The Ball at Sceaux by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Clara Bell

This is one of Balzac’s shorter stories, again about the perils of marriage in a time of political uncertainty.   A old Royalist, le Comte de Fontaine, has been loyal to the (somewhat ungrateful) crown, and has been unsuccessful in having his claims for restitution accepted by the king.  Fontaine has a large family, and the cost of maintaining them in accordance with aristocratic standards exceeds his income.  He spent a small fortune supporting the crown during its various vicissitudes, and so had no alternative but to abandon some of his principles when marrying off his daughters.  His sons had achieved preferment under Louis VIII, but Fontaine chose to marry his daughters to wealth rather than title because there were four of them, too many to manage the ‘dots’ (dowries).  His decision to let his daughters marry outside the aristocracy was partly to please the king, who was in the business of making his aristocrats understand that the world had changed, and partly because Fontaine needs to be able to provide for his wife after his death:

So the Comte bestowed

his eldest daughter on a Receiver-General, possessed, indeed, of some old hereditary estates, but whose name was not preceded by the little word to which the throne owed so many partisans, and his second to a magistrate too lately Baronified to obscure the fact that his father had sold firewood. This noteworthy change in the ideas of a noble on the verge of his sixtieth year— an age when men rarely renounce their convictions— was due not merely to his unfortunate residence in the modern Babylon, where, sooner or later, country folks all get their corners rubbed down; the Comte de Fontaine’s new political conscience was also a result of the King’s advice and friendship.

But his last daughter Emilie is problematic.  She is too young to remember the privations of the years before the throne was restored, and aided and abetted by her foolish mother, she is spoilt and selfish, haughty and capricious. 

She had been educated with a care which her sisters had not enjoyed; painted pretty well, spoke Italian and English, and played the piano brilliantly; her voice, trained by the best masters, had a ring in it which made her singing irresistibly charming. Clever, and intimate with every branch of literature, she might have made folks believe that, as Mascarille says, people of quality come into the world knowing everything. She could argue fluently on Italian or Flemish painting, on the Middle Ages or the Renaissance; pronounced at haphazard on books new or old, and could expose the defects of a work with a cruelly graceful wit. The simplest thing she said was accepted by an admiring crowd as a fetfah of the Sultan by the Turks. She thus dazzled shallow persons; as to deeper minds, her natural tact enabled her to discern them, and for them she put forth so much fascination that, under cover of her charms, she escaped their scrutiny. This enchanting veneer covered a careless heart; the opinion— common to many young girls— that no one else dwelt in a sphere so lofty as to be able to understand the merits of her soul; and a pride based no less on her birth than on her beauty. In the absence of the overwhelming sentiment which, sooner or later, works havoc in a woman’s heart, she spent her young ardour in an immoderate love of distinctions, and expressed the deepest contempt for persons of inferior birth. Supremely impertinent to all newly-created nobility, she made every effort to get her parents recognized as equals by the most illustrious families of the Saint-Germain quarter.

These sentiments had not escaped the observing eye of Monsieur de Fontaine, who more than once, when his two elder girls were married, had smarted under Emilie’s sarcasm.

Yes, it takes him a while, but eventually her father realises that her upbringing has made Emilie what she is.

Things get worse when, after her brothers marry too,  this domestic tyrant is feted by her own small court, (though female rivalries sometimes erupt into revolt).  By the time Charles X comes to the throne, Emilie has rudely rejected too many suitors on spurious grounds, and so the Comte has to redouble his efforts to get her to court and find a husband.  After all, she is twenty-two and should have been married off three years ago. But she is as incorrigible as before and so he tells her that he will make no further efforts because she embarrasses him: her expectation that she will marry a peer is not reasonable under the circumstances.  He gives up: she is free to do her own thing. 

Well! Lo and behold at the very next ball, who should she see but a very desirable young man.  With the help of her uncle the Comte de Kergarouet, she finds out his name and the  courtships progresses, but the young man is evasive about his position in life.  When she finds out that he is not a peer because he gave up all his advantages in order to benefit his older brother, she dumps him.  Just plain Maximilien Longueville isn’t good enough for her, and, hurt, he leaves her to go to Italy with his sister Clara. 

By now there’s not much left for her in the marriage market, so she marries the old Comte de Kergarouet.  Having made such a song and dance about how only a peer will do for her, she would rather marry an old man with a title than a young man who loves her.

Within a couple of years, she has reason to regret her folly:

Two years after her marriage, in one of the old drawing-rooms in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, where she was admired for her character, worthy of the old school, Emilie heard the Vicomte de Longueville announced. In the corner of the room where she was sitting, playing piquet with the Bishop of Persepolis, her agitation was not observed; she turned her head and saw her former lover come in, in all the freshness of youth. His father’s death, and then that of his brother, killed by the severe climate of Saint-Petersburg, had placed on Maximilien’s head the hereditary plumes of the French peer’s hat. His fortune matched his learning and his merits; only the day before his youthful and fervid eloquence had dazzled the Assembly. At this moment he stood before the Countess, free, and graced with all the advantages she had formerly required of her ideal. Every mother with a daughter to marry made amiable advances to a man gifted with the virtues which they attributed to him, as they admired his attractive person; but Emilie knew, better than any one, that the Vicomte de Longueville had the steadfast nature in which a wise woman sees a guarantee of happiness. She looked at the admiral who, to use his favourite expression, seemed likely to hold his course for a long time yet, and cursed the follies of her youth.

But the old Comte has to die sometime, eh?

Summary by Lisa Hill, 5/1/14

Read it here


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

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

The Thirteen: The Girl with the Golden Eyes by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Ellen Marriage

Histoire de Treize: La fille aux Yeux d’Or
The Girl with the Golden Eyes

Balzac starts with a rather gloomy  view of Parisians: gloomy, pallid and dull, with no values other than a preoccupation with gold and pleasure. Everyone is striving to be better than his station, and the artist (who presumably includes Balzac himself) labours long and hard for little reward.  The air is foul, the streets are dirty and it’s not a pretty picture of Paris at all. Only people transcend these  negativities, and then only when they are young  and innocent. (Notwithstanding, Balzac still thinks that Paris is the ‘crown of the world’ which leads civilisation. An Englishman might argue about that….)

Henri de Marsay, natural son of Lord Dudley and the Marquise de Vordac strolls out one day into the Tuileries in this Paris.  His circumstances were unfortunate for Lord Dudley had married his mother off to an old gentleman called M. de Marsay who brought Henri up as his own (for the price of a life interest in the fund that Henri was to inherit).  Before long de Marsay died and his mother remarried, to de Vordac; she had lost interest in both her son and Lord Dudley (partly because of the war between France and England, and partly because fidelity was never fashionable in Paris). Dudley himself had never taken any interest in the product of his fling, and so it was that Henri had no father other than de Marsay, who, prior to his death was a gambler and a wastrel.

Things might have turned out badly for the boy but when de Marsay abandoned the boy to his sister, a Demoiselle de Marsay, she did her best with the meagre allowance for his keep and by sheer good luck arranged for him to have a good education though not exactly an academic one.  The Abbé de Moronis also took him to churches which were closed, to theatres where the courtesans were and to drawing-rooms where he learned about politics and government. Not only that, he also made the acquaintance of useful people in society so it didn’t seem to matter much that he did not know his father or even his mother.

The direction in which this story leads is hinted at when – almost as an aside – Balzac reveals that Lord Dudley had more than one fling.  He also has a natural daughter Euphemie, born of his liaison with a Spanish lady in Havana who likewise knows nothing about her parentage.  She had come  from Cube to Madrid, and from there to Paris when Spain was occupied by French troops…

Anyway, in 1814 when he was 22 Henri de Marsay was an attractive youth with few cares.  However when he exchanges glances with Ronquerolles, the reader knows that he is one of the Thirteen and therefore unburdened by morals or scruples. When he meets up with a naïve young man called Paul de Manerville from the provinces, the reader guesses that this young man will be lose the rest of his fortune too.

Henri chats about a young woman he admires in the Tuileries, and Paul knows her too.  Her distinguishing feature is her golden eyes, like a tiger’s.  Henri thinks she is fair game, but the tigerish eyes hint at her capacity to strike back. Paul thinks she resembles Henri, but he dismisses this as nonsense. Unlike the reader who is beginning to feel dubious about the plot.

They pass each other, and she behaves coquettishly, waving her hankie and making it obvious that they should follow her. Henri does, of course, but only to establish her address. The next day he sends his valet to make enquiries and learns that her name is Mademoiselle Paquita Valdes but that he is unlikely to able to penetrate the fortress where her virtue is so well guarded.   Nevertheless Henri is undaunted because he has grown weary of easy conquests and fancies a challenge. Paquita Valdes is all the more desirable because she is unattainable.

Once again he sees her in the Tuileries, and once again she flirts as much as she is able, given the constant presence of Dona Concha. Henri then organises the delivery of a love letter to set up an assignation by bribing the postman.  He does not, however, reveal his true name but rather calls himself Adolphe de Gouges.  The plan is for an opiate to be dropped over the wall, along with a bottle of ink (to write replies with).
The letter is delivered, and Henri and Paul are surprised early next day by a visit from a fearsome mulatto and his translator.  He purports to be from Paquita and the arrangements are that Henri should board a carriage in Montmartre using the password ‘cortejo’ which he says means ‘lover’.  It doesn’t, while it can mean courtship, it also means a procession, a cortege or a train. Henri thinks all this clock-and-dagger stuff is very amusing, but he parties hard that night to deflect any worries that might arise from the danger he is courting.

At the appointed hour he is conveyed to a gloomy, isolated place, worthy of an Ann Radcliffe novel. Paquita is there, but so is a miserable old woman whom Paquita identifies as her mother, brought as a slave bought in Georgia for beauty now long gone.  This first meeting is inconclusive despite their mutual attraction not least because they have to speak in English since Paquita speaks no French, bu also because Paquita feels some kind of restraint and her mother conveys an enigmatic disapproval, as well she might.

The second assignation is more dramatic.  The mulatto Cristemio demands this time that Henri be blindfolded.  He refuses and the carriage drives off; returning only when he submits.  Not only that, once inside Henri is thrown to the floor of the carriage and threatened with a dagger: this has the effect of subduing Henri considerably but he cheers up when he finds Paquita in sexy garb in the boudoir at the end of this perilous journey.
He has a lot of fun in what turns out to be a sort of Arabian love-nest but becomes disillusioned when he realises that Paquita has another lover, and the plot becomes very confusing and melodramatic because the other lover is Euphemie, and that of course in the 19th century means that the story has to end in her death.  Henri goes to her rescue with his mate Ferragus but it’s too late.

