La Paix du Ménage
Also translated as The Peace of the Home
Balzac dedicated this short story to his sister’s daughter, Valentine Surville. Valentine was quite attractive, and Balzac was concerned she not let her attractiveness ruin her outlook on life. This story takes place in 1809 at the height of Napoleon’s glory – in Balzac’s words, at the apogee of its splendor. The trumpet-blasts of Wagram were still sounding an echo in the heart of the Austrian monarchy. All of France and Paris were alive with the splendor of victory and the Monarch with diamonds and riches everywhere. The nobility certainly flung themselves into the life of pleasure, men and women alike. Women were attracted by the military, the true fount of honor, wealth, or pleasure. Gems were in vogue and everywhere.
There, as elsewhere, amusement was but a blind. Calm and smiling faces and placid brows covered sordid interests, expressions of friendship were a lie, and more than one man was less distrustful of his enemies than of his friends.
Balzac further emphasizes the corruption: At this time most women affected that lightness of conduct and facility of morals which distinguished the reign of Louis XV. Murat set the example of preposterous luxury to modern soldiers. Malin too is there (the subject of the trumped-up kidnapping in The Gondreville Mystery). There’s also a Princess Wagram mentioned in passing.
Malin, the Comte de Gondreville, is having an important entertainment; all the ambassadors are there and even some princes. All watch for Napoleon to enter. But Napoleon is not there because he and Josephine are having an argument – . . . the scene which portended the impending divorce of the august pair.
The story centers on a few characters that it is best to get straight up front. As usual, Balzac dribbles out information about these characters a little at a time.
- Madame de Vaudremont – Rich young widow, 22, considered the most beautiful Parisian of the day and very fashionable.
- Martial de la Roche-Hugon – Lawyer, young provencal patronized by Napoleon. Ambitious and perhaps cold and calculating. Montcornet also calls him Monsieur Maitre de Requetes. A Baron.
- General Montcornet – Colonel of Cuirassiers in the Imperial Guard and friend of Martial de la Roche-Hugon.
- Comte Leon de Soulanges – Colonel of Artillery, 32.
- Madame Hortense de Soulanges – His abandoned wife, the lady in blue.
- Duchesse de Lansac – Madame de Soulanges’ aunt.
Montcornet and Martial, friends from their regiments, are having a discussion among the glittering women of the ball. They see an absolutely entrancing lady in blue buried behind several rows of other ladies – as if the ladies have hidden her there because they are jealous of her beauty. More likely the lady in blue in not skilled in high society and simply doesn’t know how to hold her position on the battlefield of a society party and has fallen to the rear! The lady in blue watches for Madame de Vaudremont and both Montcornet and Martial are enchanted with her looks. They speculate who she might be and how she might have gotten invited to the ball. They notice she is a bit passive and speculate that she is therefore perhaps a widow or at least a married woman. Martial thinks she has a grief of long-standing and that she is in love. Montcornet stops Malin and asks her identity, but Malin does not know her.
Madame de Vaudremont it seems has been observing Montcornet and Martial’s conversation and noticing the attention that Martial is giving the lady in blue. Montcornet warns Martial, but Martial reassures him that when he makes a conquest he keeps it. It seems he is engaged to the beautiful Madame de Vaudremont. Montcornet still chides him and reminds him of all he might lose. Madame de Vaudremont looks uneasy when she sees Montcornet examining Martial’s diamond ring. Montcornet tells Martial that he wants to win the lady in blue and that if Martial interferes he will turn the tables and pursue Madame de Vaudremont. The cocky Martial says go ahead, it won’t work.
There is a flashback to 11 PM just before the conversation between Montcornet and Martial has been taking place. Madame de Vaudremont presents herself and is announced in the company of the Comte de Soulanges. Suddenly Martial’s face goes rigid, he is not pleased. Madame de Vaudremont sits down by the hostess and more or less dismisses Soulanges, who still hangs about in the general area. While Martial is glaring at him, Soulanges spots something in the crowd of women and turns red in the face. He has seen the lady in blue, and he flees to the card room. Martial thinks his presence has run Soulanges off, and he strodes confidently to Madame de Vaudremont’s side. She asks him to please not wear that ring which you snatched from me. But he is concerned by her appearance with Soulanges. Madame de Vaudremont tells him they just happened to arrive at the same time.
Martial and Madame de Vaudremont dance the quadrille, but Martial is thinking of the lady in blue and is caught being absent-minded by his fiancée. Montcornet moves off to explore the mystery of the lady in blue. He finally works his way to her and asks her to dance, but she answers coldly she is not dancing this evening. She tells him she is married and that her husband is at the ball. Martial is observing all of this while dancing, and the lady in blue notes the ring Martial is wearing – it is flashing in the light. Montcornet tells her Martial’s name and that he is closely associated with Madame de Vaudremont. This makes the lady in blue turn pale, and Montcornet thinks she must be in love with Martial. The lady in blue said she thought that Madame de Vaudremont has been devoted to M. de Soulanges, and Montcornet tells her that he has been replaced in the past week by Martial.
