The Lily of the Valley, or Love as Breathing in the Scent

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The Lily of the Valley, published by Balzac in 1836, can be considered as a standard in olfactory literature since the novel is entirely built on the perception of odors and the central role of breathing in romantic relationships. As the title indicates, it is in the floral and olfactory registers that the essence of love expresses itself. Perfume presides over the birth of love, the recognition of the other, and the definition of the woman’s identity. We can read it as a poetics of breathing that tells another story and re-enchants the world. The Lily of the Valley offers a powerful antidote to the impediments to breathing nowadays. I try here to interpret it like an ode celebrating another way of inhaling the world through love and perfumes.

Love at first scent

The Lily of the Valley tells the story of the platonic love of a young man, Felix, for a married woman, Madame de Mortsauf. From the beginning, their first meeting takes place under the auspices of breath and perfume. During a party, Felix, who is extremely bored, finds refuge on an abandoned bench; a woman, taking him for a child, sits next to him. Felix is then immediately drawn to the stranger’s perfume and is pulled out of his sullen torpor to feel an unparalleled fascination:

Immediately, I smelt a woman’s fragrance which shone in my soul as oriental poetry was to shine later. I looked at my neighbour and was more dazzled by her than I had been by the ball. (15)

Perfume thus triggers love and becomes the very essence of the beloved woman. Before he perceives any visual detail, Felix is flooded with an olfactory emotion, which will be taken over and amplified by the poetic evocation of the Orient and its fragrances. The woman’s scent, which re-enchants his morose universe, dazzles him with its brilliance and eclipses vision by taking possession of its attributes. It is only afterward that he begins to examine the shoulders, bosom, and hair of the woman with the luminous perfume. It is the act of inhaling her perfume that triggers his love at first sight and wrests the following confession from him: “All of a sudden, I was in love” (16).

This primacy of olfaction and breathing continue to hold true in the absence of the beloved when the latter is no longer smelled, but simply evoked: “At the thought that my queen-elect lived in Touraine I breathed the air with delight […]” (16). The feelings that develop even before a second meeting takes place do not belie the first romantic olfactory sensation, but strengthen it following a process of crystallization that transforms the soulmate into a fragrant flower. The stranger, under the influence of Felix’s poetic imagination, becomes the lily of the valley, a symbol of beauty and purity. Despondent over the disappearance of the woman he loves, whose name he does not even know, the young man, pressured by his family to seek distraction, travels to Touraine, to the Château de Frapesle, to stay with a friend of his mother’s. He discovers a magnificent valley near Montbazon, which, in his eyes, can only be where his beloved resides. Here we see the perspicacity of the lover who picks up the scent of his beloved and sees her face in the landscape:

She lived there. My heart had not misled me. […] She was, as you already know, though you know nothing yet, THE LILY OF THIS VALLEY, where she grew for Heaven, filling it with the perfume of her virtues. (18)

The olfactory dimension of the lily prevails here over floral vision. It is the perfume of her virtues exhaled in the valley that defines the beloved permanently and immemorially, and makes her into a celestial creature with the odor of sanctity. The use of the imperfect tense in “she was the lily” evokes the magic of a love story that seems like a fairy tale. She was the lily, because once upon a time there was a woman who was loved. The use of the imperfect tense bears the mark of this nostalgia linked to the odorous resurgence of a lost past that rises to the surface and moves one deeply by tickling the nostrils. It foreshadows the withering of this floral figure of love by death since she is already evoked in the past. “She was…the lily” also means that Madame de Mortsauf is the very incarnation of purity, that she resembles an apparition, since she is not of this world owing to her celestial virtues. Madame de Mortsauf, however, is not an austere prude, but both a sensual and pure woman. The lily suggests these two sides: its heady perfume goes to one’s head, while the majesty of its petals encourages restraint and dignity. A sign of nobility, the lily also decorates the coat of arms of the Count of Mortsauf and thus signals that the beloved woman belongs to the man she is married to. The scented lily of the valley becomes the symbol of Henriette’s personality, the key to her identity, and the expression of her essence throughout the novel. For example, this is how Felix, when returning to the chateau after a long absence, greets Henriette: “‘My lovely living flower, who has my soul’s kisses and my thought’s caress–oh my lily!’ I cried, ‘still pure and upright on its stem; still white, proud, fragrant, and alone!’” (143).