Does Henri care?  Not a bit of it.

The best bits of this novella are the descriptions of Paris and its inhabitants.  The story itself is worthy of an Ann Radcliife

Summarised by Lisa Hill, March 2011

Read it here

Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life: Vautrin’s Last Avatar, by Honoré de Balzac, translated by ‘James Waring’

Vautrin’s Last Avatar, by Honoré de Balzac

Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes
Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life – Complete
Also translated as Splendours and Miseries of Courtesans and A Harlot High and Low

Vautrin’s Last Avatar is fourth and last in the series Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life:

  • Esther Happy/How Girls Love
  • What Love Costs an Old Man
  • The End of Evil Ways, and
  • Vautrin’s Last Avatar/The Last Incarnation of Vautrin

NOTE: The story of Lucien de Rubempre begins in the Lost Illusions trilogy which consists of

  • Two Poets,
  • A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, and
  • Eve and David.

The action in Scenes From A Courtesan’s Life commences directly after the end of Eve and David, with Esther Happy/How Girls Love.

This translation by James Waring (who is really Ellen Marriage, but she published risqué stories like this one under a male pseudonym).

This story begins with Amelia, the wife of Monsieur Camusot, consoling him for the blunders he has made in the case of Lucien and Jacques Collin.  As things stand, Lucien is dead, and he retracted  his statement that the Abbé Carlos Herrera is really Jacques Collin just before he killed himself.  Camusot feels guilt-stricken that his questioning may have led to the suicide, and he is very worried about the ‘very great people involved in this deplorable business.‘  Undaunted, Amelia reminds him that events are to his advantage:

“Why despair?” she went on, with a shrug that sufficiently expressed her indifference as to the prisoner’s end. “This suicide will delight Lucien’s two enemies, Madame d’Espard and her cousin, the Comtesse du Chatelet. Madame d’Espard is on the best terms with the Keeper of the Seals; through her you can get an audience of His Excellency and tell him all the secrets of this business. Then, if the head of the law is on your side, what have you to fear from the president of your Court or the public prosecutor?”


“If the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse and Madame de Serizy are compromised, you will find them both ready to patronize you,” said Amelie. “Madame de Serizy will get you admission to the Keeper of the Seals, and you will tell him the secret history of the affair; then he will amuse the King with the story, for sovereigns always wish to see the wrong side of the tapestry and to know the real meaning of the events the public stare at open-mouthed. Henceforth there will be no cause to fear either the public prosecutor or Monsieur de Serizy.”

“What a treasure such a wife is!” cried the lawyer, plucking up courage.

He almost blunders again with his plans to use all these persons in high places to convict Collin, but Amelia sets him straight: he must use the other prisoners to expose Collin.  They will be only too willing to do this because Collin embezzled their winnings from gambling.

[Even Balzac must have wondered why women like Amelie were restricted to manoeuvres like this instead of having an equal role in public affairs.  But I digress.]

Meanwhile back at the Conciergerie arrangements are being made to whisk Lucien’s handsome body back to his lodgings so that his death will be certified from there instead of at the prison, thus protecting the honour of the high and mighty persons involved in this mess.  The doctor who is to certify the death is summoned, however, to Cell No 2, because the incumbent (Collin, of course) is ‘dying’.  There is scepticism about this but there are orders to mitigate his imprisonment (because Lucien’s evidence is now lost) and so they reluctantly head for the cells.

Balzac now shows us another side of Collin.  In Lucien’s last letter to Collin he invokes Cain and Abel, brothers embodying the duality of man’s nature.  Collin had

sacrificed his own life for seven years past. His vast powers, absorbed in Lucien, acted solely for Lucien; he lived for his progress, his loves, his ambitions. To him, Lucien was his own soul made visible.

For the first time in this sequence of stories, we see Collin as human, and his claim to have been Lucien’s father takes on a different meaning.  Alone in his cell, he knows Lucien’s weakness and that he might betray them both, but he doesn’t blame him for it.  Rather, he dreams of a different life that he might have:

Indeed, a life with Lucien, a youth innocent of all crime, who had only minor sins on his conscience, dawned on him as bright and glorious as a summer sun;

He fakes illness again so that he can plead to see Lucien, but is told instead the truth.  He is given Lucien’s letter of regret and apology, and repeating that Lucien is his son, he is taken to see his body.  He reads the letter, learning that Lucien blames himself for incriminating them both, but that he at last understands how he has been Collin’s patsy

“As you have sometimes said, there is the posterity of Cain and the posterity of Abel. In the great human drama Cain is in opposition. You are descended from Adam through that line, in which the devil still fans the fire of which the first spark was flung on Eve. Among the demons of that pedigree, from time to time we see one of stupendous power, summing up every form of human energy, and resembling the fevered beasts of the desert, whose vitality demands the vast spaces they find there. Such men are as dangerous as lions would be in the heart of Normandy; they must have their prey, and they devour common men and crop the money of fools. Their sport is so dangerous that at last they kill the humble dog whom they have taken for a companion and made an idol of”.

In the early hours of the morning when the authorities come to collect the body, they find Collin collapsed in grief.  [Is it genuine now?]  In the morning he goes meekly to the exercise yard, never guessing that Bibi-Lupin has sent him there so that the other prisoners can murder him.  But (wouldn’t you know it?) three of them are old allies from the Hulks:  there is la Pouraille from La Force, another named Selerier, alias l’Avuergnat, Pere Ralleau, and le Rouleur, and a man called Riganson a.k.a. Biffon.  Broken by grief, Collin is recognisable as Trompe-la-Mort (Dodge-Death) but the trio of crooks suspect his disguise as a priest has something to do with a plan of some sort.   So they go along with the impersonation and they look out for him when he feels faint, calling for a chair for him.   They hope that his skill and inventiveness will be to their advantage, and they are hopeful of laying their hands on the embezzled money (which he had used to benefit Lucien’s quest to marry the Grandlieu heiress).

[This scene is notable for the mostly incomprehensible convict slang that Balzac uses in quest of authenticity.]

Collin sees an opportunity for redemption.  One of his escapes had taken place when he was chained to another convict, a young boy called Theodore Calvi a.k.a. Madeleine.  Theodore, now aged 27, had been recaptured, and now he is awaiting execution.  In his guise as priest Collin feigns innocence of prison proceedings, and begs to be allowed to minister to Theodore. Bibi-Lupin sees an opportunity to get something new on Collin, and although it is unheard for anyone to visit a condemned man the night before the execution, he acquiesces, going along to the cell with Collin but disguised as an ordinary gendarme.  (There are a lot of disguises in this series of stories).

Theodore’s conviction is based solely on circumstantial evidence, and Grandville has been delaying the execution in the hope that Theodore will confess to the mysterious murder of the widow Pigeau and incriminate his accomplice, his girlfriend Manon la Blonde.

Collin begins to convince the sceptical warders when he ‘mistakes’ Sanson the Executioner for a chaplain, but Collin makes no mistake when he sees Bibi-Lupin disguised as a gendarme.  He cautions Theodore to speak only Italian, and Theodore explains how the crime was committed, pretending all the while to be making his confession to the sham priest.  Collin tells him that he will get his sentence commuted to imprisonment, and that he will then arrange his escape to Paris where he can have a fine life.

Collin then demands that there be a stay of execution because Theodore is innocent, and since he doesn’t speak Italian Bibi-Lupin is none the wiser.

Then Asie (Collin’s Aunt Jacqueline) turns up, dressed to the nines and purporting to be a ‘Madame de San-Esteban’ and demanding to see the priest.  It’s all very irregular but with a permit from the Comte de Serizy , she gets her way.  Using their common slang Collin orders her to hide the incriminating love-letters from Lucien to Madame de Serizy and the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse.   He also tells her to find Europe and Paccard (who had absconded with the 750,000 francs that Lucien was accused of defrauding the banker Nucingen) but she tells him that Paccard is in her carriage.

Meanwhile, back in the prison-yard Collin is buttering up La Pouraille and succeeds in persuading him to confess to Theodore’s crime.  He claims to be able then to get him off the murder and theft charges if the money is paid back.  Between the two of them, they then persuade Riganson (Biffon) to confess and to implicate his girlfriend Biffe so that she’ll be  in prison for a year and therefore not able to cheat on him.  Biffon is not very bright…

Now all this time, Madame Camusot has been busy too.  She calls on Madame d’Espard to fill her in on the gossip and to ask for help in protecting Camusot’s ambitions.  Mme d’Espard pretends to be worried about Madame de Serizy’s mental state, but is actually delighted because she hates her.  She’s not really very fond of Monsieur de Granville either, since

she owed to them her defeat in the disgraceful proceedings by which she had tried to have her husband treated as a lunatic, “I will protect you; I never forget either my foes or my friends.”

Amelie then calls on Duchesse de Maufrigneuse who is also worried about her incriminating letters to Lucien and (to Amelie’s delight, since she’s never been admitted to such an august address before) together they go to see the Duchesse de Grandlieu (yes, the potential mother-in-law of Lucien until the marriage to her daughter Clotilde fell through so spectacularly).   Clotilde wrote letters to Lucien too, and of course he wrote back to her – quel embarrass, n’est-ce pas?  No wonder the duchess says ‘’”We are three daughters of Eve in the coils of the serpent of letter-writing!”  Daddy Grandlieu acts promptly to hush things up and is about to dismiss Madame Camusot, (who is only middle-class and therefore not really welcome) when the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse intervenes and he grudgingly makes vague promises about remembering a service done for them.

Duke de Grandlieu sets Corentin the task to retrieve the letters, but here’s a surprise: Corentin realises that any attempt to prosecute him will be too risky because that would reveal his true identity.  Instead he suggests recruiting Collin to the side of law and order.  (This is based on a somewhat spurious argument that since Collin was responsible for the murder of both Peyrade and Contenson, this makes him an ideal successor for his own job.  This is a daft resolution, but it clears the way for Collin to make an entrance in more episodes of La Comedie Humaine.

Meanwhile, Camusot visits Granville, the Prosecutor, and explains about Collin and the disastrous letters that he knows Collin has secreted somewhere.  They are trying to decide what to do when Collin arrives – and surrenders! He tells them that his mysterious visitor was his Aunt Jacqueline and puts on a convincing show of remorse until he insists that Camusot be sent out of the room because he’s responsible for Lucien’s death, and he starts the negotiations for Theodore’s release, knowing that the authorities care more about the possible scandal than the guilt or innocence of the three convicts.  He bargains hard, and is allowed to go with his aunt to get samples of the letters to prove that he has them.  In his absence Corentin disguised as an old man, arrives accompanied by the Comte des Lupeaulx, Secretary-in-Chief of the President of the Council, and a deputy.  Lupeaulx lets Granville know that the king is taking a personal interest in this matter, and that he will be made Keeper of the Seals when the incumbent becomes Chancellor, if all goes well.

