Eugenie Grandet

Honore Balzac

A blameless girl and her monstrous relatives clash over love and money in Balzac’s matchless portrayal of greed in a French provincial town.

‘Me have that golden gown!’

Eugénie Grandet

In some country towns there exist houses whose appearance weighs as heavily upon the spirits as the gloomiest cloister, the most dismal ruin, or the dreariest stretch of barren land. These houses may combine the cloister’s silence with the arid desolation of the waste and the sepulchral melancholy of ruins. Life makes so little stir in them that a stranger believes them to be uninhabited until he suddenly meets the cold listless gaze of some motionless human being, whose face, austere as a monk’s, peers from above the window-sill at the sound of a stranger’s footfall.

One particular house front in Saumur possesses all these gloomy characteristics. It stands at the end of the hilly street leading to the castle, in the upper part of the town. This street, which is little used nowadays, is hot in summer, cold in winter, and in some places dark and overshadowed. One’s footsteps ring curiously loudly on its flinty cobble-stones, which are always clean and dry; and its narrowness and crookedness and the silence of its houses, which form part of the old town and are looked down upon by the ramparts, make an unusual impression on the mind. There are houses there which were built three hundred years ago, and built of wood, yet are still sound. Each has a character of its own, and their diversity contributes to the essential strangeness of the place, which attracts antiquaries and artists to this quarter of Saumur.

It is difficult to pass by these houses without stopping to wonder at the enormous beams, whose projecting ends, carved with grotesque figures, crown the ground floor of most of them with a black bas-relief. In some places the cross beams are protected by slates which draw blue lines across the crumbling walls of a house which is topped by a high-pitched roof, which has bowed and bent under the weight of years, and whose decayed shingles have been warped by the long-continued action of alternate sunshine and rain. Worn blackened window-ledges catch the eye, whose delicate carving can scarcely be distinguished, and which seem too slight a support for the brown flower-pot full of pinks or roses, set there by some poor working woman. Further along the street one notes the doors, studded with huge nails, on which our ancestors recorded the passions of the age in hieroglyphs, once understood in every household, the meaning of which no one will now ever again unravel. In these symbols a Protestant declared his faith, or a Leaguer cursed Henri IV, or some civic dignitary traced the insignia of his office, celebrating the long-forgotten glory of his temporary high estate as alderman or sheriff. The history of France lies written in these houses.

Beside the ramshackle, rough-walled hovel, where the artisan has set up a glorified plane, the emblem of his craft, stands a nobleman’s mansion. Above the round arch of the stone gateway some relics of his coat of arms may still be seen, scarred and broken in the many revolutions that have shaken the country since 1789.

They do business in the ground floors of the houses in this street, but you could not call these low-ceilinged rooms, innocent of glass window and display case, cavernous, dark, bare within and without, shops. Lovers of the medieval would recognize in them our ancestors’ workshops in all their primitive simplicity. Their stout doors, heavily barred with iron, are divided into two parts, the upper of which is folded back during the daytime, and the lower, fitted with a bell, swings to and fro continually. Air and daylight filter into the damp cavern behind through the upper part of the door, or through the space left between the ceiling and the low wall which forms the shop-front, when the solid shutters, set at elbow level and held in place by heavy iron bolts, are removed every morning. This wall serves as a place on which to set out goods, as an indication of the nature of the business carried on.

There are no cheap-jack attractions there. The samples displayed consist of two or three tubs of salt and salt codfish, or a few bales of sailcloth or coils of rope, copper wire hanging from the rafters, cask hoops along the walls, or some lengths of cloth on the shelves. If you go inside, a neat and well-kept girl with the fresh good looks of youth, white-neckerchiefed, red-armed, lays down her knitting and goes to call her father or mother, who comes to attend you and supply your want, stolidly, pleasantly, or with an independent air, according to his temperament or hers, be it for two sous’ worth of merchandise or for twenty thousand francs’ worth.

You will see a dealer in barrel staves sitting at his door twiddling his thumbs as he gossips with a neighbour: to all appearances he possesses nothing more than some rickety bottle racks and two or three bundles of laths, yet his well-stocked timber-yard on the quay supplies all the coopers in Anjou. He knows, to a stave, how many casks he can do for you, if the vintage is good. A few scorching days make his fortune. A spell of rainy weather ruins him. In a single morning the price of a puncheon may rise to eleven francs or fall to six.

Here, as in Touraine, the business done in the district is dependent on the weather’s vagaries. Vinegrowers, landowners, timber-merchants, coopers, innkeepers, lightermen are all on the watch for a ray of sunshine. They go to bed in a state of dread, fearing they may hear next morning that there has been frost in the night. They dread rain, and wind and drought as well: they would like the weather arranged to suit them, and humidity, warmth, and cloud laid on according to their requirements. There is a perpetual duel in progress between celestial forces and terrestrial interests. Faces lengthen or deck themselves with smiles as the barometer falls or rises. You may hear the words ‘This is golden weather!’ passed from mouth to mouth, or the remark ‘It’s raining gold louis!’ exchanged between neighbours, from one end to the other of this street, the old High Street of Saumur; and everyone knows to a sou just how much profit a sunbeam or a timely shower is bringing him, and is mentally engaged in setting down figures accordingly on the credit side of his ledger. After about twelve o’clock on a Saturday in the summer you will not be able to do a sou’s worth of business with these fine businessmen. Each of them has his vineyard, his own little bit of land, and goes there for the week-end.

