In March of 1832, quite out of the blue, Polisih countess Ewelina Hańska drafted a brash, chiding (and ultimately very alluring) letter to Honoré de Balzac, signing it “L’Éstrangèr”. The letter sparked a fraught, impassioned, profoundly intimate relationship of nearly twenty years, culminating in their (long-deferred) marriage in 1851—five months before Balzac’s death. The following letter was written on the eve of their first in-person encounter, where “L’Éstrangèr” would finally reveal herself to Balzac as Hańska.
September 13, 1833, Paris
Your last letter, of the 9th, has caused me I cannot tell what keen pain; it has entered my heart to desolate it. It is now three hours that I have been sitting here plunged in a world of painful thoughts. What crape you have fastened on the sweetest, most joyous hopes which ever caressed my soul! What! that book, which I now hate, has given you weapons against me? Do you not know with what impetuosity I spring to happiness? I was so happy! You put God between us! You will not have my joys, you divide your heart: you say, “There, I will live with him; here, I will live no more.” You make me know all the agonies of jealousy against ideas, against reason! Mon Dieu, I would not say to you wicked sophisms; I hate corruption as much as violation; I would not owe a woman to seduction, nor even to the power of good. The sentiment which crowns me with joy, which delights me, is the free and pure sentiment which yields neither to the grace of evil nor to the attraction of good; an involuntary sentiment, roused by intuitive perception and justified by happiness. You gave me all that; I lived in a clear heaven, and now you have flung me into the sorrows of doubt.
To love, my angel, is to have nothing in the heart but the person loved. If love is not that, it is nothing. As for me, I have no longer a thought that is not for you; my life is you. Griefs? —I have had none to speak of for several days. There are no longer griefs or pains to me but those you give me; the rest are mere annoyances. I said to myself, “I am so happy that I ought to pay for my happiness.” Oh! my beloved, she who presents herself in heaven accompanied by a soul made happy by her can always enter there! I have known noble hearts, souls very pure, very delicate; but these women never hesitated to say that to love is the virtue of women. It is I who ought to be the good and the evil for you. Confess yourself ? Good God ! to whom, and for what? My angel, live in your sphere; consider the obligations of the world as a duty imposed upon your inward joys; live in two beings; in the unknown you, the most delightful, and the known you—two divisions of your time; the happy dreams of night, the harsh toils of day.
If what I say to you here is evil, my God ! it is without my knowledge. Do not put me among the Frenchmen whom people believe they have the right to accuse of levity, fatuity, and evil creeds about women. There is nothing of that in me. To betray love for a man or an idea is one and the same thing. Oh! I have suffered from this betrayal! A glacial cold has seized me at the mere apprehension of new sorrows. I shall resist no more; I am not strong enough. I must be done with this life of tender sentiments, exalted feelings, happiness dreamed of, constant, faithful love which you have roused for the first and the last time in all its plentitude. I have often risen to gather in the harvest, and have found nothing in he fields, or else I have brought back unfructifying flowers. I am more sad than I have told you that I am, and from the nature of my character, my feelings go on increasing. I shall be the most unhappy man in the world until your answer comes; I can still receive it here before my departure for Besançon and consequently for Neufchâtel. I leave Saturday, 21st; I shall be at Besançon 23rd, and on the 25th at Neufchâtel. My journey is delayed by the box I am taking to you. There are many things to do to it. I have sought for the cleverest workman in Paris for the secret drawer, and what I wish to put into it requires time. With what joy I go about Paris, bestir myself, keep myself moving for a thing that will be yours! It is a life apart, it is ineffable! The Chénier is impossible; we must wait for the new edition.
You ask me what I am doing. Mon Dieu! business; my writings are laid aside. Besides, how could I work knowing that Saturday evening I shall be going towards you? One must know how the slightest expectation makes me palpitate, to understand all the physical evil that I endure from hope. God has surely given me iron membranes if I do not have an aneurism of the heart.
Here all the newspapers attack “Le Médecin de campagne.” Every one rushes to give his own stab. What saddened and angered Lord Byron makes me laugh. I wish to govern the intellectual life of Europe; only two years more of patience and labour, and I will walk upon the heads of those who strive to tie my hands, retard my flight! Persecution, injustice give me an iron courage. I am without strength against kind feelings. You alone can wound me. Eve, I am at your feet; I deliver to you my life and my heart. Kill me at a blow, but do not make me suffer. I love you with all the forces of my soul; do not destroy such glorious hopes.
Thank you a thousand times for the view; how good and merciful you are! The site resembles that of the left bank of the Loire. The Grenadière is a short distance away from that steeple. There is a complete resemblance. Your drawing is before my eyes until there is no need of a drawing.
In future my letters will be always poste restante; there is more security for you in that way.
For more on the Balzac/Hańska relationship, click here.
For the full correspondence (now, happily, in the public domain), click here.