When Lupeaulx leaves, Corentin comes to the point:

“Yes, Monsieur le Comte, it is Jacques Collin, the head of the ‘Ten Thousand Francs Association,’ the banker for three penal settlements, a convict who, for the last five years, has succeeded in concealing himself under the robe of the Abbe Carlos Herrera. How he ever came to be intrusted with a mission to the late King from the King of Spain is a question which we have all puzzled ourselves with trying to answer. I am now expecting information from Madrid, whither I have sent notes and a man. That convict holds the secrets of two kings.”

“He is a man of mettle and temper. We have only two courses open to us,” said the public prosecutor. “We must secure his fidelity, or get him out of the way.”

Indeed, Collin is still outsmarting them.  At the house of his Aunt Jacqueline a.k.a. Asie he summons Europe and Paccard who fortunately for them have already handed over the 750,000 francs or they would be in deep trouble (and although they are not very bright, they know it).  He doesn’t extract revenge for their perfidy but instead sets them up in a shop – where some of his ill-gotten gains lie hidden below the cellar, and it is Paccard’s job to dig it up and also to hide the other packet of money in the mattress of Madame Lucien’s house i.e. Esther’s place. All this money going round and round is very confusing because next we find Asie/Aunt Jacqueline telling Collin that they have no money at all.  She’s not happy about his change of heart but he says

“What was to become of me? Lucien has taken my soul with him, and all my joy in life. I have thirty years before me to be sick of life in, and I have no heart left. Instead of being the boss of the hulks, I shall be a Figaro of the law, and avenge Lucien. I can never be sure of demolishing Corentin excepting in the skin of a police agent. And so long as I have a man to devour, I shall still feel alive.— The profession a man follows in the eyes of the world is a mere sham; the reality is in the idea!”

Anyway, Collin heads back with the three sample letters that Aunt Jacqueline has been hiding in her bosom, and is promptly arrested by Bibi-Lupin.  He escorts Collin into the office of Granville, and is promptly sent packing by his superiors.  Collin recognises Corentin who, after some iron banter,  makes his offer of a position with the police:

“You really offer me a situation?” said Jacques Collin. “A nice situation indeed!— out of the fire into the frying-pan!” “You will be in a sphere where your talents will be highly appreciated and well paid for, and you will act at your ease. The Government police are not free from perils. I, as you see me, have already been imprisoned twice, but I am none the worse for that. And we travel, we are what we choose to appear. We pull the wires of political dramas, and are treated with politeness by very great people.— Come, my dear Jacques Collin, do you say yes?”

Collin talks passionately about the villain of the piece – the banker Nucingen and he barters: the letters for Theodore’s life, and revenge on Bibi-Lupin.  The deal is done, Collin attends Lucien’s funeral (where he exchanges philosophical ideas with Rastignac, who doesn’t want to know him any more) and in a paroxysm of grief he swoons into the grave.  He is taken back to de Granville’s office where he is reminded that he also promised to do something to restore the sanity of Madame de Serizy.  No problem: he resurrects a letter that Lucien has written but never sent to her, leaving her to believe that he died while they were estranged.  This letter is a love-letter, which cheers her up and restores her well-being.  In return, de Granville releases Theodore (who as we know is actually guilty of the Pigeau murder) and (in an unholy alliance indeed) Theodore is to serve under Collin.  In a nice irony, Collin has to serve six months probation under Bibi-Lupin before taking on his job. Which he does, retiring in 1845 after 15 years service!

And the moral of this story is, as the Duchesse de Grandlieu says:

“This is what comes of opening one’s house to people one is not absolutely sure of. Before admitting an acquaintance, one ought to know all about his fortune, his relations, all his previous history——”

Read it here

Summary by Lisa Hill, January 2nd, 2014

Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life: The End of Evil Ways, by Honoré de Balzac

The End of Evil Ways, by Honoré de Balzac

Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes
Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life – Complete
Also translated as Splendours and Miseries of Courtesans and A Harlot High and Low

The End of Evil Ways is third in the series Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life, which Includes four parts:

  • Esther Happy/How Girls Love
  • What Love Costs an Old Man
  • The End of Evil Ways, and
  • Vautrin’s Last Avatar/The Last Incarnation of Vautrin

NOTE: The story of Lucien de Rubempre begins in the Lost Illusions trilogy which consists of

  • Two Poets,
  • A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, and
  • Eve and David.

The action in Scenes From A Courtesan’s Life commences directly after the end of Eve and David, with Esther Happy/How Girls Love.

This translation by James Waring (who is really Ellen Marriage, but she published risqué stories like this one under a male pseudonym).

At the end of What Love Costs an Old Man, Lucien de Rubempre is locked up in solitary confinement on charges of theft and attempted murder.  The End of Evil Ways begins with Lucien de Rubempre and Jacques Collin (a.k.a. Vautrin a.k.a. Abbe Carlos Herrera) being taken to Palais de Justice. in two separate ‘salad-baskets’ (paniers a salade), (so-called because the prisoners were shaken around inside. In English we know this conveyance as a paddy-wagon.)  Paris is agog!

It is worth noting how the justice system works:

Observe the word inculpe, incriminated, or suspected of crime. The French Code has created three essential degrees of criminality— inculpe, first degree of suspicion; prevenu, under examination; accuse, fully committed for trial. So long as the warrant for committal remains unsigned, the supposed criminal is regarded as merely under suspicion, inculpe of the crime or felony; when the warrant has been issued, he becomes “the accused” (prevenu), and is regarded as such so long as the inquiry is proceeding; when the inquiry is closed, and as soon as the Court has decided that the accused is to be committed for trial, he becomes “the prisoner at the bar” (accuse) as soon as the superior court, at the instance of the public prosecutor, has pronounced that the charge is so far proved as to be carried to the Assizes.

Thus, persons suspected of crime go through three different stages, three siftings, before coming up for trial before the judges of the upper Court— the High Justice of the realm.

At the first stage, innocent persons have abundant means of exculpating themselves— the public, the town watch, the police. At the second state they appear before a magistrate face to face with the witnesses, and are judged by a tribunal in Paris, or by the Collective Court of the departments. At the third stage they are brought before a bench of twelve councillors, and in case of any error or informality the prisoner committed for trial at the Assizes may appeal for protection to the Supreme court. The jury do not know what a slap in the face they give to popular authority, to administrative and judicial functionaries, when they acquit a prisoner. And so, in my opinion, it is hardly possible that an innocent man should ever find himself at the bar of an Assize Court in Paris— I say nothing of other seats of justice.

This is worth noting too, since it’s probably just as true today as it was in Balzac’s day:

It is impossible to conceive of the sudden isolation in which a suspected criminal is placed. The gendarmes who apprehend him, the commissioner who questions him, those who take him to prison, the warders who lead him to his cell— which is actually called a cachot, a dungeon or hiding-place, those again who take him by the arms to put him into a prison-van— every being that comes near him from the moment of his arrest is either speechless, or takes note of all he says, to be repeated to the police or to the judge. This total severance, so simply effected between the prisoner and the world, gives rise to a complete overthrow of his faculties and a terrible prostration of mind, especially when the man has not been familiarized by his antecedents with the processes of justice.

But this isolation does not apply to the invincible Jacques Collin – en route the passage of the paddy-wagon is blocked by a cost-monger’s cart: lo! it’s loyal Asie, back from her escape with Paccard and the 750,000 francs and she passes on the crushing news that the gendarmes have got Lucien too.

Balzac allows himself a lament for the vulgar intrusion of the Conciergerie prison building into  the  Palace of Saint-Louis, former realm of kings and now entirely buried under the Palais de Justice, and then goes on to describe in detail the layout of the prison that will impinge on the case of Collins and Lucien.   Once inside, the paddy-wagon conveying prisoners to be ‘examined’ turns to the left; those committed for trial like Collins turn to the right.  Nobody has ever escaped from here except for Lavalette, (a French politician under Napoleon who was arrested under the Bourbons, and whose wife visited him the night before his execution and switched clothes with him).

Collin has to be assisted out of the paddy-wagon because at the moment of his arrest Asia had given him a poison to fake illness.  This not only enabled him to give only a garbled and unintelligible response to the first round of questioning, rendering it useless, it also enables him to fake being at death’s door now.  He begs for his case to heard urgently before he dies, because (of course, like every other criminal says Balzac) he is the victim of a mistake.

There are no such histrionics with Lucien.

Lucien’s expression was that of a dejected criminal. He submitted to everything, and obeyed like a machine. All the way from Fontainebleau the poet had been facing his ruin, and telling himself that the hour of expiation had tolled. Pale and exhausted, knowing nothing of what had happened at Esther’s house during his absence, he only knew that he was the intimate ally of an escaped convict, a situation which enabled him to guess at disaster worse than death. When his mind could command a thought, it was that of suicide. He must, at any cost, escape the ignominy that loomed before him like the phantasm of a dreadful dream.

The similarity between his prison cell and his first cheap abode in Paris reduces him to tears

This resemblance between his starting-point, in the days of his innocence, and his goal, the lowest depths of degradation and sham, was so direct an appeal to his last chord of poetic feeling, that the unhappy fellow melted into tears. For four hours he wept, as rigid in appearance as a figure of stone, but enduring the subversion of all his hopes, the crushing of all his social vanity, and the utter overthrow of his pride, smarting in each separate I that exists in an ambitious man— a lover, a success, a dandy, a Parisian, a poet, a libertine, and a favourite. Everything in him was broken by this fall as of Icarus.

Ah yes, we are meant to feel sorry for Lucien because he is a man of the better classes, and not a common rogue like Collin!

Collins has come prepared and he is confident that Monsieur Camusot, the police commissioner and examining judge to the Inferior Court of the Seine,  is no match for him:

He sat down in a corner where the eye of a prying warder at the grating of the peephole could not see him. Then he took off his wig, and hastily ungummed a piece of paper that did duty as lining. The side of the paper next his head was so greasy that it looked like the very texture of the wig. If it had occurred to Bibi-Lupin* to snatch off the wig to establish the identity of the Spaniard with Jacques Collin, he would never have thought twice about the paper, it looked so exactly like part of the wigmaker’s work. The other side was still fairly white, and clean enough to have a few lines written on it. The delicate and tiresome task of unsticking it had been begun in La Force; two hours would not have been long enough; it had taken him half of the day before. The prisoner began by tearing this precious scrap of paper so as to have a strip four or five lines wide, which he divided into several bits; he then replaced his store of paper in the same strange hiding-place, after damping the gummed side so as to make it stick again. He felt in a lock of his hair for one of those pencil leads as thin as a stout pin, then recently invented by Susse, and which he had put in with some gum; he broke off a scrap long enough to write with and small enough to hide in his ear. Having made these preparations with the rapidity and certainty of hand peculiar to old convicts, who are as light-fingered as monkeys, Jacques Collin sat down on the edge of his bed to meditate on his instructions to Asie, in perfect confidence that he should come across her, so entirely did he rely on the woman’s genius.

