The Peasantry by Honoré de Balzac

Les Paysans
The Peasantry
Also translated as Sons of the Soil

Emile Blondet, whom we’ve seen briefly in other stories, is a Parisian journalist who has come to visit the chateau known as The Aigues. He’s a friend of the current owner and possibly the lover of his wife. This chapter is spent describing the Aigues and the estate which is included with it.

The Aigues, which apparently means “waters” in French, is named for the waters of the Morvan and other rivers which flow through its lands. It is located at the edge of Burgundy about 50 leagues from Paris and is close to the village Conches, the Ville-aux-Fayes, the Village Blangy (60 houses and a church), and several other small villages. The lands include 2,000 acres of woodland, 900 acres of park, a mill, a large farm, a vineyard, etc. The surrounding villages appear to be part of the holdings. The Aigues is approached down a long avenue of elms (Tara!) and wild flowers: there are streams, stone bridges, and thick forests untouched by human cultivation. A sumptuous country holding first built in 1560 (it is now 1823). It is red brick with tiny square windows, an imposing double stone staircase, turrets with lead floral designs, added on wings and balconies and Grecian-like urns. The main building is nestled in old trees with clipped yews in front of the main turret, hortensias, magnolias, etc. – “a sort of horticultural person’s hospital, where trees that have had their day linger on, forgotten like other heroes.”

We are told that Aigues once belonged to Bouret, but I haven’t been able to figure out who this person is. He’s not listed in the index, so I don’t think he’s one of Balzac’s fictitious characters. Bouret once spent 2,000,000 francs when Louis XV visited, and various other famous personages added to the original estate. One of Henri IV’s mistresses rebuilt the chateau and added the forest. The building is outfitted with splendor, lapis ceilings, Sevres tiles, mosaics, frescos, etc. In 1815 owner Mlle Laguerre died – an opera star who fled Paris in 1790 and was established at Aigues when Bouret bought the estate for her. She came there at age 53 and apparently led an exemplary life. There’s a bizarre story of her fleeing from an opera performance crying (perhaps a broken heart) into the fields around Aigues and singing as the sun came up. I

When Mlle Laguerre died, she had 11 poor peasantry heirs unknown to her and to them before her death. So the estate was sold and the proceeds divided. General (Count) Montcornet, a war hero bought it for 1100 thousand francs. He was known to be caustic but kind in his own way, strong, with a temper. Very brave in battle and commanded a company of Cuirassiers. His wife is Virginie.

Emile writes the above description to his friend Nathan. He’s been at the estate for a month, captured apparently by the charms of the Countess. But he’s restless in the morning with nothing to do and decides to explore the river valley of the Avonne. He leaves through the imposing Conches gate (one of four gates, all manned, the other three being Avonne, Avenue, Blangy). In the gate keystone is written the words “It is my wont to act.”, something Balzac hints that doesn’t happen in this story Soon after leaving the gate he meets Fourchon, a 70 year old poverty-stricken man, almost bald, toothless, tanned leather skin of hardship, little beady eyes. Fourchon is watching the river motionlessly, so Emile does the same. After 15 minutes Emile asks what Fourchon is doing, and he tells him that he and his (grand)son Mouche are trying to catch a most valuable white spotted otter. He craftily involves Emile in his plan, has him beating a brush to scare the otter – and eventually worms 10 francs from Emile, who feels he spoiled the opportunity for Fourchon to make the catch. This reminds me of Tom Sawyer and the fence that needed painting, LOL.

The Footman Charles is sent to find Emile since this otter-catching business has taken a long time. He tells Emile that Fourchon has just conned him out of money but not to feel too bad because Fourchon tricked the general 3 times. And he warns him to watch out for Fourchon’s rope-making business because he has another con going with it.

We are directed in our attention to Fourchon’s house. Actually it is the house of his son-in-law Francois Tonsard, a crafty peasant who managed to get the gift of this acre of land just 500 paces from the Blangy gate from the former owner of the estate. The house is a wonder of function and no decor, scavenged mostly from estate materials. Balzac tells us that the peasant “puts the exact amount of energy required to attain the desired end – the necessary labor, and nothing more. He has not the least idea of finish, but he is a perfect judge of the necessities in everything…” The house is also a tavern, with a big beer sign on a pole “Grand-I-Vert” established 1795. The Tonsard brood consists of his mother, his father-in-law Fourchon, his wife, daughters Marie and Catherine, and 2 boys (Mouche is the 12 year old of the otter caper). Tonsard is a ditch digger and tree trimmer and the wife came up with the idea of the tavern. They’re ideally situated for cross-traffic, and due to questionable friendliness of Mlle Tonsard and her two girls they manage to attract quite a bit of male traffic. Fourchon came from a neighboring town and had taken to drink well before his daughter married Tonsard. They tried to set him up as a school teacher and then as a postman, but he couldn’t hold a job reliably. He now appears to be a sometimes rope maker, is educated and serves as an occasional letter writer, and is a ‘practitioner’ or witness in legal affairs. He’s a clarinet player and plays at weddings with his friend fiddler Michel Vert aka Vermichel – hence the beer sign name. The whole family joins together to make their rather humble living – poaching, stealing produce, gathering (not their own) hay, selling pies, calving, etc. Generally they’ve learned to live off others, and are skilled at extracting from the estate. The girls and their mother are prettier and better dressed than others in the neighborhood thanks to the castoff clothing of the estate and their refusing to do hard field labor. “Selfishness, more especially since 1789, is the one force that sets them [the peasantry] thinking; they never ask whether such a thing is illegal or immoral, but what good it will do them.”

