The Jealousies of a Country Town: The Old Maid by Honoré de Balzac

Les Rivalités: La Vieille Fille
The Jealousies of a Country Town: The Old Maid

Alencon is a small town in Normandy in northern France This story is about the rivalry for “The Old Maid” of Alencon’s hand and is part of Balzac’s provincial scenes.

“The Old Maid” is Mlle Rose Marie Victoire Cormon, supposedly one of the richest women in town, now in her forties. She lives with her uncle and has been his ward and will one day inherit his fortune. She is the last representative of a house which, “plebeian though it was, has associated and often allied itself with the noblesse, and ranks among the oldest families in the province.” The Cormons have contributed magistrates and bishops, and Mlle Cormon’s grandfather and father had been invited to represent (and respectfully declined) to represent the States-General and Third Estate respectively. The house Mlle Cormon and her uncle live in is the possession that appeals the most to her elderly suitors – it is a handsome heritage, an architectural marvel, in the very center of town, comfortable within, and surrounded by attractive things. Mlle Cormon zealously maintains it, and suitors when approaching it think it fit for a peer or a mayor. She’s had plenty of suitors but in the turbulent political times she could never quite commit herself to any man of power. And then the wars and her increasing age brought a change in suitors, and she could never quit marry an elderly or a very young man. She even secretly wanted to be loved for herself. “Every time a marriage project came to nothing, the unfortunate girl, being gradually led to despise mankind, saw the other sex at last in a false light.” She grew bitter and rigid and as compensation sought to perfect herself. “She would polish and cut for God the rough diamond rejected by men.” And yet she grew older and fatter, and it began to be assumed she would not ever marry.

The suitors start with the Chevalier de Valois d’Alencon, perhaps the last of a line of noble Valois but most likely not. When the Revolution broke in Paris, he retreated to Alencon, where he is accepted as a true Valois in spite of dubious credentials. Penniless, he lives in an upper floor of the most prominent laundress’ house, dresses impeccably, and through impressive diplomacy, discretion, and flattery manages to dine out and play cards daily in good society. His manners are impeccable and his stories entertaining. Chevalier speaks of Princess Goritza who has been famous for her beauty towards the end of the reign of Louis XV and talks of his love for her in his youth and for whom he had fought a duel. His snuff box has her portrait on its lid, and he has a habit of taking snuff from the box and gazing pensively at the portrait. The Chevalier is 58 and pretends to be 50, pale, thin, a rather large nose the two halves of which seemed to operate independently – it flushes only on the left side with exertion. He eats voraciously, isn’t all that healthy, and is thought to have a ‘hot liver’ which is the sign of excessive sentiment of the heart. He has a full, pleasant baritone voice that is in contrast to his delicate fairness. He keeps himself extremely well groomed for the ladies and except for his nose looks rather like a doll. He has one oddity – he wears pierced earrings of tiny negro heads set with jewels.

Chevalier arrived in Alencon penniless but made sure everyone thought he had a small income. He surreptitiously accumulated income from card playing until he could then actually create this income. Later on when he’s stashed a sizeable amount he let it be known that an old fellow military friend had repaid his debt to him. He also claimed a government pension, the Cross of St. Louis, and a noble crest. He keeps on living his same life style in his rooms over the laundry, the same dinners and cards, and no one doubts him in the least. Balzac included much more about Chevalier, one of his better descriptions of a personage. “Surely in no known country of the globe did parasite appear in such a benignant shape.” [Surprisingly Balzac tells us up front that Chevalier eventually got his laundress girlfriend Cesarine pregnant and had to marry her. Can’t quite imagine why he wrote that as whether or not Chevalier gets the old maid seems to be central to this story.] In our story Chevalier has designs on Mlle Cormon to further his ambitions, but no one knows it at this point.

Next up is M de Bousquier. He too is older and came from Paris after making some money from the affairs of the Revolution and afterwards in army contracts. He lived it up during the times of Napoleon with mansions, women, riches untold. But with the fall of Napoleon he lost his political base and escaped from Paris with only an income of 1200 francs a year. He narrowly avoided bankruptcy. He turned Royalist but could not quite get acceptance by the Royalist nobles in Alencon. He’s a big man, with a small voice, a bit of the opposite of the Chevalier. He came to Alencon to marry a rich woman and has been turned down twice, once by Mlle Cormon. He became well recognized for his financial skills and business speculations, and there was even talk of his becoming mayor – though his lack of acceptance at the top of society will probably prevent this. When the Royalists came in power for good, M de Bousquier was bitterly disappointed that he was not accepted, and he became the secret leader of the Liberal party in Alencon. In this role he is the invisible controller of elections and worked considerable harm to the restored Monarchy.