[* Bibi-Lupin is the head of the “safety” force” i.e. “Head of the brigade of the guardians of public safety”,  and it was he who arrested Jacques Collin long ago at Madame Vauquer’s boarding-house.  He was himself a former a convict, and a comrade of Jacques Collin on the hulks, but they are now enemies.  Bibi-Lupin is jealous of Jacques Collin’s supremacy as a criminal and as chief, adviser, and banker to former prisoners in Paris.  if Balzac explains how he came to be head of the Safety Force, I missed it.]

Collins (correctly assuming that Lucien is beside himself) is also determined to make Lucien pull himself together lest he incriminate them both.

Now, to Lucien’s disadvantage, he happens to be an enemy of the Madame d’Espard, who would like to see the back of him because he had previously successfully intervened in her action against her husband.   Madame d’Espard has influence over Camusot who has previously tried and failed to do her a favour in court (See The Commission in Lunacy) but  when she persuades his wife, Amelie to make sure Lucien gets committed, Camusot tells Amelie to keep out of it.  And just as well, because the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse – whose influence led to Camusot’s much-coveted appointment – sends for Amelie to tell her husband to look after Lucien’s interests because she can vouch for his innocence.  She wants him allowed to have a private visitor in his cell and to be released within 24 hours.  Yes, you guessed it, Madame de Maufrigneuse owed Camusot for a favour, see La Cabinet des Antiques; Scenes de la vie de Province), and she’s in a position to make promises for future preferment from the King.  She also alludes to obliging the Attorney General and Madame Leontine de Serizy (who was a former lover of Lucien (see here and scroll down).  She’s very upset about his arrest.

So now Amelie is in a pickle:

“Now, which of them has the most power?” she said in conclusion. “The Marquise was very near getting you into trouble in the silly business of the commission on her husband, and we owe everything to the Duchess.

The couple sit down to decide what to do.  They go over the evidence which concludes that Abbé Carlos Herrera is assuredly Jacques Collin/Vautrin a.k.a. Trompe-la-Mort (‘Dodge-Death’) and that Lucien – guilty of shabby behaviour with Coralie and Esther i.e. pimping – has probably fleeced Nucingen of the missing money.  Camusot reminds his wife that they are not supposed to know any of this (but in fact, Balzac says, the police have dossiers like this on everyone in Paris).  Amelie comes to the conclusion that they must support Lucien:

“Lucien is guilty,” he went on; “but of what?”

“A man who is the favourite of the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, of the Comtesse de Serizy, and loved by Clotilde de Grandlieu, is not guilty,” said Amelie. “The other must be answerable for everything.”

“But Lucien is his accomplice,” cried Camusot.

“Take my advice,” said Amelie. “Restore this priest to the diplomatic career he so greatly adorns, exculpate this little wretch, and find some other criminal——”

“How you run on!” said the magistrate with a smile. “Women go to the point, plunging through the law as birds fly through the air, and find nothing to stop them.”

“But,” said Amelie, “whether he is a diplomat or a convict, the Abbe Carlos will find some one to get him out of the scrape.”

“I am only a considering cap; you are the brain,” said Camusot. “Well, the sitting is closed; give your Melie a kiss; it is one o’clock.”

And Madame Camusot went to bed, leaving her husband to arrange his papers and his ideas in preparation for the task of examining the two prisoners next morning.

But in the cold light of morning Camusot decides that he would rather take vengeance on Lucien, who, it turns out, had ‘stolen’ Coralie from his father.

[This is why it is a good idea to read the stories of La Comedie Humaine in order, and to have The Repertory of La Comedie Humaine handy, so that you can keep track of who did what to whom.  Characters in  La Comedie have better memories of this than most readers do].

But lo! Quite by chance (or so he thinks) Camusot bumps into Count Granville who is Attorney General, and guess what? Granville just happens to mention the case and mounts a convincing set of reasons why Lucien can’t possibly be guilty.  He finishes up by casting doubt on the identity of Abbé Carlos Herrera and mentions his diplomatic status.  [Is this a lie?  Or does Granville believe this?]  Anyway, by the time Camusot gets to the prison there is plenty else to give him pause:

  • The doctors tell him that Collin was shamming illness
  • Bibi-Lupin tells him that Collin’s fellow-convicts will happily turn him in because he embezzled their gambling winnings (to give to Lucien)

Meanwhile Collin is busy writing notes using his bits of paper and lead. He writes to Asie to have the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse or Madame de Serizy get a message to Lucien, and to get Rastignac and Bianchon to testify that he’s not Jacques Collin.  He writes to Lucien telling him to confirm his identity as Abbé Carlos Herrera and to  keep mum.   Asie for her part has rigged herself up as a Baroness of the Faubourg Saint-Germain using swanky second-hand clothes (cast-offs sold by ‘ladies in difficulties’).  So when she turns up at the magistrates’ office, she impresses an obliging young lawyer and soon has him wrapped around her little finger. Pretending that she may need his help with a profitable lawsuit, and is only there at Camusot’s bidding as a witness in Lucien’s case, she drops influential names to further impress Massol and cons him into showing her around the Conciergerie (so that she can see Marie-Antoinette’s dungeon!)  And so it that she creates a disturbance when Collin passes by, Collin swoons and unobtrusively drops his little note rolled up into a little ball, and she gracefully retrieves it with the time-honoured stratagem of dropping her handbag in the same place before departing, ostensibly in pursuit of her lost dog.

Asie is soon wangling admittance to Madame de Maufrigneuse’s where she pretends to be the second-hand clothes-seller, Madame de Saint-Esteve a.k.a. Madame Nourrisson in the trade.  Lucien’s name is enough to persuade the Duchess, and away they go together to Madame Leontine de Serizy.  She’s still prostrate at the fate of her lover Lucien. Asie ticks off Madame Serizy – it’s all her fault, says Asie, for failing to provide Lucien with the money he needed which was why Esther had prostituted herself for him.  Asie hints that since the Grandlieu wedding is off, there is a chance for her with Lucien, but she must act, to save him, pronto.

[Meanwhile, back at the Conciergerie, Balzac has mercifully refrained from further attempts to render bad French, as he did in What Love Costs an Old Man:

It must here be observed that Jacques Collin spoke French like a Spanish trollop, blundering over it in such a way as to make his answers almost unintelligible, and to require them to be repeated. But Monsieur de Nucingen’s German barbarisms have already weighted this Scene too much to allow of the introduction of other sentences no less difficult to read, and hindering the rapid progress of the tale.

Thank goodness for that!]

Anyway, under examination Collin persists in claiming to be “Don Carlos Herrera, canon of the Royal Chapter of Toledo, and secret envoy of His Majesty Ferdinand VII” and comes up with a string of semi-plausible explanations for his behaviour, culminating in the claim that he serves Lucien’s interest because Lucien is his son.  And then he faints away.  (Which is probably what Lucien would do too, if he heard this).

They bring him round to inspect his back for a convict’s brand, but his back has so many marks on it that they are confounded.  (Collin claims that these are wounds from warfare in the Spanish monarch’s service).  Then Camusot reveals that they know about Asie, who is his sister Jacqueline Collin but still Collin doesn’t flinch. Two witnesses turn up to identify him: Bibi-Lupin, Madame Poiret (a.k.a. Mlle Michonneau from Madame Vauquer’s boarding house) but it’s inconclusive because he has disguised himself so well.  Camusot was on the verge of sending Collin back to the cells when a woman turns up with Esther’s suicide letter to Lucien, and Camusot wavers.   Triumphant, Collin makes a mistake, he offers the protection of his Order if Lucien is spared examination – and that’s when Camusot realises that Lucien is the weak link.

Lucien talks: he tells everything and he identifies Abbé Carlos Herrera as Jacques Collin.  He is appalled by Collin’s claim to be his father, and Camusot is delighted because he has snared both of them, holding Lucien overnight so that he can testify against Collin in the morning.  So he is a bit taken aback when he receives a terse note from  Madame de Maufrigneuse telling him not to examine Lucien.  This blunder will affect his career.  With Granville (the public prosecutor who’d advised him to go easy on Lucien) on the way Camusot burns the Duchess’s note, seals other incriminating correspondence, and awaits his fate.

And why is Granville keen to help out Lucien?  He’s a pal of de Serizy, who despite the gossip surrounding his wife’s passion for Lucien, still loves and cares about her reputation. And Comte de Serizy is Minister of State, member of the Privy Council, Vice-President of the State Council, and prospective Chancellor of the Realm, if the incumbent dies.  And Camusot himself knows the joys and perils of illicit romance, (see A Double Marriage.) Enough said?

So he’s not very pleased when he finds out what Camusot has done.  There goes the promotion!

Madame de Serizy arrives next, appalled to discover that she is too late, and that while Lucien is not guilty of murder and theft, he has admitted to being an accessory of the arch-villain Collin instead. When Camusot tactfully gives back her love-letters to Lucien, she burns them – and when he lets his guard down she grabs the evidence documents and burns them too, burning her hands when a struggle ensues.  This gives Granville a chance to put a stop to proceedings but of course Lucien doesn’t know that.  In the cell he had been placed in for his overnight stay he has written not only a Will bequeathing his money to charity but also an apology (of sorts) to Collin and a recantation of his evidence against him.  And he hangs himself.

Everything is nicely hushed up for the papers – but what of Collin’s fate?  More of him in later stories!!

Read it here
Summarised by Lisa Hill, January 1, 2014

Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life: What Love Costs an Old Man, by Honoré de Balzac

Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life – Complete
Also translated as Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans and A Harlot High and Low

 Includes four parts:
Esther Happy/How Girls Love
What Love Costs an Old Man
The End of Evil Ways
Vautrin’s Last Avatar/The Last Incarnation of Vautrin

NOTE: The story of Lucien de Rubempre begins in the Lost Illusions trilogy which consists of Two Poets, A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, and Eve and David. The action in Scenes From A Courtesan’s Life commences directly after the end of Eve and David.


