Crossed Swords and Crossed Lovers – Balzac’s ‘The Chouans’
If it wasn’t for some recent galavanting around Brittany, I can’t imagine a time that I’d have picked up The Chouans (1829) as the next ‘must read’ from my TBR. It’s not that I don’t rate Balzac – I thoroughly enjoyed Old Goriot (1835) and think the vibrant characterisation and blistering social commentary could give any one of Dickens’ novels a run for their money. The big turn off with The Chouans (dull cover aside) was the subject matter , the Royalist uprisings against the post-Revolutionary republic – yawn!
However, having picked up on some of the history on my trip and having visited the places in which most of the action is set, the novel sprang to life from the first page. I must confess to finding my allegiances thoroughly confused as my instinct drew me to supporting the underdog – the rebel Chouans, but then they were fighting for Pope and King, whereas the republican Blues were the establishment out to crush the northern bumpkin trouble-makers. What to do?
The scheming, stand offs and skirmishes between the two sides are painted in vivid detail, but the main narrative thread is the passionate love story between Marie de Verneuil, a royalist sent to infiltrate the Chouans, and the Marquis de Montauran, also known as the Gars, the rebel leader. Despite her instructions to deceive the Gars, Mademoiselle de Verneuil falls in love with the Marquis, and he with her. Neither know whether to trust the other or not, and the dramatic tension is amplified by attempts to thwart their passion and acts of revenge wielded by each of their jealous spurned admirers. Like a cross between the BBC’s Time Commanders and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the action never lets up. Really, it’s quite a romp, but sadly all ends in tears.
I enjoyed the novel immensely, although I felt it lacked the sophistication of characterisation seen in Old Goriot, also part of Balzac’s The Human Comedy series. I think it shows that The Chouans is the earliest novel of the series, and is not generally considered to match the brilliance of his later work.
For those of you unfamiliar with Time Commanders, here’s a clip. Warning – may contain nerds.