Balzac, by Frederick Lawton

Chapter X

Letters to “The Stranger,” 1841, 1842

The abode that Balzac chose, on coming back to live within the city walls, was not far from the Rue de Chaillot which had been his address before he removed to Sevres. It was situated in what is now called the Rue Raynouard, but then bore the name of the Rue Basse. In reality, the street is low only at one end, to which it descends from some high land that forms the Passy and Trocadero quarter, and, for some distance, overhangs the Seine. The whole of the street is narrow and winding, and still has an old-time provincial aspect, though the modern building has begun to make its appearance in it, replacing the ancient mansions surrounded by gardens with ever-encroaching blocks of flats.

Balzac’s new house was at Number 19 (at present Number 47). It stood — and the house still stands — in a back garden, on a lower level than the road, from which it was masked by houses fronting the causeway. Any one approaching it from the side of the Rue Basse would enter the common vestibule of one of these houses, go down some stone steps, and would then find himself in a courtyard, opposite a fairly good-sized, apparently one-storied cottage, with the tree adorned garden to the right of him. Once inside the cottage, however, he would notice that it was built on the extreme upper edge of a precipitous slope, and that on the farther side the structure had lower stories, with an issue through them into a lane at the rear leading to the Seine banks and the lower portion of the Rue Basse. Whoever, therefore, inhabited the cottage could quit it fore or aft, an advantage which must have weighed with the incoming tenant, tracked as he was by creditors, and hiding himself here under the name of Madame de Brugnol.

The insistence of these claimants on his purse was such that, acting on the advice of his solicitor, Gavault, in the course of the year 1841, he executed a fictitious sale of Les Jardies for the sum of seventeen thousand five hundred francs, his hope being to preserve his hermitage for the days of wealth and ease to come. Meanwhile, he took his mother to live with him. After giving him and her other son, Henry, all she possessed, and the latter being now in the colonies, where he ultimately died in poverty, she was dependent on what Honore could pay her each month. The living-together arrangement was not very successful. Madame Balzac’s nervous, fretful temperament had not been improved by age and trouble; and her elder son found it hard to bear with her complainings, excusable and even justifiable though they might be. It is not pleasant to read the passages in his letters to Madame Hanska, in which he reiterates the old charge of his misfortunes being all due to his mother. In some of them he goes so far as to say that she was a monster and a monstrosity, that she was hastening the death of his sister Laure — Laure outlived them both — after hastening those of his sister Laurence and his grandmother, that she hated him before he was born, that she had a dreadful countenance, that the doctor affirmed her to be not mad but malicious, that his father had stated in 1822 he — Honore — would never have a worse enemy than his mother. Had his mother been all this and more, it would have been ungenerous and unfilial to blacken her reputation to a stranger. And, being false, it was odious. Madame Balzac’s partiality towards the second son — heavily enough punished — did not prevent her from loving the elder, though their characters (hers and his) were not made to comprehend each other; and her lack of enthusiasm in the days of his literary apprenticeship was natural enough in a parent who understood only too well the impractical, improvident mind he possessed, and feared its consequences. The fact was that Balzac ill supported remonstrances from his own family, and especially from his mother, and, when irritated by them, forgot every benefit he had received from her.

This peculiarity of temperament rendered his feelings toward many of his friends exceedingly variable. One day he was lauding them to the skies, another depreciating them to a cipher. Even his sister, Laure, in spite of her loyalty to him, did not escape attacks from his fickle humour. Like her mother, she never thoroughly penetrated the nature of this wayward, excitable, compass-boxing brother of hers, whose gaze was so much in the clouds and whose feet so often in the mire. But she defended him to others; and, as far as her purse and her husband’s could possibly afford, she gave him money when he was hard up — and when he was not! — money which he was never in a hurry to pay back. Yet her, too, he maligned to “The Stranger,” because she now and again ventured on expostulations.