In an abrupt shift, Balzac tells us that the tavern hence is really a nest of vipers where the hatred which the proletariat and the peasantry bear to the rich and their employees was nursed and kept alive, venomous, and active. Tonsard becomes the head of a movement by the peasants “by reason of the terror which he inspired, less by what he actually did than by what people expected him to do. The poacher’s threats were quite as much dreaded as his action; he was never obliged to carry out a single one of them.”

The stage is obviously now set for a major upheaval at The Aigues.

Balzac spends most of this segment still setting up the scene of what is obviously to be a class revolt. To review, there are three villages associated with Aigues. Soulanges is the market district, Blangy a small village of 60 houses, and Ville-aux-Fayes, which is the seat of the sub-prefecture.

Fourchon shows up in the early morning with his otter money at the tavern and banters with his family, especially his daughter, La Tonsard, otherwise known as Phillippine. “The wit of the peasant…consists in saying the thing you really think with a certain grotesque exaggeration; nor is the wit of drawing-rooms essentially different; intellectual subtleties replace the picturesqueness of coarse, forcible language, that is all the difference.” He gives his family one of the 5 franc pieces for wine, and he resists the suggestion of Phillippine that he buy new clothes, saying his appearance as poor is essential to his scams. We hear of a lot of other characters, which I’m going to list and briefly describe here (although they are not all fully described in this chapter):

Lupeaulx – sub-prefect of Ville-aux-Fayes and prospective son-in-law to Gaubertin
Bonnebault – he’s a retired Calvary man and is apparently seeing Marie Tonsard
Socquard – wine maker, has a special spiced wine recipe held secret and made with ingredients from Paris, owner of the tavern Cafe de la Paix in Soulanges
Guerbet – wealthy farmer near Ville-aux-Fayes, tax collector
Rigou – mayor of Blangy before Montcornet arrived
Soudry – mayor of Soulanges and husband of Mlle Cochet, the former owner Mme Languerre’s maid
Francois Gaubertin – mayor of Ville-aux-Fayes and former steward of Aigues, discharged in bad faith by Montcornet
Courtecuisse – gamekeeper of Aigues
Father Niseron – grave-digger, bell-ringer of Blangy, poor, honest
Vermichel or Vert – drunk, 1 blind eye, red hair, Soulanges hall porter, town-crier- jailer, fiddler, solicitor, little, wears velveteen green trousers
Mme Vermichel – fat, controls Vermichel, Fourchon refers to her as Vermichel’s “four-fifths” because she is so large
Master Brunet – sly, fidgety, bailiff at Blangy, none too honest and thus popular with peasants
Godain – farm laborer, small man, interested in Catherine Tonsard
Mitant – poor woman at Conches who’s about to get in trouble because her cows graze on Aigues land, Bonnebault’s grandmother
Michaud – old quartermaster, courageous, loyal, man of integrity
Bournier – printer at Ville-aux-Fayes
Maitre Plissoud – competitor clerk to Brunet
Sibilet – Aigues steward, distant cousin Francois Gaubertin, appears none too loyal to Aigues
Abbe Brossette – churchman of district
Genevieve, “La Pechina”, granddaughter of Father Niseron and maid to Mme Michaud
M. Langlume – mill man for Aigues
Gourdon – physician Soulanges
Vatel – chief forester at Aigues
Vaudoyer – Aigues forest keeper until discharged by the General

We learn this is to be a fete at Soulanges on the 8th of August, presumably the next day. There will be fireworks, a big deal. Vermichel and Brunet drop by the tavern to pick up Fourchon as a witness to legal business against the poachers. Daughter Marie slips out to warn Mitant. Tonsard steals Fourchon’s other five franc piece by distracting him and slitting his pants. During this time Granny Tonsard runs into the tavern with a bundle of faggots chased by Vatel, who has caught her red-handed stealing wood from Aigues. The peasants team up together to get him out of the house. Mme Tonsard throws ashes in his eyes, M. Tonsard directs him outside, straight off the steps, and Brunet (not wanting to be a witness to the peasants hiding the wood) runs out to help Vatel. When Vatel recovers his eyesight, there is no wood to be found. Granny and M. Tonsard curse him and he is forced away helpless to enforce the accusation of stealing.

