A Bachelor’s Establishment by Honoré de Balzac

Les Célibataires: Un Ménage de garçon
Also known as Les Célibataires: La Rabouilleuse
The Celibates: A Bachelor’s Establishment
Also translated as The Celibates: The Black Sheep
Also translated as The Celibates: La Rabouilleuse
Also translated as The Celibates: The Two Brothers


Dr. Rouget, now deceased, was married to the most beautiful woman in Issoudun but didn’t trust her fidelity. They had a son, Jean-Jacques, and ten years later a daughter, Agathe, that Dr. Rouget believed was actually the daughter of his friend Lousteau. Mme Rouget’s best friend and confidante was M. Lousteau’s sister, Madame Hochon who is Agathe’s godmother.

The son, Jean-Jacques, is the bachelor of the establishment in the title. He resembled his father in looks but not in mind. His father kept him under strict control once he realized the extent of his stupidity.

Dr. Rouget sent Agathe to live with his wife’s younger brother, Descoings, in Paris. They had no children so he thought she would be their heir and he would be able to disinherit her.

Bridau met Agathe while visiting the shop and they were married within ten days. Dr. Rouget rushed to Paris prior to Agathe’s wedding to draw up the marriage settlement. Bridau was too besotted to see to his future wife’s interests. When Agathe’s father, Dr. Rouget, died, Bridau was earning twelve thousand francs plus bonuses. He was not concerned that Agathe was left nothing in the old man’s will. Her hundred thousand franc marriage portion was considered the total inheritance due her.

Workaholic Bridau worshiped Napoleon. The family lived in a spacious flat on Quai Voltaire near the Ministry and the Tuileries. They had two children, Philippe first and Joseph three years later.

Bridau died in 1808, largely as a result of his long working hours. When Napoleon learned that Madame Bridau had no private means he put her on the pension list for four thousand francs. In addition he paid for the boys’ education at the Lycee Imperial from his Privy Purse.

Agathe had never had contact with her family, not even for her mother’s funeral which occurred when she was nearing the end of a pregnancy. She received a letter annually from her godmother, Madame Hochon but ignored any cryptically worded advice. When advised to allow M. Hochon to act for her in family matters, she did not want to be troublesome to her brother who had not written even once to her.

Prior to his death, Bridau had been advised by Roguin to dispute the will, but did not do so. He did however invest the remainder of Agathe’s marriage settlement in the funds and they provided two thousand francs a year. Agathe never chose to remarry and the boys are now grown.

Madame Descoings now moved in with the widowed Agathe. Together their resources totaled twelve thousand francs a year. In 1809 Madame Descoings, at sixty-five, still retained much of her youthful beauty. Her enjoyments consisted of edible delicacies, the theatre and the lottery. Over the years Madame Descoings has been using household money to play the lottery–unselfishly though as she hoped to hit it big for the benefit of her grandson Bixiou, Agathe, Joseph and Philippe. She always played the same numbers.

When the household debt reached twenty thousand francs, Madame Descoings tried to repay the debt by mortgaging her fortune. She then found out from Roguin how truly dastardly Dr. Rouget had been. When his brother-in-law Descoings had died, he had taken over the Descoings inheritance and her pension was being paid from Jean-Jacques Rouget’s estate. It will cease with her death. Finally, from necessity, Madame Descoings confesses all to Agathe who calmly dismisses the servants, sells most of her Treasury funds and gives notice on the flat.

Agathe and Madame Descoings now live on the Rue Mazarine in one of the worst parts of Paris. Across the street are the various buildings of the the Institut (for artists). Agathe lives on the third floor and Madame Descoings on the second floor. They only brought the barest of furnishings with them. Agathe now lived only for her sons.

Madame Descoings assigned three thousand francs of her pension to Agathe. Since she enjoyed cooking, she prepared the dinners, enabling them to do without a cook. Their only entertainment consisted of cards with a few friends. Madame Descoings still played her lottery numbers, hoping to win enough to pay her debt to Agathe. She had a small sum of money left with which to spoil the boys.

Agathe’s first son, Phillipe, has fair hair, blue eyes and high spirits which are encouraged by one of the visiting card players, Claparon. Phillipe is very atheletic and rather vain. He was fifteen when the family moved to Rue Mazarine.

Joseph, twelve at the time of the move, was messy. His hair always seemed unkempt and his clothes rapidly resembled a disaster no matter how much Agathe scolded him. He was quiet but, unnoticed by Agathe and the card players, very observant.

This difference in the boy’s outward appearance and temperament gave Philippe an edge in his mother’s affections. Agathe thought Philippe would do fine in life but she always worried what would happen to Joseph.

One day in 1812, Joseph saw an art student sketching a caricature of his teacher and was fascinated. The next day he watched the students of the Institut from the window and finally went into the Institut courtyard and in through a half-open door. Several of the students made fun of Joseph and his odd appearance, but when one of the masters arrived, he rescued Joseph from the tortuous pranksters. Upon hearing he wanted to become an artist, Chaudet invited him to visit the studios as often as he pleased and gave him art supplies.

Without mentioning any of this to Agathe, Joseph began spending three hours at the Institut twice weekly. Madame Descoings also gave him art supplies and took him to the Salon. While at school, Joseph was always drawing and made such progress that one of the teachers, Lemire, visited Agathe to discuss Joseph’s future. Agathe was horrified. She had wanted Joseph to become a civil servant. Although Madame Descoings pleaded with her not to, Agathe went to the Institut to see Chaudet and forbid Joseph to visit there again.

Joseph, although he had promised not to go to the Institut, went often to Regnauld’s studio. Madame Descoings continues to support Joseph.

Philippe had been very excited about serving under Napoleon since attending the last review at the Tuileries. Unknown to Agathe, he sent a petition to Napoleon and within twenty-four hours was transferred from the Lycee Imperial to St Cyr and in November, 1813, was appointed a sub-lieutenant in the cavalry. His military career is meteoric but short. A mere seven months later, July, 1814, a captain with numerous honors at only nineteen, Philippe returns to Paris. Napoleon is out and Philippe refuses to serve under the Bourbons. He is now on half-pay.

