Searching for Gold: Balzac and the Redemption of Provincial France

Andrew Watts
University of Birmingham, UK

“La France au dix-neuvième siècle est partagée en deux grandes zones: Paris et la province; la province jalouse de Paris, Paris ne pensant à la province que pour lui demander de l’argent” (Comédie 4: 1380). Thus wrote Balzac in his 1841 essay “La Femme de province”, in which, for neither the first nor the last time in his career, he reopened the wounds of an age-old dichotomy. The provinces, he declared, were places of boredom and mediocrity, their inhabitants condemned to a life of curtain-twitching, jam-making, and whist. Paris was a natural target for their jealousy, a world of elegance and innovation that only the most talented and energetic provincials could hope to conquer. The aim of the present article is to examine this contrast in reverse, focussing on the currency that Balzac describes as the sole motivation for Parisian interest in the provinces – gold.

In both its physical and figurative incarnations, gold is the defining substance of Balzac’s work, a metal as capable of exciting greed and ambition as it is of conferring near-unlimited power on those who ultimately possess it. Expanding here upon a thesis first advanced in my book,1 I consider Balzac as a novelist who looked upon provincial France as a similarly precious resource, and who recorded its natural beauty and unique traditions in the face of new threats such as the onset of the railway age. This enterprise required him to transform the provinces into a fictional space that, like gold itself, could inspire thoughts of exoticism, mystery, and cultural prestige. It was to be no simple undertaking, since writers and dramatists had, for two centuries at least, given the provinces few of the properties of gold and more of those of lead, sealing them beneath a lid of negative stereotypes that not even Rousseau could penetrate fully. What this article seeks to investigate, therefore, is the alchemical reaction that can be seen to operate in Balzac’s work when gold is grafted onto provinciality. Through a re-reading of his 1833 novel, Eugénie Grandet, I wish to demonstate that gold is used to re-invent, or redeem, unflattering small-town stereotypes, investing provincial France with mythical qualities to rival those of any hoard of gold treasure, and with a richer identity than it had previously had in French literature before 1830.

From the outset of his career, the provinces were for Balzac a continued source of personal respite and creative inspiration. Not even his unhappy childhood, and six years spent in a monastic boarding school, could weaken his affection for the ways of small town and countryside, or more precisely, for the Touraine in which he was born in 1799. On the contrary, after moving to Paris with his family at the age of fifteen, Balzac’s nostalgia for his provincial roots grew ever more intense, exploding onto the page in his first attempt at novel-writing,Sténie, in 1820. An unfinished text recounting the euphoria felt by a young Tourangeau, Jacob del-Ryès, on his long-awaited return home, Sténie evoked a journey that Balzac yearned to make himself, and that he described, with as much poetry as regional patriotism, as providing a soothing balm for the soul (Œuvres diverses 1: 722).

This enduring passion for Touraine, which features so strongly in much of Balzac’s later work, including Le Lys dans la vallée, would not, moreover, diminish his socio-scientific curiosity for the rest of France, for the multiplicity of ways in which provincial life was lived, or for the potential differences between its human species. As early as 1821, his correspondence shows him writing to his sister in Bayeux with a feverish request to know more about the town and its people, their customs and dress, the peculiarities of the local language, and the architecture of the buildings (Correspondance 1: 95). Apparently unsatisfied by the description he received in reply, the young novelist would surely have used one of his subsequent visits to Normandy to conduct his own investigation, one of dozens of trips that he made across France during his lifetime, and that are reflected in the geographical ambition of La Comédie humaine. “J’ai tâché de donner une idée des différentes contrées de notre beau pays” (Comédie 1: 18-19), he proclaimed in the “Avant-propos” of 1842, an unusually immodest assessment of a work that, from Brittany to Provence, ranges over seventeen provinces and more than twenty small towns. This, quite clearly, is a fictional territory extensive in its boundaries, one through which Balzac mined numerous seams in pursuit of his own golden idol, a vast social tableau perfect in its completeness.

