Within his sanctum Balzac worked clad in a white Dominican gown with hood, the summer material being dimity and cashmere; he was shod with embroidered slippers, and his waist was girt with a rich Venetian-gold chain, on which were suspended a paper-knife, a pair of scissors, and a gold penknife, all of them beautifully carved. Whatever the season, thick window-curtains shut out the rays of light that might have penetrated into the study, which was illuminated only by two moderate-sized candelabra of unpolished bronze, each holding a couple of continually burning candles.
The installation of these various household necessaries and luxuries was progressive and was associated closely with the heyday period of his celebrity. It was during 1833 that the metamorphosis was mainly effected, for Werdet relates that, in the month of November, he found Balzac, one afternoon, superintending the laying down of some rich Aubusson carpets in his house. Money must have been plentiful just then. Learning accidentally on this occasion that his publisher had no carpet in his drawing-room, the novelist surprised him the same evening by sending some men with one that he had bought for him. This present Werdet suitably acknowledged a short time after; and, throughout the period of their intimacy, there were a good few compliments of the kind exchanged, which appear to have cost the man of business dearer than the man of letters.
To tell the truth, Balzac had a knack of presuming that something he intended doing was already done. One notorious example was the white horse he asserted, in presence of a number of guests assembled in Madame de Girardin's drawing-room, had been given by him to Jules Sandeau. The animal in question, he said, he had bought from a well-known dealer; the celebrated trainer Baucher had tested it and declared it to be the most perfect animal ever ridden. For nearly half-an-hour the speaker expatiated on the points of this wonderful steed, and thoroughly convinced his audience of the gift having been already bestowed. A few evenings later, Jules Sandeau met Balzac at the same house, and the subject was of course reverted to by their mutual friends. As the novelist asked him whether he liked the horse, Jules, not to be outvied, answered with an enumeration of its qualities. But he never saw the animal for all that.
Another instance equally amusing was furnished at a dinner given in honour of Balzac by Henri de Latouche, who had not then broken with him. At dessert, the host sketched the plan of a novel he intended to write, and Balzac, who had been drinking champagne, warmly applauded; "The thing," he said, "is capital. Even summarily related, it is charming. What will it be when the talent, style, and wit of the author have enhanced it!" Next evening, at Madame de Girardin's, he reproduced, with his native fire and power of description, the narration he had heard the night before—reproduced it as his own —persuaded it was his own. Every one was enthusiastic, and complimented him. But the matter was bruited abroad. Latouche recognized in Balzac's proposed new novel the creation he had himself unfolded; and wrote a sharp protest which, for once, forced its recipient to distinguish fact from fiction, and what was his share, what another's, in the output of ideas. Yet he might be excused for some of his frequent fits of forgetfulness, since he sowed his own conceptions and discoveries broadcast, and often encountered them again in the possession of lesser minds who had utilized them before he could put them into execution.
In the year of 1833, the novelist's correspondence alludes to several books which, like others previously spoken of, were never published, and probably never written. Among these are The Privilege, The History of a Fortunate Idea, and the Catholic Priest. Meanwhile, he did add considerably to his Droll Tales, the first series of which appeared in the same twelve months as Eugenie Grandet. These stories —in the style of Boccaccio, and of some of Chaucer's writing—broad, racy, and somewhat licentious, albeit containing nothing radically obscene, were meant to illustrate the history of the French language and French manners from olden to modern days. Only part of the project was realized. They are told with wit and humour that are nowhere present to the same degree in the rest of the novelist's work, and in their colouring, as Taine justly remarks, recall Jordaens' painting with its vivid carnation tints. At this time the author was occupied with Bertha Repentant and the Succubus, which, however, were published only three years subsequently.
LETTERS TO "THE STRANGER," 1833, 1834
If Balzac's intimates, careful of his future, had besought him to jot down in a diary the detailed doings of his every-day life, with a confession of his thoughts, feelings, and opinions, in fine an unmasking of himself, he would surely have urged the material impossibility of his fulfilling such a task, over and above the labours of Hercules to which his ambition and his necessities bound him. And yet he performed the miracle unsolicited.
From the day when he quitted Neufchatel to the day when he arrived at Wierzchownia, on his crowning visit in 1848, he never ceased chronicling, in a virtually uninterrupted series of letters to Madame Hanska, closely following each other during most of this long period, a faithful account of his existence—exception made for its love episodes—which, having fortunately been preserved, constitutes an almost complete autobiography of his mature years. When the end of the correspondence shall have been given to the public, three volumes, at least, will have been taken up with the record—a record which taxed his time and strength, indeed overtaxed them, causing him to encroach unduly on his already too short hours of sleep. The motive must have been a powerful one that could induce him to make so large a sacrifice. Whether it was love alone, as he protested again and again, or love mixed with gratified pride, or both joined to the hope of enjoying the vast fortune that loomed through the mists of the far-off Ukraine, the phenomenon remains the same. Certainly some great force was behind the pen that untiringly wrote in every vein and mood these astonishing Letters to the Stranger.
In those up to the year 1834 that were, properly speaking, private, the tone rises to a pitch of lover-passion that could hardly fail to alarm, even whilst they flattered the one to whom his devotion was addressed. Although Balzac's brief sojourns in Madame Hanska's vicinity had resulted in no breach of the marriage law, there was too much implied in his assumption of their betrothal to please the husband, if any of these lover's oaths should fall under his notice. And this was what just did happen before many months had gone by. In consequence of some accident which is not explained, the Count had cognizance of two epistles that reached his wife while both were staying at Vienna; and, for some time, it seemed as though the intercourse would be definitely severed. A humble apology was sent to the Count, the letters being passed off as a joke; and the interpretation was, fortunately for Balzac, accepted. Madame Hanska was offended as well as her husband, or, at any rate, she affected to be. It appears some negligence had been committed by the novelist in forwarding the incriminating epistles. However, being cleared in her husband's eyes, she yielded her forgiveness.
Balzac's policy, after this mishap, was to keep on the best terms possible with Monsieur Hanski, who, to use the Frenchman's English expression, suffered from chronic blue devils. After leaving his new friends at Geneva, the novelist procured the Count an autograph letter from Rossini, this great composer being a favourite at Wierzchownia. To his new lady-love he sent an effusion of his own in verse, having small poetic merit, but pretty sentiment.
During the Geneva intercourse, he did his best to familiarize Eve with all the names and characters of the people he knew, since his interests were to be hers, or, at any rate, so he flattered himself. She learnt to distinguish the people who were for him from those who were against him. Of these latter there were a goodly number, some made enemies by his own fault, through over-susceptibility or unconscious arrogance. Both causes were responsible for the quarrel occurring about this time between him and Emile de Girardin, which was never entirely healed, in spite of the persevering efforts of Emile's wife, better known as Madame Delphine Gay. "I have bidden good-bye to the Gays' molehill," he informed Madame Hanska. It was pretty much the same with his estrangement from the Duke de Fitz-James, which, however, was followed by a speedy reconciliation, for the Duke was offering, a few months later, to support him again in a political election. The unsatisfactory state of his health, and some family troubles, decided him to defer his candidature to the end of the decade, by which date he hoped to have written two works—The Tragedy of Philippe II. and The History of the Succession of the Marquis of Carrabas—which should implant his conception of absolute monarchic power so strongly in the minds of his fellow-citizens that they would be glad to send him to Parliament as their representative. Other political articles and pamphlets of his, he asserted, would enable him by 1839 to dominate European questions.
