Modeste Mignon by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley

Well, after Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life I, II, III AND IV [* See my four summaries at the index page of La Comedie Humaine], I was hoping for something a little less complicated.   In a sign of a good start, the opening characters figure only once in the Repertory of the Comedie Humaine, so at least I didn’t need to try to remember what they got up to in previous stories…

This story resonates with our age: many people court and woo online now, using social media and email to communicate with people that they have never met and finding over time that friendship blooms into something more.  Of course there is always the risk that the beloved is not all that he pretends.  Online, people tend to portray an idealised version of themselves, and the reality of meeting in the flesh may well be a disappointment.  Well, in Balzac’s day, a graceful way with a letter could lead to similar romantic opportunities, but also the risk of disappointment …..

The story begins with intimations of mischief.  The notary Monsieur Simone-Babylas Latournelle takes his son Exupere aside as they walk from Havre to Ingouville and tells him to visit the home of the Mignons that day.  There he is to have a discreet conversation with Monsieur Dumay which must culminate in a confidence that young Mademoiselle Modeste must overhear.  He is to say, ‘The young man has come.”  Jean Butscha who is head clerk in Maître Latournelle’s practice, overhears this remark, but when he asks if Mlle. Modeste has a lover, is promptly hushed up.  The timing of this conspiracy is important, because Exupere will be out of harm’s way in the morning because he’s off to study law in Paris.

Patronage being what it is in this period of French history, Maître Latournelle owes his good fortune to the Mignons, because the money to buy his practice was lent to him in 1817 by Charles Mignon de la Bastie.  And M. Dumay owes his very desirable residence, the Chalet, to a legal technicality.  M. Mignon had a legal agreement binding him as tenant in the pretty little chalet on Mignon’s property for twelve years, but when the property had to be sold in a hurry, the new buyer and business competitor M. Vilquin forgot to demand the cancellation of Dumay’s  lease.  This has caused some tension, involving the building of extraneous walls and other such provocations, but Dumay won’t be budged and continues to live there with his wife and the Mignons (who have now come down in the world but still command his loyalty and devotion).  Havre is a tad concerned about Dumay’s obstinacy when he refused a very generous offer, but they put it down to his being a Breton not a Norman.

So off they go to the Mignon’s house where the only visitor is a rather greasy character called Gobenheim, who scrounges free meals and hangs around playing cards.

Chapter 3 intervenes, with the back story of Charles Mignon.  His entire family died on the scaffold in the Revolution, but he escaped because he was scouting around for refuge in the Upper Alps.  When times changed, he went into the army and there he met Dumay. They were loyal companions in Napoleon’s wars, and also as prisoners in Siberia.  Although Mignon had nothing, he won the heart of the heiress Bettina Wallenrod, but her German father invested unwisely in French bonds,  lost most of his money, and died.  However when peace came Mignon abandoned plans to emigrate to America and with what was left of her money set himself up as a banker  with interests in shipping.  Dumay served him well as a shipping agent, and brought back an American wife.  With Dumay serving as book-keeper, Mignon prospered. and was able to buy the property at  Ingouville and to build the Chalet for Dumay as a reward.  Mignon had four children, but only Bettina and Modeste survived into adulthood.

Disaster strikes, as so often it does in a Balzac tale.  In the crisis of 1825-6 three banks on which Mignon depends fail in America (that sounds familiar, eh?). Charles sets sail overseas to try to sort out his finances.   In the meantime, everything has to be sold, but due to M. Vilquin’s failure to cancel Dumay’s lease, Madame Mignon and her daughter end up staying in Dumay’s Chalet on a grace and favour basis.  Before he embarks, Mignon entrusts the care of his younger daughter Modeste to Dumay’s care, with very strict conditions to protect her virtue.  No man is to enter the house. And the reason for this is that Bettina had disgraced herself with a seducer who had come as a guest to their home.  Her lover Charles d’Estourny ended up being prosecuted for cheating at cards (what a cad!) and he scarpers, leaving her so forlorn that she wastes away and dies, which had, at least, the advantage of protecting her reputation.  (Says Balzac).

Mignon is adamant that Modeste will not share the same fate:

“That no man shall enter the Chalet,” cried the father with strong emotion. “Dumay, guard my last child as though you were a bull-dog. Death to the man who seduces another daughter! Fear nothing, not even the scaffold— I will be with you.”

So why is Gobenheim allowed to visit? And to play cards, just like his predecessor? Because he is the assignee of the commercial property, that’s why.  ‘He profited by the liquidation to get a part of Monsieur Mignon’s business, which lifted his own little bank into prominence’.  So they have to put up with him.

