‘The Black Sheep’ by Honoré de Balzac – Two Brothers, A Cain and Abel Story


‘The Black Sheep’ (La Rabouilleuse) by Honoré de Balzac (1842) – 339 pages             Translated from the French by Donald Adamson


For me, the sign of a good historical fiction is that it captures the joys as well as the hardships of those olden times. This Balzac does in spades. Anyone can write of hardship and misery, but very few can communicate or describe joy. Perhaps the greatest example of an author communicating joy for me is ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens. Of course Balzac and Dickens weren’t writing historical fiction; they were writing about their own time, the post-Napoleonic Era.

‘The Black Sheep’ is one of Balzac’s collection of interlinked novels called ‘The Human Comedy’ depicting French society in the post-Napoleonic Bourbon Restoration era (1815-1830). So far I have read about 5 or 6 of these novels.

‘The Black Sheep’ is what I call a Cain and Abel novel. Two brothers, Philippe and Joseph, are very different from each other. Joseph is a would-be artist spending his time even as a boy learning artistic techniques from the monks at a nearby monastery. Philippe is a soldier rising to the level of Colonel as a young man in Napoleon’s army before Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Philippe is a dashing young man who later gets in trouble for plotting against the Bourbon Restoration with some of the other soldiers remaining from Napoleon’s army.

While Joseph labors away making little money on his art, the dashing Philippe rises to the heights of society. For Philippe, life is wine, women, and song. However Philippe is brought down by his gambling addiction. His family catches him stealing money from under a mattress from his aunt.

A frequent cause of death in a Balzac novel is the shock to the system of a woman caused by a close relative’s behavior. Twice this happens in ‘The Black Sheep’. This plot point may not be medically sound but is psychologically sound.

One thing that is always true in the novels of Honoré de Balzac is the author’s fixation with money. Balzac is always aware of the financial situation of each of his characters down to their last franc. If a son disobeys his father, the father will reduce the amount of money that son will inherit or write that son out of the will entirely. And there is always a will or bequeathing from some shoestring relative that is being disputed.

Later, when Philippe returns, no mention is made to his addiction to gambling which supposedly has been cured by his time in prison. He becomes a hero and later becomes even a lord under Charles X. The reader senses that Balzac favored the Bourbon Restoration over the Napoleonic remnants of the French Revolution, but one never knows for sure under Balzac’s embedded sarcasm.

All in all, ‘The Black Sheep’ is a rouser and a page-turner of a novel, showcasing Balzac’s storytelling capability.

The Guardian listed ‘The Black Sheep’ by Balzac at number 12 on their list of the 100 greatest novels of all time in 2015. I would place it at number 72 or 73. (Actually I have no idea where I would rank ‘The Black Sheep’. This is just my little joke making fun of ranking these 100 greatest novels.)


Grade:    A



3 responses to this post.

  1. You’re right, it is daft to rank novels, but this is a very good one all the same!

    Liked by 1 person


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