This minor Balzac novella (1830) has msny of the fairy-tale elements we have already seen in La Maison du chat-qui-pelote (CQP), and that we will see over and over in his work.
First, we see a sad domestic scene. The poverty-ridden mother and beautiful daughter, abandoned on a dismal, dank Parisian side street, live in cheerful destitution. As in Eugénie Grandet (EG), the circumstances are humble and sunlight rarely penetrates. The mother and daughter spend their day working at embroidery, and at one point it is clear that they only manage to survive thanks to a current fashion for embroidery that they manage to earn their daily bread.
Along comes a passer-by, though not a flâneur exactly, as he is apparently on his way most days to and from the nearby court buildings. This passerby, like Sommervieux, the artist of CQP, he is at first named “l’inconnu”, the unknown one, the stranger, and given an air of mystery and a melancholy demeanor.
By chance, like Sommervieux, he happens to look through the window of this depressing slum, and spies the heroine, whose beauty shines through the dark, and the inconnu. though no artist, sees it all like a painting:
"Un matin, vers la fin du mois de septembre, la tête lutine de Caroline Crochard se détachait si brillamment sur le fond obscur de sa chambre, et se montrait si fraîche au milieu des fleurs tardives et des feuillages flétris entrelacés autour des barreaux de la fenêtre ; enfin la scène journalière présentait alors des oppositions d’ombre et de lumière, de blanc et de rose, si bien mariées à la mousseline que festonnait la gentille ouvrière, avec les tons bruns et rouges des fauteuils, que l’inconnu contempla fort attentivement les effets de ce vivant tableau."
(One morning, towards the end of the month of September, the sprightly head of Caroline Crochard stood out so brilliantly in the dark depths of her chamber, and appeared so fresh amidst the belated flowers and withered foliage entwined with bars of the window; in short this everyday scene presented contrasts between shadow and light, white and pink, so nicely wed to the muslin dress that adorned the gentle seamstress, with the brown and reds of the armchairs that the stranger contemplated this living pictur with the utmost attentione.)
As in fairy tales, the heroine’s origins turn out to be of distinction; the parents were artistic nobility, a dancer and choreographer at the Opéra before the revolution, and later the father become active in the taking of the Bastille, eventually rising to the rank of colonel under Napoleon. Mortally wounded at the battle of Lützen, he dies and the family loses his pension after the Bourbon Restoration. The stranger, whose name we discover to be Roger, remains mysterious.
We see a brief courtship. Suddenly, it's several years year later, and we come on a bright and happy apartment. Caroline, richly dressed, is waiting for Roger’s arrival. We discover they have two lovely children, and only his heavy burden of work clouds their happiness.
Then suddenly, we are in what seems to be an unconnected story. The vicomte de Granville, an aspiring lawyer, is summoned by his father the comte de Granville back to his native Norman town of Bayeux. There it is arranged that he will marry a rich heiress, his childhood friend, who has been raised as an ultra-devout Catholic. At first, the viscount is discouraged, but the beauty and amiability of the young lady is attractive, as is her fortune. Once back in Paris, his father assures him, he will cure her of her pietism.
No such luck! The wife’s Jansenism increases, the house gradually becomes priest-ridden and unbearable, under her submissive but ever-judging passive aggression, and in spite of several children, the marriage becomes one in name only, as the husband seeks solace in work and in the arms of another woman. It slowly dawned on this reader that the vicomte, later count after his father’s death, is the same Roger, whose initial melancholy was caused by the unhappy marriage.
Flash again to years later. We find de Granville, now a wealthy président-judge, again a flamer in a dubious neighborhood of Paris, noting with curiosity a garret window, but having no idea whose habitation it is. He learns that it is Caroline, who seems to have abandoned him for a younger man, a man who mistreats her miserably and has stolen the patrimony of her children, who she ignores in her infatuation. The wife is long dead, and de Granville is estranged from his ;legitimate children, having lost all energy for life. He learns from one of his legitimate sons, also a judge, that his illegitimate son has been arrested for theft and is likely to be sent to prison. He refuses to intervene and decamps to Italy, clearly ready to die.
The characters aren’t in the end all that interesting, but the narrative experimentation is fascinating. The transitions in the story are sudden jumps, very disorienting. We think we understand the story up to the midpoint, but we are told to forget these characters for the moment, (“Il faut en oublier un moment les personages.“) The revelation that Caroline is a kept women, not a wife, is yet another variation on the Cinderella story we have seen in other Balzac works, notably EG and CQP. Balzac will come back to play on this trope at least two more times that I know of.