The third suitor is Athanase Granson, the son of a deceased military man. He’s 23 and a bit of a genius, though frustrated by poverty. He lives with his mother Mme Granson. “Shut in by the narrow circle of provincial life, without approbation, encouragement, or any way of escape, the thought within him was dying out before its dawn.” He is distantly related to Mlle Cormon, who got him a job in the registrar’s office. And it seems he is in love with Mlle Cormon – he wants to marry her to rise in society, to ease his mother’s burden, and because he longs for her physically. And yet he’s poor and many years younger than Mlle Cormon and certainly doesn’t know how to proceed. Whatever his defects, he comes closest of the three to loving Mlle Dorman for herself.

A woman called Suzanne from the laundry comes to Chevalier and asks for money, telling him she is pregnant and wants to go to Paris. Chevalier just laughs – he isn’t going to be caught in that trap. But he suggests that Suzanne go to run her con on M de Bousquier and suggests she tell M de Bousquier that she will go to the Maternity Fund for help if he doesn’t give her enough money to get out of town. This was a bit of mischief on Chevalier’s part as he knows the president of the Fund was Mlle Cormon. She’d be sure to know about it and such knowledge would knock M de Bousquier out of the possibility of the acceptance of a second proposal.

It works: M de Bousquier gives Suzanne 600 francs with a little persuasion. But she wants 1000, so she decides to go to the Maternity Fund anyhow. And it turns out that Mme Granson, Athanase’s mother, is treasurer of the Maternity Fund. She’s guessed her son’s desire for Mlle Cormon and wants to further his cause, and now she has been given a weapon to completely blast M de Bousquier out of the picture. Perhaps she thinks it will be smoother sailing for her son to marry Mlle Cormon, but she doesn’t know that Chevalier has designs on Mlle Cormon too. Mme Granson agrees to help Suzanne and makes sure all the ladies know about M de Bousquier’s (supposedly) getting her pregnant. We doubt that Suzanne is pregnant, though. She caught a glimpse of Athanase when she was applying to Mme Granson, and was a bit struck by love for him. Suzanne wonders if she was messing her life up by acquiring a bad reputation with this scam, but she continues her plan and leaves for her adventures in Paris. Balzac says she became known as Mme du Val-Nbole and was associated with a distinguished writer of the Restoration who will probably marry her someday

The scene shifts to a dinner party at Mlle Cormon’s house, where all the locals of prominence (but not nobility) meet regularly. The Chevalier de Valois is there as is M du Bousquier, Athanase Grandson and Mme Granson. The Chevalier and du Bousquies look at Mlle and want to marry her: “To both gentlemen she meant a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, with a peerage for the Chevalier, a receiver-general’s post for du Bousquier.” Indeed to marry her would make her husband lord of Alencon. “Finally, Athanase, the only one of the three suitors that had ceased to calculate, cared as much for the woman as for her money….There is something grotesque…in the idea of three rival suitors eagerly pressing about an old maid who never so much as suspected their intentions, in spite of her intense and very natural desire to be married…”

We learn more about Mlle Rose Cormon, the old maid. She is lonely and sexually frustrated, she has ‘heated blood’. Her confessor recommends self-scourging, and her uncle and the confessor both say virginity is a higher cause. She apparently shares some of her concerns with the Chevalier. The Chevalier recommends “a good and handsome husband”. She is afraid to trust a man. Mlle Cormon appears hot-blooded and desperate for a husband, though Balzac says she is a bit stupid about many things and can’t even pick up on the fact that Athanase is in love with her. Again she is described is being ungracious to potential suitors, which is interpreted by the townspeople as resentment. She wants a husband but is apparently woefully ignorant as to how to get one.

The military is scaling down, and she holds out one last hope that someone eligible will be returning home. But the men returning weren’t the right age, or were of bad character, or of lowly station, or the wrong politics. Rose finally concludes she is going to have to settle for a native. Chevalier is lining her up for the kill, he thinks. He talks with her a lot and casts loving glances at his snuff box to demonstrate fidelity for a long-lost love. But Rose is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and simply doesn’t notice – apparently he is not even on her radar as a potential husband as she considers him too old and unattractive and definitely not an exciting rake she could reform. There’s even a suggestion that piety has stupefied her. At night Rose tosses and turns in frustration and vows she’ll take any man that is available, but in the mornings she recovers her dignity and resets her standards to a man having land of about the age of 40 or so. But she seems to lack the simplest feminine wile to attract a man -she doesn’t have the coquetry of a girl of six!! “Mlle. Cormon kept to the straight path, preferring the misfortunes of a maidenhood infinitely prolonged to the misery of untruthfulness, to the sin of small deceit.”

Rose is good, she supports the town, she’s kind, she’s not ostentatious. The town loves her and with just cause. But she is a terrible conversationalist. She’s made worse by the fact that she feels it is her Christian and female duty to converse and be agreeable to her neighbors. She tries so hard to think of something interesting to say that she comes up with odd questions and phrases that make the town think she’s a bit off – and perhaps she is. The Chevalier often rescues her from difficult conversations and tries to make her look a bit more aware than she really is.