Along with Napoleon, Joseph’s scholarship and Agathe’s pension are gone. Joseph, encouraged by Madame Descoings and Bixiou, begins working for the celebrated painter Gros.

Philippe with his military honors is Agathe’s pride and joy. Joseph, often ill from hard work, is a source of worry. Joseph isn’t jealous of Philippe but shares Agathe’s admiration for his older brother. Philippe is contemptous of Joseph and makes desparaging remarks about him which Agathe takes for signs of affection.

In 1816, Joseph has an attic room converted to a studio. Philippe does nothing but hang out in cafés drinking, playing billiards and dabbling in conspiracies. He has been arrested and had his half-pay suspended. Eventually Philippe decides he would like to go to the United States to work on the Champ d’Asile project. Agatha gives him the necessary ten thousand franc subscription and spends an additional one thousand francs getting him ready to sail from Le Havre. Agathe’s living expenses are now very sparse and Joseph participates in the spartan conditions.

In 1818, Roguin who had been advising both Madame Descoings and Agathe (and Bridau before them) defected with all his clients’ funds. Three days later a bill of exchange for one thousand francs arrives which Philippe had drawn on his mother–the U.S. project was a swindle, he had lost all his money and run up additional debts.

Joseph confides in one of the painters and is able to get some commissions. This, in addition to other work he does, enables Agathe to cover Philippe’s debts. She goes to Le Havre to meet the returning ship. There she buys him new clothes and he spends the rest of the money she brought dining and drinking.

Joseph, now twenty-one, isn’t so in awe of Philippe as when Philippe left. After a small dinner with only the family, Claparon and Desroches all the friends have been invited for the evening. The old card players are put off by Philippe’s coarse manners and behavior. The younger set are going to play ecarte and Madame Descoings provides Philippe with twenty francs via Joseph. Philippe loses it, goes into debt and causes a loud commotion.

The next morning Madame Descoings and Agathe plan how they can again cut expenses in order to give Philippe an allowance. Madame Descoings will give up her apartment and turn Agathe’s drawing-room into a bedroom. Philippe, on hearing of their plans tells them not to worry, that he will find a job but he quickly falls into a daily routine which doesn’t include job hunting.

Philippe’s old Dragoon captain Giroudeau introduces him to the theatre and, through Florentine, to a dancer named Marie Godeschal who uses the stage name of Mariette. She lives with her brother who is a clerk in Derville’s office.

Giroudeau also introduces Philippe to his nephew Finot who could help him obtain employment with a newspaper and aid Mariette’s career. Giroudeau is subscription cashier in a seedy office at Finot’s newspaper. He tells Philippe that the pen is powerful now and has taken the place of gunpowder.

Finot tells Philippe how he might make some money by causing a ruckus about what happened to all the money raised by national appeal and asking to see the accounts. He also tells Philippe how he can become cashier at a new opposition newspaper with a salary of three thousand francs, a permanent position, if he can come up with twenty thousand francs security money. As Philippe is leaving, Giroudeau remarks to Finot that he is only paying him twelve hundred frances. Finot tells his uncle that the new paper won’t last a year.

Agathe’s Treasury bond is put up as surety for Philippe’s new position. He promises to pay one hundred francs monthly to the women, but doesn’t even pay it the first month. Agathe merely remarks, “Anyhow, he’s happy.”

Through various influencial people, Mariette becomes a celebrated dancer at the Theatre de la Porte-Saint-Martin and gets an engagement at the Opera. Seeing a bright future for Mariette, Philippe proposes but is turned down. He rarely visits his mother but spends his evenings at various parties. After Mariette’s debut at the Opera she is courted by a Duke. Desperate to compete, Philippe begins taking funds from his cashier’s till. In a few months, by May, 1821, he has stolen eleven thousand francs. Mariette goes to London while the Opera House is being rebuilt. She has only used Philippe as a stepping-stone and has gained the support of other newspapermen. She still has an affectionate gratitude for Philippe.

With Mariette in London, Philippe is back in the attic of the Rue Mazarine and not happy about it. He feels he can no longer live without the luxuries and the excitement he became accustomed to over the past year. There is also the problem of the missing eleven thousand francs.

Philippe visits Joseph’s studio for the first time–to cleverly mention how he plans to commit suicide because of the money he took from his till. After Philippe leaves, Joseph relays this information to Agathe and Madame Descoings and the two set to work to see what can be done. When Philippe returns later, they make a fuss over him; Madame Descoings breaks out her wine and rum and they even give him cigars and allow him to smoke indoors although they detest the smell.

Madame Descoings comes up with the plan of making it seem that Philippe took the money for the benefit of a friend in need and Desroches implements this plan and forms a petition to get Philippe admitted to the army. Agathe has to sign over half of her Treasury Bonds to cover the loss. Her income is now halved. As Finot predicted, the paper soon ceases publication, so there are no repercussions to Philippe’s crime.

While Philippe drifts back into Café life, Joseph works hard at his career, including the painting that will make his name known. The Duc de Maufrigneuse has requested that Philippe be placed in his regiment. If they can just keep his gambling a secret until his commission is in place, all will be well careerwise.

To save a model’s fee, Joseph is using Madame Descoings as one of the models for his painting. They are able to chat while she poses and one of the topics is always her lottery numbers which Joseph mentions are a long time turning up. Another of the topics they discuss is the money missing from Joseph’s monthly expense fund which he keeps in a compartment of his chest. They decide that it much be Philippe. Joseph wishes Philippe would just ask for it instead of taking it by stealth. She mentions that she sometimes notices money missing from her purse. The next day, when Joseph is out, Madame Descoings keeps watch and Philippe is the only one to enter Joseph’s studio.

Even Agathe, once as she was falling asleep, saw Philippe going through her pockets and taking what money he found. When she told him just to ask her for funds, he did and her savings were soon depleted.

