Ursula by Honoré de Balzac

Ursule Mirouët


Balzac dedicates the book to his niece Sophie, curiously observing that such a pious young girl “must never be suffered to read any book less pure” than she is and that she is “not allowed to see society as it really is.” And yet Balzac is writing his works about society as he sees it: are we in for more restraint in this work? Balzac editor George Saintsbury says Balzac was not afraid to show things “more or less as there are” but there is evidence of restraint and convention in the novel. “Ursule Mirouet” is considered one of Balzac’s better works.

It is in the small town of Nemours, France in 1829. Nemours is south-southeast of Paris. Everyone knows everyone else, and it seem that the prominent citizens in the town are composed of descents of four families: Minoret, Massin, Levrault, and Cremiere. They’ve intermarried, and most are somehow related to each other. The story opens with the postmaster Minoret-Levrault waiting in the hot sun on the road for the carriage from Paris, which is supposed to be bringing his son Desire home for a visit (perhaps to ask for permission to marry). Balzac describes Minoret (we shall shorten the names for convenience) as a man of “stupid strength, such as sculptors gave to their caryatides. Minoret was like ones of those statues with the difference that they support something, while he had enough to do to support himself”. Minoret has money, made partly in the revolution. He has 30,000 francs a year in land and shares in two companies. His wife Zelie and he have only son Desire, a newly sworn in attorney who lives in Paris as a bit of a dandy. He’s handsome, spoiled, and has been spending 12,000 francs a year or more of his father’s money. M. Massin-Levrault is the justice’s registrar, and a kind of oily, sly man. He wife is Minoret’s cousin. M. Cremiere is the tax receiver and notary. He’s a clever man in secret business with other town residents and the husband of a fat, clever woman who likes to read novels. Goupil is the head clerk to Cremiere. He’s 27 and not attractive. He spent all his money on dissipations in Paris and was taken in by Cremiere, but Cremiere and a lot of the town do not trust him and in fact fear him as he is clever and revengeful. He is a companion of Desire, who does not suspect his evil ways. Goupil has the objective of securing through Desire’s influence one of three good positions: registrar of the law counts, the business of one of the ushers, or the business of Cremiere.

Dr. Minoret is 83 and apparently well off as a former Parisian physician and the inventor of the famous remedy Lelievre’s balsam. He is the uncle of Minoret, Mme Massin, and Mme Cremiere. He retired from Paris a few years ago, rebuilding a house and bringing the infant Ursule and her nurse (Antoinette Patris, known as La Bougival) with him. Dr. Minoret’s wife was named Ursule, but the infant Ursule is not his daughter.

Dr. Minoret’s existence was somehow unknown to the town until he showed up to buy his house. Things were confused in the revolution and family trees just got scattered. There was great excitement with the revelation that the Minoret, Massin, and Cremiere families had an apparently rich uncle who was elderly and had no obvious heirs. Only the Cremiere family has money.

Dr. Minoret keeps to himself, having as his only servant a trustworthy nursemaid/cook. He doesn’t accept casual calls, and not many know his business. He has three friends that spend their evenings with Ursule (now 15) and him. M de Jordy, an elderly bachelor with 1600 francs a year who was a man of personal loss during the revolution, lives on Dr. Minoret’s property. He and the doctor met when he borrowed reading materials from the doctor by way of the Abbe Chaperon – the vicar of Nemours, a very good man, and the second friend in Dr. Minoret’s evening group. M Bongrand, a widower, retired attorney and judge and the justice of the peace is the third participant. He has 1500 francs a year, is intelligent, has a son in Paris.

These four friends are all men of kindness and integrity, and together they see to Ursule’s upbringing carefully. They all love this pretty young woman and have taken great care with her education. Although the doctor is an atheist, he has allowed Abbe Chaperon to bring Ursule up in the church.

