In this short novel, Balzac takes us to Besançon in the Franche-Comté on the eastern edge of France. Located between Alsace-Lorraine and Savoy, the province shares a border with Switzerland.
Like many of his locations outside the great wen of Paris, Besançon is conservative and a bit stick-in-the-mud. One of the leading families in town is that of the wealthy Baron de Watteville. A bit of a putterer, the Baron is married to a controlling wife and has a lovely daughter named Rosalie, around whom the action revolves.
Other characters include the local dandy, Amédée-Sylvain de Soulas, who has designs on Rosalie – but who barely manages to keep his head above water financially. His plan is to work on the Baronne by amusing her with the local gossip.
A newcomer is the brilliant and mysterious lawyer, one Albert Savarus, who is said to be the illegitimate scion of the Comte de Savarus. Rosalie is someone put off by de Soulas, but fascinated by the romantic (if middle-aged) legal newcomer. And being a student of heraldry (one of the few subjects her domineering mother allows her to study), she suspects that Savarus also has good marriage prospects.
Savarus has already made a mark in Besançon by winning several big cases and winning the loyalty of the local merchants who have benefited from his wins in court.
Unlike many of Balzac’s more wispy heroines, Rosalie seems to be made of sterner stuff and, in addition to being beautiful, is circumspect to the extreme. She learns that Savarus lives adjacent to their property. In order to more effectively spy on her love (shades of Ursule Mirouet!), she talks her father into building an artistic little grotto in the garden. Not suspecting Rosalie’s motives, the mother goes along with her plans; and soon the grotto becomes much talked about and admired by the local nobility.
Savarus decides to go into the publishing business and comes out with a newspaper called The Eastern Review. Carefully, although in control of the paper, Savarus prefers to remain in the background – although he is also the major contributor.
Naturally, the de Wattevilles subscribe. And before long, Rosalie begins reading a romance serialized in The Eastern Review written by none other than Savarus.
Albert’s serialized romance in The Eastern Review tells the tale of one Rodolphe who, upon heading with a friend to tour Switzerland, is detained in the small town of Gersau when he sees the head of a beautiful woman in the upper story of a house and changes all his plans. He decides to stay in Gersau and become intimately acquainted with the house’s resident.
Rodolphe is originally told that the woman is a young Briton named Fanny Lovelace; but then the she turns our to be an Italian patriot named Francesca and married to an old bookseller named Lamporini. Still, she seems to respond to him, and a close friendship bordering on the dangerous begins to ramp up.
Things continue along for a while until Francesca says she must move to Geneva, and to look for her there. Being an impulsive sort, Rodolphe does just that – only to find that Francesca is actually the Princess Gandolphini, daughter of the prestigious Prince and Princess of Colonna. In the story within a story, she still rather fancies Rodolphe, but tells him he must wait. The story ends:”Lovers! Pray for him!”
Cut to the present, as Mlle Rosalie de Watteville has just finished reading this, assuming it was literally true. When she finds that Savarus’ servant Jerome is making time with her mother’s maid, Mariette, Rosalie has Mariette intercept Albert’s mail – especially after learning that a free issue of The Eastern Review is being sent to an Italian princess at Lago Maggiore.
In no time, she strikes paydirt, first with a letter to a friend in which Albert confesses to an overarching ambition to become famous (and worthy of an Italian princess, perhaps?) by going into politics – laying out his entire plan of attack to get himself elected as a deputy. Then she intercepts a long passionate letter to the princess herself.
What is Rosalie going to do? Albert is clearly in love – but then so is she. Who will be more determined to have his/her way?
I have to admit that, with this story, Balzac threw me for a loop. I had my suspicions of Mlle Rosalie de Watteville when she started intercepting Albert’s mail. But to thwart his love of his Italian princess by (1) withholding news of the death of her (the princess’s) aged husband; (2) thwarting Albert’s political career so that Albert would remain in Besancon; and (3) forging letters to the princess from Albert to cut off the relationship – these were acts of a typical Balzac villainess.
The political chicanery is, as usual, involved and confusing to those of us not intimate with the election of provincial deputies in the France of the 1830s. The night of his triumph turns instead to the night of his defeat: An emissary from the princess shows up and demands all the letters from her to the lawyer and sends Albert into the depths of despair. Albert takes a carriage and, for all intents and purposes, disappears off the face of the earth.
Well, not quite: It turns out that Albert, admitting the complete overthrow of his ambitions, turns up at the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble and becomes a Trappist monk.
Rosalie splits with her mother when the latter demands that she marry Amedee de Soulas. Instead, the mother (still only 38 years old) marries him herself, and gives birth to two children who become the heirs of the Watteville estate – all except for the property of les Rouxey, which her father had granted to Rosalie before his death. Rosalie becomes old, bitter, and eccentric – still trying to see Brother Albert, but ending up staring at the Grande Chartreuse, to which no woman (except the Queen of France) is granted admission.
At several points in the story, the Abbe de Grancey exclaims in wonder that Albert would make a great priest (admittedly, of a Jesuitical sort).
Summaried by Jim, October 2010