The Purse, by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Clara Bell

This is an early work by Balzac, written  in 1832 and only a very short story.

A young artist working in his studio has a fall, and he comes round from consciousness to find two women ministering to him.  The younger one, applying the compress to his temples, is (of course) beautiful, has refined manners and is dressed in good taste.  Her name is Adelaide Leseigneur

but her mother  goes by a different name.

His name is Hippolyte Schinner, and he is starting to achieve success in Paris, and some money.  He is shy, devoted to his mother, and keen to restore the pleasures of which society had robbed her.

I was charmed by Balzac’s reference to the lumber-room which Adelaide’s mother so adroitly conceals when Hippolyte makes a visit to convey his thanks: Balzac calls it a capharnaum, (so much nicer than the Australian ‘junk room’).  But this capharnaum is an indication that the women live humbly.  Their home is owned by

one of those proprietors in whom there is a foregone and profound horror of repairs and decoration, one of the men who regard their position as Paris house-owners as a business. In the vast chain of moral species, these people hold a middle place between the miser and the usurer. Optimists in their own interests, they are all faithful to the Austrian status quo. If you speak of moving a cupboard or a door, of opening the most indispensable air-hole, their eyes flash, their bile rises, they rear like a frightened horse. When the wind blows down a few chimney-pots they are quite ill, and deprive themselves of an evening at the Gymnase or the Porte-Saint-Martin Theatre, "on account of repairs."

[No doubt there are still plenty of such proprietors today.]

Furniture showing signs of former splendour are an indication that these two women have come down in the world, i.e. they are the genteel poor as the English would say.  Hippolyte recognises these signs of ill-disguised poverty from his mother’s house because he comes from such a background too.

To make conversation, Hippolyte notes a portrait done in garish pastels, which they could only be keeping because the likeness (of a naval officer) is dear to them.  He offers to re-do it in oils as a gesture of thanks, explaining that oils will last longer than the decaying pastels.  The mother explains that the portrait is of her husband Monsieur de Rouville who had died in battle with the British.  Her attempts to get a pension under successive administrations have been insultingly unsuccessful.

The conversation is interrupted first by an embarrassed Adelaide hushing her mother’s complaints, and then by the arrival of two old gallants who are by their dress obviously old Royalists. (As Balzac was).  They are intimate with this family, and soon begin to play cards.  The gentleman loses to Madame  de Rouville.

Hippolyte  collects the portrait and begins his painting.   This ignites his intimacy with Adelaide and before long they are seeing each other daily.  He plays cards too, and he loses every time as well, which makes him mildly suspicious.  Is Madame a gambler?  Is he being duped?  One night he gets his purse out to pay his debt to Madame, and distracted by his love for Adelaide, leaves it behind.  When he returns, they deny having it.  He is shocked at this bare-faced deceit.

In one end of the purse there were fifteen louis d’or, and in the other some small change. The theft was so flagrant, and denied with such effrontery, that Hippolyte no longer felt a doubt as to his neighbours’ morals. He stood still on the stairs, and got down with some difficulty; his knees shook, he felt dizzy, he was in a cold sweat, he shivered, and found himself unable to walk, struggling, as he was, with the agonizing shock caused by the destruction of all his hopes. And at this moment he found lurking in his memory a number of observations, trifling in themselves, but which corroborated his frightful suspicions, and which, by proving the certainty of this last incident, opened his eyes as to the character and life of these two women.

Sunk into gloom Hippolyte tells his friends who mock him for a dupe.  But all ends well due to the intervention of his mother – who sets about finding out about the character of these two women.  It turns out that Madame wins at cards every night because she has too much pride to let her friends help her any other way.

And the purse?  It is restored to him – with all the money intact – but now richly embroidered by Adelaide, who had filched it so that she could express her love and gratitude using the only resources she had.

Read it here

Summarised by Lisa Hill, 4/1/14


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