This is the story of two brothers, their foolish mother, who loves her worthless son & ignores his worthy brother, & about the intrigues that result when an inheritance is at stake.
Agathe Rouget was born in the provincial town Issoudun. Her father favoured her older brother, Jean-Jacques, unfairly believing that Agathe wasn’t really his daughter. Neglected & despised, Agathe soon leaves Issoudun, marrying a civil servant, Bridau, & moving to Paris. Two sons were born, Philippe & Joseph; Monsieur Bridau worked himself to death in the service of Napoleon, whom he worshipped, & his widow was let with very little money to live on. Agathe’s widowed aunt, Madame Descoings, combines her household with that of her niece & the two women live frugally, their only aim in life to help Agathe’s sons.
Although Madame Descoings spoils both the boys, Agathe’s favourite son is Philippe. Unfortunately he’s a lazy, scheming, dishonest boy who grows up to believe that the world owes him a living, mostly paid for by the sacrifices of his mother. He joins the army, spends whatever allowance his mother gives him, stealing the money if it’s not given to him, gambles, drinks, takes mistresses & generally lives the life of a spoiled brat. Cheated of advancement in the army by the downfall of Napoleon, Philippe refuses to serve the restored Bourbon monarchy & becomes involved in a fraudulent scheme to settle in America, losing all his money. All this time, he has ignored his mother, unless he needed money, while she has scrimped & saved, working in menial jobs & going without herself so that Philippe can have what he needs.
Joseph is an artist. He decides early in life where his talents lie & he works hard at his art, not too proud to take on hack work such as copying old masters as he learns & tries to make a living. He loves his mother & is always kind & considerate but Agathe is dismissive of Joseph & his kindness. She sees the life of an artist as vaguely disreputable & expects him to go without if Philippe needs money. Philippe steals from his brother as well although Joseph can’t afford to lose a sou.
Agathe has never returned to Issoudun & had no contact with her family but, some years after her father’s death, she hears from her godmother, Madame Hochon, that Jean-Jacques has fallen under the influence of a scheming woman, Flore Brazier & her lover, Max Gilet. Madame Hochon warns Agathe that if she wants her sons to inherit anything from her family, she needs to return to Issoudun & fight for her share.
After Agathe left Issoudun, her father, Dr Rouget came across a beautiful child, Flore Brazier, & took her into his home. His motives were far from pure & he groomed Flore, intending her to become his mistress. Fortunately he was too old to take advantage of her & Flore was left at his death with beauty & enough education to know where her own best interests lay. She had no trouble gaining a dominance over Jean-Jacques, who was a simple-minded, foolish man. Flore was soon installed as his housekeeper & did as she pleased. Jean-Jacques was happy enough to have Flore as his housekeeper & mistress but didn’t think it was proper to marry her. She fell in love with Max Gilet, an ex-army officer who was said to be an illegitimate son of Dr Rouget. He was the leader of a gang of young men who called themselves the Knights of Idleness & spent their time playing cruel practical jokes on the townspeople. Flore & Max planned to get as much money out of Jean-Jacques as they can & then run away to get married. Madame Hochon’s letter to Agathe threatens to put a stop to their plans.
Agathe & Joseph go to Issoudun as Philippe is in prison, charged as a member of a group of Bonapartists conspiring to overthrow the King. They soon see the danger to any possible inheritance but are powerless to influence Jean-Jacques or stop Flore & Max. The only weapons they have are goodness, honesty & family feeling. Only when they have retreated to Paris & Philippe arrives to take over the assault is there any chance that the Bridaus will prevail. Only a wicked man like Philippe can possibly counter the plans of two such conspirators.
Evil, in the form of Philippe & Max, seems to have everything its own way. The superficial attractions of good looks & a glib tongue help Philippe in his criminal career but Agathe is to blame as well for her for her blind partiality. Even as Philippe steals from her, Joseph & even from Madame Descoings, she finds excuses for his behaviour. The characters are so engaging. Madame Descoings, with her addiction to the lottery & her belief that her numbers, which haven’t come up in the last twenty years, will come up one day. Monsieur Hochon, a miser who unwillingly becomes involved with the Bridaus’ quest for justice. Fario, the Spanish merchant who is the victim of one of Max’s practical jokes & who takes his revenge. Flore, who rises from very humble beginnings to become the most powerful & feared woman in the town. She uses her looks & intelligence to create the kind of life she could never otherwise have dreamed of, exploiting the stupidity of Jean-Jacques to do so. Only when she falls in love does she begin to lose control.
The Black Sheep is a terrific read. The amused, cynical tone of the omniscient narrator sets the scene for a family saga, a thriller & a wonderful portrait of provincial life in early 19th century France. The last third of the book reads like a thriller as the plotting & scheming comes to a climax & it’s hard to know who to barrack for when everyone is selfish, stupid or greedy & it seems that, again, the good will end badly & evil triumph. It’s also a testament to the skill of the writing that I was barracking for Philippe in his battle with Max & Flore, even though I knew what a disreputable, worthless character he was. I raced through the last chapters to find out how it would all end. The Black Sheep is part of Balzac’s monumental series of novels, The Comédie Humaine. I’ve read several of the novels, completely out of order, & I don’t think it matters. Characters recur in several of the novels but the books I’ve read so far stand alone.