La Rabouilleuse

La Rabouilleuse (The Black Sheep) is an 1842 novel by Honoré de Balzac, and is one of the Scènes de la vie province in the series La Comédie humaine.[1] The Black Sheep is the title of the English translation by Donald Adamson published by Penguin Classics. It tells the story of the Bridau family, trying to regain their lost inheritance after a series of mishaps.

La Rabouilleuse
Illustration from an 1897 edition
by Oreste Cortazzo
AuthorHonoré de Balzac
SeriesLa Comédie humaine
Publication date
Media typePrint
Preceded byLe Curé de Tours 
Followed byL'Illustre Gaudissart 

Though for years an overlooked work in Balzac's canon, it has gained popularity and respect in recent years. The Guardian listed The Black Sheep 12 on its list of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time.[2]

Plot summary

The action of the novel is divided between Paris and Issoudun. Agathe Rouget, who was born in Issoudun, was sent by her father, Doctor Rouget to be raised by her maternal relatives, the Descoings in Paris. Doctor Rouget suspects (wrongly) that he is not her true father. In Paris, she marries a man named Bridau, and they have two sons, Philippe, and Joseph. Monsieur Bridau dies relatively young, Philippe, who is the eldest and his mother's favourite, becomes a soldier in Napoleon's armies, and Joseph becomes an artist. Philippe, the elder son is shown to be a courageous soldier, but is also a heavy drinker and gambler. He resigns from the army after the Bourbon Restoration out of loyalty to Napoleon. Joseph is a dedicated artist, and the more loyal son, but his mother does not understand his artistic vocation.

After leaving the army Philippe took part in the failed Champ d'Asile settlement in Texas. On returning to France he is unemployed, and lives with his mother and Madame Descoings, and becomes a financial drain on them, especially due to his hard drinking and gambling lifestyle. Philippe becomes estranged from his mother and brother after stealing money from Madame Descoings. Philippe is soon afterwards arrested for his involvement in an anti-government conspiracy.

Meanwhile, in Issoudun, Agathe's elder brother Jean-Jacques takes in an ex-soldier named Max Gilet as a boarder. Max is suspected of being his illegitimate half brother. Max and Jean-Jacques' servant Flore Brazier work together to control Jean-Jacques. Max leads a group of young men who call themselves "The Knights of Idleness" who frequently play practical jokes around the town. Two of these are against a Spanish immigrant named Fario, destroying his cart and his grain, and therefore ruining his business.

It is now that Joseph and his mother travel to Issoudun to try to persuade Jean-Jacques to give Agathe money to help cover Philippe's legal costs. They stay with their friends the Hochons. Jean-Jacques and Max only give them some old paintings, but only Joseph recognises their value. Joseph tells of his luck to the Hochons, not realising that their grandsons are friends of Max. Afterwards when Max discovers the value of the paintings he coerces Joseph into returning them. Then one night whilst Max is out walking, he is stabbed by Fario. As Max is recovering he decides to blame Joseph for the stabbing. Joseph is arrested, but later cleared and released, and he and his mother return to Paris.

In the meantime, Philippe has been convicted for his plotting. However, he cooperates with authorities and gets a light sentence of five years Police supervision in Autun. Philippe gets his lawyer to change the location to Issoudun in order to claim his mother's inheritance for himself. He challenges Max to a duel with swords, and kills him in the duel. He then takes control of Jean-Jacques and his household, forcing Flore to become Jean-Jacques' wife.

Philippe marries Flore after the death of Jean-Jacques. Flore too soon dies. The book hints that both of these deaths are arranged by Philippe but is not explicit about the means. Through his connections, Philippe has now obtained the title Comte de Brambourg. Philippe's attempted marriage to a rich man's daughter falls through when his friends disclose his past to her father. An attempt by Joseph to reconcile Philippe and their mother before her death fails. Philippe's fortunes take a turn for the worse after some unsuccessful speculation, and he rejoins the army to take part in the war in Algeria where he is killed in action, so that in the end Joseph, now a successful artist, inherits the family fortune.

Explanation of title

"La Rabouilleuse" is the nickname of Flore Brazier used behind her back by the people of Issoudun. Max takes offence when some of his friends use it in conversation. Adamson translates the term as "the Fisherwoman". The nickname is a reference to the job that she did as a young girl when helping her uncle to fish for crayfish, by stirring up (to "rabouiller") the streamlets.[3] This was before she became a servant to the Rouget household. The English title of the book therefore moves the focus from her to the Bridau brothers.[4]


In 1903, Emile Fabre adapted the story to a play with the same name,[5] itself later adapted to two movies called Honor of the Family (in 1912 and 1931). The book was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 as its Classic Serial on Sunday 17 August and Sunday 24 August 2008, with actor Geoffrey Whitehead as the narrator.

The French film The Opportunists (1960) is also based on this novel.


  1. Honoré de Balzac. "The Human Comedy: Introductions and Appendix". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  2. Robert McCrum (8 August 2006). "The 100 greatest novels of all time: The list | Books | The Observer". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2012-04-16.
  3. "Repertory of the Comedie Humaine, entry for 'BRIDAU (Flore Brazier, Madame Philippe)'". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 7 April 2018.
  4. Adamson, Donald. Translator's Introduction, The Black Sheep, Penguin Classics, 1970
  5. Flat, Paul (21 March 1903). "La Rabouilleuse: drame en quatre actes, tiré du roman de Balzac". Theatres. Revue bleue: politique et littéraire (in French). G. Baillière. XIX (12): 379.


  • Balzac, Honoré de. La Rabouilleuse. 1842.
  • Adamson, Donald. Translator's Introduction, The Black Sheep. Penguin Classics, 1970, pp. 7–20.
  • (in French) Hélène Colombani Giaufret, « Balzac linguiste dans Les Célibataires », Studi di storia della civiltà letteraria francese, I-II. Paris, Champion, 1996, p. 695-717.
  • (in French) Lucienne Frappier-Mazur, « Max et les Chevaliers : famille, filiation et confrérie dans La Rabouilleuse », Balzac, pater familias, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2001, p. 51-61.
  • (in French) Gaston Imbault, « Autour de La Rabouilleuse », L'Année balzacienne, Paris, Garnier Frères, 1965, p. 217-32.
  • Fredric Jameson, « Imaginary and Symbolic in La Rabouilleuse », Social Science Information, 1977, n° 16, p. 59-81.
  • Doris Y. Kadish, « Landscape, Ideology, and Plot in Balzac's Les Chouans », Nineteenth-Century French Studies, 1984,n° 12 (3-4), 43-57.
  • Dorothy Magette, « Trapping Crayfish: The Artist, Nature, and Le Calcul in Balzac’s La Rabouilleuse », Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Fall-Winter 1983-1984, n° 12 (1-2), p. 54-67.
  • Allan H. Pasco, « Process Structure in Balzac’s La Rabouilleuse », Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Fall 2005-Winter 2006, n° 34 (1-2), p. 21-31.
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