Set in the French region of Brittany , the novel combines military history with a love story between the aristocratic Marie de Verneuil and the Chouan royalist Alphonse de Montauran. Balzac conceived the idea for the novel during a trip to Brittany arranged by a family friend in Intrigued by the people and atmosphere of the region, he began collecting notes and descriptions for later use. After publishing an Avertissement for the novel, he released three editions — each of them revised significantly.
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It is September , and over one hundred peasants and townspeople from Fougeres in Brittany are being marched to Mayenne department just to the east of Brittany as new conscripts for the Republic, as requested by Napoleon. Balzac mentions that the area of Vendee, Brittany, and lower Normandy had been at peace as orchestrated by a General Hoche four years ago — but Royalist insurrection is again rising.
It is not clear whether these men are to be pressed into foreign service or service to fight the Chouans. One of the reasons for calling up the levies was to actually remove possible insurgents from their homelands. The land is furrowed with ravines, torrents, lakes, marshes, and hedges; there are no roads or canals, and the people remain backward and stubbornly independent. The marching men are quite a hodgepodge of people dressed in everything from goatskins to copper buttons!
The majority wore goatskins, white crudely-spun cloth breeches, and dirty red wool hats. Some wore felt broad-brimmed hats, round jackets with square side pockets, waistcoats. Much talk about sabots, which are wooden shoes. Most of this last group wore iron-bound shoes, silver studs on their collars, and even carried flasks of brandy. A few townspeople had still different costumes with round bonnets or flat or peaked caps, high boots or shoes with gaiters, etc.
The faces of the conscripts show misery and dejection. They seem to scan the woods as they march and hang back from their escorts as much as possible. The body of troops heading this march number and report to the chief of the demi-brigade new Republican term for colonel , Hulot. This detachment is stationed at Mayenne. They are called Blues because in the early days of the Republic they wore blue and red uniforms.
Hulot is leery of his conscripts, suspecting they allowed themselves to be herded across the land only to procure arms for themselves. He moves out towards his Mayenne strength without waiting for late arrivals as a precaution. The valley of the Couesnon extends from the Pelerine back to Fougeres, which occupies one of the highest points on the horizon.
Its castle is the center of communications and holds a view of the entire basin. Mountains rise on all sides, and in the basin is meadow land with quick-set hedges and trees and lots of shadows and lights. There are also rich woods, fields of buckwheat and rye. You can even catch an occasional distant view of water from streams.
It is a beautiful sight, one which no doubt the conscripts are reluctant to leave for parts unknown. Hulot sees the conscripts lagging behind and suddenly a stranger, later identified as Marche-a-Terre, appears on the scene.
Hulot questions him, and he gives the answers of an imbecile. Hulot is about to dismiss him as a threat when he suddenly notices that he is covered with thorns and other debris as if he has been traveling a long distance through the woods. He realizes suddenly that Marche-a-Terre is a Chouan and that there are no doubt enemies lurking behind the hedges. The famous peace of General Hoche is now at an end, the Chouans are undoubtedly ready to attack. Peace seemed possible after the Ninth of Thermidor, when Robespierre was executed, but with the war uncertainties there is fear the Republic will be abandoned by Bonaparte and unable to make a stand among its foes.
The various factions want positions and gold to better survive the anticipated future. Hulot remains cool, he is the consummate officer totally loyal to the Republic. A prominent general, Bernadotte, has resigned and been replaced with Milet-Mureau, who is past his time. And with all the problems in the foreign wars, the Vendeans and Chouans are again rising. The three officers turn to watch Marche-a-Terre, who shows not the slightest sign of discomfort under such close scrutiny.
Guerilla warfare was new to the soldiers, so they are not sure what is to happen next. Hulot tells Gerard to move in on Marche-a-Terre and to kill him if he acts suspiciously. He tells Merle to order ten men and a sergeant on the summit just above where they are presently located. Hulot then has his soldiers stand at ready for combat while he searches with his eyes for signs of the Chouans. Hulot then orders Merle to dispatch sub-lieutenant Lebrun and twelve stout soldiers to the rear of the conscripts to support the few patriots there in case of revolt.
He then picks out four resolute men and asks them to beat about on both sides of the heights above the road to see if they can flush out the Chouans.
He knows he might be sending them to their death. Merle comes back from his dispatch of soldiers to the rear, and Hulot sets the rest of the troop in order of battle in the middle of the road. They start to regain the summit of the Pelerine. Suddenly Marche-a-Terre begins a whistle that sounds like a screech-owl. He posts two soldiers to guard him, and again Marche-a-Terre acts dumb. They wait. After a time the cry of a screech-owl is heard from far away. The conscripts are drawn together.
The officers discuss the sad state of political affairs and say the army would step in before allowing the foreigners or the princes to take over.