Ambitious to catalogue the provinces, just as the natural historians Buffon and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire had classified the species of the animal kingdom, Balzac also considered the theme of small-town life to present an alchemical challenge. Writing in the preface to Eugénie Grandet in 1833, he expressed disappointment at what he perceived as the failure of his predecessors to capitalise on the creative potential of the provinces:

Aucun poète n’a tenté de décrire les phénomènes de cette vie qui s’en va, s’adoucissant toujours. Pourquoi non? […] ce n’est ni par dédain, ni faute d’observation; peut-être y a-t-il impuissance. […] pour sonder une nature creuse en apparence, mais que l’examen trouve pleine et riche sous une écorce unie, ne faut-il pas une multitude de préparations, des soins inouïs [?] (Comédie 3: 1025-26).

The author’s proud boast that none before him had derived art or inspiration from the unpromising material of provincial life was, of course, somewhat extravagant. After all, barely three years had elapsed since Stendhal publishedLe Rouge et le Noir, in which he exposed the petty hatreds, but also the picturesque beauty, of the fictional town of Verrières, providing the template for a more serious treatment of small-town life than had been attempted in the theatre.

In spite of Stendhal’s achievement, it was a satirical tradition, however, that continued to dominate literary representations of the provinces at the outset of the July Monarchy. On the stage, anti-provincial satire had been pure comic gold for more than two centuries, and showed no signs of dying out in 1830, when the misadventures of Molière’s celebrated buffoon, Pourceaugnac, were still delighting audiences. As Louis-Philippe settled into his throne, the Parisian Press, too, was equally relentless in feeding the prejudice of readers alarmed by the growing influx of provincial immigrants to the city. A pseudonymous article of 1831, fittingly published in La Caricature, even went so far as to equate provincials with apes:

Sous le rapport zoologique, le provincial appartient à la classe des bimanes de la seconde espèce. Il a le verbe haut, le teint carminé, la peau rude […], le dos légèrement voûté, […], les mains et les pieds généralement hors de proportion avec le reste de son corps (Balzac [attribution uncertain], “Le Provincial” 119).

Whether for packing theatres or selling newspapers, the commercial wealth that could be generated from provincial otherness had long been known, a basic truth which meant that for many of Balzac’s contemporaries, there was little incentive to modify what was already a lucrative cultural product.

The tradition of mocking the provinces for their supposedly coarse manners and overblown pretensions was not, of course, one that Balzac rejected entirely; indeed, he was as responsible for perpetuating negative stereotypes of provincial life as Stendhal or, later, Flaubert, and might even have penned the article which forced provincials so far down the evolutionary scale that they became sub-human.2 What Balzac claimed in the preface to Eugénie Grandet, however, was that it was possible to depict the provinces with a new or updated sensibility, to discover a poetic silence in the empty streets, and to encourage a wider appreciation of their customs, dialects, and alleged inferiorities. At a time when the French railway industry was preparing to lay its first tracks (the first line, linking Paris to Orléans, would open in August 1837), he warned of the need to document the fast-disappearing ways of provincial life before the cultural landscape was irremediably “flattened” (Comédie 4: 1387). As a supporter of the exiled Bourbons, he would also accuse the incumbent Orleanist monarchy of failing to understand the seriousness of the threat, this despite its provision of funds to save architectural treasures such as the Palace of the Popes at Avignon, from vandalism and progressive destruction.

This move towards revalorising the provinces would manifest itself in Balzac’s work in a variety of ways, with one of its most revealing incarnations, in 1832,  being a fictional travelogue that recounted a voyage to the island of Java. Here, Balzac has his narrator cross perilous oceans, trek through volcanic ash, make notes on exotic wildlife, before conceding, finally, that he has travelled no further than the south-west of France. All of these wonders were experienced, not in Indonesia, but through stories he had heard from a member of the local gentry, “un second volume tout vivant de Sindbad le Marin” (Œuvres diverses2: 1171), during a trip to Angoulême. Though ironic in quality and construction, this text, “Voyage de Paris à Java”, was a perfect barometer of an early-nineteenth-century drive towards encouraging renewed interest in provincial France, interest in its imaginative riches, and in an exoticism that Balzac, with growing seriousness, declared could rival that of foreign shores.3 Earlier that same year, in La Femme de trente ans, he pressed the argument even further, venting a mixture of anger and incomprehension at those French tourists whom he claimed would rather spend their gold on visiting Italy than on exploring the natural wealth available to them at home:

Je maudissais ces pauvres riches qui, dégoûtés de notre belle France, vont acheter à prix d’or le droit de dédaigner leur patrie en visitant au galop, en examinant à travers un lorgnon les sites de cette Italie devenue si vulgaire (Comédie 2: 1143).4

This notion that Frenchmen could find more impressive sights on their doorstep, and for a fraction of the cost, matched a contemporary mood. Most of all, it reflected a distinct upturn in the cultural value ascribed to provincial France after 1820, when both centre and periphery began to awaken to the need to safeguard the provincial heritage of which modernity, more than indifference, threatened to deprive them. But could the gold that Balzac wished for tourists to keep in their pockets also be spent on an aesthetic purpose? Could gold be made to work towards redeeming those damning stereotypes then so beloved of literature in all its forms?

By the end of the Restoration, evidence of gold’s potential for surrounding the provinces with a warmer glow had already been provided by the novelist and critic, Jules Janin, who in August 1829 published a description of his native town, Saint-Étienne, in the Revue de Paris. This centre of heavy industry, Janin claimed, tongue only half in cheek, was forever enveloped in black smoke, but its blast-furnaces, he continued, were no less stimulating to the imagination than the trickling fountains of the Orient. Admitting that Saint-Étienne had no other allure, no old aristocracy or breathtaking palace, he claimed compensation for these defects in the town’s capacity for yielding, in abundance, “du fer, du charbon, de la soie, des fusils, des petits couteaux, des bêches; la lave ardente qui tombe à grands flots dans la fournaise, et de l’or comme dans un conte des Mille et une Nuits”(Janin 319). In this list of otherwise mundane assets, gold, and its explicit association with ancient stories from the Middle East and Orient, infused a French provincial town with exoticism and prestige, an innovation not lost on Charles Nodier, who in the following issue responded to Janin’s article with a promise to go and see Saint-Étienne for himself5

Nevertheless, the task of transmuting even the most inhospitable corners of France into places that readers might want to visit, either in fact or fiction, could not be achieved with a mere occasional reference to gold, however well placed or well juxtaposed this might be. The fact was one that the self-appointed ‘secretary’ of his society of course understood, though Balzac’s own allusions to provincial gold would more often be integrated into a broader reflection on the historical forces that had shaped France since the Revolution. The interrelationship of these two elements, gold and history, is neatly demonstrated by his short story L’Illustre Gaudissart, in which a travelling salesman arrives in Touraine to peddle newspaper subscriptions and financial products. Here, gold takes a decisive role in the struggle between rural tradition and the emerging force of Parisian capitalism. The fictional inhabitants of Vouvray, more accustomed to buying hats and dresses than newfangled insurance policies, are suspicious of the wares that Gaudissart has brought with him on his latest tour, and so refuse to hand over what the narrator terms the most elusive of all currencies, “l’or enfoui dans les cachettes de province” (Comédie 4: 564).

The resultant battle of wills, in which the villagers defeat the salesman by selling him non-existent barrels of wine, forms the basis of an authorial meditation on the new economic wind blowing through the provinces in the 1830s. Then, many large-scale Parisian companies were turning their eyes towards the revenues that could be plundered from an increasingly accessible marketplace,6 a reality that Balzac acknowledges through Gaudissart’s boast that he has already secured some two million francs’ worth of business between Paris and Blois (Comédie 4: 573). For the time being, the Tourangeaux are allowed to keep their gold, but it is not even this that redeems them from the topos of provincial mediocrity. Instead, their victory is attributed to their good humour and ability as storytellers, worthy adversaries for the salesman’s patter, and qualities that, with a cruel play on the treasure he had come to hunt, leave Gaudissart to lick his wounds at an inn called Le Soleil d’or. In these provinces, gold may abound, but in Vouvray, at least, it seems that local prestige is purchased using currencies that are natural and inherent rather than minted and acquired.7