Werdet has a great deal to say about his idol's over-weening exaction of homage, leading him to be himself guilty of acts of rudeness towards others, thus alienating their sympathies. The publisher relates one scene that he witnessed at the offices of William Duckett, proprietor of the Dictionary of Conversation and Reading. The office door was suddenly opened and Balzac stalked in with his hat on his head. "Is Duckett in?" he curtly asked, addressing in common the chief editor, his sub, and an attendant. There was a conspiracy of silence. Evidently, this was not the novelist's first visit, and his style was known. Again the question was put in the same language and manner, and again no one replied. Advancing now a step, and speaking to the chief editor, he repeated his question for a third time. Monglave, who was an irritable gentleman, being accosted personally, answered briefly: "Put your question to the sub-editor." There was a wheel-about, and another peremptory inquiry, to which the sub, imitating his chief, replied with "Ask the attendant." At present boiling with rage, Balzac turned to the porter and thundered: "Is Duckett in?" "Monsieur Balzac," returned the attendant, "these gentlemen have forbidden me to tell you." Threatening to report the affair to Duckett, the novelist withdrew, pursued by the mocking laughter of the chief editor and the sub; but, on second thoughts, he deemed it more prudent to let the matter drop.
Another example of this peculiar assumption of superiority occurred not long after at a dinner given by Werdet in honour of a young author, Jules Bergounioux, whose novels were being much read. Among the guests were Gustave Planche, Jules Sandeau, and Balzac. During the meal the conversation, after many assaults of wit and mirth, fell on the necessity of defending writers against the piracy and mutilation of their books in foreign countries, more especially in Belgium. All expressed their opinion energetically, young Bergounioux like the rest, he happening to class himself with his fellows in the words—we men of letters. At the conclusion of his little speech, Balzac uttered a guffaw: "You, sir, a man of letters! What pretension! What presumption! You! compare yourself to us! Really, sir, you forget that you have the honour to be sitting here with the marshals of modern literature."
This exhibition and others similar were natural to the man. He could not help them. It was impossible for him not to be continually proclaiming his own greatness. "Don't tax me with littleness," he said in one of his letters to Delphine Gay, in which he justified his breaking with her husband. "I think myself too great to be offended by any one."
The domestic troubles alluded to above, which were worrying Balzac in 1834, had partly to do with his brother Henry, a sort of ne'er-do-well, who had been out to the Indies and had returned with an undesirable wife, and prospects—or rather the lack of them—that made him a burden to the other members of the family. Madame Balzac, too, was unwell at Chantilly; and her illnesses always affected Honore, who, at such moments, reproached himself for not being able to do more on her behalf. Not that his year's budget was a poor one. The seventy thousand francs at which he estimated his probable earnings for the twelvemonth were not on this occasion so very much beyond the truth, if his author's percentages were included. Werdet—the illustrious Werdet, who, he said, somewhat resembled the Illustrious Gaudissart —bought an edition of his philosophic novels for fifteen thousand francs; and, besides two principal books to be mentioned further on, both of which appeared before the close of the year, there were parts of Seraphita and The Cabinet of Antiques which the Revue de Paris was publishing as serials. His notorious quarrel and lawsuit with this Review was yet to come. But there was storm in the air even now. Seraphita, the subject inspired by Madame Hanska and dedicated to her, was but little to the taste of Buloz the editor; and he declared to Balzac, who was making him wait for copy, that it was hardly worth while taking so long and making so much fuss over a novel which neither the public nor he, the editor, could understand. Happily the dear Werdet was at hand to arrange the difficulty. Though in the same case as Buloz, and failing altogether to comprehend the subject or its treatment, he took over Seraphita in 1835 and published it.
Next to politics, as a means of gaining name and fame more quickly, Balzac esteemed play-writing. The esteem was purely commercial. In his heart of hearts he rather despised this species of composition, entertaining the notion that it was something to be done quickly, if at all, and utilizable to please the groundlings. Yet, because he saw that there was money in it, he turned his hand to it, time after time, and, for long, had to abandon it as constantly. In 1834 he formed a partnership with Jules Sandeau and Emmanuel Arago, with the idea of risking less in case of failure. In addition to the tragedy already spoken of, he tried two others—The Courtiers and Don Philip and Don Charles, the latter modelled on Schiller's Don Carlos. The Grande Mademoiselle was a comic history of Lauzun; and his Prudhomme, Bigamist, was a farce, in which a dummy placed in a bed seemed to him capable, with a night's working on it, of bringing down the house. Vaguely he felt, and vaguely he confessed to his sister, what he had seen and confessed thirteen years earlier, that the drama was not his forte. But, anchored in the conviction that he ought finally to succeed in everything he undertook, he returned to the attempt with magnificent pluck and perseverance.
His colleague for the nonce, Sandeau, he considered to be a protege of his; and used him a while as a kind of secretary. In this year especially he showed much solicitude about him. There was nothing to excite his jealousy in the author of Sacs et Parchemins, who was not elected to the Academy until nearly the end of the decade in which Balzac died. On the contrary, his pity was aroused by Sandeau's precarious position and by the recent separation between Madame Dudevant and this first of her lovers, who did his best to commit suicide by swallowing a dose of acetate of morphia. Luckily the dose was so large that Sandeau's stomach refused to digest it. George Sand herself Balzac admired but did not care for at this time. He would talk to her amiably when he met her at the Opera; but, if she invited him to dinner, he invented an excuse, if possible, for not going. "Don't speak to me," he would say, "of this writer of the neuter gender. Nature ought to have given her more breeches and less style."
His opinion, however, did not prevent him, in 1842, from accepting her help. An article had come out in her Revue Independante, without her knowledge, attacking him violently. She wrote to apologize; and Balzac called on her, to explain, as he informed Madame Hanska, how injustice serves the cause of talent. She told him then that she should like to write a thorough study of him and his books; and he made as though he would dissuade her, saying that she would only get herself in bad odour with his critics. Still she persisted, and he accordingly asked her to compose a preface for an ensuing publication of his whole works, the preface to be a defence of him against those who were his enemies. Whether this notice was written before the novelist's death is uncertain. At any rate, it was not printed until 1875, when it appeared in her volume Autour de la Table.
