The Seamy Side of History: Madame de la Chanterie by Honoré de Balzac

L’Envers de l’Histoire Contemporaine: Madame de la Chanterie
The Seamy Side of History: Madame de la Chanterie
Also translated as The Brotherhood of Consolation: Madame de la Chanterie
Also translated as The Wrong Side of Paris


Madame de la Chanterie: The household and boarders/associates:
  Madame de la Chanterie
  Manon Godard – Maid/serving-woman
  Abbe de Veze – performs early mass at Notre-Dame
  Monseiur Alain – middle-class Paris citizen
  Monsieur Nicolas – retired Colonel of the Gendarmerie (Marquis de Montauran, younger brother of Alphonse de Montauran, the commander of the Chouans who married Marie de Verneuil just before they were executed)
  Monsieur Joseph – formerly Councillor to the Bench of the King’s Court in Paris (Lecamus, Baron de Tresnes)

One evening in September, 1836, Godefroid is leaning over the parapet, lost in contemplation. He overhears a conversation and thinks the remark (by Abbe de Veze), “and remember, my friend, that God Himself is speaking to us when a good thought comes into our hearts” could have been addressed to him. Godefroid is the son of shopkeepers who had high ambition for him and sent him to a good school where his classmates were from distinguished families. Later, when associating with his own class, he developed a hatred of social superiority. He failed in several professions.

After his father died, Godefroid tried journalism, fell in with bad company and lost most of his money. He then returned to his mother in Auteuil. Realizing her son’s short-comings, she tried to arrange an advantageous marriage, but he was not accepted. When his mother died, Godefroid returned to Paris with five thousand francs a year. He wandered miserably about Paris and got into debt again. Finally, after seeing a less gifted schoolmate who was successful, Godefroid decided to live on two thousand francs, pay his debts and study for a vocation. He noticed the following advertisement:

“Small apartments, at seventy francs a month; might suit a clerk in orders. Quiet habits expected. Board included; and the rooms will be inexpensively furnished on mutual agreement. Inquire of M. Millet, grocer, Rue Chanoinesse, by Notre-Dame, for all further paticulars.”

M. Millet, after depressing Godefroid (a man of about thirty) by thinking him to be about forty, told him to see Madame de la Chanterie after seven that evening.

Thus it was that Godefroid was waiting on the quay near Notre-Dame when he overheard the priest’s remark. They were surprised to find themselves both stopped outside the heavy gate of the same building. Inside, Manon showed Godefroid and the priest into the sitting room where the three other tenants were sitting in armchairs near Madame de la Chanterie.

Godefroid feels the silence and the tranquility of the house and feels as if he is far from Paris. Madame de la Chanterie notices his elegant clothes and remarks that she is afraid the rooms will hardly suit him. By the light of a single candle, Manon and the priest show Godefroid up to the vacant rooms with their dismal odor of poverty. Godefroid remarks that he should see them by daylight. Back in the sitting room, Madame de la Chanterie impresses upon Godefroid that their ways and routines are not those of Paris and that “noise was not to be endured”.

In the hackney cab, it all seems like a dream to Godefroid. He awakes the next morning, determined to sell all his fancy furnishings and begin a new and simple life. Godefroid visits Mongenod and Co., Bankers, for advice about paying his debts and investing his small capital. He is surprised to encounter Madame de la Chanterie at the firm and overhears the fact that she possesses a very large account. She tells him that she had planned to decline having him as a boarder because she thought his habits would not suit the household, but that Mongenod had given her enough information about his family to change her mind. The banker advises Godefroid about his finances and also advises him to board with her.

Godefroid’s rooms are ready within a few days. On a Monday night, he dines out for the last time at the Cafe Anglais, sees the first two pieces at the Varietes and goes at ten o’clock to his new home.

At noon the next day, Manon knocks to tell him the second breakfast is served. Godefroid learns that the other occupants rise at six in the winter and three-thirty in the summer. He learns they have a small estate which provides their produce. It is jointly owned and will become the property of the last survivor. Godefroid also learns all their names and a bit of their personal background.