Their second meeting confirms the olfactory approach that characterizes Balzac’s writing. Strolling with his mother’s friend, Felix arrives near the Château de Clochegourde, which he had glimpsed in the famous valley, and even though he is not aware that it is his beloved’s residence, he rushes ahead and inhales, thereby once again demonstrating his romantic perspicacity. As a matter of fact, his friend points this out to him, saying: “you scent a pretty woman as a dog scents game” (20). Felix’s happiness is once again expressed in terms of breathing when he is about to cross the threshold of the home belonging to woman he senses is his beloved: “I climbed the path that skirts Clochegourde, gazing with admiration at its well proportioned features and breathing an air laden with happiness” (22). Of course, it is first his beloved’s golden voice that Felix recognizes before even seeing Madame de Mortsauf. But this preeminence of the voice does not eclipse the reference to respiration and breath. The young man, who barely even dares to look at the Count’s wife lest he blush, confesses that “the life’s breath of her soul was revealed in the folds of her syllables, as sound is divided by the keys of a flute; it expired undulatingly on the ear, whence it set in motion the action of the blood” (25). Felix then tries to “breathe the air that issued from her lips, laden with her soul.” The relationship that forms between the two is based less on an exchange of looks and words than an exchange of breaths, on a respiration, even an inhalation of the other and his or her soul. The soul vaporized in the air by the Countess’s words is voluptuously inhaled by Felix, who becomes permeated with it, and embraces this spoken light in the form of a caress hanging from a breath. When Felix becomes bolder and comes to look attentively at his beloved to draw her portrait, he imagines the chaste scent of a lady in rose and black, like a romantic reminiscence of the heather gathered close to the Villa Diodati, the ultimate poetic place, since Byron also stayed there (cf. 27-28).

Ways of loving, ways of breathing

Equating the woman with perfume is not peculiar to her lover; it is a constant characteristic. Madame de Mortsauf is not only a bouquet of scents for Felix, but also for her husband. For the lover, as for the husband, love is an affair of breathing. To describe the personality of this woman and the way in which she is perceived by the various members of her circle, Balzac does not change points of view, but proceeds to a sort of variation around the olfactory theme. He does not recount the ways in which she is seen, but rather how she is smelled. Ways of loving are ways of breathing. After a series of reversals of fortune, Monsieur de Mortsauf, a morose hypochondriac, moves to Clochegourde just after his wedding. “He breathed, in that valley,” Balzac tells us, “the heady perfumes of full-flowering hope” (41). His wife appeared to him like a fresh balm for his wounds.1Cf. p. 42: “The Count’s erratic and discontented nature met therefore, in his wife’s, a soft and easy soil where he could lie in comfort and feel his secret griefs soothed by a cool balm.” His love for her was like a mystical perfume, since it is compared to the relationship between Christ and Mary Magdalene. Madame de Mortsauf uses this biblical analogy to explain to Felix the nature of the bond that unites her to her husband: “Monsieur de Mortsauf loves me as much as he can love. All the affection that his heart can hold he pours at my feet, as Magdalen poured the remains of her unguents on the feet of the Saviour” (63). This comparison, however, is based on an inversion of biblical roles, since it is the woman who is Christ here and the man as Mary Magdalene. Moreover, the emphasis is not put on the prodigality and generosity inherent in Mary Magdalene’s gesture, but on depletion. It is the remainder of a perfume of love that the Count applies and he cannot dispense any more of it since the source has run dry from the vicissitudes of life.

Although it is clear that the identification and description of the beloved mobilize nasal resources in both men, their olfactory approach, however, differs noticeably and gives rise to different fragrances to sketch out her personality. For Felix, the lily embalms with sweet perfume; for her husband, she is a balm. For one, she exhales life; for the other, she cauterizes death. This divergence in smelling the beloved is reflected by a difference in olfactory and visual approaches to the landscape of the valley. One day, during a stroll, Monsieur de Mortsauf takes Felix and his entire family to a barren, rocky, and arid moor and cries out, striking the earth with his cane: “There is my life for you!” (53) and he adds when he sees the Countess grow pale: “Before I met you, of course” (53). And Felix immediately replies: “What delicious scents there are here, […] and how beautiful the light is! I wish this heath were mine. I might find treasures here if I explored it. For you this stretch of land is a heath, for me it is a paradise” (53). He is then gratified with a look of thanks from the Countess. A duel about the land, a metaphor for the female body. An arid and abandoned moor for one; a fragrant, luminous paradise for the other, whose deep riches must be dug out of the earth–the landscape a reflection of each character’s emotional life. The Count no longer feels anything, his life has gone stale, and his wife has taken on a perfume of oblivion, so to speak. Felix, on the other hand, inhales the delicious smell of life and wants to dig up the treasures of this paradisiacal land embodied by the Countess.

