Since 2007 there has been a helpful plot summary and background info about the French revolution on Wikipedia, but when I read The Chouans in 2006 I found it a bit confusing. What follows is my interpretation of events…
Les Chouans is set in the aftermath of the French Revolution (and the execution of Marie Antoinette and Louis the XIV) when Napoleon is in power but there are outbreaks of civil war. The Royalists are still in rebellion and they have used the local Chouans to create an insurgency. Hulot, a professional soldier, has been sent to suppress it, and he’s the only one in the whole story whose loyalty doesn’t waver. He serves France, and he fights according to his code of honour.
These rustic Chouans rise up in support of the King-in-Exile and his supporters, (who include the British), their leader being one Marche-a-Terre. This man dresses in furs and seems indistinguishable in the rural landscape, a handy attribute for a guerilla. The Chouans are their own men, but they are also in league with ‘Le Gars’ (an alias for the royalist leader, the Marquis de Montauran).
In the beginning we are not at all sure about the loyalties of the other characters. Marie de Vermeuill has been sent by Paris to seduce Montauran and so subdue the rebellion, and she’s been paid 300,000 francs to do it. She is accompanied by her maid Francine, whose lover is Marche a Terre, the leader of the Chouans i.e. on the other side. (Though it’s not clear if she still loves Marche a Terre, later on when Marie is in peril, this maid draws on his love for her to protect her mistress.)
Anyway, although Balzac’s story includes military operations, it’s not really about the Chouans – the focus is really a love story about a treacherous woman who loses her heart to a man on the opposite side of the political fence, and it epitomises the human cost of the revolutionary period in France.
At the start of the story the Chouans (in support of the Royalists) attack the Republicans (led by Commander Hulot) and they attract many of the local peasants to their cause. Marie de Vermeuile (who is beautiful, of course, and a lady) turns up with her letters of authority from Napoleon’s man Joseph Fouché and sends Hulot off to round up unwilling conscripts to fight for the Republican cause. This infuriates Hulot (a stolid old soldier who serves the government of the day whoever it is but likes to have his military judgement respected) and he resigns, but he has to come back when his replacement Captain Merle is shot in an act of treachery caused by Mme de Gua.
Marie meets up with this Madame de Gua at an inn on the road, and is immediately entranced by her ‘son’ who, as it turns out, is the leader of the Royalists, Montauran i.e. ‘Le Gars’ and the man Marie is meant to seduce and betray. Mme de Gua is instantly suspicious of Marie, not to mention extremely jealous. She’s travelling disguised as the mother of ‘Le Gars’ but she’s obviously much too young to be his mother…
The story sometimes verges on farce as the plot twists and turns. (This was Balzac’s first serious story but the melodramatic influence of his previous pot-boilers shows in his style). Marie makes her way to Viveterre where she is supposed to have safe passage after ‘Le Gars’ gave her his grey glove. But Mme de Gua is there, and she suspects Marie. A rumour that she was a Parisian courtesan circulates, and Montauran goes cold on her. Marie denies the rumours but she has to flee and the suspicion of treachery leads to the massacre of 65 of Hulot’s men by the Chouans.
Inevitably they meet up again and resolve the issue but the reader isn’t sure who is duping whom. Marie hides out in the house of a miser and witnesses his torture at the hands of Marche a Terre’s cruel offsider Pille-Miche. She’s so beautiful that (after she pretends to be a ghost and the other men flee!) he proposes to her. Naturally she refuses but he helps her anyway and sends her off to the hovel of Galope-Chopin, a local whose help can be bought by either side. Hiding there, Marie is surprised by the Comte de Bauvac, also hiding out. He proposes too (!) but of course she rejects him although he’s a wealthy Royalist who stands to have his fortunes restored if the monarchy is reinstated. Anyway, he gives her safe passage to go to a Ball that Montauran is holding (which seems a little odd in the middle of a war but I guess that’s why the aristocrats lost the battle, eh?)
So off goes Marie, makes up with Montauran and confesses that yes, she is the illegitimate daughter of the Marquis de Vermeuill and has been forced by circumstances to fend for herself. After her mother went into a nunnery to absolve her shame and then died, her father the marquis took her in and left her money in his Will. But when he died his son challenged the Will and – having become used to a life of luxury – Marie went to live with an elderly gent of 70 who became her guardian. Paris society of course thought that she was his courtesan and he left Paris in embarrassment, leaving her penniless. Imprudently she then married Danton, rival of Robespierre, but had to embark on her life of intrigue when he died leaving her again penniless.
Montauran decides to overlook all this and to marry her so they agree to meet at Marie’s house in Fougeres. He sets off to organise the priest and witnesses but meanwhile the hunt for him is on. Corentin, Fouche’s wily spy, manages to find out about his whereabouts from Barbette, the wife of Galope-Chopin, who doesn’t realise she’s dealing with the Blues (Republicans) because Corentin has disguised himself as a Chouan. (It doesn’t help the confusion that Balzac keeps using different names for his characters and the opposing sides.)
After Corentin has left, Galope-Chopin comes home, and discovers what Barbette has done. He’s furious and sends her away, but it’s too late. Marche a Terre and Pille-Miche arrive and behead him as a traitor. Barbette comes back to find his head swinging from the door and tells her son to serve the Blues to avenge his father’s death. (She actually makes the child wear his father’s bloodied boot!)
So now Barbette’s allegiance really swings to the Republicans and she goes off to tell Hulot and Corentin about the smoke signal that will reveal Montauran’s arrival at Fougeres. Now aware of Marie’s treachery, Corentin plots her downfall using guile to do it. He arranges for her to receive a letter purporting to be a love-letter from Montauran to Mme de Gua. Marie is furious, denounces him to Hulot and then sets off to confront him. When they meet, of course, she realises the letter was from Corentin and bitterly regrets her actions. They marry, spend a blissful night together and then try to flee. Marie disguises herself in Montauran’s clothes to try to draw fire away from him while he, dressed as a Chouan, climbs down a ladder provided by Marche a Terre but he is shot and they die in each others arms as Corentin and Hulot squabble about the dishonourable way the deed was done.
So, things went badly awry for Marie. She fell for Montauran and ended up double-crossing herself and everyone else. She abandoned Corentin, her co-conspirator from Paris and because she couldn’t stand the rough-and-ready Chouans, she came up with her own plan – to marry their leader, i.e. Montauran. Corentin retaliated by fooling her into believing that Montauran loved her rival Mme de Gua and so Marie ordered Hulot to destroy the rebels. She found out the truth too late, and she couldn’t save Montauran. They died, the day after they were married.
Well, what else could Balzac do? History was already written, and he couldn’t have a Royalist leader and his traitorous bride live happily ever after, eh?
Summary by Lisa Hill