The Middle Classes by Honoré de Balzac

Les Petits Bourgeois
The Middle Classes
Also translated as The Lesser Bourgeoisie

 


Part 1 Ch 1 – Departing Paris

Balzac begins with a chapter that shows the history of a building over almost three centuries, the building being the three-story residence with warehouse space near the present Hotel de Ville in the 4th Arrondisement.

The author warms to his task as he describes how the building changed from one generation to another until, “today” (presumably the 1840s) it is a rather grim pastiche of a building that looks to be in dubious taste, but is worth a lot of money for all that.

Part 1 Ch 2 – The History of a Tyranny

The building is currently owned by Mlle Brigitte Thuillier, the unmarried sister of Louis-Jerome Thuillier, who was laid off from his position as a sub-director of a clerical department of the monarchy at the time of the July Revolution of 1830, when Louis-Philippe, the “Citizen-King,” came into power.

Brigitte used to own her own business, sewing money bags for banks, which she sold at a profit to one of her employees. She bought the house described earlier and rented out the warehouse space (which formerly consisted of stables and miscellaneous outbuildings) to a book merchant and a dealer in paper. She also went into money-lending in a small way (which, as we all know from reading Balzac, is probably the most remunerative profession of all). The residential space she occupied herself and set about trying to find a useful occupation for her now “retired” brother Jerome. That business, as we shall see, involved property management.

Also, it was Brigitte who was responsible for Jerome marrying – for a huge dowry – a rather dim-witted young woman named Celeste, whom she put on an allowance and lorded over, but not without some delicacy and care. Jerome, who has been called “the handsome Thuillier” based on his looks and comportment several decades ago, still regards himself as quite a gay blade, and goes out by himself to balls, leaving Celeste to twiddle her thumbs with Brigitte.

Part 1 Ch 3 – Colleville

Thuillier’s best friend was a former fellow clerk named Colleville. He was one of the finance ministry’s “pluralists,” meaning that he simultaneously held down several jobs, including the position of clarinetist at the theater. It was at the theater that he met his wife, Flavie, and married her.

Unlike Thuillier, the Collevilles were philoprogenitive, and all of their children survived. One of them, named after Mme Celeste Thuillier, who, with her husband Jerome, had no luck in producing children.

No matter, Thuillier invited the Collevilles to move into one of their apartments, and – before that – had lent them a fair amount of money (which Balzac says Thuillier did not expect to be repaid). Where the Thuilliers are a pretty serious bunch, the Collevilles are happy-go-lucky.

So far, the Thuilliers and Collevilles are fairly attractive specimens of petits bourgeois, even the spinster Mlle Thuillier, who is the sharpest tack in the bunch.

Part 1 Ch 4 – The Circle of M and Mme Thuillier

Others in the circle are Phellion, Laudigeois, and a young man by the name of Charlie-Marie-Theodose de la Peyrade. He is thinking of marrying Celeste Colleville, whom the Thuilliers, being childless, will leave their fortune to and who looks to become a rich heiress.

Part 1 Ch 5 – A Principal Personage

The character of Charlie-Marie-Theodose de la Peyrade begins to come to the fore in this chapter. He is a young (aged 27) barrister who has rented rooms from the Thuilliers for the last three years and who has designs on the hand of Celeste Colleville. Hailing from Avignon in the South of France, he is ambitious and appears to have a good career ahead of him.

Balzac describes Theodose as a philanthropist and advocate of the working classes. Yet he seems to like to set people against one another: In the previous chapter, we saw him working on Thuillier by referring to Colleville as de Colleville, because for some reason he wore a rosette of the Legion of Honor, whereas Thuillier did not. Theodose begins to work on Flavie Colleville, the mother of Celeste, and against her husband by flattering her and acknowledging her potential for passion. With his declaration that she had been loved but not divined, Flavie felt divined indeed.

Part 1 Ch 6 – A Keynote

The main lineaments of the conflict are now in place. We are introduced to one of the author’s smarmier villains, a clerk named Cerizet, who is in league with Dutocq, an “artist in evil”. He has a history of plotting of infamous but legal deeds.
Cerizet and Dutocq wait for Theodose de la Peyrade, who joins them. C & D have a plan in mind involving some real estate on the Right Bank near the Madeleine. It sounds almost too good to be true, and the conspirators plan on persuading the wealthy Mlle Thuillier to buy the property for some reason that involves the larger plot to have Theodose wed Celeste Colleville.

Another plot arises on the part of Theodose and his friends to get M Thuillier elected to the Municipal Council, awarded a rosette of the Legion of Honor (which Colleville has and regarding which Thuillier is envious), and, farther on, named an Officer of the Legion and a Deputy in the government.

Part 1 Ch 5 – The Worthy Phellions

Cerizet, Dutocq, and La Peyrade want to replace the deceased Popinot on the municipal council with Thuillier. In order to do that, they must canvass their friends and trade some favors. THE favor of favors appears to be the hand of Celestine Colleville, who is the heir of the childless Thuilliers. La Peyrade and his friends are shameless about offering Celeste to everyone who has a son of marriageable age – though La  Peyrade secretly wants her for himself. To this end, he has begun a kind of desultory seduction of Celeste’s mother, Flavie.