Philippe also mortgaged his pension for three years to pay a “debt of honor”–1,000 francs which Giroudeau got from Florentine for him. When Joseph enters his studio, he finds Philippe there and Philippe asks for money. Joseph tells him to get it and Philippe replies that he already took all of it the day before. Joseph wisely says he has no more money instead of letting Philippe see his other hiding place–a secret drawer in the chest.

Madame Descoings mentions that they will all have plenty of money in a few days when her lottery numbers come in. Philippe laughs, saying that she needs 200 francs to play them. She realizes she should not have said anything in front of Philippe. Later in the day, when everyone is out, Philippe returns to the apartment. Finding that Madame Descoings has taken the key, he goes to a nearby locksmith and has him open the door. Philippe finds the gold coins totalling four hundred francs that she had sewn in her mattress, remakes the bed and leaves with her hoard.

Philippe places half the coins in his boot for a reserve and gambles with the rest. He does well, amassing 150,000 francs, but now drunk, loses his discipline and the money. The gambling establishment follow their usual custom and take him to a sleezy bed and breakfast where they pay for his room and dump him on the bed.

Meanwhile, at the apartment the family eventually begins dinner without Philippe. Madame Descoings chats about her numbers. Tomorrow is the day of the big drawing. She faints when finds her coins missing. Ironically, at the time she was thinking of going and purchasing her lottery numbers she went instead to buy cigars for Philippe.

Agathe says that they will use her silverware but when she goes to the cabinet it is also missing and there is a pawn ticket in the bag. Joseph then gets all the money he has saved, three hundred francs, and rushes out to find a lottery office. However, he doesn’t know where they are and by the time he finds one, it has just closed. He walks home in despair at failing Madame Descoings.

The next morning, for the first time in years there is no need for Madame Descoings to check the lottery numbers as she was unable to play. The last of the card players, old Desroches enters, calling out: “Congratulations on your fortune!” After twenty years, Madame Descoings’ numbers have finally come up. She has a stroke and collapses. The only words she is able to utter are “Three million francs . . .”

When Philippe returns that afternoon, he is totally unrepentent and says he is not to blame. In fact, when he discovers the two hundred francs reserve he had placed in his boot, he only thinks of his missed gambling fortune. He is in bad shape and falls ill with a fever and has to be put to bed.

Madame Descoings makes Agathe promise to put her capital into an annuity with young Desroches to guard it from Philippe. She dies on December 31, five days after the lottery. As her pension is now stopped, Agathe is reduced to living on five hundred francs a year.

A month later, as Philippe is recovering from the fever, Agathe tells him that she now will have to work for her living and implores him to rejoin the service and support himself. He merely moans that she and Joseph no longer love him. As he is leaving, Agathe breaks down and gives him the last one hundred francs in the house. He merely tells her that he is going to Florentine, Giroudeau’s mistress where he has friends. She drops to her knees and prays for him.

By February, 1822, Agathe is in the attic room formerly occupied by Philippe when he was with them. Joseph took great care in furnishing and decorating it for her. He also splurges by taking her to dine each evening at one of the better table d’hotes.

Abbe Loraux helped Agathe get a position in a lottery office which pays six hundred francs a year.
Although she virtually disowned Philippe after he stole Madame Descoings’ lottery money, Agathe continues to think of him. She slowly leads up to the subject with Joseph and eventually confesses that she would like a portrait of him and asks Joseph to find out how he is doing. Joseph sighs and says, “We all have our fatal passion.”

Joseph finds Philippe at Finot’s where he is working as Giroudeau’s substitute. The sitting is arranged. Agathe hides behind a screen during most of the first one and only comes out when Philippe invites Joseph to go out to dinner with him. The three of them eat a one hundred franc meal at the Rocher de Cancale, but Joseph avoids the invitation to the theatre.

The next Sunday Agathe doesn’t hide behind the screen, but is openly present and chats with Philippe and learns that her godmother’s nephew has a position in the literary world. Philippe suggests a sitting the next day to finish the portrait but Joseph tells him he must finish a copy of a Rubens worth twenty thousand francs as it was only on loan for a short period of time. Philippe looks at the painting and arranges to come for the sitting the next Sunday.

The following day Joseph finishes his copy, including the special varnish which makes it look old. He is expecting his friend Pierre Grassou and the art dealer Eli Magus. As a prank he places the Rubens on his easel and places the copy in its former place. It fools Pierre. Magus does not appear. Since Agathe is dining with old Madame Desroches whose husband has recently died, Joseph suggests that Pierre join him at the table d’hote.

Shortly after they leave, Philippe arrives. He tells the doorkeeper he is to pose that evening and will wait for Joseph in the studio. He leaves shortly with the Rubens which he sells for three thousand francs. He had sent a message to Eli Magus to delay his visit until the following day.

Joseph escorts his mother home from the lottery office and the doorkeeper tells them of Philippe’s visit. Fortunately Joseph had not replaced the paintings in their original position and it was the copy which Philippe stole.

Agathe moans that she now only has one son. Joseph insists that they must tell the doorkeeper not to admit Philippe and they should keep their keys with them. He tells Agathe he will finish Philippe’s portrait for her from memory, but she tells him not to bother as it would hurt her too much to look at it. Agathe feels that someday they will see him in court.

Two months later Giroudeau visits Agathe and Joseph and tells them Philippe is very ill and needs to go to a nursing home. He asks them to pay half the cost. Agathe says she has no money. Joseph tells him he doesn’t believe the story.

Three months pass. It is the end of July and Agathe sees Philippe as she is on her way to work. He is very down-and-out. Giroudeau was telling the truth. She places her purse in his hand and rushes away, but can’t get the image of him out of her mind as she weeps and prays for him.

Soon the newspapers are full of an officers’ conspiracy and Philippe is involved. Ever ready with excuses for him, Agathe tells Joseph they drove him to it with their harshness.

Giroudeau shows up again and tells Agathe she needs to get twelve thousand francs in order to buy the silence of two witnesses. In desperation Agathe writes her godmother to ask if her brother (Jean-Jacques Rouget in Issoudun) will give her the money, or failing that, if Madame Houchon herself can loan her the money to be repaid in two years. The answer is no–her brother, although having plenty of money, will not give a sou and her godmother is married to a miser and has no funds of her own. She also mentions a woman who lives with Jean-Jacques who completely rules him and advises Agathe to come to Issoudun immediately to try and save the inheritance, saying that although her brother is only fifty-seven, he isn’t in very good shape.

