“The fatal blunder of mistaking the enchantment of desire for that of love.”
Balzac’s novella A Second Home (Une Double Famille) begins in 1815 with an impoverished mother and daughter slaving away as embroiderers and barely making ends meet. They live in the Rue du Tourniquet-Saint-Jean–a rather dingy place by the sounds of it, with the widest stretch of the street “less than six feet across.” This bit of description serves to explain just why Madame Crochard and her daughter Caroline, who rent two cellar rooms with windows “their sills about five feet above the ground” watch and are in turn watched by those who pass by. Caroline, the heroine of the tale, is of course, young, sweet, beautiful and modest, and the mother, Balzac tells us “almost seemed to be offering her daughter, her gossiping eyes so evidently tried to attract some magnetic sympathy by manoeuvres worthy of the stage.” If this is indeed the plan, it eventually works as Caroline’s beauty and plight touches the heart of a passerby–an intense and rather unhappy man of about 40 who bears the evidence of “long mental suffering.” He’s attracted to Caroline, and she to him, and over the course of many months, long looks through the windows lead to a relationship. Although initially Caroline and her mother nickname him “the Gentleman in Black,” he tells them his name is Monsieur Roger.
The story takes one glance backward but also three leaps ahead in time. The first leap ahead finds Caroline installed in a house in the Rue Taitbout. It’s 1816:
Hangings of gray stuff trimmed with green silk adorned the walls of her bedroom; the seats, covered with light-coloured woolen sateen, were of easy and comfortable shapes, and in the latest fashion; a chest of drawers of some simple wood, inlaid with lines of a darker hue, contained the treasures of the toilet; a writing table to match served for inditing love-letters on scented paper; the bed, with antique draperies, could not fail to suggest thoughts of love by its soft hangings of elegant muslin; the window-curtains, of drab silk with green fringe, were always half drawn to subdue the light; a bronze clock represented Love crowning Psyche; a carpet of gothic design on a red ground set off the other accessories of this delightful retreat.
Caroline is now Roger’s mistress–although the uglier side of things is not referred to, and Caroline must be innocent indeed as she simply doesn’t seem to ‘get it.’ She drops her name Crochard and calls herself Caroline de Bellefeuille. Roger doesn’t visit every day, and often gives work as an excuse, but of course, that’s not the only reason.
The second time leap takes us forward to 1822. Caroline is now the mother of two children, and Roger (Caroline still doesn’t know his last name) arrives and gives her a “deed of gift of securities” for 3,000 francs which will be their daughter Eugenie’s “marriage portion.” In contrast, their son, Charles gets 1500. It’s difficult to completely swallow the story that Caroline never questions Roger about his absences, his identity, or his life away from her, but Balzac argues
Finally, invincible curiosity led her to wonder for the thousandth time what events they could be that led so tender a heart as Roger’s to find his pleasure in clandestine and illicit happiness. She invented a thousand romances on purpose really to avoid recognising the true reason, which she had long suspected but tried not to believe in.
Of course Caroline’s world comes tumbling down, and eventually Roger’s secret is revealed, and the third leap in time takes us forward to 1833. It’s at this point that A Second Home takes a strange turn, and it’s almost as though Balzac does an-about face with the moral of the story. All the moral justification and explanations about Roger’s behaviour have led to disaster…
In the story, Balzac, ever the bon vivant displays his loathing of religious maniacs:
And besides, bigots constitute a sort of republic; they all know each other; the servants they recommend and hand on from one to another are a race apart, and preserved by them, as horse-breeders will admit no animal into their stables that has not a pedigree. The more the impious–as they are thought–come to understand a household of bigots, the more they perceive that everything is stamped with an indescribable squalor; they find there, at the same time, an appearance of avarice and mystery, as in a miser’s home, and the dank scent of cold incense which gives a chill to the stale atmosphere of a chapel. This methodical meanness, this narrowness of thought, which is visible in every detail, can only be expressed by one word–Bigotry.
One point Balzac makes is that there’s a danger in a religious wife who will listen to a priest over her husband. Ah, the pathology of authority….
In Prometheus, a biography of Balzac by André Maurois, there’s the following passage:
A bourgeois of the Marias, a lover of aristocratic women, he had no wish for violent change. He condemned the extremists on both sides. In the Scènes de la Vie Privée he deplores the follies of the counter-revolutionary and anti-Bonapartist purges. All forms of bigotry shocked him. In the Abbé Fontanon, the confessor of Angélique de Granville (Une Double Famille), he gives us a picture of an ambitious, hypocritical priest which might have been drawn by the anti-clerical Stendhal
What I liked most about A Second Home is that while the tale has a veneer of sentimentality, underneath the sugary sweetness is some rather nasty stuff, and Balzac, ever the expert on human nature, explores the power politics of marriage and how one man who breaks out from bigotry causes immeasurable damage to others. What would Roger (and his creator) have made of the Frank Sinatra song: The Tender Trap?
Some starry night, when her kisses make you tingle
She’ll hold you tight, and you’ll hate yourself for being single
And all at once it seems so nice
The folks are throwing shoes and rice
You hurry to a spot, that’s just a dot on the map
You’re hooked, you’re cooked, you’re caught in the tender trap
A Second Home is translated by Clara Bell and available FREE for the kindle.
The Tender Trap lyrics from Cahn/Van Heusen