A Seaside Tragedy (Un Drame au bord de la Mer)
The Red Inn (L’Auberge Rouge)
“URSULE MIROUËT”, dedicated by Balzac to his niece Sophie Surville, and avowedly written “in the fear of the young person,” or, as the author more elegantly puts it, in “uncompromising respect of the noble principles of a pious education,” exposes itself by the very fact to two different sorts of prejudice. It is sure to be cried up by one set of judges as “wholesome,” and to be cried down by another as “goody.”
The latter charge is certainly unfair, for Balzac has by no means written the book in rose-pink and sky-blue only, nor has he been afraid to show things more or less as they are. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to admit that evidences of restraint and convention do exist. Ursule – even more than Eugénie, who becomes a person on at least two occasions, her struggle with her father, and her revanche over her cousin – is a thing of shreds and patches, an ideal being in whom that mysterious “candor,” to which the French attach such excessive value in a girl, and which they make such haste to do away with altogether in a woman, seems to shut out all positive individuality. She is very nice; but she is not very human.
Nor can the machinery of dreams, hypnotism, Swedenborgianism, and what not, which Balzac, following out one of his well-known manias, chose to work into the book, be said to add very largely to its verisimilitude. It contrasts too sharply with the extremely prosaic, if not always very probable, details of Minoret-Levrault’s theft of the will, and of the jealousy of the heirs, which it is interesting to contrast with Dickens’ management of the same subject in Great Expectations. How far this combination is artistically possible or advisable is a question of abstract criticism into which we need not enter. I think it does not require much argument to prove that Balzac has not, as a matter of fact, quite shown the possibility or the desirableness here. I do not know in the work of a man of genius a more striking instance of the wisdom of the principle, Nec Deus intersit, to which, in our day, Horace would certainly have given the form, “Keep the supernatural in fiction out, unless you can’t manage with the natural.”
However, even this may be a question of opinion; and it is at least wroth while to point out that in this book Balzac has anticipated, very curiously and interestingly, a large class of English fiction of a later day, which, in its turn, has been imitated in France. The whole scheme, indeed, of Ursule Mirouët, by no means owing only to its respect of the young person, though doubtless partly owing to this, is far more that of an English novel than of a French. The absence of the usual “triangle,” and of all courtship of married women, together with the difficulty (which a Frenchman even now, to some extent, experiences, and experienced much more in Balzac’s days), of making very much of “honest” love-scenes between man and maid, put Balzac’s always fertile invention upon hunting out and setting to work other sources of interest, which, with the possible exception of the dream-and-vision part of the book, he has, as a rule, engineered very happily. Even the love affair between Ursule and Savinien de Portenduère is not to be contemptuously spoken of; and the figure of Savinien is very pleasantly touched. It is to be noted that even Balzac’s favorite heroes of unprincipled convention – Marsay, Rastignac, and the rest – exhibit themselves less theatrically in their dealings with the youthful Vicomte than in almost any other of their numerous appearances. Marsay’s theory of debt may be amusingly and advantageously contrasted with the opposite, but in a certain sense complementary, remarks of George Warrington on the same subject in Pendennis. Madame de Portenduère, too, is good, and not overdone.
On the cabals against Ursule opinions may perhaps differ. It is not easy to say that anything is improbable in the case of a stupid malefactor like Minoret-Levrault; and odisse quem loeseris is an eternal verity. Still, one would rather have been inclined to suppose that the postmaster, having been so completely successful in his theft, would instinctively feel that it was wiser to let Ursule alone. The malignity of Goupil, too, seems a little overdone, and the whole character of this agreeable lawyer’s clerk again presents mutatis mutandis something of the eccentric extravagance of Dickens between whom and Balzac the parallel is perpetually fascinating, because of its constant intermixture of likenesses and contrasts.