M. Phellion is introduced as a pompous bore who likes to think of himself as the last of the Noble Romans, a veritable Cincinnatus: His motto is “nil conscire sibi, nulla pallescere culpa,” which translates to “to have a clear conscience and not pale at any charge.”

When La Peyrade tells M. Phellion the reason for his visit, the latter says he has his own candidate in mind for the post, Popinot’s nephew, the good doctor Horace Bianchon. Phellion has a young son, and La Peyrade casually drops the info about the possible availability of Celeste, which greatly interests Mme. Phellion, whose son Felix has already cast sheep’s eyes at the lovely heiress.

We hear a little about Phellion’s background, which does sound fairly impressive compared to that of some of the co-conspirators. He is respected in the National Guard for his boldness and compassion. He hopes the king will grant him at last the Legion of Honor as he thinks of retirement at nearly age 60.

Part 1 Ch 8 – Ad Majorem Theodosis Gloriam

An impromptu dinner and ball takes place at the Thuilliers with the express purpose of twisting arms so that Thuillier gets chosen to the municipal council. There is much discussion of the various factions and how they are maneuvering for the hand of Celeste. La Peyrade makes love to Flavie in order to get to Celeste. Flavie is more or less happily married to Colleville, but she is highly gratified by all the attention.

Part 1 Ch 10 – How Brigitte Was Won

Now it is La Peyrade’s turn to work on Brigitte, because it is she who must put up the money for the conspirators’ real estate transaction. He begins by urging her to get her friends Barbet and Metivier to back Thuillier’s quest for a Municipal council seat. She agrees, and we learn that the seat is not only in the bag, but it lacks just a few votes of being unanimous. So chalk this up as a victory for La Peyrade.

Now he begins to describe some of the details about the large house in the Madeleine on the Right Bank that sits unfinished on a desirable corner lot location that will make its value rise to a million … eventually. They can get it cheap at one hundred thousand francs even though its current unfinished value is four hundred thousand due to some partnership difficulties. The notary involved wants a cut of the deal under an assumed name – it’s all very complicated but potentially immensely profitable.

Brigitte is elated: she sees the dollar signs dance before her eyes. She agrees to put up the cash. When La Peyrade leaves, seemingly walking on air, Brigitte calls in Flavie Colleville and asks her to get an introduction from one of her old theater friends who made it into the nobility for an introduction to one Chaffaroux, a rich contractor, whom Brigitte wants to enlist for his opinion of the property.

Part 1 Ch 11 – The Reign of Theodose La Peyrade

The deal seems to be going through. But we are in the middle of another Balzacian financial deal which is beginning to grow increasingly murky:

“Ten days later a yellow poster announced the sale of the house, after due publication; the price named being seventy-five thousand francs; the final purchase to take place about the last of July. On this point Cerizet and Claparon had an agreement by which Cerizet pledged the sum of fifteen thousand francs (in words only, be it understood) to Claparon in case the latter could deceive the notary and keep him quiet until the time expired during which he might withdraw the property by bidding it in. Mademoiselle Thuillier, notified by Theodose, agreed entirely to this secret clause…[The notary] offered Claparon ten thousand francs to secure himself in this dirty business, — a sum which was only to be paid on receipt, through Claparon, of a counter-deed from the nominal purchaser of the property. The notary was aware that that sum was all-important to Claparon to extricate him from present difficulties, and he felt secure of him.”

Theodose is trying hard to keep pumping up the Thuilliers, the Phellions, the Minards, and all the others. Theodose is beginning to look quite anxiously over his shoulder for fear that something is gaining on him.

Something is.

Part 1 Ch 12 – Devils Against Devils

We find out why Theodose is apprehensive about the impending real estate deal with the Thuilliers. During his early days in poverty, La Peyrade cut some sort of deal with Cerizet, affixing his signature as a  barrister to some bills of exchange. In cutting this real estate deal, La Peyrade hopes eventually to rid himself of Cerizet and Dutocq.

Part 1 Ch 13 – The Perversity of Doves

Thuillier begins by being declared “a non-dispossessable property owner” by his notary Cardot (not to be confused with the notary who let the property slip through his fingers). Cardot even wants one of the apartments on the 3rd floor for one of his clients.

The Thuilliers appear to be in Seventh Heaven. But is La Peyrade off the hook for what he owes to Cerizet and Dutocq? La Peyrade continues to work on the Thuilliers, painting wonderful pictures of their finishing the house and making vast profits on rentals. He reminds Thuillier also that he’s working on the Legion of Honor for him, asking Thuillier for an additional 10,000 francs to “facilitate” Thuillier’s cross of the Legion of Honor. Thuillier agrees to give it to him. (Might this not be part of what La Peyrade owes Cerizet and Dutocq?)

As La Peyrade passes his lovely Celeste’s room, he sneaks a peak and notices that his loved one is having an argument with Felix Phellion, her tutor. As we have seen in an earlier chapter, Felix is also in love with Celeste; but he is doing his best to wreck his chances. Celeste is a devout Catholic girl, and Felix (like his father) is a freethinker and a bit of an agnostic. This does not sit well with Celeste, who raises her voice at him.

At this point, La Peyrade lets himself into the room and, in contrast to Felix, makes all the right sounds about the Catholic religion, to Celeste’s delight. Felix leaves disgruntled, promising to read The Imitation of Christ, which Celeste urges upon him.

