The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

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| Editors: Jeremy Tambling

Balzac: The History of the Thirteen (Historie des Treize)

  • Jeremy TamblingEmail author
Living reference work entry


Balzac Melmoth Comedie Humaine Sexual Ecstasy Short Novels 
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Balzac; Colonialism; Conspiracy; Crime; Homosexuality; Lesbianism; Paris

The History of the Thirteen, comprising three short novels, Ferragus, La Duchesse de Langeais, and La Fille aux Yeux d’Or, is central for considering Balzac in relation to Paris, a place he sees as harboring conspiracies.

Ferragus: Chef des Devorants appeared first in the journal La Revue de Paris and the beginning of La Duchesse in L’Echo de la Jeune France: they belong to 1833, while La Fille aux Yeux d’Or (The Girl with the Golden Eyes) came out in 1835. All were to be included in the Scènes de la Vie Parisienne, as part of the Comedie Humaine. Both Ferragus and La Fille aux Yeux d’Or begin with sections dedicated to Paris. The exception is La Duchesse de Langeais, originally called Ne Touchez pas la hache (Don’t touch with the axe), a reference to the vengeance the young Marquis de Montriveau (one of the “Thirteen”) wants to carry out on the young Duchesse who will not yield to him: this is set principally in the fashionable left-bank Faubourg Saint-Germain, in the Restoration, the reaction following the fall of Napoleon: i.e., 1814–1830, culminating in the July Revolution, though France persisted with a monarchy until 1848, with Louis-Philippe.


Ferragus, set in 1820, places the emphasis on streets: ones in disrepute, ones noble, or decent, or adolescent (i.e., not yet fixed in identity), or murderous, or old, or respectable, or clean, or dirty, or “working-class, industrious, mercantile streets.” They have “human qualities and such a physiognomy as leaves us with impressions against which we can put up no resistance.” There are streets of doubtful gentility and those where you would willingly reside. The text addresses the knowing bourgeois, and the key is respectability, sexual, or financial, or both. It names specific streets, the Rue Montmartre, the Rue de la Paix, and the Rue Royale, and the Place Vendôme, then those of the Ile Saint-Louis, historically, one of the oldest parts, then the Place de la Bourse, which is beautiful only at 2 a.m. in the morning. There follows the Rue Traversière-Saint Honoré (now Rue Molière), whose ill-fame increases as you climb to higher storeys in each building. Balzac speaks of narrow streets facing north, sinister streets where murder happens with impunity, and then adds the Rue Fromenteau as holding the record for murder and prostitution. Some of the streets are gone; they are the old Paris which Haussmann wiped out. Those who are “en flânant dans Paris” will collect a mass of experiences, noting Paris as “the most delightful of monsters,” both a hag and a woman of fashion (the feminine image is maintained throughout: it is the “queen of cities”). The city is to be noted by day and by night; indeed, the one who has not admired the city between midnight and two has no idea of its “real poetry” (vraie poésie) and its physiognomy, which comes out in every mark and blotch it has. The true lovers of Paris “raise their eyes at this or at that street corner and know they will see the dial of a clock; they tell a friend whose snuffbox is empty to go through such and such a passage and that there they will find a tobacco shop on the left, next door to a pastry-cook’s, a man with a pretty wife. For these men, these poets, travelling through Paris is a time-consuming luxury.”

Three points emerge: the city is encouraging a form of writing which is called poetry. It anticipates the prose-poems of Baudelaire in being a poetry of the every day, finding a new heroism, a word which up till then had been associated with poetry, in the ordinary. Second, there is the sense of each journey through the city having a destination, if not destiny, especially one which may be sexual; third, there is the sense of the city providing infinite delays, so that anyone who sets out in the morning to walk from one side of Paris to another will find himself still lingering in the center in the evening. That sense of delay, Balzac writes, will excuse this “début vagabond” which starts this narrative. And then he returns to streets, and to those which a woman can and cannot walk down, and then the narrative begins of a man in the Rue Pagevin, when this street had not a single wall on it without graffiti (Balzac has already referred to bills and advertisements on walls), looking toward the Rue Soly. He has come from the Rue Bourbon (Rue de Lille) and into Pagevin toward the Rue des Vieux-Augustins, where the Rue Soly begins. The circumstantial detail, the sense of chance, is essential. The man is an army officer, Auguste de Maulincour, who is playing detective because he has seen Mme Jules Desmarets, wife of a respectable stockbroker and with whom he is in love. What is this respectable woman doing in this low area? The detective’s interest in the wife he passes on to the husband, whose jealousy increases and leads indirectly to the death of the lady, who is actually visiting, not her lover, but her father, the ex-convict Ferragus, hiding in Paris, and leader of the Thirteen, a secret society which Balzac describes in a Preface written in 1831, before starting to think of interlinking stories involving members of this group who look out for each other and who subvert the law and Parisian bureaucracy: murdering the jealous and over-inquisitive Auguste de Maulincourt, robbing Père Lachaise of the body of Madame Jules, cremating it, and returning the ashes to her husband, who wanted to preserve them. The discussion of Père Lachaise as a labyrinth is a set piece in the last part of the novella, as is the sense of how much bureaucracy makes death in Paris a mad procedure which parodies the impossibility of knowing anything, or doing anything, in the city. The city is seen from Père Lachaise as “wrapped in the dirty blue veil engendered by its smoke, at that moment diaphanous in the sunlight” (Balzac, 147), and the sense of fog, and of only half-vision, which entices and leads into a comment on the inquisitiveness of the crowds of Paris, which, as exemplified in de Maulincourt, leads to a woman’s death.

