Modeste Mignon

THE HUMAN COMEDY – Honoré de Balzac Fourth volume of works of Honoré de Balzac edited by widow André Houssiaux, publisher, Hebert and Co, successors, 7 rue Perronet – Paris (1877) Scenes from private life Picture 1


Analysis of the work Modeste Mignon first appeared in serial form, in 1844, in the Journal des Débats : for several years, Balzac, like all the great novelists of his generation, had been reserving the premiere of his novels for the major daily newspapers, which paid dearly for this advantage. After this pre-publication, Balzac had three successive editions of his novel published by different editors, and finally it was republished a fourth time the following year, in the edition of La Comédie humaine, where Balzac placed it among the Scènes de la vie privée. Balzac’s perpetual financial needs naturally explain this cascade of editions accompanied by the corresponding royalties. This classification among the Scènes de la vie privée was all the more natural given that this series, according to Balzac, was intended to point out the dangers that girls and young women encounter at the beginning of their lives. Modeste Mignon is, in fact, “the story of a young girl”, suitable for instructing young girls, and also the story of a marriage, the great event of their lives: it was a response to a meditation on marriage that Balzac had begun two years earlier in the Memoirs of two young bridesBalzac’s milieu is the provincial haute bourgeoisie, the family of a large shipowner in Le Havre, and he also changes the register: Modeste Mignonis a little too novelistic, and lacks the gravity and exemplary value of the novel that preceded it. The subject was provided by Madame Hanska. She had written a short story inspired by her own history, probably the letter romance between a young girl and a great poet to whom she wrote. She destroyed it, she says, but she wrote about it in a letter and Balzac replied, asking her to remake it on a slightly different canvas. “First you have to paint a provincial family where, amidst the vulgarities of this life, there’s an exalted, romantic young girl, and then, through correspondence, transit to the description of a poet in Paris. The poet’s friend, who will continue the correspondence, must be one of these men of spirit who make themselves the caudataires of a glory, it is a pretty painting that of these servants-riders, who take care of the newspapers, make the races, etc.. The denouement must be in favor of this young man, against the great poet, showing the quirks and asperities of a great soul that frightens the little ones.” This was exactly the subject of Modeste Mignon, which Balzac began writing immediately, even before receiving Madame Hanska’s reply. But almost immediately, Balzac changed the denouement of the novel, giving the subject a far more interesting meaning. The “asperities” of a great writer’s soul will disappear; instead, we’ll see the underbelly and servitudes of a career, and the novel will show the opposition between the dream that young girls have when their imaginations run wild over some idol and the reality they discover when they get to know her better. This is by no means a novel by letters, since the letters reproduced in this novel are merely documents, occupying a relatively small part of the whole. So there’s no point in comparing Modeste Mignon with Goethe’s correspondence with Bettina von Arnim, which should only be mentioned as a reference to a real-life situation. There’s more of an analogy with Goethe’s Torquato Tasso, which also shows a confrontation between an ideal image and real life, a rapprochement also invited by the names of Balzac’s characters, which have a certain assonance with those of Goethe’s characters. Balzac’s first concern, as his canvas indicates, is to “paint a provincial family”. It’s the usual Balzac beginning, the description of a certain milieu at a certain date. But Balzac had a very special instinct for linking everything he touched to the history of this molten century, whose painter he wanted to be. With quite different elements, Modeste Mignon ‘s staging is as significant a document of 19th-century history as the archaic existence of Mr. Guillaume’s house at Le Chat-qui-pelote. The scene is Le Havre. Balzac didn’t know Le Havre. But he did spend a day or two there in November 1843, in the company of a friend. That’s enough for him. The history of the city of Le Havre at this time encompasses a whole section of the economic history of the Restoration. When Charles Mignon, Modeste’s father, poor and on the verge of expatriation, arrived in Le Havre in 1816, he did so at the height of a gold rush. The Continental Blockade has just been lifted, and foodstuffs and goods unobtainable during the Empire are reappearing. Le Havre begins its destiny as a major port. The land is still for nothing. Charles Mignon made his fortune in just a few years. Ten years later, in 1827, the economic crisis that led to the revolution of 1830 began. Charles Mignon is ruined by this crisis, filing for bankruptcy: this is the state in which we find Modeste’s family when the novel begins.

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Modeste Mignon

But the fate of Charles Mignon himself is no less edifying. The son of a noble family from Provence, the Mignon de La Bastie, ruined after the tragedies of the Revolution, a volunteer in the Italian army, an officer under Napoleon, married in Germany to the daughter of a wealthy banker, a prisoner in Russia, half-soldier after Waterloo, a wreck with no future after so many adventures, he is a typical specimen of the destinies of the early 20th century. In the end, Charles Mignon, once again rich and Count de La Bastie, represents the rise of the wealthy bourgeoisie that would take over from the nobility under the July monarchy. Modeste is another period portrait: that of the “exalted, romantic” young girl, a product of Romantic literature. But her penchant for romance is grafted onto a feminine type found in many of Balzac’s novels: the provinces, solitude, a still, regular life, and, in this seemingly peaceful setting, some insidious idea that settles in, progresses and soon takes over all thought – these are the elements found both in Eugénie Grandet, whose story is the whole story, and in Rosalie de Watteville’s Albert Savarus or Hélène d’Aiglemont at the start of La Femme de trente ans. Balzac’s always admirably depicted path is all the more striking given that Modeste, born to a German mother and married on a campaign, has the tender, dreamy temperament traditionally attributed to German brides. She bears a striking resemblance to Madame Hanska. Unfortunately, she also had some with Madame Hanska’s cousin, Calixte Rzewuska, Princess Teano-Gaetani, who, according to her biographer, spoke seven languages and wrote allegorical novels. Modeste speaks only three, and she has fewer ambitions, but she has an exceptional erudition for a young girl of that era that sometimes embarrasses us. Apparently, it was a way of reminding Madame Hanska of all that this character owed her.

