Béatrix by Honoré de Balzac


Balzac takes the first two chapters to set his scene (chapter 1) and the de Guenic family (chapter 2). Brittany had been fighting with France for some twelve hundred years over autonomy, special privileges, or rejection of both the French Revolution (Les Chouans/) and the Orleanist monarchy represented by the “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe (Béatrix). It is really a very special place miles apart from the rest of France both culturally and linguistically.

Within this very snarky cultural milieu, the de Guenic family are ancient holdouts. Whenever Brittany was at loggerheads with the rest of France, you can count on the de Guenics picking up their weapons and joining, if not leading, the fray. Their family’s motto is FAC, which roughly translates as JUST DO IT!

The family members at the time Balzac begins his story are the old Baron de Guenic, his elder sister Zephirine (who is blind), his wife the former Fanny O’Brien whom he had met in Ireland, and two servants, Mariotte and Gasselin, who are like two bookends. There is also a son, Calyste, whom we have not met yet who is a subject of conversation because of his womanizing ways.

The de Guenics have two guests over to play Mouche, a card game: Mademoiselle de Pen-Hoel and the Chevalier du Halga.The family of the Baron and his guests are shaking their heads over the family heir, Calyste, who is shamefully engaged in a relationship with Felicité des Touches, a commoner – albeit a wealthy one. That is not the worst of it: Not only is she suspected of having Liberal political tendencies, but she is in the arts, affects men’s clothing, and calls herself by a man’s name, Camille Maupin. And there is still more: She is as old as Calyste’s  mother, whereas Calyste has not yet attained adulthood. In the words of the Abbé Grimond, an old family friend:

“[She is] a woman of questionable morals, a writer for the stage, frequenting theaters and actors, squandering her fortune among pamphleteers, painters, musicians, a devilish society, in short. She writes books herself, and has taken a false name by which she is better known, they tell me, than by her own. She seems to be a sort of circus woman who never enters a church except to look at the pictures. She has spent quite a fortune in decorating Les Touches [her estate] in a most improper fashion, making it a Mohammedan paradise where the houris are not women….”

… and more, much more, along the same line. As the card players return home or go to bed, only the Baroness remains up to wait for the absent Calyste, who comes in at 1 a.m.

As in many of Balzac’s provincial novels, the atmosphere is as confining as bonds of iron; and Calyste feels the need to breathe freely without having the weight of the past come crushing down on his head at every family meeting. As Balzac writes, “Passion was an unknown thing to these Catholic souls, these old  people exclusively concerned about salvation, God, the king, and their  property.”

We cut to the life of “Camille Maupin,” who is largely self-taught due to the early death of her parents and guardian. She is also extremely wealthy, much more so than the de Guenics. Balzac is careful to mention her in the same breath with the real George Sand, presumably so that people would not think that she actually is George Sand – but it becomes apparent that she is very like the author of Indiana, Consuelo, and other famous and somewhat scandalous novels  of the day.

In Chapter 7, we see Les Touches, Camille’s estate, in its dark slate splendor arising from the dunes and salt pools around Croisic. We see Calyste let himself in and run upstairs as he hears Mlle des Touches playing her piano and crying. She welcomes Calyste’s interference and tells him that her male companion, one Claude Vignon, a literary critic, has disappeared, presumably for the bright lights of Paris.

It seems that “Camille Maupin” is one of those women who toy with men’s  affections without intending any real harm. Claude and Calyste were jealous of each other in vying for their Camille’s attention. At some point in the past, Camille had already told Calyste that she is not in love with the young man. We do not at this point know the real nature of her feelings for Claude.

Camille shows Calyste a letter from her friend Beatrix, the Marquise de Rochefide née Cateran (an old family every bit as noble as the de Guenics). She paints an appetizing picture of Beatrix as a pale blond beauty with delicate features – who has abandoned her own child to run off with a Neapolitan musician named Gaetano Conti. Now, it appears that the gloss has worn off her relationship with Conti, and both Conti and the Marquise are coming to Les Touches for a stay. It seems as if Camille Maupin wants Calyste to fall for Beatrix.

