Saintsbury Introduction, Volume III – Part I

Eugenie Grandet (Eugénie Grandet)
A Study of Woman (Étude de femme)
Another Study of Woman (Autre Étude de femme)
La Grande Breteche (La Grande Bretêche)
Domestic Peace (La Paix du Ménage)
The Imaginary Mistress (La Fausse Maîtresse)

With Eugénie Grandet as with one or two, but only one or two, others of Balzac’s works, we come to a case of Quis vituperavit? Here, and perhaps here only, with Le Médecin de Campagne and Le Père Goriot, though there may be carpers and depreciators, there are no open deniers of the merit of the work. The pathos of Eugénie, the mastery of Grandet, the success of the minor characters, especially Nanon, are universally recognized. The importance of the work has sometimes been slightly questioned even by those who admit its beauty: but this questioning can only support itself on the unavowed but frequently present conviction or suspicion that a “good” or “goody” book must be a weak one. As a matter of fact, no book can be, or can be asked to be, better than perfect on its own scheme, and with its own conditions. And on its own scheme and with its own conditions Eugénie Grandet is very nearly perfect.

On the character of the heroine will turn the final decision whether, as has been said by some (I believe I might be charged with having said it myself), Balzac’s virtuous characters are always more theatrical than real. The decision must take in the Benassis of  Le Médecin de Campagne, but with him it will have less difficulty; for Benassis, despite the beauty and pathos of his confession, is a little “a person of the boards” in his unfailingly providential character and his complete devotion to others. Must Eugénie, his feminine companion in goodness, be put on these boards likewise?

I admit that of late years, and more particularly since the undertaking of this present task made necessary to me a more complete and methodical study of the whole works, including the most miscellaneous miscellanies, than I had previously given, my estimate of Balzac’s goodness has gone up very much – that of his greatness had no need of rising. But I still think that even about Eugénie there is a very little unreality, a slight touch of that ignorance of the actual nature of girls which even fervent admirers of French novelists in general, and of Balzac in particular, have confessed to finding in them and him. That Eugénie should be entirely subjugated first by the splendor, and then by the misfortune, of her Parisian cousin, is not in the least unnatural; nor do I for one moment pretend to deny the possibility or the likelihood of her having

lifted up her eyes,
And loved him with that love which was her doom.

It is also difficult to make too much allowance for the fatal effect of an education under an insignificant if amiable mother and a tyrannical father, and of a confinement to an excessively small circle of extremely provincial society, on a disposition of more nobility than intellectual height or range. Still it must, I think, be permitted to the  advocatus diaboli to urge that Eugenie’s martyrdom is almost too thorough; that though complete, it is not, as Gautier said of his own ill luck, “artistement complet”; that though it may be difficult to put the finger on any special blot, to say, “Here the girl should have revolted,” or “Here she would have behaved in some other way differently;” still there is a vague sense of incomplete lifelikeness – of that tendency to mirage and exaggeration which has been, and will be, so often noticed.

Still it is vague and not unpleasantly obtrusive, and in all other ways Eugénie is a triumph. It is noticeable that her creator has dwelt on the actual traits of her face with much more distinctness than is usual with him; for Balzac’s extraordinary minuteness in many ways does not invariably extend to physical charms. This minuteness is indeed so great that one has a certain suspicion of the head being taken from a live and special original. Nor is her physical presence – abominably libeled, there is no doubt, by Mme. des Grassins – the only distinct thing about Eugénie. We see her hovering about the beau cousin with innocent officiousness capable of committing no less the major crime of lending him money than the minor, but even more audacious, because open, one of letting him have sugar. She is perfectly natural in the courage with which she bears her father’s unjust rage, and in the forgiveness which, quite as a matter of course, she extends to him after he has broken her own peace and her mother’s heart. It is perhaps necessary to be French to comprehend entirely why she could not heap that magnificent pile of coals of fire on her unworthy cousin’s head without flinging herself and her seventeen millions into the arms of somebody else; but the thing can be accepted if not quite understood. And the whole transaction of this heaping is admirable.

If the criticism be not thought something of a super-subtlety, it may perhaps be suggested that the inferiority which has generally been acknowledged in the lover is a confession or indication that there is something very slightly wrong with the scheme of Eugénie herself – that if she had been absolutely natural, it would not have been necessary to make Charles not merely a thankless brute, but a heedless fool. However great a scoundrel the ex-slave-trader may have been (and as presented to us earlier he does not seem so much scoundrelly as shallow), his respectable occupation must have made him a smart man of business; and as such, before burning his boats by such a letter as he writes, he might surely have found out how the land lay. But this does not matter much.

Nanon is, of course, quite excellent. She is not stupid, as her kind are supposed to be; she is only blindly faithful, as well as thoroughly good-hearted. Nor is the unfortunate Madame Grandet an idiot, nor are any of the comparses  mere dummies. But naturally they all, even Eugenie herself to some extent, serve mainly as set-offs to the terrible Grandet. In him Balzac, a Frenchman of Frenchmen, has boldly depicted perhaps the worst and the commonest vice of the French character, the vice which is more common, and certainly worse than either frivolity or the license with which the nation is usually charged – the pushing, to wit, of thrift to the loathsome excess of an inhuman avarice. But he has justified himself to his country by communicating to his hero an unquestioned grandeur. The mirage works again, but it works with splendid effect. One need not be a sentimentalist to shudder a little at the ta ta ta ta of Grandet, the refrain of a money-grubbing which almost escapes greediness by its diabolical extravagance and success.