When they tell all to Desroches, he immediately suspects a plot on Philippe’s part to extort more money from his mother and tells Agathe he will take complete control of Philippe’s case and she should go to see about salvaging the inheritance. Privately, he tells Joseph that Philippe isn’t in much trouble and he thinks Philippe may even have purposely caused the plot to be discovered.

As Agathe and Joseph travel to Issoudun, they wonder if they will be able to save any of the inheritance. Joseph knows nothing of the law and wishes Desroches had given them more detailed instructions about the ad captandum appeal.

The history of Issoudun mentions the area’s lethargy and resistance to change. The most energy exhibited in Issoudun seems to be by the “Knights of Idleness,” a group of young men with nothing to do as they await their inheritances or marriage. They pull various pranks and practical jokes at night to avoid being recognized. Originally these were harmless, but as the years passed, they got more intense as the perpetrators ran out of ideas.

Maxence Gilet’s mother (now deceased) was the beautiful wife of a poor clog-maker. It was speculated that his father was either Lousteau (Madame Houchon’s brother) or Dr. Rouget. The father was actually a dragoons officer stationed at Bourges, but Madame Gilet was careful to keep this a secret in order to obtain money and favors for Max from Lousteau and Rouget.

When Max was seventeen and out on a fruit-stealing mission he frightened a pregnant woman when he appeared in her garden. The woman died and M. Gilet, wanting to be rid of Max threatened him with the guillotine causing Max to run away and enlist in the army.

Max was rapidly promoted, but was captured and imprisoned on the hulks where he killed seven other prisoners in duels over a period of several years. Released when peace was declared, he returned to Issoudun to find that his parents had died in the workhouse. Not wanting to enlist under the new regime without his cross and the rank of major, Max returned to Issoudun where he is Grand Master of the Knights of Idleness. Not respected by the leading families, He is feared because of his temper.

Max became well-known in Issoudun three years prior (in 1819) when the officers of a battalion of Royalists passing through Issoudun stopped at the Café Militaire, not realizing it was frequented by Bonapartists. One of them called for some newspapers, naming Royalist ones. Upon being given the only paper the café had, an Opposition one read by the Bonapartists, he tore it to shreds, threw it on the floor and spat on it. The news of this insult spread throughout Issoudun. Max, two other former officers, Major Potel and Captain Renard, arrived, followed by thirty young men and other various spectators. Max asked for his paper and was told what happened with one of the Royalist officers volunteering the information that they had spat upon the shreds. Max immediately challenged him to a duel and killed the man. Potel and Renard took on the other two. Potel’s man died in hospital; Renard’s man escaped and Renard was wounded. Max was a hero.

The pranks of the Knights of Idleness increased in audacity and many began to have bad results causing misery among the victims. When the Subprefect tried to put a stop to them, he was hounded out of town.

La Cognette’s, the meeting place for the Knights of Idleness, is a tavern run by Madame Cognet. She takes excellent care of the rogues, giving them a private room, cooking for them, and keeping a stock of better wine ready for them.

An old Spaniard named Fario, a former prisoner of war who stayed on when peace came, is now a small corn merchant. On this particular night Max made him their victim by placing his cart at the base of the Issoudun Tower which stands on an eighty foot hill composed of old ruins and rubble. It took them an hour to dismantle the cart, hoist it up and reconstruct it. The Knights are sitting in La Cognette’s eating, drinking and thinking of Fario’s face in the morning when he searches for his cart.

Two of Max’s crew, Francois Hochon and Baruch Borniche, are Madame Hochon’s grandsons. They consider Max their cousin, giving credulity to the rumor that Lousteau is his father. Orphans now, they are under the guardianship of Monsieur Hochon. They warn Max of Madame Bridau and Joseph’s arrival with the intent of displacing the “Rabouilleuse.” Max takes exception to the term Rabouilleuse.

La Rabouilleuse’s name is Flore Brazier. She is called Jean-Jacques Rouget’s housekeeper-mistress or servant-mistress. Max is currently living in the “Bachelor’s Establishment” of Jean-Jacques. If Max’s relationship with her is mentioned in the presence of Potel or Renard, Potel says that if Max is Jean-Jacques’ illegitimate brother, then why shouldn’t he live in the house. Renard adds that what’s the harm of Max and Flore being together.

Max laughs and says that if need be the Knights of Idleness can help him run the Parisians out of Issoudun.

Later, walking home alone, Max reflects on the main reason for his passion for Flore: Jean-Jacques’ forty thousand francs a year from landed property. Three quarters of a million francs has been saved from this income over the seventeen years since Dr. Rouget’s death. Even if the will is changed and the inheritance lost to Flore, the savings could be saved if they can get it transferred to Flore’s name.

Old Dr. Rouget saw the orphan Flore in September, 1799, when she was helping catch crayfish. Stunned by her beauty, he was able to get Flore to come to his home by paying her Uncle Brazier three hundred francs a year. Flore is the only one who mourned the doctor when he died. Jean-Jacques was happy to be able to do as he pleased. Dr. Rouget knew he hadn’t long to live and his estate is in very good order with long-term leases on all the property. But he was unable to get his son married due to his terrible looks and his partial idiocy.

The home of the Rougets is the old home of the Descoings. It is furnished with all sorts of valuable paintings and furniture confiscated from various abbeys. These are not cared for as no one is aware of their worth. Paintings by de Vinci, Titian, Rubens and others are valued for their frames! Jean-Jacques is passionately in love with Flore, the only woman with whom he has had any contact.

In 1816, Flore fell in love at first sight with Maxence Gilet and he was too struck with her beauty to “disdain such a conquest.” Flore convinces Jean-Jacques to invite his father’s son Max to make his home with him. Flore tells him they need a brave man in the house to protect them from thieves and anyway they can tell people that his father had told him on his death-bed not to forget Max.

