Parisians in the Country: The Muse of the Department by Honoré de Balzac

Les Parisiens en province: La Muse du département
Parisians in the Country: The Muse of the Department

The tale is set along Balzac’s beloved Loire Valley, at the wine-growing town of Sancerre. A weakling who was not expected to live, Monsieur de la Baudraye, has wed a talented young beauty, Dinah Piedefer, thirty years his junior, from a Calvinist family that had converted to Catholicism.

De la Baudraye is a spider of a man of the type whom one encounters in the provinces, full of a kind of strongly directed miserliness and love of purchasing adjoining estates (reminding me of Grandet in Eugenie Grandet). Here is Balzac’s description of the husband:

“Monsieur de la Baudraye, whose legs were so thin that, for mere decency, he wore false calves, whose thighs were like the arms of an average man, whose body was not unlike that of a cockchafer…. As he walked, the little wine-owner’s leg-pads often twisted round on his shins, so little did he make a secret of them, and he would thank anyone who warned him of this little mishap.”

At first, he allows Dinah enough to furnish their house in Sancerre and attract a cadre of male admirers. Yet, because Dinah is a “Superior Woman” and something of a bluestocking, other women are intimidated by her and do not attend her little affairs.

Although her husband cuts back her household expenses to the bone, Dinah is not unduly affected until her old school friend Anna Grossetete, who has become the Baronne de Fontaine, comes to visit from Paris:

“This meeting was strangely disastrous. Anna, who at school had been far less handsome than Dinah, now, as Baronne de Fontaine, was a thousand times handsomer than the Baronne de la Baudraye, in spite of her fatigue and her traveling dress. Anna stepped out of an elegant traveling chaise loaded with Paris milliners’ boxes, and she had with her a lady’s maid, whose airs quite frightened Dinah. All the difference between a woman of Paris and a provincial was at once evident to Dinah’s intelligent eye; she saw herself as her friend saw her – and Anna found her altered beyond recognition. Anna spent six thousand francs a year on herself alone, as much as kept the whole household at La Baudraye.”

But Dinah is not without resources. Even though she admits to her male admirer Clagny that “Anna has learned to live, while I have been learning to endure,” she draws upon her talent to publish some locally famous poems under the names of Jan Diaz and Paquita la Sevillane.

In addition to her feelings of being kept back by her husband, just when she realizes the disadvantages of her position compared to Anna, she loses her old friend and confessor, the Abbe Duret. Before he dies, the good Abbe has seen Dinah’s dissatisfaction and warns her of dangers ahead:

“So beware of offending Monsieur de la Baudraye; he would forgive an infidelity, because he would make capital out of it, but he would be doubly implacable if you should touch him on [a vulnerable] spot … and would make your life unendurable.”

Poor Dinah de la Baudraye is so disheartened being saddled with a miserly squib of a husband that she surrounds herself with local candidates for her favors. But she has bigger game in mind: She arranges to have two notables from Sancerre who have made good in Paris invited with the prospect of being made a deputy dangled before them … and, who knows? There may be more interesting consequences of a more intimate nature.

The well-known physician Horace Bianchon and the roué litterateur Etienne Lousteau come down from Paris and are met with … the wine grape harvest. Eventually, the two are driven out to meet Dinah, and are met by the young lady herself at the door dressed in a romantic garb and spouting a decadent lament:

“What do you do to make life endurable?” [This is Lousteau asking]

“‘Ah! That is the crux,’ said the lady. ‘It is unendurable. Utter despair or dull resignation — there is no third alternative; that is the arid soil in which our existence is rooted, and on which a thousand stagnant ideas fall; they cannot fertilize the ground, but they supply food for the etiolated flowers of our desert souls.'”

Lousteau and Bianchon conclude that our muse is a bit of a chatterbox. But here begins a period of testing. The Parisians want to see what Dinah is made up of (especially Lousteau); and Dinah wants to see if the difference between the local yokels and the visitors from Paris is worth the trouble.

The latter two tentatively posit that Dinah and the public prosecutor, M. Clagny, might be something of an item. They decide to recount several tales about adulterous love. Then, that night, they surreptitiously position hairs on Dinah’s door and the prosecutor’s door. They are surprised (and amused) to see that Dinah and Clagny are probably both innocent of their suspicions. Curiously, this has the effect of stoking Lousteau’s fires of passion for Dinah. (Bianchon seems somewhat less interested.)

