The third of four blogs on Casanova’s greatest love.
In a skilfully constructed narrative, Casanova records the three months they spent together in Parma. The story he depicts is of two soulmates whose sublime love was doomed by destiny and the harsh realities of life (although it’s questionable whether Henriette saw the relationship in quite the same way). It should not be a surprise if there are echoes of Ancient Greek tragedy woven into his account; Casanova had, after all, translated Homer’s ‘Iliad’. You can struggle against your fate, possibly even delay it for a while but, eventually, you will succumb. A typical characteristic of the working out of fate in Greek tragedy is irony: frequently, it is the decisions and actions of the protagonists that brings about the very fate they are trying to avoid. And we see this in Casanova’s portrayal of events. Also, in keeping with a form that revolves around the concerns of Gods and heroes, the nature of their love acquires, on Casanova’s telling, an almost epic grandeur thus heightening the drama and pathos of its end (already in the initial declaration of his love en route to Parma, he had equated Henriette’s decision over whether or not to become his mistress to a matter of life and death). The theme of star-crossed love is communicated to the reader in a number of different ways. There is, first of all, the mystery of Henriette herself, in flight from some unresolved predicament. Never a good sign. The revelation, once they were settled in Parma, that she had been escaping from her father-in-law (who ‘intended to bury me in a convent’) and an unhappy marriage only deepens the reader’s apprehension. Then there is the social mismatch: Casanova born into poverty and, to make matters worse, a family of performers; Henriette a French noblewoman. Henriette has decided to make her way, as Casanova points out, to the most Frenchified city in Italy; not the place to be if you don’t want to be spotted by your relatives or any of their associates in the small world of the European aristocracy. In a foreshadowing of events, Casanova records Henriette’s concern about being seen in public. Then there was the issue of money. On their first day in Parma, dialogue between the two makes it clear that, despite all his show, extravagance and reassurance, Henriette was shrewd enough to realise that he didn’t possess an endless supply (when she leaves, she slips him 500 sequins). Another bad omen. For much of their stay in Parma they remained cocooned together, the future pushed aside, their love an amulet that would protect them as long as it was not exposed to the outside world. Casanova observes, ‘the next three months were spent by us in an intoxication of delight’. But, meanwhile, the reader understands that fate is busily at work and there is only going to be one outcome.
Arriving in Parma, they set up at D’Andremorit’s hotel where Casanova passed Henriette off as his wife. He then busied himself hiring various servants, a tutor to teach Henriette Italian, a shoemaker, a milliner, and a dressmaker to put together a wardrobe (Henriette had nothing apart from her military uniform). Once they are established in their apartments, repeatedly Casanova extols the immensity of his happiness and his love for Henriette, often triggered by the tiniest event, in the case below a ‘controversy’ between Henriette and her milliner on the topic of politeness:
Those who do not believe that a woman can make a man happy through the twenty-four hours of the day have never possessed a woman like Henriette. The happiness which filled me, if I can express it in that manner, was much greater when I conversed with her even than when I held her in my arms. She had read much, she had great tact, and her taste was naturally excellent; her judgment was sane, and, without being learned, she could argue like a mathematician, easily and without pretension, and in everything she had that natural grace which is so charming. She never tried to be witty when she said something of importance but accompanied her words with a smile which imparted to them an appearance of trifling, and brought them within the understanding of all. In that way she would give intelligence even to those who had none, and she won every heart. Beauty without wit offers love nothing but the material enjoyment of its physical charms, whilst witty ugliness captivates by the charms of the mind, and at last fulfils all the desires of the man it has captivated.
Then what was my position during all the time that I possessed my beautiful and witty Henriette? That of a man so supremely happy that I could scarcely realize my felicity!
At the opening of Chapter II (Episode 6 – Paris) if the reader had any doubts about the direction of travel, Casanova puts it firmly to rest: ‘The happiness I was enjoying was too complete to last long. I was fated to lose it, but I must not anticipate events’. It is now that the outside world impinges on their love: ‘Madame de France, wife of the Infante Don Philip, having arrived in Parma, the opera house was opened, and I engaged a private box, telling Henriette that I intended to take her to the theatre every night’. There are a couple of nice little touches of situational irony here which, as the reader already knows that their love is doomed, adds to the poignancy of the story. Henriette expresses her reservations about leaving the apartments then Casanova introduces an ‘if only’ moment:
“I am passionately fond of music, darling, but I cannot help trembling at the idea of going out.”
“If you tremble, I must shudder, but we ought to go to the opera or leave Parma. Let us go to London or to any other place. Give your orders, I am ready to do anything you like.”
According to Casanova, the key figure in their eventual undoing is a man called Dubois-Chateleraux, a skilful engraver and ‘witty hunchback’ whose acquaintance Casanova had made in a bookshop. Their visits to the opera itself take place without incident but they do lead the pair increasingly to keep the company of Dubois from whom Casanova had ordered a pair of opera glasses. Dubois invites them to an entertainment where they can meet the two principal singers. Initially, Henriette refuses but then changes her mind (another ‘if only’ moment, possibly). At the supper, populated with Spanish and French nobility, Henriette becomes something of a star when she performs on the viol de gamba, much to Casanova’s amazement as he had no inkling that she was so musically gifted (in fact, he was moved to tears). From the reader’s perspective, the opera and dinner turn out to be false alarms (Casanova, no doubt, deliberately playing with his audience). It was involving an encounter with Dubois a month after the supper when things began to unravel.
‘The Prologue’, and chapters 1 to 6 of ‘Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ are now freely available here.
6 long form articles on Casanova’s life and times are freely available here.
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