Modeste Mignon by Honoré de Balzac

Modeste Mignon


Charles Mignon was the last survivor of the family of Cardinal Mignon, who apparently build a hotel and had a street named after him in Paris. Charles’ father fled during the revolution, and his fief of La Bastie was sold. He and all his family except Charles were eventually killed. Charles when grown up entered the army, where he met Francois Dumay. The two friends went through the wars of Napoleon together, imprisonment in Sibera, and developed a life-long devotion to each other.

Charles met and married Bettina Wallenrod, a beautiful heiress, during one of his wartime ventures. He began life after the wars with his wife’s money and moved to Havre as a banker and ship owner. Eventually he bought a villa in the beautiful suburb of Ingouville, which overlooks the sea. On the land he also built a small chalet for his friend Dumay, giving him a 12 year lease. Charles and Bettina had 4 children, but the only survivors of childhood were daughters Bettina and Modeste.

Alas although Charles became quite successful, his business failed in due time due to a series of disasters. He had to sell the Villa Mignon to a Monsieur Vilquin. Dumay’s lease held good, though, much to the chagrin of Vilquin. Mme Mignon and her daughters moved in with Dumay, and Charles embarks on a long voyage to the East to regain his fortune. Before he goes, he entreats Dumay to not allow any contact of any sort between his younger daughter Modeste and any man, as older daughter Bettina had earlier been seduced and ran away with a guest of the Mignon home. Dumay takes his orders from Charles seriously and declares: “If any man, of whatever age or rank, speaks to her [Modeste]”, he said, “he is a dead man. I will blow his brains out and surrender myself to the public prosecutor.”

After Charles leaves to find a new fortune, Bettina returns home broken and deserted and dies at the Chalet. Just before she dies she entreats Modeste to live better than she did, giving her a ring engraved with “Remember Bettina”. Mme Mignon is so brokenhearted at Bettina’s death she cries for a month and becomes totally blind. Modeste is a great beauty, and she devotes herself to her blind mother and to reading rather indiscriminately. Her only social life are the daily visits to the Chalet of Monsieur and Madame Latournelle (notary) and banker and friend Gobenhiem (not sure why he wasn’t considered a male threat as the Balzac index says he’s a young banker who “visited the Mignons, but not as a suitor for the heiress’ hand”). Also Butscha, a deformed dwarf and clerk in the notary’s office visits in this party.

One day Modeste’s mother declares to Dumay that she thinks Modeste is in love: she dresses with special care, she alternates being gloomy and gay, etc. Dumay is appalled but cannot see how this could happen as Modeste is watched by all the above continually. Even her mother didn’t fully understand Modeste, who had learned to live in her imagination. She was in love alright but at this point it was the love of a man of genius only found in her imagination.

One day visiting a bookseller Modeste happened to see a portrait of De Canalis, one of her favorite poets. She instantly transferred her image of the perfect man to De Canalis. Eventually with the help of her maid Francoise Cochet she writes to him secretly, a bold move indeed.

Modeste writes to Canalis, but Canalis doesn’t even read the letter – he has boxes of such letters from young impressionable women. But something about the letter intrigues his secretary and friend Ernest, who is a decent man of reasonable position in his own right. Canalis encourages him to answer the letter if he likes – he’s just not interested for himself. So Ernest posing as Canalis begins a long correspondence with Modeste. He at first admonishes her for writing someone she doesn’t know, that her motives might be misconstrued. But somehow the two get past that hurdle, share many confidences of the heart, and Ernest becomes quite taken with this mysterious young woman. One day he goes to Havre and sees her at a window. He’s not sure it is her, and he doesn’t know who she is, but he’s enamored of this woman and thinks of making her his wife.

The correspondence continues, both bare their souls to each other, and finally Modeste gives him instructions to come to her church the next Sunday. Although she won’t reveal herself, if she sees what she likes she will promise to marry him. Ernest dresses himself up and makes the trip. Modeste in disguise views him and decides he’s perfection for her. She’s aroused the suspicions of her family though – she went to church in an awful getup pretending to have a toothache. But later she suddenly appears quite well and happy. And some noticed the Parisian man at the church and wondered who he was. Nevertheless, the happy Modeste decides she will send Ernest – whom she still thinks is Canalis – a letter that she will be his wife.

