The Country Parson by Honoré de Balzac

Le Curé de Village
The Country Parson

Also translated as The Village Rector

The Country Parson opens with a picturesque portrait of the house in Limoges which became the Sauviat shop and home. Jerome-Baptiste Sauviat is an Auvergnat peddlar specializing in metal. In 1797, at around age fifty and tired of travelling, he married the daughter of a coppersmith named Champagnac. Madame Sauviat, also from Auvergne, was around thirty at the time of their marriage. Both were rough and strong. Though neither could read, when it came to business, both were excellent in arithmetic. Both were religious and freely gave to the parish though they were extremely frugal in their daily living.

Veronique was born in May, 1802. This beautiful little girl, the delight and joy of her parents, was called “the Little Virgin”. She was educated by a Gray Sister who was also an Auvergnate. At age eleven, Veronique contracted smallpox and for two months her life hung in the balance, only being saved by diligent nursing and care. Her looks were ravaged but not her grace.

When Veronique was about fifteen, she read to her parents in the evenings from Vie des Saints, Lettres edifiantes or other books lent by the curate of Saint-Etienne. When she was sixteen, Veronique took a fancy to an edition of Paul et Virginie by Bernardin de Sainte-Pierre and it changed her life. She now dreamed of romance, love and a young man like Paul.

In December 1822, the curate told Sauviat that he should think of marrying Veronique. Her father immediately thought of Pierre Graslin, a self-made, frugal Auvergnat who was now a wealthy banker. He is also considerably older than Veronique and very unappealing in looks, being described at length as looking like “a antique satyr”. Veronique is horrified when he is introduced to her. But when Graslin says that when he has a wife to take care of him, he’ll look a different man, Veronique remembers her own smallpox-scarred face and when Graslin sends her flowers, her impression of him is softened.

Sauviat sold the business and house and moved near Veronique’s new home. After his death, Mme Sauviat gave his estate to the Graslins in exchange for a monthly allowance of two hundred francs. The mother and daughter visited daily.

Graslin’s generosity continued during the first year of the marriage. Veronique, despondent at realizing she did not love her husband, took her religious duties even more seriously than before. She lived in her books which she read daily and found society boring and tedious. Her friend at this time was old Grossetete whose intelligence brought forth “all the treasures of her soul”.

At the end of three years, Grasslin became miserly again and cut back on expenses. He moved to the ground floor and devoted himself to business. This arrangement suited Veronique except for the fact that she had hoped to become a mother.

The local Abbes were regular visitors at Veronique’s house, bringing her reports of need in the area. Meanwhile her husband grew angry at her generosity and became more vigilant in his miserly ways. By 1828, there were no luxuries at the Hotel Graslin and this wealthy woman had no money to call her own.

A new deputy public prosecutor arrived at the end of 1828, “preceded by the ready-made reputation which awaits a Parisian on his arrival in the provinces.” When the Vicomte de Granville discovered that Veronique was the only woman in town with whom he could converse intelligently, he suggested that the nightly whist games take place in her drawing-room. The success of her salon caused jealousy among the other women of Limoges. Happiness improved Veronique’s appearance and it was said she was in love with M de Granville.

Graslin became worried about his health and returned to his wife’s rooms. Veronique became pregnant.

A miser named Pingret who lived alone in an isolated area has been murdered, apparently when he discovered a thief. Pingret’s one servant, Jeanne Malassis, was also murdered when she tried to come to his aid.

Meanwhile, Veronique has been remaining in her room, her fancies attributed to her pregnancy. She receives visitors in her bedroom. One evening, the Vicomte de Granville announces that the murderer, Jean-Francois Tascheron, has been caught. Madame Suviat, noticing Veronique is “as white as the sheets”, says she is not well enough to hear about it. A few evenings later, Veronique insists on hearing the details.

Jean-Francois Tascheron was the son of a farmer in Montegnac. The district had a very bad reputation until the arrival of a priest named Bonnet. The Tascherons were almost the only upstanding family in the town. Jean-Francois moved to Limoges to work and had an excellent reputation. His landlady mentioned that he had changed about a year prior to the murders and often stayed out all night. Tascheron was arrested as he was departing for America and this weighed heavily against him. It was decided that his motive must have been a grand passion, probably for an upper-class married woman.