Madame Balzac made two stays in the Passy cottage, neither of them very long. After leaving the first time, she asked her son to pay her a somewhat larger sum per month, which would allow her to live decently elsewhere. Considering that he had borrowed from her a couple of thousand pounds — over fifty thousand francs — and that the sum he had paid her irregularly was not five per cent interest on the money, this request was not unreasonable. Yet he refused to accede to it on the ground of being in financial straits; and offered her a home with him once more, but in language that spoke of strained relations between them, as well as of a personal discouragement that was real.

“The life I lead,” he wrote, “suits no one; it wearies relatives and friends alike. All leave my melancholy home. . . . It is impossible for me to work amidst the petty tiffs aroused by surroundings of discord; and my activity has waned during the past year. . . . You were in a tolerable situation. I had a trustworthy person who spared you all household worries. You were not obliged to trouble about domestic matters; you were in peace and silence. You insisted on interfering with me when you should have forgotten I existed, and should have let me have my entire liberty, without which I can do nothing. This is not your fault; it is in the nature of women. To-day, everything is changed. If you like to come back, you will have a little of the weight that will fall on me and that hitherto affected you only because you wished it.”

The conclusion of the letter, in which he assured her of his love, could not counterbalance the harshness of its contents. Madame Balzac, be it granted, was cantankerous; but how many sons who have never sponged on their mothers have supported them cheerfully, gladly, for long years out of meagre resources, and have borne with a smile the natural peevishness of old age, not to say its egoisms!

At this period, Balzac’s acquaintance with the grand dames of Paris was considerably diminished. Madame de Castries he seems to have broken with altogether. Madame Visconti, who lived a good deal at Versailles, he saw but seldom. In lieu of these, he regularly visited George Sand, who was at present settled in a small flat of the Rue Pigalle in Paris, and was there enjoying the society of Chopin. With a connoisseur’s envy, the novelist describes to Eve the interior, the elegantly furnished dining-room in carved oak, the café-au-lait upholstered drawing-room, with its superb Chinese vases of fragrant flowers, its cabinet of curiosities, its Delacroix pictures, its rosewood piano, and the portrait of the authoress by Calamatta. What struck him as much as anything was the bedroom in brown, with the bed on the floor in Turkish fashion. He was careful to assure his correspondent that, Chopin being the maitre de ceans, she had no need to be jealous. But jealous she was, though not of George Sand. As Paris was a resort for rich Russians, Madame Hanska’s cousins among the number, she had frequent reports of Balzac’s doings, distorted by society gossip, the true and the untrue being fantastically mixed; and it was no small task to disabuse her mind and persuade her that his conduct was blameless. Indeed, at bottom she remained sceptical.

In 1841, three books were published which merit attention on the part of a student of his works. The first, A Shady Affair, has the right to be styled an historical novel. Dealing with the Napoleonic epoch, its interest gathers chiefly round the person of the brave peasant Michu, whose devotion to the Legitimist house of Cinq-Cygne brings him, an innocent victim, to the scaffold. The character of Laurence de Cinq-Cygne, a girl of the Flora MacDonald type, and the characters also of the two cousins de Simeuse, who both loved her and conspired with her, and whose pardon she gained only to lose these faithful knights dying on a field of battle, are drawn with great power and naturalness. And the plot, in which, together with other police spies, the same Corentin reappears that was the evil genius of the Chouans, is more rapid and less cumbered than in the earlier work. When the Shady Affair came out in the Commerce journal, Balzac was accused of having identified a certain Monsieur Clement de Ris with his Malin de Gondreville, who plays an evil role in the story — that of an unscrupulous, political turncoat, Revolutionary to begin with, Senator under the Empire, and Peer under the Restoration. The novelist defended himself against the imputation; but the resemblances between the fictitious and the real personage were, all the same, too close to be quite accidental.

