Though famed for his descriptions of Paris, Balzac invested much of his creative energy in representing the French countryside. Since ‘country and peasant life is awaiting its historian’ [‘la vie campagnarde et paysanne attend un historien’], one of Balzac's ambitions was to engage with ‘the major question of landscape in literature’ [‘la grande question du paysage en littérature’] (CH IX 922). This chapter accordingly examines Balzac's interest in small-town and rural spaces as illustrated by the four novels that make up the series of the Scènes de la vie de campagne: Le Médecin de campagne, Le Lys dans la vallée, Le Curé de village and Les Paysans. Except in Les Paysans, this emphasis on rural settings enables Balzac to foreground characters savouring a certain calm after a turbulent, even traumatic, life: ‘Here then is rest after the agitation …, the gentle, uniform occupations of life in the fields after the stress of Paris, the scars after the wounding’ [‘Là donc le repos après le mouvement …, les douces et uniformes occupations de la vie des champs après le tracas de Paris, les cicatrices après les blessures’] (CH I 1148). Although past traumas may be perpetuated or even exacerbated by ‘l'ombre et le silence’ of the country, characters’ attempts to work through these traumas often acquire a deep spiritual, even religious, dimension, especially when aided by the presence of high-minded friends and perceptive, devoted clergy. When suffering or traumatised characters actively embrace a certain beneficent mission in their country retreats, their endeavours also acquire a strong social as well as spiritual dimension. Such characters are consciously and actively repairing not just spiritual but cultural, social and economic disadvantage. Their mission is therefore not just – or even primarily – spiritual but, in the broadest sense, political – not least when, as in Les Paysans, any sense of true mission is absent or thwarted. It can be seen, then, that space, religion and politics are inseparable in the Scènes de la vie de campagne, making it one of the tightest but also one of the richest of Balzac's narrative groupings.
Although now seen as one of the most coherent sub-groups of the Études de mœurs, the Scènes de la vie de campagne were not always thus.