There follows a rather strange scene in which Lousteau receives a manuscript from Paris which is bound in make-up sheets for a romance called Olympia, or Roman Revenge. By now, several other curious members of local society have gravitated to Dinah’s estate to see the visitors for themselves. There follows the reading of several fragments of this dreadful and badly dated romance.After the reading out loud of the romance which was wrapped around the manuscript sent to Lousteau by his publisher, Lousteau decides to get down to business; and the story takes up a comic tone.

It begins as the Parisian notices a young Mademoiselle Gorju, “whose figure threatened terrible things after the birth of her first child,” and continues in that vein. Dinah de la Baudraye seems not to care quite so much for Doctor Horace Bianchon as for his friend Etienne:

“Everything was against the physician – his frankness, his simplicity, and his profession. And this is why: Women who want to love – and Dinah wanted to love as much as to be loved – have an instinctive aversion for men who are devoted to an absorbing occupation.”

Being the all-around good guy that he is – perhaps the nicest guy in all of Balzac’s many works -, he does not seem to mind being passed over by the provincial belle; and he is more than willing to help set up the liaison between the two lovers.

Bianchon is set to leave for Paris in a day or two. Dinah sets up to drive the good doctor to a town from which he can take a diligence to Paris. Accompanying Bianchon and Dinah are Lousteau and, following on a horse, one of Dinah’s local beaux, the young Gatien Boisrouge. Bianchon arranges to throw some dust in Gatien’s eyes by having him ride back to get some “papers” he left behind, which he does. That leaves Dinah and Etienne to canoodle in peace. He even goes so far as to disarrange her muslin dress, which embarrasses the young baroness and becomes very evident to any onlookers what has been going on.

After Gatien tells his fellow beaux about the dress, Etienne addresses them:

“For my part, I say boldly, before Gatien, I give up Paris; I mean to stay at Sancerre and swell the number of your cavalieri serven ti. I feel so young again in my native district [he is originally from Sancerre]; I have quite forgotten Paris and all its wickedness, and its bores, and its wearisome pleasures. – Yes, my life seems in a way purified.”

It is to laugh, however, because Etienne must leave for Paris at the insistence of his publisher. He does so, and promptly forgets his “muse of the department, going so far as to shove her long perfumed and impassioned missives into his underwear drawer while he plots a marriage with the young widowed daughter of his acquaintance Cardot.

This turns to farce as Cardot’s puritanical wife comes with her daughter,  unannounced, to Etienne’s quarters – at the same time that the Baroness de la Baudraye arrives in tears to say that she is preggers. Mme Cardot and daughter are shocked and call off any further efforts in that direction. In the meantime, Lousteau pens a quick note to his friend Bixiou (who is in on the writer’s secrets) and tells him to come read the riot act (in good fun) to Lousteau while Dinah cowers in the bedroom.

Bixiou comes over and (wink wink) berates Lousteau in such a way as to increase Dinah’s love for him:

“His [Etienne’s] plan of action was quickly decided on; he determined to play the farce of passion once more, and to perfection. His mean self-interestedness and his false vehemence of passion had disastrous results. Madame de la Baudraye, when she set out from Sancerre for paris, had intended to live in rooms of her own quite near to Lousteau; but the proofs of devotion her lover had given her by given up such brilliant prospects [e.g., marrying Cardot’s daughter], and yet more the perfect happiness of the first days of their illicit union, kept her from mentioning such a parting. The second day was to be – and indeed was – a high festival, in which such a suggestion proposed to ‘her angel’ would have been a discordant note.”

We leave this chapter with Lousteau remembering Bianchon’s earlier comment that her little weasel of a husband in Sancerre would no doubt die soon, leaving Dinah’s lover with far more francs than Cardot would have given him for marrying his daughter.