Something, however, more important than the question of likeness or portraiture in the book, is that it gives us Balzac’s conception of what the historical novel should be. His contemporary Dumas, and his predecessor Walter Scott — the latter in a less degree than Dumas — did not weave a romance on to a warp of history, but romanced the history itself. What he tried to do was to keep the historical action exact and accurate, and to throw its romantic elements into relief without dislocating them. His opinion was that history might so be written as to be a sort of novel, which, perhaps, will account for his answer to Lamartine, who, in 1847, asked him if he could explain how it was that the History of the Girondins had obtained a greater success than the most popular novels of the same date. “Gad!” he replied, “the reason is that you wrote this fine book as a novelist, not as an historian.” The Shady Affair recreates for us the Napoleonic atmosphere, silent and heavy, yet electrically charged with grudge, hatred, and ambition, all ready to burst out at one or another point. Underhand plotting was the order of the day; there was a language of the eye rather than of the tongue, since no one was sure that in his own family there might not be eavesdroppers listening to betray him.

Ursule Mirouet is a very different kind of story. We have here the old Doctor Minoret, who after making a fortune in Paris, returns to spend the last few years of his life in Nemours, his native town. Having lost wife and child by death, he brings back with him a baby niece, who is an orphan, and to whom he devotes himself with tender care. In Nemours there are other less estimable branches of the Minoret stock, cousins of the Doctor’s, whose hopes of inheriting his fortune are damped by the presence of little Ursule. Chief of these relatives is the burly postmaster, Minoret Levrault, whose son Desire is destined to the law and is sent by his parents to study in Paris. Although a disciple of Voltaire, and scouting all religious practice for himself, the Doctor is friendly with the Cure, and allows his niece to be brought up to Church. At the time the story opens an unexpected event astonishes the town. The Doctor has become converted, and goes to Mass. The cause of the change is a wonderful experience of clairvoyance he meets with in the capital, whither he has been summoned by a colleague with whom he had quarrelled years before over the new-fangled doctrines of Mesmerism. What necessary connection there is between clairvoyance and Catholicism, or indeed any particular form of religion, the novelist does not attempt to prove. It suffices for the sceptical old Doctor to be told by a hypnotized woman in Paris what Ursule is doing at Nemours, and the conversion is wrought. Soon after, Doctor Minoret dies, bequeathing his fortune in just and appropriated shares to his various relatives, Ursule included. She is at the time a fine young woman, beloved by a young gentleman of the place. The rest of the novel tells how the big postmaster contrives to destroy the part of the will favourable to Ursule and to steal certain moneys that belong to her; how Minoret’s ghost appears in dreams and signs to confound the guilty man and his guilty wife, who are at last induced to confess their ill deeds, the repentance being hastened by the death of their son Desire; and, in fine, how Ursule marries Monsieur de Portenduere and is happy.

In its general construction, the book holds well together, and the characters in the main are depicted without exaggeration, while the traits of individuality are ingeniously marked. The Doctor and Ursule are less firmly and informingly delineated. As usual, when Balzac shows us the figure of a virtuous girl in an ordinary domestic circle, he represents her with passive rather than active qualities. She has no strong likes or dislikes, no particular mental bias, and possesses but small attractiveness. In fact, the novelist seems at a loss to imagine. In the case of Ursule, we see that she cultivates flowers, but we do not feel that she is fond of them. As for the Doctor, he would have or might have been less a puppet, had the author himself judged with wiser reserve the mysterious forces that exist in the world of sub-consciousness.

His belief in these forces being alloyed with much superstition, he was always consulting fortune-tellers, even those that divined by cards. One of them, a certain Balthazar, who was subsequently convicted and imprisoned for dishonesty, told him that his past life had been one series of struggles and victories, a reading too agreeable to be doubted; and that he would soon have tranquillity, a prophecy which unhappily was not fulfilled. Concerning the prospects of a union with Madame Hanska, the cartomancer was mute, though he described the lady in language sufficiently clever for his client to acknowledge the likeness. His clairvoyance was exceedingly limited; otherwise he would have warned his client of the approaching death of Count Hanski, this event taking place towards the close of the year.

