The Chouans by Balzac

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


Filed under Balzac, Fiction

41 responses to “The Chouans by Balzac

  1. Thanks for the mention of the Balzacbooks Blog. The Chouans was the first read at the Balzac Yahoo Group when we started a complete read of La Comédie Humaine in 2006. We are now approximately 70% of the way through although we haven’t yet entered all the previous summaries in the blog which was just begun last summer.

    I’ve read two of Balzac’s “pot-boilers” written under pseudonyms. One I didn’t care at all for the style, the other was a very light romance, but enjoyable. I used to have a list of the half dozen or so names that Balzac used, but can’t find it at the moment. Horace de Saint-Aubin is one of them.

  2. Les Chouans was always the Balzac that tempted me the least. I read many of his Parisian, Private and Provincial ones. I wasn’t even aware Les Chouans is set in Brittany which is dear to me as my grandmother was from there. The romance is something I wouln’t have expected either in this book. All in all it looks as if I had just been biased. It might not be my next Balzac but it is on my radar now. I hope it doesn’t have anything in common with La fille aux yeuy d’or… That is the only Balzac I truly hated.

    • Caroline, I avoided Les Chouans for years, not caring for “war” stories. But it’s not that bad–enough intrigue and other goings-on. Still, it is far down on my list. I’m glad I read it though and there are some early appearances of characters who will appear later in La Comédie Humaine. No fear of any connection to La fille aux yeux d’or, you’re safe there!

      • That is good to know… Really didn’t care for it. I still have a few others I haven’t read so might wait a bit until I get to Les Chouans.

        • leroyhunter

          Caroline, interested to know why you hated La fille… so much?

          • I found the atmosphere almost revolting… Like taking a bath in syrup. It made me nauseous even. I had a very strong reaction. It was my first Balzac and after that I didn’t read anything for years until Le Père Goriot showed me what he is really capable of. I always liked romantic literature, at least the German and English books I know. And French Dark romanticism. But La fille auy yeux d’or isn’t dark… Don’t know if it makes sense.

            • leroyhunter

              That’s an interesting way of putting it…it’s certainly perverse, so I get how you would find it revolting. I don’t get the “syrup” bit though? I thought it was quite a dark little book, but I suppose it depends on what you mean by that term…certainly it’s not romantic.

              • The Girl with the Golden Eyes may not be romantic, but it’s certainly Romantic! Isn’t it ethically revolting, some sort of idea about cruelty and even murder in the name of a Grand Passion, a Marquis de Sade-like concotion? Hard to believe it’s by the same man that wrote the sweet Ursule Mirouet, but the theme of my Big Balzac Blowout from a couple of years ago was that Balzac did many different things.

                • leroyhunter

                  I misplaced an “R” there alright….
                  Is it Romantic? I think of that to be brooding, intense, passionate etc as opposed to exotic, stifling, cruel which Girl with the Golden Eyes is. It reminds me more of Symbolist painting then Romanticism.

                  It wasn’t what I was expecting from the name “Balzac” either, but the blurb on my copy made it clear it singed a few eyebrows on publication.

  3. It sounds fun if it’s brisk. If it were 400 pages or more I think I’d struggle rather.

    Skullduggery and high adventure though, those are two of my favourite things…

  4. Thank you for that – that was illuminating. I have only read some four or so novels by Balzac, and I must confess he is not a novelist who particularly attracts me. He certainly had a marvellous facility for narrative, and was always aware of the social and economic forces driving his characters, and defining their roles in society; but his characterisation does frequently seem t me superficial. For instance, in “Le Père Goriot”, we have Vautrin tempting Rastignac with a money-making scheme that involves murder: Rastignac doesn’t openly assent, but, clearly tempted, he doesn’t refuse either. But when the murder is committed, Rastignac pulls out of the scheme, and thinks no more of it. Wouldn’t a person as intelligent as Rastignac have felt at least a few twinges of guilt? But I didn’t get any sense of that at all. As a consequence, I felt I was reading merely about shallow people with shallow emotions: I found little to interest me in them. (Although, I must admit, Goriot’s passion, especially towards the end, was impressive.)

