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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1499

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First published: 1882 (English translation, 1882)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Sentimental romance

Time of work: 1881

Locale: France

Principal Characters:

Abbe Constantin, a French priest

Jean Reynaud, his godson

Mrs. Scott, an American

Miss Percival, her sister

The Story:

The kindly old cure, Abbe Constantin, stopped before the chateau of Longueval to look at posters which proclaimed that the chateau and its surroundings were to be sold at auction either in four pieces, or as a unit. The abbe, like the rest of the neighborhood, smiled at the idea that anyone might be able to buy the entire estate; more than two million francs was too large a sum for anyone to have. As he walked along by the old estate, he thought of all the delightful days he had spent with the old marchioness and her family. He dreaded the thought of a new owner who might not ask him to dinner twice a week, who might not contribute generously to the poor, who might not attend all the services of his little church. The abbe was too old to desire a change.

He walked on to the little house where Madame de Lavardens lived with her son Paul. Paul had not turned out well. His mother gave him a generous allowance to spend every year. After spending his money within three months in Paris, he stayed the rest of the year with his mother in the country. At the de Lavardens home, the abbe learned that Madame de Lavardens was hoping that her agent had secured at least one part of the estate for her. She was awaiting news of the auction, and she invited the abbe to wait with her and her son to hear what had happened.

When the agent arrived, he informed them that Mrs. Scott, a wealthy American, had bought the whole estate. The abbe’s heart sank. An American! She would be a Protestant—no doubt a heretic. His hopes for his little church grew weak. No longer would the hothouses of the estate keep his altar full of flowers; no longer would the poor be relieved by the charity of the chateau. With a gloomy heart, he went home to supper.

Jean Reynaud, the abbe’s godson, was his guest at supper that night. Jean’s father had been an officer in the same regiment in which the abbe had been chaplain, and the two had been the best of friends. When Jean’s father had been killed, the abbe had taken care of Jean as if he were his own son. The boy had insisted on following his father in a military career. Jean’s kindness was well-known in the area. He gave a yearly income to the destitute families of two men who had been killed on the same day as his father, and he was always performing charitable deeds for the abbe’s poor.

On his arrival, Jean set about cutting garden greens for the salad. He was startled when he looked up and saw two beautifully but simply dressed young women who asked to see the abbe. They introduced themselves as Mrs. Scott and Miss Percival, her sister. In a flurry of excitement, the old abbe came out to meet his unexpected guests, and to his great pleasure, they announced that they were Catholics of French-Canadian blood. When each of the women gave the abbe a thousand francs to give to the poor, the happy man almost burst into tears. The inhabitants of the chateau were still to be a blessing for the town.

Jean, overcome by the beauty of the two women, could not decide who was the more handsome. Miss Percival was the younger and more vivacious, but the serene charm of Mrs. Scott was equally attractive. The women told the abbe the story of their lives, of their poverty as children, of the lawsuit which their dying father had made them promise never to give up, and of the final success of the suit and the millions of dollars that became theirs because of it. Mrs. Scott said that she and her husband intended to spend much time in France at their new home. When the ladies left, the abbe and Jean were profuse in their praise.

This meeting was the first of many. The ladies had grown tired of social gaiety during their stay in Paris, and Miss Percival had become disgusted with the great number of men, thirty-four in all, who had proposed marriage to her, for she knew that it was her money, not herself, they were after. The women hoped to spend a quiet few weeks in the chateau, with the abbe and Jean as their only visitors. During the visits, Jean fell in love with Miss Percival. He was upset when Paul de Lavardens insisted on an introduction.

Miss Percival knew at once that Paul’s proposal would be number thirty-five. He was polite and made conversation easily, but he did not have the qualities she had come to admire in Jean. The more she saw of Jean the more she liked him, and it was not long before she realized that she was in love with the young officer.

At the first ball held at the chateau, Jean’s manner showed Miss Percival that he loved her. He said nothing, however, for he believed that army life would not be a happy one for her. As he had neither social graces nor the wealth which could be substituted for them, he did not dare to dance with her at the ball for fear he would blurt out his love. When she approached him to ask for a dance, he left abruptly.

Jean’s regiment went away for twenty days. When he returned, he realized that he loved Miss Percival more than ever. Finally, he decided that his only course was to be transferred to a regiment stationed in another area. On the night he was to leave, he sent his excuses to the chateau and went to explain his actions to the abbe, who listened to his story with deep interest. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door, and Miss Percival walked in. She apologized for her intrusion but said that she had come to confess to the abbe. She asked Jean not to leave, but to stay and hear her.

She announced that she loved Jean and felt sure that he loved her. Jean had to admit that it was true. She said she knew he had not dared to ask her to marry him because of her wealth. Consequently, she was forced to ask him to marry her. The abbe commended her action, and she and Jean became engaged.

When the marriage ceremony for the happy couple was performed in the little church, a fine new organ played the music for the service. It was Miss Percival’s marriage gift to the church. The abbe was happy; the sale of the old chateau had brought more good to the town than it had known before.

Critical Evaluation:

Chiefly known in his day as a playwright, Ludovic Halévy, in collaboration with Henri Meilhac, wrote the librettos for the operettas of Offenbach and for Bizet’s CARMEN. His nondramatic works were of a high quality and included, besides stories and novels, impressions of the Franco-German War and the Parisian Commune. THE ABBE CONSTANTIN is considered his masterpiece. He was elected to the French Academy within two years of its publication, but after that, although he was to live for another twenty-four years, he wrote virtually nothing else.

In writing THE ABBE CONSTANTIN, Halévy above all was ruled by his conception of “taste.” Nothing distasteful or excessive was allowed to invade his picture of French village life. Although the scenes are sharply observed, the settings described with color and detail, and the minor characters shrewdly drawn, the view of existence is deliberately lopsided. By eliminating the coarse and unpleasant, the author falsified his portrayal of the characters and their world. Halévy wrote as if his contemporaries, Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant, had never existed. He displays no concern for probing the realities beneath the surface, showing no sense of irony or satire. The novel, however, is written in a clean, graceful style that is pleasant to read. An aura of innocence seems to pervade the book, lending a charm to even the most minor incidents.

The author’s observations concerning the foreign (tourist) invasion of Paris in the 1880’s are very amusing; he is particularly acute when comparing the personalities of the Americans and the French. These comments of the author are often more interesting than the story they interrupt. By far the most complex and fascinating characters in the novel are the Americans, Mrs. Scott and Miss Percival. The French characters tend to be predictable and bland. The abbe himself, while a noble individual, does not inspire curiosity or interest in the reader.