Balzac’s plan of the Comédie Humaine begins with ‘Scènes de la vie privée’ (‘Scenes from private life’), and that section opens with ‘La Maison du chat-qui-pelote’ (‘At the Sign of the Cat and Racket’).
As we can see in the opening sections of ‘The Cat and Racket’, one of the main characters, the artist Théodore de Sommervieux, observes the darkened shop, the inhabitants and the daughter Augustine and secretly paints two masterpieces that bring him fame:
At dusk one evening, a young man passing the darkened shop of the Cat and Racket, had paused for a moment to gaze at a picture which might have arrested every painter in the world. The shop was not yet lighted, and was as a dark cave beyond which the dining-room was visible. A hanging lamp shed the yellow light which lends such charm to pictures of the Dutch school. The white linen, the silver, the cut glass, were brilliant accessories, and made more picturesque by strong contrasts of light and shade. The figures of the head of the family and his wife, the faces of the apprentices, and the pure form of Augustine, near whom a fat chubby-cheeked maid was standing, composed so strange a group; the heads were so singular, and every face had so candid an expression; it was so easy to read the peace, the silence, the modest way of life in this family, that to an artist accustomed to render nature, there was something hopeless in any attempt to depict this scene, come upon by chance.
Scenes from private life, an artist spying upon a private scene, one that becomes famous.
The next instalment in the ‘Scenes from private life’ is listed as ‘Le Bal de Sceaux’ (‘The Ball at Sceaux’ or in my translated version ‘The Sceaux Ball’ 1830). It tells the story of the de Fontaine family (an allusion to the fables of Jean de La Fontaine?), the honour of earning various dignities and awards, and more specifically the story of Émilie de Fontaine, who refuses a number of eligible suitors under the pretext that they are not peers of France.
During the short banishment of royalty, Monsieur de Fontaine was so happy to be employed by Louis XVIII., and found more than one opportunity of giving him proofs of great political honesty and sincere attachment. One evening, when the King had nothing better to do, he recalled Monsieur de Fontaine’s witticism at the Tuileries. The old Vendéen did not let such a happy chance slip; he told his history with so much vivacity that a king, who never forgot anything, might remember it at a convenient season. The royal amateur of literature also observed the elegant style given to some notes which the discreet gentleman had been invited to recast. This little success stamped Mansieur de Fontaine on the King’s memory as one of the loyal servants of the Crown.
A story that is deeply concerned with titles, peerage, connections and standing in society, it touches on “youth, adolescence, and their faults” (as described by Balzac in “his Avant-propos” and quoted in “Balzac as he should be read: The Comédie Humaine arranged in logical order of reading according to Time of Action” by William Hobart Royce).
‘Though young and of an ancient family, he must be a peer of France,’ she said to herself. ‘I could not bear not to see my coat-of-arms on the panels of my carriage among the folds of azure mantling, not to drive like the princes down the broad walk of the Champs Elysées on the days of Langchamps in Holy Week. Besides, my father says that it will some day be the highest dignity in France. He must be a soldier – but I reserve the right of making him retire; and he must bear an Order, that the sentries may present arms to us.’
And these rare qualifications would count for nothing if this creature of fancy had not a most amiable temper, a fine figure, intelligence, and, above all, if he were not slender. To be lean, a personal grace which is but fugitive, especially under a representative government, was an indispensable condition. Mademoiselle de Fontaine had an ideal standard which was to be the model. A young man who at first glace did not fulfil the requisite conditions did not even get a second look.
As the Mademoiselle de Fontaine becomes more finnicky and her prospects begin to diminish, her reluctance becomes the subject of mirth amongst the family and serious discussions are had between father and daughter, “You are making game of me, papa. Well, I can assure you that I would rather die in Mademoiselle de Condé’s convent than not be the wife of a peer of France.”
As seen in other works of Balzac’s there is a large cast of characters, some, who play crucial roles, are introduced late in the piece, for example here an uncle suddenly appears about a third of the way into the work.
An uncle of Emilie’s, a vice-admiral, whose fortune had just been increased by twenty thousand francs a year in consequence of the Act of Indemnity, and a man of seventy, feeling himself privileged to say hard things to his grand-niece, one whom he doted, in order to mollify the bitter tone of the discussion now exclaimed —
‘Do not tease my poor Emilie; don’t you see she is waiting until the Duc de Bordeaux comes of age!’
The old man’s pleasantry was received with general laughter.
‘Take care I don’t marry you, old fool!’ replied the young girl, whose last words were happily drowned in the noise.
Without giving away too much of the narrative Emilie falls in love with somebody who she believes is not able to receive a peerage. Will she abandon her long held beliefs for love? Will she marry the “old fool”, a character who plays as a humorous aside throughout the second half? Another moral tale of the heart ruling over the mind and the follies of youth, another scene from private life, one that is a little drier than ‘the cat and racket’ as it spends a significant amount of time investigating peerage, titles, standing in society. I’m sure these will fade away as I move towards the “Scènes de la vie de province” (‘Scenes from Provincial life’).
Here we may not be observing private scenes as in the obvious metaphor of a painting created from stolen glimpses through doorways, we observe them through the private moments of the young Mademoiselle firm in her convictions having never before experienced true love, we observe the absurd family discussions about peerage, all private matters. Less memorable than the first instalment in the Comédie Humaine, however one more piece of the jigsaw puzzle.