Now Mme Mignon in her desolation about all these disasters has wept herself into blindness, but still, a mother knows, does she not? and she is quite sure that Modeste has fallen in love.  She can tell because Modeste is taking ages over her toilette and fussing about her clothes.  How can this be? The girl is guarded at all times by the ferocious old soldier, Dumay.   It can’t be Gobenheim, they say because he shows no interest in her, and there isn’t anybody else.  It can’t be Jean Butscha because he doesn’t seem to count as a man, being illegitimate and a dwarf, and therefore doomed to be rejected by all women.  And it can’t be Exupere because Mme Latournelle his mother  can answer for his conduct anytime.  Mme Latournelle tells Mme Mignon that it must be an imaginary lover, because Modeste reads too many fanciful books, but the mother is unconvinced.  Dumay is distraught that he may have let his guard down and betrayed the father’s trust, and so they have set up a daft conspiracy to try to lure the secret from Modeste with Exupere’s mysterious message.

So, they stage their melodramatic little stunt, but when Dumay hears the faked message that a young man has come and he dashes out with his pistols, instead of rushing out to save the life of her lover, Modeste doesn’t bat an eyelid.  So no lover? Mother is still unconvinced, and that’s because Modeste has been playing the piano, and oh no! not only that – she’s been improvising too!  Well, surely that is suspicious, anyone would agree…

The town, you know, is quite sure that Modeste will end up an old maid.  There had been an engagement which Papa Mignon had organised in order to forestall any further scandals.  But the young man in question, Francisque Althor, a dandy and not very nice person, shot through when financial disaster struck the Mignons.  (Which just shows that Modeste has had some good luck, though not much).  Modeste has heard the gossip about herself, and she has nursed her dying sister who warned her never to give her heart without her hand.  She is no fool. But …

The monotonous life in the dainty little Chalet, surrounded by the choice flowers which Dumay cultivated; the family customs, as regular as clock-work, the provincial decorum, the games at whist while the mother knitted and the daughter sewed, the silence, broken only by the roar of the sea in the equinoctial storms,— all this monastic tranquillity did in fact hide an inner and tumultuous life, the life of ideas, the life of the spiritual being.

What causes this tumult in her soul?  Reading!!

During the depression caused by her sister’s death Modeste flung herself into the practice of reading, until her mind became sodden in it. Born to the use of two languages, she could speak and read German quite as well as French; she had also, together with her sister, learned English from Madame Dumay. Being very little overlooked in the matter of reading by the people about her, who had no literary knowledge, Modeste fed her soul on the modern masterpieces of three literatures, English, French, and German. Lord Byron, Goethe, Schiller, Walter Scott, Hugo, Lamartine, Crabbe, Moore, the great works of the 17th and 18th centuries, history, drama, and fiction, from Astraea to Manon Lescaut, from Montaigne’s Essays to Diderot, from the Fabliaux to the Nouvelle Heloise,— in short, the thought of three lands crowded with confused images that girlish head, august in its cold guilelessness, its native chastity, but from which there sprang full-armed, brilliant, sincere, and strong, an overwhelming admiration for genius. To Modeste a new book was an event; a masterpiece that would have horrified Madame Latournelle made her happy,— equally unhappy if the great work did not play havoc with her heart. A lyric instinct bubbled in that girlish soul, so full of the beautiful illusions of its youth. But of this radiant existence not a gleam reached the surface of daily life; it escaped the ken of Dumay and his wife and the Latournelles; the ears of the blind mother alone caught the crackling of its flame.

Modeste wishes to be the companion and friend of some poet! Yes, she has chanced upon a portrait of Canalis, and with her maid Francoise Cochet’s connivance writes to him, secretly. [I looked him up on Wikipedia, but can’t find out if he actually existed).  But Canalis  gets fan letters all the time and he doesn’t even read Modeste’s.  No, it’s Ernest de la Briere, his secretary, a much nicer man than Canalis, who writes back in his name, and the correspondence becomes a kind of verbal ping-pong in which the two gradually reveal themselves to each other.

Ernest declares his love and visits the town hoping to see her, but he can’t identify Modeste among the young women.  Modeste wants to see what he looks like before committing herself, so she writes back to invite him to come to church.  But there’s no romantic meeting: Modeste attires herself in the guise of a shabby old woman so that she can admire him undetected.

