Sons of the Soil by Honoré de Balzac
Also translated as The Peasantry
Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley
‘Whoso land hath, contention hath’.
Well, that little epigram gives a fair indication of the theme in this story.
I am indebted to Pamela’s summary for this introduction which clarifies something about the narrator:
Emile Blondet, whom we’ve seen briefly in other stories, is a Parisian journalist who has come to visit the chateau known as The Aigues. He’s a friend of the current owner and possibly the lover of his wife.
The first part of the story is narrated in the form of Blondet’s letter to Nathan and it begins with a rapturous description of the valley of Aigues in Burgundy, a landscape where art is blended with nature in such a way that neither of them spoils the other; the art is natural, and the nature artistic. He is in ecstasy about the chateau and its park too. But (yes, call me suspicious) methinks these raptures have more to do with the lady than the landscape… Blondet is, to put it mildly, rather dismissive of his rival the General Montcornet:
Montcornet has the outer man of a hero of antiquity. His arms are stout and vigorous, his chest deep and broad; his head has a leonine aspect, his voice is of those that can order a charge in the thick of battle; but he has nothing more than the courage of a daring man; he lacks mind and breadth of view.
[He] … has an imposing effect when you first meet him; he seems a Titan, but he contains a dwarf, like the pasteboard giant who saluted Queen Elizabeth at the gates of Kenilworth. Choleric though kind, and full of imperial hauteur, he has the caustic tongue of a soldier, and is quick at repartee, but quicker still with a blow. He may have been superb on a battle-field; in a household he is simply intolerable.
I really like Balzac’s sly tone in this story. Blondet mocks himself as a Parisian and his provincial hosts, complaining of boredom in the early morning between eight and eleven when the ladies are taking their time about dressing and the squire is out and about on estate business.
Now, having got what amusement he can out of carefully dressing himself, he has soon exhausted that resource. Then, perhaps, he has brought with him some work, which he finds it impossible to do, and which goes back untouched, after he sees the difficulties of doing it, into his valise; a writer is then obliged to wander about the park and gape at nothing or count the big trees. The easier the life, the more irksome such occupations are,–unless, indeed, one belongs to the sect of shaking Quakers or to the honourable guild of carpenters or taxidermists. If one really had, like the owners of estates, to live in the country, it would be well to supply one’s self with a geological, mineralogical, entomological, or botanical hobby; but a sensible man doesn’t give himself a vice merely to kill time for a fortnight. The noblest estate, and the finest chateaux soon pall on those who possess nothing but the sight of them.
The beauties of nature seem rather squalid compared to the representation of them at the opera.
Blondet goes for a walk, and gets conned out of 10 francs by a local rogue called Pere Fourchon who lives with his his son-in-law Francois Tonsard, and the rest of his crafty family including his offspring Mouche who helped to swindle Blondet. Tonsard managed to inveigle ownership of some land from the tender-hearted Mademoiselle Laguerre (the owner of the estate until she died, unmarried and childless. An opera-singer and courtesan, she had fled here during the Terror.) From then on, Tonsard and his family enjoy a comfortable life through a combination of poaching, thieving, grazing their animals on the estate’s prime land, miscellaneous frauds and flogging booze to the locals at the Grande-I-Vert, their tavern, made enticing by their attractive daughters Marie and Catherine. And inspired by their example, almost everyone else in the valley lives the same way. We see this Tonsard family in all its glory at the tavern where there’s a lot of chaotic banter and peasant philosophy, culminating in Granny Tonsard running into the tavern pursued by Vatel, the new gamekeeper, because he’s caught her stealing wood. Despite their quarrels, everyone gangs up to evict him.
The scene switches to the chateau where first Mouche, and then Tonsard arrive to swindle Blondet with the sale of an otter. (Needless to say, it’s not the rare species they claim it is). Balzac uses this scene to depict the helplessness of the abbe, the steward Sibilet and the bailiff Michaud to change the prevailing culture in the valley. It is all to do with the class warfare engendered by France’s Revolutions (of which as we know Balzac heartily disapproved.)
In the next chapter Balzac explains how Mademoiselle Laguerre was conned out of her fortune by servants she over-trusted: her land-steward Gaubertin, and her maid Cochet. After her death, Montcornet turns up out of the blue to gazump Gaubertin’s plans to buy the estate for much less than it was worth. Unfortunately for Gaubertin he has no choice but to stay on as an employee because he had spent so much in setting up things for his son and daughter. (Yes, dowries were expensive, and then as now, so was buying into a practice of any kind). Gaubertin then tried the same strategies that had been so successful in duping Mademoiselle Laguerre, but General Montcornet is too smart for that. He keeps Gaubertin on until he’s learned the management of the estate, and then sacks him and tries to sue him as well. Of course Gaubertin has mates in the legal system and so the lawsuit collapses, but he and Montcornet are bitter enemies. Balzac is at his cynical best in explaining all this but it is a tad complicated, not least because there are soooo many characters!