Dumay receives a letter from Charles stating that he’s made his fortune (selling opium!) and will return shortly. Dumay will be a rich man also as he will get 10% of Charles earnings (presumably from having lent him money, and perhaps also out of friendship). We are taking 7 million francs for Charles’ fortune, but he tells Dumay to keep it a secret as he doesn’t want fortune hunters around his daughters. He does not yet know of Bettina’s death and his wife’s blindness. Charles’ fondest hopes are one of his daughters will make a good marriage to a worthy man who can assume the titles and privileges of the Mignon family and the la Bastie estate which he intends to repurchase. Dumay thus conveys that the dowry for Modeste will be 200,000 francs, and Modeste is disappointed as she wishes her lover to have six million francs and indeed had written that in a letter to him. Modeste continues to show great happiness and romanticism, especially as is illustrated in her talented singing and in putting Canalis’ poems to music. Now the family is certain there is a lover, but they cannot quite figure out how this could be.

Butscha the dwarf meanwhile has gained the confidence of Modeste. He’s hopelessly in love with her and knows she can never be his because of his deformities and his general state in life, and he’s decided he will be her greatest friend and supporter if he cannot be her lover. When the family wonders about the stranger in church, he jumps in to say the man was an architect who had traveled to Havre to estimate some repairs. Modeste writes a letter of homecoming to her father, who should be in Paris by now, and a letter to Ernest/Canalis expressing her complete love for him. But when she accidentally gives the Ernest letter to Dumay instead of her father’s letter to post, Dumay realizes who Modeste’s lover is. Although he exchanged the letter unopened for her father’s letter, he at once dashes off to Paris to confront Canalis. Meanwhile, Ernest has written a letter to Modeste confessing his masquerade and his desire to make her his wife.

Dumay confronts Canalis, who of course is innocent of all. Ernest de la Briere then tells Canalis all that has passed including that Modeste had a large fortune. Darn, Canalis is wretched because he would love to marry a woman with six million francs, it could have been him!! Canalis is tied by ten years of “friendship’ to an older married woman, the Duchesse de Chaulieu. But for six million francs she’d be worth throwing over, even though she is actively working to get him some additional honors.

Ernest goes to see Charles (the Comte de la Bastie – with his wealth he’s now using his title) and confesses all. Charles has just learned of Bettina’s death and his wife’s blindness and is thus greatly saddened. But he listens to Ernest, he likes him, and thinks he might be a candidate to assume his titles and marry his daughter. When Ernest tells him that he’s masqueraded as Canalis, Charles says only Modeste can decide if she can accept him. Charles then invites Ernest and Canalisto Harve to court Modeste, let the winner take all. But there is a twist – he tells Ernest Modeste’s dowry is 200,000 francs, and he makes him promise not to reveal the decreased dowry amount to Canalis. Ernest is actually relieved at the smaller dowry, he wants Modeste, not money, and thinks a smaller dowry will increase his chances of getting her.

Canalis takes a nice villa and servants for a month and invites Ernest to share it with him. Ernest is unaware at how this makes him look like a mere servant, which is exactly what Canalis wants for he intends to win the 6 million franc bride.

Charles arrives home amid much celebration. Eventually he and Modeste have a long talk about her indiscretion in corresponding with Ernest. Modeste is furious with Ernest for his masquerade, a little broken-hearted, and she is determined to love Canalis instead.

A new suitor is added to the mix, the Duc d’Herouville, a man of many titles and little money. He was a suitor at the Vilquin’s, but M. Vilquin has now had some financial reverses. He’s a timid and little man but overall a good and kind man. He has two old maid sisters pushing his noble qualities at all times to Modeste. Adding a third suitor is fine with Modeste, who is still mortified that Ernest masqueraded as Canalis. She’s ready to play the game.

They all arrive, and at first Canalis (De Canalis, to be accurate) shines. He’s a Parisian, a poet, a man of conversation, and he recites his own verse. Ernest looks on dejectedly. But there’s a superficial quality to Canalis, who seems to listen only to himself.

Ernest is about to give up when he encountered the devoted dwarf Butscha. Butscha tells him what he’s learned about Canalis in hopes of drawing out from Ernest more about Canalis, whom he thinks at this point might win Modeste. Butscha has also discovered in talking to his cousin, who happens to be the Duchesse de Chaulieu’s maid, that Canalis will be ruined if he doesn’t marry Modeste as the Duchesse will be quite unhappy at this temporary desertion of Canalis. (He’s been gone two weeks and hasn’t written except once to say he was going to the country for his health.) Butscha sincerely loves Modeste and is determined that she will at least have a good husband through his personal intervention if necessary. At this point he’s pretty sure Canalis is not the right choice.