Now Flore is “Madame Brazier” and gets a fancy wardrobe. In 1817, after a year, Flore gets a horse for Max and Max choses Kouski, an old Polish lancer of the Imperial Guard for his manservant. Kouski idolizes Max, especially after the café incident with the three Royalists.

As Agathe and Joseph near Issoudun the state of Jean-Jacques’ health is not good. The meals became even more sumptuous after Max’s arrival, yet Jean-Jacques gained little weight. He looked so poorly that people he met on his walks asked about his health. His limited mental faculties were also declining. It was only his love for Flore that was now keeping him alive.

Max and others go to the foot of the tower and tease Fario about his cart. Eventually they tell him that it is so light it floated up. Fario asks how he will ever be able to get it down, so Max says they will help him and a few of them climb up. Max then tips the cart over the edge and naturally it breaks when it lands. Fario asks for payment but Max says they were just trying to help. This incident is the talk of Issoudun for five days and makes the gossip rounds of the entire Berry district.

Back at the bachelor’s establishment, although Max told her not to mention it, Flore accuses Jean-Jacques of inviting the Bridaus to come for a visit. She tells him not to worry, that she and Max will leave, never to return. As Jean-Jacques is swearing that he knew nothing about it, Max enters. He and Flore have a prior agreement that he will always side with Jean-Jacques which he does now, saying that he must entertain the Bridaus magnificently–but without changing his will, thus satisfying both the outside world and his father.

Later Max asks Flore if she’s sure that Jean-Jacques has not made another will since the one leaving everything to her. Flore replies that he has nothing with which to write! They plan to begin converting the 750,000 francs to Government stock, preferably in Flore’s name. Max tells Flore that the next night at La Cognette’s, he will find a way to use the Hochons to get rid of the Bridaus.

The Hochon house faces the Rouget house and when the blinds are up, it is possible to see into either home from the other. Old Hochon is now eighty-five years of age and has become crankier and more particular with the passage of time. With his children deceased, the household now consists of him, his wife (Agathe’s godmother), the two grandsons (members of Max’s Knights of Idleness) and a granddaughter named Adolphine.

The house is very large, as is that of Jean-Jacques, but contains a bare minimum of furniture. The two rooms allotted to Joseph and Agathe have been used to store fruit. When he heard they would be staying there, he said he was sorry he had kept the beds there. The morning of their arrival, his wife threatened him: ” . . . don’t oblige me to make up to Agathe in my will for any incivility on your part.”

Agathe and Joseph arrive by coach at the aptly named Place Misere. Memories flood Agathe’s mind as she walks toward the Hochon house where she is met on the doorstep by her godmother, now seventy-two. Most do not like Joseph’s appearance, either thinking he has been ill or that he is a rogue. Mme. Hochon sees why Agathe prefers Philippe. Only Adolphine is interested, perhaps only because of what she has heard of the life of artists in Paris.

At dinner, as soon as Joseph sees M. Hochon cutting everyone’s portion of bread, he thinks of Moliere’s famous miser, Harpagon, and thinks they would have been better off at an inn. The meal seems very poor to the Parisians but is quite lavish compared to the normal fare at the Hochon house. It turns out that the two grandsons never miss an opportunity to eat with Max at La Cognette’s.

As they go into the drawing-room, Mme. Hochon apologizes to Joseph for the scanty fare and says he’ll have to fast while there. Joseph asks her how she has kept alive and she answers that she prays. Joseph is delighted and tells her he will paint her portrait. She replies that she has been too wearied by the world to want to stay on in a portrait. Very soon visitors begin to arrive out of curiosity to see the Parisians.

Later Mme. Hochon and Agathe tell each other of their lives. Agathe feels that her godmother is the more unfortunate.

Max hasn’t thought yet of a prank worthy enough to play on the Bridaus, but at La Cognette’s he treats everyone to dinner and promises his rifle or his horse to whoever can come up with one. Meanwhile he sets everyone to collect at least twenty rats or mice to place in Fario’s corn.

The next morning Joseph looks out the window of the Hochon house and sees Rouget on the steps of his house and Flore is with him. Joseph is struck by Flore’s looks and says she was born to be painted.

While at breakfast, Agathe receives a lovely letter from her brother (composed by Max). He says he would have come to see her but his health prevents him leaving the house. He tells her he will receive her at any time and invites Joseph and the grandsons to dinner.

Joseph and Agathe, with the aid of the Hochons prepare an answer and send Gritte to deliver it. Gritte sees and hears all she is able while across the way and makes her report. She was extremely impressed by Madame’s (Flore’s) clothing and jewelry.

At four o’clock, Joseph goes across to his uncle’s and is announced by Kouski. Max is dressed as a Parisian dandy. Baruch and Francois arrive. Flore proposes a walk before dinner and while she is getting ready, Joseph notices the paintings. He is very excited and Max takes him to the attic to see the paintings stored there. When they return, Max whispers to Flore. Flore, making sure Joseph hears, says in a low voice to Rouget that since Joseph is a painter and the pictures aren’t doing them any good, he should be nice and make Joseph a present of them.

Rouget does so, saying he’ll keep the frames. Joseph says he will make copies of the paintings to put in the frames. Flore says that the canvases and paint will cost money and he should be paid for the copies. Joseph tries to decline saying that the paintings are worth money, but they insist and agree to give him the paintings and four thousand francs and he will provide them with copies.

On the walk, Flore takes Joseph’s arm. By the time they return to the house, the entire town is talking about how well they all are getting along and the gift of the paintings and the four thousand francs.

The dinner and wine are excellent, a huge improvement over the fare at the Hochon house.

That night Max tells Flore that the Bridaus will be happy with their little presents and soon leave peacefully.

When Joseph wakes up the next morning he sees that the paintings have already been brought to him. Agathe, coached by Hochon, goes thank her brother. She is very nice to Flore, praising her care of her uncle and saying she doesn’t judge but she hopes they will marry. Rouget tells Agathe that she will not be forgotten when he makes his will and gives her a dinner invitation for two days hence.