Charles the footman drops by to tell Fourchon it’s otter time up at the chateau. Apparently just about everyone in the area is in cahoots to swindle the aristocrats! Fourchon in exchange for some Aigues wine warns Charles to stay away from his granddaughter Catherine at the upcoming fete as Godain is in love with her and will fight him if Charles asks Catherine for a dance. Apparently though Charles slips him some coins as some sort of arrangement to meet Catherine at the Avonne bridge later. It is obvious Catherine is none too chaste, but Godain is so far gone with her he’s ready to marry her. Charles says she’s not worth a fight and will stay away from her at the fete. Fourchon then suggests Charles invite Catherine up to the chateau for some wine. Charles thinks that is a good idea, never suspecting Fourchon has an ulterior motive of getting another spy in at Aigues.

At the chateau the Abbe Brossette has a discussion with Blondet, the General, and Mme Montcornet as to why there is such poverty in the area. The Abbe responds that “you have to do with a people without religion, people who have but one idea – how to live at your expense.” It seems that the peasants steal perhaps 25% of the estimated revenues of the estate. The Abbe later tells Blondet that the Abbe is a pariah always in danger of his life, that he has no effect on the godless peasants.

Fourchon and Munche show up with the otter, and Mme Montcornet feels sorry for their poverty, makes sure Munche has something to eat and some clothes. Munche and Fourchon know their pitiful roles very well and manage to extract 25 francs for the very ordinary otter. The General says perhaps Munche could grow up to be a soldier, but Munche assures him that he’s not on the roles (because he’s illegitimate and born in the fields) and will never let them take him as a soldier. After Fourchon and Munche depart, the General tells Blondet and Mme Montcornet that Fourchon and Tonsard are the heads of a peasant intrigue sure to cause trouble.

We hear Fourchon say that “let the peasant do ill or well, according to your notions, he will end as he began, in rags, and you in fine linen.” He says the best education he can give Munche is literacy and the ability to kiss up to the rich. It’s no different than it was before the revolution – the tax collector takes what the rich used to take. They can’t even leave the area and seek their fortune because they can never accumulate enough money to pay for a passport and fees. “Nailed down by necessity, or nailed down by the nobles, we are condemned for life to labor on the soil.”

Even more: “We leave you in peace; let us live. Otherwise, if this goes on, you will be forced to feed us in your prisons, where we are far more comfortable than on our straw. – You are our masters, and you mean to remain so; we shall always be enemies, to-day as for these last thirty years. You have everything, we have nothing, so you cannot expect us to be your friends yet.” That is, if the General stops the poaching, there will be revolt because the peasants have no other way to live. He notes that the former owner of the Aigues allowed them to make their living on her estate, and if the General doesn’t allow this “they will make the country too hot to hold you.” Michaud notes that Sibilet seems to be responding in sympathy with Fourchon’s statements, but Michaud feels that “the peasant ought to obey as the soldier obeys; he should have a soldier’s loyalty, his respect for privileges won by other men, and try to rise to be an officer, by fair means, by his own exertions, and not by knavery.” And to boot, soldiers often die for their masters.

Balzac now backs up to tell more of the history of Aigues and how the General came to acquire it. All this has grave bearing on the story. In brief, Francois Gaubertin was Mlle Laguerre’s agent for 30 years. Mlle Laguerre was not focused on her estate and relied totally on Gaubertin to run it. He skillfully through graft and outright thievery enriched himself while making Mlle Languerre think he was her most loyal servant. Mlle Laguerre’s maid Mlle Cochet at first warned Mlle Laguerre about Gaubertin, but Gaubertin blackmailed Cochet with false documents to cease this activity. Eventually Gaubertin and Cochet became totally in the fraud together and the best of friends. At Mlle Laguerre’s death, Cochet had 250,000 francs and Gaubertin had 600,000 francs. Gaubertin plans a scheme with Cochet and a friendly notary Lupin to buy the estate at auction, presumably cheaper than its worth. But out of the blue Montcornet shows up and buys the estate out from under Gaubertin for the price of 1100 thousand francs (far more than Gaubertin had, of course). Gaubertin can’t resign his steward post as he has children he wants to get set up for life, so he decides to continue in that role and perhaps discourage Montcornet’s living at Aigues. He also thinks he might be able to control the General just as he controlled Mlle Laguerre.

But the General has management experience and recognizes Gaubertin’s game. He keeps him on long enough to learn the running of the estate from him. Then when he catches him out and out stealing from him he fires him and threatens to sue him. Bad mistake – he’s made an enemy for life, and Gaubertin has friends in the law game that will disable any law suit. (Gendrin, Gaubertin’s brother in law, is president of the local court, etc.) It would have been better if he had allowed Gaubertin to save face, for he is a very powerful enemy indeed. “Civil war will quench an ancestral blood-feud…but between the spoiler and the spoiled, the slander and his victim, no reconciliation is possible.”