The difficulty of extracting any revalorisation for the provinces from gold alone is compounded by the symbolic function that this substance so often performs in Balzac’s conception of small-town life. In contrast to Paris, where gold is integrated fully into a body of discourse that associates the capital with fantasy and feverish movement, in the provinces gold becomes tarnished for being synonymous with what Balzac saw as the worst of all provincial defects: miserliness. Hoarding gold is a recurrent obsession in the provinces of La Comédie humaine, and the cause of acts of such blinding stupidity that one wonders how far Balzac’s treatment of provincial life can really be distanced from a satirical tradition. The case of the ageing bachelor, Jean-Jacques Rouget, who in La Rabouilleuse is content to give away a collection of Renaissance paintings as long as he can keep the gilded frames, or that of the usurer, Cornélius, who steals gold from his own cupboard and buries it in his sleep, are sufficient to confirm the power that gold can exercise over the provincial mind. Though its effects are often comic, the implications of this gold-lust are nevertheless serious.

According to Balzac’s conservative vision of nineteenth-century society, provincial avarice was one of the most intransigent obstacles to the economic prosperity of France as a whole. Free movement of capital, he argued, was the best hope for enabling the country to compete with Britain as a world economic power.8 And he was equally certain that this would never be possible without a determination on the part of the July Monarchy to break down what he bemoaned in Les Employés as “[les] habitudes avaricieuses et profondément illogiques de la province qui enfouit des tas d’or” (Comédie 7: 1114). Lauding the free and energetic distribution of capital achieved in Paris by his own fictional bankers, Nucingen and Keller, Balzac thus accused provincial misers not merely of committing a crime against their country, but of only having themselves to blame for the mockery that writers and dramatists continued to heap upon them.

Beyond this economic warning, Balzac nevertheless offered some hope of redemption for the stereotype of provincial avarice, demonstrating that when the flow of provincial gold stops, the energy contained within the yellow metal can be released, and put to a collective good. Balzac rarely developed this idea more fully than in his 1841 novel Le Curé de village, in which a buried pot of gold is stolen from a miser’s garden at night, and its owner, Pingret, murdered when he disturbs the robbery. The crime is a brutal one, but Balzac refuses to sympathise with the victim, asking us instead to consider “[combien] d’entreprises auraient été fertilisées par ses capitaux inutiles [?] il avait frustré l’Industrie, il était justement puni” (Comédie 9: 695). By this stage in Balzac’s career, the economic argument was familiar. What happens next, though, is more surprising. Eventually recovered from the bottom of a lake, where the thieves had hidden them, Pingret’s coins seem simply to disappear, confiscated by the authorities, with no explanation of where or to whom they might have been returned.9

The reason for this melting-away of the miser’s gold, I would suggest, is that the latent energy of the coins has already been passed to a truly alchemical enterprise. Tormented by guilt over her part in the crime, and over the subsequent execution of the young worker with whom she had planned to elope, Véronique Graslin devotes her life to resurrecting a village isolated and impoverished in a barren valley, by bringing an engineer to irrigate the plains, exploiting the wild forests, and ensuring a religious education for the locals. “J’ai marqué mon repentir en traits ineffaçables sur cette terre,” she tells her neighbours as the moment of her death edges closer. “Cette âme repentante […] respirera donc longtemps parmi vous. Ce que vous auriez dû à ses talents, à une fortune dignement acquise, est accompli par l’héritière de son repentir, par celle qui causa le crime” (Comédie 9: 868). In this deathbed address, and through the explicit contrast of two fortunes, Véronique offers repentance of her crime, and through her transformation of Montégnac, of Pingret’s avarice. Though obtained by violent means, gold is thus established as the co-instrument of a triple redemption – the redemption of a community once thought lost, of a troubled soul, and of a damning provincial stereotype.