Even before he meets the belle Beatrix, it seems as if Calyste has fallen head over heels with her. So much so that Beatrix is a little perturbed by all the attention; and Camille feels that Calyste is acting like a goose, which may be a hereditary trait of the de Guenics.

Into this mix rides the young Charlotte Kergarouet, the de Guenic family-approved bride for the boy, along with her redoubtable mother and Mlle de Pen-Hoel. And, what is more, they share the same carriage with Calyste, Beatrix, and Camille. Calyste acts with some coldness toward his old playfellow Charlotte, which disturbs her and her minders. The de Guenics are confused by Calyste and have little idea what is going through his mind.

The one person who is not confused is Camille. She clearly wants Beatrix and Calyste to fall madly in love with each other. She gives Calyste his marching orders: He must appear to be madly in love with Felicité and pay scant attention to Beatrix. Meanwhile, Felicité will work on Beatrix behind the scenes.

“They were like the preliminaries of a duel between two women, – a duel without truce, in which the assault was made on both sides with snares, feints, false generosities, deceitful confessions, crafty confidence, by which one hid and the other bared her love; and in which the sharp steel of Camille’s treacherous words entered the heart of her friend, and left its poison there.”

The somewhat overheated love triangle between Calyste de Guenic, Felicité des Touches (a.k.a. Camille Maupin), and the Marquise Beatrix de Rochefide continues apace. It seems that Calyste has thrown off Camille’s (perhaps disingenuous) advice to follow her lead and Beatrix will be his. Instead, he enters into a secret correspondence with Beatrix and like the naïf he is blurts out his innermost feelings to her. At the same time, he lets his mother Fanny read his letters, which dismays her to no end.

Things come to a head when Calyste and the two women go on a picnic to Croisic and around the wild shoreline. At one point, Calyste and Beatrix are alone in a particularly dangerous spot. He becomes insistent about his love, she resists him, and he hurls her off the cliff. She falls about ten feet and is held in place by her voluminous dress. While not in the immediate area, Camille has witnessed the deed and calls the servant Gassenet to fetch a ladder from a nearby paludier’s house. Calyste and Gassenet rescue Beatrix and take her swooning body to the house.

Balzac’s description of the effect of Calyste’s violence is rather surprising:

“Cold, fragile, thin, hard women like Madame de Rochefide, women whose necks turn in a manner to give them a vague resemblance to the feline race, have souls of the same pale tint as their light eyes, green or gray; and to melt them, to fuse those blocks of stone it needs a thunderbolt. To Beatrix, Calyste’s fury of love and his mad action came as the thunderbolt that nought resists, which changes all natures, even the most stubborn. She felt herself inwardly humbled; a true, pure love bathed her heart with its soft and limpid warmth. She breathed a sweet and genial atmosphere of feelings hitherto unknown to her, by which she held herself magnified, elevated….”

Does this remind you of a caveman’s wooing? Bash the woman in the head with a club and drag her by the hair to one’s cave. Calyste’s action is not altogether successful, as Beatrix, while feeling more moist-eyed about him, has no inclination to run off with him.

Camille, on the other hand, knows by now that Calyste has flouted her advice and engaged in correspondence with Beatrix. She confronts him and, in effect, calls him a stupid ninny. She contacts Conti and urges him to visit Les Touches.

What ensues is an interesting scene in which Conti, who knows what has happened, decides to have a man-to-man talk with Calyste. He begins by saying that he was only waiting for an excuse to dump the Marquise because he has fallen in love with Mlle Falcon of the Paris stage and contemplates marriage with her. Heady with anticipation, Calyste does not know he is being taken for a ride by the shrewd musician. He blabs out everything about his hopes vis-a-vis Beatrix while Conti takes careful note of what he says.

Quite suddenly, Conti and Beatrix leave together, leaving Calyste in left field sucking on a mop.

I am still rather puzzled about Camille’s motivation in all this. She tells Calyste that Beatrix originally abandoned her family and ran off with Conti because “[s]he is one of those women who prefer the celebrity of a scandal to obtain the fatal alms of a rebuke; they desire to be talked about at any cost.” I know that Camille is playing some sort of game in which she takes revenge on Beatrix for talking Conti away from her. Plus, I do not think she really cares one iota for Calyste and the whole de Guenic clan.