The trial is a sensation and the talk of the town. Between Granville and her husband, who is on the jury, Veronique is kept up to date. She pleads to her guests that the criminal should not be put to death as “he would perhaps expiate his sins by some magnificent repentance.” Granville tells her there is no hope and the next morning, Veronique is much worse. When Granville stops by on his way to court, Veronique actually bargains with him for Tascheron’s life. She tells Granville that the day Tascheron is condemned to death will be the same day she is to give birth.

Veronique also hinted a ploy to her husband with which he swayed the jury, telling them, “If we spare the man’s life, the des Vanneaulx will recover Pingret’s money.” Seven jurors voted for acquittal, but since it was not unanimous, it was up to the court to decide. Tascheron burst out wildly upon hearing a guilty verdict.

Abbe Dutil consults with the Bishop and Gabriel de Rastignac (Eugene’s brother), the Bishop’s secretary, is dispatched to Montegnac to see M Bonnet, the curate of the village.

Montegnac sits at the foot of a hill. Just past the town is the great Forest of Montegnac and the Correze mountains. The parsonage is sturdy, but forlorn-looking. Poverty is evident at the church also, but it is clean and well-kept.

The Tascherons, being an honorable family, felt they could no longer remain in Montegnac. When told that the Bishop requests his attendance on the condemned man, M Bonnet says the Bishop has required his death as he will not be able to survive the interview and aftermath. He agrees to go and M Tascheron reluctantly allows his wife and Denise to accompany him.

In the carriage on the way to Limoges, M Bonnet relates to Gabriel how he was unable to work for his domineering father and joined the Church to escape and be a “tower of strength” to his family if necessary. He forgave his father when he discovered his destiny and vocation.

When his visitors arrive, they find Jean-Francois Tascheron confined in a strait-jacket and constantly spied upon in hope of obtaining a clue about his accomplice and the stolen money. M Bonnet is able to have the restraints removed.

Around midnight, M Bonnet arrives at the Bishop’s and tells the assembled company that he insisted on the restitution of the money before considering the prisoner’s repentance complete. He assures them it will be made although he knows not how or when.

The next day, Jean-Francois was executed and M Bonnet fell unconscious at the foot of the scaffold.

The following evening, Denise and Louis-Marie Tascheron arrange to meet their father and the rest of the family at Havre and they go to Limoges. The next afternoon, they meet with M Bonnet who accompanies them to the lawyer’s house. Denise offers the lawyer one thousand francs, which he doesn’t want to accept and eventually gives half to M Bonnet. The lawyer whispers to Denise to be careful of spies.

At the Bishop’s dinner-party that night, the public prosecutor spots a fire on the island in the middle of the Vienne River. He goes back inside, whispers to M de Granville and the two rush out. By the time the authorities arrived, Louis-Marie had retrieved four bundles of gold from the river and Denise had burned three of the wrappings. They snatched the fourth wrapping from her–it was a handkerchief which had belonged to Jean-Francois. When asked, Denise said the other three wrappings were a bandana handkerchief, a lawn handkerchief and a shawl. The fact of a shawl being one of the wrappings convinces everyone that a love affair was the cause of the crime.

About the time Mme Grasslin recovers from childbirth, her husband mentions that the Navarreins family house, surrounding land and the forest of Montegnac are for sale. She urges him to purchase them with the marriage settlement funds. M Bonnet tells Veronique of the good a resident landowner could do in Montegnac.

Grasslin purchases the property and immediately begins restoration but suffers financially in the commercial and financial disasters of 1830 and dies in April 1831. Grossetete takes charge of the liquidation, saving the name of Grasslin and leaving Veronique and her son financially secure. De Granville proposes marriage but Veronique refuses him, using the Church as an excuse.

As Veronique and her mother leave Limoges for their new home, Abbe Dutheil, now a bishop, realizes that Veronique hates De Granville. When the carriage nears the chateau, M Bonnet points out the road which the parishioners prepared as homage to the new lady of the manor. She is given a grand welcome with flowers and fruit. Her late husband Graslin had spent five hundred thousand francs on “Graslin’s folly”, helping the local economy and spurring growth. At the chateau, Veronique faints when she realizes the churchyard and cemetery are before her very eyes. Veronique’s mother says her daughter is suffering from severe melancholy.

