The Commission in Lunacy by Honoré de Balzac

The Commission in Lunacy
Also translated as The Interdiction

Late one night in 1828, Rastignac and Bianchon are walking home and discussing the hostess they have just left, the Marquise d’Espard who has captured Rastignac’s attention.

The Marquise d’Espard is very vain and takes great pains with her appearance. She has fooled most of society as to her age, but not Dr Bianchon who enlightens his friend. Rastignac is interested in not only her looks, but her fortune and her influence. He is worried that if he stays with Delphine Nucingen much longer that he’ll be shelved, stuck in a pigeon-hole like a married man. He now has debts but is happy that he was able to provide dowries for his sisters.

Bianchon warns his friend that the Marquise might also be in debt and talks in general about the grand ladies to which he attends and their ungratefulness. He remarks that the society women are really no better than the women they knew while living in the Maison Vauquer. He has a particular horror of women of fashion and compares them to men in power. Bianchon adds that the only reason the Marquise was smiling on him tonight was that she hoped for his influence with his uncle, Judge Popinot. As they part, Bianchon says he will go to see his uncle the next day as a favor to Rastignac and take Popinet the following day to see the Marquise that she may get round him if she can.

In the thirteenth century, the Rue du Fouarre was the most important street in Paris. Now it is one of the dirtiest streets in the poorest quarter. The old house looks almost ready to collapse, but holds up year after year. The ground floor of the once splendid residence is a parlor where the beneficent judge interviews charity cases for three hours each morning.

Napoleon appointed Popinot to the Imperial High Court of Justice because of his superior knowledge of the law. But, not being ambitious, Popinot sank to the lowest courts, a shock to the legal world. Always dressing in black, he is careless of his appearance, only shaving twice weekly. New clothing is stained at its first wearing. Only his mouth proclaims his noble and generous nature.

The judge, now a widower, is both loved and respected by the poor people of his neighborhood. They are careful as they queue up in the morning to be quiet so as not to awaken him. Even the thieves bypass his home. His servant Lavienne is also his aide-de-camp.

Popinot is dealing with various paupers when Bianchon arrives. He promptly sends Bianchon off on two medical cases, saying that they will breakfast together on his return.

The judge’s private room is filled with mementos from grateful souls which he has assisted over the years. Bianchon chides his uncle, telling him that he should dress warmer when he goes downstairs to the parlor where he receives the poor. He then broaches the object of his visit.

Upon hearing that his nephew wishes him to accompany him to dinner at Mme d’Espard’s, Popinot’s first reaction is to ask if she is a relative. Upon being told that she is petitioning for a Commission in Lunacy against her husband and it has been assigned to him, the judge exclaims, “And you want me to dine with her! Are you mad?”

Digging the affidavit out, the Judge reads it aloud to Bianchon, making some great asides as he does so. One of the main complaints is that, while Mme d’Espard lives luxuriously, her estranged husband lives in a low area (near the Judge!) and has taken their two sons with him, depriving them of the way of life and education due their station in life. A good bit of the “evidence” has to do with monies given to a Mme Jeanrenand and her son and their influence on M d’Espard.

Upon reading that Mme d’Espard claims to only see her children once a year and to be unable to give them the necessities of existence, the Judge remarks: “If your Marquise really wanted to give her children food and clothes, the Devil himself would not have hindered her, heh? That is rather too big a fable for an old lawyer to swallow!”

After finishing the affidavit, Popinot says he knows everything from her side and that he will go to see the husband the next day. Bianchon begs him to go to Mme d’Espard’s also. He pleads it as a favor and the judge agrees to visit her, although not to dine there.

Mme d’Espard has an extremely strict beauty routine which seems to have worked (unless you’re as astute an observer as Bianchon), although she is careful about lighting and sits in the shadows. She is glad that her husband has taken the boys so they are not present to raise the question of her age. She lived in retirement for the first three years after d’Espard left while she made her plans. Then she went to Court and parties and entertained and became the “fashion” while building political contacts and influence.

Arriving at Mme d’Espard’s, Bianchon is embarrassed by his uncle’s appearance and Rastignac has to turn away as he can’t help but laugh. Mme d’Espard doesn’t fool Popinot as he thinks she is insincere, laughing at him and also in the best of health. He realizes that he must be very cagey to get at the facts and succeeds in convincing her that he is a fool.

The mysterious Jeanrenauds appear to spend fifty to sixty thousand francs a year and Popinot gets Mme d’Espard to admit that she also spends approximately that much. Popinot mentions that since her income is only twenty-six thousand francs annually, she could have debts totaling one hundred thousand francs and her motive for gaining control of her husband’s property could be self-interest and the need of paying your debts. He adds that he must have an explanation.

Judge Popinot has looked around and noted the furnishings and the expensive knick-knacks. As the interview draws to a close, Mme d’Espard, who wanted an ambitious man assigned to her case, realizes that instead she was assigned a man of conscience and must seek other means for securing the success of her side.

The next afternoon Mme Jeanrenaud arrives to see the Judge and he is amazed at her appearance. Admitting her poor looks, Mme Jeanrenaud laughs to think she could be accused of seductive arts. This is the first she has heard about the proceedings and she says she would return every sou before giving the Marquis, who she praises highly, the least bit of trouble. As she rushes off to tell her son, the Judge thinks, “That one tells no lies”. He plans to see the Marquis d’Espard the following day but is prevented from doing so by a head cold.