Also at the Thuilliers, La Peyrade runs into the attorney Desroches, who urges La Peyrade to pay up 25,000 francs plus 2,680 francs for court costs by 9 pm at the latest or Cerizet will take action against him for debt nonpayment.

Part 1 Ch 14 – One of Cerizet’s Female Clients

Theodose has paid off Cerizet the previous evening and was curious to see how the “lender for the short week” was taking it all. When he enters the premises, Cerizet is talking to one of his female clients, a somewhat shabby fishmonger by the name of Mère Cardinal. They are in the middle of a conversation about some people called the Toupilliers. When Cardinal leaves, Cerizet tells Theodose he has his money and says Dutocq should not be told about the payment.

Theodose asks if Cerizet got his money. ‘”Yes,” returned Cerizet “we have measured our claws, they are the same length, the same strength, and the same sharpness. What next?”‘ They decide not to tell Dutocq about the payment. Theodose and Cerizet make a new agreement. Cerizet will not try to prevent Theodose’s marriage to Celeste and thus Theodose may be in a position of importance in the future and can help Cerizet. Theodose will get Cerizet the lease of the new Thullier property and Cerizet will give one of the notes he holds on Theodose back to him cancelled. Theodose is on his own in dealing with Dutocq and the notes he holds on Theodose.

Cerizet wants the lease because he has observed similar situations in which as principal tenant he can sublease shops and other parts for a considerable fortune. “Cerizet had spent a happy night; he fell asleep in a glorious dream; he saw himself in a fair way to do an honest business, and to become a bourgeois like Thuillier, like Minard, and so many others.”

It looks as if that new apartment building of the Thuilliers is becoming  “oversubscribed,” much as Celeste Colleville has been more or less promised to various parties.

We learn, among other things, that Cerizet wants to marry Mère Cardinal’s daughter Olympe, who has run off and joined the Bobinot Theater, where her mother finds her.

In addition to the above, Cerizet finds another potentially lucrative goal. Mère Cardinal’s uncle Toupilliers is dying. One of balzac’s famous wealthy misers, he is even now watchful and well-defended by his tenants, most notably Perrache. Cerizet wants at that money and we will soon be joining him in his attempt.

Part 1 Ch 15 – The Difficulties That Crop Up

Cerizet is working with Mère Cardinal to steal the gold of her uncle, the dying miser Toupillier. Thuillier, Phellion, La Peyrade, and the others may as well be a million miles away. The only link outside of this tight little story is that one of Toupillier’s tenants, Du Portail, is taking care of an insane young woman named Lydie de la Peyrade.

Cerizet had decided to pass himself off as a doctor, but he quickly decides when he sees the flat that that would be too risky. For one thing, he sees the tenant, du Portail, walking in the garden with an important member of the government, Count Martial de la Roche-Hugon. In addition, the porter Perrache seems to be a diligent sort.

Not only that, but Toupillier is so incredibly suspicious that he half expects an attempt will be made on his fortune. Cerizet arranges for Mme Cardinal to slip him a Mickey Finn while he reconnoiters. He even discovers the miser’s hiding place (because he kept staring at one point along the wall intently), but no sooner does he see the loot than an unidentified little old man walks in and notifies everyone that the police have been sent for. The old man dismisss Mme Cardinal but invites Cerizet to settle down for a conference.

Part 1 Ch 16 – Du Portail

Cerizet seems to have run into a formidable adversary. When he nabbed him trying to steal Toupillier’s diamonds and gold, he demanded that the money lender meet him at his place at an agreed-upon time. When Cerizet shows up, the old man tells him that Toupillier is dead – most likely from the drugged wine he had Mme Cardinal serve him. He also notices that Mme Perrache, the porter’s wife, took a while to shake the effects of the drug.

How did du Portail know that Cerizet had broken into Toupillier’s hoard? He himself had set up the hiding place and had a bell ring in his apartment when the hiding place was breached.

And then – complexity upon complexities – when the conversation turns on our friend La Peyrade, du Portail not only wants him to marry someone else, but enlists Cerizet as the cupid. The woman La Peyrade is to marry is Mlle Lydie de la Peyrade, his cousin, who is slightly older than him, probably more of an heiress than Celeste, and only slightly plagued with hysteria (read, mental illness). Our old friend Dr Bianchon has seen Lydie and pronounces that her hysteria will vanish the moment she has a baby.

Apparently, Lydie is the sole legatee of Toupillier, and is also set to inherit from Du Portail.

I don’t know if La Peyrade wants to give any credence to Cerizet in a matter of such intimate importance.

Part 1 Ch 17 – In Which the Lamb Devours the

Cerizet is frightened by du Portail (who has proof that the money lender was trying to rob Toupillier and may have hastened his death) into talking La Peyrade into marrying his slightly unstable cousin Lydie instead of the lovely Celeste Colleville.

The chapter begins by Cerizet setting up a meeting with La Peyrade at the Rocher de Cancale the next day at 6:30; also he invites Dutocq to join him there fifteen minutes earlier. Dutocq shows up on time, and there is a sharp exchange over his participation in the scheme. He appears to be unwilling to let La Peyrade (and Cerizet) off the hook for what he thinks he has coming to him. Both Cerizet and Dutocq stand to lose on the deal, though I am not sure about exactly how much who owes whom by rights.

