Sometimes the one who inspires you can do the same as you do. In this case, Honoré de Balzac’s inspiration was also active as a poet himself. Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786 – 1859) was a creditable poet who left the world many beautiful (French) poems. She also wrote poetry herself, something that must not be forgotten.
“La Cousine Bette”
What about the connection between Marceline Desbordes-Valmore and the novelist Honoré de Balzac? Well, simple: De Balzac confessed to her that she was the inspiration for the title character for “La Cousine Bette” (“Cousin Bette”). This was a novel that De Balzac published in 1846.
De Balzac wrote a story about how a middleaged woman is responsible for the destruction of her family. The character of Bette was based on De Balzac’s mother and Desbordes-Valmore.
Marceline Desobordes-Valmore was more than inspiration for a character. She wrote many poems and published six books during her life. Her seventh book was published after she died.
Who was Marceline Desbordes-Valmore?
The assumption that her life has not always been easy is the correct one. This was mostly because of what happened in during her childhood.
She was born on 20 June 1786, three years before the French Revolution. It is important to mention the French Revolution, as it caused her father to be ruined as a businessman. Together with her mother, she travelled to the overseas department Guadeloupe (a region of France in the Caribbean). Her mother wanted to get help from a distant relative. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to do this, because she fell ill. She died of yellow fever. At the age of only sixteen, she was alone in this part of the world. Somehow she made it back to France and started a career as an actress.
At the age of 31, she married Prosper Lanchantin-Valmore (1793 – 1881) (4 September 1817). He was a French actor and writer. He was considered a second-rate actor. Two years after this marriage, Desbordes-Valmore published her first collection of poems: “Élégies et romances” (“Elegies and romances”). The critics were positive. Two years after her debut, it was time to publish a narrative work entitled “Veillées des Antilles” (“Antilles vigils”). The title was a reference to her time in Guadeloupe. By then, she became more famous as an actress and singer. She didn’t only perform in Douai. She also appeared on stage in Rouen and the Opéra-Comique in Paris. In Brussels, people could watch her as Rosine in “Le Barbier de Séville” (“The Barber of Seville”) in the Théâtre de la Monnaie.
At the age of 37, she retired from the stage and focussed on her writings. She became friends with Honoré de Balzac and was one of the women who formed the inspiration for the character Bette in “La Cousine Bette” (“Cousin Bette”). Although she formed an inspiration for a character, she was more than that. She was the only female writer who was included in Paul Verlaine’s “Les Poètes maudits” (“The Cursed Poets”) in 1884. That was long after she passed away on 23 July 1859.
Between 1823, the year she retired from acting, and her death (1859), she would publish five more books. They were filled with poems that would seem dark and sometimes depressing. They fit perfectly with the era: the emergence of Romanticism.
About “Les Roses de Saadi“
The poem “Les Roses de Saadi” (“The Roses of Saadi”) is perhaps one of the most famous poems she wrote. The poem was published after she passed away in 1859 as part of the poetry collection “Poésies posthumes” (“Posthumous poems”) (1860). The book is, as it were, a reflection of her own life: short and concise, sometimes nostalgic, but on more than one occasion: sweet. You may answer the question yourself: Is this a love poem or not? Isn’t that the beauty of poetry such as Desbordes-Valmore left us: it can be interpreted in more than one way.
Les Roses de Saadi
J’ai voulu ce matin te rapporter des roses;
Mais j’en avais tant pris dans mes ceintures closes
Que les noeuds trop serrés n’ont pu les contenir.
Les noeuds ont éclaté. Les roses envolées
Dans le vent, à la mer s’en sont toutes allées.
Elles ont suivi l’eau pour ne plus revenir.
La vague en a paru rouge et comme enflammée.
Ce soir, ma robe encore en est toute embaumée . . .
Respires-en sur moi l’odorant souvenir.
— Marceline Desbordes-Valmore
The Roses of Saadi
I wanted to bring you roses this morning;
But I had closed so many in my sash
That the knots were too tight to contain them.
The knots split.
The roses blew away.
All blew off to the sea,
borne by the wind,
Carried to the water, never to return.
The waves looked red as if inflamed.
Tonight, my dress is still perfumed.
Breathe in the fragrant memory.
— Marceline Desbordes-Valmore