When they adjourn to the sitting-room, they hold a private conference and Madame de la Chanterie seems to give assignments to the gentlemen. Godefroid notes that they treat her with a high regard and respect. After the four boarders leave about their business, Madame de la Chanterie picks up her sewing and talks with Godefroid who says he places himself in her hands. She leaves the room briefly and returns with a well-used copy of Imitation of Jesus Christ, telling him to read a chapter each morning and evening.

As Godefroid leaves the Hotel de la Chanterie to purchase a replacement copy of Imitation of Jesus Christ for Madame de la Chanterie, he happens to be walking behind two men, one of whom is plotting to get money from her with no plans for repayment. That evening as Godefroid presents her with a magnificent copy of the finest edition, Madame de la Chanterie gently chides him, “God grant that this may be your last excess of elegance.” When Godefroid mentions the conversation he overheard, Madame de la Chanterie tells Monsieur Nicolas they are the men from Rue Mouffetard and are his concern.

Godefroid soon realizes that the other five residents sleep little and do a day’s work before meeting at the second breakfast. There is much coming and going and much money changing hands.

One evening Monsieur Mongenod visits. When Godefroid mentions that he would like an occupation, the banker replies, “Learn bookkeeping, you might become in a few months very useful to my friends here.” Godefroid also decides to take religious instruction from Abbe de Veze. He is now busy, but still curious about Madame de la Chanterie and her four friends and resolves to find out all he can.

Godfroid visits Monsieur Alain’s room one evening and asked him what circumstances brought him to the Hotel Chanterie and his current life. M Alain relates how he had two hundred louis to invest but loaned half of it to his friend, school chum and fellow clerk at Bordin’s: Mongenod–the father of the current head of the banking house Mongenod and Co. A few days afterward, Alain called to see Mongenod and met, instead, his wife Charlotte who had sold her hair to obtain money for food. When Mongenod did not repay the loan and seemingly ignored Alain, Bordin, from whom Mongenod had also borrowed, convinced Alain that Mongenod was scamming them and had no plans to repay the loan unless prosecuted.

Suddenly, in January 1816, Mongenod, Charlotte and their three children arrived unannounced to see Alain. Events had kept them from arriving and repaying the loan earlier but they now presented Alain with one hundred and fifty thousand francs. They praised Alain, mentioning that they thought of their benefactor every day and the daughter even offered to marry him. Mongenod founded Mongenod and Co., which made immense profits. The father died in 1827.

Alain told Godefroid that he was never able to forgive himself for the injustice he thought of his friend. That decided him to devote all his surplus money to charitable works. Around this time, Alain met Judge Popinot who, along with Madame de la Chanterie and Abbe de Veze founded the work in which they all are now engaged. It was Alain’s plans for devoting the funds to the poor which kept him from objecting to receiving such a large amount in return for his one hundred crowns.

Alain tells Godefroid that it is late and he must resume his study of the Imitation. Godefroid says he would like to hear Madame de la Chanterie’s history. When Alain replies that he needs her permission, Godefroid returns to his own rooms, more determined than ever to discover her history.

As Godefroid sits with the other four men, his mention of the death penalty causes Monsieur Nicolas to leave the room in haste. Monsieur Alain tells him that once when Monsieur Nicolas was superintending an execution, the criminal turned out to be his natural son. Monsieur Joseph added that the man was innocent! Madame de la Chanterie enters the room just when Godefroid again mentions captial punishment and is in the process of saying, ” . . . have their heads cut–” Monsieur Joseph claps his hand over Godefroid’s mouth and Abbe de Veze leads the pale and fainting woman away. Monsieur Alain brings Godefroid to his room, telling him that he is now compelled to reveal the secrets of Madame’s history.

At sixteen Mademoiselle Barbe-Philiberte de Champignelles of an impoverished noble family was married to Henri de la Chanterie of a formerly high-ranking family which had fallen into obscurity. Her future father-in-law, worried about his heir’s dissolute ways in Paris, hoped she would be a steadying influence and was willing to accept her with no dowry.

Henri was handsome and charming and the young Madame de la Chanterie fell in love with her husband. Shortly after the birth of a daughter, her husband was forced to sell everything not strictly necessary in order to settle old debts and his job was forfeited in a reorganization of the government. Less than two years after her marriage, the young wife found herself deserted with a child to support. She worked for a dress-maker and received a small allowance from her father-in-law prior to his death.

