Saintsbury Introduction, Volume VII – Part I

Béatrix

Béatrix was built up in the odd fashion in which Balzac sometimes did build up his novels, and which may be thought to account for an occasional lack of unity and grasp in them. The original book, written in 1838, and published with the rather flowery dedication “to Sarah” at the end of that year, stopped at the marriage of Calyste and Sabine. The last part, separately entitled Un Adultère Rétrospectif, was not added till six years later. It cannot be said to be either very shocking or very unnatural that the young husband should exemplify the truth of that uncomfortable proverb, Qui a bu boira; and it is perhaps rather more surprising that Balzac should have allowed him to be “refished” (as the French say) in a finally satisfactory condition by his lawful spouse.

Still, I do not think the addition can be considered on the whole an improvement to the book, of which it is at the best rather an appendix than an integral part. The conception of Béatrix herself seems to have changed somewhat, and that not as the conception of her immortal namesake in Esmond and The Virginians changes, merely to suit the irreparable outrage of years. The end has unsavory details, which have not, as the repetition of them in more tragic form a little later in La Cousine Bette has, the justification of a really tragic retribution; and a man must have a great deal of disinterested good nature about him to feel any satisfaction or indeed to take much interest, in the restoration of the domestic happiness of two such persons as M. and Mme. de Rochefide. Calyste du Guénic, whose character was earlier rather exaggerated, is now almost a caricature, and to me at least the thing is not much excused by the fact that it gives Balzac an opportunity of introducing his pattern gentleman-scoundrel, Maxime de Trailles, and his pet Bohemian, La Palférine. The many-named Italian here indeed plays a comparatively benevolent part, as does Trailles; but they are both as great “raffs” and “tigers” as ever.

The first and larger part of the book, on the other hand, – the book proper, as we may call it, – is a remarkable, a well-designed, and a very interesting study. It is not so much of an additional attraction to me, as it perhaps is to most people, that contemporaries, without much contradiction or in all cases improbability, chose to regard the parts and personages of Félicité des Touches, Béatrix de Rochefide, Claude Vignon, and the musician Conti, as designed, and pretty closely designed, after George Sand, Madame d’Agoult (known as “Daniel Stern”), Gustave Planche, the critic, and Liszt. As to the first pair, there can, of course, be no doubt; for Balzac, by representing “Camille Maupin” as George Sand’s rival, and by introducing divers ingenious and legitimate adaptations of the famous she-novelist’s career, both invites, and in a way authorizes, the attribution. There is nothing offensive in it; indeed, Félicité is one of the most effective and sympathetic of his female characters, and would always have been incapable of the rather heartless action by which the actual George Sand amused herself intellectually and sentimentally with lover after lover, and then threw them away. Unless the accounts of Planche that we have are very unfair – and they possibly are, for he was a critic and was particularly obnoxious to the extreme Romantic school, which was perhaps why Balzac liked him – Claude Vignon is a still more flattered portrait, though Balzac’s low, if not quite impartial, opinion of critics in general comes out in it. Conti may be fair enough for Liszt; and if Béatrix is certainly a libel on poor Madame d’Agoult, it must be remembered that this later Madame de Staël was generally misrepresented in her lifetime, though since her death she has had more justice.

The “key” interest of books, however, is always a minor, and sometimes a purely illegitimate one. It ought to be sufficient for us that the interest of the quartette, even if there had been no such persons as George Sand, Daniel Stern, Planche, and Liszt in the world, would be very great, and that it is well composed with and maintained by the accessory and auxiliary facts and characters. The picture of the Guénic household (which, after Balzac’s usual fashion, throws us back to Les Chouans, while Béatrix as a Castéran, and thus a connection of the luckless Mlle. de Verneuil, is also connected with that book) may seem to some to be a little too fully painted; it does not seem so to me. Whether, as hinted above, the character of Calyste has its childishness exaggerated or not, I must leave to readers to decide for themselves. His casting of Béatrix into the sea, besides being illegal, may seem to some extravagant; but it must be remembered that Balzac was originally writing when the heyday of the Romantic movement was by no means over, and when melodrama was still pretty fully in fashion. It is difficult, too, to see what better contrast and uniting scheme for the contrasted worldliness of the four chief characters could have been devised; while the childishness itself is not inconceivable or unnatural in a boy brought up in a sort of household of romance by a heroic father and a doting mother, both utterly unworldly, his head being further fired by participating in actual civil war on behalf of an injured princess, and his heart exposed without preparation to such different influences as those of Mlle. des Touches and of Béatrix.

The contrast of the two ladies is also fine; indeed, Béatrix seems to me, though by no means Balzac’s most perfect work, to be an attempt in a higher style of novel writing than any other heroine of his. It is impossible not to suspect in Félicité, good, clever, and so forth as she is, a covert satire on the variety of womankind which had begun to be fashionable. The satire on the unamiable side of mere womanliness which the sketch of Béatrix contains is, of course, open and undeniable. I think that Thackeray has far excelled it, but I am not certain that he was not indebted to it as a pattern. The fault of the French Béatrix has been expressed by her creator on nearly the last page of the book. A woman sans coeur ni tete may do a great deal of mischief; but she cannot quite play the part attributed to Madame de Rochefide.

The first two parts of Béatrix (in which Madame de Rochefide was at first called Rochegude) appeared in the Siècle during April and May 1839, with the alternative title ou les Amours Forcés, and they were published in book form by Souverain in the same year. They were then divided briefly; the first part, which was called Moeurs D’Autrefois in the Siècle, and Une Famille Patriarcale in the book, had eight headed chapters; the second (Moeurs d’Aujourhui in the first, Une Femme Célèbre in the second) eleven; and a third division, Les Rivalités, eight. As a Scène de la Vie Privée, which it became in 1842, it had no chapters; it was little altered otherwise; and the present completion was anticipated, though not given, in a final paragraph. It also had the simple title of Béatrix. The completion itself did not appear till the midwinter (December-January) of 1844-45. It was first called Les Petits Manèges d’une Femme Vertueuse in the Messager, and when, shortly afterwards, it was published by Chlendowski as a book, La Lune de Miel. In these forms it had fifty-nine headed chapters. In the same year, however, it became, with its forerunners, part of the Comédie, and the chapters were swept away throughout.

George Saintsbury

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

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