A Marriage Contract

THE HUMAN COMEDY – Honoré de Balzac Third 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 The marriage contract, published in 1835 as La fleur des pois, is defined by Balzac himself in a rather strange way. In August 1835, as he set to work, he wrote to Madame Hanska: “In La Fleur des pois, I’m going to look back on myself. I’ve painted all the misfortunes of women; it’s time to show the pains of husbands too. “It’s not certain that this is an idea that will arouse public enthusiasm. It would be more accurate to say that he wanted to show how a young husband can lose his happiness, his wife and his fortune all at once, without understanding the means used to achieve this. The marriage contract is the story of this theft, of happiness, of a woman, of a fortune. As such, it relates to two long-held convictions in Balzac’s mind, both of which played an important role in the conception of his novels. The first is the idea that a certain number of great fortunes, which can be explained neither by the transmission of an inheritance, nor by high office, nor by industry, have their origins in “hidden crimes” in the history of families or individuals. These “hidden crimes” are modern tragedies. They are accomplished non-violently through deception, cunning, and sometimes simply through skill: they are deft misappropriations of assets that take place under cover of the law. Quoting from one of his early works, the Code of Honest PeopleTo give just a few examples of these deft thefts, Balzac writes: “A merchant who earns a hundred a cent steals; a munitions dealer who, in order to feed thirty thousand men at ten centimes a day, counts the absentees steals; another burns a will; this one confuses the accounts of a guardianship…A marriage contract or a transaction, bursts like a bomb and sets fire to your fortune.” This dramaturgy of money is staged in a number of Balzac’s novels and short stories. Balzac doesn’t hesitate to use as titles the names of legal battles in which fortunes have been won or lost. Le Contrat de mariage tells the story of one such embezzlement. At the same time, however, Le Contrat de mariage (The Marriage Contract ) is the application of a related idea, no less new and no less fertile, which is also at the root of other works by Balzac. It’s an idea that can be confused with the first, because it achieves the same result, albeit with very different means: that of “moral crimes”. Let’s hear Balzac describe it again in an unfinished and little-known essay, Les Martyrs ignorés (Ignored Martyrs) Looking at society as a whole, I saw…an immense flaw in human laws, a frightful gap, that of purely moral crimes against which there is no repression, which leave no trace, as elusive as thought. I saw countless victims without vengeance, I discovered the horrible torments inflicted in the interior of families, in the deepest secrecy, on gentle souls by hard souls, torments to which so many innocent creatures succumb…(inflicted by those) who, after having tested in certain souls the places that nobility, religion, greatness make vulnerable, thrust their arrows into them at every moment…My eyes widened, I saw an eternal subject of social observation in these secret struggles. ” Another dramaturgy that opens up a field as vast as the first, and that can be combined with the preceding mechanisms. The Marriage Contract is not a direct application of this kind of torture: but it shows how a clever, vindictive woman can destroy a household by employing a “destabilization” akin to this procedure. By taking a look at society as a whole, Balzac wants to show us that there is a huge flaw in human laws, an appalling shortcoming, that of purely moral crimes against which there is no repression, which leave no traces, evidence, as elusive as thought. The marriage contract is not a direct application of this kind of torture: but it does show how a clever, vindictive woman (Madame Evangelista) can destroy a household (that of her daughter and son-in-law) by employing a destabilizing tactic akin to those used in moral crimes. Mrs Evangelista will deceive her future son-in-law by concealing the dilapidated state of the immense fortune once left by her husband. Two sentences from the marriage contract explain Mrs. Evangelista’s behavior. One is a phrase from the old notary Mathias, which defines very well how one commits those “moral crimes” whose secret Balzac had penetrated. When he discovered in this woman’s soul intentions which, while not involving villainy, crime, theft, deceit, swindling, any evil sentiment or anything blameworthy, nevertheless included all the criminalities in germ, Master Mathias felt neither pain nor generous indignation… He was accustomed by his profession to the clever calculations of people of the world, to those skilful treacheries more fatal than an assassination.” Catherine de Médicis