La Peyrade also shows up on time and appears to be flashing a large bankroll. He announces that Cerizet’s plans to rent part of the new apartment block have been vetoed by Brigitte Thuillier, who wants complete control of the tenants. Cerizet observes that La Peyrade is losing ground with the Thuillers and isn’t likely to marry Celeste. He observes this is because he has done them an immense favor in securing the new property, and people don’t respond well to being in moral obligations. Cerizet makes a proposal to La Peyrade that he marry the rich Lydie instead of Celeste, but La Peyrade is cool to the idea of dumping Celeste in favor of Lydie. He then begs off because he has another appointment and irks Cerizet by paying for the meal himself.

In a thoughtful mood, the money lender spends some time in a pool hall – at which he encounters the staring eyes of Du Portail. That puts Cerizet off his game.

Returning to his place, Cerizet is pummeled by none other than Mme Cardinal, who has been roughly used by the police for her participation in the Toupillier affair. She tells Cerizet that his planned marriage to her daughter Olympe is off, and that the girl now appears to be Minard’s mistress. She wants Cerizet to indemnify her for her pains, but that is not terribly likely.

Part 1 Ch 18 – Set a Lamb to Catch a Lamb

After his unwanted encounter with Du Portail at the billiard hall, Cerizet cringes when he sees a shadowy figure by his front doorstep, but it is only his partner in crime Dutocq, who had come for his notes to collect his due from la Peyrade.

La Peyrade then runs into a woman he knows. He is surprised to see a pious Jansenist woman dressed like an English Puritan. Here begins a truly weird subplot in which this woman wants to give La Peyrade some money to hold and invest for him so that she can claim to be poor and possibly win a lucrative prize for – of all things – her piety.

Part 2 Ch 1 – Phellion Under a New Aspect

Time has passed since the beginning of the novel. We overhear a conversation between Phellion and Minard. The Thuilliers have moved to their bargain apartment block obtained with the help of La Peyrade –  but a new influence has entered their lives.

It appears that La Peyrade is now being looked down upon as an ambitious rotter. Minard and Phellion meet with Mme Phellion, and we begin to hear about the new influence on the Thuilliers: one Torna, Countess of Gödöllö, a Hungarian. Although La Peyrade got the Thuilliers the building, the Countess got them a great deal on the furniture.

Part 2 Ch 2 – The Provencal’s Present Position

La Peyrade’s position vis-a-vis the Thuilliers has markedly changed for the worse, and in the Countess of Gödöllö, he has a determined rival who is determined to stand in his way.

Where she could do the most damage is in La Peyrade’s hopes to marry Celeste. Despite the fact that young Felix Phellion has put his foot in it so deep with respect to science vs. religion that the two young people are on the outs, the older generation is backing Felix and are willing to go to considerable lengths.

Part 2 Ch 3 – Good Blood Cannot Lie

Countess Gödöllö comes calling on the Phellions. She starts out by expressing interest in Felix Phellion making a good marriage. She adds: “Another reason which leads me to take a deep interest in the happiness of these young people is that I am not so desirous for that of Monsieur Theodose de la Peyrade, who is false and grasping. On the ruin of their hopes that man is counting to carry out his swindling purposes.”

Now in the previous chapter, La Peyrade gave himself fifteen days to pop the question to Celeste. The Countess knows this and wants to throw a monkey wrench at La Peyrade’s chances with the girl. She is disturbed that Celeste and Felix do not appear to be on speaking terms with each other because of one of their arguments about religion – Celeste affects a strong devotion to the Church – which La Peyrade is poised to take advantage of.

Cut to a dinner party at the Thuilliers’ new house. It appears that Felix is the overwhelming choice of those present (La Peyrade has not yet made his appearance). Brigitte sees that Felix would be no threat to her remaining in control of the household.

The fifteen days are up, and no Felix. The Countess lies and suggests  that Felix is under the tutelage of a worthy Jesuit known as Pere Anselme. When Felix shows up, Celeste looks at him with new eyes. Felix stupidly denies the association, and the crowd collectively roll their eyes.

Part 2 Ch 4 – Hungary vs Provence

Actually, this chapter should have been titled “Theodose in the Lion’s Den.”

La Peyrade decides to pay the Countess of Gödöllö a visit since he is fairly certain that she is out to jinx his marriage plans with Celeste Colleville, the heiress of the Thuilliers.

The countess’s place is quite impressive in a cluttered 19th century way, and Theodose is kept waiting while she finishes a letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs (and, perhaps, to put him in his place a bit).

At first, she denies trying to throw a wrench into the marriage. It seems to me that the Countess is trying to propose herself as a substitute for Celeste, but she is so cagey and circumspect about it that poor Theodose is by no means certain what is happening. She becomes cryptic about other marriage opportunities while denigrating little Celeste.

Part 2 Ch 5 – The Tarpeian Rock

The title of this chapter refers to the south face of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, which was used for hurling malefactors to their deaths. (The 75-foot cliff face was also used for killing the chronically disabled, who were thought to have angered the gods.) My guess it refers to the suddenly shifting ground under Theodose de la Peyrade, who had thought himself as reaching the summit of his career, when in fact he was hovering so close to the edge of a cliff.

He writes a note to M. Thuillier, only to have his sister Brigitte respond with an invitation. Theodose visits the Thuilliers at the apartment block/mansion on the Right Bank whose purchase by the Thuilliers he made possible with his scheming. Brigitte appears to be intent on mending fences with Theodose and even makes a few disparaging comments about the Hungarian countess who has so attracted and repelled the young Provencal lawyer. She admits that Celeste is more drawn to young Felix Phellion than to him, but disagrees that she stands against La Peyrade’s hopes.