    Similarly with something like “Illusions Perdues”: when Lucien’s dreams collapse towards the end of the second part, I did not get much sense of the tragic: indeed, I felt barely involved at all. A comparison with the chapters in Flaubert’s “L’Education Sentimentale”, where Frédéric’s dreams similarly collapse, merely shows the greater emotional depth Flaubert achieved.

    No doubt this is all very unfair: Balzac would hardly command the reputation he does if he really were as I perceive him. No doubt it is I who am missing something, and maybe I should persevere with Balzac. “Les Chouans” does sound interesting: among other things, it is surprising, given the momentous and earth-shattering impact of the French Revolution, how infrequently it is depicted in fiction. Even Dickens, writing about it at the peak of his powers, could make nothing of it other than a historical romance.

    One final point: I am intrigued to read that you have now read all the Rougon-Macquart novels of Zola. I have read eight of them, and, with possibly one exception (I found “Au Bonheur des Dames” somewhat disappointing) they have all been quite magnificent. However, here in Britain, the only translations available are in Penguin Classics and in Oxford World Classics, and between them, they certainly don’t cover all 20 novels in the series. Did you read these in French, or are good translations of them all available in USA? I am particularly keen to read a good translation of “L’Argent”. (I am wary of older translations of Zola, by the way, as they tend often to be bowdlerized.)

    Thanks once again for this post.

    • In one of my Zola posts, I went into the Vizetelly translation problem quite a bit. My version of Money is NOT a newer translation; it’s Vizetelly.

      I am cutting and pasting part of my post from The Belly of Paris which goes into the Vizetelly’s struggles with censorship in Britain:
      The Rougon-Macquart novels have a remarkable history of translation. The first available translations of the Rougon-Macquart were American, and then English publisher Henry Vizetelly began publishing Zola. These translations were ‘toned down’ for the Victorian audience by Henry’s son Ernest. In the book, Emile Zola Novelist and Reformer Ernest Vizetelly admitted that after toning down Zola’s novels, “None of them was an exact replica of the original, all had been expurgated more or less, though care had invariably been taken to preserve the continuity of the narrative.” But even the “toning” down didn’t spare Henry Vizetelly from persecution by the National Vigiliance Association and by the newspapers. The matter of the ‘obscene’ nature of Zola’s novels even reached the House of Commons. And in 1888, Mr. Samuel Smith, member of the House of Commons, when speaking against Zola’s novels, declared that “nothing more diabolical had ever been written by the pen of man; they were fit only for swine, and those who read them must turn their minds into cesspools.” (Pall Mall Gazette)

      Vizetelly found himself on trial for “Obscene Libel.” He was fined but since the publisher had already committed to the Zola novels, rather than abandon them, there was more editing. Ernest admitted that he “deleted or modified three hundred and twenty five pages out of fifteen volumes.” But this still didn’t help Vizetelly who was hauled back into court. This time he was imprisoned. The rather hypocritical fact of the matter was that Zola’s novels were available in their glorious entirety in French, so the upper classes could read them while those not fluent in French were stuck with the censored version. That reminds me of the 1960 Obscenity trial against Penguin Books following the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Prosecutor Griffith Jones made the mistake of asking the court if Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the sort of book “you would wish your wife or your servants to read.” Again that idea appears of certain classes of people who need to be protected from themselves by those who know better….

      My gut impression is that some books were probably more chopped than others–take The Earth for example. Even the name of one of the main characters was changed (Jesus Christ was not acceptable). Money was wonderful, and I wouldn’t let the fact that it’s Vizetelly stop you.

      I think I mention all of the translators in my posts. but if I didn’t just leave a comment and I’ll dig out my copy. I have two newer translations of the Belly of Paris, and newer translations of some of the titles have appeared since I read the series. Good to know there are fellow Zola fanatics out there.

      • Thank you very much for that. I’ll certainly look out for Vizetelly’s translation of “Money”, and will also have a look at your earlier postings on Zola.

        • I was put off by the Vizetelly versions at first but with some of the books, there’s no other choice. Amazing really when you consider how ‘big’ Zola is. You’d think somebody would retranslate and republish.