It was difficult for Balzac to be fair towards those men of letters among his contemporaries who excelled in his own domain; yet his judgment, when unwarped, was fine, keen, and, in many instances, endowed with prophetic sight. For instance, in placing Alfred de Musset as a poet above Victor Hugo or Lamartine, he daringly contradicted the opinions of his own day, and anticipated a criticism which is at present becoming respectable if not fashionable. On the other hand, his estimate of Volupte, Sainte-Beuve's just then published novel, which he was soon to imitate and recreate in his Lily in the Valley, was manifestly prejudiced. He called it a book badly written in most of its parts, weak, loosely constructed, diffuse, in which there were some good things, in short a puritanical book, the chief character of it, Madame Couaen not being woman enough. His opinion, which he imparted to Madame Hanska, he apparently took no trouble to conceal, for Sainte-Beuve was evidently aware of it when he treated Balzac very sharply in an article of this same year of 1834. From that date, the celebrated lecturer looked with coldness and disfavour on the novelist, and even in his final pronouncement of the Causeries du Lundi, shortly after Balzac's death, he meted out but faint praise.
Something has been said in a previous chapter of the novelist's belief in certain occult powers of the mind, with which the newly discovered action of magnetism seemed to him to be connected. At first, his ideas on the subject were a good deal mixed. When, in 1832, a terrible epidemic of cholera was spreading its ravages, he wrote to Doctor Chapelain, suggesting that somnambulism—he would have called it hypnotism to-day—should be employed to seek out the causes of the malady, and a test applied to prove whether its virtues were real or chimerical. In 1834, he had come to pin his faith to the healing powers of magnetism. "When you or Monsieur Hanski or Anna are ill," he wrote to Eve, "let me know. Don't laugh at me. At Issoudun, facts recently demonstrated to me that I possess very large magnetic potency, and that, either through a somnambulist" (he meant a hypnotist) "or through myself, I can cure persons dear to me." To all his friends he reiterated the same advice—magnetic treatment, which he declared his mother capable of exercising as well as himself. Madame Balzac's initiation into the science was due to the Prince of Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingfurst, Bishop of Sardica, who, in his several visits to Paris between 1821 and 1829, wrought wonderful cures by the simple imposition of hands. As the lady used to suffer from a swelling in the bowels whenever she ate raw fruit, the Bishop, hearing of it, came one day to see her, and applied his method, which cured her. Balzac, being a witness of the miracle, became an ardent investigator in this new branch—or rather old branch revived—of therapeutics. Thenceforward, his predilection for theories of the occult went hand in hand with his equally strong taste for the analytic observation of visible phenomena; and not infrequently he indulged in their simultaneous literary expression. The composing of Seraphita was carried on at the same time as his Search for the Absolute and Pere Goriot.
Both of these two novels were finished and published in 1834. In the Search for the Absolute, we have Balthazar Claes, a man of wealth and leisure, living in the ancient town of Douai, and married to a wife who adores him and who has borne him children. Claes' hobby is scientific research; his aim, the discovery of the origin of things which he believes can be given him by his crucible. In his family mansion, of antique Flemish style, which is admirably described by the novelist at great length, he pursues his tireless experiments; and, with less justification than Bernard Palissy, encroaches by degrees on the capital of his fortune, which melts away in his furnace and alembics. During the first period of his essays, his wife tries to have confidence in his final success, herself studies all sorts of learned treatises, in order to be able to converse with him suitably and to encourage him in his work; but, at last, unable to delude her own mind any longer, she weeps with her children over the approaching destruction of their home, and the grief wears her out and kills her. Luckily the daughter, Marguerite, is made of sterner stuff than her mother. And, with her brother, she toils to pay her father's debts and to keep the home together. At the end, Claes himself dies, still absorbed in his chimera, and his last words are an endeavour to formulate the marvellous revelation which his disordered brain persuades him he has now received.
"'Eureka!' he cried with a shrill voice, and fell back on his bed with a thud. In passing away, he uttered a frightful groan, and his convulsed eyes, until the doctors closed them, spoke his regret not to have been able to bequeath to science the key of a mystery whose veil had been tardily torn aside under the gaunt fingers of Death."
The Search for the Absolute may be classed with Eugenie Grandet in the category of the novelist's best creations. Though Claes is, as much as Grandet, and perhaps more, an abnormal being, his sacrifice of every duty of life to the pursuit of the irrealizable is common enough in humanity. By reason of the novelist's intense delineation, his figure shows out in monstrous proportions; but these are skilfully relieved by the happier fates of the children. The lengthy descriptions of the opening chapter he defended against his sister Laure's strictures, asserting that they had ramifications with the subject which escaped her. His presentment, too, of Marguerite he said was not forced, as she thought. Marguerite was a Flemish woman, and Flemish women followed one idea out and, with phlegm, went unswervingly towards their goal. The labour the book had cost him he owned to Madame Hanska. Two members of the Academy of Sciences taught him chemistry, so that he might be exact in his representation of Claes' experiments; and he read Berzelius into the bargain. Moreover, he had revised and modified the proofs of the novel no fewer than a dozen times.
As Werdet tells, the real work of composition, with Balzac, hardly commenced until he had a set of galley proofs. What he sent first to the printer, scribbled with his crow's-quill, was a mere sketch; and the sketch itself was a sort of Chinese puzzle, largely composed of scratched-out and interpolated sentences; passages and chapters being moved about in a curious chasse-croise, which the type-setters deciphered and arranged as they best could. Margins and inter-columnal spaces they found covered with interpolations; a long trailing line indicated the way here and the way there to the destination of the inserted passages. A cobweb was regular in comparison to the task which the printers had to tackle in the hope of finding beginning, middle, and end. In the various presses where his books were set up, the employees would never work longer than an hour on end at his manuscript. And the indemnity he had to pay for corrections reached sometimes the figure of forty francs per sixteen pages. Numerous were the difficulties caused on this score with publishers, editors, and printers. Balzac justified himself by quoting the examples of Chateaubriand, Ingres, and Meyerbeer in their various arts. To Buloz, of the Revue de Paris, who expostulated, he impatiently replied: "I will give up fifty francs per sheet to have my hands free. So say no more about the matter." It is true that Buloz paid him 250 francs per sheet for his contributions.
Indeed, the novelist's own method of work was a reversal of the natural alternation of regular periods of activity and repose. He not only, as he told all his correspondents with wearisome iteration, burned the midnight oil, but would keep up these eighteen or twenty hours' daily labour for weeks altogether, until some novel that he was engaged on was finished. During these spells of composing he would see no one, read no letters, but write on and on, eating sparingly, sipping his coffee, and refreshing his jaded anatomy by taking a bath, in which he would lie for a whole hour, plunged in meditation. After his voluntary seclusions, he suddenly reappeared in his usual haunts, active and feverish as ever, note-book ready to hand, in which he jotted down his thoughts, discoveries, and observations for future use. On its pages were primitively outlined the features of most of the women of his fiction.