Theodose finishes the pamphlet he has been writing on “Taxation and the Sliding Scale” to be published under Thuillier’s name. This pamphlet is supposed to elevate Thuillier’s chances for advancement. It is published by a young man named Barbet. Copies are widely distributed around Paris, much to Thuillier’s pride — but it does not seem to sell. Barbet suggests that Thuillier pay for a breakfast for the Press Corps, which would then generate the buzz which would make the pamphlet fly off the shelves. He does so, but is dismayed to find that the attendees are more like bloggers (to make a comparison) than representatives of the mainstream media.

To make matters worse, Thuillier is requested to appear at the police. It seems his pamphlet has offended the powers that be. Thullier blames La Peyrade for now vetting more carefully what was written and declares him not fit for his household. Brigitte also is livid. The chapter ends with Theodose not quite sure what hit him.

Part 2 Ch 6 – ‘Twas Thus They Bade Adieu

With the setbacks of the last chapter, La Peyrade decides to give the countess another try: Maybe he could figure her out. While waiting to see her, Theodose espies a book cracked open to a page entitled The Hatred of a Woman. Oh oh!

He hears the Countess saying good-bye to a diplomatic visitor who reminds her to attend the ball given by an ambassadress. Theodose is relieved to find it is not a young dandy as he had feared.

La Peyrade discusses the pamphlet that has aroused the ire of the police and tells the countess that he expects a woman is behind it. Theodose suspects that it is the countess and more or less tells her so. Bizarrely he declares himself now loyal to Madame de Godollo nevertheless:

“I bless the harshness that deigns to hurt me. Now that I know my beautiful and avowed enemy, I shall not despair of touching her heart; for never again will I follow any road but the one that she points out to me, never will I march under any banner but hers…”

The Countess tells Theodose that the Thuilliers are not a bad lot, but they are not quite the right people for him. In the meantime, it would seem that Theodose has thrown in his lot with the countess.

Part 2 Ch 7 – How to Shut the Door in People’s Faces

We begin this chapter with a conversation between Thuillier and an angry  Theodose de la Peyrade regarding the pending legal issues relating to the pamphlet Theodose wrote under Thuillier’s name.

Theodose blames the Thuilliers for having “shopped” Celeste to too many people to further their ambitions, including Felix Phellion, the son of Mayor Minard, Godeschal, and one Olivier Vinet. He (and Thuillier) think that Vinet is the one behind the legal action. When Thuillier wants some legal assistance from Theodose, the latter explodes in anger and refuses. He declares he is no longer a suitor for Celeste. The unexpectedness and squareness of this declaration left Thuillier without words or voice….

Brigitte walks in at this point with a newspaper article from an obscure journal called L’Echo de la Bievre (remember that name!) that defends Thuillier and attacks the government of Louis Philippe.

But La Peyrade is still feeling vindictive with the Thuilliers and wants to see them squirm. Brigitte fights back, wondering about the extra 10,000 francs they had to pay for the house. Theodose says he will pay it back but in anger reminds Brigitte of all the good things he has done for the family.

Part 2 Ch 8

This untitled chapter begins with a letter from the Countess Gödöllö to Theodose telling him that she can no longer live in the house that has spurned Theodose. She tells him to not come to see him for two days, by which time she will have gotten the better of Brigitte.

Now the tone of this letter is just what Theodose wants to hear, having slammed the door on Celeste and the Thuilliers. After the two days were up, La Peyrade bounds up the stairs to the Countess’s apartment, only to find that she has moved out and left no forwarding address. Moreover, he learns from the porter that she left driven by post horses. Now, in those days, that meant she was undertaking a long journey, perhaps back to Hungary.

Walking down the street while brooding, Theodose feels a strong pair of arms grasp him by the shoulders and pull him back. It is the senior Phellion, who has saved Theodose from being crushed by a wall that is falling down in a building being demolished. Phellion is as otiose as usual, but he gives Theodose the idea to check with the Royal Postal Establishment which controls the distribution of post horses and vehicles. He finds out that his Countess hired the post horses, and thereupon ordered them to drive in circles around the Bois de Boulogne, the huge park on the Right Bank of the Seine. Something is mighty fishy here: it looks as if the Countess had pulled a bunk.

But then he receives a tardy letter from the Countess telling him that she has done him a favor in making him lose Celeste, who does not love him. She proposes “another charming girl” as a substitute – one richer and more beautiful, who may be inquired about throu Du Portail.

Now you may recall that this Du Portail is the wily old codger who caught Cerizet and Mme Cardinal in a flagrant attempt at robbing a dying miser and proposed that Cerizet try to get Theodose to marry his slightly dimwitted cousin, who just happened to be Du Portail’s ward. Has the “Countess” – if indeed she is a countess – just acted a role in an attempt to draw Theodose in and trap him into this marriage? If so, she has seemingly succeeded.

