“Calm and smiling faces and placid brows covered sordid interests, expressions of friendship were a lie, and more than one man was less distrustful of his enemies than of his friends.”
Domestic Peace (La Paix du Ménage) is another gem from Balzac. This story is set in November 1809 at a ball given by the Comte de Gondreville. It’s a very special time: “The moment when Napoleon’s fugitive empire attained the apogee of its splendor.” Napoleon is supposed to attend, but he’s absent. Even though Balzac doesn’t describe the scene, off stage we can almost hear what takes place between Napoleon and Josephine as he breaks the news about the divorce, and she has a “nervous fit” and faints. I’d have preferred it if she’d thrown something at him. Balzac mentions the “incident” as a way of explaining Napoleon’s absence. Of course, just the mention of this famous moment brings history into Balzac’s tale, and two historical events are used to bookend the tale. While history is being made off stage, the lives of several of the characters at the ball are also undergoing irrevocable change.
Never, as contemporaries tell us, did Paris see entertainments more superb than those which preceded and followed the sovereign’s marriage with an Austrian archduchess. Never, in the most splendid days of the monarchy, had so many crowned heads thronged the shores of the Seine, never had the French aristocracy been so rich or so splendid. The diamonds lavishly scattered over the women’s dresses, and the gold and silver embroidery on the uniforms contrasted so strongly with the penury of the Republic, that the wealth of the globe seemed to be rolling through the drawing-rooms of Paris. Intoxication seemed to have turned the brains of this Empire of a day. All the military, not excepting their chief, reveled like parvenus in the treasure conquered for them by a million men with worsted epaulettes, whose demands were satisfied by a few yards of red ribbon.
That harks back to the quote from Napoleon: “Men will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon.” So much for the men–what of the women?
At this time most women affected that lightness of conduct and facility of morals which distinguished the reign of Louis XV. Whether it were in imitation of the tone of the fallen monarchy, or because certain members of the Imperial family had set the example–as certain malcontents of the Faubourg Saint Germain chose to say–it is certain that men and women alike flung themselves into a life of pleasure with an intrepidity which seemed to forbode the end of the world. But there was at that time another cause for such license. The infatuation of the women for the military became a frenzy, and it was too consonant to the Emperor’s views for him to try to check it.
Many ideas hit me with these passages. Just a few decades after the revolution and decapitated aristocracy have been replaced with aristocracy who are losing their heads over ribbon and uniforms. And then there’s that Austrian bride on the horizon. Did anyone recall the fate of the last Austrian who crossed the borders to rule the country? Did people really have such short memories?
Along with the “infatuation” for military men, there’s a mania for “everything glittering,” and “never were diamonds so highly prized.” Balzac adds sardonically: “Possibly the necessity for carrying plunder in the most portable form made gems the fashion in the army.”
The information about Napoleon’s decision to divorce Josephine is coupled with the details of general morality. He tells us that “between the first and fifth bulletins from the Grand Armee, a woman might be in succession mistress, wife, mother, and widow.” There’s the feeling that life is moving fast for everyone–a sense of frantic gaiety amongst those who attend the ball. One of the functions of the ball is to provide an “opportunity seized upon by wealthy families for introducing their heiresses to Napoleon’s Praetorian Guard, in the foolish hope of exchanging their splendid fortunes for uncertain favours.”
Two men at the ball, Baron Martial de la Roche-Hugon (also called Monsieur le Maitre des Requetes) and General Montcornet (also called Colonel at several points) notice a beautiful but tragically sad young woman sitting tucked away in a corner. The two men can’t take their eyes off the beautiful stranger and after she turns down the General’s request to dance, Martial, who already has the reputation of being a “lady-killer,” makes a bet that he will succeed in getting the mysterious beauty to dance with him. Martial, an ambitious, cold man, is all but engaged to a wealthy young widow, the “queen of fashion” Madame de Vaudremont. So the evening is spent with the various characters watching each other, and while the ball may seem to be fairly straightforward entertainment, there are undercurrents afoot. Everyone seems to harbour secrets and hidden agendas, and an evening’s entertainment shapes the lives of Balzac’s characters. Domestic Peace could of course refer to the relationship between Napoleon and Josephine, the turbulence between the characters at the ball, or even the various wars raged by Napoleon during his reign.
My favourite character here is Madame de Lansac who has some advice for Madame de Vaudremont:
A widow’s marriage ought not to be some trivial love affair. Is a mouse to be caught a second time in the same trap?
Translated by Ellen Marriage and Clara Bell.
This is available FREE on project Gutenberg and also on Amazon for the kindle. Finally, on the first page, I noticed that a line “produced by Dagny and John Bickers.” So thanks to you both for all your hard work that made this possible.