Nucingen, the old fool, haggles with  Asie, now pimping for Esther, who is in hiding from the bailiffs.  A (hefty) price is agreed, Asie telling him ‘though you are knowing in arithmetic, you strike me as a muff in other matters’.  Nucingen meets  Esther in a squalid room, working at some embroidery and, totally besotted, offers to be her protector.  He hands over the money which duly goes to Carlos Herrera and he takes her away to Rue Taitbout where she weeps so piteously that he spends the night on the sofa.  Europe a.k.a. Prudence Servien suggests that bad memories are upsetting her and that he ought to buy a nice new hideaway to make her feel better.

But in the morning the bailiffs Contenson and Louchard, accompanied by armed guards, arrive demanding money, so Nucingen has to put his hand in his pocket again to buy them off and keep things quiet.  Contenson is, of course, highly suspicious of the way Nucingen is so ready to pay  such a high price for the girl. Herrera is orchestrating everything behind the scenes at maximum profit.

(BTW I do not know whether it is the translator of Balzac whose rendering of the Baron’s German accent is so painful, but it’s tiresome to read).

It is when Herrera and Europe are discussing all the different ways they have to fleece the Baron that Balzac reveals her back story.  She was born into a poor family in Valenciennes, where she started work in a factory at seven, was corrupted by twelve and a mother at thirteen.  She fled to Paris to escape the threat of vengeance from a murdered she had testified against.  There she met Paccard, a disciple of Jacques Collin i.e. Herrera, and today is the day that he has arranged for Durut, the murderer, to be bumped off. So, with the funds she now has access to, she can return to Valenciennes and make an honest woman of herself.  But in the meantime, Herrera makes sure that any love-nest that the Baron sets up will be staffed by his own creatures.

Next Herrera goes to Lucien and sets up a complicated sting with Eve and David; Nucingen meanwhile is back at his business and behaving like a ruthless banker instead of a lovesick fool. (Here Balzac has another little rant against French bankers and how they are the ruination of the world).  Lucien is relieved that his marriage to Clotilde de Grandlieu is going to be okay, but Herrera knows that someone is watching him and so he reluctantly has to resume his disguise as a priest.

Nucingen then sets out to break the joyful news to Esther that he has acquired a love-nest in Rue Saint-Georges (extorted from a stockbroker called Falleix whose affairs were in a financial mess), but the weeping Magdalene still carries a torch for the worthless Lucien and yes! she manages to persuade Nucingen to leave her alone for a further forty days.

In the interim the love-nest is redecorated into an extravagant palace by the architect Florine – and soon everyone is talking about Nucingen’s passion for this unknown woman.  But when he writes to her in an effort to transform the love she has for him as a ‘father’ into something more befitting the amount of money he has spent, she starts behaving more like a courtesan than a daughter, sending him three contradictory letters but ultimately promising future joys if he gives her more time.  He’s is so shocked that he collapses – and it’s his (oddly tolerant) wife who advises him to give the little hussy the time she wants.

Herrera, however, has no time for that.  He comes around to give Esther a stern lecture about what she owes him and more importantly to remind her that Lucien’s future depends on her relationship with the Baron.  A few quick prayers to sort out her soul, then some coquetry over fripperies, and Esther is on her way.   She admires the palace, but puts off the evil moment by suggesting a play, where she is recognised.  But she is not Esther anymore, nor La Torpille, she is christened Madame de Champy by Nucingen in honour of her new status.   And confronted by curious ladies, she lies charmingly about where she has been.

(Asie, installed as cook in the love-nest, has spiced up the Baron’s dinner so that he gets indigestion and isn’t up to any kind of consummation.)

Alas Madame du Val-Noble (a.k.a. Suzanne) is the courtesan whose house was repossessed by Nucingen and she needs to recoup her losses before she is too old and ugly to attract another lover.  She had foolishly failed to provide for the day when Falleix was no longer around, she is in debt, and she is almost thirty.  So she sets out to make a friend of Esther, and Esther confides that the Baron has not yet had his way with her.

To complicate the plot further, Balzac then introduces a policeman called Peyrade, disguised as an Englishman and accompanied by Contenson (the suspicious bailiff from the beginning of the story) so that they can have a night’s carousing.   (Corentin and Peyrade featured in The Gondreville Mystery but Balzac just drops them here into this story and expects us to work out who they are ).  Whatever, like any good crooks, they are curious to know who is benefiting by making the banker pay, but when they find out that Esther’s mysterious lover is Lucien, they clumsily provoke Herrera into action.

Now it all gets very complicated.  Extremely complicated.

Peyrade and Contenson in disguise are boozing at the hotel when a gendarme turns up to take Peyrade to the Prefecture.  But it’s Herrera in the coach, armed with a stiletto.  Peyrade tells him that he has fallen in love with Madame du Val-Noble and that the reason for his disguise is to impress her with his wealth.  Herrera pries her address out of him, and then questions him about Baron de Nucingen’s love affair, and Madame de Champy (Esther) in particular).   As Herrera is leaving Corentin arrives and raises the alarm when he realises who ‘the gendarme’ is.  Peyrade is aghast when he realises he let slip the 300,00 francs the day that Esther was arrested, and he could have used it for his daughter Lydie’s dowry.

Meanwhile Lucien is still in dalliance with Clotilde, explaining to her that he has got the money to buy back his land (see the story of Eve and David for the reasons for this) to which her wily father( the Duke de Grandlieu) responds that men of no fortune such as Lucien may not assume the privilege of being in debt – and that  he must marry well, though that may be difficult since in their Faubourg daughters do not get large dowries.   This does not discourage Lucien (who has obviously forgotten about Esther).

The next morning he is at breakfast with Herrera when Corentin arrives, using the name of M. de Saint-Esteve.  Herrera hides, and Lucien sees him alone.  Corentin says there will be no marriage unless Lucien coughs up 100,000 francs, because he acts on behalf of blackmailers who will tell her father the Duke that the money Lucien has to buy back the lands of Rubempre comes from money that Esther has extracted from Nucingen.  Lucien admits nothing, says there are plenty of other young ladies he can marry and tells him that Herrera is on his way to Spain.  Corentin makes ominous remarks which suggest that this story won’t end well for Lucien.

Herrera – having made a show of going to Spain, has secretly come back and is living with Esther on the sly, and she is playing the courtesan very well. She has made a complete fool of Nucingen because everyone knows that he still hasn’t had any …um.. satisfaction out of their arrangement.  She doesn’t feel a scrap of guilt about this because she has found out the dubious means by which he made his fortune.  She is downright rude to him at the opera and says some very spiteful things.

Lucien meanwhile has had a blow to his ambitions.  The Duke will suddenly not receive him.  He has received an anonymous letter from you-know-who, and he is making enquiries about the source of Lucien’s money.  His lawyer Derville is on the case, assisted by his spy – who is Corentin…

Esther sees Lucien’s distress at the opera and makes Nucingen bring him to her.  He tells her that the marriage to Clotilde  is in peril, which gives her some hope, but he’s more anxious that being seen with her will only make things worse for his ambition.  However he agrees to attend a dinner party at her house, and to bring Blondet and Rastignac along.  The plan is to invite Madame du Val-Noble and Peyrade (still in disguise as her English nabob and calling himself Mr Samuel Johnson!) so that Herrera can have the nabob under his claws.

The party assembles for the denouément:

At half-past eleven that evening, five carriages were stationed in the Rue Saint-Georges before the famous courtesan’s door. There was Lucien’s, who had brought Rastignac, Bixiou, and Blondet; du Tillet’s, the Baron de Nucingen’s, the Nabob’s, and Florine’s— she was invited by du Tillet.

The closed and doubly-shuttered windows were screened by the splendid Chinese silk curtains. Supper was to be served at one; wax-lights were blazing, the dining-room and little drawing-room displayed all their magnificence. The party looked forward to such an orgy as only three such women and such men as these could survive. They began by playing cards, as they had to wait about two hours.

There are a few pages of witty chat and Peyrade drinks himself silly, only to be woken in the morning with the news that his daughter Lydie has been abducted by someone pretending to be him (Peyrade).  She will not be released until Lucien marries Clotilde, and if Peyrade doesn’t cooperate he’ll be killed and she’ll be forced into prostitution. When he rushes home he is aghast to find that Corentin has gone away for ten days.

But Corentin, now in disguise as M. de Saint-Denis is with Derville at the Grandlieu home and before long they set out for Angouleme to find out the truth about Lucien’s past.   It doesn’t take much to learn that David and Eve Sechard had lost all they had to the Cointets because of Lucien’s extravagances in Paris.  Although they have recovered their position a little through hard work, Lucien didn’t get any vast sums of  money from his sister Eve, that’s for sure. When Eve learns that Lucien has claimed to have had a million francs from them, she is appalled, because she knows he’s up to no good.

But in one of those tidy Balzackian coincidences, Corentin just happens to mention that Lucien de Rubempre was living with a Jewess passing for a Dutchwoman called Esther van Bogseck, and the lawyer just happens to mention that he is hunting for the heiress of a Dutchman named Gobseck.

At the conclusion of their investigations, Corentin and Derville separate, leaving Corentin behind at Mansle. This delays his return to Paris where Contenson and Peyrade have failed to find any trace of Lydie.   Lucien’s marriage plans are in tatters and Madame de Serizy, who might have helped find him another advantageous marriage is still sulking because she saw him in the opera box with Esther.

Still, there’s a dinner to go to at Madame Val-Noble, and off he goes with Rastignac and Nucingen.  Peyrade receives a secret note in his napkin warning him that the ten days are up.  The dinner party is not a success.  And just as they are plodding through dessert the news comes that Lydie has been found, but she is dying.  Peyrade curses in French, thus revealing his disguise, and rushes off to Lydie.  But in the meantime Corentin has finally got back to Paris and learned about Peyrade’s troubles.  He disguises himself as an old man and set out, but comes across Lydie, wandering on the street in her nightclothes.  She tells him she is ruined, and that all she wants to do is wait for death in a convent.  Corentin carries her home only to have her father arrive and drop dead from poison – as Lydie loses her wits, he swears revenge for his friend’s life.

The autopsy finds no cause, but in a plot twist that could have inspired Agatha Christie it turns out that there is a very rare poison that comes from Malaya, where it is used to poison the Malay kris (a lethal curved small knife). Corentin knows that Herrera is behind it (and the readers knows that Asia had been hired to do the cooking at the dinner party!)

Back at Esther’s, she’s plotting suicide.  She promises her impecunious friend Madame du Val-Noble 50,000 francs if she will get two doses of a poison from Asia.  (She tests one of them out on her greyhound – I lost all sympathy with her after that!) She starts behaving kindly to Nucingen and he, poor fool, gives her a large parcel of shares and more money as a present because it’s the night of the house-warming party and at last she is going to give herself to him.  There is a touching little scene where Lucien toys with the idea of absconding to live quietly at Rubempre, but nothing comes of that.