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Ms Latournelle

But the most original character is Canalis, the writer to whom Modeste addressed his letters and who had his secretary reply. Balzac is amused by this ferocious portrait, typical of the generation that saw the writer transformed into a star, and at the same time a composite portrait in which informed readers could recognize a few traits of the celebrities of their time. Canalis has Victor Hugo’s big forehead, he’s a baron like Victor Hugo is a count, and his verses are harmonious and fluid like Lamartine’s. He stages angels like Vigny, he shows his heart like Musset. And he belongs to the publisher Dauriat’s stable, an imaginary stable in which readers easily recognize those of the Romantics’ editors. Ladvocat or Renduel. It’s a composite portrait, a kind of robot portrait, in which Balzac has brought together the particular signs of all the descriptions. But there’s another key to Balzac’s approach to Madame Hanska: he wants her to think of Liszt, who was courting her and whom he portrays in his letters as a charlatan against whom he warns her. The deception that underpins the plot is discovered when the father returns from America a millionaire and resumes his rank and even his title. Modeste’s dowry was of interest to Canalis and a number of other suitors. The confrontation of these various dowry hunters is neither very happy nor very plausible. Balzac sometimes has intrepid bad taste. But this confrontation, essential to the novel Balzac first published under the title Les Trois amoureux, is necessary if the novel’s meaning is to become clear. By comparing the languid, cauteleux Canalis with his reckless but loyal and tender secretary, the young heiress learns that dreams are deceptive, that literary stars seen up close are disappointing, and that reality, less glittering, is often a surer promise of happiness. It’s the same lesson as the one learned in the Memoirs of two young bridesof the parallel destinies of Louise de Chaulieu and Renée de Lestorade. Modeste Mignon is a novel for girls, for girls of that time. Yet there’s an amusing social comedy at the end that’s one of the best parts of the novel. At the receptions given in honor of Modeste, we see characters from another time, strange survivors of the court of Louis XVI, still wearing the powder, red and flies of Marie-Antoinette’s years, speaking the language spoken at Versailles, observing the somewhat ceremonious politeness: to the wealthy bourgeois of the new reign, they seem inhabitants of another planet. Balzac loved these meaningful contrasts, and showed them several times. We too often forget that the duchesses who had turned twenty-five in 1790 were only sixty-five in 1830. They still believed in the salons, in the power of the grandes dames, in the favor of the king. It was all over. There’s always something melancholy about rubbing shoulders with a fragment of the past in another time. This worldly comedy ends with a denouement borrowed from Molière. Canalis is prepared for the trap in which Trissotin is caught at the end of Les Femmes Savantes. The dowry evaporates in a twist of fate: Canalis disappears too. It’s a bit big. What’s good in the theater isn’t always good in the novel. But we had to please the soap’s subscribers. It’s a preoccupation that’s repeated several times in Balzac’s work.

The Story Modeste’s father, Charles Mignon de La Bastie, had made a very rapid fortune, and the bankruptcy that followed prompted him to leave for India for four years to start a new business. During her absence, Modeste and her mother remain under the watchful eye of trusted friends. But the young girl launches into a feverish correspondence with the Parisian poet Melchior de Canalis, whom she admires and would like to meet. Canalis announces his arrival at Le Havre. But he’s cheating on her. He sends his secretary in his place: Ernest de la Brière, a cultured, delicate young man who immediately falls in love with Modeste. It wasn’t until Charles Mignon returned from the Indies, his fortune made, that Canalis began to take an interest in the young girl he’d previously looked down on. Ernest, the passionate lover, is in despair, all the more so as a new suitor comes to Modeste: the Duc d’Hérouville. The Mignon family’s new-found wealth made it possible to host a number of parties and receptions, at which Melchior de Canalis and Hérouville competed with such brio that they stunned Modeste. But the young girl discovered Ernest de la Brière’s treasure trove of sincerity, and eventually chose him.

Genealogy of characters Mignon de la Bastie: Noble family from Comtat Venaissin whose members were all massacred around 1794, except for one son, Charles, born in 1776, who became an officer and then a shipowner. Married Bettina Wallenrod, German, in 1804; Hence : A child who died in infancy; Another dead child; Bettina-Caroline, born 1805, died c. 1827; Marie-Modeste, born in 1808, married Ernest de la Brière in 1830. Canalis: Constant-Cyr-Melchior (baron de), poet born in 1800; married a Moreau. Latournelle: Simon-Babylas notary in Le Havre, married Agnès Labrosse, father of son Exupère. La Brière: (Ernest de), born in 1800, secretary successively to the Minister of Finance and Canalis, married Modeste Mignon de la Bastie in 1830, and was henceforth known as Vicomte de la Bastie.  

Source analysis: Preface compiled from the complete works of the Comédie Humaine (Tome II) published by France Loisirs 1985 under the auspices of the Société des Amis d’Honoré de Balzac.

Source: Wikipedia, the universal encyclopedia. Character genealogy source: Félicien Marceau “Balzac et son monde” Gallimard.

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