The potential of gold for transmuting stereotype is reflected with particular acuity in Eugénie Grandet, on which I would like to focus in the second half of this essay. Written in 1833, and the first in Balzac’s series of Scènes de la vie de province, the novel tells the story of a young girl who, because of the millions she stands to inherit, is stalked as a rich prize by the middle-class sons of her native Saumur. Indifferent to their advances, and with a father, Félix, determined to restrict her to a financially worthy match, the eponymous heroine has few interests other than a game of cards with the neighbours, or the sight of an occasional passer-by in the street. In a moment of pure Balzacian melodrama, a knock at the door one dark November evening will nevertheless alter the course of her life. The stranger is announced as her Parisian cousin, Charles, who following his father’s bankruptcy and subsequent suicide, has been left penniless, and entrusted to the care of his provincial relatives. Taking pity on the bewildered young dandy, Eugénie gradually falls in love, a feeling reciprocated by Charles, who vows to rebuild his fortune before returning to claim his cousin’s hand. The young couple’s touching promise is sealed with an exchange of gold, here the symbol of a purity of sentiment that contrasts sharply with the many tainted transactions in Balzac’s work, such as a father’s obsessive, and ultimately failed, attempt to buy the love of his daughters in Le Père Goriot. Handing over her “douzain”, a collection of gold coins that represents her dowry, Eugénie gladly invests in her cousin’s personal and financial resurrection. In return, Charles gives her his dressing-case, a shining box the fine workmanship of which “donnait à l’or un prix bien supérieur à celui de son poids” (Comédie 3: 1130)

For Félix, however, this is scant compensation for the loss of his daughter’s coins, and he explodes with rage upon discovering that Eugénie’s treasure has sailed over the horizon with Charles, quite literally, on a ship bound for the East Indies. Grandet’s anger plunges the household into a silent war for almost two years, during which Eugénie is confined to her bedroom, and her father resumes the task of expanding his own fortune, the golden fruits of which he gloats over in a private strongroom. Only the death of Madame Grandet prompts a reconciliation between father and daughter, but when Félix eventually follows his wife to the grave, Eugénie is left to wonder what happened to Charles. After seven years, she learns that her cousin has returned to France, his money-lending and slave-trading enough, not merely to fill three casks with gold dust, but also to attract a young fiancée, Mademoiselle d’Aubrion. Eugénie has few alternatives but to accept a loveless marriage to the local magistrate, Monsieur de Bonfons, and then, after she is widowed, to live out her days spending her father’s gold on acts of charity and religious devotion.

Eugénie Grandet appears at first glance to be an unpromising text through which to assert the redemptive qualities of provincial gold; indeed, gold can be said more often to have the opposite effect, infusing the novel’s treatment of Saumur with images of selfishness and suffering that fit more easily into an early-nineteenth-century discourse of provincial unfulfilment. Her father’s millions cause Eugénie to miss her vocation as a woman “faite pour être magnifiquement épouse et mère” (Comédie 3: 1199), while Félix himself displays traits that align him closely with Molière’s own fictional miser, Harpagon, such as having his hair cut only once a year, or making gifts of second-hand shoes and rotten fruit. The gold that feeds this obsession, destroying the maternalism that Balzac cherished as the purest of provincial assets,10 is thus invested throughout with connotations as negative as the provincial topoi that it serves here to reinforce, becoming a part of the searing indictment of post-Revolutionary individualism that is one of the unifying strands of Balzacian thought.

And yet, in Eugénie Grandet, it is also gold that undermines the notion of the small town as a place of boredom and inertia, transforming this narrow setting into a site of mystery, as well as a gateway to the Exotic. An important illustration of this process is contained in the episode in which Félix decides to take advantage of a sudden rise in the price of bullion by taking his coins to be sold at Angers. This memorable sequence has previously been considered by Jean-Luc Seylaz as a realist masterclass in the use of what Barthes would later call “détails inutiles”, references which, for all their outward appearance of faithfulness to an external referent, signify nothing more than precision itself.11 The value of the gold that Grandet takes for sale (eighteen hundredweight of coins, yielding a profit close to 1.5 million francs), can also be evaluated, however, in terms of a creative mark-up achieved in the representation of the stereotypically dull provinces.

