Saintsbury Introduction, Volume IX – Part II

The Country Doctor (Le Médecin de Campagne)
The Vendetta (La Vendetta)
Colonel Chabert (Le Colonel Chabert)

In hardly any of his books, with the possible exception of Eugenie Grandet, does Balzac seem to have taken a greater interest than in Le Medecin de Campagne; and the fact of this interest, together with the merit and intensity of the book in each case, is, let it be repeated, a valid argument against those who would have it that there was something essentially sinister both in his genius and in his character.

The Médecin de Campagne was an early book; it was published in 1833, a date of which there is an interesting mark in the selection of the name “Evelina,” the name of Madame Hanska, whom Balzac had just met, for the lost Jansenist love of Benassis; and it had been on the stocks for a considerable time. It is also noteworthy, as lying almost entirely outside the general scheme of the Comédie Humaine as far as personages go. Its chief characters in the remarkable, if not absolutely impeccable, répertoire of MM. Cerfberr and Christophe (they have, a rare thing with them, missed Agathe the forsaken mistress) have no references appended to their articles, except to the book itself; and I cannot remember that any of the more generally pervading é of the Comedy makes even an incidental appearance here. The book is as isolated as its scene and subject – I might have added, as its beauty, which is singular and unique, nor wholly easy to give a critical account of. The transformation of the crétin-haunted desert into a happy valley is in itself a commonplace of the preceding century; it may be found several times over in Marmontel’s Contes Moraux, as well as in other places. The extreme minuteness of detail, effective as it is in the picture of the house and elsewhere, becomes a little tedious to the exact number of cartwrights and harness-makers, and so forth; while the modern reader pure and simple, though schooled to endure detail, is schooled to endure it only of the ugly. The minor characters and episodes, with the exception of the wonderful story or legend of Napoleon by Private Goguelat, and the private himself, are neither of the first interest, nor always carefully worked out: La Fosseuse, for instance, is a very tantalizingly unfinished study, of which it is nearly certain that Balzac must at some time or other have meant to make much more than he has made; Genestas, excellent as far as he goes, is not much more than a type; and there is nobody else in the foreground at all except the Doctor himself.

It is, however, beyond all doubt in the very subordination of these other characters to Benassis, and in the skilful grouping of the whole as background and adjunct to him, that the appeal of the book as art consists. From that point of view there are grounds for regarding it as the finest of the author’s work in the simple style, the least indebted to super-added ornament or to mere variety. The dangerous expedient of a récit, of which the eighteenth-century novelists were so fond, has never been employed with more successful effect than in the confession of Benassis, at once the climax and the centre of the story. And one thing which strikes us immediately about this confession is the universality of its humanity and its strange freedom from merely national limitations. To very few French novelists – to few even of those who are generally credited with a much softer mould and a much purer morality than Balzac is popularly supposed to have been able to boast – would inconstancy to a mistress have seemed a fault which could be reasonably punished, which could be even reasonably represented as having been punished in fact, by the refusal of an honest girl’s love in the first place. Nor would many have conceived as possible, or have been able to represent in lifelike colors, the lifelong penance which Benassis imposes on himself. The tragic end, indeed, is more in their general way, but they would seldom have known how to lead up to it.

In almost all ways Balzac has saved himself from the dangers incident to his plan in this book after a rather miraculous fashion. The Goguelat myth may seem disconnected, and he did as a matter of fact once publish it separately; yet it sets off (in the same sort of felicitous manner of which Shakespeare’s clown-scenes and others are the capital examples in literature) both the slightly matter-of-fact details of the beatification of the valley and the various minute sketches of places and folk, and the almost superhuman goodness of Benassis, and his intensely and piteously human suffering and remorse. It is like the red cloak in a group; it lights, warms, inspirits the whole picture.

And perhaps the most remarkable thing of all is the way in which Balzac in this story, so full of goodness of feeling, of true religion (for if Benassis is not an ostensible practiser of religious rites, he avows his orthodoxy in theory, and more than justifies it in practice), has almost entirely escaped the sentimentality plus unorthodoxy of similar work in the eighteenth century, and the sentimentality plus orthodoxy of similar work in the nineteenth. Benassis no doubt plays Providence in a manner and with a success which it is rarely given to mortal man to achieve; but we do not feel either the approach to sham, or the more than approach to gush, with which similar handling on the part of Dickens too often affects some of us. The sin and the punishment of the Doctor, the thoroughly human figures of Genestas and the rest, save the situation from this and other drawbacks. We are not in the Cockaigne of perfectibility, where Marmontel and Godwin disport themselves; we are in a very practical place, where time-bargains in barley are made, and you pay the respectable, if not lavish, board of ten francs per day for entertainment to man and beast.

And yet, explain as we will, there will always remain something inexplicable in the appeal of such a book as the Médecin de Campagne. This helps, and that, and the other; we can see what change might have damaged the effect, and what have endangered it altogether. We must, of course, acknowledge that as it is there are longueurs, intrusion of Saint Simonian jargon, passages of galimatias and of preaching. But of what in strictness produces the good effect we can only say one thing, and that is, it was the genius of Balzac working as it listed and as it knew how to work.

The book was originally published by Mme. Delaunay in September 1833 in two volumes and thirty-six chapters with headings. Next year it was republished in four volumes by Werdet, and the last fifteen chapters were thrown together into four. In 1836 it reappeared with dedication and date, but with the divisions further reduced to seven; being those which here appear, with the addition of two, “La Fosseuse” and “Propos de Braves Gens” between “A Travers Champs” and “Le Napoleon du Peuple.” These two were removed in 1839, when it was published in a single volume by Charpentier. In all these issues the book was independent. It became a “Scène de la Vie de Campagne” in 1846, and was then admitted into the Comédie. The separate issues of Goguelat’s story referred to above made their appearance first in L’Europe Littéraire for June 19, 1833 (before the book form), and then with the imprint of a sort of syndicate of publishers in 1842.

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La Vendetta, which, with Le Colonel Chabert, it has been found expedient to include in this volume, while having the advantage of a forcible plot, might have been written on so well-known a donnée by many persons besides Balzac. It happens, moreover, to contrast most unfortunately with the terrible and exquisite perfection of Mérimée’s “Mateo Falcone.” It ranked from the first edition of Scènes de la Vie Privée with the “Cat and Racket” group; but unlike those previously mentioned, it had obtained an earlier separate publication in part. For it is one of those stories which Balzac originally divided into chapters, and afterwards printed without them. The first of these, which appeared in the Silhouette of April 1830, was entitled L’Atelier, and the others were “La Désobéissance,” “Le Mariage,” and “Le Chatiment.”

Le Colonel Chabert, which would well have deserved a place in the Scènes de la Vie Militaire, so scantily represented in the Comédie, has attractions of its own. It reminds us of Balzac’s sojourn in the tents of Themis, and of the knowledge that he brought therefrom; it gives an example of his affection for the idée fixe, for the man with a mania; and it is also no inconsiderable example of his pathos.

Like La Vendetta, but to a better degree, Le Colonel Chabert is a capital example of Balzac’s mania for “pulling about” his stories. It is as old as the spring of 1832, when it appeared in the Artiste, with the title of La Transaction, and in four parts. Before the year was out, it formed part of a collection of tales called Le Salmigondis, but was now called Le Comte Chabert. In 1835 it became a Scène de la Vie Parisienne (the Comédie was not yet) as La Comtesse à deux Maris, and in three parts. It was shifted to the Vie Privée afterwards, with its present title and no divisions; and Balzac, for some reason, altered the date from 1832 to 1840 in the text.

George Saintsbury

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

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