‘Sir,’ Derville asked him, ‘to whom do I have the honour of speaking?’
‘To Colonel Chabert.’
‘The one who died at Eylau.’
—Balzac, Colonel Chabert
While Australian governments have been prepared since an expedition to the Sudan in 1885 to dispatch troops to fight in wars, the reception of troops on their return has not always been enthusiastic. Opposition to the Vietnam War, for example, meant that society was divided on how to respond to the role of Australian troops and whether to welcome them with pride or anger. There have been legal obstacles, also, to claims for compensation over disabilities suffered by soldiers following their deployment to Vietnam and linked to the use of the defoliant known as ‘agent orange’.
A literary example of a French soldier’s return from war in the early part of the nineteenth century helps illuminate some of these issues. Honore de Balzac’s short novel Colonel Chabert (1835) focuses precisely on the social and legal aspects of the veteran’s situation. The novel, which was adapted for the screen in the 1994 French film directed by Yves Angelo and starring Gerard Depardieu as Chabert, opens in 1819 in a lawyer’s chambers in Paris. Balzac shows how the clerks go about their work, lengthening with flowery language the text of a statement of claim for the return of property: the client pays according to the length of the document. This statement of claim relates to property belonging to an aristocrat but confiscated or sold by the state during the revolutionary period of 1789-1814. By contrast, the anonymous supplicant who now enters the chambers is of humble origins and is clearly too poor to pay for any legal services. The clerks have encountered him before, and have dubbed him ‘old cloak’ in reference to his old-fashioned coat. They now do their best to send him on his way again.
But they also ask ‘old cloak’ his name: Chabert, he answers. One of them, seeking to make further fun at his expense, asks sarcastically: ‘Is that the colonel who died at Eylau?’ The humble reply is immediate: ‘The very one, sir.’¹ For the clerks, Colonel Chabert is a historical figure who died as the hero of that bloody, murderous battle in the east in 1807. (Eylau, now Bagrationovsk, is just on the Russian side of the border with Poland and 140 kilometres east of the Polish port city of Gdansk. In 1807 it was part of East Prussia.)
‘Old cloak’ does obtain an interview with the lawyer, Derville—at one o’clock in the morning. He explains that ‘Unfortunately my death is a historical fact recorded in Victories and Conquests, where it is reported in some detail.’² Gravely injured in the battle, he was left for dead among the thousands of other casualties, Russians and Prussians as well as French. Stripped of his clothes and placed in a pit, he was buried alive. He surmises that his death certificate ‘was probably drawn up in accordance with the rules of military procedure’, which means that the details would have been promptly conveyed to the local authorities of his last place of residence. On regaining consciousness, therefore, the badly injured soldier faced a difficult challenge to re-enter the world of the living. Extrication from the pit and then physical recovery are one thing, but proving his civil status in the face of a death certificate that the world—and the law—accepts as genuine is something else. As he discovers, it is not simply a matter of reappearing in Paris on regaining his health and resuming his former life.
Twelve years have passed since his ‘death’ at Eylau when he has the nocturnal conference with lawyer Derville. The Napoleonic era was one of upheaval and instability throughout Europe, and the injured soldier was forced into the life of a wandering mendicant due to ongoing war. He was helped and accorded charity as an obviously ill man (he was horribly disfigured by a sabre blow to the skull), but considered delusional each time he claimed to be Colonel Chabert. He was even committed as insane for two years, he explains, and found later that he could get by so long as he refrained from any mention of his identity.
