The Seamy Side of History: Initiated by Honoré de Balzac

L’Envers de l’Histoire Contemporaine: L’Initié
The Seamy Side of History: Initiated
Also translated as The Brotherhood of Consolation: The Initiate
Also translated as The Wrong Side of Paris


Monsieur Alain tells Godefroid that Madame de la Chanterie and the four gentlemen held a conference and Godefroid is accepted as an Initiate with Alain as his instructor and guide. Monsieur Alain adds that he will have to move out as he will be doing work in a factory, but that Godefroid can see him at the Hotel de la Chanterie on Sundays and holidays or at the seven-thirty mass at a particular church. Should they encounter each other elsewhere, Godefroid must pretend he doesn’t know him unless given a signal otherwise. The same non-recognition goes for all members of the household.

It is because of Alain’s current assignment that he needs an assistant and Godefroid is given his first assignment which also involves living elsewhere temporarily, the better to carry out his investigation.

The following morning, Godefroid goes to a shabby, delapidated old factory building which houses the possible charity case he is to investigate and meets the gossipy portress who runs the place with the aid of “a big dog, a sturdy girl, and a boy”. Both youngsters are foundlings to whom she pays no wages and feeds poorly.

As Godefroid is leaving, after making rental arrangements, he is accosted by the very object of his investigation, Monsieur Bernard, who tells him the story of his invalid daughter and sixteen-year-old grandson. Godefroid then proceeds see the doctor that Madame de la Chanterie’s charity has hired for the benefit of the area. Doctor Berton assures Godefroid that the details Godefroid just heard of the invalid’s ailment are true–and totally inexplicable. Godefroid determines to hire the Polish Doctor Halpersohn mentioned by Monsieur Bernard.

The next morning, Godefroid looks out the window of his miserably furnished room and sees the invalid’s son bringing the family’s water. He is pale and tired looking. As the young man enters the house, the portress arrives for Godefroid’s fire and a nurseryman (Cartier) comes to tell Bernard that there will be no more fresh flowers from him or milk and eggs from his wife until their bill is paid. Godefroid sends Madame Vauthier away. Bernard rushes off after hearing his daughter scream. Alone with Cartier, Godefroid tells him to supply the Bernards’ needs and he himself will settle the bill that evening.

As Monsieur Bernard mentions the cold, Godefroid says he has plenty of wood and they carry some into Bernard’s rooms. While there, Godefroid hears the daughter call out and thinks she has a “sweet and youthful” voice. Bernard’s and his grandson’s room is truly desolate, yet from what Godefroid can see through the crack of the door to the invalid’s room, it looks completely different, luxurious even. The ante-room seems to be a buffer between the two, hiding the poverty-stricken ugliness of her son and father’s room from the invalid.

Godefroid learns of the series of books which Monsieur Bernard is writing and how the owner of the building and his co-horts are planning to cheat him out of the profits of his work. He tells Monsieur Bernard that although he doesn’t have much money, he has influence and asks him not to finalize any book deals without consulting him. Godefroid also clues the author in to the fact that the portress is a spy for Barbet. When he reassures the desperate father that he is trying to bring Doctor Halpersohn to see his daughter, the grateful man gushes that he will make him a present of the book if only he is able to bring about his daughter’s recovery. Monsieur Bernard invites Godefroid to his home that evening saying that he will introduce him to his daughter if her condition allows it.

Godefroid has a pleasant evening visiting with Vanda and family, although it is a bit much for her and causes an incident after he leaves. He learns that the luxury items such as the snuff box and portrait were gifts.

Godefroid is finally able to see Dr. Halpersohn and the doctor is willing to see Vanda now that he knows he’ll be paid well for his time.

That evening, at the Hotel de la Chanterie, Godefroid briefs Madame de la Chanterie on the case and tells her that he regrets have wasted his own small fortune so foolishly.

Madame de la Chanterie mentions fact that he will be keeping their books and tells Godefroid there are two thousand accounts from which they expect repayment and three thousand from cases who will never be able to return more than thanks.

At long last Dr. Halpersohn sees Vanda and diagnoses Plica Polonica. He undertakes her cure in six months to a year, but she will have to be moved to his private hospital and kept in seclusion for a week. Godefroid and her father accompany the stretcher. Upon arrival at the hospital, Monsieur Bernard removes four volumes and gives his books to Godefroid who then tells him that they will be read and evaluated by President Lecamus de Tresnes (who is suddenly referred to as Nicolas–he was Joseph in the First Episode).

Meanwhile, Madame Vauthier has called the bailiffs who arrive to take possession of the Bernard household goods. Thinking quickly, Auguste hides his grandfather’s notes in the cold stove. Auguste runs to the hospital to warn his grandfather. Unable to find him, or to see his mother, Auguste returns home where the portress plies him with wine and questions. His answers lead her to the fact that Godefroid will be paying the family’s debts.

Heartened by Godefroid’s return, Auguste rushes to see the family friend and finds him “entirely unlike himself”. When Godefroid gave Monsieur Bernard’s manuscripts to the former Councillor to the Paris Court, the author’s identity is revealed and Godefroid exclaimed, “Oh! The man who condemned Madame, her daughter, and the Chevalier du Vissard!” and sank into a chair. It was Baron Bourlac! Godefroid was told that his part in this business was at an end and instructed to retrieve any belongings left in his temporary lodging, tell Baron Bourlac to consult Monsieur Nicolas and, above all, to keep silent.

