Making a good marriage in the French bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century

The Napoleonic Civil Code (1804) states the total legal incapacity for French women, who move from their father’s to their husband’s guardianship. From then on, it is necessary for women to make a good marriage, and their education focuses on making them good wives and mothers. In Claire Sallard’s notebooks, circa 1824-1836, which are principally composed of short stories dictated or commissioned by her tutor, the morals of the French bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century and the way of thinking they imposed on women show through.

The short story entitled Les trois mariages [The three weddings] is typical of the state of mind that prevails in these notebooks. The moral of the story could be summarized in one major statement: marriages of convenience, acceptable both to family and society, are the most successful unions. The first young lady in the story, Hortense, weds a rich and miserly man, who suits her family but lives on the fringe of society because of his cupidity, so she ends up jilted and sad. The second one, Eudoxie, falls in love with a young good-looking aristocrat who is used to gambling, and she marries him, with her mother’s blessing, but in spite of her father’s advice. In the eyes of society, it is a brilliant marriage, but their love fades and their life together turns into a nightmare. Finally, the third young lady, Cécile, who proves to be the heroine, despite her love for a young and pleasant aristocrat, chooses to marry an honest and virtuous man whom her father likes and who fits her late mother’s guidance. They enjoy “a calm happiness, free from the happy and sad torments coming from the turmoil of deep passions”. Claire is the model of the type of woman whom the reader is invited to follow.Sallard

The three weddings, like other short stories in Claire Sallard’s notebooks, are somewhat reminiscent of the novels Balzac writes in the same years. Les Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées [Letters of Two Brides] and La Maison du chat-qui-pelote [At the Sign of the Cat and Racket] offer very similar reflections.

By the way, what happened to Claire Sallard? Whom did she marry? In 1843, at about twenty-three, she married the forty-year-old landscape painter Paul Huet, and they seem to have been a close couple.

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