This rather small novel, regarded by Balzac himself to be his masterpiece when it was published in 1841 as apart of his La Comédie humaine (specifically, one of the two novels that made up the canon’s Scènes de la vie de province—“Scenes from provincial life”), poses a difficult problem for readers, as the novel’s critics have been apt to point out.
The plot is simple enough: Monsieur Minoret, an aged doctor, has an enormous fortune, which has been accumulated through a lifetime of miserly living and several shrewd investments. When he moves to the small French town of Nemours, his relatives (the Massins, the Crémières, and the Minoret-Levraults) are quick to realize that, given the doctor’s enfeebled age, they will soon be inheriting a colossal sum of francs (half the doctor’s total)—French monetary law was a subject in which Balzac, once a man of the law and a man of the bank, was well versed.
It is at the doctor’s move to Nemours that the eponymous heroine makes her appearance. By modern standards, Ursule, obsessively pious (she entertains the idea, at one point, of joining a convent), utterly romantic, and given to frequent, passionate swoons, would be regarded as a flighty and rather two-dimensional. Nevertheless it is upon her pure character that the novel is balanced, for she, the doctor’s niece and goddaughter, wins over the affections of the rational doctor—winning his affections with genuine love, and eventually causing the old doctor, a devout atheist, to attend his first mass.
This causes a hubbub in the town and is the first cause of what will be many squalors to issue amongst the inheritors-to-be. However, it is not immediately clear why the doctor’s family is suddenly so concerned. The author suggests that the danger to the inheritors lies in the fact that the doctor, should he undergo a miraculous conversion and become a Christian after a year of strict rationality, may choose instead to will his fortune to the Church, and yet according to French law at the time of the novel (1829-1836), the doctor would be unable to forego bequeathing half of his estate to his relatives, even should he wish to give the money to charity.
Even so, the doctor’s eventual conversion becomes a notable topic throughout the novel, and a chance for the author to indulge his lifelong fascinations with Christian occultism (particularly that of Emmanuel Swedenborg, who is given lengthy digression in Balzac’s “Seraphita”). A chapter entitled “A Brief Digression on Magnetism” outlines the purported 19th century miracle of a sort of paranormal hypnosis: an anomaly which dictates that a certain ethereal medium exists between animate beings through which one may become privy to another’s private knowledge. A man learned enough to travel through this medium could, for example, experience the sights and sensations of his friend, or a complete stranger, or a cricket.
With the aid of his good friend the Abbé Chaperon, the doctor goes through this medium and sees, in one of the novel’s prime moments, his goddaughter both pining for a previously unknown lover and lamenting the doctor’s atheism, which in turn prompts his conversion.
It is crucial for the author to establish this theosophist connection, between the esoteric and the real, for the sake of the novel’s proceeding events, and yet the inclusion of the occult is, at best, a haphazard fit. Forced approximately a quarter into the piece under dubious plot points (the doctor’s friends, a group of learned, old figures who serve as a minor intellectual backdrop, only ever introduce the concept of magnetism because it was a trending subject at the time—like a political gossip column in the New Yorker), the digression on magnetism is treated with gravity for several pages before it is given a hasty throwaway, only to be resurrected for the sole purpose of providing the novel’s denouement.
What occupies the space in-between are the financial affairs of the respective families, which the author does not shy away from extracting in exact details. Thus, the reader is presented with various numbers of royalties and their interests, government positions and their earnings, estates and their value. The doctor slowly dies, Ursule begins a love affair, but the francs never cease to mount.
And yet, why all of these details for a plot that takes as its center a magnificent inheritance and a possibility of spurned inheritors? There are several reasons. First, the author’s theme of the spiritual trumping of the physical world carries an important gravity. The reader knows that the doctor’s inheritors are the villains because they are motivated to regard the old man by their own greed; likewise, Ursule is the heroine because she cares about the doctor’s internal soul. Grounded in monetary minutia, the novel presents itself as realist fiction while surreptitiously drawing the reader towards a conclusion in which devout spiritualism ultimately triumphs. This emphasis naturally, also deprives the novel its realism. Following the death of the doctor and his inheritor’s mad scrambling to place their claim on everything in the his estate, a supplementary will is found by Monsieur Minoret-Levrault, dictating that more than half (52%) of the fortune should go to Ursule. Motivated by a profound greed (this other will’s contents were never to go to the inheritors in the first place), Minoret quickly burns the will and steals the money, thus sealing his (and his family’s) spiritual doom, which occurs by none other than the hand of God himself. The concept of magnetism is brought up again to accomplish this, despite more than an hundred pages of silence, when Ursule receives a divine dream revealing Minoret’s guilt.
And then there is the concept of parody: a parody of the economically obsessed modern France (which, at the time of Balzac’s writing, was undergoing its industrial revolution) and its frantic struggle to hoard as much wealth as possible while humanity itself went neglected.
One may attempt to read “Ursule Mirouët” for its story and yet there is a central problem with attempting two-dimensionality: namely, that the theme of spiritual transcendence is the nexus upon which the work operates. Without magnetism, without an interfering God, there is ultimately no justice.
Critics have applied the term ‘Manichaeism’ to the work, not necessarily as a disparagement, but perhaps as a warning for readers seeking fine realism: God is living and dynamic, evil is evil, and good is good. If you’re comfortable reading the novel under these rules, then ““Ursule Mirouët” will be sure to provide pleasure.
Balzac, Honoré de. Ursule Mirouët. Trans. Donald Adamson. England: Penguin Group, 1976. Print.