Gaubertin’s revenge begins by wangling the employment of Sibilet, who he expects to manipulate, as his replacement. Sibilet, indebted for this position, is only too well aware of how much power Gaubertin wields – he has become Mayor, and his operates various agencies on which the estate depends. This puts them in a bind because they can’t sue the Gravelots for pinching their wood. Montcornet is outraged but Sibilet tells him that ‘Suing the Gravelots is the same as a hand to hand fight with Gaubertin’ and he’d be better off to reconcile with Gaubertin. Since that isn’t going to happen any time soon, Sibilet suggests that the best way to defeat Gaubertin is for him to fake cheating the General – Gaubertin will be only too pleased to cooperate with that!
But Montcornet is too used to having his own way. The very next day he goes out and picks a fight with his gamekeeper, Courtecuisse, creating another enemy and ally of Gaubertin and ensuring that it’s his woods which are depleted while those owned by others are not. In revenge he issues 126 indictments, all against people who have no money to pay – resulting in a bill of costs against Montcornet for 5000 francs. The general loses his temper with Courtecuisse, sacks him, and voila! there’s another lawsuit against him…
Whose side is Sibilet on? It’s hard to tell at this stage. On the one hand he gives sound advice about compromise to the general, but on the other he encourages him to be rash and stand up to the thieves. He’s a servile fellow, out to improve his own position as much as he can because he married imprudently and has too many children. It’s not until chapter 8 that Balzac finally reveals his true motive, which is to play Gaubertin and Montcornet off against each other….
He doesn’t get on with Michaud, an old comrade of Montcornet who arrives to help out. It doesn’t take long for him to realise that Sibilet is a spy, and he warns the general to be careful, but neither understands what they’re up against. Balzac allows himself a bit of a rant about the corruption of the legal system, the nepotism and the cronyism that pervades French life since the Revolution, and we know from this point on that things will end badly.
The monarchical and imperial systems, more rashly overthrown than people realize, remedied these abuses by means of certain consecrated lives, by classifications and categories and by those particular counterpoises since so absurdly defined as “privileges.” There are no privileges now, when every human being is free to climb the greased pole of power. But surely it would be safer to allow open and avowed privileges than those which are underhand, based on trickery, subversive of what should be public spirit, and continuing the work of despotism to a lower and baser level than heretofore. May we not have overthrown noble tyrants devoted to their country’s good, to create the tyranny of selfish interests? Shall power lurk in secret places, instead of radiating from its natural source? This is worth thinking about. The spirit of local sectionalism, such as we have now depicted, will soon be seen to invade the Chamber.
Things get a bit move lively after this. The Countess, the Abbe Brossette and Blondet meet up with Olympe Charel, Michaud’s wife and former maid of the Countess. She shares her worries about possible violence on the estate, especially to her 13-year-old maid Genevieve. Nicknamed La Pechina because of her swarthy appearance, she has attracted the attention of Nicolas Tonsard – and he abducts her into the woods. By chance Catherine Tonsard arrives and tries to seduce Genevieve with stories of a more exciting life, but Genevieve though intrigued still repels Nicolas. As Blondet and the others arrive just in time, Catherine threatens the child unless she says they were only playing, and the Tonsards get away scot-free. Worse, Marie Tonsard and her suitor Bonnebault overhear plans to protect Genevieve and the estate.
Down at the tavern, Genevieve’s grandfather Niseron leaves in disgust at the behaviour of his fellow-townsmen, and they’re all in lather because they’ve heard Old Fourchon’s news that there will be no gleaning allowed this year. There’s a lot of talk about a revolt. Meanwhile Rigou, the utterly venal mayor of Blangy before Montcornet’s arrival and now a most successful usurer (one of Balzac’s pet hates) is conspiring with Sibilet, though it’s hard to see who’s getting the better of whom because Sibilet has been investing his salary with Rigou …
Book II opens with descriptions of the Soudry Salon, complete with some rather cruel descriptions of Madame Soudry (former maid of Mademoiselle Laguerre). She and her husband the Mayor are smug and bourgeois, but they pass for town society nonetheless. There are dozens of new characters introduced in this section, but they are mostly there to add colour (and a good editor today would have whipped them out of this overlong story in no time). Rigou turns up to complain about Montcornet’s use of the Prefecture to prevent the annual gleaning, and he enlists Lupin and Soudry to help out. Not to be outdone, Madame Soudry suggests engineering a scandal to destroy Montcornet’s reputation amongst his supporters. On the way back to town, Rigou stops off at the Cafe du Paix, where a ruckus erupts between Marie Tonsard and the innkeeper Socquard’s daughter Aglae over Bonnebault. Rigou calms things down, and agrees to help Nicolas Tonsard evade conscription – but he’ll have to lose a finger to do it.
