The Government Clerks by Honoré de Balzac

Les Employés
The Government Clerks
Also translated as Bureacracy


There is a large cast of over fifty characters in this work, and Balzac provides robust descriptions of most of these characters in his attempt to depict a typical French bureaucracy. But I will cut to the chase and describe mostly those essential to the story line in order to keep this to a reasonable summary. In the Saintsbury introduction to this week, Mr. Saintsbury indicates this is not exactly a story and hints that it might not be up to his other works.

This is a novel about life and attempt at advancement in the government bureaucracy of France during the Charles X 1820s period. The Minister is head of the bureaucracy (there was apparently more than one bureaucracy). There are two Chief Clerks under a political appointee M de la Billardiere (the Minister’s cousin) as the Division Head. As Billardiere is now dying, there is an opportunity for advancement from Chief Clerk to Division Head. One of the Chief Clerks is M. Xavier Rabourdin, and the other is M. Isidore Baudoyer.

M Xavier Rabourdin is quite competent and desires to be promoted in order to increase his income and put forth some of his practical though radical ideas of how to streamline the bureaucracy. He is married to Celestine Leprince Rabourdin, and they have two children. Celestine is beautiful, intelligent, and politically savvy, and she agreed to marry Xavier only after her auctioneer father convinced her that with his talents Xavier was destined for greatness. But so far greatness and a large salary haven’t happened, and Celestine has decided to put her own skills in play. She manages to appear to have enough money to entertain elegantly in expensive Paris. They are in debt in spite of her clever strategies to make her funds go far, but Celestine feels it will be worth it because it will help advance her husband to a more lucrative position. Xavier is proud of his wife but is so buried in his work he doesn’t quite realize that she is involved in political intrigues on his behalf. Although Celestine loves Xavier, she’s lost a little respect for him due to his apparent inability to get to the top. But Xavier understands the family needs and is working his own strategy. He has a plan he has worked on for six years that will streamline the bureaucracy, reducing staff by half or more and increasing the pay dramatically of those retained, and improving the government tax base. It looks like a brilliant proposition, and he’s about ready to present it to the Minister.

Celestine is regularly entertaining those whom she thinks will help their causes, primarily one Clement Chardin des Lupeaulx, currently the Master of Requests and Secretary General. He’s the boss of the Billardiere Division Head position and has direct access to the Minister. Des Lupeaulx is a real piece of work, a clever bottom-feeder who takes care of all the dirty work for various political personages. He’s very good at what he does and has collected dozens of titles. But what he wants most is to be Deputy (highest position except Minister), and, more importantly, to be a Count. He has a problem in that he’s in debt, and he also doesn’t own enough property to make Count.

The second Chief Clerk in our government picture is M. Isidore Baudoyer, who’s verging on incompetence. He’s married to a very politically shrewd woman Elizabeth Bidault Baudoyer. Elizabeth is the daughter of the bureaucracy cashier Sieur Saillard. Saillard seems to have power simply because he distributes the money, though he’s of limited ability and a bit of a dolt. (Somehow when the government positions change the cashiers are able to hold on to their positions because, as Balzac says, the powers that be seem to confuse the dispensers of funds with the funds themselves.)

Elizabeth’s mother was the daughter of Bidault, a clever and powerful bill discounter (money lender) in business with our already known Gobseck. This is probably where Elizabeth gets her brains. Elizabeth was raised very strictly and made to do a lot of work, and she wants better for he own daughter. A whole host of characters revolve around the Isidore and Elizabeth Baudoyer clan – Sieur Saillard; his friend the Abbe Gaudron; friends M and Mme Transon (earthenware dealers); Martin Falleix, a brass founder who has been set up in business by Saillard, Uncle Bidault, and his son Sieur Mitral who serves as his bailiff. Falleix is considered by Elizabeth as a possible future husband for her young daughter. Rabourdin’s assistant Godard is in Baudoyer’s military company. This group of family and friends congratulate each other on this position and eminence, but really only Elizabeth and Uncle Bidault (her father) are blessed with brains and determination.

