One of my favorite novels, and certainly at the top of my Balzac list, is this story of a titanic battle over a family fortune in the provincial town of Issoudun. The French title can be translated as The Fisherwoman, and that is how Flore Brazier, the character is known in town. More precisely, la rabouilleuse means a girl who assists a fisherman by using a stick to disturb the water in a stream so that the fish flee right into the nets. This is how the young Flore was employed by her guardian when she enters the story.
I don’t know why the book is called The Black Sheep in English. It leaves open the question of just who is the black sheep: Phillipe Brideau – the brutal, callous, murderous, thieving, totally dishonorable former soldier of the Imperial Guard; or his brother, Joseph Brideau – a sincere, talented, hardworking, but impoverished artist living in a crassly materialistic milieu that considers painting a career for failures, no matter how brilliant the practitioner. Flore, on the other hand, is the point about which much of the action revolves.
A child of stunning beauty, even in the abject rags of rural poverty in which she lives, Flore is ‘rescued’ from her fate by Old Rouget who happens upon her on a ride. His intentions in bringing her to his house are anything but honorable, but Balzac, as always, is tactful in his Olympian manner. He sees all, but needn’t tell all. The old man dies, and the girl, grown to a fabulously beautiful young woman proceeds to dominate his imbecile of a son. He is totally in thrall to her sexual power, and she sets up a comfy menage a trois by bringing Maxence, a local reprobrate of a magnitude to equal Phillipe, as her live-in lover. Together, they scheme to get the dolt of a son to sign over his enormous fortune, accumulated by his hard nosed miser dad, to them. Sex is the lubricant that keeps their machinations going.
Well, the field of battle is set for the confrontation between Flore-Maxence and Phillipe. It turns out that Phillipe’s mother is the dolt’s aunt, so she has an interest in the family stash, although her brother, the dead Rouget, always claimed, without evidence, that she was illegitimate, and he didn’t speak to her for the thirty years she lived in Paris. Money, family, sex, city vs. country…everything!
Phillipe turns hero as he comes to Issoudoun to find a way to eliminate the influence of Flore and Maxence over his rich and stupid uncle. The town isn’t big enough for the two villainous rascals. One will have to go, and it will have to be in a box. And so it happens…
The suspense is great, the absolutely devilish brilliance with which Phillipe outwits and crushes the gold digger crew, and his subsequent destruction as he pursues his true corrupt nature, now with piles of cash to back him, is amazing. The mother is without a clue, nearly to the end, believing Phillipe to be her “good” son, and Joseph to be an ineffectual, if loyal boy, even as Phillipe robs her blind. The action and grasping morality of the characters is breathtaking in its brutality.