The Ball at Sceaux by Honoré de Balzac

Le Bal de Sceaux
The Ball at Sceaux

Balzac begins by describing the career of the Comte de Fontaine, a renowned Vendéean who has sacrificed much of his wealth by resisting the French Revolution and refusing a commission from Napoleon. When Louis XVIII is restored, he at first is repulsed, but after Napoleon breaks loose from Elba, he decides to accompany Louis and wins the gratitude of the monarch. Louis provides for the Comte’s sons and also finds husbands for his two eldest daughters.

Alas, the youngest daughter Emilie is a bit of a problem. She is spoiled, impetuous, and headstrong. She wants to be married to a Peer of France, no less, and refuses to look at any man who is overweight or otherwise not … perfect. When the Comte applies to Louis for help in marrying his problem child, the monarch leaves him only with a bon mot in Latin: Amicus Plato sed magis amica Natio, “I love Plato, but I love the Nation more. (The original Latin replaced Natio with Veritas, “truth”). In other words, I’ve given you enough already, Old Man.

The Comte calls Emilie into his office and tells her that it is up to her to find her own husband. He could only afford one hundred thousand francs as a dowry: anything more than that would risk impoverishing his widow should he die. Emilie and her father review the potential beaux, one of whom is our old friend Eugene de Rastignac from Pere Goriot, but she rejects him as being too much of a banker. He goes on: “It is my intention no longer to compromise my reputation, which is part of my children’s fortune, by recruiting the regiment of dancers which, spring after spring, you put to rout.”

Emilie’s uncle is Vice Admiral Kergarouet, whom we met in The Purse. He joins Emilie’s brothers-in-law by taking her to the Ball at Sceaux, which reminds me something of Vauxhall and Ranelagh in 18th century London, a place where young unattached men and women, both noble and plebeian, go to be seen.

There, Emilie sees just the person she wants. He is lean, looks noble, and is escorting a younger woman named Clara. Emilie de Fontaine has found the perfect gentleman. She suspects that he is of noble family; he dresses handsomely; he behaves with great tact and hauteur — and yet no one seems to know anything about him.

To the rescue comes Emilie’s uncle, the old Vice-Admiral, the Comte de Kergarouet. He joins Emilie’s frantic rides around the countryside actually looking for the young Adonis. Suddenly, they espy him walking along the side of the road. The Admiral takes charge. He practically rides the young man down and then upbraids him for not getting out of the way. It would seem that a duel was in the making. To that end, the young man gives the Admiral his card, showing him to be a Maximilien Longueville — without the noble particle to his name.

The Admiral wastes no time in making up to the young man and invites him to the Pavillon Planat, where the de Fontaine family is staying. He comes over; Emilie and Maximilien make eyes at each other; and the chase is on.

Emilie spends the better part of three months lollygagging with young Max and trying to find out whether he is of a noble family, to no avail. Then, suddenly, she comes upon Max in a shop, apparently in the middle of a financial transaction which confirms her uncle’s suspicion that he could be connected with a clothing firm. Horrors, in trade!

At a party, Emilie runs into Max’s brother, the Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples. Without knowing who she is, he tells her the story of his family. Apparently, Max had sacrificed a fortune so that his brother could be advanced. In fact, young Max left the Sceaux area at five every morning, rode breakneck to Paris where he could indulge in his profession of (shudder) banking, and returned to Sceaux around four every afternoon.

That was the last straw. Our Emilie could not, would not, lower herself to a commoner — even one with prospects like Max. So what does she do but marry her old uncle, who at any rate is a bona fide Count.

One day, while playing cards with the Bishop of Persepolis, a young man is announced as the Viscount of Longueville. His father had attained the title, then died; then left it to the brother Auguste, who also died.

In the end, Emilie winds up still married to her charming old uncle. And Maximilien is the rich young nobleman Emilie wished him to be.

Such bad timing!


Read it here

Summary by Jim, June/July 2009


One comment on “The Ball at Sceaux by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    I like this story with its bit of history and the changing times between Napoleon and the Restoration. Emilie is ably depicted as the spoiled youngest daughter who wants the perfect noble husband. I suspect we’ve all known at least one woman like this who shopped for a spouse and exceeded her ‘sell by’ date, LOL. The one I remember from college never did get married, and she cannot figure out how that happened. What is sad is Emilie really did love Max but wasn’t willing to give up her dream noble marriage. And if she’d gone with her heart, she would have ended up with nobility after all.

    I just watched the last episode of Season 2 of Downton Abbey last night, and I suspect Mary is going to face a similar dilemma in Season 3 – we haven’t heard anything lately about the alleged former heir rising from the ashes, but I think he’ll be back and thus Mary will have to decide whether she’s willing to marry Matthew for love and no money.


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