La Grande Bretêche a short story from Balzac, opens at a dinner party with Monsieur Bianchon telling his rapt audience a tale from his past. In charge of a wealthy patient, Dr. Bianchon has occasion to spend a great deal of time at Vendôme, and there his ramblings led him to a ruin, a house “still standing, though being slowly destroyed by an avenging hand.” Bianchon believes that the story of the house’s neglect “contained a secret,” and he is correct. Enchanted with the house and its romantic setting, the doctor decides to not ask any of the locals the story behind the neglect of this house. He prefers instead to make his own conclusions.
On that spot I wove delightful romances, and abandoned myself to little debauches of melancholy which enchanted me. If I had known the reason–perhaps quite commonplace–of this neglect, I should have lost the unwritten poetry which intoxicate me. To me this refuge represented the most various phases of human life, shadowed with misfortune; sometimes the peace of the graveyard without the dead, who speak in the language of epitaphs; one day I saw in it the home of lepers; another, the house of the Atridae, but, above all, I found there provincial life, with its contemplative ideas, its hour glass existence. I often wept there. I never laughed.
So here is Balzac, the consummate story teller relating a story within a story. We imagine the doctor’s audience still and quiet as he builds suspense with his descriptions of the eerie atmosphere at this beautiful, abandoned estate. Where are the people who lived here? Why is the house falling into ruin? What terrible things occurred here?
One evening when the doctor is at the inn, he is visited by the local notary, a Monsieur Regnault, who informs Bianchon that by wandering in the grounds of La Grande Bretêche he is committing a “misdemeanor.” The notary is the executor of the will of the now deceased Comtesse de Merret, and he explains that he doesn’t want to prosecute Bianchon as he is ignorant of local custom. The notary says that he’d be happy to let Bianchon wander around La Grande Bretêche, but that he must obey the last wishes of the now deceased Comtesse. Bianchon begs the notary to explain, and so the notary tells his story.
At the time of her death, the Comtesse lived at another property, the Château de Merret, and it’s here that she made her will. Her husband, the Comte died in Paris after a life of wild dissipation and a strangely disaffected marriage. The Comtesse’s will decreed that no one was to set foot inside La Grande Bretêche until fifty years after her death. So the mystery only deepens, and Bianchon decides that he has discovered a story “a la Radcliffe.” Then Bianchon’s landlady approaches him and tells her tale and through her Bianchon, Bianchon’s audience and we readers finally learn the secret of the abandoned château.
While La Grande Bretêche isn’t the finest thing ever written by Balzac, this is a good story with build up at every turn. Balzac allows each fictional story-teller (Bianchon, the notary and the landlady) to pick up the narrative, adding details for mounting suspense and mystery. The reference to Radcliffe seems deliberate as the secret of the château is bathed in gothic elements, tragic and cruel. According to Balzac’s biographer, Graham Robb, gothic novels and Radcliffe were very popular in France in the 1820s. Balzac’s early novel L’Heritiere de Birague, which sold for 800 francs, is a gothic tale which follows Radcliffe’s style. This novel, one I’ve yet to read, according to a Balzac resource was attributed to Lord R’Hoone (Balzac writing in collaboration with Auguste Le Poitevin/Le Poitevin de L’ Égreville). Le Poitevin was, Graham Robb argues, both a “midwife” for his role in the early careers of many authors and also a “literary vampire.” Le Poitevin later claimed to have “created” Balzac, and while the two shared a brief collaborative writing period, Balzac went on to write La Comédie Humaine while Auguste Le Poitevin, by 1840, was the editor of very promising-sounding Le Corsaire-Satan, a rag Balzac described as a ”literary sewage pipe transporting the most revolting calumnies,” whose unpaid employees included Baudelaire.
Free for the kindle. Translated by Ellen Marriage and Clara Bell.