One of these prolonged claustrations, in October 1834—the day was Sunday—he interrupted by a call, most unexpected, on Werdet. His face was sallow and gaunt with vigil. He had been stopped in the description of a spot, he explained, by the uncertainty of his recollections, and must go into the city in order to refresh them. So he invited Werdet to accompany him in playing truant for the day. The morning was spent in the slums, where he gathered the information required; and the afternoon they whiled away in listening to a concert at the Conservatoire. Here he was welcomed by the fashionables of both sexes, notwithstanding his shabby costume, which he had donned in view of his morning's occupation. On quitting the concert room, he carried Werdet off to dine with him at Very's, the most expensive and aristocratic restaurant in Paris. The place was full of guests; and those who were in proximity to the table where the two newcomers sat down were astounded to see the following menu ordered and practically consumed by one man, since Werdet, being on diet, took only a soup and a little chicken: A hundred oysters; twelve chops; a young duck; a pair of roast partridges; a sole; hors d'oeuvre; sweets; fruit (more than a dozen pears being swallowed); choice wines; coffee; liqueurs. Never since Rabelais' or perhaps Louis XIV.'s time, had such a Gargantuan appetite been witnessed. Balzac was recouping himself for his fasting.
When the repast, lengthened out by a flow of humorous conversation, was at length terminated, the nineteenth-century Johnson asked his Boswell if he had any available cash, as he himself had none. Werdet confessing only to forty francs, the novelist borrowed a five-franc piece from him and thundered out his request for the bill. To the waiter who presented it he handed the coin, at the same time returning the bill with a few words scribbled at the foot. "Tell the cashier," he cried, "that I am Monsieur Honore de Balzac." And he stalked out with Werdet, whilst all the diners present stared admiringly after the great man.
But the evening was not yet finished. In the garden of the Palais-Royal, then more frequented by society than to-day, they met Jules Sandeau and Emile Regnault. And, as they were near a gambling-saloon, Balzac, who had an infallible system for breaking the bank, proposed to Jules that he should go and try his luck. A twenty-franc piece was wheedled out of Werdet for the experiment, which proved a fiasco. Next, the novelist, to convince his companions of the accuracy of his theory, which he further detailed, went and borrowed forty francs from his heraldic engraver, and sent Sandeau and Regnault into the saloon again. Alas! fate was once more unkind. They returned minus their money. To console themselves, they went to the Funambules Theatre, to see Debureau act in the Boeuf Enrage, and Balzac laughed so loud that he and his party had to leave the theatre. On the morrow Werdet was called upon to pay the restaurant-keeper sixty-two francs, and to reimburse the engraver the forty francs loan, which sums, together with what he had himself advanced, ran Balzac's debit for the day up to one hundred and twenty-seven francs.
In Pere Goriot, the publication of which came close at the heels of the Search for the Absolute, Balzac traces the gradual impoverishment of a fond father by his two daughters, married, the one to a nobleman, the other to a banker, and whose husbands, when they have received the marriage dowry, give their father-in-law, who is a plebeian, the cold shoulder, and forbid their wives to see him unless in secret. Goriot's daughters, losing in their grand surroundings the little filial affection they ever had, exploit the old man's worship of them shamelessly. If they visit him in the boarding-house to which he has retired, after selling his home to endow them more richly, it is solely to get from him for their pleasures the portion of his wealth he has retained for his own wants. And he never refuses them, but sells and sells, until, at last, he is reduced to lodge in the garret of the boarding-house and eat almost the refuse of the table. Around this tragic central figure are grouped the commensals of the Vauquer pension, Rastignac, the young law-student, with shallow purse and aristocratic connections; Bianchon, the future great-gun in medicine, at present walking the hospitals and attending lectures and practising dissections; Victorine Taillefer, the rejected daughter of a guilty millionaire; Mademoiselle Michonneau, the soured spinster, who ferrets out the identity of her fellow-boarder Vautrin, and betrays to justice this cynical outlaw installed so quietly, and, to all appearance, safely, in the pension, where Madame Vauquer, the traipsing widow, lords it serenely, attentive only to her profits.
Of these subsidiary characters, two, Vautrin and Rastignac, furnish a second interest in the story parallel to that of Goriot and his daughters, and constituting a foil. Under the influence of Paris surroundings and experience, Rastignac passes from his naive illusions to a state of worldly wisdom, which he reaches all the more speedily as Vautrin is at his elbow, commenting with Mephistophelian shrewdness on his fellow-men and the society they form. Himself a man of education, who has sunk from high to low and is branded with the convict's mark, Vautrin is yet capable of affection of a certain kind; but, in the mind and heart of the youth he would fain advantage, he is capable only of inculcating the law of tooth and claw. "A rapid fortune is the problem that fifty thousand young men are at present trying to solve who find themselves in your position," he says to Rastignac. "You are a single one among this number. Judge of the efforts you have to make and of the desperateness of the struggle. You must devour each other like spiders in a pot, seeing there are not fifty thousand good places. Do you know how one gets on here? By the brilliance of genius or the adroitness of corruption one must enter the mass of men like a cannon-ball, or slip into it like the plague. Honesty is of no use." Having a tempter about him of Vautrin's calibre, strong, undauntable, as humorous as Dickens' Jingle, but infinitely more unscrupulous and dangerous, Rastignac is gained over, in spite of his first repulsion. The nursing and burying of Pere Goriot are his last acts of charity accorded to the claims of his higher nature, and even these are sullied by his relations with one of Goriot's daughters. Standing on the cemetery heights, and looking down towards the Seine and the Vendome column, he flings a defiance to the society spread beneath him, the society he despises but still wishes to conquer.
In this novel many social grades are gathered together, and the reciprocal actions of their representative members are rendered with effective contrast and a good deal of dramatic quickness. The chief theme, though so painful, is developed with less strain and monotony than in some other of the novelist's works by reason of a larger application, conscious or unconscious, of Shakespeare's practice of intermingling the humorous with the tragic. Even the comic is not entirely absent, Madame Vauquer especially supplying interludes. The novelist himself chuckled as he put into her mouth a mispronunciation of the word tilleul,[*] and explained to Madame Hanska, whose foreign accent in speaking French suggested it, that he chose the fat landlady so that Eve should not be jealous.
[*] English linden, or lime-tree.
Balzac's too great absorption in his writing forced him more than once in this year to go into the country and recuperate his health. During the earlier months he spent a short time with the Carrauds at Frapesle, which was a favourite sojourn of his, and, later on, at Sache, a pleasant retreat in his native Touraine. His iron constitution was not able always to resist the demands continually made upon it; and his abuse of coffee only aggravated the evil. To Laure he acknowledged, while at Sache, that this beverage refused to excite his brain for any time longer than a fortnight; and even the fortnight was paid for by horrible cramps in the stomach, followed by fits of depression, which he suffered when suddenly deprived of his beloved drink. In his Treatise of Modern Stimulants he describes its peculiar operation upon himself. "This coffee," he says, "falls into your stomach, and straightway there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army on the battlefield, and the battle takes place. Things remembered arrive full gallop, ensign to the wind. The light cavalry of comparisons deliver a magnificent, deploying charge; the artillery of logic hurry up with their train and ammunition; the shafts of wit start up like sharp-shooters. Similes arise; the paper is covered with ink; for the struggle commences and is concluded with torrents of black water, just as a battle with powder."
