The Ball at Sceaux by Balzac

“Only the poor are generous as a rule; the rich have always excellent reasons for not handing over twenty thousand francs to a relation.”

The Ball at Sceaux (Le bal de Sceaux), published in 1830, is one of the novels in Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine, and this well-crafted novella slots into the Scènes de la Vie Privée (Scenes of Private Life) category. Balzac is a master at depicting the human vices, and this creation is no exception. Here the vice is Pride.

First to place the story in its historical context:

It’s France post-Napoleon–although the backstory concerns past history. The story concerns the Comte de Fontaine and his family–specifically his youngest daughter Emilie. The Comte was loyal to the Bourbons and consequently was ruined. Later, he “refused the lucrative posts offered to him by the Emperor Napoleon,” and when it came time to marry, the Comte chose an impoverished but  ‘great name’ over a “rich but revolutionary parvenu.” Fortune eventually turned for the Comte after The Hundred Days and he received an appointment as an administrator. Attached to the king, the Comte managed to ensure that his children’s fortunes were secured. His three sons were placed well, and he married off two of his three daughters. These daughters and sons-in-law were not of “noble birth.” But no matter–after all, it is post French Revolution, and the marriages are sound and certain to bring security and wealth. This leaves the youngest daughter, Emilie de Fontaine yet to wed, and as it turns out, she is the most difficult. Perhaps this is because she is the youngest and she’s been spoiled:

Emilie had spent her childhood on the family estate, enjoying the abundance which suffices for the joys of early youth; her lightest wishes had been law to her sisters, her brothers, her mother, and even her father. All her relations doted on her.

Emilie is well-educated and beautiful, but she also has more than her share of flaws:

This enchanting veneer covered a careless heart; the opinion–common to many young girls–that no one else dwelt in a sphere so lofty as to be able to understand the merits of her soul; and a pride based no less on her birth than on her beauty. In the absence of the overwhelming sentiment which, sooner or later, works havoc in a woman’s heart, she spent her young ardor in an immoderate love of distinctions , and expressed the deepest contempt for persons of inferior birth.

Emilie’s pride and snobbery come to the fore when it’s time for her to marry. A parade of young men all fail to meet her exacting standards, and her abrupt dismissals of potential suitors are, at times, cruel. In some ways, each rejection seems to cause her pride and vanity to swell:

Wherever she went she seemed to be accepting homage rather than compliments, and even in a princess her airs and manner would have transformed the chair on which she sat into an imperial throne.

Balzac tells us:

As yet the graces of youth and the charms of talent hid these faults from every eye; faults all the more odious in a woman, since she can only please by self-sacrifice and unselfishness.

Where to start with that statement? Balzac is saying that Emilie can get away with this behaviour because she is young and beautiful. As the story plays out, it’s fairly obvious that Emilie has a cruel streak and that’s a character fault, of course–although apparently since she’s female, it’s a character fault to not go around acting with “self-sacrifice and unselfishness.”

In the Physiology of Marriage, Balzac mentions the problem of aristocratic pride and its role in unhappy marriages:

Before the Revolution, several aristocratic families used to send their daughters to the convent. This example was followed by a number of people who imagined that in sending their daughters to a school where the daughters of some great noblemen were sent, they would assume the tone and manner of aristocrats. This delusion of pride was, from the first, fatal to domestic happiness.

The insufferably proud Emilie wants a young, handsome, healthy, rich suitor, and she has a couple of other stipulations:

“Though young and of an ancient family, he must be a peer of France,” said she to herself. “I could not bear to see my coat-of-arms on the panels of my carriage among the folds of azure mantling, not to drive like the princes down the Champs-Élysées on the days of Longchamps in Holy Week. Besides, my father says that it will someday be the highest dignity in France. He must be a soldier–but I reserve the right of making him retire; and he must bear an Order, that the sentries may present arms to us.”

Of course, with a list of requirements like that, Emilie’s expectations are going to be tested and that is the heart of the story. What will happen if Emilie falls in love? Will love outweigh a coat-of-arms? Will she learn a lesson or will she get her just desserts? The nasty little twists and turns of this marvellous novella are classic Balzac–it’s those human vices once again, and what delightful havoc they play with his characters’ lives.

The Ball at Sceaux is available through Project Gutenberg. I downloaded my copy FREE for the kindle from Amazon. The nice thing about these editions is that a list of characters appears at the end of the text so that we can trace them in Le Comédie Humaine.


Filed under Balzac, Fiction

11 responses to “The Ball at Sceaux by Balzac

  1. This sounds so much better than my last one, “Vendetta”. I’m pretty sure I have it here and will read it sooner or later.
    That sentence of women having to be self-sacrificing and unselfish is of course a put off. I’m looking forward to read it and find out what will happen.

  2. I love the first quote. That sounds marvellous and really something I should read after The Custom of the Country. Emilie is driven by pride and Undine by money.

    What Balzac says about women (“she can only please by self-sacrifice and unselfishness.”) is terribly conservative. His vision of daughters in Vendetta was very conservative too. I’ve always thought him mysoginistic. Women as doormats, great. Or how to deprive society from half its brains

    Something else, this quote “even in a princess her airs and manner would have transformed the chair on which she sat into an imperial throne.” reminded me of Montaigne. I’ve always been a fan of his statement:
    “Even on the highest throne in the world, we are still sitting on our ass”.
    Not the best way to learn respect to hierarchy, I agree. I always tend to see the human instead of the position.

  3. Emma & Caroline: I really liked this story and it feels as though Balzac is warming up for those great insights into human nature. I included the quote about self-sacrifice as it struck a chord. Balzac set up Emilie’s flawed character very well–she really is cruel, laughing at her suitors, but then after describing this terrible pride, he falls back on a traditional view of what’s wrong with Emilie–and of course he’s not doing her vanity and pride justice when he does that.

    There’s another great quote about how she acts like a confident mistress to her father rather than a daughter.

    Anyway, a great story.

  4. I really need to read more Balzac. I loved ‘Le Père Goriot’, but promptly forgot to read any more. Bad Tony!

    • Tony: I strolled over to your blog and see a fellow 19th C lit fan. It doesn’t get better than the 19th C in my opinion.

      Re: Balzac– I finished Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series and decided to move on to Balzac. I’ve read the odd one here and there but now want to read the lot.

      • Yes, I’m a big V-Lit fan 🙂

        Zola is another writer I should get into more. 2011 was very bad for French novels (mainly because my foreign-language reading time was monopolised by German!), but I’m hoping to get back into it next year 😉

  5. Charles Palliser? I’m a big fan if that’s who you mean.

    This sounds lovely. Datedly sexist I grant, but lovely all the same. Emilie soudns like a fascinating character, recognisable and well drawn.

    Do you know who translated the free Kindle version?

  6. It’s translated by Clara Bell.

    I meant the Palliser novels (6 of them) written by Trollope. Just finished the first one–Can You Forgive Her?

  7. I admire you for your ability to read Balzac – I’ve read three so far but got rather bogged down with Cousin Bette because I lost touch with the characters. Have you got the Repertory of the Comedie Humaine? A useful download.

    Thanks for visiting my site over the year and leaving comments – all much appreciated.

  8. Thanks Tom: I downloaded it and will put it on the kindle.

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