With all this background, we finally come to the action. Saillard as the lowly cashier is in attendance at a party attended by the Minister. Saillard is looked on as furniture by the powerful: they are pretty much unaware of his presence at all. So in Saillard’s hearing the Minister states that there is a deputy position opening up soon and he doesn’t plan to support Des Lupeaulx in it even though Des Lupeaulx works closely with him. Des Lupeaulx doesn’t have the necessary property to be eligible for the position, which apparently would also bring the status of Count – Des Lupeaulx’s most lofty goal. It is obvious from the conversation that the Minister knows what Des Lupeaulx is and would be uncomfortable advancing him to this level. Saillard returns home from the party to his clan with this news.

Elizabeth Baudoyer in learning from Sieur Saillard that there is a deputy position coming up and des Lupeaulx will not be considered for it immediately formulates and asks questions concerning this situation to see how it might be used to advance her husband for the upcoming Division Head slot:

1. “If M. des Lupeaulx is for us, can he carry Baudoyer’s nomination?” The answer is yes according to Sieur.
2. “Is he still in debt”. Yes. Elizabeth knows that his debts lie with Uncle Bidault and his friend Gobseck.
3. “Where is his estate of the Lupeaulx?” Close to the district of the
deputy about to be replaced.
These questions and answers are the most important in the work. Elizabeth sees a way to advance Baudoyer in their answers, and she tells her husband that night she thinks he will be promoted to Division Head. Her oblivious husband just tells her not to meddle and rather instead depend on their friend Abbe Gaudron’s friendship with the Queen (the Dauphiness) to get the job done. But we know Elizabeth will leave nothing undone to accomplish her purpose.

Celestine Rabourdin meanwhile is having one of her “Wednesdays”: a weekly at-home gathering in her amazingly tasteful Paris apartment at which she has managed to collect influential personages, the most important one being Lupeaulx. She flirts with Lupeaulx and over time has implied that if he will advance her husband she will grant him sexual favors. Lupeaulx admires her greatly and seems inclined to work for Rabourdin, whom he could easily influence the minister to slide into the Division Head position since he is best qualified for it and indeed should have had it when the Minister’s cousin Billardiere was slotted there. Lupeaulx being the crazy-like-a-fox man than he is wonders if Celestine will deliver – he remembers having a similar flirtation with Mme Flavie Colleville, who is married to a senior draughting clerk who is a theatre man in the evenings. As Mme Colleville dropped him, he can’t help but be cautious with Celestine – but she is so divine, beauty and brains and graciousness and taste all in one package. Celestine feels like the fix for Rabourdin’s advancement is going well with Lupeaulx on her side.

Balzac now provides detailed descriptions of this cast of thousands, all interesting but a bit overwhelming. The head of the bureaucracy is the Minister (who never seems to have a name). His wife is not particularly attractive or suited to be a wife of a Minister. He has a deputy, maybe more than one. Under the Deputy is the Royal Commissary, and under that is the Master of Requests, which is currently filled by Lupeaulx (who is also Secretary General among other things). The Minister has at least two Division Heads reporting to him, the one currently filled by the dying Billardiere (his cousin) and the other by Clergeot.

