Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1098
Delphine d’Albemar is a rich young widow who marries her guardian after her father’s death. Her husband, who was her tutor in childhood, instills in her the best of sentiments and virtues. As a result of her education, however, she does not wish to submit to the dogmas of society...
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Delphine d’Albemar is a rich young widow who marries her guardian after her father’s death. Her husband, who was her tutor in childhood, instills in her the best of sentiments and virtues. As a result of her education, however, she does not wish to submit to the dogmas of society or church. Although she is a member of the French nobility, she is a believer in revolutionary doctrine, a dangerous way of thinking in France during the years immediately preceding the French Revolution. In addition, she, unlike most women of her time and position, refuses to let men do her thinking for her. After her husband’s death, which occurs when she is twenty years old, Delphine is emotionally, intellectually, and financially independent.
Shortly after her husband’s death, Delphine proposes giving away a large part of her fortune to Matilda, a relative of her husband and the daughter of Delphine’s close friend, Madame de Vernon. Despite the warnings of Mademoiselle d’Albemar, Delphine’s sister-in-law, that Madame de Vernon is a very treacherous person, the gift is made so that Matilda can marry Léonce Mondeville, a Spanish nobleman. No one met Léonce Mondeville, for the marriage was arranged by Matilda’s mother, a longtime friend of the proposed bridegroom’s mother.
When Mondeville arrives in Paris, he meets his future wife and Delphine. Much to Delphine’s dismay, she falls in love with him and he with her. To Delphine, who bestowed on Matilda the fortune that is making the marriage possible, it seems that fate plays its worst trick of irony. For a time, it seems as if the two lovers might find a way out of the difficulty. As her confidant in the problem, Delphine takes Matilda’s own mother, Madame de Vernon. Matilda’s mother has no intention of allowing so advantageous a match to slip through her and her daughter’s fingers, and she plots to turn Mondeville against Delphine.
Meanwhile, Delphine is aiding Madame d’Ervin in a love affair with Monsieur de Serbellane. Because de Serbellane is seen going into Delphine’s house late at night, scandal links her name with his, although he went there to see Madame d’Ervin. A short time later, Madame d’Ervin’s husband surprises the two lovers in Delphine’s home. When de Serbellane kills the husband in a duel, scandal names Delphine as the woman in the case. Delphine, desiring to maintain her friend’s honor, does not relate the true cause of the quarrel that precipitates the duel. Anxious to clear herself with Mondeville, however, Delphine asks Madame de Vernon to act as her friend. Instead of telling what really happened, the older woman tells him that Delphine and de Serbellane are lovers and that Delphine is about to leave France to join de Serbellane in Italy.
Mondeville prepares to marry Matilda, although he does not love her. Although Delphine realizes that someone misrepresented her to her lover, she can find no way to prevent the marriage. Only after the marriage takes place does Delphine learn that Madame de Vernon’s duplicity caused the rift between herself and Mondeville. At that time, anxious not to hurt Matilda, Delphine promises herself not to see Mondeville and to try to forget her passion for him. Unfortunately, they continue to love each other greatly. A few months later, Madame de Vernon, on her deathbed, confesses her guilt.
Feeling themselves cheated, the lovers decide to continue seeing each other, although their course is dangerous to their honor and unfair to Matilda. Society is soon whispering that Delphine and Mondeville are lovers. Actually, there is nothing immoral in their affair, but society assumes the worst. De Valorbe, a friend of Delphine’s late husband, learns of the state of affairs and resolves to marry her in order to remove her from a compromising situation. His intention arouses Mondeville’s jealousy, although Delphine protests that she does not love de Valorbe and will never marry him. One night, de Valorbe goes to Delphine’s house in the hope that she will hide him from the police. Mondeville sees him there and challenges him to a duel. De Valorbe, hoping to escape from the country before he is imprisoned on political charges, refuses to fight. A witness stirs up the scandal once again. Soon everyone believes that the two men accidentally met while both going to assignations with Delphine, and her name is publicly dishonored. In addition, de Valorbe’s refusal to meet Mondeville places him in disgrace.
Learning at last that her husband and Delphine are in love, Matilda goes to Delphine and reveals that she is to have a child. Moved by Matilda’s pleas, Delphine decides to leave France. She goes to Switzerland and becomes a pensionary at a convent that is under the direction of Mondeville’s aunt. De Valorbe follows her there and causes her name to become common gossip. When he offers to clear her name by marriage, Delphine refuses his proposal and decides to remain in the convent. De Valorbe, moved to distraction, commits suicide, but before he dies he clears Delphine’s reputation with Mondeville.
Word comes to Mondeville’s aunt that Matilda is dying. She is in league with Mondeville’s mother and persuades Delphine to become a nun. They are able to have the pope waive the required year’s novitiate. By the time Mondeville goes to the convent to claim Delphine, she has already taken her vows.
Meanwhile the republican government takes over in France and disallows the vows of religious orders. Friends persuade Delphine that she should renounce the vows and return to France to marry her lover. She leaves the convent, only to discover that public opinion condemns her action. Rather than make her lover live a life of misery, she refuses to marry him.
Mondeville goes to join the Royalist forces fighting against the republican French government, but before he can join them he is captured and sentenced to death as a traitor. Delphine tries unsuccessfully to secure his pardon. When she fails, she takes poison and then joins him when he goes to the execution ground. She dies on the spot where he is to be executed. At first, the soldiers refuse to shoot Mondeville. Having no desire to live, he taunts them until they pick up their muskets and kill him. Friends take the bodies of Delphine and her lover and bury them side by side, so that they, kept apart in life, might be close in death.