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The Celibates   By: (1799-1850)

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Les Celibataires , the longest number of the original Comedie Humaine under a single title, next to Illusions perdues , is not, like that book, connected by any unity of story. Indeed, the general bond of union is pretty weak; and though it is quite true that bachelors and old maids are the heroes and heroines of all three, it would be rather hard to establish any other bond of connection, and it is rather unlikely that any one unprompted would fix on this as a sufficient ground of partnership.

Two at least of the component parts, however, are of very high excellence. I do not myself think that Pierrette , which opens the series, is quite the equal of its companions. Written, as it was, for Countess Anna de Hanska, Balzac's step daughter of the future, while she was still very young, it partakes necessarily of the rather elaborate artificiality of all attempts to suit the young person, of French attempts in particular, and it may perhaps be said of Balzac's attempts most of all. It belongs, in a way, to the Arcis series the series which also includes the fine Tenebreuse Affaire and the unfinished Depute d'Arcis but is not very closely connected therewith. The picture of the actual Celibataires , the brother and sister Rogron, with which it opens, is one of Balzac's best styles, and is executed with all his usual mastery both of the minute and of the at least partially repulsive, showing also that strange knowledge of the bourgeois de Paris which, somehow or other, he seems to have attained by dint of unknown foregatherings in his ten years of apprenticeship. But when we come to Pierrette herself, the story is, I think, rather less satisfying. Her persecutions and her end, and the devotion of the faithful Brigaut and the rest, are pathetic no doubt, but tend (I hope it is not heartless to say it) just a very little towards sensiblerie . The fact is that the thing is not quite in Balzac's line.

Le Cure de Tours , is certainly on a higher level, and has attracted the most magnificent eulogies from some of the novelist's admirers. I think both Mr. Henry James and Mr. Wedmore have singled out this little piece for detailed and elaborate praise, and there is no doubt that it is a happy example of a kind in which the author excelled. The opening, with its evident but not obtruded remembrance of the old and well founded superstition derived from the universal belief in some form of Nemesis that an extraordinary sense of happiness, good luck, or anything of the kind, is a precursor of misfortune, and calls for some instant act of sacrifice or humiliation, is very striking; and the working out of the vengeance of the goddess by the very ungoddess like though feminine hand of Mademoiselle Gamard has much that is commendable. Nothing in its well exampled kind is better touched off than the Listomere coterie, from the shrewdness of Monsieur de Bourbonne to the selfishness of Madame de Listomere. I do not know that the old maid herself cat, and far worst than cat as she is is at all exaggerated, and the sketch of the coveted appartement and its ill fated mobilier is about as good as it can be. And the battle between Madame de Listomere and the Abbe Troubert, which has served as a model for many similar things, has, if it has often been equaled, not often been surpassed.

I cannot, however, help thinking that there is more than a little exaggeration in more than one point of the story. The Abbe Birotteau is surely a little too much of a fool; the Abbe Troubert an Iago a little too much wanting in verisimilitude; and the central incident of the clause about the furniture too manifestly improbable. Taking the first and the last points together, is it likely that any one not quite an idiot should, in the first place, remain so entirely ignorant of the value of his property; should, in the second, though, ignorant or not, he attached the greatest possible pretium affectionis to it, contract to resign it for such a ridiculous consideration; and should, in the third, take the fatal step without so much as remembering the condition attached thereto? If it be answered that Birotteau was idiot enough to do such a thing, then it must be observed further that one's sympathy is frozen by the fact... Continue reading book >>

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