One of the most annoying and hardest to understand things to me was always this idea of marriage as prison. Who haven’t ever heard this ‘ball-and-chain’ bollocks? Well, Balzac definitely did. Of course, he did not invent it, but he would love to insert it into his La Comédie HumaineThe American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer tells me the idiom was coined in early 1800s, and not in the meaning of wife, just a heavy iron ball chained to a prisoner’s leg. Apparently the earliest citation in print is from The Times, January 1819:

“They sentence the prisoner to receive 50 stripes on his bare back, and be confined with a ball and chain to hard labour for 12 calendar months.”

Soon after, in 1821, is this US reference from the Ohio Repository, Canton, Ohio:

“Bread and water, the ball and chain, and even whipping, the convicts prefer to the solitary cell.”

Later it was transferred to other kinds of restraining burden. How and why it was applied to one’s wife, I cannot conceive. Usually it’s men who propose.

Oreste Cortazzo, Illustration of Petty Worries of Conjugal Life (1830-1846): The Husband’s Surrender. Philadelphia: George Barrie & Son, 1897


Getting back to Balzac, he himself wasn’t extremely happy in his love life. For many years he was in love with Ewelina Hańska (née Rzewuska), Polish aristocrat and wife to a wealthy Polish landowner, Marshal Wacław Hański. Balzac and Mrs. Hańska were coresponding for over fifteen years, but it was only after her husband died, Balzac started the proper courtship (and having a Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt, as a rival). They got married in 1850, five years before Balzac’s death.

Petty Worries of Conjugal Life (or: Petty Troubles…; or: Little Miseries…; there were several translations) were written before that happy moment (marriage, I mean, not Balzac death), and you can tell it by reading just the first page – or, alternatively, the last one. I won’t call this a spoiler, as the book doesn’t really have any plot:

THE FRIEND, who has just been married. You all of you use your ink in depreciating social life, on the pretext of enlightening us! Why, there are couples a hundred, a thousand times happier than your boasted couples of four.

THE AUTHOR. Well, shall I deceive the marrying class of the population, and scratch the passage out?

THE FRIEND. No, it will be taken merely as the point of a song in a vaudeville.

THE AUTHOR. Yes, a method of passing truths off upon society.

THE FRIEND, who sticks to his opinion. Such truths as are destined to be passed off upon it.

THE AUTHOR, who wants to have the last word. Who and what is there that does not pass off, or become passe? When your wife is twenty years older, we will resume this conversation.

THE FRIEND. You revenge yourself cruelly for your inability to write the history of happy homes.

And, if you’ve never read anything by Balzac, with this knowledge you can discuss an entire La Comédie Humaine without reading anything else. But, if I may add, it’s pretty much worth reading.

Petty Worries is a collection of short sketches about married couples, mostly a pair of nice young people: Caroline and Adolphe. In the beginning they are very much in love, after some time – a bit less so. She finds him boring and thick, he finds her annoying and embarassingly daft. They do their best to make other’s life miserable with the smallest of things, and sometimes even without wishing any harm.

Balzac, witty, sharp-toungued, and cynical, gives us the same story of lovers from both points of view: husband’s:

Generally speaking, a young woman does not exhibit her true character till she has been married two or three years. She hides her faults, without intending it, in the midst of her first joys, of her first parties of pleasure. She goes into society to dance, she visits her relatives to show you off, she journeys on with an escort of love’s first wiles; she is gradually transformed from girlhood to womanhood. Then she becomes mother and nurse, and in this situation, full of charming pangs, that leaves neither a word nor a moment for observation, such are its multiplied cares, it is impossible to judge of a woman. You require, then, three or four years of intimate life before you discover an exceedingly melancholy fact, one that gives you cause for constant terror.

Your wife, the young lady in whom the first pleasures of life and love supplied the place of grace and wit, so arch, so animated, so vivacious, whose least movements spoke with delicious eloquence, has cast off, slowly, one by one, her natural artifices. At last you perceive the truth! You try to disbelieve it, you think yourself deceived; but no: Caroline lacks intellect, she is dull, she can neither joke nor reason, sometimes she has little tact. You are frightened. You find yourself forever obliged to lead this darling through the thorny paths, where you must perforce leave your self-esteem in tatters.

and wife’s:

We once heard one of our politicians, a man extremely remarkable for his ugliness, call his wife, Moumoutte! [in my Polish translation it was translated as: “The Big Barrel”]

“I would rather he would strike me,” said this unfortunate to her neighbor.

“Poor little woman, she is really unhappy,” resumed the neighbor, looking at me when Moumoutte had gone: “when she is in company with her husband she is upon pins and needles, and keeps out of his way. One evening, he actually seized her by the neck and said: ‘Come fatty, let’s go home!'”

It has been alleged that the cause of a very famous husband-poisoning with arsenic, was nothing less than a series of constant indiscretions like these that the wife had to bear in society. This husband used to give the woman he had won at the point of the Code, public little taps on her shoulder, he would startle her by a resounding kiss, he dishonored her by a conspicuous tenderness, seasoned by those impertinent attentions the secret of which belongs to the French savages who dwell in the depths of the provinces, and whose manners are very little known, despite the efforts of the realists in fiction. It was, it is said, this shocking situation,—one perfectly appreciated by a discerning jury,—which won the prisoner a verdict softened by the extenuating circumstances.

The jurymen said to themselves:

“For a wife to murder her husband for these conjugal offences, is certainly going rather far; but then a woman is very excusable, when she is so harassed!”

Both either funny or sexist, I haven’t decided yet. Whatever the case, Balzac seems more keen on pointing the woman’s follies and silliness; but well, he was an old cynic after all. If you wish to read ot sometime (wouldn’t take long), it’s all available online thanks to Project Gutenberg.