At the Sign of the Cat and Racket (La Maison du Chat-qui-Pelote)
The Ball at Sceaux (Le Bal de Sceaux)
The Purse (La Bourse)
The Celibates: Pierrette (Les Célibataires: Pierrette)
The Celibates: The Vicar of Tours (Les Célibataires: Le Curé de Tours)
In the very interesting preface, dated July 1842, which Balzac prefixed to the first collection of the Comédie Humaine, he endeavors, naturally enough, to represent the division into Scènes de la Vie Parisienne, etc., as a rational and reasoned one. Although not quite arbitrary, it was of course to a great extent determined by considerations which were not those of design; and we did not require the positive testimony which we find in the Letters to tell us that in the author’s view, as well as in our own, not a few of the stories might have been shifted over from one division to another, and have filled their place just as well in the other as in the one
La Maison du Chat-qui-Pelote, however, which originally bore the much less happy title of “Gloire et Malheur,” was a Scène de la Vie Privée from the first, and it bears out better than some of its companions its author’s expressed intention of making these “scenes” represent youth, whether Parisian or Provincial. Few of Balzac’s stories have united the general suffrage for touching grace more than this; and there are few better examples of his minute Dutch-painting than the opening passages, or of his unconquerable delight in the details of business than his sketch of Monsieur Guillaume’s establishment and its ways. The French equivalent of the “Complete Tradesman” of Defoe lasted much longer than his English counterpart; but, except in the smaller provincial towns, he is said to be uncommon now. As for the plot, if such a stately name can be given to so delicate a sketch, it is of course open to downright British judgment to pronounce the self-sacrifice of Lebas more ignoble than touching, the conduct of Théodore too childish to deserve the excuses sometimes possible for passionate inconstancy, and the character of Augustine angelically idiotic. This last outrage, if it were committed, would indeed only be an instance of the irreconcilable difference which almost to the present day divides English and French ideas of ideally perfect girlhood, and of that state of womanhood which corresponds thereto. The candeur adorable which the Frenchman adores and exhibits in the girl; the uncompromising, though mortal, passion of the woman; are too different from any ideal that we have entertained, except for a very short period in the eighteenth century. But there are few more pathetic and charming impersonations of this other ideal than Augustine de Sommervieux.
All the stories associated with La Maison du Chat-qui-Pelote, according to French standards – all, perhaps, according to all but the very strictest and oldest-fashioned of English – are perfectly free from the slightest objection on the score of that propriety against which Balzac has an amusing if not quite exact tirade in one of his books. And this is evidently not accidental, for the preface above referred to is an elaborate attempt to rebut the charge of impropriety, and to show that the author could draw virtuous as well as unvirtuous characters. But they are not, taking them as a whole, and omitting the “Cat and Racket” itself, quite examples of putting the best foot foremost. Le Bal de Sceaux with its satire on contempt for trade, is in some ways more like Balzac’s young friend and pupil Charles de Bernard than like himself; and I believe it attracted English notice pretty early. At least I seem, when quite a boy, and long before I read the Comédie Humaine, to have seen an English version or paraphrase of it. La Bourse, though agreeable, is a little slight. I should rank Madame Firmiani a good deal higher than these two, though it also is a little slight, and though it is not in Balzac’s most characteristic or important manner. Rather, perhaps, does it remind us of the “Physiologies” and the other social “skits” and sketches which he was writing for the Caricature and other papers at the time. Still, the various descriptions of the heroine have a point and sparkle which are almost peculiar to the not quite mature work of men of genius; and the actual story has a lightness which, perhaps, would have disappeared if Balzac had handled it at greater length.
As for bibliography, La Maison du Chat-qui-Pelote, under the title above referred to, saw the light first with other Scènes de la Vie Privée in 1830. But it was not dated as of the previous year till five years later, in its third edition; while the title was not changed till the great collection itself. Of its companions, Le Bal de Sceaux was an original one, and seems to have been written as well as published more or less at the same time. It at first had an alternative title, Ou le Pair de France, which was afterwards dropped.
La Bourse was early, but not quite so early as these. It appeared in, and was apparently written for, the second edition of the Scènes de la Vie Privée, published in May 1832. In 1835 it was moved over to the Scenes de la Vie Parisienne, between which and the Vie Privée there is in fact a good deal of cross and arbitrary division. But when the full Comédie took shape it moved back again. La Vendetta, which belongs with this group of stories, has been reserved for a later volume.
Madame Firmiani was first published in the Revue de Paris for February 1832; then became a Conte Philosophique, and still in the same year a Scène de la Vie Parisienne. It was in the 1842 collection that it took up its abode in the Scènes de la Vie Privée.
