spoliers are whited out and marked in advance.
The first book in the Hidden Gems series is the Letter of Two Brides by Honoré de Balzac. It was published as a serie in the La Presse in 1841 and a year later as novel under the original title Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées. The novel is part of Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, his endavour to depict life in is era that would match the Comédie divine from Dante.
Title & Book
I read the book in original and the title, Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées, promised intrigue and intime secrets. I looked up the title of the English translation for this post and it doesn’t invoke the same atmosphere for me but it keeps what it promises.
The novel is a collection of letters between two young women. Louise and Renée studied together and became friends in a Carmelite convent. They show a very different attitude towards life, emotions, desires and social situation and the letters show their life after they have left the convent.
Setting & Timeline
The story is set in the second half of the 19th century France in Paris and in the region of Provence. The timeline is linear, it is the correspondance of two friends across twelve years of their young married life. Their respective locations, Provence for Renée and Paris for Louise underlines the contrast of their personalities.
First line: “Sweetheart, I too am free!” – «Ma chère biche, je suis dehors aussi, moi !»
Spoiler: The first letter from Louise to Renée is full of foreshadowing for what is yet to come: the first love, the second love, tubercolosis and Louise’s tendency to be extreme in action and in feelings.
One-line summary: There is no one way to be happy, but there are several ways to be unhappy.
Favourite quote from the book is the last sentence from Louise which unfortunately is also a major spoiler: I simply loved the last phrase of the last letter from Louise: « Viens me voir mourir ? » – “Come to see me die!”. I prefer the question in the original version, because it sums up Louise’s character perfectly: the passion, the drama, the deep trust and her friendship with Renée.
Most satisfying scene is at night on a balcony. The rest is a spolier: Louise accepts the marriage proposal of Felipe Hénarez, Baron de Macumer. She leads Felipe to believe she is lost to him forever until the last minute. She controls every aspect of the situation and plays with him like a cat with a mouse until she can wring out the maximum amount of drama of it. Some like it hot, much?
Passionately hated that Renée’s later letters display the kind of female sexism that is blocking the progress towards equality even nowadays. The passages about feeling happiness through the happiness of her own family and by making sacrifises for them reads like a how to manual or propaganda for patriarchy.Spolier: Especially since the ending of the novel can be interpreted in a way that suggests that Louise has fallen victime of her own “selfishness” by following her emotions and passions instead of “duty”.
I hated this aspect all the more because otherwise I liked Renée. She somehow manages to be down-to-earth and delicate at the sametime.
What captivated me me
I loved the intime and sincere relationship between Louise and Renée. The candor describing their everyday life and the their feelings in their letters was refreshing. I was fascinated by how two completely different characters can share an intimate bond, respecting and loving each other in spite of their contrasting personalities. I tend to be a more like Renée and the novel made me realise that I often chose and still choose friends with a fireworks personality like Louise. Their contrast also reminded me of Elinor and and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. Somehow I was never really sold on Marianne, I find her self-absorbed and hysterical, which could be applied to Louise as well. The different point of view, the first person letter format instead of the 3rd person narrator makes all the difference. All points of view characters (with negligible exceptions) are women, despite the historical setting. I would argue that that they are the most constant and important person in each other’s life. Despite the dramatic ending, it often felt like reading a captivating girl-power story.
Let yourself be captivated by the intrigue, love and girl power in the 19th century France! The book is Public domain and available on the Gutenberg project, pour connaisseurs en version originale à Feedbooks.