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La Bourse (The Purse) (1832)
Honoré de Balzac
J.M. Dent & Co, 34pp
Translated by Clara Bell

La Comédie Humaine is full of short stories, and The Purse is another. I am still in the Scènes de la vie privée (Scenes of Private Life), though in some editions it has been placed in the Scènes de la vie parisienne (Scenes of Parisian Life).

The young painter, Hippolyte Schinner, falls from his stool and is knocked unconscious. His fall is heard by his two neighbours, Adélaïde Leseigneur and her mother Madame de Rouville, who come to his rescue. Naturally, Hippolyte falls in love with Adélaïde, and during a courtship of her begins to notice the poverty that these two women are in pains to conceal. He meets two of their friends, the Comte de Kergarouet and the Chevalier du Halga, who regularly play cards with the women and seem to deliberately lose. How is it these men of title take care of two women with so little?

What Balzac does in La Bourse is quite ingenious: he takes as his subject the life of an artist, and has his artist use his skills to learn the secrets these women hold. On one visit Hippolyte loses his purse, and he cannot believe at first that Adélaïde would steal it, but eventually it becomes clear that she must have, but why? He begins to notice the sheer level of poverty these women are in, and it becomes clear: they steal because they have to. But has our painter missed one crucial detail in this picture? Through this mystery, delicately portrayed by Balzac, we slowly uncover a secret in the heart of French society: the treatment of wives of fallen soldiers: the forgotten victims of Napoleon. Madame de Rouville’s late husband was a naval captain who died at Batavia from wounds received in an engagement with an English vessel. The Comte de Kergarouet, it transpires, is a former comrade of Baron de Rouville. Meanwhile, Adélaïde presents Hippolyte with a repaired and bejewelled purse: she has done this for him, and he asks for her hand in marriage.

The Purse is seen as a rather minor tale in La Comédie Humaine: I suspect that, had it been longer, The Purse would be regarded as one of the masterpieces of this cycle. Balzac’s voice is clear and delicate, and his portrayal of these women and their friendship with Hippolyte Schinner is well drawn. Along with the previously reviewed The Unknown Masterpiece, it is clear Balzac has a great love for, and a solid understanding of, the art world. In this work, he sheds light on the life of the artist in an interesting and unique manner. It is a delight of a tale.

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