Making love through breathing

But it is not only the identity of the beloved that is thought of in olfactory terms, it is also the expression of love, its caresses and wounds. Felix shows his passion by inventing an art of perfumes and bouquets. For hours on end, he blends colors and scents and for his beloved finds an “art lost to Europe, where the flowers of the writing desk have replaced the pages written in the Orient, with perfume-laden colour” (83). He composes olfactory symphonies by measuring out perfumed notes in order to produce a harmony that would serve as a sensual substitute for possessing the beloved woman. The perfume of bouquets, full of sensuality, envelops the lovers in a proximity such that “Madame de Mortsauf was no longer anyone but Henriette at the sight of them” (85), and becomes a means of communicating thoughts or writing that replaces the impossible love letter.

The composition of bouquets would appear to be a form of sublimation and an artistic substitute for sexual intercourse. Felix carefully selects flowers whose scent, shape, and color suggest the sex act and invite the beloved to surrender herself. Everything contributes to mimicking the carnal union and its pleasures, the “fragrance which communicates to all living things the heady joy of fecundation,” the “flaring neck of white porcelain,” which contains the “triple-darted” flowers,” with “jagged, spear-shaped leaves,” and “stems writhing like the desires tangled deep in the soul” until the “magnificent double corn poppy, with its escort of bursting buds” and the “the fragrant love-philtre lurking in the vernal grass” (cf. 85, 86). Veritable offerings of love, these scented bouquets are at once encouragements to give in to temptation and veritable outlets for frustrated desire, flamboyant substitutes for pleasure refused. Felix, in fact, confesses it outright: “These neutral pleasures were of great help to us in outwitting the natural instincts, exacerbated by long contemplation of the beloved, those looks which rise to the pitch of ecstasy as they send their shafts of light deep into the forms they penetrate” (87).

The poetry of scents represents a form of impossible caress. The sense of smell is thus affected and is not merely the expression of ethereal platonic love. In this respect, it must be noted that the only moment of prolonged physical contact between the two lovers, when Felix takes the unconscious Henriette in his arms in order to carry her to her room and arranges her messy hair, is described in terms that do not refer to touch, but to breath and respiration: “Yesterday, at long last, I shed that respectful terror you inspire in me; had not your faint brought us closer to each other? I found out, then, what breathing meant when I drew breath with you, as soon as your fainting fit allowed you to breathe our air again” (105).

Until the last breath

Beyond caresses, it is also the wounds of love, and death itself, that are expressed in an olfactory manner. When Madame de Mortsauf learns that Felix has succumbed to Lady Dudley’s charms in Paris, and is having a carnal and passionate affair with her, she wilts from the blow like a dying flower: “The indifferent thinness of her voice, so full of life before, the flat pallidity of its tone, betrayed a ripened grief and gave off an indefinable scent of flowers forever broken on the stem” (178). The cut lily of the valley then gives off a deathly scent. Consumed by heartache, Henriette withers and can no longer eat any food; little by little she sinks into a slow agony, interrupted by bursts and movements of revolt when she senses death is near: “Can I be dying–I who have never lived, I who never went to meet my sweetheart on a heath? She stopped and listened for a moment, as if she smelt something through the walls” (230). But before smelling the scent of death, Henriette, who is delirious, still breathes love; she offers Felix to abandon her family, leave for Italy, and do wild and crazy things with him like Lady Dudley. The delirious episode is once again marked by smell, because the doctor attributes it to the heady scent of the flowers that decorate the patient’s room and he orders the flowers to be taken away:

So the flowers had caused her delirium; she was not responsible: earthly loves, the rites of fertility, the caresses of plants had intoxicated her with their perfume and no doubt awakened thoughts of happy love which had been slumbering since youth. (233)

A recollection of a happy period of bouquets, the smell of flowers spreads the last fragrance of love on the deathbed.

Whether of love or death, the floral scent remains key until the very end of the novel. It will even go as far as bringing hope of resurrection, when Felix asks the priest whether he believes that “this lovely broken lily will bloom again in Heaven” (224) or at least expresses the conviction of the survival of the beloved’s soul in the heart of the person who cherished her:

There are people whom we bury in the ground, but there are others, more dearly cherished, who have our hearts for a shroud, and whose memory mingles daily in our heartbeats. We think of them the way we breathe, they live inside of us by the sweet law of a transmigration of souls native to love. A soul lives in my soul. When some good deed is done by me, when some fine word is spoken, it is this soul that speaks and acts. Anything that is good in me emanates from that grave, like the fragrance of a lily that hangs heavy on the air. (247)

The Lily of the Valley can therefore be read as a long olfactory love poem and is a magnificent illustration of the expressive power of the breathing. Balzac makes perfume the cornerstone of love and uses it as a paradigm in order to understand the relationship with the other during life and after death. Breathing is not only a means of survival; it is really a promise of eternity.

Works Cited

Balzac, Honoré de. The Lily of the Valley. (The Human Comedy, Vol IX.) Translated by Lucienne Hill, Carrol & Graf Publishers, 1989.

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