Ernest dresses with great care.  ]Isn’t this gorgeous?  I remember exactly what I was wearing the night I met The Beloved too…]

Is there in the life of man a more delightful moment than that of a first rendezvous? Are the sensations then hidden at the bottom of our hearts and finding their first expression ever renewed? Can we feel again the nameless pleasures that we felt when, like Ernest de La Briere, we looked up our sharpest razors, our finest shirt, an irreproachable collar, and our best clothes? We deify the garments associated with that all-supreme moment. We weave within us poetic fancies quite equal to those of the woman; and the day when either party guesses them they take wings to themselves and fly away. Are not such things like the flower of wild fruits, bitter-sweet, grown in the heart of a forest, the joy of the scant sun-rays, the joy, as Canalis says in the “Maiden’s Song,” of the plant itself whose eyes unclosing see its own image within its breast?

Ernest’s splendid outfit has the desired effect.  He meets with her approval and Modeste (still thinking he is Canalis) decides she will marry him.

But her get-up for attending church has aroused suspicion, and so had her behaviour, swinging from an unhappy mood to well and happy.     Ernest, an unfamiliar Parisian, attracts interest too, but since Modeste had previously assured everyone that she has never met a lover, or set eyes on one (which is technically true) they trusted her.  Her ally, the dwarf, Jean Butscha – the only one to work out her secret – puts them off the scent with a lie about the handsome young Parisian being an architect come to do some work in Havre.

Meanwhile her father is on his way home, having re-made his fortune selling opium (as so many did), and now that his daughters are heiresses he’s very wary that the news should not get out because he doesn’t want to attract gold-diggers.  He tells Dumay to keep quiet about his improved circumstances.  (He hasn’t been told that Bettina is dead, so he thinks he has two daughter to marry off.)

Dumay doesn’t believe Butscha’s lie about the Parisian, finds out the truth and off he goes to Paris to confront Canalis, who mocks him.  Why would he steal ‘fruit over the hedges when he has orchards and gardens of his own where the finest peaches ripen’? Dumay leaves much puzzled, just missing Ernest, come to confess what’s happened to Canalis, at the same time as Modeste is finally ‘fessing up to Mama because Mama has correctly guessed that Modeste has set Canalis poems to her own music because she loves him.

Now all this could be sorted out in no time, but when Ernest makes his way to Papa to ask for Modeste’s hand and tells him the whole truth, Balzac starts a whole new complication, and yes, it has to do with money…

Modeste has found out from Butscha that her father has done well with the opium, and has told Ernest that she has a six million franc ‘dot’ (dowry).  He is uneasy about this, so when M. Mignon tells him that in fact Modeste’s dowry will be a whole lot less than that, he is relieved.  An honourable man, all will be well, right? Wrong, because Balzac now has Papa set a test for Ernest: he, and Canalis must come to Havre as his guests, he is not to enlighten Canalis about the reduced size of the dowry, and Modeste must choose between them.  (After all, she thinks she’s in love with a poet, not with an up-and-coming private secretary to the minister of finances).

Canalis is only too happy to visit because he’s quite interested in a young lady who has a fortune.  What a cynic he is!

“A girl worth six millions,” he thought to himself, “and my eyes were not able to see that gold shining in the darkness! With such a fortune I could be peer of France, count, marquis, ambassador. I’ve replied to middle-class women and silly women, and crafty creatures who wanted autographs; I’ve tired myself to death with masked-ball intrigues,— at the very moment when God was sending me a soul of price, an angel with golden wings! Bah! I’ll make a poem on it, and perhaps the chance will come again. Heavens! the luck of that little La Briere,— strutting about in my lustre— plagiarism! I’m the cast and he’s to be the statue, is he? It is the old fable of Bertrand and Raton. Six millions, a beauty, a Mignon de La Bastie, an aristocratic divinity loving poetry and the poet! And I, who showed my muscle as man of the world, who did those Alcide exercises to silence by moral force the champion of physical force, that old soldier with a heart, that friend of this very young girl, whom he’ll now go and tell that I have a heart of iron!— I, to play Napoleon when I ought to have been seraphic! Good heavens! True, I shall have my friend. Friendship is a beautiful thing. I have kept him, but at what a price! Six millions, that’s the cost of it; we can’t have many friends if we pay all that for them.”

Too bad about the Duchesse de Chaulieu, with whom he’s had a dalliance for some time…

Well, Papa Mignon comes off, ticks off Modeste for her behaviour, and reveals that the handsome young Parisian isn’t Canalis at all.  Modeste doesn’t swoon, she’s made of sterner stuff than that.  But she is shocked that Ernest has deceived her and is very cross with him.  Father delivers a little homily about men and their ways:

“My child,” said the colonel, presently, “men in society, as in nature everywhere, are made to win the hearts of women, and women must defend themselves. You have chosen to invert the parts. Was that wise? Everything is false in a false position. The first wrong-doing was yours. No, a man is not a monster because he seeks to please a woman; it is our right to win her by aggression with all its consequences, short of crime and cowardice”.