Occupied with her own affairs, which were complicated by her husband’s illness, and perhaps also resenting the falling off in the number of her distant worshipper’s epistles, caused by an indisposition in the spring and a visit to Brittany to recuperate, she wrote only once or twice during 1841; and, as chance would have it, these letters were lost, so that, for nearly twelve months, he had no news from her. Pathetically he announced that his sister was planning to marry him to a Mademoiselle Bonnard, god-daughter to King Louis-Philippe; but still no answer came. On the 1st of November, as he related to his Eve afterwards, he lost one of the two shirt-studs which Madame de Berny had given him, and which he wore alternately with another pair presented to him by Madame Hanska. Beginning on the morrow, he put on thenceforth only the pair that Eve had given him; and this trifling occurrence affected him so much that all his familiars noticed it. He looked upon the loss as a sign from Heaven. Poor Madame de Berny! Now that the stud from her had disappeared, he had no further tenderness for her memory. Instead of recalling her kindness to him, he preferred to speak, in connection with what he styled his horrible youth, of the years which she — the Dilecta — had tarnished. Too opportune to be sincere, this condemnation of his first liaison cannot but be regarded as an incense of flattery offered to the coy goddess of his later vows.

The third of the three principal books of 1841 was the Diaries of Two Young Wives, written, like the Country Doctor and the Village Cure, in a decidedly didactic tone. We have two girl friends, Renee de Maucombe and Louise de Chaulieu, reared in a convent school, who marry, each with an ideal of wedlock that differs. The former, a doctor in stays, as her school companion calls her, seeks in marriage a calm domestic happiness, the duties and joy of motherhood, and has a husband worthy but commonplace, to whom she gives herself at first without much positive attachment on her side. The latter makes of love a passion, and marries a Spanish exile, plain-looking but virile, whom she bends to her will. The two wives exchange their impressions during their early years of matrimony, and we see the happiness of the one develop while that of the other diminishes. The Spaniard dies and Louise de Chaulieu takes a second husband, a poor poet, whom she adores as much as her Spaniard had adored her. Carrying him off to Ville-d’Avray, she creates there a snug Paradise, where she fondles him as if he were a toy, until at length her feverish jealousy brings on her own illness and death.

The novel in its earlier phases was being worked at together with the Sister Marie des Anges, which was promised to Werdet but never completed, and seems to have had some connection with it. Possibly, in his primitive plan, the author intended to set in contrast the spouse and the nun: and certainly, in the original draft, there was only one bride.

In 1842, at the Odeon Theatre, was performed a dramatic piece from the novelist’s pen, which by some critics has been considered his best play. There are even critics who hold that Balzac was a born dramatist, as he was a born novelist, basing their opinion on his possession of qualities common to dramatist and novelist. His force of characterization, his handling of plot, his sense of passion were all sufficient to procure him success on the stage, which explains why pieces adapted from his novels by other playwrights invariably caught the public fancy. But, in order to develop character, plot, and passion in his fiction, he employed interminable detail and slow action; and his effects were obtained rather by constant pressure throughout than by sudden impact. The brevity and condensation required by the drama were foreign to his genius; he could not help trying to put too much into his stage pieces, and the unity of subject was compromised.

The School of Great Men,17 as he preferred to call his play at the Odeon, carries the spectator back to the Spain of Philippe II. Fontanares, a clever man of science but poor, and without influence, has discovered the means of navigating by steam. His valet Quinola, a genius in his way, resolves to aid his master, who, being in love, has all the greater claim on his pity; and he contrives to present the King with a petition in favour of Fontanares, and to obtain a ship for an experiment to be made. But now professional jealousies combine with love rivalries to thwart the inventor; and when, at last, the ship is made to move by its own machinery, the honour of the success is attributed to another. To avenge his wrongs, and the loss of his betrothed, who is given to his rival and dies, he blows up the steamer in presence of an assembled multitude, and quits his native land with a courtezan who has conceived a liking for him and will provide him with money to recommence his enterprise elsewhere.

17 More usually called: The Resources of Quinola.

Before the first performance, Balzac was just as sanguine about the result as he had been with Vautrin. It followed several pieces, Felix Pyat’s Cedric the Norwegian, Dumas’ Lorenzino, and Scribe’s Chaine, which had been coldly received. What if his Quinola should be the great attraction of the season! And his mind was filled visions of overflowing houses and showers of gold. Alas! if the representations went beyond the single one of Vautrin, they did not exceed twenty; and his share of profits was insignificant. The play is not dull to read, with its flavour of Moliere’s comedies, and the keenness of Balzac’s observation. But its colour and poesy do not compensate for the diffuseness of the plot and the undramatic conclusion.

