By Charles Matthews

Sunday, May 30, 2010

2. Lost Illusions, by Honoré de Balzac, pp. 32-73

Part One: The Two Poets, 2. Madame de Bargeton
The town of Angoulême sits on the top of a rocky promontory with the suburb of L'Houmeau at its foot. The suburb is "busy and prosperous," while "the administration, the Bishop's palace, the courts of justice and the  aristocracy" are in the upper town: "two social zones, everywhere and constantly hostile to each other." David's print shop and the pharmacy that Lucien's father once owned are in the lower town. "It follows that to introduce a man from L'Houmeau, the son of a chemist, in to Madame de Bargeton's circle constituted itself a minor revolution." But "Madame de Bargeton was enamoured of art and letters, an extravagance of taste, a mania which Angoulême openly deplored."

She had been born Marie-Louise-Anaïs de Nègrepelisse, the daughter of a country gentleman who "belonged to the younger branch of one of the most ancient families in southern France." Monsieur de Bargeton was also from an old family whose fortunes and titles had been lost; he had inherited Bargeton House in Angoulême "and had nothing more than the income from his land, which amounted to about ten thousand francs a year." Anaïs de Nègrepelisse, known as Naïs, had been educated by the Abbé Niollant, who hid out during the Revolution in her father's home and repaid his protector by educating his daughter. "The Abbé imbued his pupil with his own spirit of enquiry and readiness to pass judgement; and it did not occur to him that qualities essential in a man can become defects in a woman destined to the humble occupation of a wife and mother." He also gave her a taste for art and literature.
Naïs had weighed up the idea of marriage: the prospect did not entice her. She objected to submitting her intelligence and her person to any of the men of poor calibre and negative personality who had some her way. She wanted to command and was expected to obey. 
Her father chose for Monsieur de Bargeton, 22 years her senior, because he was "sufficiently devoid of wit and will for Naïs to be free to be behave as she pleased, and unmercenary enough to marry her without a dowry." Her plan was for them to move to Paris as soon as she came into her inheritance, but her father "was to keep her waiting so long that his son-in-law predeceased him," forcing her to "remain in Angoulême, where Naïs's brilliant mental qualities and the wealth of sensibility lying dormant in her heart were destined never to fructify, but rather, in course of time, to invite ridicule."
The story of the first eighteen years of Madame de Bargeton's married life can briefly be told. For some time she lived on her own substance or on distant hopes. Then, once she recognized that the life in Paris to which she aspired was barred to her through themediocrity of her fortune, she began scrutinizing the people about her, and her sense of isolation made her shudder.
Then finally, Monsieur Sixte du Châtelet entered her life when he was appointed Director of Indirect Taxes in Angoulême. "He was well-built and good-looking, a good dancer, expert in all games, with a moderate talent for amateur theatricals and drawing-room ballad.... Totally insensitive to poetry, he would boldly as leave to take ten minutes' stroll in order to produce some impromptu poem, some quatrain as dull as ditch-water, with more rhyme than reason in it." During the Napoleonic wars, he had been in the Empress's service, and was sent to Egypt as a diplomat, where he was captured and "wandered about for two years from desert to desert and from tribe to tribe as a captive of the Arabs who successively sold him to one another without drawing the slightest advantage from his talents."
The part Monsieur du Châtelet had played in her Imperial Highness's service, his reputation as a ladies'man, the singular events and sufferings attendant upon his travels in Egypt, all served to excite curiosity in the women of Angoulême. Having studied polite manners in the Upper Town, Monsieur le Baron Sixte du Châtelet adapted his conduct to them. He played the invalid and took on the role of a blasé and disillusioned man.
In Naïs he "glimpsed the possibility of her becoming a widow with great expectations, in short of making a marriage alliance with the Nègrepelisse family." He courted her by indulging her literary interest: "He brought her all the latest books and read the newly-published poetry to her. They went into raptures together over the works of the young poets. Her raptures were genuine, but he was bored." So when the headmaster of the lycée Lucien had attended showed him "some admirable lines from Lucien's pen," he went to Naïs with the news that "A budding genius had been born in L'Houmeau!"

