Saintsbury Introduction, Volume VI – Part II

Modeste Mignon
The Hated Son (L’Enfant Maudit)
The Atheist’s Mass (La Messe de l’Athée)

Modeste Mignon occupies a very peculiar place in Balzac’s works – a place, indeed, which, though for the form’s sake more than anything else the author has connected it with the rest of the Comédie by some repetition of personages, is almost entirely isolated. I think it has puzzled some devoted Balzacians – so much so, that I have seen it omitted even from lists of his works suitable to “the young person,” in which it surely should have had an eminent place. As it is distinctly late – it was written in 1844, and nothing of combined magnitude and first-class importance succeeded it except Les Parents Pauvres – it may not impossibly serve as a basis for the expectation that if Balzac, after his re-establishment in Paris as a wealthy personage, had received a new lease of life and vigor instead of a sentence of death, we might have had from him a series of works as different from anything that he had composed before as Modeste Mignon is from her sisters.

In saying this, I do not mean to put the book itself in the very first class of its author’s work. It is too much of an experiment for that – of an experiment as far as the heroine is concerned, the boldness and novelty of which is likely to be underestimated by almost any reader, unless he be a literary student who pays strict attention to times and seasons. Even in England (though Charlotte Bronté was planning her at this very time) the wilful unconventional heroine was something of a novelty; and when it is remembered how infinitely stricter was the standard of the French ingénue, until quite recently, than it ever, even in the depths of the eighteenth century, was in England, the audacity of the conception of Modeste may be at least generally appreciated. And it is specially important to observe that though the author puts in Charles Mignon’s mouth a vindication of the French process of tying a girl hand and foot and handing her over to the best bidder as a husband, instead of allowing her to choose for herself, Modeste’s audacity in pursuing the opposite method is crowned with complete success, if not with success of exactly the kind that she anticipated. Except the case of Savinien de Portenduère and Ursule Mirouêt, hers is, so far as I can remember, the only example in the whole Comédie of a love-marriage which, as we are told, was wholly successful, without even vacillations on the wife’s part or relapses on the husband’s. It is true that, with a slight touch of cowardice or concession, Balzac has made Modeste half a German; but this is a very venial bowing in the porch not the chancel, of the House of Rimmon.

Whether the young lady is as entirely successful and as entirely charming as she is undeniably audacious in conception, is not a point for equally positive pronouncement. Just as it was probably necessary for Balzac, in order not to outrage the feelings of his readers too much, to put that Teutonic strain in Modeste, so he had, in all probability, to exhibit her as capricious, and almost unamiable, in order to attain the fitness of things in connection with so terrible a young person. It is certain that even those who by no means rejoice in pattern heroines, even those who “like them rather wicked,” may sometimes think Modeste nasty in her behavior to her family, to Butscha, and, perhaps, to her future husband. She is, for instance, quite wrong about the whip, which she might have refused altogether, but could not with decency accept from one person and refuse from another. But what has just been said will cover this and other petulances and outbursts. So “shoking” a young person (it is very cheerful and interesting to think how much more exactly that favorite vox nihili of French speech expresses French than English sentiment) could not but behave “shokingly.”

Most of the minor characters are good: Butscha, a difficult and, in any case, slightly improbable personage, is, in his own way, very good indeed. It was probably necessary for Balzac, in turning the usual scheme of the French novel upside down, to provide a rather timid hero for such a masterful heroine; and it must be admitted that Ernest de la Briere is a rather preternaturally good young man. Still, he is not mawkish; and except that he should not have given Modeste quite such a valuable present, he behaves more like a gentleman in the full English sense than any other of Balzac’s heroes.

The very full, very elaborate, and very unfavorable portrait of Canalis offers again much scope for difference of mere taste and opinion, without the possibility of laying down a conclusion very positively. Even if tradition were not unanimous on the subject, it would be quite certain that Canalis is a direct presentment of Lamartine, from whom he is so ostentatiously dissociated. And there can, of course, be no two opinions as to the presentment being very distinctly unfavorable – much more so than the earlier introductions of this same Canalis, which are either complimentary or colorless for the most part, though his vanity is sometimes hinted at. I do not know whether Balzac had any private quarrel with the poet, or whether Lamartine’s increasing leanings towards Republicanism exasperated the always monarchical novelist. But it is certain that Canalis cuts rather a bad figure here – that Lamartine was actually supposed to have married for money – and that the whole thing has more of the nature of a personal attack than anything else in Balzac, except the outbreak against Sainte-Beuve in Un Prince de la Bohème.