Instead of acknowledging the defects of his composition, the unlucky dramatist was wroth with his public. For a while he caressed the thought of going to St. Petersburg, taking out letters of naturalization, and opening a theatre in the Russian capital with a view to establishing the pre-eminence of French literature — embodied in his own writings. It must be owned that he was beginning to imagine himself persecuted. Victor Hugo, he said, had changed towards him and was creating a conspiracy of silence round about him, so that no one should speak any more of his works. And he liked better being attacked than ignored. Later, he asserted that Hugo, after accepting the dedication of the Lost Illusions to himself, had induced Edouard Thierry to write an abusive article against him. “He is a great writer,” said the novelist in telling this, “but he is a mean trickster.”

By the death of Count Hanski, the one insuperable obstacle to his union with Eve had been removed; and now, in his letters to her, there was a sudden outburst of love protestations. He wanted the widow to marry him at once, or, at the outside limit, as soon as propriety would permit. Madame Hanska replied that there was her daughter Anna, only just in hr teens, who would require her mother’s entire attention and care for some years to come; and there were, besides, matters concerning the inheritance, which would hardly be settled within any shorter period. Balzac was dismayed. He could not understand the delay, the prudence, the hesitation. Not to speak of his affection, his pride was offended. He overwhelmed his Eve with reproaches. Women, he informed her, loved fools, as a rule, because fools were ever ready to sit at their feet. Recurring in subsequent letters to a quieter manner, he strove to shake her resolution by hints at his exhausted strength, his difficulty of composition — this was nothing new — his lessened alertness of thought and his weaker invention. Cleverly he juxtaposed with these a description of his study, in the little Passy house, hung with red velvet, on which black silk cords stood out in agreeable contrast; on one wall was Eve’s portrait, and opposite it was a painting of the Wierzchownia mansion. Here he toiled unceasingly, creating, always creating. God only created during six days, he added, while he — the inference was left to be drawn. Feeling how requisite it was he should put himself right, in every respect, with the lady of his choice, he made a fresh confession of his religious faith. His Catholicism, he told her, was outwardly of the Bossuet and Bonald type, but was esoterically mystical, Saint-Johnian, which form alone preserved the real Christian tradition. Somewhat encouraged by vague inquiries from Madame Hanska as to the income required by a household for living in Paris, he entered into particulars with gusto; and, stating that he had eighty thousand francs worth of furniture, he discussed the best manner of arranging an existence with eight hundred thousand francs capital. With three hundred thousand francs, a country residence and small estate might be bought and the means of inhabiting there provided. Another hundred thousand would buy a house in Paris to spend each winter; and the residue of four hundred thousand, if invested in French Rentes, would purchase an additional income of fifteen thousand francs for town expenses. These latter he subdivided into three thousand francs for carriage hire; five thousand for cooking; two thousand five hundred for dress and amusement; and two thousand five hundred for general charges; the remaining two thousand would go in sundries. Madame de Berny, he said, spent only eight hundred francs on her wardrobe, and kept her household with nine hundred francs. Once launched into detail, he went far. The Countess learnt that he had still the same carpets, covering seven rooms, that he had bought for fifteen hundred francs in the Rue Cassini. They had worn well and were economical. The red velvet in his study had cost him two francs fifty a yard; but then he would take it away to another house, instead of giving it to the landlord. Living was slightly dearer in Passy, he concluded. A mutton chop cost seven sous there, instead of the five charged in the city. These last details were thrown in by a habit he had grown into of defending himself against the strictures passed by Madame Hanska on his expenditure.