She excitedly summoned Lucien, whose sister, Eve, "was able to draw a few gold coins from her savings-box in order to buy Lucien an elegant pair of shoes from the best shoe-maker in Angoulême and a new suit from the most fashionable tailor." He impressed Madame de Bargeton with his "exceptionally good looks, his shy demeanour and his voice. The poet was already poetry incarnate." And she struck him as "made for love but not in love, and delicate in spite of the strength in her." For his part, Monsieur du Châtelet "sensed a rival in this handsome young man."
He puffed himself out by relating -- and exaggerating -- the perils he had encountered on his travels; but if this made its mark on the imagination of Lucien the poet, it certainly did not frighten Lucien the lover.
Lucien becomes a regular at Madame de Bargeton's, where the condescension of the others in her circle "stirred his bile and confirmed him in a resentful republicanism which many patricians-to-be adopt at their first contact with high society." She becomes his patron, making him "her reader, her secretary."
And so Lucien, at first intimidated by this woman's high rank, experienced all the lively fear, hope and despair which, like so many hammer-strokes, dealing pain and pleasure alternately, beat down of first love and drive it so deep into the heart.
When he ventures to call her "Naïs," she scolds him for "using the name by which everybody called her" and "offered her beautiful angel the only one of her names which no one had used, and consented to be 'Louise' for him alone." She decides to "teach him Italian and German and perfect his manners."

But the gossips start talking. "Some people felt that 'society' was about to be turned upside-down." And when du Châtelet discovers that Lucien's mother is the midwife known as "Madame Charlotte," he decides to take his rival down. But she reminds him that Madame Chardon is the last member of the Rubempré family -- in the first chapter we Lucien's father had saved her from the guillotine by claiming she was pregnant with his child -- and that she was a penniless widow who has to support herself. "Madame de Bargeton's cool common sense silenced the lamentations of the nobility." And although Madame de Chandour sets up her own rival salon on Wednesdays, "Madame de Bargeton held her salon every evening," so her visitors get in the habit of it. She also gets even with du Châtelet by calling him "'Monsieur Châtelet,' thereby petrifying him by showing him that she knew his assumption of the 'particle' to be illegal." And one member of her circle says, "Before the Revolution, the greatest noblemen admitted nobodies, people like this little poet from L'Houmeau, to their houses.... But they did not admit tax-collectors, and after all, that is what Châtelet is." Du Châtelet is "cold-shouldered by everybody," so he "made up to Lucien and claimed to be his friend," even throwing a dinner in his honor. Meanwhile, he was "watching for an opportunity to exterminate Lucien."

Madame de Bargeton decides to invite the "flower of the aristocracy" to an event at which Lucien will be the centerpiece, reciting one of his poems. ''She advised him boldly to repudiate his own father by assuming the noble name of Rubempré and to take no notice of any outcry provoked by this change of patronymic." Through a family connection, she endeavors to get the sanction of the king to the name change. She "reawakened in him the fever for social distinction which David's cool reasoning had calmed, and proved to him that high society was the only stage on which he could play his part." Lucien kisses her hand "with the frenzy of a poet, a young man, a lover," and she allows him to "press his trembling lips on her brow."
Lucien, who did not know that his course lay between the infamy of a convict-prison and the palms awarded to genius, was soaring over the Mount Sinai of the Prophets without seeing that below him were the Dead Sea and the horrible winding-sheet of Gomorrha. 
Still, he feels compelled to share his good fortune with David, and he writes a letter to Madame de Bargeton urging her to invite David to the party, otherwise he'll feel compelled not to appear. Lucien "had not stopped to consider that it was impossible for David, in the twinkling of an eye, to leap over the gulf which it had taken him five months to cross" or that it might bring social "disaster" to her. David had none of the "elegance of manner, distinction of features and tone of voice" that Lucien possessed. And after he sends the letter, he begins to regret it. "Of such stuff was Lucien made: he veered as easily from bad to good as from good to bad."

In fact, David is, without knowing it, in a position to inherit a good deal of money from his father, whose investment in the Marsac vineyard had proved highly lucrative. He is still shyly in love with Lucien's sister, Eve, and "although the great love he bore her only expressed itself in trifling ways, Eve was well aware of it."

Madame de Bargeton's reply to his letter arrives, and it is diplomatically crafted, invoking the prejudice of "those who belong to the aristocracy of ignorance" and their inability to "recognize that intelligence confers nobility." So she says she would like to have a look at David before she decides to invite him. "Lucien did not know with what art a 'Yes' is used in polite society to prepare for a 'No,' or a 'No' as a preliminary to 'Yes.'" But when he tells David that she wants to see him, David declines: "My way of life is settled, Lucien. I am David Séchard, a printer of Angoulême.... I should be laughed at by bourgeois and nobility alike." He urges Lucien to "go forward alone and lay your hands on the prizes!"

And then David also advises Lucien that "his poem on Saint John of Pathmos was perhaps too biblical to be read in a circle with little acquaintance with apocalyptic poetry, and urges him to read from a volume of poems by André Chénier that they had recently admired. "Lucien was going to have his first taste of mundane ignorance and coldness of heart. He went to David's house to pick up the volume of poetry." And Eve suggests to David that they have a stroll along the Charente and talk about Lucien.

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