Back at the building, Godefroid is hoping that Monsieur Nicolas/Lecamus “will take some terrible revenge for poor Madame de la Chanterie” when the dreadfully upset Auguste arrives at his room. Auguste tells him about the bailiffs and requests Godefroid take charge of his grandfather’s notes. While Auguste is gone to retrieve them, Godefroid realizes that the lad is not guilty of any crimes. After Godefroid leaves with the notes, Madame Vauthier tells Auguste that he is a fool and that Godefroid is an agent of the family’s enemies.

The next morning Auguste desperately looks for his grandfather. While at Dr. Halpersohn’s, he sees the pile of money on the table and steals four thousand-franc notes. After paying the debts at the bailiff’s office, Auguste writes a note to the doctor apologizing for the theft and returning the unused seven hundred francs. He further encloses the snuff-box set with diamonds.

Not having yet received Auguste’s package, Dr. Halpersohn contacts the police. Nepomucene warns Monsieur Bernard but Auguste is arrested. When the snuff-box is mentioned, Monsieur Bernard confesses that the diamonds are fake, the real ones having been sold three years earlier. As Auguste is led away, Monsieur Bernard faints and falls in the snow.

It is now July, 1838. Godefroid is curious as to the fate of the family, but refrains from asking anyone in the Hotel de la Chanterie in case it is part of his test for acceptance. He goes to inquire of Madame Vauthier but only finds out that Nepomucene also left.

In September, Godefroid happens to meet Auguste on the street with a “young looking woman”. It is Vanda, fully cured! Everyone has forgiven Auguste for the theft except his grandfather. The doctor is now quite fond of the boy and the police records were destroyed. They think Godefroid is responsible for aiding them. Through questioning he ascertains that it was the group at the Hotel de la Chanterie.

When Baron Bourlac presses for the name of his benefactor, Godefroid blurts out:
“Well, then, she who saved your daughter, who returns her to you young and beautiful and fresh and happy, who rescued her from her coffin, she who saved your grandson from disgrace, and has given you an old age of peace and honor–is a woman whom you sent innocent to prison for twenty years; to whom, as a magistrate, you did the foulest wrong; whose sanctity you insulted; whose beautiful daughter you tore from her arms and condemned to the cruellest of all deaths, for she died on the guillotine.”

Vanda faints and Godefroid runs out. Baron Bourlac begs his grandson to follow Godefroid.

The next morning, the Baron arrives at the Hotel de la Chanterie. Manon refuses to let him see Madame de la Chanterie, crying, “Do you want to kill my mistress?” The Baron kisses the floor and begs forgiveness before collapsing. At that point, Madame came out of her room and said, “In the name of Louis XVI. and Marie-Antoinette whom I see on their scaffold, in the name of Madame Elisabeth, in the name of my daughter and of yours, and for Jesus’ sake, I forgive you.”

Godefroid is now admitted to the Order of the Brethren of Consolation.


Read it here (Second Episode. The Initiate)

Summarized by Dagny, December 2010


10 comments on “The Seamy Side of History: Initiated by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    Godefroid is at last inducted into the Brotherhood of Consolation after proving his worth to the group. And Madame de la Chanterie helps the family of the the man who sent her to prison and sent her daughter to the guillotine. Quite a long distance from Balzac’s “The Thirteen”. But I am inspired more by goodness than craftiness, and I thoroughly enjoyed this reading experience.


  2. Fascinating, exciting sections full of dark intrigue are knit together with cloy raptures to almost insufferable goodness. What a let-down to discover the mystery behind inexplicable people, actions, and fortunes is a dull benevolent society.

    Still, not the best Balzac is better than the best Grisham.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gill Price says:

    This story is easily the best of Balzac’s fantastical tales and in my opinion at least, he doesn’t tend to do this kind of thing well. I found it enthralling and it is unusually religious for Balzac. Religion gives Godefroid’s life a purpose and a good one. However, it is slightly flawed in that Balzac relies too much on incorporating episodes which have taken place before the main action of the story. But it’s still a good Balzac.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dagny says:

      It’s so good to hear from you, Gill! I didn’t read this story for ages. My set used the title The Brotherhood of Consolation and it just didn’t appeal to me. When I finally read it though I was very pleasantly surprised and enjoyed it. It was a treat to see “good” characters even though the evil ones are generally more entertaining.


      • Gill Price says:

        Thanks for your reply Dagny. I’m re-reading Gobseck at the moment. I first read it a few years ago and it didn’t make much impression on me then but now I’m finding it’s a good Balzac. It’s all about the lawyer Derville and how he started his career and we meet our old friends Goriot and his daughters again…what a pair! These baddies are among his most entertaining. Of course this story tells us about Gobseck the money lender and miser as well, and we are treated to some fine passages about his philosophy of life. Do you remember Ursule Mirouet? There are some excellent “good” characters there too.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Dagny says:

        Gobseck is another favorite of mine. The description of his hoard and all that rotting food almost rivals the description of the antique shop in La peau de chagrin.

        Yes, dear Ursule. Another ‘good’ character is The Lily of the Valley, Mme de Mortsauf.


  4. Gill Price says:

    Felix, Madame de Mortsauf and her husband, Lady Dudley, are all fine Balzac creations. I could go on for hours about his characters, they are just wonderful. Another great pair are the Bridau brothers in The Black Sheep (La Rabouilleuse). The contrast between the two brothers is a brilliant touch of Balzac’s characterisation – one’s a villain, the other a good guy and they way they plot and scheme to get their inheritance is one of our great man’s finest stories.

    Liked by 1 person

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