“This is what comes of sight-seeing,” exclaimed Monsieur Guillaume, “a headache.”
When I saw the title At the Sign of the Cat and Racket, my first thought was that this Balzac novel concerned a pub. No, the sign of the title is actually an old painting which serves as a trade indicator on the outside of a draper’s shop in 19th century Paris. In this story, Balzac examines how class differences impact male-female relationships, and he also asks the question ‘does it take a particular kind of woman to live with a man of genius?’ I’d hazard a guess that the question is self-reflective, and that question pales next to the issue of class differences between the characters. Furthermore the behaviour of the fictional ‘man of genius’ in the story, Theodore de Sommervieux, isn’t entirely motivated by his intelligence.
The novella opens on the Rue Saint-Denis with a description of a very old house “which enable[s] historians to reconstruct old Paris by analogy.” The house which is also a business is a “relic of the civic life of the sixteenth century.” The house, Balzac tells us, “had been encrusted with as many coats of different paint as there are of rouge on an old duchess’ cheek,“ and the ancient painting of a cat is weather-worn and faded. Opposite the house, a young man stands in the pouring rain. He stares at the house … waiting, and of course, it’s easy to guess that he’s waiting for the glimpse of a young girl.
The young man is Theodore de Sommervieux, artist and scion of a wealthy family. He’s there to catch a glance of a young woman who’s caught his eye, 18-year-old Augustine Guillaume, the youngest daughter of the shopkeeper and master draper, Monsieur Guillaume. The worthy Guillaume has two daughters, and he has a plan to marry the eldest 28-year-old Mademoiselle Virginie, to his long-standing apprentice and chief assistant, the orphaned Joseph Lebas. Guillaume’s plan is that Lebas, who’s like a son to him, will make the legal move to become his son-in-law by marrying Virginie. Then Lebas and Virginie will eventually take over the business and Guillaume and his wife will retire. Well that’s the plan anyway.
The Guillaume family lead a simple but good life. As daughters of a tradesman, the education of the daughters is sadly limited:
Brought up to a commercial life, accustomed to hear nothing but dreary arguments and calculations about trade, having studied nothing but grammar, book-keeping, a little bible-history, and the history of France in Le Ragois, and never reading any book but what their mother would sanction, their ideas had not acquired much scope. They knew perfectly how to keep house; they were familiar with the prices of things; they understood the difficulty of amassing money; they were economical, and had a great respect for the qualities that make a man of business.
But there’s trouble on the horizon. Virginie and Augustine have been brought up to marry tradesmen, but Augustine may long for something more:
It is possible that two romances discovered by Augustine in the cupboard of a cook Madame Guillaume had lately discharged– Hippolyte Comte de Douglas and Le Comte de Comminges–may have contributed to develop the ideas of the young girl, who had devoured them in secret, during the long nights of the past winter.
Those blasted romances always cause trouble!
Imagine how Augustine feels, then, when she attends the Paris Salon and sees a portrait of her on display. All those romantic thoughts must have rushed through her head. She’s infused with “rapture,” a “chaos of sensations,” and she almost faints.
So it would appear that Balzac has written a fairly simple love story. Apprentice Joseph Lebas is in love with Augustine; Augustine is in love with Theodore de Sommervieux, and Virginie is in love with Joseph. Will Guillaume, who believes firmly in marrying within one’s class, allow his daughter Augustine to marry Sommervieux? Will Sommervieux marry Augustine? What of Virginie and Lebas? There’s a “crazy mania“ for “commerce and finance” to marry into the nobility, but this goes against Guillaume’s staunch principles.
This is the delightful element of this Balzac story–we think we can predict its twists and turns, but Balzac has a few surprises in store.
Balzac has some marvellous comments to make on the subject of trade. The Guillaumes engage in a laborious period of stock-taking during which they called out stock items and their value which were “spouted over the counters like verses of modern poetry, quoted by romantic spirits, to excite each other’s enthusiasm for one of their poets.” And here’s Balzac’s take on the Guillaumes:
In the evening, Guillaume, shut up with his assistant and his wife balanced his accounts, carried on the balance, wrote to debtors in arrears, and made out bills. All three were busy over this enormous labor, of which the result could be stated on a sheet of foolscap, proving to the head of the house that there was so much to the good in hard cash, so much in goods, so much in bills and notes; that he did not owe a sou; that a hundred or two hundred thousand francs were owing to him; that the capital had been increased; that the farmlands, the houses, or the investments were extended, or repaired, or doubled. Whence it became necessary to begin again with increased ardor, to accumulate more crown-pieces, without its ever entering the brain of these laborious ants to ask–”To what end?”
Yet at the same time, Balzac finds a great deal that’s admirable about Guillaume and his life. He’s a good man, a moral man. He lacks imagination, and is too parsimonious, but then his talents lie elsewhere. Balzac’s biggest beef about their lifestyle seems to be ‘when are these people going to start enjoying themselves?‘ The annual stock-taking is rewarded by a rare “debauch,” a trip to the theatre.
Translated by Clara Bell