Since all are dependent on the same conditions for their business they have no secrets from one another. Everything – expenses, purchases, and sales, to the very profit each will make, is known in advance, and so these people find themselves free for ten hours out of twelve to pass the time in happy diversion, in observation of their neighbours, comment on their affairs, and constant spying on their comings and goings. A housewife cannot buy a partridge without the neighbours asking her husband if the bird was cooked to a turn. A girl cannot put her head out of the window without being observed by all the groups of idlers. Consciences are clear there, or at least open for inspection, and the apparently impenetrable, dark, and silent houses are completely lacking in secrecy.

Life is lived almost entirely in the open air. The members of every family spend the day sitting by the door, and have all their meals and quarrels in public. No passer-by escapes being looked over by sharp eyes, and this scrutiny is the modern equivalent of the running fire of jeers and gibes a stranger arriving in a country town was subjected to in former days. Many good stories survive to remind us of that old custom, and the nickname ‘lingo-slingers’ applied to the natives of Angers, who excelled in that provincial sport.

The former mansions of the old town, which at one time housed the noblemen of the region, are all situated at the upper part of this street, and among them the sombre dwelling which is the scene of the events of this story. These houses are venerable relics of an age when men and manners had that character of simplicity which it becomes more and more difficult to find in modern France. When you have followed the windings of this impressive street whose every turn awakens memories of the past, and whose atmosphere plunges you irresistibly into a kind of dream, you notice a gloomy recess in the middle of which you may dimly discern the door of Monsieur Grandet’s house. Monsieur Grandet’s house! You cannot possibly understand what these words convey to the provincial mind unless you have heard the story of Monsieur Grandet’s life.

The nature of the reputation Monsieur Grandet enjoyed in Saumur, its causes and its effects, will not be fully grasped by anyone who has not lived for a time, however short, in a country town. Monsieur Grandet, who was still in 1819 called ‘honest Grandet’ by certain old people, though their number was noticeably declining, was in 1789 a master cooper in a very good way of business, who could read, write, and keep accounts. When the French Republic put the confiscated lands of the Church in the Saumur district up for sale, the cooper, then aged forty, had just married the daughter of a rich timber merchant. With all his own available money and his wife’s dowry in hand, a sum amounting to two thousand gold louis, Grandet went to the office of the authority for the district, and there, with the help of his father-in-law who offered two hundred double louis to grease the palm of the rough-hewn Republican who was in charge of the sale of the public estates, he bought for the price of a crust of bread, in a deal legally, if not morally, unassailable, the finest vineyards in the neighbourhood, an old abbey, and some small farms.

As the inhabitants of Saumur were not very revolutionary-minded, honest Grandet passed for a daring fellow, a Republican, a patriot, a man interested in advanced ideas, whereas the cooper’s interests and ideas were solely concerned with vines. He was nominated a member of the district administration of Saumur, and exercised a pacific influence in both politics and commerce. Politically, he befriended the fallen aristocracy and did his best to prevent the sale of the property of the Royalists who had fled; commercially, he supplied the Republican armies with one or two thousand hogsheads of white wine, and took in payment for them some meadowland of first-class quality, the property of a community of nuns, which had been held back from the first sales.

Under the Consulate the worthy Grandet became Mayor, carried out his public duties soberly and discreetly, and lined his purse more discreetly still. When Napoleon became Emperor his status was established, and he was from that time forward known as Monsieur Grandet. But Napoleon had no love for Republicans, and he replaced Monsieur Grandet, who had been looked upon as a red Republican, by a large landowner, a man with the aristocratic de before his name, and hopes of becoming a baron of the Empire. Monsieur Grandet said good-bye to his civic honours without regret. In the interests of the town he had seen to it that excellent roads were constructed, passing by his lands. The taxes he paid, on the extremely moderate assessment of his house and property, were not heavy. Since his various vineyards had been assessed, moreover, the unremitting care and attention he had given to his vines had resulted in their becoming classed as la tête du pays, a technical term applied to vineyards producing wine of the finest quality. He could reasonably claim the cross of the Legion of Honour, and he was awarded it in 1806.

In that year Monsieur Grandet was fifty-seven years old, and his wife about thirty-six. They had one child, a little girl of ten. Providence no doubt wished to console Monsieur Grandet for his fall from office, for in the course of the year he inherited three fortunes, two through his wife, from her mother Madame de la Gaudinière, née de la Bertellière, and her grandfather old Monsieur de la Bertellière, and one from his own grandmother on his mother’s side, Madame Gentillet. Nobody knew just how much these inheritances were worth, for the three old people had been such impassioned misers that for years they had hoarded their money in order to gloat over it in secret. Old Monsieur de la Bertellière used to call investments ‘throwing money away’, finding more profit in the contemplation of his gold than in any interest on a loan. The town of Saumur, therefore, assessed the value of the estate according to an estimate of the amount that could have been saved of the yearly income, and Monsieur Grandet found himself the possessor of a new title to nobility, and one that our present passion for equality will never abolish – he paid more taxes than anyone else in the whole district.

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