La Grenadiere is a short story which given its subject matter is inevitably heavy on sentiment, but I’ll move that aside and instead concentrate on the story’s strengths–the descriptions of the house known as La Grenadiere-a “little house on the right bank of the Loire as you go downstream,” near the village of Saint-Cyr.
Balzac gives a long description of the house and its surrounding two acres of vineyards. While the house is relatively humble and crude, its isolation, picturesque views and spectacular setting make this house a rare jewel for those lucky enough to rent it from its owners.
La Grenadiere itself, halfway up the hillside, and about a hundred paces from the church, is one of those old-fashioned houses dating back some two or three hundred years, which you find in every picturesque spot in Touraine. A fissure in the rock affords convenient space for a flight of steps descending gradually to the “dike”–the local name for the embankment made at the foot of the cliffs to keep the Loire in its bed, and serve as a causeway for the highroad from Paris to Nantes. At the top of the steps a gate opens upon a narrow stony footpath between two terraces, for here the soil is banked up, and walls are built to prevent landslips. These earthworks, as it were, are crowned with trellises and espaliers, so that the steep path that lies at the foot of the upper wall is almost hidden by the trees that grown on the top of lower, upon which it lies. The view of the river widens outr before you at every step you climb to the house.
At the end you come to a second gateway, a Gothic archway covered with simple ornament, now crumbling into ruin and overgrown with wildflowers–moss and ivy, wallflowers and pellitory. Every stone wall on the hillside is decked with this ineradicable plan-life, which springs up along the cracks afresh with new wreaths for every time of year.
The worm-eaten gate gives way into a little garden, a strip of turf, a few trees, and a wilderness of flowers and rose bushes–a garden won from the rock on the highest terrace of all, with the dark, old balustrade along its edge. opposite the gateway, a wooden summer-house stands against the neighbouring wall, the posts are covered with jessamine and honeysuckle, vines and clematis.
And we haven’t even reached the house yet…
A garden, such as Balzac describes, can only be cultivated over a period of many years, and it achieves that rare state of established, almost deserted, neglected and yet abundant nature which seems to exist beyond the tending hands of man.
Balzac’s story takes place during the Restoration and concerns a mother who rents the house and takes up residence with her two sons. She calls herself Mme Willemsens but in actuality, she’s Augusta, Countess of Brandon. This short tale is the end of the story of the Countess of Brandon (she appears elsewhere in La Comédie Humaine,) but not the end for her two sons. The story is really an episode in the life of the mother and her sons, so its worth resides in picking up the lives of these characters later….
Balzac’s descriptive powers excel here in the description of the house and he manages to create an impression that the timeless qualities of the house and the garden far outlast the people who pass through its door. The result is a snapshot in the history of this marvelous house–almost as though the ghost of these memories still reside within its walls.