Montcornet and Martial again converse, and Martial bets Montcornet’s gray horse that he can get the lady in blue to dance with him. They agree. Montcornet goes to search for Soulanges since the lady seems to know him, and Martial goes to win his dance with the lady in blue. Montcornet finds Soulanges in a frenzy of card playing. He is winning with no pleasure and scoops up his money when he sees Montcornet come to talk with him. Montcornet tells him that Napoleon intends to promote Soulanges to field-martial. Soulanges becomes emotional when Montcornet asks who the lady in blue is and threatens to thrash Martial if he even speaks to her. Montcornet leaves him quite overcome on an easy-chair.
Now Montcornet goes back to Madame de Vaudremont, who is unhappy because Martial has abandoned her. Montcornet guesses her unhappiness and they share confidences. Montcornet tells her that he has bet Martial his horse that Martial cannot get the lady to dance. And then Montcornet and Madame make an appointment to dance later.
Madame de Lansac is watching all from her chair. Martial stops by to talk with her and bribes her with government favors to reveal the identity of the lady in blue. Madame de Lansac asks him to bring over Madame de Vaudremont and dismisses him without revealing the lady in blue’s identity. Miffed, Martial goes to talk to the blue lady. He is of a half a mind to overthrow Madame de Vaudremont for her. Montcornet stands in a corner to watch, amused.
Madame de Lansac and Madame de Vaudremont settle down for a heart to heart talk. Madame de Lansac tells Madame de Vaudremont that Martial is not the best catch – “Not fool enough to make a good husband, nor passionate enough to remain a lover.” He’s in debt, not in good health, too presumptuous to have any sterling merit. He doesn’t love her, only her money. She suggests that if Madame de Vaudremont wants to marry again she should find an older man with an assured position. She goes on to tell her if she wants to remain single that she should not dally with married men. She then tells her the lady in blue is her niece, none other than Madame de Soulanges. Madame de Vaudremont has brought remorse and misery to both the Soulanges. Madame de Vaudremont feels remorseful and heeds Madame de Lansac’s words that we are just as capable of repelling a man’s attentions as of attracting them. She has set Madame de Vaudremont up for Montcornet, to whom she whispers, “She is yours if you are not a simpleton”. Madame de Vaudremont says she will talk to Soulanges, end it with him, but Madame de Lansac says it is better if she just ignores him and take up with, say, Montcornet.
Martial talks again with Madame de Vaudremont, who reveals the identity of Madame de Soulanges. She appears to forbid him to talk with Madame de Soulanges, but he laughs and says he just wants a dance with her. Madame de Vaudremont reveals she knows about the horse bet, and off he goes. Montcornet settles down to conquer Madame de Vaudremont. Madame de Lansac intercepts M. de Soulanges as he enters the room, angry, and implores him to take her home. She flashes a look at her niece to tell her to go to work on Martial.
Martial and Madame de Soulanges dance with Madame de Soulanges displaying her most focused attention on Martial. He is enchanted. As Montcornet passes by, Martial tells him he’s just won his horse. He replies that he doesn’t care since Madame de Soulanges is worth millions! All the ball attenders are wondering how Martial has conquered Madame de Soulanges; he’s not that fascinating. Martial and Madame de Soulanges take a turn, and they settle in a intimate boudoir overlooking the garden. She draws off Martial’s ring and admires it. He offers it to her and affirms he will never take it back. She slips the ring on. Martial starts to embrace her, but she suddenly stands up and says, “I accept the diamond, Monsieur, with the less scruple because it belongs to me.” For once Martial is speechless. It seems her husband took it from her, claimed he lost it, and gave it to Madame de Vaudremont. Madame de Vaudremont then later gave it to Martial. She shows a hidden compartment containing her husband’s hair. She flees into the crowded rooms. Montcornet sees Martial and cannot resist asking him, “Will you have my horse, to ride after your prize?” We understand that Montcornet and Madame de Vaudremont will marry, and Montcornet thinks it a good deal that he exchanged his charger for a rich and pretty young wife.
Madame de Soulanges goes home, discarding the hair from the diamond ring along the way. She finds her husband in her rooms. He chastizes her for going to the ball without him, but she disarms him with her sweet reply that her aunt took her and she was happy seeing him there. Her clemency enraptured Soulanges all the more, because this scene followed on the misery he had endured at the ball. He sees the diamond and asks about it. She says, “It is my diamond which you said you had lost, and which I have found.”
Postscript, Montcornet did not marry Madame de Vaudremont because she was killed in the fire at the ball given on the occasion of Napoleon’s marriage with the daughter of the Emperor Joseph II.
Summary by Pamela, April 2007