Meanwhile, the Knights of Idleness haven’t been able to think of a prank for the Bridaus, but they have gotten the boy who watches Fario’s store of corn drunk and released over four hundred rats and mice plus pigeons into the corn.

After a week, Hochon advises Agathe and Joseph to get a priest to “fill his head with religious ideas” and dismiss the woman causing all the scandal. Baruch and Francois look at each other, thinking what this would mean to Max.

Joseph advises Agathe to consult Desroches and adds that he expects nothing further from his uncle as he should be able to get one hundred fifty thousand francs for the paintings. Later Madame Hochon tells Joseph he should keep quiet about the value of the paintings, but it was already too late.

Max knows he must immediately begin work on his plan to have capital transferred to Flore’s name. To conceal the trips they will need to make, Flore spreads the word that Rouget is no longer able to walk much and must have a carriage. At Bourges, Rouget gives a power of attorney to Max to save himself bother. Rouget also requests a mortgage of one hundred forty thousand francs on his landed properties. He does though insist that Flore only have a life interest in the income.

Meanwhile, Fario has discovered the plight of his corn: it is half devoured! Much of the remaining corn is nearly sprouting due to the water Max had let in. Fario now knows that it isn’t merely a case of animals breaking into his storeroom and, having no enemies, guesses Max is behind it. Having now lost almost his entire capital, he wants revenge and begins spying on the Knights of Idleness.

Agathe and Joseph have now been in Issoudun three weeks and realize that it will take considerably longer to usurp Flore’s influence. Joseph receives a letter from his painter friend Schinner letting him know that a job for him is waiting at Chateau de Presles iand a letter from Desroches saying that Agathe should remain in Issoudun and follow any advice Hochon gives her.

Joseph goes across to say goodbye to his uncle and thinks he looks changed. Flore accuses Joseph of stealing the paintings by not telling Rouget how much they were worth. At a sign from Max, Rouget adds that it wasn’t a very nice thing to have done. Joseph says he will return the paintings! Back at the Hochon house, Joseph tells everyone, including Baruch and Francois of the scene. Hochon is appalled, saying that they could have had at least that much from the estate but now Rouget even has an excuse not to see Agathe again.

At midnight, the Knights of Idleness begin their dastardly plot of poisoning all the watchdogs. As Max is returning home, Fario stabs him. Fario then wipes his knife on his handkerchief, washes the handkerchief and returns to bed through an open window. Max cries out as he falls to the ground. Two of his Knights of Idleness hear and rush to his aid calling for help. But no watch dogs bark and no one answers their cries for assistance.

Max frames Joseph for the stabbing by saying: “I think I recognized that cursed painter!” Unfortunately for Joseph he had a very restless night and went for an early walk. Back at the Rouget house Max whispers to Flore to pretend he is dying so Joseph will be put in prison and Agathe will leave Issoudun. Returning from his walk, Joseph is spotted by the crowd at the Place Misere. He is arrested and taken to the Palais to please the crowd and for his own protection. Joseph is able to provide an alibi as he was seen by a number of people during his walk.

Meanwhile Max received a letter, apparently from Fario, saying he should not let an innocent man suffer and promising to leave Max alone if he will have Joseph released without naming the guilty party. Max burns the letter and complies, getting credit for generosity at the time Joseph’s alibi is proved. The prosecutor advises Joseph to leave Issoudun immediately for his own safety. Rouget comes to bid Agathe goodbye and lend them his carriage.

Philippe’s trial is held and he is sentenced to “police surveillance” for five years in Autun, but Desroches is able to get Philippe’s place of exile changed to Issoudun. Desroches tells Philippe all that has transpired with the inheritance and says he may have a chance to redeem himself with his family while in Issoudun and to look to Hochon for advice.

Philippe arrives in Issoudun on November 2 and checks in with the police. The day after his arrival, Philippe calls on his uncle. Between being ill, in prison and short of funds he looks so disreputable that Flore shudders at the sight of him. He declines to eat with them saying that he would not accept food or a farthing after the treatment his mother and brother received. Flore tells Rouget that he should do something for Philippe after being so generous to Max. Philippe curtly says he has some paintings to return to them if they will go to Hochon’s to pick them up.

Philippe then goes across the street to the Hochon house. Madame Hochon and Adolphine also shudder upon seeing him. Philippe gains Madame Hochon’s favor by praising her nephew, the journalist Lousteau. He admits his bad conduct and vows his life will change.

Hochon walks out with Philippe and they plan to appear cold to each other and arrange a signal to meet “by accident” on the street when necessary to discuss the inheritance situation. Hochon gives him the name of former soldiers that are not in Max’s band. One of them served under Giroudeau (Finot’s nephew and Philippe’s friend in Paris).

At the end of a week, Philippe has new clothes purchased on credit, and thanks to the influence of Giroudeau and the recent “conspiracy” he has a job (about three hours daily) and companions. Once he found out from Hochon the extent of Rouget’s finances, he was more determined than ever to break the hold Flore and Max had on his uncle.

Philippe chose lodging in a house with a huge garden where he secretly practiced fencing with Carpentier who was a former instructor in the army. He began openly to practise shooting “for amusement” to make Max believe that pistols would be his preferred weapon.

While Philippe is investigating the incident of Max’s stabbing, he discovers Fario who happened to live near him and decides to trust him. They exchange information and Philippe’s promise that if he is successful he will compensate Fario for his losses makes Fario a faithful henchman.

Near the end of November, Philippe meets Hochon and tells him that his grandsons are intimate friends with Max and each also owes Max three thousand francs.

Meanwhile Flore has been neglecting Rouget’s little attentions in an effort to force him to transfer the government bonds to her name but Rouget realizes she loves Max and fears she will abandon him for Max once she gets hold of his income.

Philippe arrives for a second visit to his uncle. Unable to see his uncle alone, Philippe confronts Flore and tells Rouget that the entire town knows he is under Flore’s thumb.

Across the way, Hochon has confronted Baruch and Francois and brought in Heron for an accounting of the guardianship so the grandsons can have their fortune and leave his home. After their betrayal they need expect nothing from him and everything will go to his daughter Adolphine.

