Given the sheer volume of Balzac’s work, it stands to reason that there’s a variance in quality. I discovered the same sort of swing in quality in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, so I shouldn’t be too surprised to be disappointed in Balzac’s novella The Hated Son which was far too sentimental for my tastes. And that’s not mentioning the drama which drags this story into soap opera territory. How can I forget lines like this:
“Die, then, both of you!” he cried. “You, vile abortion, the proof of my shame–and you,” he said to Gabrielle, “miserable strumpet with the viper tongue, who has poisoned my house.”
Balzac’s story is built around an interesting idea–the suspicion of illegitimacy, which is still an issue these days, but back in 1591 when the eldest son was supposed to inherit the castle, title and lands, legitimacy was central to the continuance of the so-called ‘great line.’ And this brings me to Comte d’Herouville and his poor little wife Jeanne, who when the story begins, goes into labour when her pregnancy is only of 7 months duration. Perhaps if this were a love match, there would be no problem, or just a few scurrilous rumours that could do no damage, but the Comte knew that Jeanne loved another when the marriage was arranged, and then the Comte isn’t a nice man:
Implacable as the war then going on between the Church and Calvinism, the Count’s forehead was threatening even while he slept. Many furrows, produced by the emotions of a warrior life, gave it a vague resemblance to the vermiculated stone which we see in the buildings of that period; his hair, like the whitish lichen of old oaks, gray before its time, surrounded without grace a cruel brow, where religious intolerance showed its passionate brutality. The shape of the aquiline nose, which resembled the beak of a bird of prey, the black and crinkled lids of the yellow eyes, the prominent bones of a hollow face, the rigidity of the wrinkles, the disdain expressed in the lower lip, were all expressive of ambition, despotism, and power, the more to be feared because the narrowness of the skull betrayed an almost total absence of intelligence, and a mere brute courage devoid of generosity. The face was horribly disfigured by a large transversal scar which had the appearance of a second mouth on the right cheek.
Balzac is treading into phrenology territory in his description of the Comte, and one of the other tidbits we pick up about the Comte is that on top of everything else, he’s none too clean.
The fifty-year-old Comte at one point loved a woman known as La Belle Romaine (I couldn’t stop thinking of lettuce), but we are told about his “successes in gallantry” (translation: score): “he owed them to the terror inspired by his cruelty.” A loaded statement. How can gallantry and cruelty go in the same sentence when discussing the Comte’s success in love? I’m guessing that the Comte was a brute and took what he wanted, and for the purposes of the story, that includes Jeanne who is coerced into marriage by the Comte’s promise to save Jeanne’s lover, a Huguenot if she agrees to wed the Comte. And so in this manner, Jeanne, one of richest heiresses in France became the bride of a man she loathes.
So the marriage begins badly and only becomes worse. A terrified Jeanne, who has already received a warning from her husband that she’d better not give birth before the 9-month mark, gives birth to a puny male child 7 months after her wedding day. A “bonesetter” named Beauvouloir is called to the Comtesse’s bedchamber. He’s a strange character–part opportunist, not exactly what you would call a ‘good’ man by any means and yet Balzac calls him “the least bad man in Normandy” which doesn’t say a lot for the local population.
The baby’s name is Etienne, and the rest of the story concerns his fate. To add a plot twist, Beauvouloir is in love with Gertrude, the bastard child of the Comte d’Herouville and his abandoned mistress La Belle Romaine. Gertrude grew up in a convent and it’s there that Beauvouloir met her and fell in love. This coincidence eventually constructs the story’s central dilemma.
Balzac’s great observations on human nature seem to be missing here, and instead the unsubtle story relies on drama and hysterics. With victimhood branded on her forehead, Jeanne isn’t a particularly interesting character. This would have been a lot more interesting story if she’d possessed some guile and was capable of manipulating the Comte on some level, but the Comte and his wife, are unfortunately, created in bold shades of black and white. The most curious character here is Beauvouloir, and yet Balzac doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with this man. There are hints of devious self-serving decisions, and yet Balzac leaves this largely unexplored.
Translated by Katherine Wormeley