Monday, October 14, 2013

Domestic Peace by Honoré de Balzac

Love and marriage, French Empire style
Honoré de Balzac
Domestic Peace, a short story by Honoré de Balzac, was originally published in 1831 under the French title of La Paix du Ménage. It takes place in November of 1809 at the height of Napoleon’s empire, a time of great splendor and decadence. Everyone who’s anyone in the Parisian aristocracy is gathered at a grand ball at the home of the Comte de Gondreville. Two friends, General Montcornet (also referred to, confusingly, as Colonel) and the Baron Martial de la Roche-Hugon, an up-and-coming lawyer, are discussing a newcomer to the scene, a beautiful mystery woman of melancholy demeanor who has isolated herself in a corner of the room. Martial is immediately smitten with her, despite being engaged to the eminently lovely and wealthy young widow Madame de Vaudremont, who is also present at the party. Will he be willing to sacrifice the advantages of such a fortuitous match in order to chase after this unknown beauty? To complicate matters, Colonel Soulanges, one of Napoleon’s favorite military men, also shows an interest in the mystery woman, and angrily declares he’ll kill Martial if he so much as goes near her.

Thus a complicated love pentagon is established, in which each player schemes to satisfy his or her own romantic and financial interests. The atmosphere Balzac creates is one in which sentimental notions of love and honor are meaningless and reputation is the only inhibition. The story never takes itself too seriously, and it’s fun to watch the fortunes of the two gentlemen friends rise and fall over the course of the evening. Eventually the identity of the mystery woman is revealed, but it’s not as shocking as Balzac intended. There is an enjoyable cleverness to Domestic Peace. Its twists and turns are entertaining, but in the end it feels rather insubstantial. It is, after all, just a party. What it has to say about love and marriage was much more relevant to the society in which Balzac lived than to the audience of today, and readers of the 21st century will find it far less scandalous and titillating than those of the 19th. It is a competently executed piece, but not even close to Balzac at his best. Unless you are an enthusiastic fan of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, there’s no reason to go out of your way for this one.

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