Classics Club Spin #28: Eugénie Grandet

This was such an unexpected surprise and I feel incredibly fond of this book. On the one hand it’s a simple story of the Grandet family. Felix, his wife and their daughter Eugénie. Their maid Nanon and the two families of friends, the Cruchot’s and the des Grassins who visit them. They live in Saumur, in the Loire Valley region of France in a house whose appearance ‘weighs as heavily upon the spirits as the gloomiest cloister,’. Into this gloomy house comes cousin Charles from Paris and Eugénie falls immediately in love.

But on the other hand it isn’t simple at all because avarice is the enormous all pervading silent character that engulfs their lives on every page. The lowly cooper, Felix Grandet made a fortune in 1789 when he bought land confiscated from the aristocracy. A bumper harvest in 1811 increased his wealth and he’s quick to invest in business, so that by the time the novel opens ‘one day in the middle of November in the year 1819’ Grandet has a fortune so large that his every action is ‘cloaked in gold‘ and he has become a miser who worships his gold at the cost of everything else, keeping it secretly in a strongroom

‘while Madame and Mademoiselle Grandet soundly slept, the old cooper would come to commune with his gold, to caress and worship, fondle and gloat over his gold.’

This is only a short novel, my Penguin copy is 248 pages, and the gathering of his wealth, the swindling and hoodwinking of his neighbours, takes up by far the largest part, so that I did wonder why it wasn’t called Felix Grandet, but it is ultimately Eugénie’s story and that’s why I’m afraid I can’t talk about the book without talking about the ending, although I won’t give away the whole plot.

There are no chapters or obvious breaks, the whole book just runs along as one tale, but time is crucial and we know exactly when events happen. Conversations around town and letters between Saumur and Paris show a commercial, business world that grounds the novel in post revolutionary France and keeps it gritty and believable rather than running the risk of sounding like a fairytale story about a miser and his dutiful wife and daughter.

The main events: the arrival of Charles, the reason for his arrival, his and Eugenie’s promise to each other and his departure all happen in four days. And for those days, we follow them hour by hour. We sit with mother and daughter as they sew by the window, follow Eugénie up the stairs to gaze at Charles, follow Nanon into the streets to buy illicit butter. We become a part of their lives, cheerless and dull but not unhappy. Given their bread at the start of each day, sitting by the window from April to November and then taking their winter positions by the fire.They have no idea of the wealth of Grandet nor do they resent him. We know from their conversation that once he was kind, he was the only person in Saumur to employ Nanon, when no one else would even look at such an odd outsider. They seem to accept their lot and the bond between the three is unbreakable. When Charles arrives, Eugénie wants to spoil him with a delicious breakfast. This will mean disobeying Grandet’s rules, but their bravery in putting together this simple meal is so touching. They find cream, cook strong coffee and heap sugar on a saucer (but no butter, that’s saved for a cake later)

‘She took the greenest vineleaves that were left hanging on the vine, arranged her grapes as temptingly as any old professional hand, and bore the dish in triumph to the table. She laid predatory hands on the pears that her father had counted out in the kitchen, and piled them in a pyramid with leaves among them. She came and went, ran in and out from one room to another, danced here and there. She would gladly have ransacked her father’s house from top to bottom, but everything was locked up, and her father had the keys. Nanon came back with two new-laid eggs. When she saw them Eugenie could have flung her arms round the old servant’s neck.’

And if they’re caught? ‘Well, if he beats us, he can only beat us; we’ll go down on our knees and take our beating.‘ says Eugénie. And what is Charles’ reaction to their secret, luxurious breakfast? ‘The dandy sank gracefully into the armchair, like a pretty women reclining on a divan’ and asks for a partridge! Well we knew he was no good from the start and of course he doesn’t come back but Balzac does give him an adventure of his own.

After the watchful gaze of those four days, the last 50 pages or so sweep through years bringing the story up to date with its writing in 1833. As Eugénie waits for Charles the tragedy of her life becomes clear and gives the reason for it being her novel, that it’s about the harm done by avarice. For such a loving, generous soul her life becomes an island as she is seen only for her wealth, ‘a figure mounted on a pedestal made of bags of gold.’ A particularly cruel move is the pre-nuptial agreement drawn up by her eventual husband that states there should be no children so that he inherits everything. The real tragedy isn’t ghastly husbands though or other people, it’s that isolated, Eugénie, that lovely spirited girl turns in on herself, living as her mother did, only suffering life for happiness in death. Charles, however, does get what he deserves!

11 thoughts on “Classics Club Spin #28: Eugénie Grandet

  1. What a lovely and touching review of the novel! I studied it during my college days and remember being moved by it. Balzac is such a wonderful chronicler of life and has painted a realistic picture of avarice. And that poor Eugenie! My heart broke for her.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds wonderful and I’m so glad Charles, whom I already hate, got his comeuppance! I haven’t read any Balzac but have Pere Goriot on my new CC list – you have whetted my appetite to get to it sooner rather than later!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m keen to read Pere Goriot as well now and just more Balzac. There were lovely hints of humour too, Charles was dealt with beautifully in a line that just said it all, and being in France was very interesting. I hope you enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Eugenie is such a good character, she’s so real, it’s terrible for her (not the crying and wetness of Amelia Sedley!) A lot happens that I haven’t talked about, I hope you enjoy it as much!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your thoughtful review of this book is a reminder of just little I know about Balzac’s work – and that of other French writers such as Zola and Stendhal. They really were very incisive observers of human nature and society.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree Jacqui, all those writers that I know nothing about and being in France at the turn of the 19th century was very interesting. Definitely some more exploring to do!

      Like

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