Introduction to

The Celibates


George Saintsbury

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Introduction

Les Celibataires, the longest number of the original Comedie Humaine under a single title, next to Illusions perdues, is not, like that book, connected by any unity of story. Indeed, the general bond of union is pretty weak; and though it is quite true that bachelors and old maids are the heroes and heroines of all three, it would be rather hard to establish any other bond of connection, and it is rather unlikely that any one unprompted would fix on this as a sufficient ground of partnership.

Two at least of the component parts, however, are of very high excellence. I do not myself think that Pierrette, which opens the series, is quite the equal of its companions. Written, as it was, for Countess Anna de Hanska, Balzac’s step-daughter of the future, while she was still very young, it partakes necessarily of the rather elaborate artificiality of all attempts to suit the young person, of French attempts in particular, and it may perhaps be said of Balzac’s attempts most of all. It belongs, in a way, to the Arcis series — the series which also includes the fine Tenebreuse Affaire and the unfinished Depute d’Arcis — but is not very closely connected therewith. The picture of the actual Celibataires, the brother and sister Rogron, with which it opens, is one of Balzac’s best styles, and is executed with all his usual mastery both of the minute and of the at least partially repulsive, showing also that strange knowledge of the bourgeois de Paris which, somehow or other, he seems to have attained by dint of unknown foregatherings in his ten years of apprenticeship. But when we come to Pierrette herself, the story is, I think, rather less satisfying. Her persecutions and her end, and the devotion of the faithful Brigaut and the rest, are pathetic no doubt, but tend (I hope it is not heartless to say it) just a very little towards sensiblerie. The fact is that the thing is not quite in Balzac’s line.

Le Cure de Tours, is certainly on a higher level, and has attracted the most magnificent eulogies from some of the novelist’s admirers. I think both Mr. Henry James and Mr. Wedmore have singled out this little piece for detailed and elaborate praise, and there is no doubt that it is a happy example of a kind in which the author excelled. The opening, with its evident but not obtruded remembrance of the old and well-founded superstition — derived from the universal belief in some form of Nemesis — that an extraordinary sense of happiness, good luck, or anything of the kind, is a precursor of misfortune, and calls for some instant act of sacrifice or humiliation, is very striking; and the working out of the vengeance of the goddess by the very ungoddess-like though feminine hand of Mademoiselle Gamard has much that is commendable. Nothing in its well exampled kind is better touched off than the Listomere coterie, from the shrewdness of Monsieur de Bourbonne to the selfishness of Madame de Listomere. I do not know that the old maid herself — cat, and far worst than cat as she is — is at all exaggerated, and the sketch of the coveted appartement and its ill-fated mobilier is about as good as it can be. And the battle between Madame de Listomere and the Abbe Troubert, which has served as a model for many similar things, has, if it has often been equaled, not often been surpassed.

I cannot, however, help thinking that there is more than a little exaggeration in more than one point of the story. The Abbe Birotteau is surely a little too much of a fool; the Abbe Troubert an Iago a little too much wanting in verisimilitude; and the central incident of the clause about the furniture too manifestly improbable. Taking the first and the last points together, is it likely that any one not quite an idiot should, in the first place, remain so entirely ignorant of the value of his property; should, in the second, though, ignorant or not, he attached the greatest possible pretium affectionis to it, contract to resign it for such a ridiculous consideration; and should, in the third, take the fatal step without so much as remembering the condition attached thereto? If it be answered that Birotteau was idiot enough to do such a thing, then it must be observed further that one’s sympathy is frozen by the fact. Such a man deserved such treatment. And, again, even if French justice was, and perhaps is, as much influenced by secret considerations as Balzac loves to represent it, we must agree with that member of the Listomere society who pointed out that no tribunal could possibly uphold such an obviously iniquitous bargain. As for Troubert, the idea of the Jesuitical ecclesiastic (though Balzac was not personally hostile to the Jesuits) was a common one at the time, and no doubt popular, but the actual personage seems to me nearer to Eugene Sue’s Rodin in some ways than I could have desired.

These things, however, are very much a case of “As You Like It” or “As It Strikes You,” and I have said that Le Cure de Tours strikes some good judges as of exceptional merit, while no one can refuse it merit in a high degree. I should not, except for the opening, place it in the very highest class of the Comedie, but it is high beyond all doubt in the second.

The third part (The Two Brothers/A Bachelor’s Establishment) of Les Celibataires takes very high rank among its companions. As in most of his best books, Balzac has set at work divers favorite springs of action, and has introduced personages of whom he has elsewhere given, not exactly replicas — he never did that — but companion portraits. And he has once more justified the proceeding amply. Whether he has not also justified the reproach, such as it is, of those who say that to see the most congenial expression of his fullest genius, you must go to his bad characters and not to his good, readers shall determine for themselves after reading the book.