Derville, considered one of the sharpest legal minds of the day, is moved by the articulate if extraordinary narrative, but points out that the Countess Ferraud, ‘widow of Colonel Chabert’, is his client. He is well aware that from a social and legal point of view, Colonel Chabert is dead. The veteran of Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt and Europe, however, having now returned to Paris, wants to obtain the evidence he needs in order to undertake his court case and reclaim was is rightfully his: ‘isn’t Countess Ferraud my wife? She has an income of 30,000 livres, and refuses to give me two shillings.’ But he soon finds that it is not only a matter of mounting a court case: he must challenge the new social system that is developing under the Restoration, whose administration ‘would like to be able to wipe out those who were part of the Empire’. With modifications, the monarchy and the aristocracy have been restored. And, as the opening of the novel demonstrates, this restoration is reinforced by a new law giving the aristocracy the right to recover expropriated property. As it happens, Colonel Chabert also had a title but, since it was awarded by Napoleon, it cannot help him now.
His widow is married to the aristocratic Count Ferraud. For the ambitious Rose, the match was an opportunity to enter superior society. Then she finds a way to consolidate and extend the wealth she inherited from Chabert. Focused only on protecting her position, the countess is the incarnation of the new period. The indigent vagabond thus faces a huge challenge: to plead his case not only against the well-regarded count and countess and the society of which they are part, but also against a death certificate, a marriage certificate and birth certificates (there are two children from the second marriage). ‘I was buried under the dead,’ he says, ‘but now I’m buried under the living, under certificates, under facts, under the whole society Derville, in showing sympathy and understanding, is the first person of any standing to offer encouragement. He also promises financial support. Though he is ambitious, the young lawyer is not indifferent to the plight of the less fortunate. The old soldier claims that he wrote to his wife several times after he had recovered sufficiently, but received no assistance, not even acknowledgement. On his return to Paris after nine or ten years he finds his mansion has been sold, then demolished; his wife, of course, has inherited his wealth and remarried. She refuses still to acknowledge the existence of the man claiming to be Chabert, even though she has received two letters from him since his return. It is as if all signs of Chabert’s existence have been obliterated, he is but a note in the history of the Empire. ‘Am I dead or am I alive?’ he asks: for him everything should follow from the answer.
While not utterly convinced of the truth of the account he has heard, the ambitious but humane Derville promises to make the necessary enquiries and to obtain copies of the documents the veteran has mentioned to him and relating to the veteran’s period of recovery in East Prussia. After some months Derville learns that the documents exist, are ‘perfectly in order and have the legal status necessary for evidence presented to a court’ and further, that nearly all the witnesses for the facts stated are still alive. But Derville points out that the man calling himself Chabert will have to prove his identity in a court, opposed to people whose interest it will be to deny his existence. So the documents from Prussia will be challenged, setting in train a lengthy succession of contested court cases.
The divergence between what the law determines and a just outcome looks stark. Even assuming that the question of identity is settled, what then? asks the lawyer. How will the question of the ‘perfectly innocent’ bigamy of the countess be resolved? Derville asserts that the point of law is ‘outside the code’ and can only be decided by judges according to their conscience. They may conclude that the bonds of the second marriage, which has produced two children, are stronger than those of the first, which was childless. The judges could then declare, in Derville’s view, the first marriage null and void, once it is accepted that the parties to the second union acted in good faith. Further, Chabert’s assets were undervalued when an inventory was compiled, because it meant the widow paid less to the state. Then Napoleon, who encouraged the marriage with Ferraud, returned to the widow the amount paid in taxes. None of this could be successfully challenged in court: the countess would be entitled to retain even the portion refunded in honour of Chabert’s service and bravery. Thus according to law, the hero of the battle of Eylau is entitled to only a reduced share of the wealth he possessed when his death certificate was issued. And in the meantime he will need substantial sums for barristers and other legal and living expenses. ‘Society and the legal system weighed on his chest like a nightmare.’
Destined by his mother for a legal career, Balzac studied law in Paris then undertook three years of training with, first, a solicitor, then with a notary. Some of this experience is reflected in his description of the lawyer’s chambers with which Colonel Chabert opens. We can’t be sure how much knowledge he acquired in these early years, but he later had cause to deepen his understanding. Throughout his working life Balzac was the subject of legal claims, orders, judgments. He was chronically in debt and often in dispute with his publishers. Having resisted all efforts to install him in a legal career, he would go on to develop substantial understanding of the legal system and its shortcomings.
