Balzac provides as usual a picturesque description of a little cottage, named La Grenadiere after the surrounding profuse pomegranate trees, in the country close to Tours. It is a simple country paradise of a small vineyard, fruit trees, and a beautiful view of the Loire River. In the spring of a Restoration year a Mme Willemsens rents the cottage for herself, her housekeeper, and her two children. Mme Willemsens dresses simply as if in mourning and devotes herself completely to her two sons – Louis-Gaston, 13, and Marie-Gaston, 8.
The townspeople are curious about Mme Willemsens as she keeps to herself, refuses all letters – some of which are written by local potential suitors. “It was Mme. Willemsens’ practice to throw all the letters which she received into the fire, as if she meant that the time spent in Touraine should be untroubled by any outside cares even of the slightest.” The owner of La Grenadiere reveals that the lease was signed as Augusta Willemsens, Countess of Brandon. It is obvious she is estranged from her husband and that she is ill. We never learn what her illness is as she says when Louis asks her what is the matter with her, “Something that I ought to forget; something that you must never know. – You must not know what caused my death.”
Well, we never know what causes her death either, for indeed she dies without disclosing it? A broken heart? A sexual disease? What? I don’t have a clue.
Before she dies she pays special attention to the education of Louis for she wants him to be responsible for Marie. He understands before she dies that he must assume responsibility for his brother. The mother and two children are a loving and close family, and we understand from Augusta (who is also called Marie) that these children are not her husband’s and that their father is dead. Before Augusta dies she has Louis write a letter to her husband to be posted after her death informing him of her death. She also gives him his and his brother’s birth certificates and asks for him to give them to the housekeeper (Annette) for safekeeping. Mysteriously she also gives him another birth certificate which starts with “Marie Willemsens, born at – ” which appears to be her birth certificate.
What, so her married name is not Willemsens, and she was called Marie? And what about the “Gaston” in the boys’ names – are those related to their father? We never know, and apparently Louis is not supposed to know either as she asks him to forget what he has seen in the letters and in the letter he wrote for his mother to her husband. The last sacraments are held and Augusta dies at age 36. Her grave is marked ‘an unhappy woman’ and ‘known in heaven by the name of Augusta’.
Presumably Augusta’s husband swoops down and takes everything except the money Louis’ mother gave directly to him to keep on his person. Louis goes to sea and uses the little money left by his mother for Marie’s keeping with Annette and Marie’s education. He’s had to grow up fast and become essentially Marie’s father. George Saintsbury wrote in his introduction that he had no sympathy for Augusta. I had sympathy for her and thought certain aspects of the story were charming, but ultimately it seems lacking – as if it were a story idea not fully developed.
Summarized by Pamela, November 2008