In the preface to the novel, Balzac had piqued the curiosity of readers by stating his omniscient intention to reveal the secret passions and hidden turmoil of provincial life, exposing those “drames dans le silence” (Comédie 3: 1025) that he said could be found behind the doors of every small-town home. Not surprisingly, given this declaration of authorial intent, the transportation of Grandet’s gold is matched against just such a framework. First, it is a journey made under the cover of darkness. Grandet asks his maid-servant, Nanon, to have a carriage ready for eleven o’clock, and to make sure that the family’s dog is tied up to avoid creating a noise. “Le quartier n’a pas besoin de savoir que je vais me mettre en route” (Comédie 3: 1119) he remarks, circumventing Balzac’s own maxim that life in a provincial town is played out in public.12 Further layers of mystery are added by the narrative voice, which withholds as much information as it reveals and explains the reason for Grandet’s haste only after he has sped into the distance. Not even Madame Grandet is told where her husband is going, while Eugénie, who meets her father’s icy gaze from her room, distrusts him sufficiently to fear that he is removing Charles from the house. The creaking floorboards and the dim light of a candle deepen the atmosphere of a nocturnal enigma, one in which gold itself is never once glimpsed, in spite of its being the motivation for disrupting the Grandet household while the rest of the town is sleeping. Everywhere present but nowhere visible, gold is thus established as the primordial element in the mystery,13 and the near-unattainable product of a narrative crucible fuelled by slow-burning stereotypes of provincial boredom and curiosity. At a time when many of his Parisian readers still feared the provinces as a threat to political stability, and had demanded to know them better through studies such as Abel Hugo’s France pittoresque ,14 it was surely no accident that Balzac turned to gold, with its own enduring connotations of wealth and exoticism, as the ultimate fictional prize in this quest to discover a country still unfamiliar within its own borders.

Alongside its tantalising place in the representation of mystery, Grandet’s fortune also serves to gild the provinces with a rare combination of myth and mysticism. The years in which this novel was written and published, 1833 and 1834, coincide with the period in which Balzac’s interest in alchemy, in particular, was at its strongest. Enthralled by the experiments of, amongst others, François Arago, who attempted to crystallise diamonds from carbonic acid,15 Balzac’s allusions to the pseudo-science began to feature ever more frequently in his writing. By September 1834, this interest had manifested itself in his fictional provinces with La Recherche de l’absolu, in which a respected husband and father drives his family to ruin through his search, not for gold, but for the ‘absolute’ element common to all matter. In the Hermetic shadow of this text, it is Grandet, however, who is the more subtle prototype for the figure of the provincial alchemist, with a capacity for generating gold that brings small-town setting and occult science into sometimes uneasy proximity. As Pierre-Georges Castex first demonstrated in 1965,16 Grandet profits repeatedly from historical circumstance, beginning his rise in the wake of the Revolution by buying up land and property confiscated from the Church. Under Napoleon, he becomes a wine-supplier to the Republican army, before the return of the Bourbons in 1815 presents him with a further opportunity to swell his hoard, this time by investing in government bonds. With such an eye for trimming his sail to the prevailing wind, Grandet acquires gold enough to admire in his old age, basking obsessively in the glow of his coins as if warming himself in the sunshine.

But there is also a more troubling explanation for the old cooper’s skills, one that suggests he is in league with the supernatural. The possibility is raised early in the text, when he is described as inspiring a mixture of fear and admiration in his neighbours, who interpret even his donning of a pair of gloves as a sign that they should prepare for a harsh winter. At home, his strongroom is compared to a laboratory, and it is here, we are told, that Grandet works “comme un alchimiste à son fourneau. […] les gens d’affaires, voyant toujours Grandet prêt à tout, pouvaient imaginer qu’il avait à ses ordres une fée ou un démon” (Comédie 3: 1070). This apparent command of the occult realm, as well of historical change and circumstance, make Grandet one of the few provincials in La Comédie humaine to be offered a definitive escape from stereotype. Not only does he ensure that his gold is rarely stagnant, whether it be taken to town to purchase an abbey or transported to Angers to be sold for a profit, he has fairies and goblins to preside over its safe return. This fusion of the mystical and the mundane endows him with an energy that the narrator claims could be useful to the nation, before Balzac succumbs to the doubt that “sorti de Saumur, le bonhomme n’aurait fait qu’une pauvre figure” (Comédie 3: 1110). Though superior to his environment, Grandet’s release from avarice thus remains incomplete, and his passage to spiritual ascent firmly barred. On his deathbed, he is instead returned to parody, clawing at the gilt crucifix held to his lips by the priest, and dying as a result of this final, covetous act. For this provincial, at least, gold is ultimately powerless to deliver redemption of any kind, even when this had seemed so close at hand.

