Monday, April 3, 2017

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“EUGENIE GRANDET” by Honore de Balzac (first published in 1833)

It is curious how sometimes it is one of a canonical author’s less esteemed novels, which becomes the most-often-read. I think most critics would agree that George Eliot’s great masterpiece is Middlemarch, with perhaps Adam Bede and Felix Holt coming up behind it. But for many decades, the one of her novels that was most often read was Silas Marner, partly because its (relative) brevity and its straightforward plot meant it was routinely set as a text for schoolchildren. Similarly, while critics would see something like Great Expectations or Bleak House as Dickens’ best, research tells me that A Tale of Two Cities has been printed more often than any other of the man’s novels, again to feed the school market.

When I’ve dealt with Honore de Balzac before on this blog, I’ve expressed my preference for Le Cousin Pons (my personal favourite), La Cousine Bette, La Rabouilleuse and Le Pere Goriot, all of which are highly prized by Balzacians. But it turns out that the Balzac best known to French students is Eugenie Grandet – so popular and well-known that a women’s fashion house has been named after it and it has frequently been dramatized on French television. Again, the reason isn’t hard to seek. Eugenie Grandet is a relatively short novel, its plot is fairly uncomplicated, and it does not deal with the seamier (or more erotic) elements that find their way into some of Balzac’s novels. So it is perfect for a junior lycee class.

And yet withal a good novel.

Eugenie Grandet is one of Balzac’s “scenes of provincial life”, being set in Saumur, mainly in the 1820s.

Old Felix Grandet, a cooper-turned-vintner, has made himself the richest man in Saumur by judicious dealings since the revolution. Under the first republic and Napoleon, he bought up the estate of an exiled aristocratic family and passed for a loyal servant of the new order simply by looking after his own self-interest. He was awarded the Legion of Honour. He remains rich under the restored monarchy. But he is a complete and obsessive miser, living in an unfurnished house with his wife, his only child Eugenie, and the serving woman Nanon. Through his wife’s family, he controls even more wealth than that which he has earned. A wealthy banker and an ambitious lawyer each proposes his son as a suitable spouse for Eugenie, simply because they hope to marry into miserly Grandet’s wealth.

In 1819, when Eugenie is 23, her cousin the 22-year-old Parisian dandy and man of fashion Charles Grandet comes to spend time in Saumur. Little does he know that his father has sent him there because his father has gone bankrupt and is leaving Charles in the miser’s care. Charles’ father commits suicide. When Charles hears the news, he is overcome with grief. Eugenie, the artless small-town girl, falls completely in love with this sparkling man from the metropolis, her love mingled with pity. She scandalises her sou-pinching father by having extra little luxuries (such as a decent breakfast) prepared for Charles. Her provincial naivete is shown when she reads the letters Charles’ has written to a noblewoman with whom he has been dallying. Eugenie comes across offhanded references to herself, and imagines them to be expressions of affection. (It is somewhat “out of character” and improbable that Eugenie should be reading somebody else’s private correspondence, but we’ll not quibble.) In return for some gilt-edged portraits, Eugenie gives Charles the precious collection of coins, which her father (who really likes to gloat over them himself) has given her for her birthdays. Charles and Eugenie exchange oaths of remembrance, at this stage perfectly sincere on both sides.

Meanwhile old Felix Grandet’s chief concern has been to get rid of Charles and extricate himself from his brother’s bankruptcy. This he does with every show of generosity. He sends his factor to Paris to wind up the affairs of Charles’ father with as little expense as possible. And he advances just enough capital to Charles to send him packing to find his fortune in the Indies.

Eugenie is shattered to be separated from Charles. 1820 rolls around. Felix Grandet wants to make his annual, gloating inspection of Eugenie’s precious coin collection. Eugenie does not have them. In his rage, there are now violent arguments between father and daughter. Indeed old Grandet confines Eugenie to her room and puts her on bread and water, and at one stage Eugenie threatens to stab herself. Old Grandet relents in his punishment of his daughter only when his wife (who is very much in the background throughout the narrative) dies. Grandet is aware that Eugenie is the legal heir to his wife’s money, so domestic peace reigns because Grandet wants to control the wealth that is legally Eugenie’s.

The years go by with chaste Eugenie clinging to the dream that one day Charles will return and marry her, even though Charles does not once write to her. Sometimes attended by Dr. Bergerin, old Grandet declines towards death, spending hours of every day staring at a pile of louis d’or arranged on the table. He dies as he lived, a miser.