Now that the General has rashly fired Gaubertin as his steward, he must find another – not easy to do to find a man capable of running the estate for a moderate payback. Gaubertin is still pulling the strings and plots with Soudry at Soulanges to put Adolphe Sibilet, the oldest son of Adolphe senior (clerk of the court at Ville-aux-Fayes), in position. He needs money as he married for love Adeline Sarcus, daughter of the justice of peace at Soulanges. Soudry is the mayor of Soulanges, the one that married Cochet, the old owner’s maid. His son is father in law to Gregoire Rigou. [There’s a whole lot of this interrelationship information, excessive to me. Balzac sometimes seems to fall in love with the details of complex relationships that aren’t all that relevant to the story.] At any rate, we are to understand that Gaubertin is well connected with all the peasantry and can indeed pull the strings. Sibilet is hired with attractive benefits, but he’s working both sides of the street – suggesting all kinds of solutions to the General for his problems with the estate that are just digging him into deeper trouble.

Balzac then backtracks a bit to give us some more history of the General, who was made a count by Napoleon after much loyal service. He’s wealthy with Aigues, a townhouse, 60,000 francs income, and reserve pay. He marries his wife both for love and because she as a Troisville may perhaps bring him a peerage. He has left Aigues in Sibilet’s hands but comes down a year or two later when he hears from Sibilet that there is trouble with the timber contract.

This timber trouble is the result of three years of Gaubertin’s machinations. He’s tied up the timber trade and encouraged the peasantry to steal Aigues blind while leaving other owners alone. The peasants like him because he pays them well, treats them well in general. Sibilet advises that he can’t sell his timber and that a current problem with the Gravelot Brothers, who have his timber contract, are encouraged by Gaubertin. The General can win the battle but lose the war – it will cost him a fortune in legal fees to fight back against the claim of the Gravelots that he’s violated their contract by letting his woods go to ruin, etc. When the General says he won’t sell (his wife likes it here!), Sibilet offers to make an under the table deal with Gaubertin for 10,000 francs – a bit less than a lawsuit, and less likely to anger the people. All very complicated, but the General shows interest.

The General sees the state of the woods and lambasts his forester Courtecuisse. Another blunder of sorts because he offers to pay him so much for every arrest – and upon the advice of the peasantry mob run by Gaubertin he makes arrests hand over fist for people who can’t pay and thus costs the General a lot of money for nothing. Sibilet continues to offer the General seemingly good advice but which digs him in deeper as a man hated by the population. He suggests he replace Rigou as mayor with the General himself (and does so with the help of his own prefect connection), then appoints Langlume the miller (whose interests are directly opposed but unrecognized by the General) as his deputy mayor when he’s absent (which is most of the time). He hires Michaud and 3 members of his old imperial guard to guard the forest. Steingel, a stoic loyal man; Vatel, who is brave to rashness, Gaillard, a stable man who needs the money. He appoints a man named Groison as rural policeman at Blangy to replace Vaudoyer – another enemy made. He replaces the gendarme with Vatel and a new brigade of picked men. And so the few loyal soldiers line up against the peasants for what is clearly going to be a fight.

Michaud notices Sibilet stops anything proactive which might go to the root of some of the General’s problems, and he begins to watch him. Thanks to the machinations of Gaubertin and his many relatives and connections, the whole valley hates the General. And the General is going to have financial problems with the estate which he’s struggling to protect and can no longer sell his timber.

Michaud and the General talk over business. (We are apparently back in the present time since Blondet is here.) The General wants to arrest his woods poachers if they cannot pay the fines. Sibilet says “someone” backs them at Ville-aux-Fayes and the peasants feel they can’t be arrested. Michaud suggest the General bite the bullet and spend the money to enclose his park. “We should be left in peace then, for any trifling damage done to the woods will be a criminal offence, and as such would be sent to the court of assize for trial.” The General is vexed and claims he’ll go all the way to the king to stop these abuses.

As Sibilet leaves, he gets permission to post a public notice that no one can glean in the upcoming harvest without a certificate. This is probably the final planned step to revolution, something Sibilet has been urging for a fortnight. The General doesn’t have a clue. After Sibilet leaves, Michaud tells the General that Sibilet is an enemy. The General agrees and tells Michaud he wants to replace Sibilet with him when he gets enough experience, and yet he can’t really figure Sibilet’s game. Michaud tells him that the whole valley is waiting to see the General forced to sell Aigues and that they all have land picked out. Michaud tells the General the peasants call him “the Upholsterer” because his father was a furniture dealer, something his wife the Countess does not know (but he’ll tell her now). The General is angry and declares he’d rather set fire to the Aigues than give way to the peasants. Speaking of fire, Michaud advises him to insure the buildings immediately. The General goes to the prefecture to discuss the situation and take out fire insurance.

Justice is not even and equally applied and neither the General nor Michaud understand the full nature of their peril. For “the leveling process which began in 1789 and made a fresh start in 1830 has in reality paved the way for the muddle-headed domination of the bourgeoisie and delivered France over to them.” And Gaubertin by means of his kin and intricate politics “has involved the whole country in his toils, something as the boa constrictor winds itself about a tree-trunk so cunningly that the passing traveler mistakes the serpent for some Asiatic vegetable product.”