The combination of realism and parody that underlies the representation of Félix Grandet can, however, be integrated into a more wide-ranging conclusion on the function of gold within Balzac’s treatment of the provinces. From this analysis, it is clear that gold brings the small towns of La Comédie humaineinto a realm of exoticism that made the fictional journey into provincial France a more inviting quest than it had been for a majority of readers before 1830. For all that it connotes power, mystery, and even a hope of regeneration for the provinces, this same gold does not, though, replace the age-old topoi of boredom and mediocrity, and never was it Balzac’s intention that it should do so. Instead, gold is the instrument of a much broader exercise in literary alchemy, one that fused the precious metal with an established base of negative stereotypes in order to transmute the provinces into a more dynamic setting for novelists and their readers. Thus, the streets of Saumur do not cease to be dull simply because Grandet transports his gold through them at the dead of night. But with the passing of his carriage, with the semi-supernatural energy and historical opportunism that have amassed near-unimaginable wealth for this small-town businessman, some of the gold-laden enigma rubs off on the cobbles, causing them to sparkle with new interest, mythical appeal, and cultural prestige.

The measure of this achievement, ultimately, has been provided by those who have inherited Balzac’s literary legacy. For contemporary novelists such as Dai Sijie, whose Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse chinoise was published to worldwide acclaim in 2000, the provinces of La Comédie humaine, more than the currencies exchanged within them, have become uniquely valuable examples of narrative power. In recounting the experience of two adolescent boys who are sent to the mountains of rural Chine for “re-education” in Maoist doctrine, Dai Sijie endows a suitcase containing banned western novels with the properties of a hoard of gold treasure, the classics inside illuminating the characters’ faces as if real, as well as figurative, gold had been unlocked from between the pages. What is intriguing about their reaction to these books, however, is that it is not an epic tale of Parisian ambition, Le Père Goriot or Illusions perdues, that first captures their imagination, but a provincial novel, a tale of disputed inheritance and familial jealousy set in small-town Nemours. And it is precisely this novel, Balzac’s Ursule Mirouët, with its emphasis on routine and suffering, its descriptions of a distant landscape, and even its title, that offers the protagonists their closest parallel with, and most prolonged escape from, the hardships that surround them. “Malgré mon ignorance totale de ce pays nommé la France […],” sighs the first of these young readers, “l’histoire d’Ursule me parut aussi vraie que celle de mes voisins. […] Au bout d’une journée, je me sentais chez moi à Nemours” (Dai Sijie 72-73). Transmuted but also transnational, this capacity for bridging even the widest of cultural divides, through their apparent ordinariness as much as through their perceived exoticism, is one of the most remarkable achievements of Balzac’s provinces, and a potential source of critical gold that has still to be forged.


1. A full discussion of this thesis, and of Balzac’s ambition to record the fast-disappearing provinces through the medium of the novel, is contained in my book Preserving the Provinces: Small Town and Countryside in the Work of Honoré de Balzac, Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007.

2. Despite the continued appearance of this article in volumes of Balzac’s collected writings, the suggestion that he was the author of “Le Provincial” has been rejected, convincingly, by both Nicole Mozet (La Ville de province dans l’œuvre de Balzac, Paris, SEDES, 1982, 17) and Roland Chollet (Balzac, journaliste, Paris: Klincksieck, 1983, 416-17).