M Bonnet, visits Veronique daily. One day he suggests they walk and mentions improvements which would be a legacy of pride for her grandson. Veronique begins to ride out daily with her groom and forester to familarize herself with the land. In November, while she is on the summit of Roche-Vive, a stranger warns her not to remain longer or she will risk getting lost in the dark. There is also danger from the deadly cold of the peak which has caused many deaths. Farrabesche gives his name and quickly vanishes when he discovers she is Madame Graslin. Returning to her groom and forester, Veronique is told that Farrabesche is a murderer and hears his story. His two brothers died in the army and when he was conscripted, he ran away and joined some chauffeurs. It is said that he killed some soldiers and gendarmes. He served time and is now out on parole because of Bonnet who has completely rehabilitated him. He looks after the forest on an unofficial basis.

Farraesche’s son, who is about fifteen, lives with him. Farrabesche never married the mother as he would have been captured and she (Catherine Curieux) left for Paris; no one knows what happened to her.

The next day Veronique has her groom show her Farrabesche’s dwelling. The home and surrounding land are well cared for. The boy, Benjamin, is attractive and resembles his father physically and in dress. Veronique tells Farrabesche she will have inquiries made about Catherine. She decides to hire Farrabesche as her steward and have his parole restrictions removed. They discuss the water problem of the barren area. Farrabesche is very knowledgable about the lay of the land.

Farrabesche relates his life as a prisoner to Veronique. He was always chained to other prisoners, even at night and they ate out of a trough. His last companion was a twenty-two year old soldier named Guepin who had stolen something. They were together for four years and Farrabesche plans to send for Guepin when he is released as he is a good man and a hard worker. Farrabesche loves the rector Bonnet and gives him full credit for saving his life.

Veronique receives a letter from M Grossetete saying he has found an engineer for her named Gregoire Gerard. Grossetete encloses Gerard’s letter to him which details his academic career and how he made himself ill with study. Gerard went on to relate how he was disillusioned. He had been sent out as a surveyor, but there was really no engineering involved. His engineer-in-chief has stagnated. When blunders of the top men are noticed, they are merely gotten out of the way by being made inspectors. He would like to go to another country where his knowledge would be useful or even work for a small wage at a commercial firm while trying to solve some of the problems faced by industry and society.

In December, M Grossetete personally brings Gerard to Veronique and M Bonnet. He also brings papers stating that Farrabesche’s full rights as a citizen are restored and news that Catherine has been found, is in hospital now and will arrive in three months.

Veronique has Farrabesche accompany Gerard about the area. They estimate at least two hundred thousand francs for the project and Grossetet enables her to obtain a loan for a quarter of a million francs using the interest on her funds as security. Gerard, Grossetete and others purchase nearby land.

In April, 1832, Grossetet arrives to see his land, but really to escort Catherine to Montegnac. Veronique privately asks Catherine if she still loves Farrabesche. Catherine replies yes, but she is unable to read or write and was busy nursing an old lady who was ill when he was released and then fell ill herself. Benjamin arrives and has a joyous reunion with his mother and rushes off to find his father.

The entire village has turned out to see the first day of work on the dam project. Almost one hundred locals including women and children are digging holes, planting trees and piling up stones. Farrabesche and Catherine come to Veronique and say they appreciate her offer of the Home Farm, but are afraid that there will be jealousy and talk. They would rather have a small piece near the Gabou.

In 1838, “the stony plain, regarded as hopelessly barren by twenty generations, was verdant, productive, and well planted throughout.” The mayor retired, recommending that Gerard fulfill that office.

In 1840, Veronique wanted a tutor for her son Francis who was now eleven. Monseigneur Dutheil, now an archbishop, recommended a personable young professor of twenty-five. Ruffin fit in with the circle of friends.

By 1843, the loan has been repaid and Gerard has plans to turn the little river into a canal and connect it with the Vienne. This will provide transportation for timber and enable a thousand acres of the twenty thousand acre Forest of Montegnac to be harvested each year. This was M Graslin’s original plan.

There have long been secret allusions to Veronique’s health and her asture diet. Now in 1844, her friends see warning signs of her death.

Gerard planned a seven year project to enclose the entire forest of Montegnac so the government cannot claim the dues of unenclosed woods. Each of the three ponds, which the residents call lakes, has an island. Gerard had a summer-house/hermitage built on the largest as a surprise for Veronique’s birthday. Grossetete sent furniture for it. One day in May, her friends show the improved park and the dairy chalet to Veronique before rowing her out to the summer-house where the Grossetete party is waiting.

