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The Thirteen   By: (1799-1850)

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By Honore De Balzac

Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley and Ellen Marriage


To Hector Berlioz.


The Histoire des Treize consists or rather is built up of three stories: Ferragus or the Rue Soly , La Duchesse de Langeais or Ne touchez paz a la hache , and La Fille aux Yeux d'Or .

To tell the truth, there is more power than taste throughout the Histoire des Treize , and perhaps not very much less unreality than power. Balzac is very much better than Eugene Sue, though Eugene Sue also is better than it is the fashion to think him just now. But he is here, to a certain extent competing with Sue on the latter's own ground. The notion of the "Devorants" of a secret society of men devoted to each other's interests, entirely free from any moral or legal scruple, possessed of considerable means in wealth, ability, and position, all working together, by fair means or foul, for good ends or bad is, no doubt, rather seducing to the imagination at all times; and it so happened that it was particularly seducing to the imagination of that time. And its example has been powerful since; it gave us Mr. Stevenson's New Arabian Nights only, as it were, the other day.

But there is something a little schoolboyish in it; and I do not know that Balzac has succeeded entirely in eliminating this something. The pathos of the death, under persecution, of the innocent Clemence does not entirely make up for the unreasonableness of the whole situation. Nobody can say that the abominable misconduct of Maulincour who is a hopeless "cad" is too much punished, though an Englishman may think that Dr. Johnson's receipt of three or four footmen with cudgels, applied repeatedly and unsparingly, would have been better than elaborately prepared accidents and duels, which were too honorable for a Peeping Tom of this kind; and poisonings, which reduced the avengers to the level of their victim. But the imbroglio is of itself stupid; these fathers who cannot be made known to husbands are mere stage properties, and should never be fetched out of the theatrical lumber room by literature.

La Duchesse de Langeais is, I think, a better story, with more romantic attraction, free from the objections just made to Ferragus , and furnished with a powerful, if slightly theatrical catastrophe. It is as good as anything that its author has done of the kind, subject to those general considerations of probability and otherwise which have been already hinted at. For those who are not troubled by any such critical reflections, both, no doubt, will be highly satisfactory.

The third of the series, La Fille aux Yeux d'Or , in some respects one of Balzac's most brilliant effects, has been looked at askance by many of his English readers. At one time he had the audacity to think of calling it La Femme aux Yeux Rouges . To those who consider the story morbid or, one may say, bizarre , one word of justification, hardly of apology, may be offered. It was in the scheme of the Comedie Humaine to survey social life in its entirety by a minute analysis of its most diverse constituents. It included all the pursuits and passions, was large and patient, and unafraid. And the patience, the curiosity, of the artist which made Cesar Birotteau and his bankrupt ledgers matters of high import to us, which did not shrink from creating a Vautrin and a Lucien de Rubempre, would have been incomplete had it stopped short of a Marquise de San Real, of a Paquita Valdes. And in the great mass of the Comedie Humaine , with its largeness and reality of life, as in life itself; the figure of Paquita justifies its presence.

Considering the Histoire des Treize as a whole, it is of engrossing interest. And I must confess I should not think much of any boy who, beginning Balzac with this series, failed to go rather mad over it. I know there was a time when I used to like it best of all, and thought not merely Eugenie Grandet , but Le Pere Goriot (though not the Peau de Chagrin ), dull in comparison... Continue reading book >>

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