The beginning starts off as a long battle between the Chouans, the Royalist-supporting, fiercely Catholic, Breton peasants of the countryside lead by Marche-a-Terre and ‘The Gars’ aka Marquis de Montauran, versus the Republican army aka ‘Blues’ of Bonaparte, lead by Hulot. Be prepared for every character, place, and group in this book to be referred to by multiple names, even in the same paragraph.
Louis XIII is currently in exile with support of the British crown. The Royalists are uprising against Bonaparte, and even though he has granted them amnesty for all past wrong-doings, the Royalists will not stand down. Mademoiselle Marie de Verneuil, and her accomplice Francine, have been sent by Bonaparte to seduce Marquis de Montauran to undermine the Royalist uprising - to hand over The Gars to the Republicans.
Verneuil meets Montauran in an inn by chance and she does not immediately know who he is, although she quickly concludes who he must be. A lady posing as Montauran’s mother, Madame du Gua, accompanies Montauran, and it is unclear throughout the entire book what her role entails. Verneuil and Francine join Montauran on his travels because Verneuil and Montauran have an instant attraction to each other. Du Gua becomes fiercely jealous of Verneuil and suspects her of treachery. Verneuil begins to truly fall in love with Montauran and is faced with a crisis; Montauran is aware of what Verneuil has been sent to do, but he cannot help but have feelings for her as well. Parallel to this romance is Francine and Marche-a-Terre who are also in love under the same predicament.
Madame du Gua spends her time declaring Verneuil a strumpet and plotting her downfall. One instance actually involves physically attacking Verneuil to get a letter out of her corset. In fact, the female characters act very dramatically in soap-opera like fashion. For example:
“Wounded to the heart, life seemed odious to her. The man who pledged her so much love must have heard the odious jests that were cast upon her and stood there silently a witness of the infamy she had been made to endure. She might, perhaps, have forgiven him his contempt, but she could not forgive his having seen her in so humiliating a position, and she flung him a look that was full of hatred, feeling in her heart the birth of an unutterable desire for vengeance. With death beside her, the sense of impotence strangled her. A whirlwind of passion and madness rose in her head; the blood which boiled in her veins made everything about her seem like a conflagration. Instead of killing herself, she seized the sword and thrust it through the marquis. But the weapon slipped between his arm, and side; he caught her by the wrist and dragged her from the room, aided by Pille-Miche, who had flung himself upon the furious creature when she attacked his master. Francine shrieked aloud. ‘Pierre! Pierre! Pierre’ she cried in heart-rending tones, as she followed her mistress.”
Montauran remarks a few pages later, “if she is a prostitute, she is not an ordinary one, and I’ll marry her.”
Verneuil has known Montauran for maybe a day or so at this point and she is already willing to commit suicide/murder and he is willing to marry her. Francine is only there to dress her mistress and express surprise, and when she’s not, she is sneaking away to speak to Marche-a-Terre (aka Pierre Leroi) who is trailing the party from bushes, trees, and most likely drinking, counting his booty, and doing dirty peasant things, whatever those might be because Balzac wants you to be absolutely sure that he is definitely more animal than human, along with the rest of the Chouans. Half of the book seems to describe how they never take a bath.
The rest of the book details this tumultuous relationship and the plight of Verneuil as she realizes that her life has been turned upside down by her love for Montauran and her responsibility to bring about his downfall. Verneuil declares “if I do not have that man who dared to despise me, to meet him, seduce him, make him mine! If I do not make him my lackey and my slave, I shall indeed be base; I shall not be a woman; I shall not be myself.” Later she brandishes “an elegant dagger formerly belonging to a sultana” because all ladies know one must bring a jewel-encrusted weapon in case a seduction mission evolves into an assassination mission, and it is much better to kill with a fancy weapon than a plain useful one.
As everything progresses, it is mainly one scene after another of Verneuil getting into some sort of scheme related to the Marquis, with various small skirmishes between the Chouans and the Republicans. For some reason, Verneuil is often walking down the road right in the middle of these encounters.
The Chouans could easily be updated to a modern harlequin romance today and leave much of the plot intact. In essence, this isn’t a literary masterpiece. There wasn’t much Walter Scott influence on the style of writing, other than the fact that the fighting between the Royalists and Republicans, and the involvement of the Chouans, was real; however, that is all just a backdrop and unless this lusty affair in documented in French history I don’t think Balzac was really trying to write honorable historical fiction. Scott writes with more finesse and beauty.
Even though I initially thought this might be an ode to the bravery and valor of the Chouans, it is not so. The two main characters in the romance are not Chouans, so I am not sure why Balzac decided on the title because he certainly did not give them a glorifying homage. All that being said, the book is still a fun read and it is entertaining, even if it does drag on near the end.