Perhaps it should be added that the practice of correspondence between incognitas and men of letters, not unknown in any country, has been rather frequent and famous in France. The chief example is, of course, that interchange of communications between Mérimée and Mlle. Jenny Dacquin, which had such important results for literature, and such not unimportant ones for the parties concerned. Balzac himself rejoiced in a Modeste called Louise, whom, however, he seems never to have seen; and there is little doubt that Lamartine the actual was attacked, as the fictitious Canalis boasts that he was, by scores of such persons. The chief instance I can think of in which such a correspondence led to matrimony was that of Southey and his second wife Caroline Bowles.

The history of Modeste Mignon is short and simple. It was first given to the public in the spring and summer of 1844 by the Journal des Débats, and before the end of the year it appeared in four volumes, published by Roux and Cassanet. It had here seventy-five chapter divisions, with headings. In 1845, scarcely a twelve month after its first appearance, it took its place in the Comédie.


La Messe de l’Athée, by the common consent of competent judges, takes rank with the novelist’s very best work. Its extreme brevity makes it almost fimpossible for the author to indulge in those digressions from which he never could entirely free himself when he allowed himself much room. We do not hear more of the inward character of Desplein than is necessary to make us appreciate the touching history which is the centre of the anecdote; the thing in general could not be presented at greater advantage than it is. Nor in itself could it be much, if at all, better. As usual, it is more or less of a personal confession. Balzac, it must always be remembered, was himself pretty definitely “on the side of the angels.” As a Frenchman, as a man with a strong eighteenth-century tincture in him, as a student of Rabelais, as one not too much given to regard nature and fate through rose-colored spectacles, as a product of more or less godless education (for his school-days came before the neo-catholic revival), and in many other ways, he was not exactly an orthodox person. But he had no ideas foreign to orthodoxy; and neither in his novels, nor in his letters, nor elsewhere, would it be possible to find a private expression of unbelief. And such a story as this is worth a bookseller’s warehouse full of tracts, coming as it does from Honoré de Balzac.

Le Messe de l’Athée appeared first in the Chronique de Paris for January 4, 1836; next year joined the other Etudes Philosophiques; and in 1844 the Vie Privée and the Comédie.


No special connection is apparent between L’Enfant Maudit and any of the other stories going to make up the Comédie. Incidents as well as personages are isolated, while even the style belongs to another period – the earlier or transitional, when Balzac was good, apparently, for nothing better than the Œuvres de Jeunesse. One of two theories must explain its position: either it was written earlier than the first date it bears, 1831; or it marks a temporary retrogression – rare as such instances are  – to the unfinished and amateurish style of the apprentice. While the story is not good in workmanship, no fault can be found with it on the score of morals. A frankness almost brutal characterizes the overture; proprieties are thrown to the winds – a trait Balzac held in common with other French authors – yet, when we remember the novelist’s manifest intention to portray life as it is, none but the prude can disapprove. The principal fault of the story, aside from its nightmarishness, lies in the tremendous overbalancing of its characters. Against the fragile figures of the Countess and Étienne and Gabrielle – all seemingly cast in the same delicate mould – the terrible Count looms too vividly. In one place only does this too great and too constant menace heighten the effect of the story: the simple scenes of love-making stand forth sharply like a gleam of sunlight athwart an ominous sky.

L’Enfant Maudit carries two dates, 1831-1836. This may be explained by the complicated manner of its appearance. The Revue des Deux Mondes for January 1831 contained the first part only, not bearing its present caption, and in three chapters. The second part, originally called La Perle Brisée, was first published in the Chronique de Paris, October 1836. In 1837 it was made an Etude Philosophique; ten years thereafter it was included in a volume with Madame de la Chanterie, without, however, disturbing its present and previously established headings to the two parts.
 George Saintsbury

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


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