They were frequent — such strictures — because Balzac was always repeating to her that he was penniless; and she, comparing this talk with other statements about his gaining large sums yearly, argued that the penury must be his own fault. True, there was the debt. But the debt grew instead of diminishing. So, apparently, he was not starving himself to pay it back. The fact was that Balzac did not tell the truth either about his assets or his liabilities. He neither earned as much as he affirmed, nor owed as much. According to some of his early biographers, his average income was not more than twelve thousand francs a year. But these figures cannot include lump sums he received at irregular intervals, nor yet all the royalties due to him on continued sales of his books. Taking one year with another, he probably made, throughout the greater portion of his literary career, between twenty and twenty-five thousand francs annually. What must have increased his embarrassments, in the later Thirties and early Forties, was his hobby for buying pictures and articles of vertu; this, with his knack of dropping money in speculations and imprudent ventures, rendered it impossible for him to live within his means.

It is curious to notice how his impecuniosity reduced him to regard every goal of his ambition as having merely a cash value. Speaking of his election to the Academie Francaise, which he reckoned to be near, he explained to Eve that it would mean six thousand francs a year to him, since he would be a member of the Dictionary committee; and then there was the Perpetual Secretaryship, which, falling to him naturally, would raise his emoluments to more than double that amount. Emboldened by these calculations — a trifle previous — he confided to Eve his desire to start on a trip to Naples, Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria, unless she should veto the proposal. In that case, his desire would be hers. Four thousand francs was what the journey would cost. Would she authorize him to spend so much? At present she was the arbitress of his actions. As the trip was abandoned, we are obliged to suppose that Eve was not favourable to it.

Mention has already been made of the novelist’s initiative in the beginnings of the Men of Letters Society, and of his scheme for a petition to the King. In its details, what he wished to see adopted was on the same lines as those followed now by the Nobel Prize distribution — at any rate as regards literature. His idea was to secure a small independence for prize-takers in tragedy, comedy, opera, fiction, Christian philosophy, linguistic or archaeological research, and epic poetry, by awarding them a capital of a hundred thousand francs, and even two hundred thousand to poets, and to open thus an easier way to position and fame. Finding that his programme was not acceptable to the more influential members of the Society, he resigned his seat on the committee, and ceased his active connection with the Society itself, continuing, however, to interest himself in is prosperity.

Later, his bust by David was placed in the Society’s Committee Room, where it may be seen at present presiding silently over the meetings. Both the bust and the famous daguerreotype of him belong to the commencement of the Forties. The sculptor Etex had asked him to sit for a bust; but David had the preference, being a friend. His profile of the novelist, sketched in view of a medallion, an engraving of which appeared in 1843 in the Loire Illustree for August, was deemed by Madame Surville to be the only real likeness of her brother. Not until 1889 did the Men of Letters Society decide to honour Balzac by a statue to be erected amidst the life of the capital which he had so well described. And even then they allowed certain elements of prejudice and passion to dominate their counsels, with the result that a magnificent full-length figure of the novelist executed by the first sculptor in France was rejected; the committee’s plighted word was violated; and in lieu was accepted and placed in one of the streets of Paris a sorry likeness hastily modelled by a man who, though a good sculptor, had one foot in the grave, and who had not, besides, the conception of what was required.18

18 See my Life of Rodin (Fisher Unwin, 1906) or my later and smaller edition of the same sculptor’s life (Grant Richards, 1907).

Of the novels that appeared in 1842, Albert Savarus, the first published, is worthy of attention chiefly as being a continuation of its author’s personal experiences. The hero is the same ideal personification already seen in Louis Lambert and Z. Marcas. A barrister, he suddenly settles in a provincial town, bringing with him a past history that no one can penetrate and every one would like to know. When interviewed in his private consulting-room, he presents himself in a black merino dressing-gown girt about with a red cord, in red slippers, a red flannel waistcoat, a red skull-cap. The likeness is once again Balzac’s own — adorned by fancy: a superb head, black hair sparsely sprinkled with white, hair like that of Saint Peter and Saint Paul as shown in our pictures, with thick glossy curls, hair of bristly stiffness; a white round neck, as that of a woman; a splendid forehead with the puissant furrow in the middle that great plans and thoughts and deep meditations engrave on the brow of genius; an olive complexion streaked with red; a square nose; eyes of fire; gaunt cheeks with two long wrinkles, full of suffering; a mouth with sardonic smile, and a small, thin, abnormally short chin; crow’s feet at the temples; sunken eyes (he repeats himself a little) rolling beneath their beetling arches and resembling two burning globes; but, despite all these signs of violent passions, a calm, profoundly resigned mien; a voice of thrilling softness, . . . the true voice of the orator, now pure and cunning, now insinuating, but thunderous when required, lending itself to sarcasm and then waxing incisive. Monsieur Albert Savarus (alias Balzac) is of medium height, neither fat nor slim; to conclude, he has prelate’s hands.

