Saintsbury Introduction, Volume VII – Part II

The Jealousies of a Country Town (Les Rivalités):
     The Old Maid (La Vieille Fille)
     The Collection of Antiquities (Le Cabinet des Antiques)
The Commission in Lunacy (L’Interdiction)

The two stories of Les Rivalités are more closely connected than it was always Balzac’s habit to connect the tales which he united under a common heading. Not only are both devoted to the society of Alencon – a town and neighborhood to which he had evidently strong, though it is not clearly known what, attractions – not only is the Chevalier de Valois a notable figure in each; but the community, imparted by the elaborate study of the old noblesse in each case, is even greater than either of these ties could give. Indeed, if instead of Les Rivalités the author had chosen some label indicating the study of the noblesse qui s’en va, it might almost have been preferable. He did not, however; and though in a man who so constantly changed his titles and his arrangements the actual ones are not excessively authoritative, they have authority.

La Vieille Fille, despite a certain tone of levity – which, to do Balzac justice, is not common with him, and which is rather hard upon the poor heroine – is one of the best and liveliest things he ever did. The opening picture of the Chevalier, though, like other things of its author’s, especially in his overtures, liable to the charge of being elaborated a little too much, is one of the very best things of its kind, and is a sort of locus classicus for its subject. The whole picture of country town society is about as good as it can be; and the only blot that I know is to be found in the sentimental Athanase, who is not quite within Balzac’s province, extensive as that province is. If we compare Mr. Augustus Moddle, we shall see one of the not too numerous instances in which Dickens has a clear advantage over Balzac; and if it be retorted that Balzac’s object was not to present a merely ridiculous object, the rejoinder is not very far to seek. Such a character, with such a fate as Balzac has assigned to him, must be either humorously grotesque or unfeignedly pathetic, and Balzac has not quite made Athanase either.

He is, however, if he is a failure, about the only failure in the book, and he is atoned for by a whole bundle of successes. Of the Chevalier, little more need be said. Balzac, it must be remembered, was the oldest novelist of distinct genius who had the opportunity of delineating the survivors of the ancient régime from the life, and directly. It is certain – even if we hesitate at believing him quite so familiar with all the classes of higher society from the Faubourg downwards, as he would have us believe him – that he saw something of most of them, and his genius was unquestionably of the kind to which a mere thumbnail study, a mere passing view, suffices for the acquisition of a thorough working knowledge of the object. In this case the Chevalier has served, and not improperly served, as the original of a thousand after-studies. His rival, less carefully projected, is also perhaps a little less alive. Again, Balzac was old enough to have foregathered with many men of the Revolution. But the most characteristic of them were not long-lived, the “little window” and other things having had a bad effect on them; and most of those who survived had, by the time he was old enough to take much notice, gone through metamorphoses of Bonapartism, Constitutional Liberalism, and what not. But still du Bousquier IS alive, as well as all the minor assistants and spectators in the battle for the old maid’s hand. Suzanne, that tactful and graceless Suzanne to whom we are introduced first of all, is very much alive; and for all her gracelessness, not at all disagreeable. I am only sorry that she sold the counterfeit presentment of the Princess Goritza after all.

Le Cabinet des Antiques, in its Alencon scenes, is a worthy pendant to La Vieille Fille. The old-world honor of the Marquis d’Esgrignon, the thankless sacrifices of Armande, the prisca fides of Maître Chesnel, present pictures for which, out of Balzac, we can look only in Jules Sandeau, and which in Sandeau, though they are presented with a more poetical touch, have less masterly outline than here. One takes – or, at least, I take  – less interest in the ignoble intrigues of the other side, except in so far as they menace the fortunes of a worthy house unworthily represented. Victurnien d’Esgrignon, like his companion Savinien de Portenduère (who, however, is, in every respect, a very much better fellow), does not argue in Balzac any high opinion of the fils de famille. He is, in fact, an extremely feeble youth, who does not seem to have got much real satisfaction out of the escapades, for which he risked not merely his family’s fortune, but his own honor, and who would seem to have been a rake, not from natural taste and spirit and relish, but because it seemed to him to be the proper thing to be. But the beginnings of the fortune of the aspiring and intriguing Camusots are admirably painted; and Madame de Maufrigneuse, that rather doubtful divinity, who appears so frequently in Balzac, here acts the dea ex machina with considerable effect. And we end well (as we generally do when Blondet, whom Balzac seems more than once to adopt as mask, is the narrator), in the last glimpse of Mlle. Armande left alone with the remains of her beauty, the ruins of everything dear to her – and God.

These two stories were written at no long interval, yet, for some reason or other, Balzac did not at once unite them. La Vieille Fille first appeared in November and December 1836 in the Presse, and was inserted next year in the Scènes de la Vie de Province. It had three chapter divisions. The second part did not appear all at once. Its first installment, under the general title, came out in the Chronique de Paris even before the Vieille Fille appeared in March 1836; the completion was not published (under the title of Les Rivalités en Province) till the autumn of 1838, when the Constitutionnel served as its vehicle. There were eight chapter divisions in this latter. The whole of the Cabinet was published in book form (with Gambara to follow it) in 1839. There were some changes here; and the divisions were abolished when the whole book in 1844 entered the Comédie. One of the greatest mistakes which, in my humble judgment, the organizers of the édition definitive have made, is their adoption of Balzac’s never executed separation of the pair and deletion of the excellent joint-title Les Rivalités.

L’Interdiction belongs with the Honorine group in Sc138nes de la Vie Privée, being placed here for purpose of convenience. It is good in its own way. It is indeed impossible to say that there is not in the manner, though perhaps there may be none in the fact, of the Marquis d’Espard’s restitution, and the rest of it, a little touch of the madder side of Quixotism; and one sees all the speculative and planning Balzac in that notable scheme of the great work on China which brought in far, far more, I fear, than any work on China ever has or is likely to bring in to its devisers. But the conduct of Popinot, in his interview with the Marquise, is really admirable. The great scenes of fictitious finesse do not always “come off;” we do not invariably find ourselves experiencing that sense of the ability of his characters which the novelist appears to entertain, and expects us to entertain likewise. But this is admirable; it is, with Charles de Bernard’s Le Gendre, perhaps the very best thing of the kind to be found anywhere. This story would serve to show any intelligent critic that genius of no ordinary kind had passed that way.

L’Interdiction first appeared in the Chronique de Paris in 1836; was at first separated from the Etudes Philosophiques to be a Scène de la Vie Parisienne.

George Saintsbury

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

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