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 diamond.’’’ One of the details of the notary’s story, the crucifix that the dying woman clutched in her last moment, will prove to be significant when all the elements of the story are revealed.
With his appetite whetted, Bianchon turns to his next storyteller, the wife of his innkeeper, Madame Lepas, and she tells a different part of the story, the beginning. She relates the arrival of the Spanish prisoner, whose name she thinks she remembers as Bagos de Feredia, ‘‘a handsome young fellow for a Spaniard, who are ugly they say.’’ She mentions his devotion to his Catholic faith and his silver and ebony crucifix, as well as his mysterious disappearance and the stash of gold left behind (which she and her husband appropriated). She allows that she has always believed ‘‘that he had something to do with the business about Madame de Merret.’’
Madame Lepas’s mention of Rosalie, Madame de Merret’s former maid who now works for Lepas, leads Bianchon to the brink of discovering the truth. The girl then becomes to him ‘‘the very centre of the interest and of the truth; she appeared to [him] to be tied into the knot of it.’’ To get her to give up her secrets, however, he must first seduce her. Apparently Bianchon succeeds (which is revealed in the single line ‘‘one evening, or rather one morning’’), because Rosalie does fill in the remainder of the story of Madame de Merret’s affair with the young Feredia.
Rosalie tells of the night Monsieur returned home unexpectedly and caught his wife with her lover. Turning the key to enter his wife’s room, he thinks he hears the door shut to the closet. When he discovers that Rosalie is not in the closet, as he had at first thought, he realizes what his wife is up to. When his wife denies that there is anyone in there he makes her swear on her crucifix that she is telling the truth. Noticing the unusual craftsmanship of the piece he asks her where she got it. She lies again, claiming she bought it form the jeweler Duvivier, who had in turn bought it from a Spanish monk the prior year.
Having caught his wife in a web of lies, Monsieur de Merret plots his revenge. He summons the servant Gorenflot to arrange for a mason. To his wife’s horror, he orders the door to the closet walled up with the Spanish lover trapped inside. Next he pretends to leave the house on an errand and catches his wife in an attempt to free Feredia. And finally, he produces the jeweler from who she claims to have purchased the crucifix. He then remains in his wife’s room for the next 20 days while Feredia dies slowly and unaided.
When Bianchon finishes telling his tale, the dinner guests rise and disperse. The effect appears to be most pronounced on the ladies present, as there ‘‘were some among them who had almost shivered at the last words.’’
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