Gaubertin through placing his relatives in key positions, taking advantage of various alliances, and making arrangements with other prominent personages which mutually enhanced all has essentially control of the whole region – church, magistracy, administration, municipality, plus power in the higher state offices. “Look where you liked in Ville-aux-Fayes you found some member of the invisible coalition, headed avowedly (for the fact was openly recognized by the great and small) by the mayor, the general agent of the timber trade – Monsieur Gaubertin.” There was a careful plan of advancement in which the valley families had a stake. “Shall we not have overthrown a grace of noble tyrants who had the interests of their country at heart, only to create a race of self-seeking tyrants in their stead.”

Montcornet goes to the prefecture Bourles, who is his wife’s uncle. While seemingly to embrace him and his cause, he doesn’t really offer much help as he knows the score.

Back at Aigues the Avonne gate and hunting lodge have been restored from its formerly dilapidated position. The Countess strolls with the Abbe Brossette and Blondet to the hunting lodge where she sees Olympe Charel Michaud, Michaud’s new wife and the Countess’ former well-brought up maid. Olympe seems worried, she’s heard talk of threats from the peasant women and is fearful of the peasants’ setting fire to the estate. Blondet makes light of the story to try to ease her mind, calling their talk old wives’ gossip. Olympe shows Blondet through their restored hunting lodge. Little do they know this very lodge is the house Gaubertin covets. Olympe is concerned about her 13 year old maid, Genevieve Niseron, orphaned child of poor but respectable farmer Niseron. The former owner of Aigues took her under her care, and the Countess has continued the policy. Also known by the nickname La Pechina, Nicolas Tonsard lusts after her and has been stalking her. The peasants don’t much like her because she’s been raised mostly in the Aigues care. Olympe observes that Genevieve worships Michaud, is really in love with him but doesn’t know it.

Walking back to the Chateau, the party of Blondet, the Countess and Michaud discover Genevieve’s broken milk pail and realize she’s been abducted into the woods. They hear a scream.

Not sure what an “Oaristys” is. The Theocratic eclogue is something about passion. I think this must be a comment on the lack of courtly love in the valley.

Nicolas Tonsard’s passion for Genevieve is enhanced by his imminent departure as a soldier. His older brother was able to use influence to secure exemption, but unfortunately that used up all the silver bullets the family had for such privileges. The General could help but won’t. Nicolas decides to resort to violence to have his way with Genevieve. He stalks her with help of sister Catherine. Catherine sweet talks Genevieve with girlish fantasies and feeds her spiced wine after Genevieve takes a fall when Nicolas jumps out at her. But when Genevieve says she doesn’t like Nicolas, Catherine falls upon her and Nicolas approaches. It was then Genevieve screamed and kicked Nicolas. The Countess’ party approaches, and Catherine bullies Genevieve into saying they were just playing. But it is clear what happened and the Countess’ party discusses increased security measures to protect Genevieve and indeed them all. But as they are walking along, they see Marie Tonsard and a former calvary man Bonnebault, discharged for cause and up to no good. They have probably overheard everything.

Genevieve’s grandfather “old Niseron” drops by the tavern, which has become a hotbed of activity. Old Niseron is probably the only honest man in town, and as a result he’s respected but poor and not an insider. He fought for the revolution of Rousseau, alas. When his uncle died and left all his money to Arsene, his servant-girl, he did not attempt to get the money though he well could have as a tribune The lack of money has made him very poor. He upbraids the poor for their deceptions, but the people know him to be fair and sometimes go to him in their disputes. He and the Abbe Brossette respect each other. Courtecuisse drops by the tavern; he’s changed from the jolly gamekeeper as a landowner. He bought his three acres by borrowing from Rigou the money. In spite of hard work and even his daughter’s sending her money from service back home, he just can’t get ahead and now doesn’t even have the interest due. Granny Tonsard suggests he ‘market’ his daughter, but Courtecuisse is horrified and has sent her away to avoid this possibility.

Bonnebault and Marie and Catherine and Nicolas all come in the tavern. They’re in a bad mood because of their encounters with Aigues, and Nicolas starts blustering about a revolt. Catherine’s wooer Godain is there. He’s crafty and a miser, secretly saving up a considerable sum deposited with Gaubertin. He intends to become the owner of the tavern and thus is determined to marry Catherine and use his treasure to buy it. “Old Niseron saw that all the black sheep of the district had come together; he shook his head and went out…” The rest are relieved at the departure of the honest man. They talk of the Vatel case, of suing the General somehow for injuries to Granny, etc. Old Fourchon enters and tells of the posting of the no-gleaning ruling. There’s much talk of driving the General out. Fourchon would like to see the Abbe separated from the General and mentions that if Courtecuisse would only agree his daughter could probably lure the Abbe to ruin. They discuss gleaning in spite of the order and decide they should go ask Rigou if the General can stop the gleaning since Rigou knows the law. Nicolas wants to bring down Michaud, and Bonnebault wants to bring down the General himself. Jean-Louis Tonsard, the tree trimmer successor to old Tonsard and reportedly Gaubertin’s son, wonders at their strategy. (His personal strategy is currently courting Rigou’s servant girl.) If Aigues is sold off, they will be bought individually and no national lands will be available when the revolution comes. Since everyone was saving money for buying these lands themselves, there was no comment.