Although Balzac uses legal terminology and presents Derville as a foremost jurist, it would be surprising if the author believed the argument his character presents to the veteran. Nowhere in the Civil Code in force at the time is there provision to annul a first marriage in favour of a second, whatever the circumstances. Bigamy constitutes a condition under the code that triggers the absolute annulment of a second marriage: once brought to the attention of the authorities it is as if, legally, that marriage had never taken place (Art. 189). Contrary to Derville’s argument, good faith does not prevent the dissolution of the second marriage, it merely softens the effects of an annulment—by which the marriage is held to be void in the past as well as in the future. Thus if one spouse was ignorant of any grounds that rendered the marriage invalid, it has the status of a putative marriage: it is held to be valid up until the date on which it is declared invalid.
Can we assume, as Derville appears to, that the bigamy of the countess was ‘perfectly innocent’? In a meeting with Derville, who is her lawyer, the countess admits that she received the letters Chabert sent after the battle of Eylau and before her marriage to Ferraud. She claims the letters were open, dirty, the writing was unrecognisable and that she was forced to conclude that a confidence trickster was attempting to deceive her. But she keeps the letters secret (particularly from her intended, Ferraud) and makes no effort to verify their authenticity. We might expect any loving spouse to follow up any leads, to seek assistance in checking the source of such letters. But the return of a little-loved husband whose only asset is military glory (as we have seen, the countess already possesses his wealth) would be most inopportune.
The ‘widow’ is looking forwards, not backwards. She loves another man: marriage with the young Ferraud will give her entry to the splendours of high society. If, however, Ferraud learned of the existence of the letters, he might put an end to the marriage plans. Rose would at least be obliged to make enquiries. So their arrival remains a secret known only to her. After this she has no choice but to deny any knowledge that her soldier-husband might still be alive. Under the Criminal Code, bigamy is considered a serious crime, punishable by up to twenty years’ hard labour. In the opinion of the legislator, bigamy encompasses adultery as well as fraud, since the bigamist has falsely declared before the marriage celebrant—an officer of the state—and affirmed by a signature that he or she was not already married. As noted above, the defence of good faith is available, such as a death certificate that the defendant believed valid. And that would be Madame Chabert’s approach; she even has Napoleon’s blessing for her upcoming marriage to Ferraud.
A variant from an earlier version of the novel underlines the bigamy theme. In confronting Countess Ferraud about the existence of her first husband, Derville says: ‘it will be proven that he wrote to you well before the expiry of the minimum period stipulated by the code between the death of a first husband and the ceremony of the marriage of a woman with the second …’ The countess denies the charge. But even in the revised version that we read today, by laying a trap for her, Derville obtains an admission that she did receive a letter at that time. Here, the lawyer’s intention is no longer to prove that his client is a bigamist, but rather to show her that publicity about the issue could be very embarrassing. This might explain Balzac’s approach. In his revisions he moves away from a straight question of bigamy to focus rather on the social and systemic obstacles Chabert faces.
With a strong sense of natural justice, Derville wants to ensure that Colonel Chabert is reintegrated into society and that he has sufficient resources to live decently. He has indicated to Chabert that going to court would not guarantee such an outcome: there is a discrepancy between law and justice. Chabert, the lawyer has argued, would achieve more by compromise. (The Compromise is one title Balzac used for the novel.) Public humiliation of the countess would be counterproductive as it would make an enemy of her. We might note that it is in Derville’s interest also to bring about a compromise. Once a case went to court he would no longer be able to represent both parties.