As the town waits for the delayed coach, news spreads fast through the town that Dr. Minoret and Ursule are walking to the church and in fact go into the church service. This is shocking news because the Minoret relatives were counting on the fact that Dr. Minoret was an atheist to secure themselves as his inheritors. If he turns to the church, will he leave the church his money? The nieces and nephews of Dr. Minoret decide to meet privately to discuss the situation – it is imperative they be Dr. Minoret’s heirs as most of them are not all that well off and they have visions of better times. They can hardly wait for Dr. Minoret’s death and seem not to have noticed that the doctor has secretly helped each of them financially in the past. Mme Massin is particularly vocal, calling Ursule a slut who has lured Dr. Minoret to church! After seeing the old noble woman of the town Madame de Portenduere following Ursule and Dr. Minoret, M. Cremiere exclaims that he has a way to save the inheritance.

At about this time Desire arrives on the much-delayed coach. He makes quite an impression in his fine dress and manner. All the town know he’s draining the resources somewhat of his father postmaster Minoret. As he walks home with his family, he sees Ursule through the church window and is struck by her attractive appearance.

The father of Dr. Minoret’s deceased wife Ursule, Valentin Mirouet, was a master instrument maker. In his later years he had an illegitimate son Joseph Mirouet, whom he fully acknowledged as his son. Valentin told Dr. Minoret that he didn’t marry Joseph’s mother in order to protect the assets to be inherited by Ursule. That son Joseph led an undisciplined life but finally settled down with a German woman and had blonde baby Ursule of our book’s title. But alas both Joseph and his wife died soon after Ursule was born, and the baby was left in the care of her godfather Dr. Minoret. She was his niece – really the niece of his wife by her half-brother Joseph. There was no actual blood relationship between Dr. Minoret and Ursule, though she was referred to as his natural (a polite word for illegitimate) niece. But Ursule herself wasn’t illegitimate, only her father.

Dr. Minoret had always wanted children, but the children born of him and his wife never lived long. So he embraces the care of Ursule completely. He takes care of Ursule’s physical well-being and day to day cares, Abbe Chaperon takes care of her religious upbringing, and the old captain Jody (who had been a professor at a military school) takes care of her secular education – reading, writing, languages, a little arithmetic.

The men when not with Ursule like to play backgammon, a game that Ursule does not like. The three men are devoted to Ursule. When Jody dies he leaves her his life savings of 10,000 francs, enough for an income of 400-500 francs a year – and said in his will she was to spend the money on clothing.

Ursule spends a year with the Abbe in confirmation education before she is confirmed, and she is truly devoted to her faith. After she is confirmed, she pulls up a chair and challenges Dr. Minoret to a game of backgammon – and wins. The Abbe had been secretly teaching her so that she could please Dr. Minoret by playing with him. Dr. Minoret is moved by her devotion and decides to give her piano and other musical training even though he is not fond of music.

Dr. Minoret has an old friend Dr. Bouvard who lives in Paris and is an advocate of the phenomena known as magnetism. They had parted ways over the new age sciences, Dr. M. being firmly against anything he couldn’t see and touch. But now Dr. Bouvard writes to Dr. M and asks him to come to Paris to witness absolute proof of the new science. He takes him to a woman who is apparently in a hypnotic trance and has what we would call today ESP. Dr. Minoret is stunned when she tells him what Ursule is doing at that moment back home, where he keeps his housekeeping money, even what denominations the bills are, what plants Ursule at that moment is planting, and Ursule’s secret enchantment with Savinien Portendere, old Madame Portendere’s son. She even discerns Ursule’s wish that she could sing well so she might attract Savinien’s attention. The woman says Ursule would love only once and that she grieves that Dr. M doesn’t believe in God. This information stuns Dr. M. After verifying the information when he arrives home he comes to a growing belief in God which eventually leads him to profess faith to the Abbe and Ursule and go with Ursule to church.

Meanwhile, the potential heirs have gathered for breakfast to discuss what to do about threats to their inheritance from Dr. M. They seem worried only about Ursule and her influence on the doctor – I was expecting them to be worried about Dr. M.’s leaving money to the church, but that seems to not be the issue I supposed earlier. They note Ursule is not a blood relative and thus a will leaving her substantial assets could probably be broken. Desire, the new lawyer, quotes French law that “a natural child can claim nothing from its natural grandfather, not even maintenance.” They worry that he might adopt her or marry her or give his money to someone else in trust for her. Desire kind of likes the idea of marrying Ursule for her inheritance, but his mother has bigger plans for him (since Ursule is not well-born) and vetoes the idea. She wants him to marry the Mayor’s daughter, who has good blood and 50,000 francs.