Each Division Head has Chief Clerks under him. Billardiere’s are Rabourdin and Baudoyer. As noted earlier Sieur Saillard is the cashier for the Division. Chief clerks have assistants, one being playwright DuBruel for Baudoyer (but who admires Rabourdin greatly) and another being Joseph Godard, who is cousin to Sieur Mitral (Bidault’s son). The secretary is M. Ernest de la Briere, whom the Abbe Gaudron put through school (we learn later). There are also messengers, Gabriel being the messenger for Billardiere; Antoine, the one who works directly for the chief clerks (apparently both of them); and Laurent, a general office messenger. There are also various clerks. Minard is a copy clerk of Baudoyer. M. Colleville is Baudoyer’s senior draughting clerk who works hard and is secretly ambitious (and whose wife once had Lupeaulx in her stable), Dutocq is an ambitious clerk for Baudoyer, and Bixiou is a clerk of some type who appears to do little work but is a terrific caricaturist. Clerks for Rabourdin include Beau Thuiller (senior draughting clerk and friend of Colleville), Vimeux (copy clerk), and Phellion (draughting clerk). In the cast of thousands are other clerks Chazelle, Paulmier, Poiret, Desroys, and Fleury. All the employees have various loyalties, are sometimes friends with the opposing chief clerk’s employees, and sometimes they have unusual connections. For example Baudoyer assistant DuBruel is associated with Floxine, an actress, whose roommate Tullia is associate with du de Charlieu, a favorite of the king. There is also a position of Supernumerary held by the extremely loyal Sabatien de la Roche for Rabourdin and by Benjamin de la Billardiere (the Division head’s son) for Baudoyer. Supernumeraries do a great deal of the work for little pay in hope for advancement into the hierarchy, though de la Billardiere doesn’t fit this mode and is just marking time.

It’s all enough to make your head spin, though indeed having worked in a large company I know it’s close to the truth. Sometimes I think Balzac just throws a character in for the delight in describing him, and sometimes the characters are there in this story just an a path to get secret things done. I won’t mention some of the detailed mechanics of the intrigues, but with all these friends and relative connections it is not hard for a member of the opposing faction to get information on their opponent or get secret things done. Mostly we will concentrate in this summary on the chief clerks Rabourdin and Baudoyer, Rabourdin’s supernumerary Sabatien de la Roche, and Clerks Dutocq and Bixiou as they advance the plot the most.

Now that we have the bureaucracy organization under our belts, the plot advances quickly almost as a sting operation. It seems that Rabourdin has documented his master plan for streamlining the bureaucracy, including details as to personal characters of all staff members and which ones to retain. Supernumerary Sebatien has been making him ‘fair’ copies as Rabourdin feels the time is right to present the results to the Minister. But Sebatien leaves the papers at the office – out of site, but dangerously present among enemies. Dutocq notices Sebatien working feverishly in the late afternoon and wonders what he’s up to. After Sebatien leaves, he searches Sebatien’s office and eventually finds the well-concealed papers. He goes off and has copies made and gets them returned before Sebatien arrives at work the next morning.

Meanwhile Rabourdin learns from Sebatien that he has left the papers in the area and urges him to lock them up in his own office. When Sebatien comes to work he does so. But later when Rabourdin takes out the papers, he discovers marks from their having been copied. After questioning staff members as to who was in the office late yesterday and early today he correctly deduces that it is Dutocq that has compromised his whole future. Being an extremely compassionate and kind man, he’s not mad at Sebatien and in fact doesn’t even tell him what has happened. But he’s in a poker ‘all in’ situation, and he figures his only hope is to take his plan to the Minister at once.

Dutocq strangely takes his discovery to Bixiou. He doesn’t actually tell Bixiou what he has but asks him if when he tells him it’s time if he will draw a caricature of Rabourdin depicting comments Rabourdin has made about various employees. He has something in mind depicting Rabourdin cutting off heads of chickens who look like employees. Dutocq says he knows that he can get Rabourdin disqualified. The plan is to get Baudoyer selected, who will no doubt be sent elsewhere in a few months because he’s a dolt. Then Dutocq proposes that Bixiou will end up chief clerk and Dutocq his assistant. Apparently Dutocq doesn’t want the chief clerk job, doesn’t think he’s suitable. I suppose Dutocq believes he can make this happen because of the power of the documents he holds – he can bargain with the Rabourdin team initially based on his information. Bixiou is confused but has no reason to say no. He’s well connected with Lupeaulx socially, so perhaps he’s not in real fear of losing his job if things don’t go well.

