Saintsbury Introduction, Volume X – Part I

The Country Parson (Le Curé de Village)
Albert Savarus (Albert Savarus)

Perhaps in no instance of Balzac’s work is his singular fancy for pulling that work about more remarkably instanced and illustrated than in the case of Le Curé de Village. The double date, 1837-1845, which the author attached to it, in his usual conscientious manner, to indicate these revisions, has a greater signification than almost anywhere else. When the book, or rather its constituent parts, first appeared in the Presse for 1839, having been written the winter before, not only was it very different in detail, but the order of the parts was altogether dissimilar. Balzac here carried out his favorite plan – a plan followed by many other authors no doubt, but always, as it seems to me, of questionable wisdom – that of beginning in the middle and then “throwing back” with a long retrospective and explanatory digression.

In this version of the story of Tascheron’s crime and its punishment came first; and it was not till after the execution that the early history of Véronique (who gave her name to this part as to a Suite du Curé de Village) was introduced. This history ceased at the crisis of her life; and when it was taken up in a third part, called Véronique au Tombeau, only the present conclusion of the book, with her confession, was given. The long account of her sojourn at Montégnac, of her labors there, of the episode of Farrabesche, and so forth, did not appear till 1841, when the whole book, with the inversions and insertions just indicated, appeared in such a changed form, that even the indefatigable M. de Lovenjoul dismisses as “impossible” the idea of exhibiting a complete picture of the various changes made. Nor was the author even yet contented; for in 1845, before establishing it in its place in the Comédie, he not only, as was his wont, took out the chapter-headings, leaving five divisions only, but introduced other alterations, resulting in the present condition of the book.

It is not necessary to dwell very much on the advantages or disadvantages of these changes. There is no doubt that, as has been said above, the trick of beginning the story in the middle, and then doubling back on the start, has many drawbacks. But, on the other hand, that of an introduction which has apparently very little to do with anything, and which has nothing whatever to do with the title of the book, has others; and I do not know that in the final reconstitution Balzac has made Véronique’s part in the matter, even in her confession, as clear as it should be. It is indeed almost unavoidable that twisting and turning the shape of a story about, as he was wont to do, should bring the penalty of destroying, or at least damaging, its unity.

As the book stands it may be said to consist of three parts united rather by identity of the personages who act in them than by exact dramatic connection. There is, to take the title-part first (though it is by no means the most really important or pervading) the picture of the “Curé de Village,” which is almost an exact, and beyond doubt a designed, pendant to that of the “Médecin de Champagne.” The Abbé Bonnet indeed is not able to carry out economic ameliorations, as Dr. Benassis is, personally, but by inducing Véronique to do so he brings about the same result, and on an even larger scale. His personal action (with the necessary changes for his profession) is also tolerably identical and on the whole the two portraits may fairly be hung together as Balzac’s ideal representations of the good man in soul-curing and body-curing respectively. Both are largely conditioned  by his eighteenth-century fancy for “playing Providence,” and by his delight in extensive financial-commercial schemes. I believe that in both books these schemes have been stumbling-blocks, if not to all readers, yet to a good many. But the beauty of the portraiture of the “Curé” is nearly, if not quite equal, to that of the doctor, though the institution of celibacy has prevented Balzac from giving a key to the conduct of Bonnet quite as sufficient as that which he furnished for the conduct of Benassis.

The second part of the book is the crime – episodic as regards the criminal, cardinal as regards other points – of Tascheron. Balzac was very fond of “his crimes;” and it is quite worth while in connection with his handling of the murder here to study the curious story of his actual interference in the famous Peytel case, which also interested Thackeray so much in his Paris days. The Tascheron case itself (which from a note appears to have been partly suggested by some actual affair) no doubt has interests for those who like such things, and the picture of the criminal in prison is very striking. But we see and know so very little of Tascheron himself, and even to the very last (which is long afterwards) we are left so much in the dark as to his love for Veronique, that the thing has an extraneous air. It is like a short story foisted in.

This objection connects itself at once with a similar one to the delineation of Véronique. There is nothing in her conduct intrinsically impossible, or even improbable. A girl of her temperament, at once, as often happens, strongly sensual and strongly devotional, deprived of her good looks by illness, thrown into the arms of a husband physically repulsive, and after a short time not troubling himself to be amiable in any other way, might very well take refuge in the substantial, if not ennobling, consolations offered by a good-looking and amiable young fellow of the lower class. Her conduct at the time of the crime (her exact complicity in which is, as we have said, rather imperfectly indicated) is also fairly probable, and to her repentance and amendment of life no exception can be taken. But only in this last stage do we really see anything of the inside of Véronique’s nature; and even then we do not see it completely. The author’s silence on the details of the actual liaison with Tascheron has its advantages, but it also has its defects.

Still, the book is one of great attraction and interest, and takes, if I may judge by my own experience, a high rank for enchaining power among that class of Balzac’s books which cannot be put exactly highest. If the changes made in it by its author have to some extent dislocated it as a whole, they have resulted in very high excellence for almost all the parts.

________________________

Albert Savarus, with its enshrined story of “L’Ambitieux par Amour” (something of an oddity for Balzac, who often puts a story within a story, but less formally than this), contains various appeals, and shows not a few of its author’s well-known interests in politics, in affairs, in newspapers, not to mention the enumerations of dots and fortunes which he never could refuse himself. The affection of Savarus for the Duchesse d’Argaiolo may interest different persons differently. It seems to me a little fade. But the character of Rosalie de Watteville is in a very different rank. Here only, except, perhaps, in the case of Mademoiselle de Verneuil, whose unlucky experiences had emancipated her, has Balzac depicted a girl full of character, individuality, and life. It was apparently necessary that Rosalie should be made not wholly amiable in order to obtain this accession of wits and force, and to be freed from the fatal gift of candeur, the curse of the French ingénue. Her creator has also thought proper to punish her further, and cruelly, at the end of the book. Nevertheless, though her story may be less interesting than either of theirs, it is impossible not to put her in a much higher rank as a heroine than either Eugénie or Ursule, and not to wish that Balzac had included the conception of her in a more important structure of fiction.

Albert Savarus appeared in sixty headed chapters in the Siècle for May and June 1842, and then assumed its place in the Comédie. But though left there, it also formed part of a two-volume issue by Souverain in 1844, in company with La Muse du département. “Rosalie” was at first named “Philomene.”

As something has necessarily been said already about the book-history of the Curé de Village, little remains but to give exact dates and places of appearance. The Presse published the (original) first part in December-January 1838-39, the original second (Véronique) six months later, and the third (Véronique au Tombeau) in August. All had chapters and chapter- titles. As a book it was in its first complete form published by Souverain in 1841, and was again altered when it took rank in the Comédie six years later.

George Saintsbury

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

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