The conclusion returns to a meditation on meeting someone by chance, and then repeatedly, who seems like an allegory of the city: a figure who might attract sculptors wanting types for the Four Seasons, or for Commerce. Balzac calls such stray figures “Melmoths of Paris,” referring to Maturin’s novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820); Melmoth, who caught the imagination of Balzac, and who wrote a sequel, Melmoth reconcilié (1835), and of Baudelaire was, in the full form, Sebastian Melmoth. This was Oscar Wilde’s name after his release from prison (Ellmann 1987: 6). Melmoth is the damned figure from the seventeenth century, allowed to live on to see if he can find someone he can swap identities with so that he does not have to go to Hell. The narrative notes such a figure “between the south railings of the Luxembourg [i.e., the Left Bank] and the north railings of the Observatoire, a space in Paris which has no sex or gender.” It is a liminal Paris, suiting the liminality of the Melmoth seen there, nameless, yet having traces of the “real” Paris, but still no identity. Balzac notes that all the sanctuaries devoted to the ills and vices of Paris are there: a hospital for foundlings (part of the Hospital Saint Vincent de Paul, on avenue Denfert-Rochereau), a maternity hospital, the Cochin Hospital (XIVe., where many of these buildings are), the Capuchin Friars (specializing in venereal diseases), the La Rochefoucauld Almshouse, and the deaf and dumb hospital; there are buildings devoted to science, and not far away is the Montparnasse Cemetery (actually opened in 1824). The ironic tone suggests the difficulty which science and philanthropy, including the Carmelites and Chateaubriand, both have in dealing with Paris as a monster, productive of types of behavior which exceed all categorizing. It is an area with an “esplanade” overlooking Paris, where “gray old figures” play bowls, their physignomies different in their calm from the public hurrying by. The still older man watching is Ferragus.

La Fille aux Yeux d’Or

The third short novel, La Fille aux Yeux d’Or, opens with another review of Paris, called “Parisian Physiognomies,” which looks at the “two ages of man”: people either young or decrepit, but in both cases, gaunt, yellow, and sallow, out of striving for either gold or pleasure (=sexual pleasure, and both; these are incarnated in the promise of the title, which also suggests the aura of Paris and the woman as a sexual commodity). The pursuit of such things is urban or the urban produces such desires. The faces of people are also masks, so the opening paragraph asserts another point implied in the title. Paris is an inferno (Dantean, of course, with the sense of the meaning of the Comedie Humaine in contrast to Dante’s Divina Commedia), and it divides into groups: the proletariat, who owns nothing, and the bourgeoisie, who do. Beyond these types are the professionals, mainly lawyers, living in insalubrious offices, beyond that, artists, beyond them, society people. The city is historicized as having had its revolutionary moment in 1789 and its dejection and defeat in 1814: this combination marks its physiognomy, but it has no more good feeling or cleanliness than is to be found in the boiler of a steamship (the Île de la Cité was often compared to a ship, because of its shape). The image of a ship is maintained, but to argue for the contrasts Paris shows, which show themselves within sexuality, the subject of the novella.

The liminality in Ferragus here exists in terms of sexuality, and also of date, since it opens in April 1815, during the “Hundred Days” (20 March 1815–8 July 1815) when Napoleon had escaped from Elba and returned to France, causing the displacement of the Restoration monarch, Louis XVIII to Belgium. That no-one seems aware of the political tautness of the moment is a comment on the mad pursuit of pleasure that the city yields. The plot concerns Henri de Marsay, one of the Thirteen, illegitimate son of the English Lord Dudley, a bisexual figure banished from England, who has produced an “Adonis,” a strangely androgynous youth who is seen in the Tuileries Gardens, and is solicited by the unknown Girl with the Golden Eyes (Paquita Valdès), daughter of a slave from Georgia, and in a lesbian relationship with the Marquise Margarita Euphémie San-Réal, who is actually the half-sister of de Marsay, daughter of a Spanish lady, brought up in Havana, brought back to Madrid with Paquita, called only, at the beginning, a young creole from the Antilles (Balzac 1974: 331). The Marquise lives in a fashionable house just off the Rue Saint-Lazare; and this is where de Marsay is taken, blindfolded, to make love to Paquita, who dresses him as a woman (the fetish interests of the text are obvious) and makes love to him as though making love to his sister, a point which when he intuits (that he is being used as a woman, which he takes as an insult to his manhood) makes him attempt to kill her, aided by four of the Thirteen, one Ferragus, only to find she is already dead at the hands of the jealous Marquise: the brother-sister relationship also fringes on incest. The city, then, produces all forms of sexual transgression, with the sense of having a lesbian subculture.

Perhaps that is a major distinction from the comparable English novel: Paul de Manerville notes his friend de Marsay takes two and a half hours to dress, while de Marsay says they are taking so much from the English “que nous pourrions devenir hypocrites et prudes comes eux” (Balzac 1992: 380) – we could become hypocrites and prudes like them. De Marsay does not come off well in the novella, but the real sufferers are the figures from the colonies, Paquita and Christemio, her devoted black guard; the presence of these in Paris is marked and is part of what constituted Paris as Benjamin’s “capital of the nineteenth century”: capital because at the heart of empire. Paquita has no European language, and it seems cannot pronounce her lesbian lover’s name correctly (“Mariquita” – the name she uses when in sexual ecstasy – for Margarita. And that is not far off de Marsay, which means that all names are confused, as pleasure confuses gender, and the other way round). Certainly, she is forgotten by the end, not only through the agency of the Thirteen, but because that repression is basic to Paris.


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© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LondonUK