- Balzac's Love Letters: Correspondence and the Literary Imagination by Ewa Szypula
In the spring of 1832, Balzac received a letter from the Polish countess Éveline Hanska that would alter the course both of his life and of his literary production. Signed simply 'L'Étrangère', Mme Hanska's letter triggered a sixteen-year correspondence between her and Balzac, and the start of a love affair that would culminate in the couple's marriage in March 1850, less than six months before the novelist's death. However, as Ewa Szypula points out in her Introduction to this fascinating study, the Lettres à Madame Hanska have failed to garner the sustained attention of scholars, who have used them primarily as a tool for verifying specific details of Balzac's biography. By contrast, Szypula treats the letters as texts in their own right, arguing persuasively that they can be analysed in much the same way as we might read and interpret Balzac's fiction. Far from existing independently of the rest of the novelist's work, she claims, the correspondence functions as a creative, experimental space in which Balzac initiates many of the themes, images, and plotlines that he develops in his fictional writings. In the first chapter of this volume, Szypula explores the palimpsestic nature of the correspondence, and the manner in which Balzac used his letters to Mme Hanska to overwrite his earlier relationships and life experiences. Starting with Éveline's curious habit of leaving blank pages in her letters, Szypula reflects on the way in which this 'blankness' allowed Balzac to construct an image of her as his ideal woman while simultaneously re-imagining his earlier romantic attachment to Mme de Berny, whom he also referred to as Ève. Chapter 2 turns to questions of performance and play, focusing in particular on the ways in which Balzac shaped letters into 'mini-performances' whose ultimate aim was to seduce Mme Hanska. Most interestingly, Szypula explains how Balzac adopted different roles in his letters in order to provide Éveline with the means of justifying their adulterous relationship to herself. Often, for example, he casts himself as a child, and stresses the pure, maternal [End Page 610] nature of their love — an idea that would filter into his 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet, in which Balzac describes the love between the eponymous heroine and her cousin Charles as childish in its innocence. Szypula's final chapter considers the relationship between collecting, rereading, and storytelling in the correspondence. In particular, she examines Balzac's repeated requests for objects from Éveline — such as a piece of black cloth from her dress — and his use of these objects as fuel for both his rereading of her letters and his own writing. As Szypula argues compellingly, the themes of writing and rereading assume special importance in the 1844 novel Modeste Mignon, in which Balzac can be seen to reflect on the limitations of rereading, particularly when a letter-writer is insincere. The study concludes with an Afterword that examines Mme Hanska's attempts at revising Balzac's letters following his death, a process that shows — as Szypula does so refreshingly in this volume — that this correspondence has never truly closed, but instead remains intriguingly open to rereading and re-interpretation.