So Theodose decides to see Cerizet again, despite the mutual bad feelings existing between the two. Cerizet is well aware of the bad odor that La Peyrade has among the Thuilliers and their set. He asks the moneylender about the marriage he had mentioned to him some weeks back, and asked him if he knew anything about a Hungarian countess. Cerizet answers positively to the first question, but apparently knows nothing of the Countess. At Cerizet’s he also runs into Mme Lambert, the pious woman who had entrusted Theodose with some money so that she could, by appearing to be poor, win the Montyon prize for her piety.

One October day while he is walking down the Boulevard des Italiens, Theodose espies a woman who looks identical to the Countess. She leaves, but he asks someone who apparently knows of her who she is. He is told she is a Madame Komorn and that she is a spendthrift and a dangerous women who arrivede from Berlin six months ago.

Theodose is in a bad position: his investment of time and effort with the Thuillers all gone for nothing, his financial affairs in worse shape than ever, and his anger and frustrations exhibiting themselves in sleepness nights and agitated dreams.

Part 2 Ch 9 – Give and Take

Caught between his failures with the Countess and with Celeste, La Peyrade has what I call his Rastignac moment. You may recall the end of Pere Goriot, when Eugene de Rastignac resolves to conquer Paris while standing in on a hillock in Pere Lachaise cemetery. He is full of distain with the path he has taken. He will start anew, “fling himself on Paris” and work his way to success anew.

La Peyrade is a little frightened of seeing Du Portail about marrying his cousin Lydia because he thinks that the old man was responsible for hiring some actress (Mme Komorn) to pretend to be a Hungarian Countess. So he gives up being the “advocate of the poor” and becomes a regular barrister. While at his new job, he is paid a visit by Etienne Lousteau, the editor of the same newspaper that had praised “Thuillier’s” pamphlet on taxation; you may recall the newspaper name L’Echo de la Bievre. Lousteau proposes that he talk Thuillier into buying the paper so that he has a journalistic organ behind his political ambitions.

At this point, La Peyrade thinks he might renew his acquaintance with the Thuilliers, using the newspaper to get his foot in the door, and – who knows – perhaps marry Celeste Colleville after all? He runs into Thuilliers, who is by no means unhappy to see him because he needs his help to redeem his chances for success. Theodose springs the idea of the newspaper on him. And he also renews his interest in Celeste, with Thuillier accepting the idea.

Part 2 Ch 10 – In Which Cerizet Practices Healing >

Cerizet goes to see Du Portail about his most recent contretemps with Theodose and expresses frustration that they can’t quite get Theodose to agree to marry Lydia. In patching things up with Thuillier, the marriage with Celeste Colleville is on again, with the banns to be read shortly. Du Portail suggests that Cerizet work with Theodose on the newspaper bought by Thuillier. Cerizet is amazed, because that is exactly what he has done: He is now managing editor of L’Echo de la Bievre.

Being an incredibly astute thinker, Du Portail plans to hit at Theodose over the 25,000 francs that the latter got from Mme Lambert. What if the story got circulated that the money actually came from the police, who paid La Peyrade off as a stooge when he wrote the pamphlet under Thuillier’s name. That would get Thuillier going! And Du Portail is determined to make Theodose come to him on his knees, so that he can unload his cousin Lydie on him.

Then who should shoe up Lydie de la Peyrade herself carrying – wrapped in swaddling clothes – more swaddling clothes! She acts as if all that cloth were a sick child, and she appeals to Cerizet as a “doctor” (which he pretended to be some chapters back when he attempted to rob the dying miser and met her in that guise) to heal. Cerizet mumbles a few words and makes the poor girl feel a shade better with her “baby’s” condition.

Cut to the offices of the newspaper, where a heated discussion is taking place about the “profession of faith” that is to appear on the newspaper’s first edition under the new ownership.

Hearing about the possible source of that 25,000 francs, Brigitte demands that her brother get to the bottom of the affair, seeing as how Theodose is about to marry the family heir.

Part 2 Ch 11 – Explanations and What Came of Them

We are at the offices of L’Echo de la Bievre, the newspaper which was bought by Thuillier to further his political ambitions and which is edited by La Peyrade and managed by Cerizet.

Phellion, who fancies himself a big noise in the theater world of Paris, comes in and offers to be the newspaper’s drama critic. Thuillier and La Peyrade sidestep the issue by saying that the position had been promised to another. He then offers to write a column of essays, but refuses for them to go out under his own name – which allows the two to turn him down again.

Next to come in are Mme Cardinal and her daughter Olympe, the actress. They are trying to drum up some free coverage of Olympe’s next role. As they are let out, Thuillier and La Peyrade refuse to see any more visitors – as they have some issues to discuss.

The main issue is a claim that 25,000 francs which Du Portail and Cerizet have noised about were a payoff from the police for La Peyrade to insert some incendiary material in the pamphlet he wrote under Thuillier’s name. La Peyrade is so incensed that he calls in Mme Lambert, who gave him the money to invest for her. She comes in and at first tries to waffle, but La Peyrade threatens to blow her cover and makes her confess.

Thuillier is abashed in being proven wrong. He is irate at Cerizet and promptly fires him for making a fool of him. (Does Thuillier need any help in being made to look like a fool?) La Peyrade takes advantage of the situation. Thuillier is to pay him 500 francs a month for his services plus a high fee for each column. He must agree to publish the paper for at least six months and give Theodose omnipotence as editor-in-chief. He also gives security for the 25,000 francs Theodose owes Madame Lambert.