When he tells us how Doctor Minoret, Ursule Mirouet's guardian, used to regale his friends with a cup of Moka mixed with Bourbon coffee, and roasted Martinique, which the Doctor insisted on personally preparing in a silver coffee-pot, it is his own custom that he is detailing. His Bourbon he bought only in the Rue Mont Blanc (now the Chaussee d'Antin), the Martinique, in the Rue des Vieilles Audriettes, the Moka at a grocer's in the Rue de l'Universite. It was half a day's journey to fetch them.
The Tigers or Lions, of the Loge Infernale at the Opera, have already been spoken of. It was in this year that Balzac, as belonging to the Club, gave a dinner to its members, the chief guest being Rossini. Nodier, Sandeau, Bohain, and the witty Lautour-Mezeray were also present. He doubtless wore on the occasion his coat of broadcloth blue, made by his tailor-friend Buisson, with its gold buttons engraved by Gosselin, his jeweller and goldsmith. On his waistcoat of white English pique twined and glittered the thousand links of the slender chain of Venice gold. Black trousers, with footstraps, showing his calves to advantage, patent-leather boots, and his wonderful stick, which inspired Madame Delphine Gay to write a book, completed the equipment.
This stick was certainly in existence in 1834, being mentioned in the correspondence with Madame Hanska during that year. Werdet, however, connects its origin with the novelist's imprisonment, two years later, in the Hotel de Bazancourt, popularly known as the Hotel des Haricots, which was used for confining those citizens who did not comply with Louis-Philippe's law enrolling them in the National Guard and ordering them to take their turn in night-patrol of the city. Balzac was incurably recalcitrant. Nothing would induce him to encase himself in the uniform and serve; and, whenever the soldiers came for him, he bribed them to let him alone. Finally, these bribes failed of their effect, and an arrest-warrant was issued against him. In his ordinary correspondence two experiences of his being in durance vile at the Hotel des Haricots are mentioned, one in March 1835, another in August 1836. The latter of these is differently dated in the Letters to the Stranger, the end of April being given, unless, indeed, there were two confinements close together, which is hardly probable. What is most likely is, that Werdet has confused two things, the story of the lock of hair, properly belonging to 1836, and the making of the stick, which belongs to 1834. Here is his narration:—
The publisher one day received a note requesting him to go at once to the prison and to take with him some money. He went with two hundred francs, and found Balzac, in his Dominican's dress, installed in a small cell on the third story, busily engaged in arranging papers. Part of the money brought was utilized to order a succulent dinner, which Werdet stayed and shared in the smoky refectory below. Both prisoner and visitor were very merry until the door opened and Eugene Sue, the popular novelist, entered, himself also a victim of the conscription law. Invited to join in the meal, Sue declined, saying that his valet and his servant were shortly to bring him his dinner. This repulse damped Balzac's spirits until the arrival of a third victim, the Count de Lostange, chief editor of the Quotidienne, who sat down willingly to table. Then Balzac forgot Sue's rudeness, and the mirth was resumed. Notwithstanding the efforts of the novelist's influential friends, the Count de Lobau, who was responsible for the arrest, showed himself inexorable, and a second day was spent in captivity, which Werdet came again towards evening to enliven. A whole pile of perfumed epistles sent by feminine sympathizers was lying on the table, and the publisher had to open them and read them aloud to his companion. When a third day's confinement was decided on by the authorities, Werdet arranged to celebrate it by a dinner that should merit being put on record. He therefore secured the presence of some intimates of the novelist, among them being Gustave Planche and Alphonse Karr; and at 5 P.M., eight people were assembled in the cell, with Auguste, Balzac's valet, to serve them. The restaurant-keeper Chevet's menu of exquisite dishes was suitably moistened with excellent champagne sent by a Countess, and, when the feast was in full progress, Balzac took a scented parcel from among his presents and asked permission to open it. The authorization being granted, he undid the parcel, and disclosed a mass of long, fair, silky hair threaded into a gold ring that was set with an emerald. On the gift was an inscription in English: From an unknown friend. A great discussion ensued. One irreverent speaker opined that the thing was a hoax, and that the hair had come from a wig-maker's; but his blasphemy was shouted down. Another proposed that Balzac should cut off his own long, flat locks (it was in 1834 that he began to let them grow) and should send them addressed to the Unknown Fair One. Poste Restante. But this suggestion, too, was not approved. The locks were proclaimed to be national property, and to be cut off only by the passing of a special law. Next, the ring was discussed; and here it was that Balzac, struck with a brilliant idea, announced his intention of ordering Gosselin, the goldsmith, to manufacture a marvellous hollow stick-knob in which a lock of the blond hair should be inserted, and all over the top of the knob were to be fixed diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, topazes, rubies, chosen out of the many he had had given him by his rich lady-enthusiasts. On the morrow, he was released, after spending, during the few days he had been locked up, five hundred and seventy francs in refreshment for himself and visitors.
LETTERS TO "THE STRANGER," 1835, 1836
The Rue des Batailles, whither Balzac removed his household goods in 1834, was one of those old landmarks of Paris which have disappeared in the opening up and beautifying of the city. Commencing at the fortifications, it penetrated inwards along the waste ground of the Trocadero, and crossed the Rue Chaillot at a point which has since become the Place d'Iena. Its direction from there was very nearly the same as that of the present Avenue d'Iena. No. 12, where Balzac had his flat, probably occupied the site whereon now stands the mansion of Prince Roland Bonaparte. From its windows a good view was obtained of the Seine, the Champ de Mars, the Ecole Militaire, and the Dome of the Invalides.
As a matter of fact, the house of the Rue des Batailles was for a time a supplementary dwelling rented by the novelist, so Werdet says, as a hiding-place from the myrmidons of the law. The flat in the Rue Cassini was retained, and its furniture also; and an arrangement was made with the landlord by which a notice-board hung continually on the door, with the words: "This apartment to let." In reality the tenant often sojourned there still, and his cook stayed on the premises to look after them, and serve her master with meals, whenever he wished to work in his old study without being disturbed. At the Rue des Batailles he lived under the pseudonym of Widow Brunet, so that temporarily the sergeant-major of the National Guard was outwitted.