Rigou is one of the major players in this peasant scheme. He married Arsene, the servant-girl who was left the money of Old Niseron’s uncle and thus got his start. As a matter of fact, he played a large role in turning the old Abbe Niseron against his nephew so Arsene would inherit. He’s a money-lender and was the mayor of Blangy until Montcornet replaced him with himself. When Montcornet first came to the country, he and his wife snubbed the Rigous and this made them mortal enemies. He forms one-third of the triumvirate with Gaubertin (mayor of Ville-aux-Fayes), and Soundry, mayor of Soulanges. He’s quite a schemer, very good at the money business, personally not all that attractive. He’s enslaved his wife and house maid to wait on him hand and foot with only the best of everything. They are not permitted to dine with him. And he uses his power of holding mortgages and notes to secure sexual favors from the peasant women of the area. He lives in a house, the best in the village, that was meant for the churchman, and when the Abbe arrived in town the people had to build another house on the other side of the churchyard for him because Rigou would not give up his house. Gaubertin had recognized Rigou’s shrewdness after he married Arsene and started incorporating him in his power structure. He’s a very wealthy man at age 67.

Sibilet visits Rigou ostensibly to tell him of the General’s going to see the prefecture in a rage. He tries to bargain with Rigou for better insurance as he plays his double agent role, but Rigou is too much for him. Rigou does agree to allow Sibilet to acquire Courtecuisse’s mortgage, the better to outrage the community while still showing some concern for Sibilet’s position. After Sibilet leaves the peasant and former forester Vaudoyer arrives to ask if the General has the law on his side about the anti-poaching. Rigou says the General has the right, but he seems to encourage without saying so overtly that they should glean anyway. Rigou leaves in the afternoon to go to Soulanges to confer with his conspirators – the village watches him and feels that he is going to defend their rights. But “the real cause of Rigou’s hasty visit to Soulanges was the weighty news which Sibilet had brought, news that seemed to threaten the secret coalition among the bourgeoisie of the Avonne valley.”

Soulanges is a smug little town with prominent personages weaving interconnections through kinship, intrigue, and sex. It strangely reminds me of Proust’s Parisian bourgeois drawing rooms. Most of the prominent personages live in a sort of square close to each other, and Mme Soudry (aka Cochet) is the queen of the town and rules her husband. She’s ugly but presumes herself beautiful and somehow the town thus thinks so also. She dresses well (mostly in her former mistress’ clothes), and her drawing room is the center of town society. She keeps a refined house and entertains the best of Soulanges society with the plate she stole from Mlle Laguerre’s estate. Other members of this society are many: M. Lupin, the notary; his son Amaury; the Brunet brothers – one is the registrar and the other Gourdon is a doctor who collects shells and stuffs animals; Guerbet Sarces, tax collector; M. Gendren-Vattlebled, the crown agent of woods and forests; Wattlebled the grocer; Money-Sarcus, the elderly justice of the peace; Socquard, the owner of the Cafe de la Paix; M. Vermut the druggist and a thinker and the butt of Mme Soudry’s society. “No society is complete without a victim.” There’s Sarcus Taupin, a rich miller whose only daughter Lupin wants for Amaury (and Gaubertin wants for his son). The Abbe Taupen is the cure and manages to keep the townspeople obeying the forms of religion.

This rather closed society believes itself to be quite brilliant. “Every worthy townsman was equipped with the imaginary specialty necessary to the existence of a provincial; and not only so, each one was free to cultivate his own private plot in the domain of human vanity without fear of rivalry or disturbance from his neighbor.” The three towns of Blangy, Soulanges, and Ville-aux-Fayes all thought their own town superior but interact socially with each other. “The moon believed that she was useful to the earth, and the earth controlled the moon. Both earth and moon lived, however, on terms of the closest intimacy.”

Rigou arrives at the drawing room of Mme Soudry. He ignores the social aspects of Soulanges and comes to Soulanges only when business must be conducted. The Soudrys, Lupin and Rigou discuss strategies for destroying the credibility of the General so that his appeal to the Keeper of the Seals to make sweeping changes in the court will be ignored. They decide to make sure he attends the upcoming Soulanges fair, perhaps getting Sibilet to convince the General he might win over the peasants by attending. There are vague plans to ensnare either him or the Abbe Brossette in a scandal. Rigou also mentions he’s not sure Gaubertin doesn’t mean to have all of the Aigues for himself. He’s also concerned that the Soulanges clerk of the court Plissoud might be won over to the General’s side.

Rigou stops at the Cafe de la Paix, a beehive of gossip and activity on Soulanges and the known habitat of Plissoud, Bonnebault, Viallet, and Lupin’s son Amaury.

