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Monsieur Peluche is a self made man, proud to be a member of the Parisian bourgeoisie. He is wealthy, methodical, a little pompous and a little ridiculous and has made a considerable fortune manufacturing and dealing in artificial fruit and flowers.
He dislikes the upper classes, France’s titled noblemen and women who have made their money in which he considers the easy way – by inheriting it. He adores the city and despises the country.
It is odd then, that he ever came to be best friends with Madeleine, his almost exact opposite. Although the same age as M. Peluche, Madeleine is happy-go-lucky, gregarious bachelor and totally uninterested in money.
One day, to M. Peluche’s horror, Madeleine decides to sell his modest little business and retire to the country where he intends to live off the land, hunting, fishing and growing his own food. Parcels of delicious country fayre -–fresh pheasant, wild boar, trout and fine vegetables – start to arrive at the Peluche home, all attesting to the success of Madeleine’s new life.
In a strange coincidence M Peluche happens to win a beautiful and expensive hunting rifle in a game of chance, and so his thoughts turn to visiting his dear friend in the country to see what he is missing. Slowly, Peluche's distrust and dislike of the countryside is replaced with a sense
of curiosity and a desperate need to try out his new rifle on the hapless wildlife of Villers-Cotterets, Madeleine's new home. Madeleine is insistent that M Peluche bring his delightful young daughter Camille on the visit.
The reason for this insistence soon becomes clear, as Madeleine has a God-son, Henri, and he believes the two young people would make a match. The only problem is that Henri is a Count, a member of the very aristocracy that M Peluche hates. And when Camille and Henri do indeed fall in love, there is no way he intends to countenance their marriage. It is only a bizarre twist of fate that seems to offer a ray of hope to the doomed lovers and helps Madeleine to change his old friend’s stubborn mind.
Alexandre Dumas is well known for his swashbuckling tales of excitement and derring-do, like The Three Musketeers, but Parisians and Provincials is something entirely different.
On one level it is a gentle and romantic love story, on another, a reworking of the old town mouse/country mouse fable. Most evident too is Dumas’ sense of irony and satire and his keen interest in class and race.
The novella is set in Paris and Villers-Cotterets, Dumas’ own birthplace, in the mid 19th Century. It was one of Dumas’ last pieces of work, and was certainly the last piece to be published within his lifetime.
It might seem a little dull after the action and intrigue The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, but Parisians and Provincials has its own brand of quiet charm. It is full of wry but gentle humour. The love story is sweet and old fashioned, with a hint of the Jane Austen’s about it.
Much of the social and political satire seems quite pointed when shown in relief by the more delicate humour and romance. It shows the gulf between Royalist and Republican, the nobility, the bourgeoisie and the lower classes, as well as the city and the country.
But Parisians and Provincials is more than just a snapshot of a particular political climate. It is also a wonderful character study. The characters are so beautifully and lovingly drawn that you can’t help but enjoy them.
Peluche is a buffoon, but a loveable one. He almost puts one in mind of one of Shakespeare’s fools, unaware of much of what is going on in the world around him, bound up in his own little world, his narrow little view, a figure of fun, yet a figure of pity and likeable despite his stupidity.
Madeleine is something of a maverick compared to the pompous and staid Peluche. He is convivial and genial, big hearted and paternal. Unmarried and without children, he decides to pour all of his considerable energy into securing the happiness of his God-Son and the daughter of his best friend.
Camille is a sweet natured girl, though impatient with the constraints of the time, and Henri is a dignified young man who confronts adversity with fortitude.
By far the most amusing characters, however, are Peluche’s virago of a wife, whom he happily leaves behind in Paris to oversee the business and forgets to inform of her step-daughter’s impending nuptials, and Figaro, a pointer whom Peluche is conned into buying and probably the worst trained hunting dog in the world.
The edition of Parisians and Provincials I read was translated from the original French by A Craig Bell and published by Karnak house, priced at £5.95. (ISBN 0907015964)
The translation seems a little clunky in one or two places, but on the whole maintains the fluid and expressive prose one would expect from Dumas. He writes with a great deal of affection for the countryside of his birth and its pastoral pursuits.
Parisians and Provincials is the fourth and final novella in a series of pastoral works beginning with Conscience L’Innocent, Catehrine Blum and Le Meneur De Loups and apparently many of the characters from Parisians and Provincials are distillations of those in the earlier country works.
This novella is very much a change of pace if you are used to Dumas other works, but it is well worth your time. Sometimes for a little while a gentler approach to life is soothing to the soul.