One of the things I’ve enjoyed about reading my way though Balzac is his take on the French Revolution–specifically its fallout and the impact on various characters. History classes follow the dates, the deeds and some of the more famous names, and I grew up with the images of Carry On, Don’t Lose Your Head & Robespierre’s Head of Secret Police, Citizen Camembert “keeping a watchful eye out for queue jumpers.”
But back to Balzac and his story The Recruit (The Conscript). This is a poignant tale set in 1793–the story of a mother’s love for her son. Madame de Dey, a widow of a Lieutenant-General, a Comte and a Chevalier of the Orders, and the mother of an only son, decided to remain in France during the Revolution. She’s moved to the small town of Carenton “hoping that the influence of the Terror would be little felt there.” Balzac tells us that this was a reasonable supposition as “The Revolution committed but few ravages in Lower Normandy.” Since moving to Carenton, Madame de Dey has found it “advisable to open her house to the principle bourgeois of the town and to the new governmental authorities; trying to make them pleased at obtaining her society, without arousing either hatred or jealousy.” Interesting idea and one that perhaps plays into the idea that these less fervent citizens will be flattered to be invited into her home and rub elbows with a member of the aristocracy.
So we have a delicate scenario. Obviously, Madame de Dey is guillotine material, but she hopes that by establishing relationships with people she normally would have ignored, she will form ties, allay suspicion, and indicate, subtly, that she is ready and willing to accept the new social order. Of course, while Madame de Dey’s strategy is probably the only one open to a woman in her circumstances, nonetheless, she could be inviting a viper into her drawing room. And aren’t all those social evenings laced with feelings of unease, and then if anyone asks questions beyond the lightest social banter, wouldn’t the conversation have a dangerous edge?
Madame de Dey is bravely trying her best. She’s only 38 years old, and still “preserved” Balzac tells us. It’s no wonder then that Madame de Dey’s strategy of ‘keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer’ is working–perhaps working too well. The poor woman has a couple of unwanted suitors sniffing around.
The first four of these personages, being bachelors, courted her with the hope of marriage, furthering their cause by either letting her see the evils they could do her, or those from which they could protect her. The public prosecutor, previously an attorney at Caen, and the manager of the countess’s affairs, tried to inspire her with love by an appearance of generosity and devotion, a dangerous attempt for her. He was the most to be feared among her suitors. He alone knew the exact condition of the property of his former client. His passion was increased by cupidity, and his cause was backed by enormous power, the power of life and death throughout the district.
It’s a horrible position for the young widow. So far, Madame de Dey has juggled these suitors by setting them against each other, but how long can this last? How long before words of love, threats and offers of protection morph into something darker?
I found myself comparing Madame de Dey to Penelope. Penelope was also surrounded by pushy suitors, but in her case she waited for Odysseus to come home, so she spent her days weaving a tapestry–promising to pick a new husband when it was completed, and she spent her nights undoing her daytime work. Madame de Dey, however, longs for her son–not a lover, and she has chosen to stay in France, in spite of great personal danger, for her son’s sake. She knows that if she joins him in exile, all their property will be confiscated, so she imagines that she has made the best choice open to her–her son is safe in exile, and she is safely guarding the property and hoping that in time he will be able to return safely and claim his wealth. Again, this is an interesting strategy, so we see that Madame de Dey is intelligent and capable of conceiving of a long-term strategy.
Of course, since there’s a story here, the story lies in what goes wrong with Madame de Dey’s plan. I really liked how Balzac constructed this because he shows so clearly that you can plan what you want but that plan will always be impacted by the unpredictable actions of other people. In other words, you can plan for what you can see coming. Madame de Dey’s greatest treasure is her son, and she will do anything to keep him safe. It doesn’t sound like it’s too much to ask, does it? And she’s a very sympathetic character–married off young to some nasty old man, and yet somehow she’s come to terms with all the bad stuff in her life. She’s calm, gentle, kind–just a good person–but a woman whose life is swept up in events not of her making.
The story is book-ended by a mystical concept regarding “intellectual space,” the ability to “abolish space in its two forms of Time and Distance,” and “sympathies” that transcend our static notions regarding “the laws of space.”
Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley and FREE for the kindle.