Derville devises a contract that would result in the overturning of Chabert’s death certificate (thus restoring his legal and social identity) and the dissolution of the countess’s first marriage. Chabert, although rejected and repulsed by her, still loves his wife and does not want revenge. He is prepared to be guided by Derville. Not so the countess. In terms of social position and wealth, she owes Chabert everything: she was a prostitute whom he picked up on the street and married soon after. Yet years later she refuses all compromise. She resorts once again to seduction—having acknowledged to herself that this old soldier is indeed her first husband and perceiving that he still loves her—in order to prevent the matter achieving public notoriety. In contrast to the 1994 film version, Ferraud remains in the background in the novel. Rose intends to keep him ignorant of the whole affair, since she is aware that he has some regrets about the marriage: while Rose brought money into the marriage, she offered no new social alliances. Perhaps Ferraud would not be too unhappy if the marriage were dissolved.
The countess is determined on total victory by exploiting Chabert’s regard for her and his generosity. She ‘wanted to interest him in her situation, to arouse sufficient tenderness in him so that she could take hold of his spirit and dispose of him as she saw fit… she didn’t yet know what she should do with this man, but certainly she wanted to crush him socially’. Thus her kindness and consideration for him as they spend a few days together at her beautiful country property are utterly feigned. It is a ruse to avoid publicity or court proceedings. She will use her charms to have him renounce all claims. Derville wanted to use the law in a compromise that restored to Chabert his civil rights: the countess plans to use the law to return him to the status of the living dead.
The revelation that she is prepared to confine him to a mental asylum causes revulsion in Chabert for her and the society she has come to represent. Equally appalled at the prospect of’entering into a life of court cases’, he tells her in disdain:
I want nothing from you. Live without fear by trusting in my word of honour; it is worth more than the scribblings of all the notaries in Paris. I shall never claim the name that I perhaps made famous.
Chabert then disappears from her life once more, at the same time turning his back on the new society of money and ambition that had determined to crush the likes of him, survivors from another era.
Chabert has at least one further encounter with the legal system. Having dealings in court himself, Derville happens to hear sentence pronounced against Chabert in the Police Court. The veteran receives two months in prison for vagrancy, after which he is to be sent to a detention facility for mendicants. The appearance of Chabert before the Police Court allows Balzac an opportunity to comment on this institution. He notes that the decision of the court amounts to a sentence that, ‘according to the jurisprudence of police chiefs, is equivalent to perpetual detention’. It is harsh punishment, of which Balzac disapproves. In his novel Louis Lambert the eponymous protagonist says: ‘If mendicants weren’t imprisoned, if they weren’t harassed, if they weren’t disdained, I would go around begging in order to resolve at my leisure the problems that preoccupy me.’³ It is difficult to see any justification for a law that permanently deprives an individual of his liberty only because he has no visible means of support. Yet mendicants and the homeless in France were treated in this harsh manner until the law was relaxed a little in 1832.
Balzac, more often concerned with the affairs of the aristocracy and the ambitious middle classes, nevertheless deplores the situation of beggars and other ‘delinquents’ who come before the Police Courts. Those waiting to be sentenced are not criminals but the poor, mendicants who may be guilty of nothing more than poverty, yet sent to prison and, Balzac suggests, even to suicide such might be their despair. And Chabert appears before this court. Balzac shows how the legal system has offered nothing but obstacles to this socially isolated individual. Chabert finds himself virtually buried a second time under the weight of laws, a death certificate that has the force of law and the constant refusals he encounters. Just as it has in the case of Australian servicemen and women seeking compensation, the legal system proves to be a formidable obstacle in Chabert’s search for justice. It deprives him of his liberty because he has no visible means of support, after having prevented him regaining access to wealth that by rights is his.
- I have used the second Pleiade (French) edition (1976-81) of Balzac’s La Comedie humaine. Le Colonel Chabert appears in vol. III. Translations from French texts are mine.
- The work Victoires, conquetes, revers etguerres civiles des Francais de 1792 a 1815 appeared, in twenty-nine volumes, between 1817 and 1823.
- In vol. XI of La Comedie humaine, p. 647.