Postmaster Minoret has in idea: it seems Savinien Portendere is in jail for debt (120,000 francs!), and he knows Madame Portendere plans to ask Dr. M for a loan. Why not persuade Dr. M. to cash in his 5% consols, pay Sevinien’s debts, and invest the rest in real estate. Real estate is easier to get hold of for the family than actual cash – lots of ways to delay disbursement, etc. In the meantime, maybe Desire could court Ursule to dissuade any approach by Dr. M. in marrying her to ensure her inheritance. Goupil likes the idea of his marrying her, though the others think that’s pretty funny.

The group adjourns in time to greet Dr. M and Ursule leaving the church and ask to call that night. They’ve decided that had better be nice to Ursule, whom earlier they’ve called a hussy, because she has some money and to put her and Dr. M. off the trail of their greed. Dr. M is not fooled, but he wants to observe the relatives so he agrees to the visit. He carefully explains their ulterior motives to Ursule.

At the doctor’s home, Bongrand suggests the doctor marry Ursule to protect her inheritance, but the doctor vetoes the idea immediately. He and Bongrand agree there is a problem in guaranteeing Ursule’s inheritance, even though Dr. M. does plan to leave substantial assets to his relatives. They will think upon the problem.

Postmaster Minoret comes to suggest his plan of bailing out Savinien to Dr. M. Ursule eavesdrops and faints when she hears Savinien is in jail and that Dr. M. refuses to cash in his assets to help him. She confesses all to Dr. M: she has never spoken a word to Savinien but is in love with him. She begs Dr. M. help him. Postmaster Minoret deduces that Ursule is in love with Savinien when she faints, and goes away mulling over this useful information.

Madame de Portenduere confides in the Abbe about the debt of her son Savinien, who is now in the Sainte-Pelagie prison for owing debts of more than 100,000 francs. Savinien is the great-nephew of Vice-Admiral Kergarpiet and cousin to the Admiral’s grandson Comte de Portenduere, both very rich. The Vice-Admiral has married his niece Emilie de Fontaine to ensure that she is his heir. The Comte de Portenduere, over age 40 with a rich wife and three children, has an income of over 60,000 francs a year. Madame de Portenduere could have used these contacts to start Savinien on a career, most likely by getting him preferment in the military and later playing matchmaker for a rich wife for him. But Madame de Portenduere couldn’t bear the thought of Savinien being away from her and had hoped to marry him to an d’Aigemont woman who had 12,000 francs. Her plans have gone astray both because Savinien has created a huge debt she cannot cover and because the d’Aigemont family has been ruined and the eldest daughter Helene vanished.

Savinien in Paris had thought that surely his mother had additional money. He sees his friends de Marsay, Rastignac, and Lucien de Rubenpre existing without money and thus thought he could also. His friends seem cavalier about their debts. De Marsay tells Savinien, “.debts are the sleeping partners of experience. A good college education, with masters for the ornamental and the useful, from which you learn nothing, costs sixty thousand francs. If the education the world gives you costs double, it teaches you life, business, and politics; to know men, and sometimes women.”

Savinien thought de Marsay was in jest – he doesn’t realize his friends have largely learned to live on others, mostly women (we know of this from other stories). So he continues to spend, and when other alternatives run out his friend des Lupeaulx puts him in touch with the money lenders Gobseck, Gigonnet, and Palma. Savinien had refused to confess his debts to Madame de Serizy, whom he is courting. To make matters worse he had fallen in love with Emilie de Kergarpiet, the wife of his rich relative – and he spent even more money keeping up both with Madame de Serizy and Emilie. Obviously he doesn’t understand how living a luxurious life in Paris without money is played. The money lenders are only too happy to lend to him after learning of his mother’s farm and of his rich relatives.

But now Savinien is in jail because he didn’t understand the game well enough to flee the country when the stakes got too high. (This is a bit like Balzac’s own story of debts.) His friends visit him in jail and tell him he’s committed a fatal error – once in jail, no one will help. His only recourse is to somehow get out and leave the country for a few years. De Marsay says Savinien is not up to the mark for Paris, but with his good looks, family name, and charm he could make him a match in England if he can get himself out of jail.