Part 2 Ch 12 – A Star

The day has finally come: Theodose is to be betrothed to Celeste Colleville at the Thuilliers, and a betrothal dinner has been ordered. Missing are Minard senior, his son Julien (a suitor for Celeste’s hand), and the notary Dupuis, who promised to show up at 9 am to finalize the papers. The mood is somber, partly because of the absent guests, and partly because Celeste does not really want to become Mme de la Peyrade.

Mayor Minard finally makes it to the party and announces the latest news: A new star has been discovered. The discoverer is none other than Pere Picot (whose housekeeper is the strange pietistic fraud Mme Lambert), and whose student is Felix Phellion. Picot has been named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and has been granted a pension of 1,800 Francs a year from the fund devoted to the encouragement of science and letters.

Picot enters the party unexpectedly. He is dressed in a bizarre, absent-minded professor sort of attire. Picot promptly launches into a diatribe against young Felix Phellion, whom he says discovered the star and noised it about that it was his teacher who had discovered it. The guests smile indulgently at the old man. Celeste, on the other hand, is beaming at her inamorato’s accomplishment. The Thuilliers conspire to get rid of the old man before Felix shows up and gets into a spat with him.

Part 2 Ch 13 – Man Who Thinks the Star Too Bright

The subject is still the star purported to have been discovered by Pere Picot, but was really discovered by his student Felix Phellion. M. Minard, the mayor of the 11th Arrondissement, comes to visit the boy’s father with some interesting news. Apparently, the boy’s assiduousness, brilliancy, and above all his modesty has been looked at favorably by the French intellectual and governmental authorities.

Even more interesting is what didn’t happen at the previous night’s betrothal party at the Thuilliers: The betrothal was not signed. The notary Dupuis, who promised to show up late, never showed up. In fact, he disappeared, after having swindled 25,000 francs (there’s that number again!) from that pious fraud, Mme. Lambert, who appears to have mulcted it from her boss, Pere Picot.

Dupuis had been the churchwarden of the parish, and Mme. Lambert was bucking for an award for her own piety. Oops!

That same night, around 10 pm, Mme Lambert shows up at the Thuilliers and accosts La Peyrade about her investment with him and Dupuis. La Peyrade tells her he doesn’t owe her since the investment was made at her request but that if she cannot get the money back from the notary he will make up the difference.

Amid all these dramatic reversals a page enters with a letter from Pere Picot, in which he “forgives” his pupil and notes that the government will give Felix the rank of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and appoint him to the Academy of Sciences.

M. Phellion asks for his coat and tie and marches over to the Thuilliers to ask for the hand of Celeste Colleville for his up and coming son Felix, the future Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and member of the Academy of Sciences. From being a low bumbler, Felix looks now to have been raised on high, while Theodose is still sucking a mop in left field with the likes of Cerizet and Dutocq.

Part 2 Ch 14 – A Stormy Day

The two Celestes – Mme Thuillier (Jerome’s wife, about whom we’ve heard very little in this novel) and Mlle Colleville – go to church to see the Abbe Gondrin. Celeste the Younger is still sold on Felix as opposed to Theodose. At the betrothal dinner that wasn’t a betrothal dinner (because the notary Dupuis had skipped town with his clients’ money), the Abbe had said some kind words about Felix; and the pious girl hoped against hope that Felix could not only be hers, but that he could be acceptable to Holy Mother the Church. The Abbe gives his blessing:

“He who thinks himself a Christian may be in the eyes of God an idolator; and another who is thought a pagan may, by his feelings and his actions be, without his own knowledge, a Christian.”

All this does not sit too well with Brigitte Thuillier, who is (at least this particular five minutes on the side of Theodose). It is Celeste’s mother Flavie who breaks the news to the angry spinster. Just at this time, the replacement notary arrives to sign the papers for Celeste’s betrothal to Theodose.

Sister-in-Law Celeste Thuillier is defiant of her support of Flavie’s Celeste. She says, “Yes. As I told you yesterday, I think Celeste can be more suitably married, and my intention is not to rob myself for a marriage of which I disapprove.” The “rob myself” refers to the fact that Mme Thuillier is to contribute to her heir’s “dot,” or dowry, for a wedding to La Peyrade. Brigitte then locks her sister-in-law in her room for future chastisement by her husband. When Papa Thuillier comes home, it is into the middle of the marital storm. He reproves Brigitte for being violent against his wife.

Then Theodose drops in and hears the news. Before talking to the girl, he asks Thuillier to tell her that her consent to the marriage with him must be given without delay; and then he wanted to have a heart-to-heart conversation with her. What La Peyrade does is make the poor girl feel guilty for causing such a ruckus.

The next one to enter the fray is Mayor Minard, who announces that the Countess of Godollo was a “kept woman.” La Peyrade pretends he not only knew all along, but was instrumental in getting her to leave the Thuilliers’ property (that’s a lie!).

The chapter keeps going on: News is received of an attach on L’Echo de la Bievre by a royalist publication, saying, in essence, that Thuillier was using it for no other reason than to further his personal political ambitions.

Part 2 Ch 15 – At Du Portail’s

It was a foregone conclusion that, eventually, Theodose would meet with Du Portail. The man was holding way too many cards, and La Peyrade was tired of being blindsided by him.