The party is a sensation but Nucingen drinks nothing and as it comes to a close he leads Esther upstairs…

Eventually of course, he goes home, and there he finds out that Esther has sold the shares, and lo! not only that she has just inherited a fortune.

Yes, Bogseck is Gobseck, and the Dutchman’s millions are hers.  We knew that, didn’t we?

And Esther is dead, from poison.  And we knew that too, eh?

Naturally, there is a flurry to sort out who gets her money.  Europe finds the banknotes under her pillow to be delivered to Lucien and she scarpers with Paccard.  Herrera quickly forges a Will leaving everything to Lucien and then decamps through the roof, only to be caught by Contenson.  There is a scuffle and Contenson falls to his death, and Herrera (here called by his real name Jacques Collin just to confuse us*) goes to bed, shamming sleep so that he can’t answer any difficult police questions.

And Lucien?  He’s meeting Clotilde who is defying her father to marry him anyway.  Fortunately for her the gendarmes arrive just in time to arrest him for theft and murder.  At La Force, he is in solitary confinement – and so is the Abbé Carlos Herrera a.k.a. Jacques Collin.


Summary by Lisa Hill, December 31st, 2103.

* But see comments from Benny below, Carlos Herrara is in fact ex-convict Vauturin who makes an entry in Pere Goriot and in the History of Thirteen.

Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life: Esther Happy, by Honoré de Balzac

Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life –  Esther Happy
Also translated as  How Girls Love/How a Courtesan Can Love 

This collection Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life includes four parts:
Esther Happy/How Girls Love/How a Courtesan Can Love
What Love Costs an Old Man
The End of Evil Ways
Vautrin’s Last Avatar/The Last Incarnation of Vautrin

Translated by James Waring


At an opera ball, our old friends Rastignac, Blondet and Finot are rather startled to find their formerly impoverished friend Lucien de Rubempre  in more prosperous circumstances and able to hold his own in society.  Indeed, he even meets up with a former lover, Madame d’Espard, ostensibly cutting her but really concealing his intentions from her husband.  This is a surprise because in the closing pages of Eve and David, he had been on the verge of suicide after living the high life in Paris at his family’s expense.  However he was saved by the intervention of a Spanish priest, Carlos Herrera, who gave him work as a secretary, which enabled him to send money back to Eve and David, who had beggared themselves on his behalf.   Embarrassed by his memories of his friend’s kindness when he was penniless, he can’t reject their overtures now, and they are very curious indeed, especially when Rastignac is grabbed by a masked man who warns him that Lucien is now under the protection of the Church – and they’d better cooperate.

Enter into this scene of witty exchanges and ribaldry, the lovely Esther, a.k.a. the courtesan La Torpille and the daughter of Sarah Van Gobseck.  She causes consternation too, especially when she faints into Lucien’s arms.  Some hours later she is found in a slum dwelling where she has tried to End it All…

The priest Herrera, who arrives just in time, hears the story of her sins.  She is in love with Lucien, and terrified that she will find out about her former life.  But the priest urges her to give him up, and she can’t bear the idea.  When she hurls herself at him, weeping on his breast, he’s a little tempted himself. However he restrains himself and sends her off for re-education in a convent…

So off she goes.  Balzac writes a lot of nonsense about the Oriental modelling of her eyes and the fascinations of women native to the desert (she’s Jewish)

Only those races that are native to deserts have in the eye the power of fascinating everybody, for any woman can fascinate some one person. Their eyes preserve, no doubt, something of the infinitude they have gazed on. Has nature, in her foresight, armed their retina with some reflecting background to enable them to endure the mirage of the sand, the torrents of sunshine, and the burning cobalt of the sky? or, do human beings, like other creatures, derive something from the surroundings among which they grow up, and preserve for ages the qualities they have imbibed from them? The great solution of this problem of race lies perhaps in the question itself. Instincts are living facts, and their cause dwells in past necessity. Variety in animals is the result of the exercise of these instincts. To convince ourselves of this long-sought-for truth, it is enough to extend to the herd of mankind the observation recently made on flocks of Spanish and English sheep which, in low meadows where pasture is abundant, feed side by side in close array, but on mountains, where grass is scarce, scatter apart. Take these two kinds of sheep, transfer them to Switzerland or France; the mountain breeds will feed apart even in a lowland meadow of thick grass, the lowland sheep will keep together even on an alp. Hardly will a succession of generations eliminate acquired and transmitted instincts. After a century the highland spirit reappears in a refractory lamb, just as, after eighteen centuries of exile, the spirit of the East shone in Esther’s eyes and features.

At first the other girls were jealous but soon were won over, yes, everybody loves her.  But alas, though she is fervent enough, her health starts to fail .  Yes, she is dying of love for Lucien, but even though he’s just around the corner and she’s at death’s door, Herrera isn’t going to part with a convert if he can help it.   Just hang on till after the baptism, he says, and this cheers her up immediately…

But oh dear, she wouldn’t have been so sanguine if she’d known that Lucien was enjoying himself with every luxury and whizzed through 40,000 francs as well. Besotted with La Torpille, he’s been searching for her everywhere, but not, of course, in the convent, even though he

had discerned the angel in this girl, who was tainted by corruption rather than corrupt; he always saw her white, winged, pure, and mysterious, as she had made herself for him, understanding that he would have her so.

Still he is not best pleased when he gets a lecture from Herrera about hanging around with foul, corrupted creatures, and he’s livid when he learns that the priest had ‘carried her off’.

Lucien flew at Herrera to seize him by the throat, with such violence that any other man must have fallen backwards; but the Spaniard’s arm held off his assailant. “Come, listen,” said he coldly. “I have made another woman of her, chaste, pure, well bred, religious, a perfect lady. She is being educated. She can, if she may, under the influence of your love, become a Ninon, a Marion Delorme, a du Barry, as the journalist at the opera ball remarked. You may proclaim her your mistress, or you may retire behind a curtain of your own creating, which will be wiser. By either method you will gain profit and pride, pleasure and advancement; but if you are as great a politician as you are a poet, Esther will be no more to you than any other woman of the town; for, later, perhaps she may help us out of difficulties; she is worth her weight in gold. Drink, but do not get tipsy. “If I had not held the reins of your passion, where would you be now? Rolling with La Torpille in the slough of misery from which I dragged you.

Well of course then Lucien calms down, reads Esther’s letter about the ecstasies of baptism, and apologises.

But wait! it turns out that the priest is not a priest at all! Herrera has no intention of sanctioning this love affair.  He has grand plans for Lucien, who will be his puppet.  Esther has to stay hidden away, and Herrera provides two exotic women, Europe and Asie (a Malay woman) to ensure that she does.  And with Herrera as mentor and guide, Lucien achieves success as a novelist, and a grand marriage is in the wind.

So Lucien could coquet with the world, give way to his poet’s caprices, and, it may be plainly admitted, to the necessities of his position. All this time he was slowly making his way, and was able to render secret service to certain political personages by helping them in their work. In such matters he was eminently discreet. He cultivated Madame de Serizy’s circle, being, it was rumoured, on the very best terms with that lady. Madame de Serizy had carried him off from the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, who, it was said, had “thrown him over,” one of the phrases by which women avenge themselves on happiness they envy. Lucien was in the lap, so to speak, of the High Almoner’s set, and intimate with women who were the Archbishop’s personal friends. He was modest and reserved; he waited patiently.

Alas for Lucien et al, that lecherous old Baron Nucingen spies Esther taking her convert exercise in the park, and oh dear, he starts to pine for her when he can’t find her anywhere.  When they hear is about to die, the usual crowd turns up and it is amongst the witty repartee that Lucien recognises the Baron’s description as being his Esther.   Herrera is alarmed that the grand marriage is in peril and proposes selling Esther to the Baron rather than letting him find out about their liaison.  This is when we find out – yes, it’s the old story – that Lucien is again in debt up to his ears, and the only way out is to marry Clotilde de Grandlieu, and the only way to get the necessary marriage settlement is to relieve Nucingen of the required sum.

And why is Herrera doing all this?

Carlos Herrera, a man at once ignoble and magnanimous, obscure and famous, compelled to live out of the world from which the law had banned him, exhausted by vice and by frenzied and terrible struggles, though endowed with powers of mind that ate into his soul, consumed especially by a fever of vitality, now lived again in the elegant person of Lucien de Rubempre, whose soul had become his own. He was represented in social life by the poet, to whom he lent his tenacity and iron will. To him Lucien was more than a son, more than a woman beloved, more than a family, more than his life; he was his revenge; and as souls cling more closely to a feeling than to existence, he had bound the young man to him by insoluble ties.

After rescuing Lucien’s life at the moment when the poet in desperation was on the verge of suicide, he had proposed to him one of those infernal bargains which are heard of only in romances, but of which the hideous possibility has often been proved in courts of justice by celebrated criminal dramas. While lavishing on Lucien all the delights of Paris life, and proving to him that he yet had a great future before him, he had made him his chattel.

This is where we find out the real identity of Herrera: That priest’s robe covered Jacques Collin, a man famous on the hulks, who ten years since had lived under the homely name of Vautrin in the Maison Vauquer, where Rastignac and Bianchon were at that time boarders. (And in the next story we learn that he is the secret envoy of Ferdinand VII of Spain, but more of that later.)

Lucien has become Herrera’s creature.  Corrupted by his venality, he turns a blind eye to the Spaniard’s plans for Esther.

From this point on the plot descends into farce.  There is another pseudo-priest, there is a substitute courtesan, and Nucingen, the smartest banker in Paris ends up rolling down the stairs, bereft of his money and the woman he wanted.

And Herrera decides that the best way to deal with Esther is (a) to make her liable for the couple’s debts and (b) to send her back to Paris, where she must never reveal her secret on pain of Lucien’s downfall.

Summarised by Lisa Hill, December 30th, 2013

Read it here

Lost Illusions 3: Eve and David by Honoré de Balzac

Lost Illustions Part 3

Lost Illusions: Eve and David by Honoré de Balzac

Illusions Perdue: Eve et David
Lost Illusions: Eve and David
Also translated as The Trials of the Inventor

Eve and David is Part 3 of Balzac’s Lost Illusions trilogy, which listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before you Die as ‘a kind of westernised Arabian Nights’ and a central work in La Comedie Humaine.   To make sense of what follows you need to read my summary of Part 1 and Part 2.