When the Marquise de Rochefide decamped with her lover Conti, she left Calyste lovesick and helpless – so lovesick and helpless that both he and his father the Baron fall sick and have their lives despaired of. Calyste himself sends Charlotte de Kergarouet away, after warning her off from him by telling her the truth and advising her to marry another. (At least, SHE’s safe!) Unfortunately, the baron dies, to the grief of the population around Guerande, to whom his death marked the passing of an era.

After the funeral, the Baroness brings Mlle des Touches to see Calyste. He promises his mother to save Calyste. Felicité brings Calyste to Paris and arranges a marriage between him and one of the daughters of the Duchesse de Grandlieu, the 19-year-old Sabine. As a result of some shrewd real estate transactions, Felicité winds up with 2.5 million francs. Of that, 700,000 goes to buy a house in Paris’s rue de Bourbon for Calyste and Sabine; and a million goes for the recovery of the du Guenic estates.

You can tell where this is going, can’t you? After doing her best for Calyste (contrary to her avowed character earlier in the story), Felicité enters a convent of the Visitation Order for “a lifetime of prayer and solitude.” Yes, to be sure!

Calyste takes his young wife to Brittany, where, before long, she detects that Calyste, though superficially healed, has a worm in his heart – something connected, perhaps, with a former love. The honeymoon goes off somewhat less than well, and Sabine is already writing letters to her family about her strange relationship. In the honeymoon carriage, her husband tells her:

“I want you to be happy, and, above all, do I wish you to be happy in your own way. Therefore, in the situation in which we are, instead of deceiving ourselves mutually about our characters and our feelings by noble compliances, let us endeavor to be to each other at once what we should be years hence. Think always that you have a friend [I would have said fiend] and a brother in me, as I shall feel I have a sister and a friend in you.”

Sabine goes to visit Mlle des Touches at her convent, but the latter is feeling uneasy in her conscience about the situation. She ends up by warning her, “manage, if you can, that he shall never again see Beatrix.” Also she warns her from visiting Les Touches, which she had settled on Calyste, because insofar as Sabine is concerned, it would be like visiting “Bluebeard’s chamber.”

Originally, Balzac had planned to end Beatrix with Chapter XVII, saying that, despite the marriage, Calyste “retains a sadness in his soul which nothing dissipates…. Beatrix lives still in the depths of his heart, and it is impossible to see what disasters might result should he again meet with Madame de Rochefide.”

It is unfortunate that Balzac decided to tinker with his story as originally written.

Sabine writes to her mother, “I am not loved.” Like Pandora playing with the lid of that mythical box, she wants to see Les Touches for any light such a visit would cast on her loveless marriage. Mlle de Pen-Hoel has the best line about the place: “It is a place of perdition…. Mlle des Touches committed many sins there, for which she is now asking the pardon of God.” But she eventually gives in and goes with Calyste. While there, she tries to make light of the place’s “poisonous flowers,” but instead she rouses her husband against her: He reprimands her and asks her to “cease galvanizing that passion.” She writes to her mother:

“I saw that Calyste’s love was increasing through his reminiscences; that he was expending on me the stormy emotions I revived by asking him of the coquetries of that hateful Beatrix, – just think of it! That cold unhealthy nature, so persistent yet so flabby, something between a mollusk and a bit of coral, dares to call itself Beatrix, Beatrice!”

Sabine has given birth to a male heir to the du Guenic family and dedicates herself to his upbringing. (Curiously, Balzac does not divulge his name at this point.) While she is taking care of the baby’s croup, Calyste goes by himself to the theatre and sees … none other than Beatrix.

The moment of danger has arrived. Calyste visits her in her box and wrangles an invitation to her house in the Parc Monceau area. She informs him that Conti has in fact abandoned her, so she is, in effect, free.

The wheels are now in motion.

There have been some changes to Beatrix:

“Madame de Rochefide, now become bony and gaunt, her complexion faded and almost discolored, her eyes hollow with deep circles, had that evening brightened those premature ruins by the cleverest contrivances of the article Paris. She had taken it into her head, like other deserted women, to assume a virgin air, and recall by clouds of white material the maidens of Ossian, so poetically painted by Girodet….”