Les Célibataires, the longest number of the original Comédie under a single title, next to Illusions perdues, is not, like that book, connected by any unity of story. Indeed, the general bond of union is pretty weak; and though it is quite true that bachelors and old maids are the heroes and heroines of all three, it would be rather hard to establish any other bond of connection, and it is rather unlikely that any one unprompted would fix on this as a sufficient ground of partnership.
Two at least of the component parts, however, are of very high excellence. I do not myself think that Pierrette, which opens the series, is quite the equal of its companions. Written, as it was, for Countess Anna de Hanska, Balzac’s step-daughter of the future, while she was still very young, it partakes necessarily of the rather elaborate artificiality of all attempts to suit the young person, of French attempts in particular, and it may perhaps be said of Balzac’s attempts most of all. It belongs, in a way, to the Arcis series – the series which also includes the fine Ténébreuse Affaire and the unfinished Député d’Arcis – but is not very closely connected therewith. The picture of the actual Célibataires, the brother and sister Rogron, with which it opens, is in one of Balzac’s best-known styles, and is executed with all his usual mastery both of the minute and of the at least partially repulsive, showing also that strange knowledge of the bourgeois de Paris which, somehow or other, he seems to have attained by dint of unknown foregatherings in his ten years of apprenticeship. But when we come to Pierrette herself, the story is, I think, rather less satisfying. Her persecutions and her end, and the devotion of the faithful Brigaut and the rest, are pathetic no doubt, but tend (I hope it is not heartless to say it) just a very little towards sensiblerie. The fact is that the thing is not quite in Balzac’s line.
The other and shorter constituent of the book, Le Curé de Tours, is certainly on a higher level, and has attracted the most magnificent eulogies from some of the novelist’s admirers. I think both Mr. Henry James and Mr. Wedmore have singled out this little piece for detailed and elaborate praise, and there is no doubt that it is a happy example of a kind in which the author excelled. The opening, with its evident but not obtruded remembrance of the old and well-founded superstition – derived from the universal belief in some form of Nemesis – that an extraordinary sense of happiness, good luck, or anything of the kind, is a precursor of misfortune, and calls for some instant act of sacrifice or humiliation, is very striking; and the working out of the vengeance of the goddess by the very ungoddess-like though feminine hand of Mademoiselle Gamard has much that is commendable. Nothing in its well exampled kind is better touched off than the Listomère coterie, from the shrewdness of Monsieur de Bourbonne to the selfishness of Madame de Listomère. I do not know that the old maid herself – cat, and far worse than cat as she is – is at all exaggerated, and the sketch of the coveted appartement and its ill-fated mobilier is about as good as it can be. And the battle between Madame de Listomère and the Abbé Troubert, which has served as a model for many similar things, has, if it has often been equaled, not often been surpassed.
I cannot, however, help thinking that there is more than a little exaggeration in more than one point of the story. The Abbé Birotteau is surely a little too much of a fool; the Abbé Troubert an Iago a little too much wanting in verisimilitude; and the central incident of the clause about the furniture too manifestly improbable. Taking the first and the last points together, is it likely that any one not quite an idiot should, in the first place, remain so entirely ignorant of the value of his property; should, in the second, though, ignorant or not, he attached the greatest possible pretium affectionis to it, contract to resign it for such a ridiculous consideration; and should, in the third, take the fatal step without so much as remembering the condition attached thereto? If it be answered that Birotteau was idiot enough to do such a thing, then it must be observed further that one’s sympathy is frozen by the fact. Such a man deserved such treatment. And, again, even if French justice was, and perhaps is, as much influenced by secret considerations as Balzac loves to represent it, we must agree with that member of the Listomère society who pointed out that no tribunal could possibly uphold such an obviously iniquitous bargain. As for Troubert, the idea of the Jesuitical ecclesiastic (though Balzac was not personally hostile to the Jesuits) was a common one at the time, and no doubt popular, but the actual personage seems to me nearer to Eugène Sue’s Rodin in some ways than I could have desired.
These things, however, are very much a case of “As You Like It” or “As It Strikes You,” and I have said that Le Curé de Tours strikes some good judges as of exceptional merit, while no one can refuse it merit in a high degree. I should not, except for the opening, place it in the very highest class of the Comedie, but it is high beyond all doubt in the second.
Pierrette, which was earlier called Pierrette Lorrain, was issued in 1840, first in the Siècle, and then in volume form, published by Souverain. In both issues it had nine chapter or book divisions with headings. With the other Célibataires it entered the Comédie as a Scene de la Vie de Province in 1843.
Le Curé de Tours (which Balzac had at one time intended to call by the name of the Curé’s enemy, and which at first was simply called by the general title Les Célibataires) is much older than its companions, and appeared in 1832 in the Scènes de la Vie Privée. It was soon properly shifted to the Vie de Province, and as such in due time joined the Comédie bearing its present title.
From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.