was the model. Mrs. Evangelista, outwardly affectionate and devoted, adoring the young household, dictated all her daughter’s conduct, arranged for her to ruin her husband, followed the progress of this ruin step by step, bought back underhand through a straw man the goods that Paul de Manerville was obliged to sell one by one. Compared to Mme Evangelista,” explains Henry de Marsay, “Papa Gobseck is a flannel, a velvet, a calming potion. In the end, Mme Evangelista secretly took control of all her son-in-law’s properties and forced him to give up the majorat he had reserved the right to create. Underneath her lazy, good-natured Creole exterior, she satisfied that “Hispano-Italian” hatred she had angrily conceived during her first defeat. Physically, her island-princess languor comes from Countess Merlin, one of the Directoire belles whom Balzac had met through the Duchesse d’Abrantès. And she also owes something, according to Henri Gauthier, to the duchess’s mother, Mme Permon, from a Corsican family who had experienced the same splendors and setbacks as Mme Evangelista. Picture 2 Natalie de Manerville was her mother’s accomplice from the start. What a charming sight,” exclaims Félicien Marceau, “this Nathalie Evangelista in her white cashmere dress with pink bows, pretty as a heart, lively, quick, leaping like a steed on its steppe…” But he adds: “She’s got a bird’s brain, but a mean, petty bird that gives nasty pecks. But he adds: “She has the brains of a bird, but a mean, petty bird, with a nasty beak.” Henry de Marsay, more concise, said: “Ce petit crocodile habillé en femme.” She is seen only in lost profile. We know her only by what we’re told and what we guess about her. But we are told enough to find in her a fresh, translucent, iridescent specimen of those “heartless women” of whom the Countess Ferraud of Colonel Chabert and the Marquise d’Espard of L’Interdiction were more advanced studies. One word in the novel tells us the truth about this graceful gazelle. Speaking of her life as a young, adored and always triumphant star, de Marsay makes no mistake: “If delicate women perish in this profession, those who resist must have iron organizations, consequently little heart, and excellent stomachs.” This remark is one of the keys to Balzac’s feminine psychology. One of the strangest characters in La Comédie humaine is the ruthless expert who, at the start of the story, guides Paul de Manerville’s first steps into elegant life and, at the end, shows him the error of his ways. He is quoted with admiration in almost all the works in Scènes de la vie parisienne and in some of the Scènes de la vie privée. And yet, it only plays an important role in this extraordinary History of the Thirteentells the story of a secret association of daring young people who have set themselves the task of satisfying all their fantasies and at the same time ensuring their power by always lending each other blind assistance. We only see him at work in these romantic adventures that Alexandre Dumas would not have disowned. He was young at the time, and his beauty, immense wealth, egotism and cold-bloodedness made him a formidable roué in terms of cruelty and audacity. He’d be just another passenger, if Balzac hadn’t succeeded, thanks to his system of character reappearance, in making him a character that his reader discovers only by bringing together the scattered indications given to him in one novel or another. Thanks to the combination of all these snapshots taken of him at different times in his life, Henry de Marsay takes on as much consistency for Balzac’s readers as Rastignac or Vautrin or Rubempré. Henry de Marsay is the model, the master recognized by all these “yellow-gloved privateers”, these million-dollar hunters who scour Parisian society, thanks to a skill, a knowledge of women, a science of men, a judgment on events that is always cynical and always infallible. His career is not just a social one, it is also, and above all, a political one. As he himself says in his letter to Paul de Manerville, he is a disciple of the Prince de Talleyrand. To serve his ambition, he married, after having had the most brilliant feminine successes, an English spinster who was the sole heiress of a billionaire Manchester brewer. This is his way of understanding marriage. He understands politics in the same way. He is generous with his friends, sparkling in conversation, swift in action, profound in calculation. His principles are the same as those Vautrin explained to Rastignac under the linden trees of the Pension Vauquer. But as the son of a great lord, he’s unassailable. What leads Vautrin to the penal colony, leads de Marsay to the greatest successes. Rastignac will become a minister: but in a ministry where de Marsay is chairman of the council. That’s what you learn when you read La Comédie humaine as a novel, not as a series of novels. Picture 3

