Thursday, July 15, 2010

Le Bal de Sceaux and class obsession

Le Bal de Sceaux (1829) is an early Balzac novella that has as is theme what will become the ever itchy sore of 19th century fiction in general: the class system. From Le Rouge et le Noir (1830) right up to Le Côté de Guermantes (1921), a shaken and constantly redefined old-time aristocracy constantly feels the need to hold on to its glamour, its exclusivity, in spite of the endless stream, of newly minted nobility and a more radical than ever economic redistribution. Worst of all, it’s so hard to spot the imposters from their manners.

At the heart of the story is the self-absorbed daughter of the comte de Fontaine, a once-impoverished aristocrat who has been rewarded for his loyalty to the crown (he was a leader of the Vendéan resistance) by the restored Louis XVIII. He manages to repair his fortune a little, and to get positions in the government for his sons and advantageous marriages for his daughters – for all but the youngest, Émilie.

Émilie, headstrong, beautiful, and with a devastating wit, looks around at potential husbands and dismisses them out of hand. The ones with suitable titles (peers of France) are fools or clods; the ones without title she refuses to consider. This in spite of the fact that her brothers and sisters have made happy marriages with well-off and refined children of the new bourgeoisie.

From the family summer home in the Paris countryside , This fairy-tale princess is brought by her loving siblings to the ball in the town of Sceaux. This rustic dance, which allows for wide variety of comers, is seen as a mildly adventurous diversion, and an occasion for the heroine’s witty put=downs. There she encounters her Prince Charming, a mysterious seemingly aristocratic young man whose good looks, courtly air, and ready wit recommend him to her. The problem? While his name, Maximilien Loungueville, sounds like he might be from a leading noble family, little is known about him. He teasingly resists Émilie’s inquiries, and she is ultimately convinced that he is worthy to marry her.

All that is exploded when, in company of sisters and sisters-in-law, she visits a Paris dress shop. There she is sees Maximilien clearly selling fabric to the shopkeeper, in other words acting as a bourgeois. The shocked, furious, and humiliated Émilie drops him immediately, refusing explanations.

It later turns out that Maximilien’s brother is a viscount and a peer of France; that Max had gone into business because of temporary problems with the family fortune; and that eventually he inherits his brother’s title and has his fortune restored. Emilie, meanwhile, in reaction, has married her elderly cousin, the comte de Kergaroüet – to whom she ends up acting more as nursemaid and companion than as wife, curtailed from the enjoyment of her youth.

The final scene, which reminds me of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin* (with sexes reversed), takes place in a fashionable drawing room in the Faubourg Saint Germain, as it is brought home to Emilie what she has missed:

en tournant la tête, elle avait vu entrer son ancien prétendu dans tout l’éclat de la jeunesse. La mort de son père et celle de son frère tué par l’inclémence du climat de Pétersbourg, avaient posé sur la tête de Maximilien les plumes héréditaires du chapeau de la pairie ; sa fortune égalait ses connaissances et son mérite : la veille même, sa jeune et bouillante éloquence avait éclairé l’assemblée. En ce moment, il apparaissait à la triste comtesse, libre et paré de tous les dons qu’elle avait rêvés pour son idole. Toutes les mères qui avaient des filles à marier faisaient de coquettes avances à un jeune homme doué des vertus qu’on lui supposait en admirant sa grâce

(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)
Balzac, who himself had pretentions to nobility (tried to pass as de Balzac) and had affairs with aristocratic women, and eventually and famously married a Polish countess, was also from a family of drapers. He also worked hard for his livelihood. His characters are ever breaking through the defenses of polite society against parvenus, from Goriot’s daughters to Lucien de Rubempré. And the tale of Zola’s Rougon family, in three generations from provincial peasants to the toast of Parisian society followed the same path. In 1829, Balzac could hardly imagine the constant disruptions provided by both political and industrial revolution but in this bittersweet fairy-tale treatment he hits on the obsession of the age, his own obsession.

* Note that Onegin, published serially from 1826–1830 is exactly contemporary with this novella. It’s not at all probable that they influenced each other.

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