In this part we return to the lovers Eve and David, both of whom are so far too kind and generous for their own good.  This part of Lost Illusions is – just like Parts 1 & 2 – about money: the want of it, how people are cheated out of it, what they waste it on, how easy it is to be snared by debt, and how they must use their own wits and skills to survive without it.  In this part of the story, David is keen to make money quickly so that he can support his new wife in the style she deserves – and he wants to be able to support Lucien too.  (Some people never learn).


The public’s insatiable appetite for journalism in this post Restoration period meant that demand for paper outstripped supply, and David is confident that he can invent a method of making cheap paper that will make his fortune.  But in the meantime he and Eve are living in grinding poverty,  David making things worse still by not telling Eve about the true state of affairs. In her ignorance, Eve is not as frugal with the housekeeping as she needs to be and before long she has to sell her wedding silver in order to pay their debts.

While David busies himself with his inventions in the shed Eve takes on the management of the business, teaching herself typography and making the alarming discovery that there is not enough to pay the wages of their three employees, Cerizet, Kolb and Marion.  It is she who understands the tactics of their rivals the Cointet Brothers: they leave just enough of the available printing work to keep Sechards open, but not enough for a genuine rival to want to take their place.  Nevertheless, she takes the initiative and uses off-cuts to print some simple popular legends which sell well.  Alas, as we learned in Part 2, this was the time when Lucien appealed for money for his Parisian debts, and – each unknown to the other – David and Eve both send sums of money they can ill afford to help him .

Eve decides to follow up the success of the legends with a ‘shepherd’s calendar’ – but Cerizet works slowly and her confinement is approaching.  It turns out that Cerizet is fraternising with their rivals who decide to put a stop to Eve’s initiatives in case she is successful.  They pay Cerizet to moonlight for them, and they decide to print a ‘shepherd’s calendar’ of their own. Their ruse is only frustrated by a stoic effort by all at Sechards but Eve still has to sell her calendars at a reduced price and, realising that her compositor is a traitor, and that she has few choices left, she places an ad for the sale of the business in the newspaper. The Cointets see an opportunity and things begin to look up a little when a deal is stitched up to lease the business.

And then Lucien brings disaster on them again with a further claim on their money because he has named David as his guarantor.  Once again Balzac’s story reveals the malignant envy of the Cointets, their spy Cerizet, the loan-shark Metiver and Pontet the Pharmacist who has never forgiven David for marrying Eve.  The ins and outs of the illegal banking system and the corruption of the country lawyer Petit-Claud are much too complicated tedious to be bothered with here, and the upshot is – as we knew it would be – that things go from bad to worse.  Eve’s pleas to Old Sechard only exacerbate their problems, and even the magistrate knows that the court case is a mockery:

M. Petit-Claud is bringing us to bankruptcy,” she cried.

“Petit-Claud is carrying out your husband’s instructions,” said the magistrate; “he is anxious to gain time, so his attorney says. In my opinion, you would perhaps do better to waive the appeal and buy in at the sale the indispensable implements for carrying on the business; you and your father-in-law together might do this, you to the extent of your claim through your marriage contract, and he for his arrears of rent. But that would be bringing the matter to an end too soon perhaps. The lawyers are making a good thing out of your case.”

“But then I should be entirely in M. Sechard’s father’s hands. I should owe him the hire of the machinery as well as the house-rent; and my husband would still be open to further proceedings from M. Metivier, for M. Metivier would have had almost nothing.”

“That is true, madame.”

“Very well, then we should be even worse off than we are.”

“The arm of the law, madame, is at the creditor’s disposal. You have received three thousand francs, and you must of necessity repay the money.”

“Oh, sir, can you think that we are capable—-” Eve suddenly came to a stop. She saw that her justification might injure her brother.

“Oh! I know quite well that it is an obscure affair, that the debtors on the one side are honest, scrupulous, and even behaving handsomely; and the creditor, on the other, is only a cat’s-paw—-”

Eve, aghast, looked at him with bewildered eyes.

“You can understand,” he continued, with a look full of homely shrewdness, “that we on the bench have plenty of time to think over all that goes on under our eyes, while the gentlemen in court are arguing with each other.”

Eve went home in despair over her useless effort. That evening at seven o’clock, Doublon came with the notification of imprisonment for debt.

Lost Illusions (Kindle Locations 7797-7810).

There is but one advantage that David has.  In country towns where everyone knows everyone else there is a general reluctance to get involved in the tawdry business of debt collection and both Justices and bailiffs prefer to frustrate the process.  David’s loyal worker Kolb sets off to pretend to betray him so that he can find out what traps lie in wait while David hides out.  They go together to Old Sechard’s with David’s invention to no avail: the old miser is as keen as ever to swindle his son.

Meanwhile, Lucien makes his way back from Paris on foot, learning en route that David is in deep trouble. He repents, again, (he’s very good at repenting) and Balzac excels himself with the sentimental forgiveness scene when the prodigal son returns.  But of course Lucien’s repentance doesn’t last.  He is soon bored by the quiet life; is absurdly pleased by the Cointet’s cunning stratagem to laud him in their newsletter; and is mightily peeved when Eve tries to warn him that the Cointets have their own malicious reasons for trying to butter him up.  She is even more suspicious when he is invited to a soirée by the Comte du Chatelet, but Lucien won’t be told.  He gets a smart set of clothes via Etienne Lousteau in Paris and – seduced by the blandishments of Petit-Claud – is confident that Louise will do what he wants because she still carries a torch for him, and indeed for her own reasons she agrees to help out the young inventor.  Lucien’s plan might, therefore, have worked – but Petit-Claud is always one step ahead of him.  A simple forgery by the turncoat Cerizet, and David is lured into captivity with premature promises of relief.

It’s David in a dank and gloomy cell who’s in dire straits, but it’s Lucien who decides to end it all in the river.  Not content to let him do that, Balzac introduces a new character, Abbé Carlos Herrera who talks him out of it with a rather long sermon, complete with political commentary. He is not an abbé, he is a diplomat, and for some reason he wants Lucien to be his secretary, and even more enigmatically he provides enough money to clear David’s debts.   (He apparently turns up again in Scenes of Parisian Life).

But it’s too late.  In gaol David has come to his senses, realising that he can’t possibly afford the process of registering the patent and marketing his idea, so he is putty in Petit-Claud’s hands. He signs away his invention but Cerizet’s ambitions are frustrated by the wily Petit-Claud who blackmails him over the forgery.

The upshot is that the business belongs to the Cointets and David is an employee.  Still they try to rip him off, and at last Petit-Claud does the couple a favour.  He reveals the Cointet’s duplicity and tells them that because of the legal costs involved they are better off to settle: ’a bad compromise is better than a successful lawsuit.  (Kindle Loc. 9587).  (And, speaking from experience, that advice is usually just as true today as in Balzac’s day, and you are just as unlikely to be given it by a lawyer).

With what’s left of the abbé’s money David and Eve buy themselves a vineyard adjacent to Old Sechard, where it has to be hoped that the young couple make a better go of this business than the printing enterprise.  The Cointets, of course, end up filthy rich and in positions of political power.

I must admit that I’m not as fond of Lost Illusions as I am of Balzac’s other stories in La Comedie Humaine.  The characters are all a bit too black-and-white, and Balzac goes into rather too much long-winded detail about banking and printing and paper and whatnot.  Here and there he has a little rant, because for him, all this was personal.  While the plot is rather too intricate, the outcomes are entirely predictable: it’s more like a complicated version  of an old English morality tale where the bad guys always win than a proper novel.

Summarised by Lisa Hill, Jan 25 2013, and cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

Author: Honoré de Balzac
Title: Lost Illusions
Translated by Ellen Marriage
Publisher: Many Books, 2004
Source: Downloaded for free from Many Books


There are heaps of editions available for free online, (I find the formatting best and most reliable at Many Books and give them a small annual donation to encourage them) but if like me you really dislike reading from a Kindle and you want a print version …

Fishpond: Lost Illusions (Barnes & Noble classics)
Book Depository: Lost Illusions Part 3, Eve and David

The Gondreville Mystery by Honoré de Balzac


Une Ténébreuse  Affaire
The Gondreville Mystery
Also translated as: A Dark Affair
Also translated as: An Historical Mystery
Also translated as: Murky Business
Also translated as: A Shady Business

Many of the stories Balzac writes feature an aristocratic family that has somehow survived the Revolution coming to terms with their new place in society.  Great estates were broken up and sold by the state, and the new buyers were men of property but lacked the traditions that the Royalist Balzac admired.  So while he was ever alert to the foppish behaviour of the aristocracy, the author’s sympathies usually lie with the noble families of old.

In The Gondreville Mystery, also known as An Historical Mystery, Michu was made bailiff of Gondreville by its new owner after the Marquise of Simeuse and his wife perished on the guillotine by order of the revolutionary tribunal of Troyes.

Michu’s new position is dubious because Madame Marthe Michu’s father was president of this tribunal.  When the estate was sold as national property to a man called Marion, grandson of a former bailiff in the Simeuse family, he made Michu bailiff because he was afraid of him. Marthe’s father, a tanner, was mixed up in some conspiracy and committed suicide to escape execution.  The locals are not impressed by Michu’s disloyalty and regard him as a Brutus because the old Marquise was very good to him and showered him with favours. So public opinion was against Michu as a scapegoat for these events during the revolution and he was blamed for his father-in-law’s suicide.

Michu takes exception to Marion selling eventually selling the estate to Malin, because he wants to buy it himself. (He has 800 000 francs to buy it with but won’t say where he got it from). He threatens to kill Marion if he doesn’t cancel the sale. But the sale goes through and Marion who is influential in Paris arranges for Michu to be watched by a peasant called Violette (who has improved his position with graft). He has spied on Michu for Malin for years, using the lad Gaucher for information (though the boy didn’t realise the use being made of the gossip he passes on).

People suspected him of fraud but he had actually acquired his money through inheritance of his father-in-law’s estate and from savings. However eventually when he bought a farm suspicion lessened – but they still worry about Michu’s reputation for violence because he pulls a gun on a farmer who picked up a mysterious document that he dropped.  His wife Marthe is suspicious of him too but after ten years have gone by (!) she she realises that she had misjudged him: he serves Laurence, the Comtesse de Cinq-Cygne and is trying to save her and her two sons (the Simeuse brothers, Paul-Marie and Marie-Paul) from a mysterious conspiracy to do with this estate.

The orphan Laurence is beautiful (of course) but gives the false impression that she’s not very bright.  When necessary, she can be a biblical Judith indeed.   Her guardian is a relation also persecuted during the Revolution, Monsieur d’Hauteserre.  He has his hands full trying to protect the interests of his own sons who are fighting for the Royalist cause, and he is paranoid about being arrested himself.  Laurence despises this cowardice and within the walls of her own home flaunts her admiration for Charlotte Corday and other emblems of the Royalist cause. Balzac says that she is like Diana Vernon in sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy – and with good reason.  She has seen her entire family die and her inheritance wasted because of the Revolution.

