The Celibates: The Vicar of Tours by Honoré de Balzac

Le Célibataires: Le Curé de Tours
The Vicar of Tours

In the first half of the story, we see only four characters: Abbé Birotteau (brother of the perfumer Cesar), Canon Troubert, Mlle Sophie Gamard (owner of the house in which the two clerics live) and Marianne (the maid-of-all-work).

For many years, the Abbe had dreamed of living in the same clerical boarding house as his friend, the Canon Chapeloud. The Canon has accumulated an impressive library and some nice furniture, and the otherwise sweet and gentle Abbe half wishes he could inherit the Canon’s wealth.

And so he does when Chapeloud dies. What seemed like such a paradise to Birotteau from afar becomes an altogether different kettle of fish when he experiences it for himself. First of all, that Old Maid Gamard expects Abbé Birotteau to draw in some of the finest local families so that she can become the center of an admiring social set. At first, the Abbé does this, but finds that going out to the local swells like Mme de Listomere much more fun, though it angers the Gamard woman. She in turn enlists Canon Troubert, and they both, in association with the maid Marianne, work to make his life miserable.

Some examples of the cabal’s spite are not building a fire in the Abbé’s bedroom when he is out and setting the clock ahead by a half hour so that the Abbé misses out on the evening meal (which he actually missed by only four minutes).

How was Canon Chapeloud able to withstand the Gamard? Apparently, he was one of those shrewd diplomats who knew how to satisfy her amour-propre in a minimal way without getting involved in all the games. Abbé Birotteau is too naive and has no street smarts.

The Abbé Birotteau decides to spend ten days at Mme de Listomere’s country place a few miles outside of Tours and the cabal plans a particularly diabolical response. Imagine his consternation when Mlle Gamard’s attorney, M. Caron, interrupts all the whist and other playtime activities with an official request whether the Abbé intended to quit his premises at Mlle Gamard’s.

In Mme de Listomere’s august circle, the name of Mlle Gamard is poison. There is no lack of friendly support for the Abbé, with the general opinion that she could be ground into the dust. There is one present, however, who thinks differently. An old landowner, M de Bourbonne, thinks the matter is a serious one; and Mlle Gamard would not have come out into the open if all her ducks were not already in a row. M de Bourbonne essentially thinks the Abbé should not only give in, but leave town altogether.

But Mme de Listomere decides not to take M de Bourbonne’s advice and decides to take Mlle Gamard to court. Strange things suddenly begin to happen: the Baron de Listomere, a naval officer, goes to Paris only to find that he is on the retirement list instead of in line for a promotion. He is told that he has gone up against the church in Tours, and the long arm of Canon Troubert has sown the suspicion in royalist circles that the Listomeres are against the church and, consequently, for the damnable Liberals. The Baron quickly takes action and notifies his family to drop the case altogether and to stop helping the dispossessed Abbé, who has been living with the Listomeres.

Canon Troubert is appointed Vicar-General. Someone else gets the other canon appointment that Abbé Birotteau had hoped for. And the new Vicar-General appoints Abbé Birotteau to Saint-Symphorien, a drafty, cold parish outside of Tours. “The poor old man will be buried alive in a real tomb. What a villainous plot!” according to Mme de Listomere.

In the meantime, Mme de Listomere decides to
 meet with Troubert and gauge her opponent and perhaps extend a truce to the proceedings. One of the best scenes in the story is having Balzac put the actual thoughts of the two combatants in Italics after their actual words.

Mlle Gamard dies and the Vicar-General presides at her funeral, with the Listomeres in pious attendance. Within five months, Vicar-General Troubert is made Bishop of Troyes. His episcopal parade passes Saint-Symphorien, where the feeble and sinking Abbé Birotteau is sitting in a chair on the terrace seeing once again his utter defeat by the ambitious cleric.

Balzac muses at the end that “celibacy has this crying evil, that by concentrating the powers of a man on one single passion, namely, egoism, it makes the unwedded soul mischievous or useless.”

Read it here

Summarized by Jim, November, 2009

4 comments on “The Celibates: The Vicar of Tours by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    Poor Abbe Birotteau – through his casual abandonment of the society of his land lady in order to return to his usual and more illustrious companions, he unleashed his own ruin. Who knew that the desire for his rooms by his rival Troubert would unleash the complex machinations of politics – enabling him to be shunted off to a remote diocese. While the naivety of Birotteau seems improbable, this is a powerful, frightening story of the baseness of humanity. Are these people worse because of the pent up energy nurtured by celibacy? This never occurred to me, but from what I’ve read about this story perhaps Balzac thought so.


  2. This is one of my favorites. I don’t think that Birotteau’s naivety is too improbable. Some people just live in a world of their own and have very narrow interests and little awareness of anything outside their sphere of interest. If he lived in Paris, one would wonder how he got and kept his position, but stuck in the provinces as he is, it could seem possible to me.


  3. scamperpb says:

    Good point – Birotteau did seem to live in a world of his own.


  4. Bixiou says:

    A great story, filled with great writing and aphorisms—and the usual Balzacian cruelty. Poor Abbe Birotteau is literally lead to the slaughter by the connivance of the Landlady from Hell and Troubert. One minor cavil—the rental agreement between Gamard and the Abbe was signed before Gamard decided that she hated the Abbe. She was happy to have him, so that he could appear at her salon. So, the terrible clause that gave her his furniture could not have been in the original agreement. It was only later, after six months, that Gamard came to hate the Abbe because he wanted to get away from her and visit Listomere and his other upper-crust pals. Unless she was uncommonly far-seeing, the original agreement could not have contained that poisonous clause. Still, this is one of Balzac’s most enjoyable stories. Goes on a bit too long when he pompously pontificates about man and society, but the story itself is masterful.


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