The mystery of Savarus’ earlier life, revealed as the story goes on, is his meeting in Switzerland with Francesca, the wife of a rich Italian, whom he eventually wins to love him and to promise marriage when she is free and he has acquired wealth and fame. All the details of the prologue are those of Balzac’s first relations with Madame Hanska. The development of the novel, in which Philomene de Watteville falls in love with Savarus, surprises his secret attachment to Francesca, intercepts his letters to her, and ruins his hopes, is less cleverly told. Savarus’ retirement to a Carthusian monastery and fate’s punishment of Philomene, who is mutilated and disfigured in a railway accident, form the denouement, which is strained to the improbable. The background of the story, with its glimpses of the manners and foibles of provincial society, is the most valuable portion of the book.

Between this relapse into lyricism and a much stronger work came the amusing Beginning in Life, suggested by his sister Laure’s tale, Un Voyage en Coucou, and giving the adventures of the young Oscar Husson, a sort of Verdant Green, whose pretentious foolishness leads him into scrapes of every kind, until, having made himself the laughing-stock of all around him, and compromised many, he enlists and goes to the wars, whence he returns maimed for life. A comic character in the sketch is the bohemian artist Leon de Lora, nicknamed Mistigris, with his puns and proverbs that were the rage in the early Forties. A character of more serious calibre is Joseph Bridau, the talented painter. He and his scamp of a brother, Philippe, are the twin prominent figures in the novel above alluded to: La Rabouilleuse.

Originally called the Two Brothers, and subsequently A Bachelor’s Household, this slice of intensely realistic fiction exhibits the art of the author at its highest vigour. Philippe Bridau, the mother’s favourite of the two boys, enters the army, sees Waterloo, and, after, leads the life of an adventurer, with its ups and downs of fortune. His widowed mother’s indulgence, his own innate selfishness, and the hardening influence of war combine to render him a villain of the Richard III type, absolutely heartless and conscienceless. He robs his own family, fixes himself leech-like on that of an uncle, marries the latter’s widow for her money, when he has killed her lover in a duel, drives his wife into vice, lets her die on a pallet, and refuses to pay a visit to the deathbed of his mother, whose grey hairs he had brought down with sorrow to the grave. Like Shakespeare’s ideal villain, he has the philosophy, the humour of his egotism. “I am an old camel, familiar with genuflections,” he exclaims. “What harm have I done?” he asks, speaking of his robbery of his relative, the old Madame Descoings. “I have merely cleaned the old lady’s mattress.” And he is equally indifferent to what destiny reserves for him. “I am a parvenu, my dear fellow; I don’t intend to let my swaddling-clothes be seen. My son will be luckier than I; he will be a grand seigneur. The rascal will be glad to see me dead. I quite reckon on it; otherwise he would not be my son.”

Most of the other figures are of equal truth to life, and are presented so as to increase the effect of the complete picture: Jean-Jacques Rouget, the stupid infatuated uncle, who espouses the intriguing Flore Brazier; and Flore herself, whose petty vices are crushed by those of her second husband; Maxime Gilet, the bully of Issoudun, whose surface bravado is checked and mated by the cooler scoundrelism of Philippe; Agathe, the foolish mother, whose eyes are blind to the devotion of her son Joseph; and Girondeau, the old dragoon, companion to Philippe who casts him off as soon as prosperity smiles and he has no further need for him. And the narrow-horizoned, curiously interlaced existences of the county-town add the mass of their colour-value, sombre but rich. One could have wished in the book a little more counterbalancing brightness, and less trivial detail; but neither the defect of the one nor the excess of the other takes from the novel the right to be considered a masterpiece.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/balzac/b19zl/chapter10.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31