The Middle Classes (Les Petits Bourgeois)
A MAIN – I should myself be disposed to say the main – interest of Les Petits Bourgeois arises from the fact that it was not only the last published, except scraps, of Balzac’s works, but was actually never included in the various editions of the Comédie Humaine till the appearance of the so-called édition définitive a few years ago. In the famous collection of five-and-fifty squat volumes in which most people have made acquaintance with him it does not appear, and M. de Lovenjoul himself speaks of it as “too little known.” It is supposed to have been, as Le Député d’Arcis certainly was, finished by Charles Rabou; but the extent of his contribution does not appear to be known. The critic just referred to thinks that it cannot have been great, because Balzac, some years before his death, speaks of the book as “nearly finished.” It is always wise to differ with M. de Lovenjoul extremely cautiously and diffidently, for his knowledge of Balzac is as boundless as his absence of pretension or dictatorship on the subject is remarkable. But I venture to observe that there are several other books of which Balzac at different times speaks as having been far advanced, if not actually ready for publication, yet of which no trace seems to exist even in M. de Lovenjoul’s own extensive collection of unprinted “Remains.” Still, there can be little doubt that the later parts of Les Petits Bourgeois exhibit far less mark of an alien hand than the later parts of the Député d’Arcis. And though, if the book was actually finished, or nearly so, by the author himself it seems strange that he should not have issued it, anxious as he always was to make money; yet his absence from France, his illnesses, his unlucky devotion to the theatre, and other things during the last three or four years of his life, supply not altogether insufficient explanations of the failure.
If we suppose that he actually finished it, or that he left with it and with the Député distinct instructions to Rabou for its completion, we may observe some things of interest about the pair. One is their very great length as compared with most of their fellows. Only three other numbers of the Comédie – Illusions Perdues, Les Célibataires, and Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes – equal them in general length, and all these three are practically collections of separate tales, with a certain community of subject. But it must also be remembered that La Cousine Bette, their greatest and most immediate forerunner, is much longer than any other undivided single book. And from this, I think it is not improper to infer that Balzac was experiencing a leaning towards longer stories, which might have had distinct results if he had gone on.
Secondly, in both stories, and here particularly in parts where there is no reason to question the appearance of his own work, we note not merely an apparent desire to wind up the clue of the histories of divers important personages, but also a tendency to refer and cross-refer to the earlier numbers of the Comédie in a way which may be found slightly irritating, but which is significant. For we know that in the magnificent dreams, the “lordly keeps of Spain,” which Balzac cherished and dwelt in, the present Comédie, huge as it is, was, to keep the Dantean phrase, not an entire Commedia but only a Cantica of one – that there were to be other collections standing to it as the whole of the present mass stands to the divisions or Scenes. It was therefore natural that this task of winding up the clues should seem desirable to him. As in the Député d’Arcis we see the last of Vautrin, so here we part with an old–it is impossible to say, friend, but acquaintance, in Corentin. And it may be a slight bribe to the belief that the thing is really Balzac’s if we note that thus we leave off as we began; that as in Les Chouans, the revelation of the author, we heard of the spy’s first exploits, so here we leave him breaking his wand, or rather transferring it to la Peyrade, with the exulting but ominous declaration that “all things pass except the police and the necessity for it,” a sort of translation, in Balzac’s key, of Joseph de Maistre’s famous theory that society rests on the executioner. One may sigh for a little poetical justice, and wish that the manes of Montauran and Mlle. de Verneuil, of Michu and others, had not remained unavenged; but that would have counter-worked Balzac’s principles, sound enough if not pushed too far, that the salus reipublicae has precedence of all private rights and wrongs.
Not a very great deal need be said of the book itself. It has a certain resemblance to its great predecessor or contemporary or follower (for the dates are not certain), La Cousine Bette; but is almost entirely destitute of tragedy, except in the painful but happily-ending episode of Lydie de la Peyrade. In the minuteness of its attention to municipal matters, it shows almost as strongly as Le Député d’Arcis how Balzac’s mind, under the conditions of the later July Monarchy, had been drawn to the subject of public life. I do not know whether it would be going too far to assume that it also shows, taken with La Cousine Bette, a certain tendency to exchange the technically “high” life in which the author had earlier delighted for the financial and bourgeois element which (as, to do him justice, he had long ago foreseen) was overtaking it hand over hand in point of political and social importance, and was, as he anticipated, to supersede it mainly under the Second Empire, and almost wholly under the Third Republic. The details, scenes, and characters, if not for Balzac extraordinarily brilliant, show at least no falling off. The Thuillier and Colleville households are ignoble, but not absolutely disgusting, and the intrigues of Cérizet and others about the “succession Thuillier,” though something of a double on Le Cousin Pons, are sufficiently different. But the author no doubt meant the main interest to centre on Théodose de la Peyrade and his amateur performance of something like the same honorable offices to which his uncle’s Mephistophelian friend destined and devoted him. La Peyrade is of that class of persons who, as the Scotch judge remarked, “are clever chiels, but would be nane the waur of a hanging.” But he repents and makes such amends as are possible for his chief overt crime, and he too is not disgusting.
The book, when in his letters Balzac spoke of it as first nearly finished and then actually “set up,” bore the title of Les Petits Bourgeois de Paris, but nobody seems to have seen the MS. or the proofs. It actually appeared in the Pays during the autumn of 1854, and was afterwards issued as a book by the publisher de Potter in eight volumes – four bearing the present title in 1856, and the other four as Les Parvenus in 1857. The first part had twenty-seven, and the second twenty-five chapter divisions without headings. M. de Lovenjoul does not mention whether there was any special authority for the suppression of these when the book was at last, a few years ago, made part of the Comédie, or whether it was done in accordance with Balzac’s usual practice.
From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.