The next day the three conspirators, Rigou, Gaubertin and Soudry meet up, and argue about who is to get what when they overcome Montcornet, but are frustrated when they learn that the General has successfully petitioned the king to pardon the poachers, which puts them on his side. Confident now of victory, the General ignores more good advice to reconcile with Gaubertin. It’s no surprise that ‘borers’ suddenly attack 500 of his trees, and all attempts to win the peasants over to the advantages of honest work are doomed to fail. Not only that, but Granny Tonsard kills the greyhound Prince rather than have his barks betray her as she drills holes in the trees. Blondet, who’s back for a visit, is suspicious of Sibilet and warns the general, but of course he doesn’t take any notice, loudly proclaiming that he’ll pay 1000 francs to anyone who’ll tell him who the culprits are.
Catherine Tonsard dobs her granny in to get the reward, but Montcornet reneges. Michaud testifies against her instead, and she gets five years. The family gets its revenge by shooting Michaud as he rides for the doctor when his wife is in labour. The shock kills her and the baby.
Montcornet raises the stakes with an even bigger reward but there’s a price on his head now, and it is this that finally makes the general abandon the estate:
At a turn of the road a man armed with a gun came from behind a bush. “General,” he said, “this is the third time I have had you at the end of my barrel, and the third time that I give you your life.”
“Why do you want to kill me, Bonnebault?” said the general, without showing the least emotion.
“Faith, if I don’t, somebody else will; but I, you see, I like the men who served the Emperor, and I can’t make up my mind to shoot you like a partridge. Don’t question me, for I’ll tell you nothing; but you’ve got enemies, powerful enemies, cleverer than you, and they’ll end by crushing you. I am to have a thousand crowns if I kill you, and then I can marry Marie Tonsard. Well, give me enough to buy a few acres of land and a bit of a cottage, and I’ll keep on saying, as I have done, that I’ve found no chances. That will give you time to sell your property and get away; but make haste. I’m an honest lad still, scamp as I am; but another fellow won’t spare you.”
“If I give you what you ask, will you tell me who offered you those three thousand francs?” said the general.
“I don’t know myself; and the person who is urging me to do the thing is some one I love too well to tell of. Besides, even if you did know it was Marie Tonsard, that wouldn’t help you; Marie Tonsard would be as silent as that wall, and I should deny every word I’ve said.”
“Come and see me to-morrow,” said the general. “Enough,” replied Bonnebault; “and if they begin to say I’m too dilatory, I’ll let you know in time.”
Some years later when the old general dies. Conveniently so, because it coincides with Blondet being disastrously short of money. He marries Montcornet’s widow, and they make a sentimental trip back to The Aigues. It’s been transformed into little plots, with a lot of little peasant huts.
And neither of them care a bit!
Summarized by Lisa Hill, December 2013
PS I am indebted to Pamela’s list of characters which helped me keep track of them all, and reproduce them below for easy reference.
Lupeaulx – sub-prefect of Ville-aux-Fayes and prospective son-in-law to Gaubertin
Bonnebault – he’s a retired Calvary man and is apparently seeing Marie Tonsard
Socquard – wine maker, has a special spiced wine recipe held secret and made with ingredients from Paris, owner of the tavern Cafe de la Paix in Soulanges
Guerbet – wealthy farmer near Ville-aux-Fayes, tax collector
Rigou – mayor of Blangy before Montcornet arrived
Soudry – mayor of Soulanges and husband of Mlle Cochet, the former owner Mme Languerre’s maid
Francois Gaubertin – mayor of Ville-aux-Fayes and former steward of Aigues, discharged in bad faith by Montcornet
Courtecuisse – gamekeeper of Aigues
Father Niseron – grave-digger, bell-ringer of Blangy, poor, honest
Vermichel or Vert – drunk, 1 blind eye, red hair, Soulanges hall porter, town-crier- jailer, fiddler, solicitor, little, wears velveteen green trousers
Mme Vermichel – fat, controls Vermichel, Fourchon refers to her as Vermichel’s “four-fifths” because she is so large
Master Brunet – sly, fidgety, bailiff at Blangy, none too honest and thus popular with peasants
Godain – farm labourer, small man, interested in Catherine Tonsard
Mitant – poor woman at Conches who’s about to get in trouble because her cows graze on Aigues land, Bonnebault’s grandmother
Michaud – old quartermaster, courageous, loyal, man of integrity
Bournier – printer at Ville-aux-Fayes
Maître Plissoud – competitor clerk to Brunet
Sibilet – Aigues steward, distant cousin Francois Gaubertin, appears none too loyal to Aigues
Abbe Brossette – churchman of district
Genevieve, “La Pechina”, granddaughter of Father Niseron and maid to Mme Michaud
M. Langlume – mill man for Aigues
Gourdon – physician Soulanges
Vatel – chief forester at Aigues
Vaudoyer – Aigues forest keeper until discharged by the General