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Sons of the Soil (The Peasantry), a novel by Honore de Balzac


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Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley


To Monsieur P. S. B. Gavault.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote these words at the beginning of his Nouvelle Heloise: "I have seen the morals of my time and I publish these letters." May I not say to you, in imitation of that great writer, "I have studied the march of my epoch and I publish this work"?

The object of this particular study--startling in its truth so long as society makes philanthropy a principle instead of regarding it as an accident--is to bring to sight the leading characters of a class too long unheeded by the pens of writers who seek novelty as their chief object. Perhaps this forgetfulness is only prudence in these days when the people are heirs of all the sycophants of royalty. We make criminals poetic, we commiserate the hangman, we have all but deified the proletary. Sects have risen, and cried by every pen, "Arise, working-men!" just as formerly they cried, "Arise!" to the "tiers etat." None of these Erostrates, however, have dared to face the country solitudes and study the unceasing conspiracy of those whom we term weak against those others who fancy themselves strong,--that of the peasant against the proprietor. It is necessary to enlighten not only the legislator of to-day but him of to-morrow. In the midst of the present democratic ferment, into which so many of our writers blindly rush, it becomes an urgent duty to exhibit the peasant who renders Law inapplicable, and who has made the ownership of land to be a thing that is, and that is not.

You are now to behold that indefatigable mole, that rodent which undermines and disintegrates the soil, parcels it out and divides an acre into a hundred fragments,--ever spurred on to his banquet by the lower middle classes who make him at once their auxiliary and their prey. This essentially unsocial element, created by the Revolution, will some day absorb the middle classes, just as the middle classes have destroyed the nobility. Lifted above the law by its own insignificance, this Robespierre, with one head and twenty million arms, is at work perpetually; crouching in country districts, intrenched in municipal councils, under arms in the national guard of every canton in France,--one result of the year 1830, which failed to remember that Napoleon preferred the chances of defeat to the danger of arming the masses.

If during the last eight years I have again and again given up the writing of this book (the most important of those I have undertaken to write), and as often returned to it, it was, as you and other friends can well imagine, because my courage shrank from the many difficulties, the many essential details of a drama so doubly dreadful and so cruelly bloody. Among the reasons which render me now almost, it may be thought, foolhardy, I count the desire to finish a work long designed to be to you a proof of my deep and lasting gratitude for a friendship that has ever been among my greatest consolations in misfortune.

De Balzac. _

Read next: Part 1: Chapter 1. The Chateau

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