The cafe is popular for its billiards, Socquard’s spiced wine, and Socquard’s beautiful wife Junie, who bequeaths her sexual favors freely – currently on Lupin senior and at some time in the past on Gaubertin, by whom she had son Bournier. Rigou overhears a fight between Socquard’s daughter Aglae and Marie Tonsard, who has followed Bonnebault here and is jealous of his flirting with Aglae. Rigou overhears that Marie’s brother Nicolas is stalking La Pechina. Bonnebault emerges from the billiards room upon hearing the fight and strikes Marie. Socquard, a hefty and strong man, holds him back, and Rigou puts Marie in his chaise to hide her. Marie is heartbroken and deeply embarrassed and yells to Bonnebault that she wants the money he owes her back.

Pillsaud is at the cafe and becomes rattled when he notices Rigou watching him. Vermut the druggist enters, and Rigou arranges for him to ask the doctor Gourdon to make an irritant which can destroy the skin and induce disease. Gourdon is to contact him in a day or so, and he’ll give him a forefinger to amputate.

Rigou drives back towards home with Marie. He tells Marie to call Nicolas off of La Pechina because she is under his protection and promises to get him out of the conscription if he will do so. But he’ll have to lose a finger.

Rigou meets secretly and separately with Sibilet, Fourchon, and Catherine Tonsard during the later hours of that evening. He rises early the next morning (his wife and servant tiptoeing around and obeying his every command, including leaving the serving maid and his apparent lover Annette asleep). He returns to Soulanges in the early morning and awakes Mme Soudry. Rigou and M. Soudry discuss the relative merits of serving maids while awaiting the appearance of Mme Soudry. Mme Soudry and Rigou drive off in Rigou’s chaise to Ville-Aux-Fayes to meet with Gaubertin. They discuss all their machinations to force the General to sell Aigues and how things are working out with the General’s arresting the poachers. The plan is devised that Rigou will buy the woods with his son-in-law and Soudry. The rest he leaves to Gaubertin with the purchase of all to be in Rigou’s name. Gaubertin reserves the hunting lodge and 50 acres for a country house for his wife. They note that Michaud is the most loyal man the General has. Between them all they have much of the peasant population to work like puppets.

Then word comes that the General has announced that the king has pardoned the poachers, a move he instigated to win the peasants’ favor. Gaubertin and M. Soudry look to Rigou for the next move.

The peasants at the Grand-I-Vert discuss the proposed arrests – Tonsard, Godain, Vandoyer, etc. They discuss attacking the gendarmerie, slashing their horses’ legs, etc. Again it is noted that Michaud is the backbone of the General’s support. If killing is done, he is the target. The gendarmes approach, the village is hostile, but the head of the gendarmerie announces that the king has issued a pardon at the request of the General. The peasants shout “Long live the King” in order to avoid shouting “Long live the Count”. As the head of the gendarmerie breakfasts later with the General, he tries to warn him to make peace with Gaubertin, but the General won’t listen.
The old women of the peasantry have been sneaking into the Aigues woodlands and destroying the trees, making it look like wood grubs were eating around the tree bases. They’ve managed to kill 500 or so. This all the while the General and his wife have been conducting campaigns to help the people so that they can see they can make a better living through honest work than through plundering. They give out hemp to be spun and bought the spun products, the Count hires the peasants to make estate improvements. Mme Montcornet dispensed funds to worthy causes. She even funds a dowry for Catherine and Godain, thinking to make an honest woman of Catherine. Things seem to be looking up, but nothing can counteract the machinations of our triumvirate. The gleaners make little that year, and our plotters fan talk at the tavern, past kindnesses are soon forgotten.

Nothing comes of the plot to ensnare the Count at the fair as he does not attend. Genevieve is placed in a convent to learn needlework and keep her out of Nicolas’ reach. We don’t hear about Nicolas’ finger. Things seem quiet, though the timber selling business must be resolved upon the General’s return to Paris – he doesn’t fully realize that Gaubertin has blocked sales.

Emile Blondet comes back for a visit. He looks up upon arising and notices brown spots in the forest. He gets the Countess to take a drive with him and plans to investigate. Servant Joseph accompanies them. The General is awakened and invited along but is delayed. The Michauds in another place also decide to walk a ways in the forest and take their beloved dog, a greyhound. Upon countering a locked gate for which they have no key, the Countess and Emile walk on foot. The Countess is troubled by strange sounds, and they hear a dying moan. The Countess is spooked and upon fleeing counters the Michauds. They soon discover their dog is missing and realize the sound that was heard was his dying moan. When Michaud and Emile investigate, they find the throat cut of the greyhound and discover the peasants’ secret tree destroying campaign. Granny Tonsard had killed the greyhound to avoid discovery.

When they return to the General, the General proclaims in front of Sibilet that he will give a thousand francs to anyone who will expose the tree destroyers. He still can’t quite believe Sibilet is his enemy. Michaud is appalled that he’s still talking confidentially around Sibilet.

The peasants want the reward money (now 1500 francs upon Sibilet’s recommendation), and they want the anger that might be aroused by jailing an old woman. Granny Tonsard and Bonnebault’s mother both want to volunteer – jail is warmer and cleaner than home, and part of the reward money can be used to give them comforts they do not have now. They toss for it and Granny wins. When Granny is ‘caught’, Michaud is aghast that it is the Tonstards the Countess has been helping, and he recommends the Countess withdraw Catherine’s dowry. Sibilet proclaims what great scoundrels all the peasants are, says granddaughter Marie turned Granny in, and surely this is an awful place to live. Granny’s arrest and the withdrawal of Catherine’s dowry are the talk of the tavern. Michaud is still the villain and is revealed to have recommended the cancellation of the dowry.

