The Vendetta by Honoré de Balzac

La Vendetta
The Vendetta

Chapter I – Prologue

The story opens in Paris in October 1800, where a Corsican, Bartolomeo di Piombo, manages to obtain an audience with Napoleon Bonaparte and his brother Lucien, also Corsicans, who now hold power in France as First Consul and Minister of the Interior, respectively.

Back in Corsica, di Piombo, a landowner, has been involved in a feud with the Porta family. Despite an apparent truce, the Portas treacherously attacked his house in his absence, burning it down and killing his son. In retaliation – and according to the Corsican custom of vendetta – di Piombo and his friends burned down the house of the Portas and killed them all – or nearly all: it is rumoured that one small boy, Luigi, was rescued from the fire. Now di Piombo, together with his wife and daughter, has fled the island and seeks protection from Napoleon, whom his family has supported in the past.

Napoleon agrees to help di Piombo, but warns that there can be no further vendetta in Paris. He and his brother will establish di Piombo in a position of importance and, in return, he swears undying loyalty.

Chapter II – The Studio

The story moves forward nearly 15 years to July 1815, about a month after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

Servin, a successful artist, holds art classes in his studio in Paris for young ladies from good families. Even here, there are deep political divisions between supporters of Napoleon and of the royal family, the Bourbons, who are back in power. Ginevra di Piombo, Bartolommeo’s daughter, now 25 years old, is a beautiful and talented student in the class and a fervent supporter of Napoleon. Ostracised by the girls who come from an aristocratic background and forced by them to sit apart from the rest of the class, she realises that there is someone concealed behind a partition at one end of the studio. She discovers that it is a handsome young man in the uniform of Napoleon’s troops.

Taking care not to give away his presence to the other girls, she wins the confidence of the artist, Servin, who tells her that it is an army officer who fought on Napoleon’s side at Waterloo and who will certainly be executed if captured. Ginevra offers her help. Another girl in the class, Amelie Thirion, becomes suspicious and spies on them after the class is over.

Chapter III – Labedoyere’s Friend

The young man is weak from his wounds, but when he hears the news that his commanding officer, Labedoyere, has been condemned to death, he immediately wants to come out of hiding and give up his own life in a vain gesture. Ginevra offers him her support, financial and social, and he decides instead to stay alive, so that he can avenge his leader. Hearing this, Ginevra feels the thrill of emotions she has never before experienced, made even more intense when she learns that he, too, is Corsican.

In the following days, Ginevra and Luigi, the young soldier, spend time together, with the approval of Servin. Meanwhile, thanks to Amelie’s spying, the other girls have discovered Luigi’s existence and believe him to be Ginevra’s secret lover, not suspecting that he is in hiding for political reasons. Because of this, they gradually stop coming to the class, as the rumour goes round their families that Servin is encouraging immorality. Servin himself does not care and is more concerned about his painting being put on display. He encourages them to marry and it is agreed that Ginevra will use her connections to arrange a pardon for Luigi.

Ginevra’s parents, the Baron and Baroness di Piombo, have lived a simple life, devoted to each other and to their daughter. The Baron refused to take advantage of his position to make a fortune, as others did, and cared little for material wealth. His character was stern and intense, strong willed and obstinate, qualities which he also encouraged in Ginevra. As a result, they often clashed with each other and, usually, di Piombo gave way to his daughter. Now that she was older, she tended to avoid such arguments, but she had never been taught to be obedient to her parents, who had, instead, given her the freedom to do whatever she pleased.

On this evening, they are waiting anxiously for Ginevra to arrive home from the studio. Her mother comments that she has been coming home late for a fortnight now. Just as di Piombo can wait for his daughter no longer, Ginevra arrives, he meets her at the gate and carries her into the house.

Chapter IV – Love

When Ginevra arrives home, her father comments on her recent habit of coming home late; for a moment, it seems Ginevra will let her parents think she has been busy painting, but her natural honesty leads her to tell them the truth, that she is in love with one of Napoleon’s officers. Her father’s immediate response is that she should not fall in love with any man, not while he is still alive. Ginevra say this is not love, but selfishness. They argue. It appears that Piombo had previously been persuaded by Napoleon to allow Ginevra to marry, but she had not wished to do so. Seeing his distress, Ginevra tries to comfort her father and then asks his permission to bring Luigi home, but he refuses.