Predictably, the relationship between Dinah de la Baudraye and Lousteau begins to lose its luster. It was great fun for a while going to all the theatrical openings and such:

“By the end of three months Dinah was acclimatized; she had reveled in the music at the Italian opera; she knew the pieces ‘on’ at all theatres, and the actors and jests of the day; she had become inured to this life of perpetual excitement, this rapid torrent in which everything is forgotten. She no longer craned her neck or stood with her nose in the air, like an image of Amazement, at the constant surprises that Paris has for a stranger. She had learned to breathe that witty, vitalizing, teeming atmosphere where clever people feel themselves in their element, and which they can no longer bear to quit.”

The problem was not Paris: It was Lousteau. He was a journalist who lived in what the Japanese of bygone times called “the floating world” of mistresses, drunken revels, and all-around dissipation – or, to use the French term, nostalgie de la boue (“yearning for the mud”).

Remember that Dinah came to Paris, ditching her husband, with a bun in the oven, which turned into a son. Soon, he was joined by a second. Dinah brings her mother from Sancerre to help raise the children while she tries, vainly, to resume her career as a bluestocking. As Lousteau’s journalistic output declines, Dinah winds up taking up his half-done pieces and finishing them. But the spark of their relationship is gone. And so is Lousteau’s career. Etienne justly remarks:

“‘You do not understand me,’ said he. ‘I blame myself, for I am not worth such sacrifices, dear angel. I am, in a literary sense, a quite second-rate man. If the day comes when I can no longer cut a figure at the bottom of the newspaper, the editors will let me lie, like an old shoe flung into the rubbish heap. Remember, we tight-rope dancers have no retiring pension! The State would have too many clever men on its hands if it started on such a career of beneficence. I am forty-two, and I am as idle as a marmot. I feel it—I know it’…”

At the same time, Dinah’s cast-off husband is going from triumph to triumph. His wealth increases … his investments pay off spectacularly … and he petitions the Citizen King, Louis-Philippe, to become a Count and be promoted to a higher grade of the Legion of Honor.

And what does this miserly paragon do? He takes back Dinah under terms favorable to her and her children … he acknowledges the boys to be his own … and he turns generous. Dinah has no wish to go down with Lousteau’s ship – and his ship is definitely going down.

Although de la Baudraye spends most of his time in Sancerre making money, he has put Dinah up in a charming abode which he has allowed her to decorate. Her old friend Clagny has risen in the French court system and becomes her friend and advisor – without ulterior motives, as he is a married man.

Finally, Lousteau shows up to borrow money from Dinah. His furniture is about to be attached, and he owes thousands of francs. She lends him 6,000 francs and has good reason to consider herself lucky to be rid of such a self-destructive paramour as Etienne Lousteau. So for her, it’s a kind of happy ending. For Lousteau, he will probably swirl down the drain in another year or two after blowing what little money he has on drink and whores. The last word belongs to Dinah:

“Why,” said Lousteau presently, “why not end as we ought to have begun—hide our love from all eyes, and see each other in secret?”

“Never!” cried the new-made Countess, with an icy look. “Do you not comprehend that we are, after all, but finite creatures? Our feelings seem infinite by reason of our anticipation of heaven, but here on earth they are limited by the strength of our physical being. There are some feeble, mean natures which may receive an endless number of wounds and live on; but there are some more highly-tempered souls which snap at last under repeated blows. You have—”

“Oh! enough!” cried he. “No more copy! Your dissertation is unnecessary, since you can justify yourself by merely saying—’I have ceased to love!'”

Read it here

Summaried by Jim, March 2011


2 comments on “Parisians in the Country: The Muse of the Department by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    So can someone explain the significance of the name of this work? I did rather like the work. Saintsbury can’t quite understand Dinah – he can’t quite believe she’d move in with Lousteau and have his children and then decide to go back to her husband. But it makes sense to me. I think she did love Lousteau but finally figured out he was hopeless and that he didn’t really love her. So she might as well go back and be a Countless – at least she’d have Parisian success. I suppose she married her husband thinking she’d get this, and he’d changed enough to provide her with it in the end.


  2. Jim Paris says:

    I think the title is heavily ironic. The early 19th century saw many historical “muses” such as Mme de Stael and Mme Recamier, who were surrounded by clouds of enthralled male literary figures. This story is about what Balzac thought could happen if the muse fell hard for one of her protegés.


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