Sunday, October 09, 2011

Honoré de Balzac – ‘Eugénie Grandet’

In the country, people gradually cease to care about their appearance. (p. 72)
Saumur is the village where Eugénie Grandet lives, and has grown up, the daughter of a miserly vineyard owner and former cooper, who has accumulated a fortune by marrying well, investing, buying up land and crushing competition. His house is cold and dilapidated, because he won’t heat it except in the depths of winter, and he won’t pay for repairs to be done. As a special treat, on Eugénie’s birthday, he gets out his tools and mends a broken stair himself. Food is provided by the tenants on his estate, so he doesn’t have to pay for that, but he jealously rations sugar, which has to be bought in, and won’t allow wax candles in the house; instead they use candles made from tallow, a by-product of farming. But still, his wealth is known about, and so Eugénie attracts suitors. A grim game of attrition is played out between two families, the Cruchots and the des Grassins, each with an eligible son or nephew, who lay siege to the Grandets’ home, visiting regularly (together) for games of lotto, and bringing the occasional bouquet. Who will win her hand? It’s the countryside, there can’t possibly be a third option, surely? Enter Eugénie’s cousin, the elegant Charles, from Paris. He casts an astonished eye over the grotty interior of Grandet’s parlour, and
the lotto players immediately raised their noses to examine him, with as much curiosity as they would have shown if he had been a giraffe. (p. 73)
I’m not sure where I picked up the idea that Balzac was the French Dickens, but this is the only moment in Eugénie Grandet which invites a direct comparison. It is true that Balzac is drawing caricatures, but his humour is much more muted. He criticises society, as Dickens does, but without the zeal to change it. Dickens’ caricatures are funny because they are ridiculous, and who in their right mind would behave like that? Balzac’s – on the evidence of this novel – are serious because they are ridiculous, and they represent how people actually do behave.

Though it is a long time since I read it, it occurred to me that George Eliot’s Silas Marner is a better point of comparison, if you are looking for an English take on a similar situation. There, a miser lives alone with his gold, unloved, avaricious, until one day he finds he has been robbed. Simultaneously, a baby is left abandoned on his doorstep, and over the next twenty years Silas is rehabilitated by his love for this child, whom he brings up, becoming part of the community as he does so. An altogether softer, more redemptive tale. It never seems likely that Grandet will reform. He fails in every single moral duty that comes his way, and his monomania for gold is such that the right choices never even occur to him. Here are is thoughts as he wonders how best to tell Charles that his father – Grandet’s brother – has died a bankrupt:
‘You have lost your father!’ It was nothing to tell him that. Fathers usually die before their children. But: ‘You have no money at all!’ All the woes in the world were summed up in those words. (p. 115)
This is pity, of a kind, but worthless, because he has no more intention of bestowing money on the boy than he does affection. He sends him packing to the West Indies, at the lowest possible cost, and no more is heard of him for seven years (he turns out to be a ruthless businessman too, making a packet in the slave trade). Meanwhile, Eugénie’s twenties ebb away as she pines for him, her intense love prompted by the short time he spent at Saumur, when she stood up for him against her father’s brutality. She gives him her own store of gold coins, at which Grandet, when he finds out, confines her to her room on a diet of bread and water for months on end. It is only when it is pointed out to him that Eugénie, and not he, will inherit his wife’s wealth when she dies, that he relents. He is a tyrant, with not much else to him.

And Eugénie? Is she more than his opposite, the affection to his avarice? Her strong, silent love is a little hard to believe in. Even in the days before email, seven years without a single letter can’t have been a good sign. She seems to fall, too, as much for Charles’ refined clothes as for the man himself, which doesn’t seem consistent with her humble, un-grasping nature. But all the same – yes, she is more than her father’s opposite, she is also his daughter, and a member of a society with a tyrannical conception of rank and refinement. The saddest moment comes when she stops fighting:
Her unhappiness was concealed beneath a mask of politeness. (p. 240)

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