A week later, Ginevra’s mother succeeds in persuading Piombo to let Luigi visit. By now, Ginevra has petitioned the Minister of War and had Luigi reinstated in the army, although without any posting. Despite his courage as a soldier, he is nervous about meeting her father. Piombo does not greet him with courtesy, but comments on his lack of medals, to which Luigi replies that he had the Legion of Honour, but has stopped wearing it. (We already know that Piombo has also stopped wearing the LoH medal, out of disgust with the new regime.) It seems that Piombo may be about to accept the young man. Then Ginevra’s mother comments on Luigi’s resemblance to a member of the Porta family and Luigi tells them that he himself is a Porta. Ginevra’s parents are so shocked, they stagger from the room without a word.

Left alone, Ginevra and Luigi piece together what they each know about the vendetta between their families. They realise the great danger Luigi is now in, but neither is prepared to give up their love for each other. Ginevra sees Luigi back to his lodging, so scared is she that her father will have him killed.

That evening Piombo gives Ginevra an ultimatum, if she marries Luigi, she will cease to be his daughter. She tells him she chooses to marry and, for the rest of the evening, behaves as though quite unconcerned about the situation, which hurts his feelings all the more. The next day, she finds the gates are locked and she cannot leave the house.

For a few days, Ginevra manages to send letters to Luigi by way of a servant. Both she and her father remain stubbornly determined not to give way. They both share the same Corsican pride, which makes it impossible for either to back down.

On Ginevra’s birthday, her mother hopes to bring father and daughter back together, but as they all sit together in Piombo’s study, lawyers and witnesses arrive. It seems that Ginevra is now of age to marry without her father’s consent, provided she first serves her father with a legal notice of her intention. She has employed the lawyers to do this, as they now explain to him. They also point out that, in most cases, families prefer to give their consent at this point, rather than be publicly humiliated by legal proceedings.

Piombo’s response is to seize a dagger and try to stab Ginevra. Two of the visitors try, but fail, to stop him. Ginevra calmly kneels at his feet, but Piombo cannot go through with it. She begs him for his consent to her marriage, but he refuses and then turns her out of the house. She goes to see Luigi, they pledge their love for each other and, despite her grief, she insists that they will be happy together.

Chapter V – Marriage

The next day, Ginevra asks for help from Madame Servin, who is unsympathetic, so Ginevra has to rent a room instead. Her mother sends her a trunk with her clothes and other things and also all the money due to Ginevra, together with her own savings. In a letter, her mother begs her not to marry, but wishes her happiness if she does. She will not be able to help her again. Ginevra longs to go back to her parents, but when she sees Luigi, her love for him is stronger.

Their marriage takes place at the mayor’s office, followed by a blessing in church. At both places, they are surrounded by conventional wedding parties, families happy to see their children marry. Neither they nor their witnesses are dressed for the occasion and they all feel awkwardly aware of the unusual circumstances of this wedding. Despite this, Luigi and Ginevra feel nothing but love for each other.

Luigi has rented an apartment for them to live in and fitted it out so as to provide Ginevra with a studio and other luxuries. To do this, he has borrowed against the money due to him from the army. Ginevra is concerned about the cost, but delighted with the apartment and his thoughtfulness in furnishing it.

Marriage only increases and deepens their love for each other and to begin with, they spend all their time together, but, after a while, Ginevra finds work making copies of paintings, which she sells to dealers. It is harder for Luigi to find work, but eventually he becomes a copyist of legal documents. The money they earn is enough to live on and Luigi can even employ assistants, he has so much work coming in.

Ginevra still feels sad at the thought of her parents, but she never allows Luigi to know this. On their first anniversary, she gives him her self-portrait. The second year of their marriage passes, just as happy as the first.