As the delightful day progresses, Veronique misses Francis and, going in search of him, finds him talking with a woman in mourning. Calling Francis to her, she asks what the lady said to him. Francis replies that she didn’t speak French and the only thing he understood was “My dear brother!” Veronique collapses and Gerard says he is afraid she has received a fatal wound in the heart.

A few days later, Catherine arrives and tells Veronique that when the stranger heard Veronique was ill, she asked to speak with Madame Sauviat. That evening Madame Sauviat helps her daughter go to the meeting at the chalet. While waiting inside, Veronique hears Monsieur Bonnet talking with Denise, Tascheron’s sister, who says she couldn’t stay another day in New York or the United States. Her father founded a town in Ohio and prospered but her mother died of grief. She meant no harm to Veronique. She only wishes to pray on her brother’s grave and then she will go. Veronique appears, calling to her not to go, and they leave together.

Veronique returned alone and was taken to bed where she grew worse daily. One day in June, she makes a supreme effort and goes to the chalet. She asks Gerard to row her to the summer-house and, on the way, tells him she has a bride for him. Denise has been living in the summer-house in secret with the aid of Catherine. Veronique tells them that Gerard will be her son’s guardian and the couple will live in the chateau with Francis until he is of age. She then leaves them alone to become acquainted.

As Gerard is taking Veronique home, she tells him that Denise is the sister of a man who was hanged. He remarks, “Ah! Tascheron, the murderer of old Pingret.” Gerard tells Veronique that he will still marry Denise.

Back at the chateau, Madame Sauviat weeps as she watches Veronique walk along the terrace and look out over the land. She tells Ruffin that Veronique only eats dry bread and plain vegetables as penance.

Veronique kisses her son and tells him that he must go on with her work when he is grown.

Roubaud returns from Paris with Horace Bianchon. Also in the coach are Grossetete, Archbishop Dutheil and the public prosecutor, Monsieur de Granville, whom Grossetete had previously kept from visiting. Bonnet advises Veronique to be kind to Granville and to lay aside her anger. When Roubaud announces that the end is near, Bonnet rushes to the church for prayers. The tolling of the bells brings the entire village to the service.

It is revealed that Veronique literally wore a hair shirt for fifteen years. At midnight, she asks for Archbishop Dutheil and Monsieur Bonnet. Veronique talks about how Tascheron is reviled and she is praised but most of the blame is hers. She tells them she wants to confess publicly.

The next morning, the clergy and the household are with Veronique. Her trusted friends are clustered around the door and past them, in the hall, are nearly all the villagers. Denise, in her foreign clothing, is unrecognizable except to Granville, who now begins to suspect the truth.

Veronique begins her public confession with the words that Tascheron is not as guilty as believed. They were tired of the deceit in which they lived and he only stole so she would be as little humiliated as possible. She knew nothing of the crime until it was being done. When she heard cries inside the house and entered, Tascheron was in a fit of madness. She feels he would have fled when the theft went awry and only murdered because she was nearby. Veronique cries, “Oh, heap all your reproaches upon me!” and Denise faints.

Veronique now requests that Francis be brought in and dies as she lays her hands on his head in blessing. Madame Sauviat closes and kisses her daughter’s eyes. Veronique was buried two days later beside Jean-Francois Tascheron at her mother’s request.

Veronique’s confession had not been heard in the hall, but was only audible to the household and the friends in the doorway. The words “She is a saint!” were repeated everywhere. Her will provided for the foundation of many charities.

Read it here

Summarized by Dagny, April — May 2011

2 comments on “The Country Parson by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    I would have named this work “Veronique” as her life and works are the focus of the piece. Saintsbury mentions that the work was developed in segments over several years and thus he finds it disjointed at times. I found it intriguing and a great story of penance and good works. I concede that, as if often the case with Balzac, he fills the story line with so many characters and incidents that it can be confusing – he can’t stop at Veronique’s improvements of Tasheron’s countryside and family but must pull in rehabilitation of various other characters, etc. And perhaps Veronique’s hair shirt was a bit much. I do wonder if she had confessed before Tasheron’s death if she could have saved him – maybe that failure on her part did deserve quite a penance. But how pleasant was the story of good works and the improvements for the poor.

    Like

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