The bibliography of Eugénie Grandet is not complicated. Balzac tried the first chapter (there were originally seven) in L’Europe Littéraire for September 19, 1833; but he did not continue it there, and it appeared complete in the first volume of Scénes de la Vie de Province next year. Charpentier republished it in a single volume in 1839. The Comédie engulfed it in 1843, the chapter divisions then disappearing.

________________________

There is a good deal of inequality in the shorter stories appended in this volume, since they contain work conceived in very different manners and executed at very different times.

The story which used to come first,  La Paix du Ménage, is scarcely worthy of precedence, save as eldest. It belongs to the time when Balzac, though he had found his way, was not yet walking surely in it; and besides, it belongs to a class of work which, though he continued to practise in it almost to the end, never was his happiest class. The attraction which these stories of family broils and rearrangements in “high life” had for Balzac must always be rather inexplicable, except to those who are complaisant enough to allow him the knowledge of that high life which, though constantly contested by some of the best authorities, though more than dubious to impartial critics, is a sort of religion to extreme Balzacians. In this particular case, too, the intrigue is of scanty interest, and requires a lighter and more airy handling than Balzac could often – perhaps than he could ever – give. The fact is that he was too conscientious for this sort of thing, which in the hands of “Gyp” would have been as thoroughly at home as it is out of place in his.

La Fausse Maîtresse is of very different value. It may indeed be called somewhat fantastic, and the final trait, whether false or not to nature, will provoke some critics. But the devotion of Paz is exactly one of those things which suited Balzac best, and which he could handle most effectively. And perhaps the irony is not too severe, though it represents his idol, after having been the object of such a love as his, on the point of surrendering to a worthless poseur like La Palférine, whom, it may be observed in passing, Balzac never brings on the scene except with the result, whether by deliberate purpose or not, of dealing a covert blow at the weakness of women and their proneness to low ideals. It ought, however, to be said in fairness that he seems to have had a sort of admiration for this raff of a Rusticoli himself. Clémentine, despite her lack of steadiness, is not one of his most iconoclastic sketches; and Laginski, though somewhat doubling the notion of Polish foible – afterwards again conveyed in Wenceslas Steinbock, and whether from this cause or some other established to the present day as a tradition in France – has distinct merits and attractions.

The two Études de femme, to which La Grande Bretêche is an appendix, rise gradually from an ordinary to an extraordinary level. The adventure of Madame de Listomère and Rastignac is slight but good; and one rather wishes that Balzac had oftener confined sketches of the sort to limits so suitable for a sketch. The false prude comes out with remarkable success; and if Rastignac does not cut so good a figure in point of cleverness as in some others of his numerous appearances, he is more natural than in some of them.

The stories of the Autre Étude are called in the Répertoire of MM. Christophe and Cerfberrd’exquises causeries“. It is not certain that all readers will acquiesce in this epithet, which is used several times in the piece by Balzac himself, though I do not remember that the combination of it with  causerie is textual. In the first place, the discourses of Marsay and Blondet might be called by unfriendly critics rather sermons than causeries. In the second, though Marsay is rather less of a “tiger” than in some of his other performances, the coxcombry of the exhibition exceeds its charm, while Blondet’s discussion of womankind has the unreality of all these discussions. Montriveau’s story is considerably better than either of these; and it  leads up very well to La Grande Bretêche.

This latter is one of the best known of Balzac’s short stories, and may rank among the half-dozen best of all. Contrary to a habit which, though not invariable, is too common with him, he is not long in “getting under way,” and he does not waste a single stroke in drawing the actual catastrophe. Bianchon, who generally has a good part assigned him, is here unusually lucky. Indeed, the piece is so short and so good, that critical dwelling on it is almost an impertinence.

It should, perhaps, be observed that Mademoiselle des Touches, the hostess of whose table three of the stories of this volume were told, and who figures elsewhere, especially in Béatrix, is one of the not very numerous personages of the Comédie who are undoubtedly drawn from a distinguished living original – in this case George Sand. I must refer to the Introduction to Béatrix itself for more about her, it being desirable not to “double” in these short prefaces.

La Paix du Ménage formed part of the Scènes de la Vie Privée from their first appearance in 1830, and entered with the rest into the Comédie. Then, and then only, was the dedication to Valentine Surville, Balzac’s niece, added. At this latter period La Fausse Maîtresse made its first appearance in the same division, having been just before (December 1841) printed serially in the Siècle with five chapters, while in the first volume issue it had ten. The first Étude de femme came out in La Mode in March 1830, next year at the end of the Peau de Chagrin, in 1835 (with a new title, Profil de Marquise) in the Scènes de la Vie Parisienne, and when the Comédie was collected, in its actual position and with its actual title. The bibliography of the next two stories is so complicated that it occupies fourteen of M. de Lovenjoul’s pages, and that I despair of presenting any acceptable abstract of it in a small space. Balzac seems to have reserved them for the most exemplary victims of his mania for re-handling. He changed their titles; he took from them and inserted in them passages and episodes afterwards removed elsewhere or omitted altogether; he published them in a dozen different places, connections, and forms.

George Saintsbury

From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.

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