Well, Calyste wastes no time in once again falling head over heels in love with her. Sabine does not take long to figure out what has happened. Calyste is now interested in spending lots of time with his popsie. It is Balzac who writes:

“Fallen into a mortifying position through Conti’s desertion, Beatrix was determined to have, at any rate, the fame which unprincipled conduct gives. The misfortune of the poor young wife, a rich and beautiful Grandlieu, should be her pedestal.”

Let us summarize the situation:

  • Calyste – No longer just a lovesick goose, but now an uncaring adulterer.
  •  Mlle (now Sister) des Touches – Conscience-stricken, suspecting that Calyste would go over to the dark side, which he does with alacrity.
  •  Sabine – Innocent victim, a beautiful young woman who deserves better.
  •  Beatrix, Marquise de Rochefide – An unprincipled and hateful woman who disguises her failing powers to attract with a diabolic art.

How demeaning to a fresh, vital, beautiful young mother like Sabine du Guenic to have lost your young husband to a woman twelve years her senior! But there is no doubt that Calyste is now enjoying the favors of Beatrix de Rochefide and neglecting his home, his wife, and his son Calyste Jr for a bad girl of a slightly older generation.

Out of rage and frustration, Sabine finally tells the tale to her mother the Duchesse de Grandlieu and her sisters Clotilde and Athenais. She goes so far as to warn Athenais not to put her best face forward to her upcoming marriage to the Vicomte Juste de Grandlieu, but to “be calm, dignified, cold; measure the happiness you give by that which you receive.” In other words, you’d do better to be a cold manipulatrix like Beatrix than to be your lovely self.

But Mama has resources which she plans to put into action. She’s been around, the Duchesse de Grandlieu has, and knows something of the weaknesses of erring men and women. In her own words to her confessor, the Abbé Brossette,

 “I have committed the sin, my dear director, of thinking how to launch upon Madame de Rochefide a little man, very self-willed and full of the worst qualities, who will certainly induce her to dismiss my son-in-law.”

And who is this little man? None other than the Marquis de Rochefide, who is currently involved in a relationship with La-Petite-Aurélie Schontz (born Josephine Schiltz) of the Paris stage (sort of: best to think more of a Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan type).

No sooner do we hear of this very unlikely sounding plot than Balzac pulls back the curtain to show us the big picture. Instead of looking at the sad life and loves of the du Guenics and their gloomy households, we are now looking from a great height at a city that has thousands of footloose young women whose sole purpose in life is to romance large numbers of francs from foolish older men like the Marquis Arthur de Rochefide. Whole neighborhoods are populated by these young women, and legions of artisans are employed to create precious little love nests for them and their inamoratas.

Balzac defines three stages of barnacle-like attachment to these older men, from the “rat” stage, where they are at first cautious and niggardly with their money; to the next stage, where they have wormed their way into their confidence; to the penultimate stage where they act in loco uxoris (in place of a wife) and help raising the child of the former marriage, giving financial advice without being greedy for financial recompense.

But note I said penultimate. There is a fourth stage which involves marriage. Mlle Schontz wants a ring and the security that comes with it. She can’t marry the Marquis de Rochefide because his wife Beatrix is still running around doing pretty much the same thing her “ex” is, and that would be bigamy. So what does she do but settle on a stupid young man, one of a new class that Balzac describes as having risen as a result of the July monarchy’s gross multiplication of titles and distinctions? The young man is a Norman of good family named Fabien du Ronceret.

“‘I have seven hundred thousand francs,’ she [Mlle Schontz] said, ‘and I admit to you that if I could find a man full of ambition, who knows how to understand my character, I would change my position; for do you know what is the dream of my life? To become a true bourgeoise, enter an honorable family, and make my husband and children truly happy.'”

After some denseness on the part of Fabien, the young man finally toes the mark: “Within a week, the latter [Fabien], whom she put on the scent of her fortune, had offered his hand, and heart, and future, – three things of about the same value.” [Good one, Honoré!]