Upon hearing that her husband was imprisoned and sentenced to death, she took the few louis she had and bribed her way into the prison where she exchanged clothing with him, allowing him to escape. She was condemned to death, but his former colleagues on the tribunal were ashamed to carry out the sentence and allowed her to escape. Madame de la Chanterie saw her husband three times over eight years. She never ceased to believe he could change and he never ceased to take advantage of her faith in him, dying in her room while hiding from the authorities.

In 1803, her uncle, Monsieur de Boisfrelon, was able to return to Paris and give Madame de la Chanterie two hundred thousand francs which her father-in-law had left for her in his safekeeping. She returned to Normandy, purchased one of the family estates and settled her daughter in marriage to a gentlemen recommended and much admired by the society of the country town where they spent every winter. But it turned out to be a pretence with the aristocracy, thinking to support a Royalist, in on the scam and the creditors, hoping to regain money he owed them, also desiring a good match for the scoundrel.

Monsieur Alain tells Godefroid that all these trials and tribulations were as nothing yet to Madame de la Chanterie. Her son-in-law had a personable friend who was leader of a group of Chouans. At the time, raids were carried out to steal government funds for the benefit of the Royalists. The son-in-law planned to stage a raid but keep the funds for his personal use. When his wife and friend positively refused to allow this, he vanished.

Monsieur Alain now remarks that it is late and the further history is complicated. He gives Godefroid two documents to read.

The first document is “Bill of Indictment”. It mentions the former Chouan leader, Rifoel, aka Pierrot who often hid at a chateau in Saint-Savin, the home of a woman named Lechantre and her daughter. Numerous other characters from The Chouans are mentioned including Cibot and Marche-a-Terre.

Madame de la Chanterie’s daughter became heavily involved with Rifoel and the Chouans, riding with them dressed as a man and hiding them at the chateau which they secretly used as their headquarters. She also helped with the plots and the maid Godard aided in preparing their meals. Madame de la Chanterie knew nothing of these doings until the night they returned with the stolen money, but the Indictment calls her a “model hypocrite”.

Godefroid is much affected by the document, especially when he realizes that the “woman Lechantre” is the “dignified, noble, deeply religious old woman whose virtue was acting upon him so powerfully as to be upon the point of metamorphosing him,” Madame de la Chanterie, in whose house he is now living.

The second document is “An Appeal on behalf of Madame Henriette Bryond des Tours-Minieres, nee Lechantre de la Chanterie”. The daughter’s husband turned out to be known as Contenson and it was he who turned his wife and friend in to the authorities as revenge for their not giving him the stolen money for his personal debts and mortgages on his estate. The document is a plea to the governor to save a young woman of twenty who was led astray.

Godefroid’s sleep is haunted and he can scarcely wait for morning to talk further with Alain (who suspected as much and rose early). He now learns that Madame was sentenced to twenty-two years imprisonment. The waiting-maid Godard, who turns out to be Manon, was also sentenced. She was free but turned herself in so that she could care for Madame.

The daughter was executed and it was Abbe de Veze who escorted her to the scaffold and received her last kiss. Prior to her death, the daughter wrote letters to her mother which were doled out over a period of two years, so the mother did not find out until years later the horrible fate of her daughter, but thought she died from a lingering, gradual illness. Her husband lived on as a police informer and died around 1829-30 in Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life.

Alain remarks that Madame began her good works even while in prison by converting several of the worst women. It was here that she conceived her idea of the good works she now performs.

Godefroid exclaims, “Can I ever be one of you?” and is told, “You must first endure the tests, and above all BELIEVE!”

Read it here (First Episode. Madame de la Chanterie)

Summarized by Dagny, November 2010


2 comments on “The Seamy Side of History: Madame de la Chanterie by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    There’s something rather appealing about this story – all these people going about secretly doing good, forgiving their tormentors, not like Balzac’s corrupt Parisian society at all. Godefroid is a bit of an Everyman, just trying to find his way in life and finding meaning in joing the Brotherhood of Consolation. Saintsbury didn’t find the strength of the story good enough to make up for his habit of “parenthetic and episodic narratives and glances backward”. I disagree.


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