The Countess returns to Paris for the opera season and because she misses Blondet and the General is preoccupied with Aigues matters. Meanwhile the General remains at Aigues on business. Granny is tried and convicted based much on Michaud’s testimony.

The tavern has the usual crowd: Courtecuisse, Bonnebault, Godain, Tonsard and his wife and daughters, Fourchon, Vaudoyer. They are drinking and celebrating Catherine Godain’s wedding and are going to bring the bride home. Bonnebault’s mother comes in and says Michaud’s wife is in labor and Michaud has ridden for Dr. Gourdon. They discuss routes. Courtecuisse, Tonsard, Bonnebault, and Vaudoyer plan an ambush and decide Courtecuisse as an expert shot should be the shooter. They make sure the whole wedding party, everyone at the tavern, gets drunk and passes out.

Michaud’s wife meanwhile realizes her labor pains were false pains, and she is hysterical at the risk Michaud has taken by riding out alone at night. And she is right because Michaud’s horse returns blood-spattered, foaming at the mouth, and without Michaud. Mme. Michaud runs to the General’s house, shouts out that Michaud has been murdered, and falls down beneath the General’s windows. She delivers a stillborn baby and dies. At noon the next day the General and his party find Michaud in a coppice a few hundred paces from the Conches gates, shot in the back. There is no doubt that the deed was locally done, but all the likely murderers have the alibi of the wedding party. “…not one of [the party] had left the place [the tavern], and towards two o’clock in the morning they had gone home with the newly-married couple.”

The General hires a detective to come out, work for the Aigues, get ‘fired’ and go undercover the find out the murder. The General then returns to Paris.

Five months later when the General returns the detective has nothing and gives up. Blondet, M. de Troisville (the Countess’ father), the Abbe Brossette, and Lupeaulx the sub-prefect from Ville-aux-Fayes are visiting and discuss the situation. Why Lupeaulx would be invited to lunch is a mystery to me – apparently the General has never learned you can trust no one at all from the town. Lupeaulx has been a minor character in the story thus. But he’s Gaubertin’s prospective son-in-law, another viper in the camp. Of course in this discussion he advises the General to sell and points out all the financial advantages of buying a chateau near Paris, investing the funds, etc. The Countess has lost her taste for the place since the death of Michaud and his wife. When the news is spread about that the General might sell, Gaubertin of course loudly proclaims he will not purchase, but we know he will be using Rigou to procure a share.

The General is still undecided as he hates to lose a war. One night returning from the forest he is accosted by Bonnebault, who tells him he could have easily shot him like a partridge. He tells the General he’s been offered 3,000 francs to kill him, and Marie has been thrown in to boot. He says if not him it will be someone else. He tells the General if he will give him a few acres and a cabin, he will delay his planned murder and give the General time to sell and go away. The General tells him to come see him the next day.

The General sells apparently to Rigou for 2 million one hundred and fifty thousand francs. The next day the lands were retitled: Gaubertin got the forest, Rigou and Soudry the vineyards and the rest of the estate. The chateau and the park were resold to be pulled down for building materials; only the hunting lodge remains for Gaubertin.

Many years later Emile Blondet is on a downward spiral – his day as a brilliant political writer has come and gone, and he is in poverty, near suicide. A letter with a black seal arrives, from the Countess. The Count has died, and the countess, still only 40, has summoned him. They marry and Emile is appointed a prefect. On his way to his appointment, he and his wife stop at Aigues. It is no longer recognizable. No mysterious woods, no avenues in the park. “The Peasantry had taken possession of the soil as conquerors and by right of conquest; already it had been divided up into more than a thousand holdings.” There are lots of small, dissolute buildings. Only the hunting lodge remains, which now in contrast to the small houses looks almost like a chateau. Such are the results of Rousseau, cries Blondet. Live in the present and their love, advises his wife.


Read it here

Summarized by Pamela, June 2009


2 comments on “The Peasantry by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    I did the summary for this one 3 years ago and remember well it was very difficult with Balzac’s usual cast of thousands and intricate plots. Even now reading my own summary I have trouble following all the characters and the story threads. Less is more sometimes, and Balzac’s best works are more streamlined than this work. Still, some of the characters are intriguing, and Saintsbury says the individual sketches of place and characters are among his best. Balzac also does a good job of showing the conflicts between the rich and the peasantry. In the end, nobody wins – the rich are gone, the property has been broken up into a thousand pieces, and the peasants are still poor. This work was a late one and left unfinished at Balzac’s death. I’m not sure who finished it – several made attempts, but Balzac’s (new) wife did put a few touches on it.


  2. […] a post on from June 25, 2011 (“The Peasantry by Honore de Balzac”), it sounds like otter-catching from a […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s