A Marriage Settlement by Honoré de Balzac

Le Contrat de Mariage
A Marriage Settlement
A Marriage Contract


There was a football book some years back written by George Plimpton about his experiences as a rank amateur with a professional football team, the Detroit Lions. The title of the book was PAPER LION, and its marketing blurb proclaimed, “Never was there a man so completely equipped to get creamed.”

It appears that Plimpton had a predecessor in this department, one Paul de Manerville, a wealthy young man with a modest fortune who decides he wants to get married. After a brief introduction to our hero, the story begins with Paul discussing the subject with that bona fide snake of Balzac’s novels, Henri de Marsay, who when he engages closely with others, it is usually to more forcibly inject his venom. (In this story, however, de Marsay is unusually and atypically affable.)

De Marsay is nothing if not a man of the world. His advice to Paul is to wait a number of years, then marry a woman in her thirties with a good fortune, and then spend the rest of his life committing adultery in amusing ways. But Paul is in deadly earnest.

“And your wife,” he asks. “Will she be resigned?”

“My wife, my dear fellow, will do what I wish.”

De Marsay sees exactly what will happen to Paul: He will be eaten alive by some woman and her mother who will detect his fatal weakness and skewer him. Paul has set his mind on the beautiful and exotic Creole beauty, Natalie Evangelista. Now in Balzac’s day, marriages among the successful almost always include a dowry or income from the bride – the infamous “bride price.”

Mme Evangelista (we never do learn her first name) is descended from the proud Casa-Reals and, although not badly off, has nowhere near as much as she would like. Upon contemplating her daughter’s would-be beau, Mme E thinks she could talk him into taking her daughter on “with but her barest rights,” i.e., with nothing but the clothes on her back.

Paul de Manerville is used to thinking of the Evangelistas as being fabulously wealthy, and although that was the common belief in Bordeaux, where the action so far takes place, their fortune falls far short of the mark. Mme E thinks that Paul is such a dope that she could foist her daughter off on him with no money down or to come; and the boy would probably go for it.

It does not reassure the reader that Mme E’s motto is “odiate e aspettate” – “hate and wait” (formerly Maria de Medici’s motto). And early on, Balzac gives under rather strongly worded warning: “The man who, under any circumstances, fails to look at everything or at every idea from all sides, to examine them under all aspects, is inefficient and weak, and consequently in danger.”

This could very well be the motto for at least half of Balzac’s best stories.

Paul and Mme E bring in their notaries (lawyers) to argue out the case. Mme E’s rep is Maitre Solonet, a young cad with talent; Paul uses old Maitre Mathias, who has worked with his family for many years. Solonet advises Mme E to dress Natalie in her most alluring dress and wait for the results.

After a while, Maitre Mathias staggers out of the room where he has been arguing with Solonet and says, “I believe we are being tricked.” Master Matthias, Paul’s notary, detects a collusion between Madame Evangelista and her notary Solonet to defraud Paul de Manerville of any material benefit from the upcoming marriage to Natalie.

But then Master Matthias has an idea that protects Paul’s fortune and at the same time pulls the wool over Mme Evangelista and Solonet, who proves himself to be a bit dim after all. He suggests an entail. According to Wikipedia, an entail “describes an estate of inheritance in real property which cannot be sold, devised by will, or otherwise alienated by the owner, but which passes by operation of law to the owner’s heirs upon his death.”

The devil lies in the details. Paul is somehow the winner, as Master Matthias believes, and Mme Evangelista ultimately feels that she is the loser in the entail. It all devolves on what happens if the husband dies first, or if there are no male heirs, and hundreds of other arcane contingencies. Mme Evangelista sees one such contingency in which she and her daughter would come out the losers; and that one contingency is enough to make her spit venom.

Remember that what Mme Evangelista wants more than anything else is to live the life she feels she deserves, even if it “would beggar Peru,” as Master Matthias exclaims. (Peru was the source of silver that formed much of the wealth of 17th and 18th century Spain from its fabulous mines at Potosi, which are now located in Bolivia.) She wants to live the grand life, with Natalie in tow, irrespective of what happens to Paul and any heirs, male or female, from their union.

At one point, talking with her mother, Natalie exclaims, “‘And I shall see Paris!’ cried Natalie in a tone that might indeed have alarmed a de Marsay.”

Mme Evangelista “fell asleep in full content at seeing her daughter the wife of a man she could easily manage, who would leave them to be on equal terms the mistresses of his house, and whose fortune, combined with their own, would allow of their living in the way to which they [note that Paul is not part of this ‘they’] were accustomed.”

