Review of Andrew Watts’s Preserving the Provinces: Small Town and Countryside in the Work of Honoré de Balzac

Allan Pasco
University of Kansas

Andrew Watts. Preserving the Provinces: Small Town and Countryside in the Work of Honoré de Balzac. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007. 337 pp

This is a very good book that specialists of Balzac and his work will find useful and interesting, for it makes an important point about Balzac’s attitude toward the dynamism of the July Monarchy’s provinces. He builds his study on others by Jared Wenger and, especially, Nicole Mozet. Recognizing the importance of the latter’s realistic vision of the provinces as a literary landscape, including both source and isolated preservation of the historical past, Watts goes beyond to insist on the changes Balzac saw taking place in provincial society.

While convincingly wrestling with provincial difference and identity, Watts points to Balzac’s recognition of their economic, political, and social diversity in the midst of powerful movement toward modernity. It is however regrettable that the study bears the marks of an old-fashioned doctoral dissertation and, in addition, quickly reveals that the author has little knowledge of recent scholarly considerations of Balzac’s provincial world by Armine Mortimer, Michael Tilbey, Maurice Samuels, David F. Bell, myself, et j’en passe that would have added depth and possibly even some luster to his work.

Andrew Watts opposes the long-standing but erroneous truism that Balzac’s cultural geography was limited to two features, Paris and the monolithic provinces or the not-Paris, where the latter has little to distinguish its various parts. Recognizing that the provinces and provincials were the butts of jokes, if not simply disdained and ignored, Watts goes on to demonstrate conclusively that Balzac was also well aware of the provinces’ socio-cultural diversity, of what they had to offer individually, and of their necessity to the creation of a new, industrialized nation. “In northern France, where there was ample supply of labor and raw materials, the move towards industrialization was rapid, with textile manufacture leading the way. In the south, which could not boast the same access to coal, iron, or manpower the railway had arrived. . . . The French capitalist adventure had finally begun” (239). Certainly by the end of Balzac’s career, he recognized that the provinces were no longer isolated but were opening onto the rest of France and the world. The all too regular food shortages that had so terribly afflicted rural France were abating as modern means of agriculture, transportation, and education spread slowly across the nation. Perhaps most important, unlike other novelists, from Restif to Rousseau, who were content to extol the simple virtues of country life, Balzac illustrates how the rural population might take a leading role in rebuilding the provinces.

Not the least of Watts’s virtues is his thorough knowledge of La Comédie humaine, which includes Balzac’s unfinished works, most dating from the 1840s. These seldom studied fragments show definitively that the novelist was very aware of France’s diversity and that his thought was evolving.  He was able to see not just the varied, natural beauty of France but the cultural differences separating the various regions. Each of the locales that he painted, Dauphiné, Limousin, Lyons, the Basses-Alpes, Le Havre, had different potentials and each stimulated the novelist’s creative imagination. While he never completely abandoned either the pessimism of Les Chouans or the practice of satirizing provincials, Balzac’s work progressively insists on the idealistic affirmation of the potential of the countryside and its peasantry. Watts is too knowing and cautious a student of Balzac to maintain that there was a decisive, ideological shift in the novelist’s attitude toward the provinces, but he recognizes and admirably supports that Balzac asserted “new prestige and indeed, a fragile equality with Paris” (285).

In the end, Watts argues that Balzac’s multi-facetted vision of the provinces influenced the subsequent provincial novel. Balzac, while retaining the right to ridicule the ridiculous was able to insist on the energy and knowledge that was enabling provincials to harness the potential of their locales in the pursuit of the modern world. Balzac goes well beyond the one-dimensional tradition that merely satirizes the provinces and their inhabitants to paint a whole that demands greater understanding and a recognition that the urban and rural provinces are essential for the future of France.

In short, despite a few important reservations, Andrew Watts has written a commendable contribution to Balzac studies. As is all too unusual, he brings a new view to Balzac’s provinces. In so doing, he rids the field of the monolithic concept that is too limited and, thus, he opens Balzac’s Comédie humaine to more adequate insight and understanding.

#Allan Pasco#Review of Andrew Watts's Preserving the Provinces: Small Town and Countryside in the Work of Honoré de Balzac#Vol. 7 Issue 1 Fall 2008