What she has left is the farm Cinq-Cygne (Five Swans) and her guardian prudently manages it for her so she could be comfortably off.  Unfortunately that they have nowhere else to go and so the estate has to provide an annuity for them and they all live very frugally. She is respected in the village and her clandestine activities go unremarked until things settle down under Napoleon’s government and they have time to scrutinise what she gets up to.

At this time those opposed to Napoleon hoped to oust him through a vast coalition of Russian, Austrian and Prussian forces, though Napoleon had trounced the Prussians at Austerlitz. Within Paris there were assassination plans and Laurence dreamed of committing this act herself, so great was her hatred of the man. More realistically, accompanied by her page Gothard, she was active as a guide for would-be assassins coming from England.  So Laurence is a traitor or a member of the resistance, depending on your point-of-view. (She is motivated entirely by self-interest: she wants to defeat Bonaparte so that the fortunes of her cousins can be restored).

Balzac says the historical record isn’t clear about whether the Duc d’Enghien was involved in the plot or not.  At the time this story opens, the conspiracy is hotting up: Laurence’s twin cousins the Simeuse, and the two d’Hauteserres brothers have landed and she guides them, dressed as workmen, through the forest taking refuge with sympathisers as they travel. They are to meet up at the rendezvous point with 25 other young men who have entered France via Switzerland in order to execute the plot.  The leaders of this plot were M de Polignac and M de Riviere and they afterwards never would reveal the names of the other conspirators. Someone in the group betrayed them to the police, who were therefore watching them but left the conspirators at liberty so that more could be found out about them.

Political opponents often have to put aside their differences to the spirit of unity to achieve a goal, and so in this case the Chouans are part of the plot too.  (They feature in the first Balzac story that I read, and jolly confusing it was too!)  Clearly Balzac feels that had more of the nobility fought fo the Royalist cause they may have triumphed; he is scornful about these ‘noble gentlemen’ who kept their heads down when it mattered and then came out in triumph during the Restoration, ‘proud of their discreet attachment to the monarchy and who, after 1830 recovered their estates’.(Kindle location 650).  At the time of the plot, d’Hauteserre’s fortunes are improving, and he has been able to buy furniture and effects pillaged from the great houses during the Revolution. They worry about Laurent and are not entirely convinced that her long journeys are for hunting, and they would like her to persuade their sons to give up their royalist sympathies so that everything can be peaceful and prosperous again.

I’m not sure about the ins-and-outs of this period, but I gather that Fouche was a favourite of Napoleon’s in the beginning but fell out of favour and ended up in exile. His replacement as head of police was Cochon, the Comte d Lapparent.  Like all usurpers, Napoleon was mistrusted by those who gave him power, and his own love of power was his downfall. Fouche, still in power at this time, didn’t trust Malin and wondered what he stood to gain.  Why didn’t he hand over whatever information he had about the goings-on at Gondreville?  Fouche knew how Malin had swindled the Simeuse brothers out of the estate; he sends Corentin to suss things out, and when they work out what’s going on they send the Mayor Goulard who ‘runs with the Royalist hare and holds with the republican hounds’ to ‘warn’ them so that they panic and can easily be captured. At the same time, Michu finds out about Fouche and Corentin’s forces and he sends Marthe to (genuinely) warn Laurence.

Laurence flees just as Corentin arrives, much to the astonishment of all except for Mme Goujet, the canny old wife of the Abbé.

It turns out that Michu has played the part of a Brutus in order to deflect suspicion.  He is guardian of the Simeuse brothers’ interests and has been since asked to do so by their parents.  He could not save them, but has been sending the young men money from the estate. The document that made Michu produce his gun proved all this and that was why he demanded it back with menaces. He could initially not buy Gondreville back without suspicion, and had planned to buy it later, but Marion selling it to Malin messed up his plans. He takes Laurence to a well-hidden secret refuge in the Forest of Nodesme.  There they plan how to rescue the four young men, and Laurence rides back to lure Corentin and Peyrade off course.

Back at the house, Corentin takes the Abbé aside.  He explains that he and Peyrade are at cross-purposes.  Napoleon, the First Consul, doesn’t want the young men killed, whereas Peyrade, who is Fouche’s man, does .  There is actually a law which enables a pardon for emigrés provided they have not fought for the Royalist cause.  He suggests that the Abbé applies for one of these, back-dated, because the young men will certainly be caught, but the Abbé refuses. Laurence arrives just as Peyrade discovers an incriminating box which she grabs and throws into the fire, but he pushes her onto the sofa and grabs it back out again. It contains locks of hair and miniatures belonging to the old Marquise and his wife before their execution, and love-letters from her cousins – Laurence threw this precious box into the fire to gain time for Michu to escape.

Alas, Corentin and  Peyrade have figured out that Michu is involved, and they confirm it by Laurence’s reaction when they let her know they’ve caught him (though they haven’t, not yet).  When they do catch up with him they quickly deduce his role, but can’t prove anything and they head back to Paris with nothing to show for their trouble except that Michu loses his job and gets a new one at Cinq-Cygne. Cataclysmic events in the capital (the trials of Polignac, Riviere and Moreau) divert interest from Gondreville and things settle down for a while.

Part 2

The four escapees, however, are still in the woods, sustained by supplies provided by Laurence and her loyal helpers. When the dramas in Paris were over and Napoleon was installed as Emperor the subject of pardons for such emigrés came up, though not without some dispute from Malin who had his own reasons for not wanting the Simeuse twins to resume their lives.  They are notified prematurely that all is well, and this enables Michu to unwittingly reveal the hiding-place in the forest.  The freedom bestowed is only partial and still subjects the young men to restrictions of various kinds.

The Simeuse twins are young and handsome but with different temperaments, though possibly a little haughty as befits their noble ancestry.  Laurence loves them both, and can’t choose between them.  Likewise Robert and Adrien d’Hauteserre are also young and handsome, but with different temperaments. Adrien falls for Laurence straight away, knowing that he has no hope of ousting his twin rivals.  (Fortunately Robert only sees her as a sister, otherwise there would be four of them in love with her)

Meanwhile great events are shake Europe.  The English have defeated Napoleon at Trafalgar and the rest of Europe is arming against him and his expansionist plans.  The elder d’Hauteserre wants the young men to join the army in France’s defence but they would prefer to see their enemy Napoleon defeated than defend their country with him as its ruler.  The Marquise de Chargeboeuf, the one who interceded for their pardon, comes to warn the Simeuse twins not to treat Gondreville as if it is their own because they are in danger partly because their opposition to Napoleon is remembered and his clemency is considered inexplicable, and partly because Senator Malin is a low-bred man who will never forgive them for having bested him. An emigré is always a danger to those who now have his property.

De Chargeboeuf advises them to send Michu away because of rumours that he had tried to kill Malin and Malin is now a powerful man but they are outraged and send him away with his pleas to negotiate and compromise ignored. They imprudently make scornful remarks about Napoleon’s court in the hearing of others, and when tackled about hunting in Gondreville they dismiss the complaint because they ‘can’t get rid in two weeks of ideas [they’ve] had for centuries’. (Kindle location 1710).

Nevertheless Michu decides to sell his farm and leave, but they have to retrieve the Simeuse twins fortune from where it is hidden first.  On that very day five masked men break into Gondreville and attack Malin and his household, and of course Michu  and the Simeuse and d’Hauteserre brothers are all suspects. The matter was dealt with by the soon-to-be obsolete Code de Brumaire which made prosecution and jury one and the same – and the prosecutor was Lechesneau, a mate of Malin.  Jokes made about their strange hunt (meaning the retrieval of the money), the strange way in which the servants were all sent away to a fair to ensure no curious witnesses could be around and the fact that they have been using plaster to hide something behind a wall all tell against the suspects, and although the Abbé comes to warn them of their impending arrest they are too busy arguing about who will marry Laurence to flee – and are captured.

Balzac reminds his readers that the days of a despot like Napoleon were different, and he was livid about the disappearance of the man he had made Senator and Comte de Gondreville.  Supposition became certainty and to please the emperor by resolving the guilt of the five accused became a high priority.  The attack on the senator seemed like an attack on the public interest, and the five were accused of every crime around the place. The young people had failed to take account of the hostility of people who had done well under the new regime…only the old Marquise de Chargeboeuf that they had mocked stood beside them and organised legal assistance, a young lawyer called Bordin. He reluctantly tells them that the case cannot be defended, all they can do is try to reduce the penalty from death to imprisonment.

But who, asks Laurence (and the bewildered reader!) were the five who captured Malin, and where is he?  Things are going well in court and acquittal is expected when this question comes up …

Marthe’s evidence at the trial has the answer, but nobody’s very interested in it.  Michu had said from the outset that it would be hard to resist getting his revenge on Malin, and it seems it is he who has captured the man and imprisoned him in a cave.  Marthe gets a note from him in prison, telling her to take food to Malin because he has only got supplies for five days, and they want him alive.  Marthe is arrested and brought along to the court where it transpires that someone had imitated Michu’s writing – and at the same time Malin is found mysteriously released and wandering along the road a free man. He provides crucial evidence that convicts Michu and he is sentenced to death; the brothers get between ten and twenty-four years at hard labour.

There is but one last resort, and Laurence swallows her pride and goes to the Emperor himself to beg for mercy.  It is the eve of a great battle, and she is mollified in her hatred by the simplicity of the arrangements for Napoleon and by his clemency (though as it turns out he does not pardon Michu).  The price is that the four young men must join the army, and they all die except for Adrien, who returns, wounded, to marry Laurence (who is by then 32 years of age).

Two children are born, and by the time comes for them to marry, Laurence is living in Paris.  The dowry  her daughter Berthe brings with her makes her a prize for the sons of society women like the Princesse de Cadignan.  However when the Princesse inadvertently brings into her salon the man announced as the Comte of Gondreville, Laurence leaves in a huff and the marriage prospects vanish.

An explanation is then in order.  It’s very complicated and only those really interested in the machinations surrounding Napoleon and his court need bother with the ins-and-outs of it.  What’s important for this tale is that it turns out that Malin was present when senior and powerful conspirators were plotting what was to be done if Napoleon were defeated on the battlefield.  Because he knew their identities, he gained preferment in the government, but they feared him.  They arranged for his kidnap so that they could get certain papers from his house, and the four young men – and Michu – were the victims who paid for the crime.

Summarised by Lisa Hill, January 20, 2011