          As I mentioned there have been some new translations published since I began in 2007.

          Good luck.

    • Ah, you missed a bit about Rastignac in Pere Goriot. It could have been the translation too. Rastignac was going to go and warn Victorine’s father about the plan but Vautrin found out and plied him with wine until he passed out. When he awoke it was too late.

      • Yes, it is more than likely: it’s been a good thirty years or more since I read that novel, and it is highly likely that there is much I do not remember. However, while I do accept the point you make, for Rastignac not to feel any guilt about the matter afterwards does indicate to me an extraodinarily shallow person. And that is the feeling I get about most of Balzac’s characters in the other novels of his that I have read – they strike me as characters who are essentially quite superficial. I don’t think I need to *like* the characters I read of in fiction, but I do need, I think, to find them interesting, and, whether it’s Balzac’s fault or mine (it’s more likely to be mine, I know) I cannot seem to find his characters sufficiently interesting to engage my attention through the length of a full-length novel. My loss, I’m sure!

  5. The thing that bothered me the most was the romance. Here’s Marie sent to capture the Gars and then she goes and falls in love with him. Hopeless. We know that she’s trusted by the people who sent her as she carries papers that give her seniority over Hulot. But then she blows it by falling for her target.

    I had to read it as it seemed to be the place to start although I see more Walter Scott than the sort of Balzac I’m used to.

    This would make a great film though.

    Caroline, I would most certainly read it if I had relatives from the region. The intro goes into how Balzac went there and ‘interviewed’ a man directly involved in the battles.

    Madame V: I’d join you there at Yahoo but I am about 4 years behind.

    Max: I sense that your reaction would be close to mine.

    • Completely agree about the romance, and the strong presence of Walter Scott in this book.

      The one chapter that really worked well for me was the one about the collaborator. That’s where I saw the stark, clear-eyed Balzac of some of Colonel Chabert and so on.

    • La donna è mobile… It does make perfect sense that she falls for him and is quite logical… It is the Bad Boy attraction, I suppose. An early version of it.
      I am definitely interested in the setting… Women with weird choices in terms of partners and changing their mind about them are all too common, no need to read that… But Brittany in novels… On the other hand I still have Chateaubriand’s Les mémoires d’outre tombe sitting here unread…

      • I became rather annoyed with Marie and couldn’t take her seriously. She’s practically swooning over the Gars when she hands Hulot papers that declare she’s his ‘general.’ The girl needs to go to GI Jane School.

  6. It took you a while to write this review, which tells more about how you felt about the book than your review itself. We are more impatient to write and share when we loved the book.

    I read this book a long long time ago and I remember I liked it. I don’t know if I’d still like it now. I also remember I found Ninety Three by Victor Hugo better. (same subject)

    Sorry to be such a quibbler, but I thought the First Empire started in 1804. Anyway, the history of France is terribly complicated from 1789 to 1848, and you’re not even French. I guess it must be a nightmare to understand what happened in those years.
    I think the uprising from the Chouans mostly came from their reluctance to abandon religion and priests. They’re very religious in that part of the country. In 1792, the new government even changed the calendar to turn their back on religion and it was forbidden to gather for a mass. That’s important to know to understand the beggining of the 19C. The Church is back with the Restauration and fights for influence and power. I guess there will always be the pro-Church and the anti-Church even after 1905, when France became a secular state. That’s also because of that fight that women had to wait so long to have the right to vote in France. The politicians were afraid that women — who were more religious than men — would vote for pro-Church candidates. But enough of lecture.

    I too am always surprised how fast the French Revolution spread everywhere in the country. They must have had a better communication network than I imagine, through post or something. That’s why I want to read Mme Roland’s memoirs. She was in Lyon with her husband when it started and I’m curious to see how it was in a provincial town. (Plus that’s where I live, so I’m also curious to read about the city)

    • Thanks for the tip on the date, I changed the wording.
      To be honest, on the timing, it’s more a question that I am behind on my review. I’d like to NOT have a back log, but it’s taking me several weeks to get to reviews of books read.

      For some reason, the Chouans reminded me of the smugglers of Cornwell. That’s why I started digging into the salt smuggling question.