Butscha talks to Modeste and proves to her that he knows what she is thinking and feeling. Modeste lets down her guard with Butscha. Butscha asks her if she would think differently about Canalis if Canalis were to learn her fortune was small and exhibited a change. Although Modeste does not answer, Butscha knows that this is a worthwhile experiment and even tells Modeste on what day Canalis will back off. He also plans to have him come back to the table later when he again hears her fortune is large.

Butscha begins is work by spreading the rumor the Charles’ fortunes were overrated and that Modeste would only have a dowry of 200,000 francs. The plot thickens.

Canalis hears the news about Modeste’s decreased fortune and instantly begins to withdraw. He writes a letter of apology to the Duchesse de Chaulieu, implying that Modeste is ugly and he’s only been in Havre to help his friend Ernest win her. The Duchesse, who had been wretched and about to stop her husband’s machinations for obtaining offices for Canalis, is reconciled and writes a long conciliatory letter to Canalis in which (since she thinks Modeste is ugly) she said she’d thought of helping Canalis marry Modeste for her 8 million francs. Oops, by now Canalis has used his devotion to the Duchesse as an excuse of back away from Modeste, and now he hears again that Modeste is worth a fortune!

Canalis tears off the part of the letter from the Duchesse saying that she supported his marriage with Modeste and gives it to Modeste as an excuse to come back to the bargaining table. Of course by now Modeste being no fool knows that Butscha’s experiment has proved true, that Canalis only wants her money.

All convene at the D’Herouville estate for a hunt. Ernest almost doesn’t go but when Modeste tells him she considers him a friend he decides to keep in the hunt. Just a few days before he’s heard Modeste express a desire for a riding whip. He had ridden to Paris and back and spent all his money to have one especially made for her. But she consigned it to her father coldly as she was still angry at Ernest’s masquerade. The Duchesse, now smelling a rat, decides to come to the hunt also. It’s a big affair with nobility from Paris, etc. There’s a scene where the Duchesse and Modeste are in the same room, but the Duchesse – who sees that Modeste is beautiful – doesn’t speak or acknowledge Modeste in any way. Modeste, probably with evil in her heart, LOL, calls to Canalis, who is at the Duchesse’s feet, to fetch something from her carriage for her. Canalis is stuck, if he leaves the Duchesse she will never receive him again. While he’s standing like a rabbit in the headlights Ernest comes in, and Canalis is able to ask him to fetch what Modeste requests. Canalis is now worried about the scrap of letter he’s given Modeste – did he realize he was to stay with the Duchesse at this point? He asks Ernest to ask Modeste for it.

Ernest makes the request to Modeste, who hands over the paper promptly with a message of disdain to be delivered to the point. Modeste then proceeds to enjoy the society, where she is able to instantly assimilate herself. But she’s realizing the value of men like her father and Ernest, who are themselves and not like Canalis. She takes the Duc d’Herouville aside and tells him that he has not won her heart but has won the financial backing and friendship of both her and her father.

Modeste retrieves the jeweled whip Ernest bought her from her father, and the hunt begins. When the Duchesse de Chaulieu, feeling friendlier now that she has Canalis back under her thumb, remarks on the beauty of the whip, Modeste says that “it is a very strange gift as coming from a future husband -“. Ernest hears this remark and is stunned, almost falls off his horse but steels himself when he gets a stern look from Modeste.

Mme. Mignon has an eye operation instigated by Charles on his return, and when she sees Ernest declares to her daughter that she too would have chosen him. They marry, Ernest assumes the title and arms of Charles and will be known at the Vicomete de la Briere. Of course they lived happily ever after!!


Read it here

Summaried by Pamela, November 2009


One comment on “Modeste Mignon by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This is one of my favorite Balzac stories – not too crowded with scenery and characters, and it ends in a happy love match – one of the few in all of “The Human Comedy”. Balzac too liked it – Golda said Balzac thought it “poetic, simple, interesting, literary, tender, comical, and above all, very original.” We don’t quite see the originality today, but an audacious heroine line Modeste was uncommon at the time. Balzac also probably liked it because he modeled Modeste on his wife, to whom he was married only briefly before his death.


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