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The Muse of the Department   By: (1799-1850)

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By Honore De Balzac

Translated by James Waring


To Monsieur le Comte Ferdinand de Gramont.

MY DEAR FERDINAND, If the chances of the world of literature habent sua fata libelli should allow these lines to be an enduring record, that will still be but a trifle in return for the trouble you have taken you, the Hozier, the Cherin, the King at Arms of these Studies of Life; you, to whom the Navarreins, Cadignans, Langeais, Blamont Chauvrys, Chaulieus, Arthez, Esgrignons, Mortsaufs, Valois the hundred great names that form the Aristocracy of the "Human Comedy" owe their lordly mottoes and ingenious armorial bearings. Indeed, "the Armorial of the Etudes, devised by Ferdinand de Gramont, gentleman," is a complete manual of French Heraldry, in which nothing is forgotten, not even the arms of the Empire, and I shall preserve it as a monument of friendship and of Benedictine patience. What profound knowledge of the old feudal spirit is to be seen in the motto of the Beauseants, Pulchre sedens, melius agens ; in that of the Espards, Des partem leonis ; in that of the Vandenesses, Ne se vend . And what elegance in the thousand details of the learned symbolism which will always show how far accuracy has been carried in my work, to which you, the poet, have contributed.

Your old friend, DE BALZAC.


On the skirts of Le Berry stands a town which, watered by the Loire, infallibly attracts the traveler's eye. Sancerre crowns the topmost height of a chain of hills, the last of the range that gives variety to the Nivernais. The Loire floods the flats at the foot of these slopes, leaving a yellow alluvium that is extremely fertile, excepting in those places where it has deluged them with sand and destroyed them forever, by one of those terrible risings which are also incidental to the Vistula the Loire of the northern coast.

The hill on which the houses of Sancerre are grouped is so far from the river that the little river port of Saint Thibault thrives on the life of Sancerre. There wine is shipped and oak staves are landed, with all the produce brought from the upper and lower Loire. At the period when this story begins the suspension bridges at Cosne and at Saint Thibault were already built. Travelers from Paris to Sancerre by the southern road were no longer ferried across the river from Cosne to Saint Thibault; and this of itself is enough to show that the great cross shuffle of 1830 was a thing of the past, for the House of Orleans has always had a care for substantial improvements, though somewhat after the fashion of a husband who makes his wife presents out of her marriage portion.

Excepting that part of Sancerre which occupies the little plateau, the streets are more or less steep, and the town is surrounded by slopes known as the Great Ramparts, a name which shows that they are the highroads of the place.

Outside the ramparts lies a belt of vineyards. Wine forms the chief industry and the most important trade of the country, which yields several vintages of high class wine full of aroma, and so nearly resembling the wines of Burgundy, that the vulgar palate is deceived. So Sancerre finds in the wineshops of Paris the quick market indispensable for liquor that will not keep for more than seven or eight years. Below the town lie a few villages, Fontenoy and Saint Satur, almost suburbs, reminding us by their situation of the smiling vineyards about Neuchatel in Switzerland.

The town still bears much of its ancient aspect; the streets are narrow and paved with pebbles carted up from the Loire. Some old houses are to be seen there. The citadel, a relic of military power and feudal times, stood one of the most terrible sieges of our religious wars, when French Calvinists far outdid the ferocious Cameronians of Walter Scott's tales... Continue reading book >>

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