La Peyrade recognizes him as The Commander, friend of the so-called Countess Godollo.  Du Portail calmly tells the Provencal lawyer that he will marry his ward, Lydie, and that it would be to his advantage. She has a fortune which will be increased eventually by du Portail’s fortune. Theodose says he might may a heiress, a fury, or the daughter of a fool if it suits him, but he will not have a marriage imposed on him.

Du Portail then says the Celeste marriage is impossible because he threatened Thuillier with dire consequences should that marriage goes through. Among other things, Du Portail is about to have La Peyrade disbarred. But now we come to an unmasking of Du Portail: He is none other than the infamous Corentin, a shadowy figure who controls the French police. Balzac has always had a respect for shadowy power figures, whether in the police or outside the law, or possibly belonging to strange organizations like The Thirteen.

Why is Corentin interested in such a mess-up as la Peyrade? Apparently, his uncle was Corentin’s teacher, and later the police chief became his protector. He is motivated to help La Peyrade, as he once helped him – anonymously – at the beginning of his career by sending him 2,000 francs. Now he wants the Provencal to marry his cousin Lydie, whom he and the good Dr Bianchon think can be cured by bearing real children – instead of the bundles of rags she pretends are her children.

Part 2 Ch 16 – Checkmate to Thuillier

An aptly named chapter: We see the action from the Thuilliers’ perspective as all of their hopes and dreams end in nothing but bitterness and recriminations. The action itself appears to take place offstage.

Enter Cerizet, who twits the watchful Thuillier about the failure of the marriage to Celeste. He brings up that mysterious 25,000 francs which was given as security, plus an additional 10,000 francs to bribe someone in the government for “the pretense” of Thuillier’s Cross of the Legion of Honor, which he never received. This gets the brother and sister team fuming, but Cerizet is not there for that reason alone, but to make an offer.

What’s that saying about beware of Greeks bearing gifts? “It relates to a farm in Beauce, which has just been sold for a song, and it is placed in my hands to resell, at an advance, but a small one; you could really buy it, as the saying is, for a bit of bread.”

And Cerizet went on to explain the whole mechanism of the affair, which we need not relate here, as no one but Brigitte would take any interest in it. The statement was clear and precise, and it took close hold on the old maid’s mind. Even Thuillier himself, in spite of his inward distrust, was obliged to own that the affair had all the appearance of a good speculation.

Brigitte wants to see the farm, and three hours later the trio were on the road to Chartres, Cerizet having advised Thuillier not to let la Peyrade know of his absence, lest he might take some unfair advantage of it.

When they return to Paris, Thuillier’s first task is to see what L’Echo de la Bievre published in his absence. Oh oh! Apparently it was Thuillier’s political obituary in which he renounces his candidacy in favor of his good friend, M. Minard, Mayor of the 11th Arrondissement.

Soon, several delegations are knocking at the paper’s door: one in favor of the announcement, another – opposed to Minard – angry about it.

Finally La Peyrade comes in and hands Thuillier 10,000 francs (presumably the failed bribe, if indeed it was ever offered), plus the 25,000 franc bond which Thuillier signed regarding Mme. Lambert’s money. This squares La Peyrade with the Thuilliers financially, but there is still that dire political disappointment.

Part 2 Ch 17 – In the Exercise of His Poers

Several months have passed. La Peyrade is married to his cousin Lydie, who now has “lucid intervals.” He is working in the police with Corentin, who finds him not quite the brilliant helper he had hoped for. But never mind, he married off his ward to him and delivered on his promise to give the attorney lots of money to pay off his debts.

Pere Picot now occupies the apartment in the Madeleine area formerly occupied by the Thuilliers, who have returned to their former digs in the Latin Quarter.

Living in the Madeleine building are now Picot and Cerizet. The latter has finally married his actress, the former Olympe Cardinal – which shows that a certain persistence in crime tends to pay dividends. By the way, Picot is also married, to an Englishwoman who loved him for his brains.

Also news is that young Felix Phellion has been elected to the Academy almost unanimously and is now well embarked on a scientific career. Felix, with help from Picot, asks for Celeste Colleville’s hand in marriage – and is enthusiastically accepted:

Felix will not only inherit from the Thuilliers, but also from the Picots, who are now wealthy because Mme Picot is independently wealthy. Lucky boy!

La Peyrade is a bit shocked by Felix’s rise, but Corentin tells him Theodose made his own bed by trying to short-cut his own rise to prominence. He has a different future now, and reminds him:

“You have another sphere, my dear fellow; and you must learn to be more content with your lot. Governments pass, societies perish or dwindle; but we—we dominate all things; the police is eternal.”

 

Read it here

Summarized by Jim, September – November 2011

One comment on “The Middle Classes by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This is a pretty interesting book, but like many Balzacs it has too many plot lines and too many financial complexies to avoid confusion, at least for me. If he had kept the financial dealings just dealing with the primary property, and who gets Celeste, it would have digested better. But that’s not Balzac. Golda claims that anything to do with the Corentin subplot was written by another – Saintsbury wasn’t sure what Balzac left unfinished. I didn’t really detect a big difference in writing style. Golda sort of suggested the fairly happy ending was the result of Balzac not finishing the book, LOL. It is certainly true that Balzac is pretty cynical about who gets ahead in French society. I enjoyed Felix, and the initial Peyade plot to win Celeste. The financial dealings were interesting up to a point, but then the whole thing just went on and on. A film maker could make a pretty decent movie by cutting the plot in half.

    Like

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