This is a re-reading of Balzac’s The Black Sheep, and as it turns out, this was a most appropriate time to read a tale of an inheritance, rival siblings, and an unscrupulous, manipulative woman. When it comes to portraying human greed, Balzac is a master, and in this novel, he turns his eye (and pen) to two strikingly dissimilar brothers, Philippe and Joseph Bridau.
The book begins in Issoudon in the year 1792 with a rather long preamble which gives the history of the Rouget family, and as it turns out, this history is necessary to understanding the last part of the tale. Agathe Rouget is the daughter of a rather nasty doctor, a man “who’s not easy to get on with.” That seems to be putting it mildly, and Balzac laces the tale of Doctor Rouget and his unfortunate wife with innuendos. While Rouget, a petty domestic tyrant, dotes on his “great booby of a son,” and encourages Jean-Jacques’ very worst behaviour, he loathes Agathe as he suspects that she was fathered by another man. So when an opportunity arises to get rid of Agathe, the “wily” and “vindictive” Rouget ships his young daughter off to Paris to the home of her maternal uncle, a grocer named Desgoings. Unfortunately, the grocer falls foul of the guillotine within a week of Agathe’s arrival, but then, Bridau, a minor official, falls in love with Agathe and they marry. The Bridaus have two boys Philippe and Joseph.
Over the passage of years, Bridau now a hard-working civil servant, basically works himself to death while serving under Napoleon. Bridau leaves his widow and two sons in modest circumstances but with a pension to keep them in simple, but genteel style. At this point in the story, the widow Desgoings makes the practical decision to move in with Agathe, her niece by marriage, so that they can pool their resources.
Despite the fact that Agathe has been effectively disinherited from her family, life should not be too unpleasant for Madame Bridau and her two sons, but human vices get in the way. Madame Desgoings turns out to have a gambling problem, and then the Bridau boys grow up….
This all happens by about page 36 in my Penguin copy translated by Donald Adamson. The rest of the story is devoted to the Bridau brothers, Philippe and Joseph. Philippe grows up to become an appalling human being, and at first he seems to hit his stride as a rapidly advancing officer in Napoleon’s army. After the Battle of Waterloo, Philippe, now a colonel becomes just another of Napoleon’s bitter ex-officers, drinking in the local taverns, sporting with prostitutes, gambling money he borrows or steals from his family, and living beyond his means. In the meantime, Joseph, the less favoured but good son, becomes an artist.
Philippe’s debts lead to his mother’s impoverishment, and there’s a brief respite when he sets sail for America to help in the founding of the Champ d’Asile. Unfortunately this venture turns out to be “one of the most terrible confidence tricks ever to have been disguised as a national appeal.” Philippe returns home from his misadventures more of a miscreant than ever:
“He had become brutal, impertinent and rude; he had been depraved by hardship and physical suffering. Moreover, the colonel considered himself as having been persecuted. The consequence is to make unintelligent people hostile and intolerant of themselves. In Philippe’s eyes, the whole universe began at his head and ended at his feet, and the sun shone only for him. Finally, life in New York–as seen and interpreted by this man of action–had removed his remaining scruples in matters of morality. With people of this kind only two attitudes towards life are possible: they either believe or disbelieve; they either have all the gentlemanly virtues or they surrender themselves to each and every requirement of necessity. They then get into the habit of exalting into a necessity the slightest self-interest, the most fleeting whim of passion. Such a theory can take a man far. The colonel had preserved–but only in outward appearance–the soldierly qualities of straightforwardness, frankness and unconstraint. For this reason, he was exceedingly dangerous.”
The plot thickens when Agathe tries to extract some of her lost inheritance from Jean-Jacques, her addlepated brother who’s under the sway of his former servant, the manipulative, buxom Flore Brazier. In her turn, Flore is in the power of Maxence Gilet, another ex-officer of Napoleon’s army who has become “throughly depraved.” He maintains a band of local young men called the Knights of Idleness who cause all manner of mischief in the town. When Max hears that Agathe is about to descend upon Issoudun, he’s determined that he will not relinquish control of Jean-Jacques or his fortune. This of course pits a throughly disreputable character against the timidity of Agathe and her painfully honest son, Joseph.
One of the points the novel makes is that the swashbuckling braggarts who do well in war, stagnate and rot in peacetime. Both Maxence and Philippe could very possibly have sustained glittering careers under Napoleon, but now as civilians, both men only create trouble for those who love them. This reminds me of the Balzac novella, Colonel Chabert–a great hero in wartime but in peacetime… well he’s just in the way.
Philippe is really a dreadful character. He’s an egoist who mistreats his mother and these days we would say that he treats her rather like a cash machine. Agathe is sadly used and abused, and since she’s dumped on, she’s not much of an interesting character. But the story really reaches its pinnacle when Philippe sets out to destroy his doppelgänger, Maxence. These two men are very well-matched and it’s inevitable that they should clash as adversaries over the spoils. The novel succeeds so well partly due to the parallels drawn by the author: Maxence and Philippe both cannot exist in the same world. They are too alike and one must destroy the other. Another interesting element in the novel is the murky issue of paternity. Agathe is cast aside due to her father’s most-probably deranged jealousies, yet Maxence is embraced due to the exaggerations of his illegitimacy. Thus Balzac makes the point that legitimacy is a coin to trade when it is convenient to do so.
The Black Sheep, one of my favourite Balzac novels, makes the argument that nice people finish last–well most of the time, but that said, nasty people have a way of destroying themselves if you give them enough rope. As always with Balzac, money is power, and here we see the depths to which some people are prepared to sink in order to gain a fortune. Even though Balzac is one of my favourite authors I have to admit he isn’t perfect. While he is spot on target when it comes to the predictability of human nature, his novels sometimes show a distinct lack of discipline. In The Black Sheep, for example, I became distracted over the endless details of the recurring devaluation of Agathe’s pension. I imagine that these days an editor would red-line entire passages to create a leaner, meaner Balzac. But that said, I really don’t care even though Balzac’s sometimes curious drive to add all sorts of details can distract from the tale at hand.
The story of the two brothers, Philippe and Joseph is modelled on Balzac’s relationship with his brother Henri. The Black Sheep, published in 1842, is one of Balzac’s novels from The Human Comedy (La Comedie Humaine), a collection of novels set in 19th century France. Balzac died before his project was completed.