Saintsbury Introduction, Volume VI – Part I

A Marriage Settlement (Le Contrat de Mariage)
A Start in Life (Un Début dans la vie)
A Second Home (Une Double Famille)

If Balzac had been acquainted with the works of Chaucer (which would have been extremely surprising) he might have called Le Contrat de Mariage “A Legend of Bad Women.” He has not been exactly sparing of studies in that particular kind; but he has surpassed himself here. Mme. de Maufrigneuse redeems herself by her character, however imperfectly supported, of grande dame, Béatrix de Rochefide by a certain naturalness and weakness, Flore Brazier by circumstances and education, others by other things. But Madame Evangelista and her daughter Natalie may be said to be bad all through – thoroughly poisonous persons who, much more than the actual Milady of Les Trois Mousquetaires (there was some charm in her), deserved to be taken and “justified” by lynch law. If the “Thirteen” (who were rather interested in the matter) had descended upon both in the fashion of d’Artagnan and his friends, I do not know that any one would have had much right to complain. How far the picture is exaggerated must be a question to be decided partly by individual experience, partly by other arguments. Although I am not always disposed to defend Balzac from the charge of exaggeration, I think he is fairly free from it here.

Madame Evangelista, besides the usual womanly desire to make a figure in the capital, has (not to excuse, but to explain her) the equally natural tendency to regard everybody outside her own family as an at least possible enemy to be “exploited” pitilessly, together with bad blood which, though luckily not common, is by no means impossible nor even extremely rare. Her daughter, as Balzac has acutely suggested, both here and elsewhere, is, like not a few women, destitute of that sense of abiding gratitude for pleasure mutually enjoyed which tempers the evil tendencies of the male sex to no considerable extent. She has never cared for her husband; she has no morals; and (as in another book and subject, her letter to Félix de Vandenesse, well deserved as it is in the particular instance, shows) she has the fortunately not universal but excessively dangerous combination of utter selfishness with very clear-sighted common-sense.

The men are equally true, and much more agreeable. It is noteworthy that here only does Balzac’s pattern Byronic dandy Marsay cut a distinctly agreeable figure. He is still something of a coxcomb, but he is, as he is not very often, a gentleman; he is, as he is scarcely ever, a good fellow; and he deserves his character as un homme très fort, to say the least, better than he does in some places. The two family lawyers are excellent. As for Paul de Manerville, the unfortunate fleur des pois (the title for some time of the book) himself, he is one of the profoundest of Balzac’s studies, and it was perhaps rather unkind of his creator to call him a niais. At any rate, he was not more so than that very creator when he committed slow suicide by waiting and working till a woman, who cannot have been worth the trouble, at last made up her mind to “derogate” a little, and, without any pecuniary sacrifice, to exchange the position of widow of a member of a second-rate aristocracy for that of wife of one of the foremost living men of letters in Europe, who was himself technically a gentleman. Marsay’s letters to Paul only put pointedly what the whole story puts suggestively, the great truth that you may “see life” without knowing it, and that for a certain kind of respectable person the sowing of wild oats is a far more dangerous kind of husbandry than for the wildest profligate. It is true that Paul has exceedingly bad luck, and that in countries other than France he might have subsided into a most respectable and comfortable country gentleman. But as a great authority, whom he probably knew, Paul de Florac, his namesake and contemporary, remarked, “Do not adopt our institutions à demi, so it would seem to be a maxim that the two kinds of life cannot be combined – at least, that seems to be Balzac’s moral.

The second story in the volume, a very slight touch of unnecessary cruelty excepted, is one of the truest and most amusing of all Balzac’s repertoire; and it is conducted according to the orthodox methods of poetical justice. It is impossible not to recognize the justice of the portraiture of the luckless Oscar Husson, and the exact verisimilitude of the way in which he succumbs to the temptations and practical jokes (the first title of the story was Le Danger des Mystifications) of his companions. I am not a good authority on matters dramatic; but it seems to me that the story would lend itself to the stage in the right hands better than almost anything that Balzac has done. Half an enfant terrible and half a Sir Martin Mar-all, the luckless Oscar “puts his foot into it,” and emerges in deplorable condition, with a sustained success which would do credit to all but the very best writers of farcical comedy, and would not disgrace the very best.

In such pieces the characters other than the hero have but to play contributory parts, and here they do not fail to do so. M. de Sérizy, whom it pleased Balzac to keep in a dozen books as his stock example of the unfortunate husband, plays his part with at least as much dignity as is easily possible to such a personage. Madame Clapart is not too absurd as the fond mother of the cub; and Moreau, her ancient lover, is equally commendable in the not very easy part of a “protector.” The easy-going ladies who figure in Oscar’s second collapse display well enough that rather facile generosity and good-nature which Balzac is fond of attributing to them. As for the “Mystificators,” Balzac, as usual, is decidedly more lenient to the artist folk than he is elsewhere to men of letters. Mistigris, or Léon de Lora, is always a pleasant person, and Joseph Bridau always a respectable one. Georges Marest is no doubt a bad fellow, but he gets punished.

Nor ought we to omit notice of the careful study of the apprenticeship of a lawyer’s clerk, wherein, as elsewhere no doubt, Balzac profited by his own novitiate. Altogether the story is a pleasant one, and we acquiesce in the tempering of the wind to Oscar when that ordinary person is consoled for his sufferings with the paradise of the French bourgeois–a respectable place, a wife with no dangerous brilliancy, and a good dot.

Une Double Famille, which had an almost unusually complicated history and several titles, appears here (for reasons of practical convenience) out of its old place in conjunction with the Chat qui Pelote. It is a good specimen of Balzac’s average work, neither much above nor much below the run of its fellows.

The first titles of the two main stories have been given above. La Fleur des pois, as such, appeared in no newspaper, but in the Scènes de la Vie Privée of 1834-35. It had three divisions, which disappeared in the first edition of the Comédie, when also the title was changed. Its companion was printed under its first title, and with fourteen chapter divisions, in a paper called La Législature, between July and September 1842. Balzac at first meant to call it Les Jeunes Gens, but changed this to Le Danger des Mystifications, and that again to the present form, when it appeared (with La fausse Maîtresse) as a book in 1844. Next year it was classed in the Comédie, undergoing the usual process of deletion of the chapter divisions and headings.

George Saintsbury

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

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