Originally published in France in 1842, ‘‘La Grande Bretèche’’ is set in 1830 and describes events that happened in the year 1815 to 1816. This was a turbulent period in France. After the Revolution in 1789, the bourgeoisie, or middle class, struggled to consolidate its power and to retain the political and economic victories it had won over the nobility and the church. By the time of the events of the story, the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte had come and gone, but the old class divisions remained beneath the surface of a new, freer, France.
A member of this new business class himself, Balzac has been praised for his keen insight into the daily lives and inner thoughts of characters not traditionally thought worthy of literary fiction. In ‘‘La Grande Bretèche,’’ Balzac’s alter ego is the physician Dr. Bianchon. His worldly tone is perfectly suited to Balzac’s purposes, and as a member of the new professional class, he blends well with members of the aristocracy (the unseen rich patient he is caring for), as well as with servants and peasants like Madame Lepas and Rosalie.
‘‘La Grande Bretèche’’ is part of a group of stories called Another View of Woman in English, which is itself part of Balzac’s encyclopedic work of fiction, La Comedie Humaine, or The Human Comedy. This group of stores is set at a party, after dinner, where different narrators take turns telling stories. Dr. Bianchon’s contribution belongs to his ‘‘collection of appalling stories,’’ and its gothic setting and suspenseful structure casts a spell over his listeners.
Balzac’s story ‘‘La Grande Bretèche’’ represents a miniscule portion of the great author’s fictional output. Nonetheless, its narrative momentum, rich detail, and penetrating look into the human condition are characteristic of the prolific nineteenth-century French writer who continues to confound critics even today.
The story opens in media res, or in the middle of things. Doctor Bianchon is conceding to the other dinner guests’ requests that he tell one of the ‘‘appalling stories in [his] collection.’’ Noting that the audience had been primed by a previous story, and that the late hour of 2:00 a.m. seemed ideal, the ‘‘obliging doctor bowed and silence reigned.’’ The dinner guests then disappear from the story until the final sentences, and Doctor Bianchon tells the story in which he features as much as a listener as a narrator and lets three other storytellers relate the story of ‘‘La Grande Bretèche’’ to his listeners.
Setting the scene, Bianchon describes a dramatically ruined estate just on the outskirts of the town of Vendome, where he was staying to care for a rich patient. Revealing his sensitive, even poetic, nature the doctor reveals that he is so drawn to the ‘‘unwritten poetry’’ and ‘‘unrevealed thought’’ of the ruins that he frequently broke in and sat in the garden where he ‘‘wove delightful romances, and abandoned myself to little debauches of melancholy which enchanted me.’’ These romantic reveries are called to a halt, however, when he is visited in his rooms one evening by a mysterious stranger, who introduces himself as Monsieur Regnault.
Regnault is a lawyer, the local notary, whose job is to inform Bianchon that he may longer trespass on the grounds of la Grande Bretèche. Far from dampening Bianchon’s curiosity, Regnault’s prohibition inspires the doctor to learn more about the decaying house’s secret. He does learn from Regnault that the terms of the late Comtesse de Merret’s will, delivered to Regnault on her deathbed, forbid any alteration to the property for 50 years following her death. The notary’s vivid description of the scene at the lady’s deathbed only fuels the doctor’s quest to learn more, but Regnault professes ignorance and says ‘‘with comical reticence, ‘I never allow myself to criticize the conduct of a person who honours me with the gift of a...
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