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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850)

Madame Firmiani’s Reputations

From “Madame Firmiani”

THERE are not more idioms in the French language to-day than there are kinds of men in France. And so the various interpretations which these different kinds give to the same incident are at once curious and diverting. And you may take the Parisian to generalize the proposition. Let us suppose, now, that you had asked one of those men whom one calls precise to offer an opinion of Mme. Firmiani. Without hesitation he would furnish you with the following inventory, “A handsome house in the Rue du Bac, richly furnished drawing-rooms, beautiful pictures, an income of a hundred thousand, and a husband who formerly served under the Government.” After these remarks your precise friend, who is generally stout and dressed in black, smiles with self-satisfaction, sticks out his lower lip, and nods his head, as much as to say, “Fine people; no one can say anything against them.” Ask him no further. He and the like of him estimate all things by figures, income, or real estate.

But let us suppose that you had met some idler, and had asked him the same question. “Mme. Firmiani,” he will reply; “oh, yes, I attend her Wednesday receptions. Charming house.” So Mme. Firmiani has here become metamorphosed into a house. And house here means not an architectural combination of stones; it is another idiom, and an untranslatable one, but frequently used by idlers.

But at this point your idler, generally sallow, but with a pleasant smile, a dispenser of airy trifles and of wit not his own, bends toward you and whispers in your ear, “I have never seen M. Firmiani. He fills his social position by managing his Italian estate, but his wife is French, and spends her money like a Parisian. Her tea is delicious. There are only a few houses in Paris like hers, where the visitor is at once amused and well fed. But she is very careful as to whom she receives; one meets only the best people there.” Here the idler accentuates his remarks by gravely taking a pinch of snuff, seeming to add, “I go there, but don’t expect me to introduce you.” To the idler Mme. Firmiani keeps a tavern without a sign.

“What in the world attracts you to Mme. Firmiani’s? The court is not duller. Of what use is your intelligence to you if it does not, at least, keep you away from such houses as hers, where one hears nothing but rubbish?” It is an egotist whom you have questioned now; one of those individuals who would like to keep the universe under lock and key. They cannot forgive happiness, but only vices, failures, and infirmities. Aristocrats by inclination, they become democratic in order to find inferiors among their equals.

“Mme. Firmiani? She is one of those adorable women who seem to excuse Nature for her bungling work in making the ugly ones. She is simply delicious. I should like to be king simply to—” (Here three words are whispered in your ear). Shall I introduce you? The young collegian who answers thus is notorious for his impudence toward men and his timidity with women.

“Mme. Firmiani?” exclaims another, waving his stick. “I don’t mind saying what I think of her. She’s between thirty and thirty-five, rather faded, though fine eyes. Poor figure, thin contralto voice, well dressed, a touch or two of rouge, and charming manners; in a word, the remnants of a pretty woman still worth while falling in love with.” This comes from a conceited friend, who has just eaten a good breakfast, and is about to take a canter. He no longer weighs his words, for at such moments conceit is pitiless.

A lover of the arts will tell you that Mme. Firmiani has a magnificent picture-gallery which you should see. To him she is merely a collection of painted canvases.

A woman. “Mme. Firmiani? I wish you wouldn’t go there.” This phrase is infinitely rich in possible inferences. “Mme. Firmiani! A dangerous woman! A siren! She dresses well, has good taste, keeps other women nervous.” This answer comes from a nagging woman.

An attaché. “Mme. Firmiani? She’s from Antwerp, isn’t she? She was handsome when I saw her in Rome ten years ago.” Attachés have a mania for talking in Talleyrand fashion. Their wit is so delicate that their ideas are intangible. They are like billiard-players who miss cleverly. Generally they speak little; when they do, it is of Spain, Vienna, Italy, St. Petersburg. The names of countries are to them what springs are to a piece of mechanism. Touch them, and they go off like alarm-clocks.

“Doesn’t this Mme. Firmiani see a great deal of the Faubourg Saint-Germain?” asks one who wishes to appear to know all about the best society, who sticks a de to every name from Dupin to Lafayette, and thereby dishonors it.

“Mme. Firmiani, sir? I don’t know her.” This gentleman is a duke who recognizes no woman unless she has been presented at court. His own title dates from Napoleon.

“Mme. Firmiani? Isn’t she a retired opera-singer?” This is the idiot, who must know all about everything, and will rather lie than hold his tongue.

Two old ladies. The first (wrinkled face, peaked nose, harsh voice). “Who was this Mme. Firmiani?”

The second (little red face like a pomegranate, soft voice). “A Cadignan, my dear, niece of the old prince of that name, and hence a cousin of the Duke of Maufrigneuse.”

Mme. Firmiani is a Cadignan. She may lack virtue, fortune, youth; she is a Cadignan for all that, and to be a Cadigan is to be like a prejudice—flourishing forever.

Thus people of every class were busy in circulating so much and such various information about Mme. Firmiani, that it would be an idle task to reproduce it all. Let it suffice to say that any one interested in knowing her real character, yet unable to come into personal contact with her, would have had equally sound reasons for believing her to be dull or witty, virtuous or depraved, sensitive or thick-skinned, beautiful or ugly. In other words, there were as many Mme. Firmianis as social strata or religious sects.