The second flat, when he took it, was composed of five small rooms; but an army of workmen was summoned; and what with the pulling down of partitions and their reconstruction on a more commodious plan, the place was metamorphosed into four luxuriously furnished chambers, the study being fitted up as a sort of boudoir. One of its walls was a graceful curve against which rested a large, real Turkish divan in white cashmere, its drapery being caught and held with lozenge-shaped bows of black and flame-coloured silk. The opposite wall formed a straight line broken only by a white marble chimney-piece pinked out in gold. The entire room was hung in red stuff as a background, and this was covered with fluted Indian muslin, having a top and bottom beading of flame-coloured stuff ornamented with elegant black arabesques. Under the muslin the red assumed a rose tint, which later was repeated in the window curtains of muslin lined with taffety, and fringed in black and red. Six silver sconces, each supporting two candles, projected from the wall above the divan, to light those sitting or lying there. From the dazzlingly white ceiling was suspended an unpolished silver-gilt lustre; and the cornice round it was in gold. The carpets of curious designs were like Eastern shawls; the furniture was lavishly upholstered. The time-piece and candelabra were of white marble incrusted with gold; and cashmere covered the single table, while several flower-stands filled up the corners, with their roses and other blooms. This study, which Balzac himself has left us a description of in his novel The Girl with the Golden Eyes, was soon abandoned as a workroom for another more simple and austere, up under the roof. The latter, however, he likewise began, being tormented by the desire of change, to adorn almost as fantastically.
Throughout the time that Werdet continued to be Balzac's publisher, and up to the end of 1836, when their active business relations ceased, it is difficult to be quite accurate in speaking of their relations and the things spoken of by both in which they were mutually concerned. There is frequent discordance in their narration of the same event, and one is often embarrassed in trying to reconcile them. On the one hand, it is certain that Balzac was not always exact in his statements; on the other, Werdet's memory, in the seventies, when he wrote his Portrait Intime of the novelist, was as certainly now and again treacherous. An example of such discrepancy is furnished by the information given concerning Seraphita, which Werdet says he bought from Buloz at the end of 1834, and for which he had to wait till December 1835. He even makes it a reproach that the novelist, after being extracted from a dilemma, should have dealt with him so cavalierly. Now, from documents published by the Viscount de Lovenjoul, there must be a mistake in Werdet's dates. During the year of 1835, the Revue de Paris published, after long delay, some further chapters of Seraphita; and not until the end of November in this same twelvemonth was the treaty signed which rendered Werdet possessor of the book.
Seraphita, or Seraphitus—the name is designedly spelt both ways in different parts of the book—is an attempt on the novelist's part to represent in fiction the dual sex of the soul. The scene is laid in the fiords of Norway. There, in a village, we meet with a person of mysterious nature who is loved simultaneously by a man and a woman, and who is regarded by each as being of the opposite sex. By whiles this hermaphrodite seems to respond to the affection of each admirer, and by whiles to withdraw on to a higher plane of existence whither their mortality hinders them from following. To the old pastor of the village, Seraphita-Seraphitus talks with assurance of the essence of phenomena and the invisible world, but, forsooth, only to initiate the shades that visit spiritualistic seances, and to say what is either obscure verbiage, or a hash-up of philosophies often digested without much sustenance derived from them. In the end, this dual personage vanishes from our mundane atmosphere, translated bodily to heaven; and leaves his or her lovers to repair their loss—just like a forlorn widow or widower—by making a match based on rules of conduct laid down by the departed one.
Seraphita was Balzac's pocket Catholicism. He had another Catholicism, entirely orthodox, for the use of the public at large. Esoterically understood, his novel teaches a doctrine of mysticism, intuitionalism, and materialism combined. Plotinus, the Manicheans, and Swendenborg are borrowed from without reserve. Ordinary reason is despised. He believes himself for the nonce inspired, like the Pope when launching bulls. "The pleasure," he writes, "of swimming in a lake of pure water, amidst rocks, woods, and flowers, alone and fanned by the warm zephyr, would give the ignorant but a weak image of the happiness I felt when my soul was flooded with the rays of I know not what light, when I listened to the terrible and confused voices of inspiration, when from a secret source the images streamed into my palpitating brain." On the contrary, he holds—and this does not square well with the preceding—that the soul is an ethereal fluid similar to electricity; that the brain is the matrass or bottle into which the animal transports, according to the strength of the apparatus, as much as the various organisms can absorb of this fluid, which issues thence transformed into will; that our sentiments are movements of the fluid, which proceeds from us by jerks when we are angry, and which weighs on our nerves when we are in expectation; that the current of this king of liquids, according to the pressure of thought and feeling, spreads in waves or diminishes and thins, then collects again, to gush forth in flashes. He believes also that our ideas are complete, organized beings (the theosophic notion) which live in the invisible world and influence our destinies; that, concentrated in a powerful brain, they can master the brains of other people, and traverse immense distances in the twinkling of an eye. In short, he anticipates not a little of the science of the present day, yet mixing up the true and false in his guesses by the very exuberance of his fancy. At the close, he gives us his vision of the universe: "They heard the divers parts of the Infinite forming a living melody; and, at each pause, when the accord made itself felt like a huge respiration, the worlds, drawn by this unanimous movement, inclined themselves towards the immense being who, from his impenetrable centre, sent everything forth and brought it back to himself. The light engendered melody, the melody engendered light; the colours were light and melody, the movement was number endowed with speech; in fine, all was at once sonorous, diaphanous, mobile; so that, all things interpenetrating each other, distance was without obstacles, and might be traversed by the angels throughout the depths of the infinite. There was the fete. Myriads of angels all hastened in like flight, without confusion, all similar, yet all dissimilar, simple as the field-rose, vast as worlds. They were neither seen to come nor go. On a sudden, they studded the infinite with their presence, just as the stars shine in the indiscernible ether."
The fundamental error of Seraphita is its hybridity, not to speak of its pretentious psychology. It is neither flesh nor fowl; and, exception made for some fine passages, more at the beginning than in the rest of the book, it jars and irks, and amazes, but does not captivate or persuade.
It had a great success when it came out in book form. People were inquisitive to know the end of the story, which the Revue de Paris had not given; and their eagerness had been further whetted by a cleverly graduated series of puffs put into the newspapers. In the first day of sale, the whole edition was cleared out of Werdet's warehouse, a thing that had never happened before with any of the same author's works. Balzac, who had been duly informed of the good news, hastened to the office, and led the publisher off proudly to dine with him at Very's, and to finish up the evening at the Porte-Saint-Martin Theatre, with ices afterwards at Tortoni's. The whole affair was carried out in grand style. The novelist had on his war-paint, and was accompanied by a lady, young, pretty, whose name is not revealed to us. Werdet's vis-a-vis was Madame Louise Lemercier, a benevolent blue-stocking of that day, who was a Providence to needy men of letters. When dinner was over, Balzac's elegant equipage, with its mighty coachman and its diminutive groom, yclept Millet-seed, who unfortunately died soon after in the hospital, conveyed them to the play, in which Frederick Lemaitre and Serres held chief roles. Balzac was the hero of the evening. His jewelled stick, and his pretty companion monopolized the attention of the spectators, who somewhat neglected the amusement offered by the Auberge des Adrets on the stage. At the conclusion of the piece, the four passed out of the theatre through a double line of people eager to pay the homage that notoriety can always command.
