Thursday, June 9, 2011

Balzac, La Vielle Fille (1836)

Les gens de province possèdent au plus haut degré l’art de distiller les cancans.
People from the provinces possess at the highest degree the art of distilling gossip.

This tale of a provincial marriage is set in Alençon, a sleepy, reactionary town sitting between Normandy, Brittany, and the Loire Valley. The pursuit of the old maid in question, an ignorant, silly, but well-off heiress takes the form of a political struggle. One of the two main suitors is an impoverished and graceful old-fashioned member of the old gentry, in good favor with the Royalist party of the Bourbon restoration. The other is a brash man of low birth who made his money supplying Napoleon’s armies while in Paris (and, we are lead to belive, conning it), and seeks to become the spokesman for the Liberal cause in a heretofore conservative town, dominated by the ci-devant nobility and the Church.

Several days each week, the old maid maintains a salon in her richly appointed mansion, a salon that is a time=capsule of pre-Revolutionary manners. She is the darling of the conservatives, being the most utter example of provincialism:
car elle s’était encroûtée dans les habitudes de la province, elle n’en était jamais sortie, elle en avait les préjugés, elle en épousait les intérêts, elle l’adorait.
for she was encrusted in the habits of the province, she still had never left it, she shared its prejudices, she espoused its interests, she adored it.
The two men duel for advantage, and the liberal takes possession through a combination of great timing and a horrid embarrasment for the old maid. Upon their marriage, he basically usurps her fortunes. redecorates the hosue (the latest bad taste from Paris replaces the old-fashioned bad taste), reduces her independence, takes a mistress. and climbs to power in the prefecrure. Ub rge oisusruve side, he revives the city’s clothtarde, insituting a spinning factory and reviving the moribund economy.

Marriage as so often in Balzac is a business deal, and a deal that an unworldly and sentimental woman is certain to lose at. Such deals often end up squandering carefully built-up fortunes, on the other hand they are a major engine of economic growth, or at least shakeup. Money in Balzac is always in circulation, and the strategies of prudence and even miserliness always end up fueling a maelstrom of new spending and redistribution.

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