The Ball at Sceaux

THE HUMAN COMEDY – Honoré de Balzac First 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 sceaux ball


Analysis of the 0euvre Le bal de Sceaux (The Sceaux Ball) is the story of a vain, insolent young girl from a wealthy family, who doesn’t want to follow her father’s wise advice: she rejects a young man she liked and to whom she was attracted, but who had the misfortune not to be bornLater, she finds him, a brilliant man who has miraculously become a count and peer of France, while she has married a noble but elderly admiral. If these two tales (La Maison du chat qui pelote and Le bal de Sceaux) were only two apologues, they could be considered secondary: even if in the La Maison du chat qui pelote Balzac had recalled with some emotion the fate of his younger sister Laurence, whose parents had urged her to marry a nobleman, M. de Montzaigle, who abandoned her, a grief from which she died at the age of twenty-three. It’s because of something else that these stories still have the power to interest us. First and foremost, it was because they brought something new to the table. It was the discovery of “private life”, indeed, a subject rarely dealt with at the time, but above all the discovery of the individuality of all “private life”. For Balzac, a family environment is a social microclimate with its own atmosphere, local customs, mentality and folklore. The house, the furniture, the clothes, the tone, the whole thing we call “manners” bears the same mark. And this warping of the being imposed by the family is both that of a certain social milieu and that of a family milieu. Every animal has its burrow, and every family has its own atmosphere. The trader is thus a certain social animal, classifiable in social zoology, and, at the same time, in this class a particular animal that is well placed to see this. The Sallambiers, her maternal family, had spread throughout the Marais, and all looked alike, a perfect illustration of her thesis and easy models to paint. For Balzac, this “zoological” presentation is not a pleasant way of depicting. It’s an essential part of his description of society. Balzac had been deeply impressed by the great naturalist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s theory on the origin of animals. This theory asserted that the various animal species all originated from a single original prototype, from which they had differentiated through a slow, gradual adaptation of the living being to the environment in which it was to live. Balzac then came up with the idea of transposing this theory, as it seemed to him to explain the differences we noticed among men. Social life, he thought, had created as manyspecies of human beings as there arespecies of animals. A soldier, a lawyer, a worker, a shopkeeper, a woman of the world or a housewife, are all different beings made by society, living in their own environment, with their own coat, gait and interior. These different varieties of human beings stem from the specialization to which they have been condemned by social life, which shapes human types as the environment shapes animal forms. Describing the mores of a society and the human types it produces is therefore a “natural history of society”. This was one of the principles of his social nomenclature, of which La Maison du chat qui pelote is a typical application.


Monsieur de Fontaine

But at the same time, discovering this microclimate means making history. The patriarchal mores of the Guillaume family in La Maison du chat qui pelote are a piece of the past preserved intact in the present. It’s important to note them, just as it’s important to describe their typical store, their business habits, the lives of the apprentices entrusted to them: because all this will soon be gone. Balzac is an archaeologist of the near past. And Augustine Guillaume’s misfortune is that her parents were unable to hold on to this tutelary past. Despite their buckled shoes, they were modernists, they allowed a marriage that their traditions should have forbidden. They pay for this mistake against themselves. It’s the opposite in the Sceaux ball, but it’s basically the same inscription of history in private lives. A contemporary of Louis XVIII, the Comte de Fontaine understood his king’s politics. The “billion emigrants” was a mistake, and that’s no way to repair misfortunes and reward loyalty. But the king has a simpler and more effective way of making the fortunes of those he wants to protect: he can make them marry for money by putting favors and titles in the basket. This is what the Comte de Fontaine understood, and what his daughter did not. She plays the grande dame, scorns the business bourgeoisie who represent the future because they represent money, is mired in tradition like the old Guillaume and loses herself in the stubbornness that would have saved them. A private life is not just a microclimate, it’s also an island exposed to storms. You can’t pitch your tent against the wind of history. It’s not a heroic idea, but it’s unfortunately a fair one. La Maison du chat qui pelote was a work of observation, Le bal de Sceaux is an exercise in political analysis.

History After condescendingly refusing all her suitors on the grounds that they weren’t well-born, Monsieur le Comte de Fontaine’s daughter Emilie falls in love with Maximilien Longueville, whom she meets at a country ball in Sceaux. A discreet, mysterious young man, Emilie knows nothing about him. Nonetheless, his aristocratic bearing appealed to her. What’s more, the care and attention he gives his fragile sister makes him a touching character. The young people decide to meet again. They become very much in love with each other, and Maximilien’s visits to the Comte de Fontaine become more and more frequent. Knowing nothing about this handsome stranger, the Comte de Fontaine conducts his own investigation into the Longueville family, and discovers that they run a fabric business. Terribly disappointed, Emilie goes to the fabric store to find Maximilien hard at work. Stricken with pride, Emilie married her old uncle, the 70-year-old vice-admiral and Count of Kergarouët, for his titles. A few years after her marriage, Emilie discovered that Maximilien was in fact Viscount de Longueville, who had become a peer of France. Finally, the young man explains why he kept a secret store: for him, it was a matter of maintaining family interests to the detriment of his own life, sacrificing himself for his sick sister and for his brother who had gone abroad. phsceaux1

Genealogy of characters Longueville: (vicomte Guiraudin de), from which : Auguste; Maximilien; Clara; Illustrious family extinguished in 1793. Fontaine (de): Noble family from Poitou, represented by a comte de Fontaine, chouan then deputy, died 1824 or 1828. Married a Kergarouët, hence : A son, a magistrate, who marries the daughter of a salt millionaire; A military son married a Mongenot, resulting in a son, a civil servant, who married Anna Grossetête and a daughter who married the Receiver General Planat de Baudry; A daughter who married the magistrate Baron de Villaine; Emilie successively married her uncle, Vice-Admiral de Kergarouët and Charles de Vandenesse. Kergarouët: Noble family from Brittany, represented by : A Kergarouët who married Portanduère, father of Savinien(Ursule Mirouët); His sister married the Comte de Fontaine; Vice-admiral, comte de Kergarouët, uncle of the above (1755-1835). Wife X died during emigration(La Bourse). Widowed, he married his great-niece, Emilie de Fontaine, who in turn married Charles de Vandenesse; Viscount de Kergarouët, nephew of the Vice-Admiral, married a Pen-Hoël, producing four daughters, including Charlotte, born in 1820.  

Source analysis: Preface (Volume I) compiled from the complete text of the Comédie Humaine published by France Loisirs 1986 under the patronage of the Société des Amis d’Honoré de Balzac.

History source: Wikipedia, the universal encyclopedia.

Character genealogy source: Félicien Marceau “Balzac et son monde” Gallimard.

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