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