In the year 1835 the novelist's restlessness and inability to remain long in one spot were evinced in a very marked manner. Only by repeated changes of scene was he able to carry on his work at all. After wearing himself out in a fruitless attempt to complete Seraphita in April, he fled to Madame Carraud's at Frapesle. In October he was at La Boulonniere, where he put the last touches to Pea-Blossom, better known as the Marriage Contract, which came out before the end of December. His fits of depression alternated with spurts of cheerfulness nearly every week, according as he had some loss or gain to register; here, a fire at the printer's, where some of his Contes Drolatiques were burned; there, the sale of an article to the Conservateur for three thousand francs. In September the barometer rose, and he exclaimed joyfully in a letter to Laure:
"The Reviews are at my feet and pay me more for my sheets. He! He!
"The reading public have changed their opinion about the Country Doctor, so that Werdet is certain of selling his editions directly. Ha! Ha!
"In short, I can meet my liabilities in November and December. Ho! Ho!"
This tone changed in October. To his sister now he lamented:
"I am drinking the cup to the dregs. In vain I work fourteen hours a day. I cannot suffice."
He had held practically the same language to Werdet in May,[*] when he announced to him his intention of starting for Austria, where Madame Hanska was staying. His brain, he said, was empty; his imagination dried up; cup after cup of coffee produced no effect, nor yet baths —these last being the supreme remedy.
[*] In Werdet's account this journey is placed between September and November; but the Letters to the Stranger prove that the date he gives is incorrect.
Werdet did his best to thwart the trip; but Balzac would not be gainsaid. He affirmed he should return with rejuvenated faculties, after seeing his carissima; and ultimately he persuaded his publisher to advance him two thousand francs for his travelling expenses. Profuse in his gratitude, he wrote from his hotel in Vienna —the Hotel de la Poire, situated in the Langstrasse—that, in the society of the cherished one, he had regained his imagination and verve. Werdet, he continued, was his Archibald Constable (vide Walter Scott); their fortunes were thenceforward indissoluble; and the day was approaching when they would meet in their carriages in the Bois de Boulogne and turn their detractors green with envy. This flattery was the jam enveloping the information that he had drawn on his publisher for another fifteen hundred francs; there was also a promise made that he would come back with his pockets full of manuscripts. Instead of the manuscripts, he brought back some Viennese curiosities. He had done no work while with Madame Hanska, but he had seen Munich, and had enjoyed himself immensely, being idolized by the aristocracy of the Austrian capital. "And what an aristocracy!" he remarked to Werdet; "quite different from ours, my dear fellow; quite another world. There the nobility are a real nobility. They are all old families, not an adulterated nobility like in France."
The Vienna visit, which cost him, in total, some five thousand francs —a foolish expense in his involved circumstances—was the cause of his silver plate having to be pawned while he was away, in order that certain payments of interest that he owed might be made at the end of the month. Since he was always plunging into fresh extravagance of one kind or another, his liabilities had a fatal tendency to grow; and at present even more than before, since he was puffed up by the lionizing he had enjoyed abroad. It was hardly to be expected that a man should study economy who saw himself already appointed to the Secretaryship for Foreign Affairs. "This is the only department which would suit me," he said to Werdet. "I have now my free entry to the house of the Count d'Appony, Ambassador of Austria, and to that of Rothschild, Consul of the same Power. What glory for you, Master Werdet, to have been my publisher. I will make your fortune then."
His display and luxury manifested themselves in greater sumptuousness of furniture, more servants in livery, a box at the Opera for himself, and another at the Italiens. And the two secretaries must not be forgotten—one was not sufficient—the Count de Belloy and the Count de Grammont. Sandeau was not grand enough for the post. The reason given by Balzac to Madame Hanska was Jules' idleness, nonchalance, and sentimentality. As a matter of fact, Sandeau did not care to play always second fiddle, and to write tragedies or comedies for which Balzac wished to get all the credit. Moreover, he was not a Legitimist. The novelist had tried to convert him to his own doctrine of autocratic government and had signally failed. These sprigs of nobility he felt himself more in sympathy with.
About this time his epistles to "The Stranger" were full of himself and his Herculean labours, and Madame Hanska hinted pretty plainly that the quantity of the latter did not necessarily imply their quality. Such expression of opinion notwithstanding, he boasted of conceiving, composing, and printing the Atheist's Mass, a short novel, it is true, in one night only. His portrait by Louis Boulanger, which was painted during the year of 1835, had been ordered rather with a view to advertizing him at the ensuing Salon, although he asserted it was because he wanted to correct a false impression given of him by Danton's caricature in the earlier months of the year. The likeness produced by Boulanger he esteemed a good one, rendering his Coligny, Peter the Great persistence, which, together with an intrepid faith in the future, he said was the basis of his character. The future hovered as a perpetual mirage in all his introspections, sometimes with tints of dawn, at other times half-threatening. "I am the Wandering Jew of thought," was his cry to Eve from the Hotel des Haricots, "always up and walking without repose, without the joys of the heart, without anything besides what is yielded me by a remembrance at once rich and poor, without anything that I can snatch from the future. I hold out my hand to it. It casts me not a mite, but a smile which means to say: to-morrow."
When he embarked on the hazardous venture of starting a newspaper of his own, the motive was chiefly a desire to exercise a larger political influence. Yet he had additional incentives. The Reviews to which he had contributed in the past had yielded him almost as much annoyance as profit; and, since the two most important ones, the Revue des Deux Mondes and the Revue de Paris, both under the same editorship, were closed against him, he believed he needed an organ in which to defend himself from the rising virulence of hostile criticism. A press campaign in his favour could be better and more cheaply waged in a paper under his entire control. His plan was not to create a journal, but to revive one. In 1835 the Chronique de Paris, formerly called the Globe, was on its last legs, albeit it had been ably edited by William Duckett; and the proprietor, Bethune the publisher, was only too glad to listen to Balzac's overtures. By dint of puffing the new enterprise, a company was formed with a nominal capital of a hundred thousand francs; Duckett was paid out in bills drawn on the receipts to accrue, since the novelist had no ready money of his own; and a start was made under the new management. The staff was a strong one. Jules Sandeau was dramatic critic; Emile Regnault supplied the light literature; Gustave Planche was art critic; Alphonse Karr wrote satirical articles; Theophile Gautier, Charles de Bernard, and Raymond Brucker contributed fiction; and Balzac, together with his functions of chief editor, gave the leading article.
In its reorganized form, the Review came out Sundays and Thursdays and once a week Saturdays. The collaborators met at Werdet's house to discuss and compare notes. Generally, they brought with them more conversation than copy, and Balzac would begin to scold.
"How can I make up to-morrow's issue," he asked, "if each of you arrives empty-handed?"
"Oh! being a great man and a genius," was the reply, "you have merely to say: 'Let there be a Chronicle,' and there will be a Chronicle."
"But you know that I reserve to myself nothing except the article on foreign policy."