Eugenie is now the mistress of the house. She does not burst out into extravagance, continues to live frugally, but pays the servant Nanon all the arrears in wages that her father never paid. Nanon is able to marry. Rich people still court the millionaire spinster Eugenie for her wealth, but she still dreams of Charles.

And what has really been happening to Charles over the years? He quickly proved to be an unscrupulous investor and adventurer who made a fortune in the slave trade. He returned to France a wealthy man in 1825, planning to marry into the peerage to add nobility to his wealth and refusing to accept any responsibility for any of his late bankrupt father’s remaining debts. At last he writes to Eugenie, “freeing” her of any commitment to him, and matter-of-factly explaining that she would be no asset to his social life.

Of course it ends unhappily. Selflessly, Eugenie makes a marriage of convenience to a man who can act as her factor in paying off all Charles’ debts, thus ensuring Charles’ “happiness”. By the last pages, Eugenie has virtually renounced the world, lives as simply as her upbringing taught her, gives to charity and (as her husband-of-convenience is now dead) is quite alone. She who could have been the perfect wife and mother is possessed only of gold.

In terms of society and politics, the novel would have carried considerable irony for its original readers. Written in the early 1830s, after the revolution of 1830, which overthrew the Bourbons for the last time, the novel shows characters scrabbling for promotion and advancement under a regime which had already vanished. Thus there is an inbuilt sense of vanity or futility to their efforts. Of course it reflects the financial and commercial power of the middle classes. After all, old Grandet has made his fortune in the unique circumstances of the first revolution and at the expense of the old aristocracy.

Morally, the novel seems another illustration of the Balzacian concept of real virtue not being expedient in this world. Significantly the most positive act of will by the pure and virginal heroine is her final act of renunciation to advance the worldly happiness of somebody else. Success in society depends on money and cunning – not on selfless virtue.

The plot is of such uni-linear simplicity that it is easy to believe, as the commentaries tell us, that it “just grew” out of what was originally planned as a simple short story. Typical Balzacian features are the monomania of old Grandet, the intrigue over an inheritance, the moments of wild melodrama (Eugenie brandishing a knife and threatening to stab herself) and a certain structural clumsiness, with the intrusion of a lengthy account of how old Grandet wrapped up his brother’s business dealings. (Surprisingly, this account of complicated financial dealings was the only part of the novel Andre Gide liked.)

But its chief strength is its portrait of a pinched and vindictive provincial society, including the grasping rivalry of wealthy families for Eugenie’s hand. When Charles first enters the story, Balzac twice uses an expressive metaphor in calling him a “snail which has entered a beehive”. The outsider, who is a threat, is about to be smothered and stung in the honeyed self-interest of the locals.

This novel is still not my favourite Balzac, but, despite the almost unbelievable goodness [and naivete] of Eugenie, it is a clear and skilful piece of storytelling, uncluttered and giving a convincing picture of both miserliness and misplaced love.

One final thought – a harsh father who thwarts his heiress daughter’s love for a man who, it turns out, was not really worthy of her attention? This is very much the plot of Henry James’ Washington Square. James was no lover of Balzac, but I wonder if he had read Eugenie Grandet.

Eccentric Footnote: A quick check of the internet tells me that Eugenie Grandet has been filmed a number of times in Europe, but not in English-speaking countries. The best-known versions were an Italian production in 1945 and a French production in 1993. I have seen neither of these, but I have, thanks to Youtube, seen the most ancient surviving film adaptation of the novel. This was one of Hollywood’s very rare attempts at filming Balzac. Called The Conquering Power, and directed by Rex Ingram, this (silent) 1921 adaptation of Eugenie Grandet starred Alice Terry as Eugenie and Rudolph Valentino as Charles. For most of its length it follows the novel’s plot fairly faithfully, although the characters are dressed as if the tale were set in the 1890s or thereabouts. Alice Terry is a stiff, wooden actress at the best of times, but to give him credit, Valentino is quite adept and seductive as Charles. But – oh dear! – this century-old film tacks on a happy ending. Old Grandet dies symbolically crushed by his own wealth and tormented by a devil representing “the spirit of gold”. Charles rushes back to Eugenie. It was only a misunderstanding that ever separated them. Romantic clinch and happy-ever-after fadeout. It seems that “the conquering power” is love. Balzac would probably have said that it was money.

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