The Marquis d’Espard lives in a house that was once fine and unique but is now old, ruined by being used for businesses, especially a print shop, and is now divided into apartments. He and the boys have a ground floor apartment and access to the garden. It was in such need of repair when he rented it, that the rent is low. He repaired the interior without extravagance and its appearance is dignified and peaceful. Three rooms on an upper floor are devoted to “China” and the Marquis works there until 4:00 p.m. daily.

Three servants complete the household: an elderly cook, a man servant and the boys’ former nurse who now manages the household. None of the inhabitants of this apartment socialize with other tenants of the building. Their privacy causes much gossip and M d’Espard is considered a madman. The Marquis was once arrested when, through forgetfulness, he neglected to pay his rent and the portress purposely delayed delivering his notice and later failed to deliver the summons immediately.

D’Espard is a true gentleman, something regarded as a relic on the street where he lives. His hesitant speech (so different from his mind) and jerky walk combine to add to his appearance as a madman.

The day of Judge Popinot’s visit is a holiday and the boys are playing noisily in the garden while their father watches from his window. This causes the neighbors to delight in saying that he sets his boys fighting. As the portress conducts Popinot upstairs, she relates this to him, adding that “no doubt he longed to see them kill each other.”

On the way to the “China” rooms, the dirty banisters and general neglect since the days of the printers and the paper piled in the corners lend credence to Mme d’Espard’s assertions.

Popinot tells the Marquis d’Espard the purpose of his visit. M d’Espard expresses the hope that no censure will fall on Mme d’Espard.

The first item for which the Judge wants an explanation is the Jeanrenauds and the funds given to them. The Marquis agrees to tell Popinot the facts behind his motive, the secret of which he had hoped would die with him. D’Espard then relates his family history and how they had been ruined during religious struggles. Later King Henry IV arranged a wealthy marriage to a Mlle d’Espard which is how the Negrepelisse family came to have their title and coat of arms.

Shortly after his marriage, the Marquis was obliged to borrow money due to considerable spending by his wife. While examining the deeds he discovered that the Negrepelisse lands restored to his grandfather by King Louis XIV were obtained through trickery and the hanging of the owner at the time, a wealthy merchant. The arresting official was his grandfather’s uncle. The official had been sent ransom money from the family which had escaped to Switzerland. He kept the money but hanged the merchant anyway.

The family was named Jeanrenaud. Determined to right this horrible wrong, the man of honor searched for the family and found Jeanrenaud, a lieutenant in the cavalry. M Jeanrenaud and his mother are honest people. They agreed only to accept the value of the land at the time, paid at d’Espard’s leisure and with no interest.

When the Marquis suggested to his wife that they move to the country and live frugally, he discovered her character. He was repulsed by her coldness and the fact that she abandoned the boys to him without regret.

Judge Popinot tells M d’Espard that he has now been sufficiently enlightened but wants to know about the rest of the allegations. D’Espard suggests going to his living quarters and Popinot, having thought that’s where he was, is surprised.

When the two men enter the ground floor apartment, Popinot is enchanted and touched and thinks he would like to take the lease when D’Espard leaves. The Marquis wants to remain there until both boys have completed their education. He wants their characters to be formed before introducing them into their mother’s circle. The boys arrive, happy and blooming with health. It is mentioned that they saw their mother on the Bois but didn’t go to speak to her as she doesn’t care to acknowledge them in public because of their ages.

Mme Jeanrenaud then bursts in to say that she and her son are in agreement to return all the money. The boys are upset to hear words like criminal and lunatic and are sent out to the garden. Popinot reassures Mme Jeanrenaud that they are entitled to the money and wishes there were more people with as much honor as the Marquis.

The two men have felt a connection and, as he is leaving, Popinot whispers to M d’Espard, “I believe that Madame la Marquise has acted in this matter under an influence which you ought at once to counteract.”

The next morning, when Popinot goes to deliver his report he finds that he has been removed from the case under the accusation of taking tea with Mme d’Espard. The President of the Court says that they all know Popinot is upright, honest and innocent of any bribe-taking, but they must be careful of public opinion. He is told to retire from the case and is to be given the Cross of the Legion of Honor. The case is now assigned to a judge recently arrived from the Provinces. It is Camusot.


Read it here

Summary by Dagny, September 2009


7 comments on “The Commission in Lunacy by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This one tugged at my heartstrings. Here at last justice would be served. The kind and compassionate Marquis is living a life of relative poverty and honor in order to raise his children properly and pay a moral debt of his ancestors. His scheming estranged wife is planning on declaring him incompetent to get the rest of his money, but the honorable Judge Popinot sees the real story. Ha, she doesn’t have a chance! …until the wife manages to get Judge Popinot removed from the case for Camusot, whom me know can be bought. Ah, life in Paris, the world of corruption.


  2. My heartstrings, too, Pamela! Another of my favorites.

    That hateful wife is the one who broke up Madame Bargeton and Lucien after Lucien had followed her to Paris.


    • scamperpb says:

      I didn’t catch that, Dagny, thanks for pointing it out. I think soon I’m going to start through the repertoire and see what other connections I’ve missed!


      • They will be legion, lol. I pointed out quite a few during our marathon reading at the group, but that was for the later stories. Couldn’t really mention a lot during the early books since it was referring to characters whose story we didn’t yet know.


  3. […] has influence over Camusot who has previously tried and failed to do her a favour in court (See The Commission in Lunacy) but  when she persuades his wife, Amelie to make sure Lucien gets committed, Camusot […]


  4. John McGrath says:

    A person of conscience versus a person of ambition? Are the two incompatible in that society?


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