Madame de Portenduere asks the Abbe’s advice about how to get Savinien out of jail. She simply has no money. She wrote to Vice-Admiral Kergarpiet, and wife Emilie responded to the letter with a gracious but firm no and a suggestion he should go in the navy. She also wrote to the Comte de Portenduere, who suggested she sell her farm and come to live with them. She says that they could eventually help Savinien with a match with a rich wife. The Abbe suggests she instead ask to legally borrow the money from Dr. Minoret. Madame de Portenduere is horrified as Dr. Minoret is not a nobleman, but finally the Abbe convinces her to do so. It is on the night of the potential heirs’ visit that this transaction takes place.

Ursule plays a gloomy Sonata in A of Beethoven to drive her greedy relatives away (it works!). Dr. Minoret now graciously goes to Madame de Portenduere and with great nobility agrees to the loan and tells Madame de Portenduere he will go to Paris and get Savinien out of jail. He does all of this of course because it is Ursule’s heart’s desire. Madame de Portenduere still holds herself above the common born Minoret and even commoner Ursule, but she is impressed with Dr. M’s manners and gracious help.

Dr. M goes to Paris to retrieve Savinien with Ursule in tow at her insistence. He cashes out funds, pays the debts which he has negotiated to 80,000 francs, gets Savinien out of jail, and gives him 20,000 more francs to settle private debts. This takes over a week. When Savinien gets out of jail, Dr. M., Ursule, and Savinien head home in a carriage. Ursule wears a veil and is quiet, and this is her first actual meeting with Savinien. The road home is long, and while Ursule is asleep and disarrayed, Savinien absolutely falls in love with her. Balzac, our romantic! “[Savinien] had studied the innocence of her soul, the beauty of her person, the whiteness of her complexion, the delicacy of her features, and the sweet voice which had spoken the brief expressive phrase in which the poor child had told everything while intending to tell nothing. In short, I know not what presentiment led him to think of Ursule as the wife the doctor had suggested to him, set in a gold frame by the magical words: “Seven or eight hundred thousand francs (Ursule’s potential inheritance).”

In Nemours Madame de Portenduere asks her son if he has done anything truly dishonorable, and when he assures her he hasn’t she embraces him and welcomes him home. Savinien swears to never cause her trouble again. Thoroughly convinced of his love for Ursule, Savinien tries to bend his mother’s will towards accepting her as a potential wife. Madame de Portenduere says she would oppose such a match to her dying day. Madame de Portenduere even has the bad grace to start thinking that Dr. Minoret is trying to steal her Savinien for Ursule. Dr. Minoret eventually tells Savinien he should quit visiting his household because of his mother’s disapproval

The potential inheritors of Dr. M. learn that Dr. M has lent money to get Savinien out of prison, and they are not pleased. Savinien writes Ursule a love letter asking her to be his wife. She takes it to her grandfather, who helps compose a reply. The reply states the facts of Ursule’s lack of nobility and that she is only 16. Dr. M. doesn’t want her to marry before 20. But it doesn’t refuse him outright, and eventually Ursule tells him she will be his wife and will not ever marry anyone else. Savinien goes off to the navy to make his fortune with the approval of Dr. M. Impulsively before he leaves he clasps Ursule to his breast and kisses her forehead, and she lets out a scream – a delicate flower who must be approached gently. Ursule pines away for Savinien after he leaves for the military, and Dr. M. takes her to see his fleet leave for Algiers. She now occupies her time with further educating herself, presumably to be the best possible wife for Savinien. The potential heirs learn of this pledge.

Meanwhile the politics have changed in the country with the July Revolution of 1830 having deposed the king and the Liberals gaining power. Desire Minoret and 15 of his friends with Goupil at their head actually participated in the 28th of July overthrow. Desire received the Legion of Honor and was appointed Deputy to the Public Prosecutor at Fontainebleau. Goupil won the Cross of July, and the town council consists of the potential inheritors of Dr. M. M. Cremiere is the mayor.

