In 2010, I finally finished Zola’s twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series, and it was time to move on to something else. Balzac seemed a good choice. I’ve read several novels–no firm count & with no particular plan in mind, but I’ve throughly enjoyed every Balzac novel I’ve read. So on to the task of reading La Comédie Humaine and Balzac’s novel, The Chouans, which appeared in 1829. Apparently, Balzac wrote and published other novels prior to The Chouans, but this was the first novel he actually put his name to. Reminds me of the amazing literary career of Simenon–another writer who, when he hit his stride, started his claim to fame by using his own name.
Balzac was thirty-years-old when The Chouans was published, and he had not yet formulated La Comédie Humaine. Within a few years, however, Balzac began organising his novels into categories:
Scenes of Private Life
Scenes of Provincial Life
Scenes of Parisian Life
Scenes of Political Life
Scenes From Military Life
Scenes of Country Life
Philosophical & Analytical Studies.
The Chouans slots into Scenes from Military Life. According to translator Marion Ayton Crawford, Balzac was very much influenced by the phenomenally successful novels of Walter Scott, and that explanation really goes a long way towards understanding the romance and historical high adventure aspects of The Chouans. This is a classic tale of treachery and romance–the individual vs. the cause in which the love between two people is put to the test through competing moral values. The novel is set in 1799 in Fougères, Brittany. My copy’s introduction includes some historical background to the period and even a few maps: it’s post French revolution, but Royalists still remain loyal to the Bourbons:
A series of sporadic counter-Revolutionary movements had started in 1792 in the West, and spread from the Vendée to the borders of Brittany and Normandy. They were led at first by the dispossessed minor clergy who refused to swear the required oath of allegiance to the Revolutionary civil powers, and later by noblemen relying on the Count of Artois who had promised to land in the West himself to lead a Royalist army, and on support from England and the continent.
Fresh from Zola’s Second Empire, I initially found the setting of The Chouans a bit disorienting. I didn’t really know what was going on, and so I did some additional digging which is included here for any reader who feels as I did in the first couple of chapters. The Chouannerie (1794-1800), the “series of sporadic counter-Revolutionary movements” mentioned in the earlier quote, was a Royalist uprising–guerilla warfare directed against the forces of Revolutionary France. In Brittany, in spite of, or perhaps because of, recent Royalist defeats (including the death of the Royalist leader Boishardy) sentiment is particularly strong. The Blue Chouans support the revolution, while the White Chouans support the Royalists.
The novel begins with Republican commander, Hulot, in Brittany’s Chouan country. He’s been rounding up conscripts and requisitioned men “still interchangeable terms” apparently. This was one of the Chouans’ major beefs against the French Empire, so it makes a great deal of sense that Balzac chose to open the novel with a scene of conscription. As the men march toward the boundary of Maine and Brittany, tension mounts and the men slow down, much to Hulot’s consternation:
Only the partisans of the Republic marched almost gaily. As for the others, they might wear a wide variety of dress but their expressions and attitudes had the uniformity misfortune imposes. Peasants or townsmen, profound melancholy marked them all. Their silence was fiercely sullen. Their spirits seemed weighed down by the same heavy thought, which though it was undoubtedly grim could only be guessed at, for their faces were quite impenetrable. Only the extraordinary slowness of their march might seem to give away some secret calculation. A few among them, distinguished by the rosary worn round their necks in spite of the risk involved in preserving this evidence of a religion which had been suppressed but by no means destroyed, from time to time shook back their locks and raised their heads cautiously. They then stealthily scanned the woods, paths and great rocks that closed in on the way, like a dog putting his nose to the wind trying to scent game; but hearing only the monotonous tramp of their silent companions, lowered their heads again and resumed their despairing expressions, like criminals being led to the hulks to live or die there as they might.
Hulot expects an ambush, and he’s correct. His contingent of men face the Chouans who mimic owls to communicate with one another: “from that [sound] had come the nickname Chuin, which means screech-owl or barn owl in the local patois.” The Republican forces are attacked by the Chouans & the conscripts escape while they can.
But skullduggery and high adventure are afoot. Enter the beautiful Marie de Verneuil. She’s been sent specifically to the region to engage the Royalist leader, the Gars (the Marquis of Montauran)–known to have a weakness for women–in a romantic relationship, and then lead him into capture. The situation is complicated by the fact that the Marquis has a comrade-in-arms, the reptilian Madame de Gua, who’s bitterly jealous of Marie. Madame de Gua is posing as the mother of the Marquis, so this scenario allows for some bitchy confrontations between Madame de Gua and Marie. Then to top it off, Marie and the Marquis fall in love….
I’m going to admit that while I enjoyed most of The Chouans, it was too romantic for my tastes. I much prefer the nastiness of Cousin Bette or Pere Goriot for example. The Chouans, I’d say, is an adventure-romance, and while most of the book is extremely powerful, I wasn’t that hot on the romance. Readers probably either buy into the instantaneous romance between the Marquis and Marie or they don’t. I’m in the latter camp, and that created a problem in terms of enjoyment. Just a matter of personal taste, and lest I give the wrong impression, I should add that the characters are all well-drawn, however, and the dialogue crackles. Here’s Madame de Gua warning the Marquis:
Always the same! Women are the one danger you’ll meet your death through. A wax doll makes you forget everything.
Balzac and human nature. There’s nothing better.
The highlight of the novel (and my favourite part) came after a nocturnal journey to a ruined château. Marie, with her escort of “blue” Chouans, accepts the hospitality of the Marquis. Marie’s first sight of the château is filled with foreboding:
The north wind was blowing through these ruins, to which the moon’s hazy light lent the character and aspect of a vast skeletal spectre. One would have to have seen it in its colours of grey-blue granite and blackish-yellow schist to appreciate the fantastically eerie suggestion of this empty and dismal shell. its disintegrating stonework and glassless windows, the gaping crenellations of the tower and split roofs, made it look like skeleton bones, and the predatory birds that flew off screaming added one more touch to the nightmarish resemblance.
I was rather interested in exactly why the pockets of rebellion continued so persistently in Brittany. The people there seemed to have little respect for the edicts of Paris, and were loyal to the crown. I found it curious that Breton peasants cared one way or another who ran the country, and then there was something inexplicable about their insular culture…. I began to wonder just how big a role smuggling played in the lives of the Chouans. It seems that salt smuggling did play a role in the uprising. After the revolution, the Brittany salt industry was subject to centralised tax. So here’s Paris taxing the area’s industry, dragging off their men for ridiculous wars, and stripping the priests of their power. No wonder they’re pissed off.
Here’s Balzac with his usual love of detail describing some of his characters’ extraordinary clothes:
A number of townsmen were to be seen among these half-barbarous men, as if to mark civilization’s farthest boundaries in these regions. They wore round or cocked hats or peaked caps and top-boots or shoes held by gaiters, and their costume, like the peasants’, divided them into groups showing notable differences.
Finally a mention of a couple of the complete rotters in the novel: Abbé Gudin–a nasty defrocked priest who refused to take the oath of allegiance, and Corentin a “sinister individual” who is a prototype for Vautrin.
For a comprehensive summary of The Chouans, go to Balzacbooks.wordpress.com