And, he reminds her, that the first wrong-doing was hers.  He likes Ernest, and barracks for him, but he sticks to the plan:

“Monsieur Ernest de La Briere is, to my thinking, fully the equal of the Baron de Canalis. He was private secretary of a cabinet minister, and he is now counsel for the Court of Claims; he has a heart, and he adores you, but— he does not write verses. No, I admit, he is not a poet; but for all that he may have a heart full of poetry. At any rate, my dear girl,” added her father, as Modeste made a gesture of disgust, “you are to see both of them, the sham and the true Canalis—”
“Oh, papa!—”
“Did you not swear just now to obey me in everything, even in the affair of your marriage? Well, I allow you to choose which of the two you like best for a husband. You have begun by a poem, you shall finish with a bucolic, and try if you can discover the real character of these gentlemen here, in the country, on a few hunting or fishing excursions.”
Modeste bowed her head and walked home with her father, listening to what he said but replying only in monosyllables.

That cunning swine Canalis decides to upstage Ernest by making him appear subservient.  He takes a nice villa in Ingouville, thanks to Latournelle who hears all about his demanding requirements, giving the impression that he is a man of importance.   Canalis then invites Ernest to come along, making sure that everyone gets the impression that he works for the poet as valet.

“Monsieur le baron,” he said to the notary, “makes his secretary quite his best friend. Ah! I should be well scolded if Monsieur de La Briere was not as well treated as monsieur le baron himself; and after all, you know, Monsieur de La Briere is a lawyer in my master’s court.”

Well, you’d think this would be enough, but no, Balzac now introduces a third suitor!  It’s all Gobenheim’s fault: he has bragged about Dumay’s wealth (because he got a share of  M. Mignon’s ill-gotten gains, and now Modeste is known as an heiress to bid for). The Duc d’Herouville is hard up, and he has a lot of titles but he’s not a very prepossessing suitor.  (He had fancied a daughter of Vilquin’s but alas, M Vilquin has come on hard times… and gentlemen must be flexible in order to preserve their own interests…)

The first meeting, which takes place at the Chalet only confirms Modeste’s preference for Canalis.  Ernest thinks he is beaten. He walks along the beach declaring that he will love Modeste from afar when he meets up- with  the dwarf Butscha.  Butscha is on his side, and does what he can to encourage him because he genuinely cares for Modeste and wants to see her happily married.  And, he tells Ernest, his cousin is the Duchesse de Chaulieu’s maid.  And (he says) the Duchesse is not at all pleased that Canalis is philandering, and he might well be ruined if he loses the Duchesse and then doesn’t win Modeste.  The stakes are high.

In the salon where all these suitors are assembled there follows a discourse about the merits of art versus utility, Modeste ardently claiming the art is more important in order to express her contempt for Ernest.  M. Mignon sees how her preferences are going and asks a pointed question about the Duchesse de Chaulieu but Canalis deflects it.  Modeste rejects everything her father might try to promote  Ernest’s suit, and alarms Butscha when she says she is about to make Canalis her Melchior (one of the three Magi). Would Canalis marry her if he found out that her fortune were less large, he asks her? (Don’t forget, Modeste has already been jilted once before, when Francisque Althor found out that her father had lost his money).  To encourage Modeste’s doubts, Butscha spreads a rumour that the fortune is not as large as anticipated, and lo! Canalis cools his ardour. He sends a letter of apology to the Duchesse who forgives him, and reinstates her plan to help Canalis get preferment. She has heard the rumours about Modeste’s fortune and so she writes back to tell him that she will help him marry Modeste so that he will have her eight million francs.  Yes, once again, Canalis thinks that Modeste is a wealthy heiress and reaffirms his suit with her by giving her part of the Duchesse’s letter that advances his case.

But Modeste is awake now to his perfidy, and enjoys her power in having all three men after her.

All assemble now at the D’Herouville estate for a hunt for the denouement.  The Duchesse de Chaulieu turns up to find out what’s going on for herself, Ernest comes along (even though Modeste has spurned his gift of a splendid riding whip which has cost him all his money), and Canalis is still keeping all his cards in play.  Modeste sees Canalis with the Duchesse and seeks to show her power by asking that he retrieve the letter in her room, a request that means Canalis has to choose between them.  He gets out of it by sending Ernest – but he wants that letter back.

Modeste finally comes to her senses, despatches the the Duc d’Herouville tactfully and retrieves the jewelled whip.  When the Duchesse de Chaulieu admires it, Modeste signals to Ernest that she has made her choice with the arch remark: “It is a very strange gift as coming from a future husband”.

Not only do Modeste and Ernest live happily ever after, but Madame Mignon has her sight restored!

Read it here

Summary by Lisa Hill, 4th January 2014

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