The town gathers at her house before her quarterly journey to her country house, the Prebaudet, to say their good byes. Rose prepares for this last gathering with her servants Jacquelin, Josetta (who would marry Jacquelin except for the fact that she would be dismissed), and Mariette the cook. The excitement builds at her dinner as the whole town knows about Suzanne and du Bousquier and figures by now she too must know. What will she do? Some are suspicious that up to now she might have accepted du Bousquier if he asked for her hand again, something about the way Rose glances at him. At the dinner Chevalier finally figures out that Mme. Granson and her son Athanase have designs on Rose – Chevalier detected self-interest in the expression of Mme. Granson when she talked about the Suzanne scandal.

I’m a bit lost here: Balzac speaks of the Cure and how he’d taken the oath of allegiance in the time of the Revolution. But Mlle. Cormon and her uncle the Abbe de Sponde refused to recognize the Church that had submitted to force and made terms with the Constitutionnels. So the Cure was never invited to their house. Somehow du Bousquier is mixed up with both sides. And there’s a group that Athanase is involved in which wants to build a theatre. The Chevalier needs to make Athanase, his new competition look bad, so he tells Rose that Athanase is headed down the wrong path because he supports the Cure AND he’s involved in the theatre support. He advises Rose to warn his mother. He even says he’s not to be trusted because he doesn’t look Rose in the eye, when we know that he’s so love-struck he lowers his head when she’s around. Rose buys it all and promises to talk to his mother (and eventually talks to Athanase himself about reforming.) Chevalier remarks to himself, “If there is a stupider woman, I should like to see her. On the honor of a gentleman, if virtue makes a woman so stupid as this, is it not a vice?”

The situation with Suzanne and du Bousquier is discussed, but it doesn’t seem to have much effect on Rose except her wanting to give Suzanne a rather generous amount of money to help. “It is so natural to have a child,” she says. Mme Granson tries to explain the scandal of it all, but it all goes over Rose’s head. Mrs. Granson suggests Rose refuse to see du Bousquier again until he takes a wife. She will consult with her uncle. After the party the Chevalier decides it is time to spread a rumor that he is to marry Mlle. Cormon. He figures that is enough to start the ball rolling towards an engagement. He’s already counting his income he will have as Rose’s husband.

The next morning Rose and her servants make their journey to Prebaudet with their beloved and faithful horse Penelope. But they no sooner get there than Rose receives a letter. She turns red, becomes very excited, and starts uncharacteristically flailing about and demanding they return home immediately. When the servants object that Penelope is not ready for a return trip, she shockingly says “what does it matter to me” and demands they rush off. The servants are astounded, this is not Mlle Cormon behavior. We learn that the news in the letter is that a M. de Troisville, a retired Russian soldier returning to Alencon, is to visit her uncle’s house immediately. An eligible bachelor just may have arrived on the scene!! Rose drives Penelope unmercifully back home and tells Mariette to rush to down and buy every delicacy in sight – and even to have a special bed moved into the house if there is enough time. Poor Penelope is exhausted, foaming at the mouth, and unfed, but Rose doesn’t even notice. A bachelor, she’s betting she can secure an engagement before the end of the visit! Suddenly she has become a ball of fire. “Have you not noticed how mature spinsters, under these circumstances, grow as intelligent, fierce, bold, and full of promises as a Richard III.?”

The best of everything is ready for M de Troisville, and Mlle Cormon is beside herself with excitement. Servant Jacquelin, hoping that the marriage of his mistress will allow his own marriage to take place, throws open the gates with gusto. “Never did two chemicals combine with a greater alacrity than that displayed by the house of Cormon to absorb the Vicomete de Troisville.” He looks pretty good to Rose, “a du Bousquier of noble family.” He’s just about 46, and he has the manner of a diplomat. While M de Troisville is resting, Rose and the Abbe take a stroll. Rose asks her uncle if M de Troisville is married. The Abbe, not really listening because he’s thinking about a conversation he had earlier, says he must be single or he would have brought his wife with him.

Rose shows off the house to its best advantage and begins hinting that this could all be M de Troisville’s if the right words were spoken. Although Rose normally is not a good conversationalist, she arises to the occasion for once in her life. She’s solicitous as the queen of Alencon and she thinks the trap is set. So do the townspeople, and in fact they are wondering if the tie might have been prearranged. Du Bousquier cries, “Egad! Nothing but Mme Amphoux’s liquers, which only come out on the four great festival days.” He feels all is lost. The prominent townspeople are there for the evening’s at-home, and they all are chatting with M de Troisville.