Max says to let Philippe and Roget go for a walk alone–but Flore will sneak away while Rouget is out. During their walk, Philippe tells his uncle that he is going to kill Max in a duel. He will then move into his uncle’s house and make sure Flore treats him as wonderfully as she did in the beginning, before Max’s arrival. He warns Rouget that if he signs any papers for them then Flore will run away with Max once they get the funds.

When Rouget returns home, Kouski, pretending to sob, opens the door and tells him that Flore has taken the twenty thousand francs from the desk as her salary, said she will never again set foot in the house and left with Vedie. Max has gone for a walk to enable Rouget to agonize alone.

Fario and others have been helping Philippe spy on Flore and Max’s activities. Max sets off secretly on horseback to reach Flore in Vatan before Rouget in order to give her the latest instructions. Rouget sets out in his carriage driven by Kouski shortly after Max.

A letter from Max arrives for Baruch. He and Francois decide to show it to Hochon as they want to get back into his favor. It requests Baruch to be at Vatan at nine in the morning to become Rouget’s proxy. It adds that he will probably have to go to Paris and will be given money for the trip and then joined by Max who has to leave Issoudun on December 3.

Hochon is thrilled by this plan and tells Baruch to agree and leave for Paris, but to stop at Orleans and await to hear from Hochon. They hear the sound of a carriage and Francois says it is Rouget returning, but with Philippe!

Philippe dictates a letter to Rouget telling Flore that if she does not return immediately he will revoke his will and leave everything to Philippe and that Max can no longer live in his house.

The letter is to be delivered by Carpentier who will bring Flore back with him. But Rouget doesn’t want to send it; he fears Flore will never forgive him. Hochon shows Rouget the letter Max sent to Baruch detailing the plan to steal his money and go to Paris on December 3. Rouget is still terrified of Flore’s wrath but finally tells Carpentier to go.

Fario is bringing Philippe’s belongings so he can move in immediately. At last the carriage arrives with Flore and Vedie. Philippe goes out and fires Kouski. He takes Flore aside and tells her of the proposed duel and that if he lives she will have to make his uncle very happy or he knows of some younger women from Paris who would be happy to take her place. Rouget now rushes out and grabs Flore “like a miser seizing his gold.”

It is now December 2, the day of the Emperor’s Coronation anniversary celebration and the change in Rouget’s household is the talk of the town.

Inside, Flore begs Philippe not to fight Max. Flore goes to the Hotel de la Poste and pleads with Max for them to run away together. Not only does Max not want to be considered a coward, but he does not want Flore without old Rouget’s money. He is confident that his skill with a sabre will prevail.

At the banquet Max and Philippe are seated opposite each other and between them and their proposed seconds a duel of words is held. Anyone outside would not realize it was more than ordinary conversation. The arrangements are set for eight in the morning near the Capucin Church with Goddet, a former surgeon-major attending in a medical capacity. It will be sabres with a ten minute time limit.

Later that evening, just before Philippe is retiring, Hochon and his wife arrive. Madame Hochon wants Philippe to wear a relic of Saint Solange. He can’t but says he will appreciate her prayers. As Madame Hochon leaves she gives Benjamin thirty francs to sew the relic (a tooth) into Philippe’s trousers, which he does since she paid so dearly.

December 3: the seconds mark the line and the duellists take their places. “Just as the signal was given, Max caught sight of Fario’s sinister face looking at them through the hole which the Knights of Idleness had made for the pigeons in the roof of the church. Those eyes, which sent forth streams of fire, hatred, and revenge, dazzled Max for a moment.” The moment is enough for Philippe to “put himself on guard in a way that gained him an advantage,” causing Max to think Philippe an expert. When Max makes a bad parry, Philippe is able to knock his sabre to the ground and tells him, “Pick it up. I am not the man to kill a disarmed enemy.”

Eventually, in the ninth minute, knowing he has lost, Max simply charges hoping to inflict a fatal wound. Philippe does receive a slash across his forehead and face but it is Max who receives the fatal wound. Fario comes down to watch and gloat over Max’s dying convulsions. Philippe is taken to his uncle Rouget’s house, now his home.

The narrator says that the better man was killed, that Maxence Gilet could have done great things if he had lived in a more favorable environment but that his education had not given him the nobility of ideas and conduct.

Flore gets delirious and has a high fever which leaves her ill for nearly three months following Max’s death.

Agathe rushes to Issoudun to be with Philippe. This time she is able to stay at her brother’s house. Everyone works on Flore and in April, 1823, she and Rouget are married. Philippe tells Flore that he will be keeping a very close watch on her and she’ll never leave the house without his accompanying her and Flore will marry him a year after his uncle’s death. Meanwhile they will move to Paris where she will find more amusement. Also, within a month he wants a special power of attorney from his uncle placing the income from the Government Funds in his name. This interview leaves Flore pale and in a cold sweat.

Philippe writes granting his allegiance to the King and requesting to be allowed to serve with his former rank. Along with this letter is a request to be allowed to travel to Paris on family business which is accompanied by testimonials from the mayor, the sub-prefect, and the commissary of police. This request is granted as is his reinstatement to the Army with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

Philippe is successful in getting his uncle and his new aunt moved to Paris and Rouget is dead within six months from high living as planned. In October, 1823, Philippe journeys to Issoudun to liquidate his uncle’s estate and returns to Paris in March of the next year with over one and one-half million francs. He soon marries Flore and sets her up in a small apartment while he himself lives in a mansion costing over a quarter million francs.

Philippe uses his charm, money, military record and contacts to make his way up the social and military ladder, finally acquiring the title of Comte de Brambourg. He has planned to marry well and when asked about his wife says she won’t last another week before she dies from drinking and that his fiancee understands that it was a marriage merely to save his family’s inheritance–although he certainly doesn’t want his family name of Bridau used.

Joseph had managed to get Agathe another lottery office with the aid of a Court painter, so she is self-sufficient, although she still expects that one day Philippe will provide her and Joseph with financial aid–yet he doesn’t even come to visit.