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

The story Everything had started out well. Paul de Manerville, the most handsome, elegant and wealthy heir to the Bordeaux family nicknamed “the flower of peas”, seemed destined for the prettiest, most brilliant “debutante”, Natalie Evangelista, known as “the queen of the ball”. The young people fall in love with each other, marry and move to Paris. Five years later, we learn that they have separated, and that the ruined husband must leave to seek his fortune across the seas. It’s the result of a duel between Paul de Manerville and his mother-in-law. In fact, a clause in the marriage contract is at the root of this duel. Paul de Mannerville is an only child, Natalie Evangelista an only child. Their marriage contract must include a description of both fortunes. Paul’s notary, a venerable and cautious tabellion, realizes that his future wife’s fortune is unclear. To establish the husband’s fortune and prevent it from being squandered, he proposed the creation of a majorat. The majorat consists of inalienable real estate, jointly owned by both spouses, set up as noble land and reserved for the eldest son in each generation. It constitutes a heritage sanctuary that neither spouse can touch. Natalie’s mother, Mrs. Evangelista, sees her daughter frustrated by the large fortune she thought her marriage would secure. She has a young notary who warns her off. On his advice, she had a clause inserted stipulating that if there were no sons, the patrimonial land thus constituted would fall to the community.

Picture 4

Mrs Evangelista and her daughter

It’s from this clause that the drama unfolds. If there were no children, Natalie would one day own this inalienable part of Paul’s fortune, having made him spend what was not protected. Neither of them knows it, but Mrs. Evangelista, the mother-in-law, does. The instrument of the hidden crime “the trap” is in place. It’s the moral crime that completes the spoliation. In the admirable scenes between the two notaries, made comical by Balzac’s use of jargon and pathetic by the gravity of the issues at stake, Madame Evangelista had hoped to deceive her future son-in-law by concealing the dilapidation of the immense fortune her husband had once left her. The creation of the majorat destroyed this maneuver: on the contrary, it placed his daughter in her husband’s dependency, since everything that accrued to her from her father’s fortune was locked up in the untouchable majorat. Despite the clause added at the last minute, Mrs Evangelista, a proud and vindictive Creole, had been deeply hurt that her ruse had been discovered and foiled, and she had conceived a hatred for her future son-in-law that explains the outcome. After this scene, five years pass. We only know what happened in the end. Two exchanges of letters tell us all about it. The first two letters are Paul’s farewell to his wife as he sets sail for India, and Natalie’s response: deep, sincere, naive love and the comedy of love. We can see that Paul hasn’t understood a thing. He thinks he had a lovely mother-in-law and a loving wife. The other two are Paul’s letters to his friend Henry de Marsay, announcing his ruin and departure, and Henry de Marsay’s reply, which explains everything. Work written in : Paris September-October 1835

The characters Madame Evangelista: Born Casa-Réal in 1781, wife of Sieur Evangelista, a Spanish merchant in Bordeaux, who died in 1813. A social widow whose lifestyle and unbridled luxury have ruined her. Calculating, venal and greedy, this woman will use any means to restore a reputation tarnished by a dissipative life. Indeed, the daughter is the instrument used by the mother to ensure the continuation of their life of pleasure and dissipation. Mademoiselle Natalie Evangelista: Daughter of Madame Evangélista, born in 1802. She is the wife of Paul de Manerville. Miss Evangelista, with no dowry, but whose deceptive looks – beauty, wit, grace – alone represent the family’s financial future, will be the instrument of this ruined mother. Paul de Manerville: Noble family from Normandy, one of whose members married a wealthy Bordeaux heiress and settled in that city – hence a son, Paul-François-Joseph, born in 1794. Married Natalie Evangélista in 1822. Wealthy Bordeaux heir and only son nicknamed “the flower of peas”, Paul de Manerville is the victim of a Machiavellian plan hatched by mother and daughter Evangelista. Mathias: Notary in Bordeaux, to a wife who died in 1826, a son who was a magistrate and a married daughter. Paul de Manerville’s family notary. A 69-year-old avowed probe with twenty years’ experience. He will inform his client of his in-laws’ financial problems and advise him to set up a majorat. Solonet: Notary in Bordeaux, he marries a mulatto. A solicitor in the Evangelista family, this young notary embraced the know-how of his time. As a good bourgeois eager to make a fortune quickly, he is unscrupulous and risks the capital entrusted to him in dubious investments and speculations. Thanks to the duplicity of her notary, Mrs Evangelista manages to introduce the clause that will ruin her son-in-law. Henry de Marsay: Son of Lord Dudley, born in 1792 or 1801, recognized by his father-in-law de Marsay, who married his mother, already pregnant with Lord Dudley’s child. Widowed, she married the Marquis de Vordac. Around 1827, Henry de Marsay married Dinah Stevens, the daughter of an English brewer born in 1791. Friend and confidant of Paul de Manerville. He is the merciless critic of marriage who, at the beginning of the story, guides Paul’s first steps into the elegant life – warning him of the risks of marriage. In the end, he’ll show her the error of her ways. He is quoted with admiration by Balzac in almost all the Scènes de la vie parisienne works, and in a few of the Scènes de la vie privée.

Source for character genealogy: Félicien Marceau “Balzac et son monde” (Balzac and his world).

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