Then Dutocq takes the papers to Lupeaulx. But he’s no match for the bottom-feeder political master. Lupeaulx acts like he already knows about the papers and gets them away from Dutocq quickly for Lupeaulx’s own use. He is not pleased with his own description by Rabourdin, though I am guessing he recognized it as true. Actually he has a grudging admiration for Rabourdin’s skills, but that is beside the point. Now Lupeaulx has to decide whether to stay in the Rabourdin camp or with this new power jump into the Baudoyer group. He knows the information won’t stay under cover, no doubt Dutocq made an extra copy, and no doubt Rabourdin will soon try to present the plan to the Minister. But the damage is in the personal comments and recommendations for reducing the bureaucracy to a third of itself. He can inflame any and everyone in the bureaucracy with this information.

In a holding position until Lupeaulx decides whether he wants Celeste or the power he can bring to the Baudoyer group, he stays by the side of the Minister and thwarts all attempts of Rabourdin to get close to him. The Minister doesn’t know about the plan, but Lupeaulx makes Rabourdin think he does and that he is supported and made safe by the Minister. Rabourdin knows something is wrong, he can’t figure out Lupeaulx’s game – especially since he was uncomplimentary to Lupeaulx in the papers. He thinks either he hasn’t seen the papers or he’s in love with Celeste. Rabourdin keeps trying to get time along with the minister, but he cannot succeed with Lupeaulx feeding the Minister misinformation. At this point the Minister doesn’t seem to be a strong personality, just a man balancing the royal and bureaucratic balls in the air.

Back at the Baudoyer group, things are stirring. Elizabeth has just arranged that her husband will donate 5,000 francs which they don’t have to rebuild a church icon. It is understood that Baudoyer must get the promotion in order to afford the donation. Gaudron uses de la Briere to get an article prominently placed in the paper close to Billiardiere’s obituary (he has now died, obviously, and de la Briere was assigned his obituary) in which the royal loyalist background and implied opposition to Baudoyer from Liberals (non-royal supporters) is described. (You may remember that Gaudron paid for de la Briere’s education). Everyone important, like the Royals, is sure to read it. Gaudron hopes also out of all this to get an improved position for Colleville. It seems that Colleville’s wife has been cozying up to Gaudron to get promotion for her husband. Baudoyer walks into this plan befuddled, wondering how he will pay for the contribution.

Things are popping now. Clever Elizabeth Baudoyer certainly intends to do more than slip the church a contribution to get her husband advanced. Remember the three questions she asked earlier in week 2? Now sit back and let the intrigue go! First of all, Saillard is to whisper to the Minister’s wife (on his next money delivery) a recommendation for Baudoyer with the information that the Dauphiness supports the nomination. Gaudron made this suggestion because he has the Dauphiness’ ear. But that is only the beginning. She’s worried what the liberal press will say in response to the favorable notice about Baudoyer, so she gets her Uncle Bidault to plant an article in the Liberal press supporting Baudoyer and defiantly challenging the Minister to do the right thing – which was no doubt a shock to the liberals. But that’s just the beginning. Mitral, Bidault’s son is sent to the area around the estates of Lupeaulx to buy up land with Bidault and Gobseck’s funds.

Lupeaulx has been made to understand by Baudoyer that if he supports Baudoyer his debts will be written off by Bidault and Gobseck. So now he’s on the fence, still trying to decide if Celeste is worth more than getting his 30,000 of debts paid off. Lupeaulx shows Celestine her husband’s plan, and she initially disapproves. She finds it impractical, doesn’t really understand there is meat to the plan, and knows he made a fatal mistake in committing anything to paper. At Lupeaulx’s request, she finds out details of the plan and betrays her husband’s express wishes by filling in Lupeaulx. But later Celeste agrees to sit down and listen to her husband’s plan, and she realizes he has a brilliant concept, that he is not a dolt. She only wishes that he had confided in her earlier, maybe the two of them could have made it together. She still thinks there is a chance for her husband if she can wow the Minister.