To this end, she begins to “instruct” Natalie as to what she should do: “So, place the barriers of society between you and Paul; go to balls, to the opera, drive out in the morning, dine out in the evening, pay visits; do not give Paul more than a few minutes of your time. By this system, you will never lose your value in his eyes. When two beings have nothing but sentiment to go through life on, they soon exhaust its resources, are ere long satiety and disgust ensue.”

As one unnamed woman says earlier – and this has all the effect of letters written in stone – “Natalie is too handsome not to be a desperate flirt. By the time she has been married two years, I will not answer for it that Manerville will not be miserable in his home.”

And note one little thing: We don’t hear any sincere declarations of love between Natalie and Paul, but many between Natalie and her mother.

At the beginning of this tale, Balzac essentially telegraphed to us that Paul de Manerville was going to be done in by his young wife and her vengeful mother. And he is. When we see him at the end of the story, he looks years older than his actual age and is described by a bystander as “that fat little man in an alpaca overcoat looking like a coachman.”

As such, he shows up at the house of Master Matthias, who is appalled at his facing ruin at the hands of his wife and mother-in-law. To be completely consistent as a fool who “was born to be ruined,” Paul has decided to abandon his wife and run off to the Indies to make his fortune. (How? Him?) As another helpful bystander puts it, “There he is ruined, without a sou to his name, going to the Indies to look for the roc’s egg.” You may recall that the roc is a giant bird written of in The Arabian Nights.

As Paul boards the ship, he is given two letters – one from his wife and the other from his friend Henri de Marsay. Both letters plead for him to return at once. Being the fool he is, Paul stuffs the letters in his pocket unread and sails off to India.

Natalie’s letter tries to lure Paul back by telling him that she is carrying his heir. It is a nicely put-together tissue of lies that shows she has received excellent instruction from her mother.

Henri’s letter, on the other hand, is, I think, the whole reason for the story’s existence. Why else would Balzac leave his hero, seasick and ruined, on a slow boat to one of the French enclaves in India. (Most of India had been conquered by the British under Clive and the Duke of Wellington in the 1700s.)

De Marsay coolly informs his quondam friend that Natalie’s pregnancy is due more to her adulterous relationship with Felix de Vandenesse, whom we had met in Lily of the Vallye who made a vain attempt to romance the (likewise married) Madame de Mortsauf. He continues: “You, seeing none of these things, went on digging pits and covering them with flowers, to use the time-honored historical figure. You calmly submitted to the rule which governs the common run of men, and from which I had wished to protect you.”

Even at this late date, Henri invites Paul to return and join him in an attempt to overthrow the government (which was in fact overthrown in 1830 and again in 1848).

“Love, you stupid old Paul, is a belief like that in the immaculate conception of the Virgin. You have it, or you have it not.” Henri plans to marry a rich, ugly Englishwoman who will provide him an impressive income while allowing him, in effect, to have what fun he will whenever he wants and with whomever he wants.

Paul, in the meantime, has already passed by the Azores and continues on his way to an uncertain future in India.

Read it here

Summarized by Jim, July 2009


3 comments on “A Marriage Settlement by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This little story on the foibles of marriage is very Balzac. A grasping mother and daughter marry the simple, honorable Paul for his money and strip him thereof, laughing all the way. At the end the poor man sails away to try to make another fortune – we are never sure if he’s through with his wife or not, though warned that she is pregnant by another man. Saintsbury says Balzac was a bit unkind to Paul but reminds us that Balzac himself “committed slow suicide by waiting and working till a woman, who cannot have been worth the trouble, at last made up her mind to ‘derogate’ a little, and, without any pecuniary sacrifice, to exchange the position of widow of a member of a second-rate aristocracy for that of wife of one of the foremost living men of letters in Europe, who was himself technically a gentleman.” Good for you Mr. Saintsbury, about time we stood up for our “Human Comedy” creator. But a sad story for both Balzac and poor Paul.


  2. Lisa Hill says:

    A stunning summary/review, Jim, I enjoyed reading it and it sums up the story perfectly.


  3. Bixiou says:

    A superb story, filled with fabulous aphorisms, and not only from DeMarsay, who is his usually witty self. Wonderful jokes and observations about marriage from almost every character. Poor Paul is not only a victim because of circumstance, but also because of who he is. The two notaries (lawyers) are beautifully drawn and contrasted. Would that all lawyers were like the loyal and shrewd Matthias. A great story.


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