3. Nicole Mozet describes “Voyage de Paris à Java” as “un véritable bréviaire d’anti-exotisme” (“Yvetot vaut Constantinople: littérature et géographie en France au dix-neuvième siècle”, Romantisme, 35 (1982): 91-114, 102). This text, she asserts, constituted an early-nineteenth-century rejection of foreign settings beloved of authors for their perceived exoticism (for example, the Highlands of Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, La Ville de province 29). Equally important to underline, however, is that renewed interest in the provinces did not simply banish exoticism from the French literary landscape; rather, this exoticism was re-attributed to small town and countryside, which became objects of beauty and charm in their own right. Further evidence of this re-attribution is provided by Mademoiselle du Vissard, an unfinished manuscript from 1847 in which Balzac declares his country to possess “tout autant de Suisse que la Suisse”, adding that “Marseille et Toulon sont l’Italie plus l’Afrique” (Comédie 12: 629).

4. A remark that should not be removed from its context. While the reference to “notre belle France” would seem to indicate the country as a whole, the view that inspires this bitter reflection is, in fact, a panorama of Paris, from Père-Lachaise to the Observatoire.

5. Nodier, Charles, “Du style topographique”, Revue de Paris (September 1829): 241-45.

6. For a recent discussion of the relationship between provincial backwardness and Parisian capitalism in this text, see for example Allan H. Pasco, “Balzac’sL’Illustre Gaudissart and nascent capitalism”, Symposium (Winter 2007): 227-37.

7. On stories, as well as gold, as a means of exchange in L’Illustre Gaudissart, see for example my chapter “An exercise in international relations, or the travelling salesman in Touraine: Balzac’s L’Illustre Gaudissart, InConcurrencies: Fiscal Fortunes and Cultural Capital in Nineteenth-Century France, Ed. Sarah Capitanio et al., Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005: 161-73.

8. For further discussion of Balzac’s attitude towards provincial avarice and movement of capital, see for example Pierre Barbéris, Mythes balzaciens, Paris: Armand Colin, 1972: 164-66. Balzac’s bitter exasperation at the economic backwardness of France compared to Great Britain is further revealed by hisCatéchisme social, Paris: La Renaissance du Livre, 1933. Ed. Bernard Guyon.

9. I am especially grateful to Dr Owen Heathcote of the University of Bradford (United Kingdom) for his assistance with my textual search for Pingret’s gold, and for drawing my attention to the metal’s redemptive function in this novel.

10. For an extended discussion of provinciality and maternalism in Balzac’s work, see Mozet, La Ville de province 37-46.

11. Seylaz, Jean-Luc, “Une scène de Balzac: le transport de l’or dans Eugénie Grandet”, L’Année balzacienne (1980): 61-67.

12. “On y vit en public” (Comédie 3: 1025) A maxim stated, somewhat incongruously, in the preface to Eugénie Grandet, where Balzac’s principal concern is with the secrets that he declares are hidden behind the doors of provincial houses.

13. An extensive treatment of mystery and the enigmatic in Balzac’s work has recently been provided by Chantal Massol, Une Poétique de l’énigme: le récit herméneutique balzacien, Geneva: Droz, 2006.

14. Hugo, Abel, France pittoresque. 3 vols. Paris: Delloye, 1835.

15. On the work of scientists and alchemists contemporaneous with La Recherche de l’absolu, see Madeleine Ambrière, Balzac et “La Recherche de l’absolu”, Paris: PUF, 1968; repr. 1999; 293-320.

16. Castex, Pierre-Georges, “L’ascension de Monsieur Grandet”, Europe 429 (1965): 247-63.

Works Cited

Balzac, Honoré de. Correspondance. 5 vols. Paris: Garnier, 1960-69. Ed. Roger Pierrot.

____. La Comédie humaine. 12 vols. Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1976-81.

____. Œuvres diverses. 2 vols.Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1990 -.

____. “Le Provincial”. A Paris! Paris: Complexe, 1993: 117-20. Ed. Roger Caillois.

Janin, Jules. “La Ville de Saint-Étienne”. Revue de Paris (August 1829): 319-31.

Sijie, Dai. Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse chinoise. Paris: Gallimard, 2000.

#Andrew Watts#Searching for Gold: Balzac and the Redemption of Provincial France#Vol. 7 Issue 1 Fall 2008