But the comic personages generally must be said to be very good. They are not overdone, as the great English novelist just referred to would probably have overdone them; indeed, Balzac has been distinctly sober and sparing in the delineation of their “humors.” Dickens certainly, and most English novelists probably, would have been tempted to bring much more to the front poor Madame Crémière’s linguistic peculiarities. These would remind everybody of Mrs. Malaprop, though they are more like a historical but much less famous example, the “Lingo Grande,” which Southey in divers letters to Grosvenor Bedford puts into the mouth of his sister-in-law Mrs. Coleridge. The doctor, the magistrate, the curé, the procureur du roi, and all the powers that be play their parts well, and more than a mere good word is deserved by Désiré Minoret, to whom Balzac has been rather cruel.
The doctor himself is a more problematical character. His conversion smacks a little of the stage; and it certainly might seem that such an experienced personage, well aware of the ferocity of the fortune-hunters who surrounded him, would have taken rather more pains to put the future of Ursule out of danger by lodging a duplicate will somewhere, or availing himself of some of the devices in which French law, even under the Code Napoleon, is nearly as fertile as English. But the testamentary unreason of mankind is a sufficiently well-authenticated fact to justify Balzac.
Altogether, 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. It has no duplicate in its author’s work, and we could not spare it. Ursule Mirouët first appeared in a newspaper, Le Messager, in the issues of August 25 to September 23 inclusive; and when next year it was published in two volumes by Souverain, it had, as it had in the periodical, twenty-one chapters with headings. Yet another year, and it lost these chapters, and all divisions except the two part-headings of “Les Héritiers Alarmés” and “La Succession Minoret,” and took place in the third edition of the Sceèes de la Vie de Province and the first of the Comédie generally.
The story of Massimilla Doni, included here for convenience, contrasts sharply with Ursule Mirouët both in sentiment and method of handling. In Massimilla the reader is plunged suddenly into Italian thought, and life, and license – as Balzac saw them. One must remember, however, that Balzac had his own pet theories relative to this land; for him it was always veiled in a species of enchantment and ideality. For him, too, the love of music and painting, though untutored, reached a devotion almost awe. These shrines of art received their incense often in the varied scenes of the Comédie, but nowhere does music sway more absolutely than in this sketch of Massimilla Doni and the kindred sketch of Gambara. Despite this fact, or perhaps on account of it, the stories are not distinctly successful. Musically speaking, the technique is not good; the art degenerates into “caprice;” while the rest “approaches a ‘cochonerie.'” The lugging in of the muse to form the basis of a tragic element may be only a hidden sarcasm, but Balzac introduces it with every evidence of sincerity, and even freights it with philosophy. The effect is not attractive either as “eu divin or feu d’enfer. For the rest, Massimilla Doni is relieved by some clever touches.
The other two stories are from the Marana group, which includes some of the best of Balzac’s short stories. Un Drame au bord de la Mer may be spoken of as an anecdote rather than a story. The climax is more important than the thread of the narrative. It easily kept place with its early companions in this group. L’Auberge Rouge may not be admired so much. It has interest; and it may be observed that as indicating the origin of Taillefer’s wealth, it connects itself with the general scheme of the Comédie as few of the others do. But it is an attempt, like one or two others of Balzac’s, at a style very popular in 1830, a sort of combination of humor and terror, of Sterne and Monk Lewis, which is a little doubtful in itself, which has very rarely been done well, and for which Balzac was not completely equipped.
Massimilla Doni first appeared (barring an earlier fragment) in 1839 as a book with Une Fille d’Eve. In 1846 it took its place in the Comédie. It was included, in 1849, in a volume entitled Le Livre des douleurs, with Gambara, Séraphita, and Les Proscrits. Un Drame au bord de la Mere appeared nowhere except in book form with its companions of the Marana group, which was included in the fourth edition of the Etudes philosophiques, 1835-1837. But in 1843 it left them, though not permanently, and accompanied La Muse du Departement, Albert Savarus, and Facino Cane, with the title of La Justice Paternelle. L’Auberge Rouge appeared in the Revue de Paris, August 1831, before its incorporation nto the Marana series.
From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.