The Duchesse de Grandlieu continues to intervene to save her daughter Sabine’s marriage with Calyste. She calls in the Marquis d’Ajuda-Pinto, who in turn calls in the notorious rake Maxime de Trailles, friend and follower of Henri de Marsay, a member of Balzac’s notorious “The Thirteen.” Using the dissipated Comte de Trailles to effect a marital reconciliation is like using Mephistopheles to help an old lady across the street.

What is it, exactly, that Maxime de Trailles does?

First, he hits the Duchesse up for 20,000 francs and gives them to the impecunious (but in a small way only) young rake the Comte de la Palferine, urging him to spend money freely in attempting to romance Beatrix away from Calyste. Now this de la Palferine is witty and fairly accomplished, compared to the dull, mooning Calyste, and Beatrix is likely to find him a tad sharper.

Next, he convinces Mlle Aurelie Schontz to go through with her plan to dump the old Marquis Arthur de Rochefide (Beatrix’s estranged husband) and marry Fabien de Roncereau, whom he will contrive to be appointed chief justice and made a member of the Legion of Honor. Voila! Instant respectability!

He succeeds in both endeavors. Old Arthur is disconsolate when he finds Aurelie canoodling with Fabien on several occasions. When it appears he won’t take the hint (just as Fabien originally was slow on the pickup), Maxime provides the impetus that leaves the old Marquis out in the cold and minus his customary corset.

De Trailles urges that Sabine plan to spend a l-o-o-o-n-g vacation traveling around remote parts of Europe just to allow the Marquis and Marquise to get together again without unduly upsetting their respective digestions.

In the meantime, de la Palferine romances Beatrix away from Calyste (which is about as difficult as shooting fish in a barrel). Which gives our author the opportunity to tell us what women are really like:

“These two natures of woman, so opposed to each other, have at the bottom of their hearts, the one that faint desire for virtue, the other that faint desire for libertinism which Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first to have the courage to diagnose. In one, it is a last reflexion of the ray divine that is not extinct; in the other, it is the last remains of our primitive clay. This claw of the beast was rapped, this hair of the devil was pulled by Nathan [working with de Trailles] with extreme cleverness. The marquise began to ask herself seriously if, up to the present time, she had not been the dupe of her head, and whether her education was complete. Vice – what is it? Possibly only the desire to know everything.”

Like many of Balzac’s sententious maxims, I am not 100% sure what they mean, nor am I necessarily convinced of their truth, but they sure sound good. In any event, the Marquise does return to Arthur, but we are spared the reconciliation scene.

As for Calyste, he returns to Sabine – to stay. Calyste was just as obtuse as the Marquis when it came to a dismissal by their former inamoratas, but he finally gets the picture when de Trailles and de la Palferine join together in drawing the picture for him.

In summary, I think that Beatrix is one of Balzac’s better long efforts – not up to the level of Goriot, Lost Illusions, the two Cousins, and A Harlot High and Low. If it received a more up to date translation, I am fairly sure it would be one of his more popular works … except that I was somewhat less entranced by the opening scenes in Brittany and the disappearance of Camille Maupin into a convent.

Read it here

Summaried by Jim,  January – February 2011


One comment on “Béatrix by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    I am all over the map on this novel. It did me good to read both Jim’s summary here and Lisa’s summary at Goodreads. Jim loves the book and Lisa thinks it a bit ridiculous. I was pulled in by the drama – throwing a woman down a cliff! – but I am never able to relate to a woman who loves one who doesn’t love her. Personally I would be able to convince myself that the lover had bad taste if he didn’t love me, LOL, and that I didn’t want him at all. Balzac and I have many disagreements about women, heh. As this book is a thinly veiling writing about several of Balzac’s contemporaries, I am sure I miss some of the subtleties. I never did quite get Camille running off to a convent, either – it just didn’t seem like her character at all. And why was Calyste such a prize? The machinations to get Beatrix back to her husband included Balzac’s usual complexity, which I was barely able to follow, but it was somewhat amusing. The world seems divided as to whether Balzac should have stopped with the original ending of Calyse’s marriage to Sabine. I think I like the expanded version. No matter how confused I am, I find I look back at this book as close to a ‘top 10’ Balzac novel.


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