The two soldiers who were sent ahead to the left on the heights above the road return and report seeing nothing, but the soldiers sent to the right have not come back. While Hulot is talking to the two soldiers, Marche-a-Terre again cries out a sharp whistle, then gives each of his guards a blow with his whip handle. The Chouans in the woods emit savage yells and begin firing from the wood — killing seven or eight soldiers. The wooden shoes he had been wearing rolled down into the ditch and it was easy to see the great iron-bound shoes which were always worn by the Chasseurs du Roi Hunters of the King.
The soldiers fire upon them but miss because every man set his back against a tree for the first shot and then fled while the rifles were being reloaded.
The two soldiers sent to the right to scout now appear, but Marche-a-Terre appears from the woods and shoots them with one shot. He again disappears without injury. Hulot orders his company forward, but the Chouans do not attack. Hulot thinks their purpose was to steal his conscripts and that there will be no more battle. He shows Hulot evidence of the passage of a large body of men. Hulot makes Gudin corporal of his townsmen and authorizes Gudin to appoint a townsman to return to Fougeres for help from the National Guard and the Free Companies.
Gudin sends Vannier on this task. Gudin remains beside Hulot as they prepare for the next siege. Hulot has ten men to his left, ten men to his right, and two wings of twenty-five men each under the command of Gerard and Merle. The Chouans number three hundred. A sudden discharge at close quarters caused a lot of deaths, but the Republican wings flanked the Chouans — death to many more Chouans.
Passionate fighting by the Republican wings redressed the disparity in numbers, and the battle evened with many men killed on both sides. Hulot notices a man, not Marche-a-Terre, that seems to be their leader. Marche-a-Terre is by his side. He makes an effort to see his face and finds him to be about twenty-five, fair hair, sparkling eyes, delicately cut features tanned by the sun, of middle height, gracefully made.
A glimpse of a broad red ribbon looked to be a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Louis ribbon. Hulot taunts him, but the Chouans restrain their commander and keep him safe. The Chouans fight even more valiantly after a Chouan voice reminds the troops that it was here that Lescure fell. Finally the National Guard from Fougeres arrives, and the Chouans fall away in an expert manner. A mortally wounded Chouan reveals that the name of their leader is The Gars , indeed the very ci-devant that Hulot has heard about earlier.
The wounded Chouan dies, and it is revealed that he has a tattooed heart in a bluish color, a token that the wearer had been initiated into the Brotherhood of the Sacred Heart. Hulot reflects this is the beginning of a new kind of warfare: never before had such a considerable body of troops been attacked. Hulot wonders why they attacked — they lost about one hundred men while Hulot lost about fifty. Although they got about recruits, Hulot knows the conscripts could have just faded into the woods without such an attack by the Chouans.
He thinks they are after something else. Hulot looks up and sees a portion of the Chouans on the summit of Pelerine even before the National Guard is quite out of earshot on their way back to Fougeres. Back in the Chouan camp one of the soldiers, a member of the Hunters of the King, wonders the same thing. He accuses Marche-a-Terre of making them fight just to save his own skin. Marche-a-Terre glares back at his accuser and states that he, Marche-a-Terre, is in command and that if all had fought as he did they would have wiped out the Blues.
He implies the attack was to keep the Blues from protecting the coach which carries 20, pounds that is due to come through at any time. He does not want to be any part of such robbery. This does not please the troops, who are to receive a portion of the proceeds. Suddenly a young woman appears. She feels they are so in need of money that it is OK and that it is robbing those who have in effect robbed them. She herself is desperate because money promised by her mother has not arrived.
There is obviously some relationship between the Marquis and the woman, but she cannot prevail on him to stay for the coach event. The young woman reflects, and we learn that she is of noble blood and took part in the revolution before becoming an anti-revolutionist.
The youngest one, a man, claimed to be a patriot and carrying three hundred crowns. He was dressed in a goatskin cloak and breeches of good cloth and a good waistcoat, all signs of a well-to-do farmer.
He carried two pistols and asked the others if they were Chouans. The second man, about forty, was dressed in black and seemed to be a man of the cloth. We later discover him to be the Abbe Gudin, uncle of the Gudin with Hulot.
He assures the young man they are not Chouans but seems curiously sympathetic to their robberies.
It is September , and over one hundred peasants and townspeople from Fougeres in Brittany are being marched to Mayenne department just to the east of Brittany as new conscripts for the Republic, as requested by Napoleon. Balzac mentions that the area of Vendee, Brittany, and lower Normandy had been at peace as orchestrated by a General Hoche four years ago — but Royalist insurrection is again rising. It is not clear whether these men are to be pressed into foreign service or service to fight the Chouans. One of the reasons for calling up the levies was to actually remove possible insurgents from their homelands.
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What follows is my interpretation of events…. The Royalists are still in rebellion and they have used the local Chouans to create an insurgency. He serves France, and he fights according to his code of honour. These rustic Chouans rise up in support of the King-in-Exile and his supporters, who include the British , their leader being one Marche-a-Terre. This man dresses in furs and seems indistinguishable in the rural landscape, a handy attribute for a guerilla. In the beginning we are not at all sure about the loyalties of the other characters.