      The book does convey the idea that the priests (defrocked or not) hold a great deal of sway with people

      • Isn’t it difficult to go back to a book and write the review after ? I tend to write right after reading, when the emotion is still there.

        About Brittany. They still have a Front de Libération de la Bretagne, a small group whose aim is to separate Britanny from France.
        Sorry it’s in French.

        Thanks for the ” Notify me of follow-up comments via email” button.

        • Actually I start writing the review even as I’m reading (just taking notes) and then keep polishing from there.

          I had heard there was still a movement in Brittany but didn’t know anything about it. Will check out the link, so thanks for that.

          • Yes, free Brittany… I am sad now… I wanted to learn Breton from my grandmother but she has passed away already… It will slowly die out. I only know a few words. It’s so different. The movement in Brittany is just like the Basques and people from Corsica. I think a lot of this stems from the fact that for a long time their language was forbidden, in school… Never been officially accepted as a language. Catalan was similar.

  7. Hello Guy, for anyone all-at-sea with the Revolutionary period in France, may I suggest Robert Cole’s A Traveller’s History of Paris? I’ve made a number of attempts to makse sense of it, and Cole’s book is the only one that made sense to me.

  8. leroyhunter

    The comparison to Walter Scott is not a recommendation to me, Guy.

    I admire your dedication to these big series and all the collateral history etc. Having been sold on Zola I’ll wait to make some progress there before getting into any Balzac. I read some of his storter stuff which I did really like.

    • I specifically added the Walter Scott mention to the review because I thought it would help readers understand the content. I haven’t been a fan of Scott in the past; perhaps I read the wrong books.

      Every book I’ve read of Balzac’s has stuck in my mind. I don’t think this one will, but I had to read it.

  9. Madame V: the Balzac site makes my next Balzac read easier for me. Thanks for the chronology of publication

    • Super! We’re glad it’s useful.
      At the group, we decided to read by story chronology since we wanted to follow the various characters and action. We used “Balzac As He Should Be Read”, subtitled “The Comedie Humaine arranged in Logical order of reading according to Time of Action” by William Hobart Royce (New York AUGUSTE GIRALDI 1946).

      That order of reading, should anyone care to pursue it, is in the Files at the Yahoo Group Site

      • I’m torn about the reading order and haven’t made up my mind at this point. I read the Rougon-Macquart in the order in which they were written. Many sources recommended against that, but that’s the way I read them. It mixed up the so-so novels with the greats, so perhaps it wasn’t so bad a method after all.

  10. So, shame-filled confession: I’ve never read anything by Balzac.

    I know I should and I’ll obviously get around to it, but Balzac is just one of those that I’ve never gotten around to, despite numerous reasons for it. I mean, this sounds kind of awesome… adventure and romance would fit my mood perfectly right about now, but I know I shouldn’t start out with one of the random backlog titles.

    Wonderful discussion, great review.

    • I’ve read Balzacs I like a lot more, and I’ll no doubt reread them, but this was one I’d overlooked in spite of the fact it sat on my shelf for years.
      Thanks for the compliment.

  11. I’ve always wondered about my taste for “reading projects”, but I will admit that you shame my tiny efforts. Good luck with Balzac — I will follow with interest and (occasionally) dip in.

    • To be honest I never saw myself as a reading projects person. The Rougon-Macquart started after I discovered that there was this whole 20-volume series I’d never heard of…let alone read. I’d read a couple, heard of a few more, but didn’t realise the titles were bits of a whole cycle.

      I knew that I’d regret never reading the series if I kicked the bucket. Some people want to see Paris–I want to read Zola.

      Now … Balzac.

  12. Pingback: Golden eyes maybe, but certainly not a golden book « Bookaroundthecorner's Blog

  13. Hi-

    I liked the book for its depiction of the brutality of guerilla warfare.

    If you want to read more about the relationship of provinces to Paris, try The Discovery of France, by Robb – the first half, that is. He says that people in places like Brittany hardly even thought of themselves as French.

  14. I’m glad I read it. I did get the idea that the French are seen as foreigners more than anything else.

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