Lupeaulx decided to test Celestine by getting her invited to the Minister’s, a company long sought as acceptance into society by Celeste. Celeste is a hit there with both the Minister and his wife. Lupeaulx talks straight to Celeste there and tells her the Minister is the way to fulfill her ambitions. She agrees and goes off to charm the Minister some more, thus failing Lupeaulx’s test – she doesn’t love him. During the party at the Minister’s, Lupeaulx is summoned outside with a note from Gobseck. The trap is sprung: they can deliver not only freedom from debt but a larger estate (Mitral has bought up enough lands around the Lupeaulx area to make him qualify for the Deputy position and as Count.) Indeed, Lupeaulx hasn’t known the Deputy position was open. Here are his life ambitions offered to him on a platter. Gobseck and Bidault don’t mind the investment because they will own Lupeaulx and his position for life. Lupeaulx will do it, he is now in the Baudoyer camp. A cross for Baudoyer is thrown into the plan for good measure.

The final touches of the movement for Baudoyer are now in play. Dutocq tells Bixiou about Rabourdin’s plan and asks him to draw his caricature, to make up some cards with pithy sayings of Rabourdin from the plan, etc. Lupeaulx confronts the Minister with his own promotion and the Minister’s holding out on him. The Minister cannot object because through Gobseck and Bidault Lupeaulx holds the votes necessary to put him in the position. Apparently the Deputy position (from Lupeaulx’s own district) is a voted position and with the land purchases Gobseck and Bidault bought the votes. As Deputy he insists the Minister appoint Baudoyer and not Rabourdin. At the same time Saillard is telling the Minister’s wife that the Dauphiness is in support of Baudoyer. The fix is done.

Lupeaulx goes back to the Rabourdin’s and pretends to have done all he could and blames the appointment on the influence of the church. Rabourdin asks one more time for an audience with the Minister to go over the plans. When he refuses to entrust this task to Lupeaulx, Lupeaulx leaves in a pretended huff. Rabourdin resigns the next day. Celestine tells him how far she has gotten him in debt, but he is resilient. Celestine is beginning to appreciate the worth of her husband, and they make plans to sell their farm, settle their debts, and start a new business. Rabourdin believes with hard work in ten years they will be wealthy. And with Celestine at his side who can doubt it?

The Minister vaguely wonders about Rabourdin’s plan and would have liked to have seen it, but Lupeaulx assures him that this would be impossible as Rabourdin has destroyed everything. Of course, we know there are other copies of the plan. The Minister makes a final deal with Lupeaulx – he will ensure Lupeaulx’s debts are paid if he will give up the district to him. He will ensure he has the title of Count, and if he is still in office after the next election, he will make him a peer. The Minister knows how to deal or he wouldn’t have been the Minister, LOL.

The bureaucracy of France, of those vast numbers feeding off the government, survives. “And before we go any farther, a publicist might call the attention of [other nations] to the fact that for this sum France obtains the fussiest, most fidgety, interfering, inquisitive, meddlesome, pains-taking, categorical set of scribblers and hoarders of wastepaper, the veriest old wife among all known administrations.”

All the Baudoyer clan gather to celebrate Baudoyer’s appointment and his cross award. Colleville is to be chief clerk. It is noted that this happened from small intrigues, not great ones. It was not the church that ultimately made it happen. “Perhaps M. Gaudron’s importunities extorted a few words in Baudoyer’s favor, but at the Minister’s first remark the matter was allowed to drop. Passion in itself did the work of a very efficient spy among the members of the Congregation; the use to denounce each other. And surely it was permissible to oppose that society to the brazen-fronted fraternity of the doctrine summed up by the formula, “Heaven helps him who helps himself.”


Read it here

Summarized by Pamela, April 2010


One comment on “The Government Clerks by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    Saintsbury says this work is a “dubious claim to be called a novel or story at all”. I’m not sure what Saintsbury means here – in a way, it is too much of a story for my taste. There’s a large caste and so many story lines that it is confusing from beginning to end. Balzac seems fascinated with the workings of government agencies, but that doesn’t mean the reader shares this fascination. As usual, Balzac paints some vivid characters, but it’s a bit of a government soup to me. The plot, which I painfully summarized, was so intricate I didn’t even have the heard to reread my own summary, LOL. How Balzac wrote this novel in a single month, which he did according to Golda, is beyond me.


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