The Peasantry (Les Paysans)
Few, I suppose, of the readers of Les Paysans in more recent years have read it without a more or less distinct mental comparison with the corresponding book in the Rougon-Macquart series. And I should hope that this comparative process has had, in the best minds, only one result. Les Paysans (which, by the way, is a very late book, partly posthumous, and is said, though not on positive authority, to have enjoyed the collaboration of Madame de Balzac) is not one of Balzac’s best; but it is as far above La Terre from every conceivable point of view, except that of Holywell Street, as a play of Shakespeare is above one of Monk Lewis.
The comparison, indeed, exhibits something more than the difference of genius in Balzac and in M. Zola. It illustrates the difference of their methods. We know how not merely the Rougon-Macquart series in general, but La Terre in particular, was composed. M. Zola, who is a conscientious man, went down to a village (somewhere in Beauce, if I recollect rightly), stayed some time, made his notes, and came back to Paris.
There is nothing like the same great gulf fixed between the Londoner and the countryman in England as that which exists between the Parisian and the Provincial in France. But imagine an Englishman, not even English by race, from his youth up an inhabitant of great towns, attempting to delineate the English peasantry after a few weeks’ stay in a Wiltshire village!
Balzac, on the other hand, a Frenchman of Frenchmen, was born in a French country town, was brought up in the country, and, what is more, was in the constant habit of retiring to out-of-the-way country inns and similar places to work. He had the key, to begin with; and he never let it get rusty. To some tastes and judgments his country sketches, if less lively, are more veracious even than his Parisian ones; they have less convention about them; they are less obviously under the dominion of prepossessions and crotchets, less elaborately calculated to form backgrounds and scenery for the evolutions of Rastignacs and Rubemprés.
The result is, in Les Paysans, a book of extraordinary interest and value. In one respect, indeed, it falls short of the highest kind of novel. There is no character in whose fortunes or in whose development we take the keenest interest. Blondet is little more than an intelligent chorus or reporter, though he does not tell the story; Montcornet is a good-natured “old silly;” the Countess is – a Countess. Not one of the minor characters, not even Rigou, is very much more than a sketch. But then there is such a multitude of these sketches, and they are all instinct with such life and vigor! Although Balzac has used no illegitimate attractions – think only of the kind of stuff with which M. Zola, like a child smearing color on a book-engraving, would have daubed the grisly outlines of the Tonsard family! – he has not shrunk from what even our modern realists, I suppose, would allow to be “candor;” and his book is as masterly as it is crushing in its indictment against the peasant.
Is the indictment as true as it is severe and well urged? I am rather afraid that we have not much farther to look than at certain parts of more than one of the Three Kingdoms to see that we need not even limit ourselves to the French peasant in admitting that it is. There are passages in the book which read as if they might be extracts mutatis mutandis from a novel on the Irish Land League or the Welsh Anti-Tithe Agitation. To a certain extent, no doubt, the English peasant, at least when he is not Celtic, is rather less bitten with actual “land-hunger” than the Frenchman; and even when he is a Celt, it does not seem to be so much land-hunger proper as a dislike to adopting any other occupation which drives him to crime. Moreover, Free Trade and other things have made land in the United Kingdom very much less an object of positive greed than it was in France eighty years ago, or, indeed, than it is there still. Yet the main and special ingredients of a land agitation – the ruthless disregard of life, the indifference to all considerations of gratitude or justice, the secret- society alliance against the upper classes, – all these things are delineated here with an almost terrifying veracity.
For individual and separate sketches of scenes and characters (with the limitation above expressed) the book may vie almost with the best. The partly real, partly fictitious, otter-hunting of the old scoundrel Fourchon is quite first-rate; and it is of a kind rarely found in French writers till a time much more modern than Balzac’s. The machinations of Gaubertin, Sibilet, and Rigou are a little less vivid; but the latter is a masterly character of the second class, and perhaps the best type in fiction of the intelligent sensualist of the lower rank – of the man hard-headed, harder-hearted, and entirely destitute of any merit but shrewdness. The character of Bonnebault is a little, a very little, theatrical; the troupier francais debauched, but not ungenerous, appears a little too much in his cartoon manner. “La Péchina” wants fuller working out; but she affords one of the most interesting touches of the comparison above suggested in the scene between her, Nicolas, and Catherine. One turns a little squeamish at the mere thought of what M. Zola would have made of it in the effort to make clear to the lowest apprehension what Balzac, almost without offence, has made clear to all but the very lowest. Michaud is good and not overdone; and of his enemies the Tonsards – enough has been said. They could not be better in their effectiveness; and, I am afraid, they could not be much better in their truth. Here, at least, if the moral picture is grimy enough, Balzac cannot, I think, be charged with having exaggerated it, while he cannot be denied the credit of having presented it in extraordinarily forcible and brilliant colors and outlines.
Les Paysans, owing to the lateness of its appearance, was less pulled about than almost any other of its author’s books. It, or rather, the first part of it, appeared under the title Qui Terre a Guerre a in the Presse for December 1844. Nothing more appeared during the author’s life; but in 1855 the Revue de Paris reprinted the previous portion, and finished the book, and the whole was published in four volumes by de Potter in the same year.
From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.