And then it happens: the Chevalier asks M de Troisville if he is married. And he says “Yes, I have been married for sixteen years. My wife is the daughter of the Princess Scherbelloff.” Rose promptly faints, out cold on the floor.!) Du Bousquier carries her to her room, trying not to collapse under her, uh, ample figure. Josette the maid cuts her stays, du Bousquier throws cold water over her, and her ample bust “broke from its bounds like Loire in flood.” Rose opens her eyes and gives a cry of “alarmed modesty” and du Bousquier retreats with the women clustered around Rose.

Back in the drawing room the Chevalier cleans up as usual, telling everyone that Rose has been sick from the heated blood for some time and would not be bled. (Meanwhile the servants begin withdrawing the ‘best’ liquors from the married Troisville.) Eventually the party breaks up, and the events are all the talk of the town. Later Rose finds out the Abbe knew all along the de Troisville was married, he just absentmindedly forgot to tell her!

What to do, what to do. Rose decides she must marry to get over her humiliation. And du Bousquier and the Chevalier both come to the same conclusion. They both come calling the next morning, but du Bousquier arrives earliest because the Chevalier took the time to apply a little rouge. The early bird gets the worm, of course, and Rose immediately accepts du Bousquier’s proposal. She asks him to proclaim they have been engaged for six months to save her pride. Soon after the Abbe tells du Bousquier that M de Troisville is looking at his house, and du Bousquier glibly says he can buy it as he and Rose have been engaged for six months and are about to be married. The Chevalier pretty much believes this and is crushed: “it was like the victory won at Pultowa by Peter the Great over Charles XII. And thus du Bousquier enjoyed a delicious revenge for hundreds of pin-pricks endured in silence.” However, to complete this farce du Bousquier runs his fingers through his false toupee, and it comes off in his hand, LOL. The Chevalier reminds him of it in front of Rose, and du Bousquier vows to someday crush him. Rose tells the Abbe of her engagement, and to complete the lie of six months’ engagement, asks him to say that he already knew du Bousquier’s house was for sale because of the engagement.

Have we forgotten Athanase? He’s crushed, all hope is lost. He haunts a lonely walk on the Sarthe River. He acts rather lethargically but his mother can’t see that he’s devastated. Suzanne pops briefly back up in the picture. She’s apparently acquired money in Paris and thinks of anonymously sending money to Athanase. There’s a hint of the love that could have been between them, but they never really cross paths. When Rose hears of Suzanne’s false claims, she changes the rules of the Maternity Charity to provide help only AFTER the baby is produced.

Things start wrapping up. Rose and du Bousquier marry and du Bousquier makes a fortune using Rose’s money as a start. He brings in Paris fashion and generally makes the House Cormon look modern. Penelope dies without much ceremony. Jacquelin and Mariette marry. And Athanase puts two stones in his pocket and drowns himself in the river. (I wonder if that is where Virginia Woolf got that idea, I’m pretty sure she read Balzac.) He intended for his mother to think he had only gone away, but his body caught on some fishing apparatus and was found the next day. The old Cure arranges a secret burial in the churchyard (since suicides were not allowed to be buried on church grounds.) Athanase’s mother is of course devastated. One day Suanne and Mme Granson meet accidentally at the spot of the suicide on the river and weep over him. It was odd to me that little if any reaction to Athanase’s death was given by Rose. She just never had him on her radar at all!

Suzanne figures out that Rose’s marriage remains unconsummated and “she was the first to assert that Mme du Bousquier would be Mlle Cormon as long as she lived. And with one jibe she avenged both Athanase and the dear Chevalier de Valois.”

The Abbe feels displaced by the modernization of his house, and he dies in about two years. The Chevalier suddenly goes downhill and begins to look and act like an old man. Rose has pretty much lost control of her environment. Du Bousquier is nice to Rose while the Abbe is alive, but not very nice later as he doesn’t love her. Rose is attentive, bizarrely so, to him even though he is a despot at home. But she knows she should have married the Chevalier, and she grieves that she will never have children. She turns to religion and feels that being married to her husband is her just punishment for her sins – her desire for marriage, Athanase’s death, hastening her uncle’s end. Chevalier shortly before he dies gives his money to the King and comes back to die in Alencon just as “Charles X set foot on foreign soil” to flee the Republicans presumably. The Chevalier’s snuff box was bought at a thousand francs and later sold to a young man of fashion.

Read it here

Summarized by Pamela, February 2009

One comment on “The Jealousies of a Country Town: The Old Maid by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    What a rip-roaring good story, Balzac at his best. His portraits are clear, he doesn’t get diverted with too marry characters, and he nails the depiction of his old maid Rose Corman and her suitors. Saintsbury mentions that Athanase isn’t quite right, doesn’t really quite fit. Nevertheless, it is a very good story of provincial life. I do wish it could have ended happily, though – I guess I’m not the cynic Balzac was.


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