One evening, as Joseph and Agathe are walking home in the rain, they see Philippe drive by in a fancy brougham. He waves as he splashes them. Philippe also doesn’t want anything to do with his old friends, such as Giroudeau, because of his new social position.

Although Joseph’s painting is becoming well-known in the field, he is not able yet to make much money because his work is controversial and not to the taste of the middle-class who spend money on art. He is sinking into debt, including his paint suppliers.

Agathe secretly writes Philippe. She mentions that Joseph needs money and requests that Philippe come to visit her and while there that he place some one hundred franc notes in the death’s-head for Joseph, as Joseph used to do for him. Philippe not only refuses to visit or provide money, but says that since he is marrying Mademoiselle Amelie de Soulanges, he is concealing the name of Bridau. Agathe gives a horrible cry and collapses. Joseph carries her into his bedroom and calls Bianchon who tells him all they can do is make her last days more comfortable.

Agathe asks to see her confessor, Abbe Loraux, who finally makes her realize the truth about Philippe and that Joseph is her faithful son. She finally looks at Joseph with eyes of love and adoration and asks his forgiveness.

Joseph’s friends come to visit and lend support but Philippe does not. Bixiou is commissioned to go to Philippe and ask him to visit Agathe before her death. Philippe merely laughs.

In her final delirium Agathe wonders who Philippe takes after. Joseph writes Philippe and tells him to go into mourning for his mother but to pretend to be ill as he does not want to stand before her coffin with her assassin.

Joseph’s grief is so great that his friends do not leave him alone. Two weeks after Agathe’s funeral a letter arrives from Flore! When Joseph flips to the signature and reads Comtesse de Brambourg, he throws the letter down thinking it is an odious scheme thought up by Philippe.

Bixiou reads the letter and learns of Flore’s plight, her illness and abandonment by her husband who wants her dead. Bixiou calls in the old woman, Madame Gruget, who was in the porter’s lodge waiting for a reply. The woman says she has pawned everything she has to keep looking after Flore. She seems to think that Philippe will pay after Flore dies.

Joseph gives his last ten francs to Madame Gruget, then goes to get Bianchon while Bixiou goes to get Desroches. As they all climb the stairs to the terrible attic, Bixiou says that Philippe paid Lousteau one thousand francs a month to make sure that Flore associated with opera girls and lived the high life. Once she got used to this style of living and developed a taste for liqueurs, the funds stopped, leaving her to obtain money apparently by prostitution. Bixiou remarks that his grandmother loved lotteries and Philippe caused her death thru them, old Rouget loved women and Philippe set up his death thru them, Agathe loved Philippe and died because of that love.

Joseph was unprepared for the spectacle that was Flore, described as a putrid skeleton and worse. Bianchon thinks that Desplein might be able to save Flore with an operation, but that is not the case. She dies three weeks later. Philippe, in his mourning, rushes to tell the Comte de Soulanges of his “grievous loss.”

Soon it is whispered that Philippe is to be married to the daughter of the Comte de Soulanges. But Bixiou still has his tool to use against Philippe–words. Once when Bixiou wanted to visit Philippe at his new mansion he was refused because of his station in life. Bixiou disguises himself as an elderly priest and goes to the Soulanges house where he tells the Comte of Philippe’s past life and advises him to investigate before allowing the marriage which is then broken off.

Three months later, January, 1829, Philippe is dining with some friends and financiers. Suggestions are made about another match for him and how much money will be necessary. When Philippe says he could raise three millions, Nucingen and du Tillet exchange looks. Eighteen months later they have made one and a half million for him on the Stock Exchange and he now trusts them. Philippe fights valiantly in the July Revolution. On the opposite side (the insurgents) is Giroudeau who was watching for a chance to shoot Philippe. A month later, Philippe’s cash is gone, all he has is his mansions, paintings and furnishings. Nucingen and du Tillet had gone against him in the Stock Exchange.

In 1834, Giroudeau is a Colonel. Jealousy causes Philippe to go back into active service and he is posted in Algeria. Giroudeau’s promotion to General causes Philippe to remain in a dangerous situation hoping for a promotion. During a close combat, Philippe is surrounded. He calls to his cavalry men to come to his aid but none feel like risking their lives to save him and he is decapitated.

Joseph, who had married a wealthy farmer’s daughter, now inherits Philippe’s mansion and country estate. He also now has Philippe’s title which causes him much laughter in the studio with his friends.


Read it here

Summarized by Dagny, July – August, 2007


2 comments on “A Bachelor’s Establishment by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    Critics generally think this is one of Balzac’s best books, citing the development of colorful characters, “his knowledge of the heart, and his fearless exposure of those crimes and follies by which humanity is most endangered (“Balzac’s Bachelor’s Household’, Gale). The depiction of Flore Brazier shows a restless and not all that ambitious sensuality (Saintsbury). I was racing through the story line, but, as I find quite often with Balzac, I thought the story would have improved with fewer characters and less complexity. It’s as if Balzac has all these characters and plot situations on sticky notes on the wall and eagerly pulls as many down as he can possibly fit into one work. We read this 4 years ago, and even reading the summary makes me dizzy with the characters and relationships and events.

    This book’s name doesn’t seem appropriate as the bachelor’s establishment of Jean-Jacques isn’t really central to the story. It has been translated also as “The Black Sheep” and “The Two Brothers”, and Balzac himself gave it the name at one time of “La Rabouileuse” (referring to Flore because as a child she used to stir up the waters so fish would appear and thus was called this by her uncle). I like “La Rabouileuse” or “The Black Sheep” better.

    I would put this work on my reread shortlist of Balzac mainly because I got a bit confused by the plot intricacies the first time and would like another go at it. However, Philippe was such a greedy, selfish character enabled by his mother, who ignores good son Joseph, I’m not sure I could endure this family again!


  2. I agree that the title of A Bachelor’s Establishment doesn’t really fit, but I don’t care for La Rabouileuse either. The Black Sheep is good since Philip is such a major character but I prefer The Two Brothers as it brings in the contrast between Philip and Joseph, including everyone else’s feelings and attitudes towards them.


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