Chapter VI – Retribution

After a while, it becomes harder for Ginevra to sell copies, due to increased competition, so she tries to obtain commissions for portraits instead, but finds the same problem there too. However, they are not worried, because they still have some savings. Soon Luigi is facing competition as a legal copyist. He can no longer afford to employ assistants and has to work longer hours himself. Ginevra is now quite unable to sell her paintings. For love, each tries to conceal from the other how bad the situation is becoming.

One night, Ginevra discovers that Luigi is getting up to do extra copying while she sleeps, so she decides to do the same and finds some new work, colouring etchings, which she does secretly at night, while Luigi does his copying, also thinking it is secret from her. By chance, one night, he finds out what she is doing and he is distraught, wanting to shoulder all of the burden himself, but she insists that she must do her share and, as a result, their love seems stronger than ever.

Next Ginevra has a baby boy and they are both very happy, although Luigi has to borrow money to cover the cost. A kind of apathy begins to come over them. Bit by bit, they sell their valuables. They leave their apartment and live in one room, which Ginevra works hard to keep clean. They cannot afford to keep a fire going during the winter and the baby is poorly. Ginevra accepts their situation with resignation and only feels sad for the baby. When there is not enough food, she goes without, so that Luigi can eat, but he guesses what she is doing. Realising that she is in danger of dying from starvation, he decides to go to an agent, who will buy his services as a substitute for someone called up on military service by lottery. He even hopes that, while he is away, her father will take her back. The agent gives him some money on account and Luigi runs home, calling out Ginevra’s name as he runs.

By the time he gets home, Ginevra has begun to lose her mind and the baby is already dead. The landlord and neighbours, surprised at their desperate state, which they have succeeded in concealing up till now, go to fetch help. Ginevra, dying, still full of love for Luigi, asks him to give her hair to her father. She dies just before help arrives.

At the Piombo mansion, both Ginevra’s parents are up late. Unable to sleep, they sit on either side of the fireplace. Piombo stares at Ginevra’s empty chair and sighs. His wife dares to mention their daughter’s name for only the second time since Ginevra left. The night is cold and it is snowing – she imagines aloud that Ginevra may be cold and hungry and that she may have a child that she cannot nurse. Piombo at last relents and cries out for Ginevra. His wife stands up to go and fetch her. Just then, the door opens and Luigi comes in. He has brought Ginevra’s hair, as she asked him to. He tells them she is dead and then himself falls dead on the floor. Piombo looks at his body and says, ‘He has saved me a shot.’


Read it here

Summary by Josephine/Victorine, January 2007


One comment on “The Vendetta by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    In reviewing this work, I had lots of help. Josephine wrote an excellent summary above – but was never heard from again. I suspect Balzac was not to her taste as “The Vendetta” isn’t considered the best starting point for reading Balzac. Wikipedia has a pretty thorough article on “The Vendetta”. Lisa Hill wrote a nice piece, Golda has a synopsis, and there were several other readers on Goodreads who had comments.

    Curiously I found conflicting details in reviews and comments. Golda in his published synopses said two sons of the Piombos were killed. Not true, there was just the one son. Another source said all the Portas were killed – also not true, or we wouldn’t have the story as surviving son Luigi falls in love with surviving daughter Ginevra Piombos in a Romeo and Juliet sort of theme. The plot summary on Wikipedia also seemed in error as it says “As Luigi departs [from the Piobos house after reporting Ginevra’s death], Piombo refrains once more from killing him, believing him to be already a dead man.” I went back and read the ending, and with a stretch one could interpret it this way. But I think Luigi collapsed and died, as do all the other sources I read. So I replaced the Wikipia sentence above with the last sentence in the book: “The old people shook and quivered as if a stroke of lightning had blasted them. Luigi no longer stood before them. ‘He has spared me a shot, for he is dead,’ said Bartolomeo, slowly, gazing on the ground at his feet.”

    Saintsbury didn’t have a lot to say about this story except that it compared unfavorably with what he considered a perfect story, Merimee’s “Mateo Falcone”, which was published a little before Bazac wrote “The Vendetta”. I rather liked “The Vendetta”, though it could be a bit confusing at times, and the interweaving of Bonaparte and Corsican history with the events of the tragedy added interest. But now I’m curious about “Mateo Falcone” and have just downloaded a free version to my kindle.


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