It was the product of the year 1842, when the author was at the ripest of his powers, and after which, with the exception of Les Parents Pauvres, he produced not much of his very best save in continuations and rehandlings of earlier efforts. He changed his title a good deal, and in that MS. correction of a copy of the Comedie which has been taken, perhaps without absolutely decisive authority, as the basis of the Edition Definitive, he adopted La Rabouilleuse as his latest favorite. This, besides its quaintness, has undoubted merit as fixing the attention on one at least of the chief figures of the book, while Un Menage de garcon only obliquely indicates the real purport of the novel. Jean–Jacques Rouget is a most unfortunate creature, who anticipates Baron Hulot as an example of absolute dependence on things of the flesh, plus a kind of cretinism, which Hulot, to do him justice, does not exhibit even in his worst degradation. But his “bachelor establishment,” though undoubtedly useful for the purposes of the story, might have been changed for something else, and his personality have been considerably altered, without very much affecting the general drift of the fiction.

Flore Brazier, on the other hand, the Rabouilleuse herself, is essential, and with Maxence Gilet and Philippe Bridau forms the centre of the action and the passion of the book. She ranks, indeed, with those few feminine types, Valerie Marneffe, La Cousine Bette, Eugenie Grandet, Beatrix, Madame de Maufrigneuse, and perhaps Esther Gobseck, whom Balzac has tried to draw at full length. It is to be observed that though quite without morals of any kind, she is not ab initio or intrinsically a she-fiend like Valerie or Lisbeth. She does not do harm for harm’s sake, nor even directly to gratify spite, greed, or other purely unsocial and detestable passions. She is a type of feminine sensuality of the less ambitious and restless sort. Given a decent education, a fair fortune, a good-looking and vigorous husband to whom she had taken a fancy, and no special temptation, and she might have been a blameless, merry, “sonsy” commere, and have died in an odor of very reasonable sanctity. Poverty, ignorance, the Rougets (father and son), Maxence Gilet, and Philippe Bridau came in her way, and she lived and died as Balzac has shown her. He has done nothing more “inevitable;” a few things more complete and satisfactory.

Maxence Gilet is a not much less remarkable sketch, though it is not easy to say that he is on the same level. Gilet is the man of distinct gifts, of some virtues, or caricatures of virtues, who goes to the devil through idleness, fulness of bread, and lack of any worthy occupation. He is extraordinarily unconventional for a French figure in fiction, even for a figure drawn by such a French genius as Balzac. But he is also hardly to be called a great type, and I do not quite see why he should have succumbed before Philippe as he did.

Philippe himself is more complicated, and, perhaps, more questionable. He is certainly one of Balzac’s fleurs du mal; he is studied and personally conducted from beginning to end with an extraordinary and loving care; but is he quite “of a piece”? That he should have succeeded in defeating the combination against which his virtuous mother and brother failed is not an undue instance of the irony of life. The defeat of such adversaries as Flore and Max has, of course, the merit of poetical justice and the interest of “diamond cut diamond.” But is not the terrible Philippe Bridau, the “Mephistopheles a cheval” of the latter part of the book, rather inconsistent with the common-place ne’er-to-well of the earlier? Not only does it require no unusual genius to waste money, when you have it, in the channels of the drinking-shop, the gaming table, and elsewhere, to sponge for more on your mother and brother, to embezzle when they are squeezed dry, and to take to downright robbery when nothing else is left; but a person who, in the various circumstances and opportunities of Bridau, finds nothing better to do than these ordinary things, can hardly be a person of exceptional intellectual resource. There is here surely that sudden and unaccounted-for change of character which the second-rate novelist and dramatists may permit himself, but from which the first-rate should abstain.

This, however, may be an academic objection, and certainly the book is of first-class interest. The minor characters, the mother and brother, the luckless aunt with her combination at last turning up when the rascal Philippe has stolen her stake-money, the satellites and abettors of Max in the club of “La Desoeuvrance,” the slightly theatrical Spaniard, and all the rest of them, are excellent. The book is an eminently characteristic one — more so, indeed, than more than one of those in which people are often invited to make acquaintance with Balzac.

Pierrette, which was earlier called Pierrette Lorrain, was issued in 1840, first in the Siecle, and then in volume form, published by Souverain. In both issues it had nine chapter or book divisions with headings. With the other Celibataires it entered the Comedie as a Scene de la Vie de Province in 1843.

Le Cure de Tours (which Balzac had at one time intended to call by the name of the Cure’s enemy, and which at first was simply called by the general title Les Celibataires) is much older than its companions, and appeared in 1832 in the Scenes de la Vie Privee. It was soon properly shifted to the Vie de Province, and as such in due time joined the Comedie bearing its present title.

The third story of Les Celibataires has a rather more varied bibliographical history than the others. The first part, that dealing with the early misconduct of Philippe Bridau, was published separately, as Les Deux Freres, in the Presse during the spring of 1841, and a year or so later in volumes. It had nine chapters with headings. The volume form also included under the same title the second part, which, as Un Menage de garcon en Province, had been published in the same newspaper in the autumn of 1842. This had sixteen chapters in both issues, and in the volumes two part-headings — one identical with the newspaper title, and the other “A qui la Succession?” The whole book then took rank in the Comedie under the second title, Un Menage de garcon, and retained this during Balzac’s life and long afterwards. In the Edition Definitive, as observed above, he had marked it as La Rabouilleuse, after having also thought of Le Bonhomme Rouget. For English use, the better known, though not last or best title, is clearly preferable, as it can be translated, while La Rabouilleuse cannot.

George Saintsbury

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eBooks@Adelaide
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University of Adelaide
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