Due to the excitement of the revolution, Dr. M. has secretly changed his investments to 545,000 francs of bearer certificates and 270,000 in funds and is yielding 15,000 francs a year in income. He also invested Ursule’s funds left by Jordy and a little of his own money in funds to give Ursule 1400 francs a year. He invests his servant La Bougival’s money prudently also to get her 350 francs a year. Curiously Dr. M. has a carriage house built and buys a carriage and horses, and even does some redecorating. The potential inheritors think he’s burning their inheritance. He’s obviously enjoying having Ursule, who is now 17, as the lady of the house and likes to give her a few luxuries.

Ursule sees Savinien at his window in his uniform and thus discovers he’s home from Algiers. In Algiers he had distinguished himself with the Cross and was offered promotion. Savinien seems to have grown up in the military – he walks like a man and seems more devoted to family. He discusses whether to stay in the military with Ursule and the doctor, and with Ursule’s innocent belief that sooner or later they will be married Savinien resigns his commission. The expectant heirs watch with concern the obviously devoted relationship of Savinien and Ursule, knowing that if they marry before the doctor dies that Ursule will indeed have some of the doctor’s fortune. The doctor would make over the loan for Savinien’s mother to Savinien and hand over to Savinien the money he has set aside for Ursule. But Savinien’s mother Madame de Portenduere remains obstinately opposed even though she grows to appreciate Ursule and her unselfish nature.

Two years pass with Ursule and Savinien in harmony, waiting for Savinien’s mother to approve their marriage. Ursule has grown elegant, a musician, educated. But the doctor is failing, and the expectants hover around awaiting his death. They can hardly be restrained from tromping over the house and skirmishing over his positions while he is on his death bed. Just before he dies, he gives Ursule a key and asks her to retrieve a letter addressed to her. He is overheard by postmaster M., who has sneaked into the house unknown to the inhabitants.

Ursule is more concerned with the doctor’s dying, and postmaster M. manages to quickly pick the lock where the letter resides without being seen. He sees that it tells Ursule where the bearer bonds are, leaves some money to his servant, and bequeaths the bonds to Savinien (to assure that Ursule can retain them.) Quickly postmaster M. burns the letter and grabs the bonds, concealing them just before the arrival of the rest of the expectants. He tells no one, not even his wife.

The expectants are just as ruthless as you’d expect: they toss Ursule out without a penny. People think it curious that the doctor left her nothing and also that he left the servant La Bougival nothing. But a thorough search of the sealed house does not bear fruit. Ursule’s friend Bongrand helps her buy a tiny house and buy back some of the doctor’s books and furniture with what little money she does have. She resides quietly with La Bougival, living frugally so that she may eventually pay off the note on her little house. She doesn’t seem concerned about being left no money, only about missing the doctor, who was everything to her.

It drives postmaster M. crazy that Ursule is still in Nemours – living close to Dr. M’s house, which he bought and lives in. Perhaps he has a sense of guilt that he stole Ursule’s money or from a fear of detection. The settlement of Dr. M’s estate has left each expectant family rich, and postmaster M. even richer with his stolen treasure.

Postmaster M. offers Goupil rich rewards if he can drive Ursule out of town. Goupil, who wants to marry Ursule, begins arranging torments for her through anonymous love letters, hiring bands to loudly serenade her at night, and suggesting anonymously that she is holding Savinien back from marrying well. Bongrand arranges for postmaster M. to buy Madame de Portenduere’s estate, which must be sold because of the mortgage now due which she cannot pay. He arranges the rents in her favor, and she ends up with enough money to live on.

But still Ursule and Savinien and his mother remain in Nemours. Ursule is faint and sick from the anonymous letters, the suggestion that Savinien needs to marry wealth, and the spectacle of the serenading bands – all arranged by Goupil, who is determined to marry her or drive her to an early death. She barely survives her mistaken notion that Savinien is going to comply with his mother’s wishes that he marry an heiress in a neighboring town.

Postmaster M. has decided with all his wealth and the addition of Madame de Portenduere’s estate to live in the country and calls off Goupil. He gives Goupil enough money to buy himself a bailiff position. Ursule is very ill, and she has won the heart of Madame de Portenduere finally through her courage through her illness. Madame de Portenduere comes to visit Ursule for the first time, perhaps to give her permission for Savinien and her to marry.

Madame de Portenduere gives her consent for Savinien to wed Ursule, and thus Ursule begins to slowly recover. Goupil, feeling cheated by Minoret as to the amount of compensation he was to receive for harassing Ursule, is also beginning also to feel guilty because he sees Ursule could die from his harassment. Goupil tells Savinien that he was the instrument of Minoret in harassing Ursule. His confession is witnessed by the Abbe and Bongrand. Savinien in a rage strikes Goupil but then restrains himself. Goupil says he will work against Minoret, even to the point of putting up a sign saying that Minoret is a thief.

Goupil follow through, and the next day there appears the sign “Minoret is a thief.” Minoret supports Goupil in buying out the notary Dionis in order to silence him. Goupil marries the unattractive but wealthy elder Mme Massin and improves his deportment.

Ursule begins having dreams of Dr. Minoret. The doctor tells her exactly how Minoret stole her money. Tormented by these dreams, Ursule tells the Abbe. The Abbe confronts Minoret, who denies all but is obviously guilty. Suspicious of her husband’s conduct, Zelie confronts him. Minoret for the first time ever beats her. Afterwards he is much altered in behavior, very subdued. Minoret goes to Ursule and offers her 12,000 francs a year if she will leave Nemours and live far away in Brittany. Bongrand is a witness to this offer and asks Minoret why he’s making the offer. Minoret says it is to keep Ursule out of the way of Desire, whom he claims is in love with her. Bongrand dashes off to Fontainebleau, where Desire holds a promising office, and confirms his suspicions that Desire is not in love with Ursule. The evidence is building that Minoret is guilty.

Ursule refuses the offer. She has another dream – this time that if Minoret does not make amends, Desire will die. The Abbe tells Minoret about the dream.

Desire writes home that Savinien has challenged him to a duel – to get back at Minoret for his harassment of Ursule. Minoret is too old to fight, so Desire must fight in his place. Zelie vows to stop the duel no matter what the cost. She forces her husband to confess the theft of Ursule’s money, and then she goes to Ursule and shows her Desire’s letter. Zelie proposes that Desire marry Ursule (would this be to keep the stolen money in the family?). Ursule refuses but promises that she will ask Savinien to call off the duel.

The Abbe decides to look at the book where Ursule dreamed the stolen bonds were hidden. He finds a series of numbers written in the book and shows them to Bongrand. Bongrand recognizes them as bond series numbers and sees that they are next in sequence to the small bonds Ursule and her maid La Bougival own. After further confirming the information, he takes his evidence to the public prosecutor. The prosecutor stops payment on the bonds and brings Zelie in for questioning. She confesses and agrees to write a letter asking her husband to give up the bonds. Desire is told all, and he and his mother travel by coach back to Nemours to ensure the restitution of the bonds is carried out. All will be kept quiet as none of the family wants publicity.

Alas Desire has a coach accident on the way home. His legs are amputated by surgery, and his life is in jeopardy. Minoret is deeply shaken. He apologizes to Ursule and says he will surrender le Rouvre (Madame de Portenduere’s former farm) and 28,000 francs a year no matter whether Desire lives or dies.

Desire dies. His mother Zelie goes mad and dies a few years later. Minoret changes his ways and becomes the most charitable and devout man in Nemours.

Madame de Portenduere goes to live at le Rouvre with La Bougival as gate keeper. Ursule’s tiny house in Nemours is given to charity. Goupil succeeds in his career but has ugly children. Savinien and Ursule finally marry and live happily ever after in Paris!


Read it here

Summarized by Pamela, August 2010

One comment on “Ursula by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    A happily ever after story – what fun! Well, at least the story ends happily for Ursule and Savinien. Saintsbury says this novel is more like English fiction of the day (Dickens comes to mind). The good are saintly, the bad are dark, and the comic are truly amusing. It’s unlike anything else Balzac wrote. Saintsbury also says “…the book, if not exactly in the first class for power, takes high rank for variety of interest and for the peculiar character of its scheme.” I’m not quite sure what Saintsbury means by ‘first class for power’ as I do think it one of Balzac’s best. Balzac complained about writing of goodness – saying that goodness has only one form, while evil has a thousand forms.


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