"Yes, we all know," answered Karr, punning on the French word etrangere, "that your policy is strange."
(Not finishing the word etrangere, he said only etrange.)
"Ere," shouted Balzac, adding the termination.
"Ere," Alphonse yelled back. "You reserve to yourself a policy which is foreign to all governments present and past and future. And, as you scold me, Mr. Editor, is your own article ready?"
"No, but it is here"—tapping his forehead—"I have only to write it. In an hour it will be done."
"With the corrections?" queried Karr slily.
"Yes, with the corrections."
"Ah! well, prove that to us; and we'll all go on dry bread and water until a statue is raised to you. I am hungry."
Although Balzac's colleagues had a real respect and admiration for his talent, they chaffed him unmercifully for his vanity. One Saturday, Alphonse Karr, as a joke, crowned him with flowers; and Balzac, in all good faith, complacently accepted the honour. Around him, the laughter broke out fast and furious; and, at length, he joined in with volleys that shook the room, while his face waxed purple beneath his explosions. In his Guepes, Alphonse Karr subsequently recalled this improvized coronation of the novelist.
Edited and composed in such desultory fashion, the Chronicle's prosperity was short-lived, in spite of the lustre it temporarily acquired from Balzac's name, and the publication in it of some of his fiction. Before long its financial position was so bad that the chief editor, as a forlorn hope, tried to induce a young Russian nobleman, who was an eager reader of his books, to enter the concern with a large amount of fresh capital. To bait him, a magnificent dinner was given in the Rue Cassini flat, amidst a display of all its tenant's gold and silver plate, liberated from the pawnbroker's for the occasion by a timely advance of two thousand francs from Werdet. The feast was an entire success, and an appointment was fixed for the next day at the Russian's hotel. Alas! when the envoy went, he received, sandwiched in the guest's thanks for the royal entertainment of the preceding evening, an announcement of the said guest's immediate departure for Russia and the intimation that, as the nobleman was not returning to Paris for some time, it would be impossible for him to accept the offer of a sleeping-partnership in the Review. Three months later the Chronicle was resold to Bethune for a small sum; and the publisher disposed of it to a third person, who, however, did not succeed in keeping it alive. Balzac's loss by his experiment was about twenty thousand francs.
And this loss was not the only disagreeable part of the business. There were the bills signed to Duckett. They being protested in 1837, Duckett sued the novelist and obtained judgment against him. At this moment, Balzac, tracked by his creditors, had taken temporary refuge with some friends, the Count Visconti and his English wife, who lived in the Champs Elysees. Here he remained incognito. One day a man, wearing the uniform of a transport company, called at the mansion and informed the servant that he had brought six thousand francs for Monsieur de Balzac. Suiting the action to his words, he dumped down on to the floor a heavy bag that chinked as it struck the hall tiles. "Monsieur de Balzac does not live here," was the servant's reply. "Then is the master of the house in?" asked the man. "No, but the mistress is." "Then tell her I have six thousand francs for Monsieur de Balzac." The servant vanished and soon the lady of the mansion appeared and offered to sign the receipt herself. To this the man demurred. He must either see Monsieur de Balzac or must take the money away again. There was a hurried confabulation between hostess and guest, the upshot of which was that Balzac, falling into the snare, came to the man, thinking that some generous friend had sent him the money; and he was immediately served with an arrest-warrant for debt. "I am caught," he cried; "but I will pillory Duckett for this. He shall go down to posterity with infamy attached to his name." To get the novelist out of the mess, Madame Visconti paid the debt for which the warrant had been made out; and thus spared him, for the nonce, a sojourn in the debtors' prison at Clichy.
Balzac's lawsuit with the Revue de Paris, the details of which are given in the Viscount de Lovenjoul's Last Chapter of the History of Balzac's Works, was brought about by the novelist's quarrel, in 1835, with Buloz, the editor, because the latter, while the Lily in the Valley was being printed, communicated proofs of it to the Revue Francaise of Saint Petersburg. Balzac at once severed his connection with the Revue de Paris, and took away his novel, on the ground that the editor was not justified in selling it abroad without his—the author's—permission, and especially was not justified in communicating premature proofs, which, owing to his practice of modifying the text while correcting it, could in no way represent his finished work. After an attempt made by mutual friends to settle the matter amicably, Buloz entered an action against Balzac to compel him to continue the publication of the Lily in the Valley in the Revue de Paris. Three parts had been given. It was the end which the Review demanded, and ten thousand francs damages for the delay. The case was heard in May 1836, after months of bitter controversy, in which both sides had their ardent supporters. The most was made by the plaintiff's barrister of Balzac's previous disputes with other editors, who had had to complain of his tardiness in completing articles or stories. A letter was also put in, signed by Alexandre Dumas, Eugene Sue, Frederic Soulie, and others, stating that it was usual for authors to allow the communication of their productions to the Revue Francaise of Saint Petersburg, with a view to combating Belgian and German piracies. And Jules Janin, who during the Thirties was a zealous opponent of Balzac, cast his weight of evidence in favour of the Review. The Seraphita episode was dragged in, too, with testimony to show that, even after Werdet had bought the right to publish the novel in book form, Balzac again negotiated for its continuation as a serial in the Review, and had, moreover, supplied some other chapters, yet without coming to the end. In fact, the suit was a complicated one to decide. Ultimately, the Court gave its verdict against Balzac on the chief point at issue. He lost the conclusion of the Lily in the Valley, and recovered only a small sum of money that had been advanced to the novelist for copy not supplied, and besides had to pay all the expenses of his action.
What galled Balzac particularly during the speeches of the plaintiff's barrister, was to hear the style of his novel pulled to pieces in language of mingled sarcasm and clever criticism that delighted the audience and the papers. After the termination of the affair, he thoroughly overhauled the parts of the book which had been so severely handled, made large alterations, and, since fun had also been poked at his pretensions to noble ancestry, he prefixed a curious introduction to the edition that Werdet was about to publish. In the course of it he declared: "If some persons, deceived by caricatures, false portraits, penny-a-liners, and lies, credit me with a colossal fortune, palaces, and above all, with frequent favours from women . . . I here declare to them that I am a poor artist, absorbed in art, working at a long history of society, which will be either good or bad, but at which I work by necessity, without shame, just as Rossini has made operas or Du Ryer translations and volumes; that I live very much alone, that I have a few firm friends; that my name is on my birth-certificate, etc., just as that of Monsieur de Fitz-James is on his; that, if it is of old Gaulish stock, this is not my fault; but that de Balzac is my patronymic, an advantage which many aristocratic families have not who called themselves Odet before they were called Chatillon, Duplessis, and who are, none the less, great families."
To the foregoing he joined a long account of his birth and his presumed title to ancient lineage, and inserted into the bargain a panegyric of Werdet as a man of activity, intelligence, and probity, with whom his relations would be unbroken, since by this same declaration he constituted him henceforward his sole publisher. That was in July 1836. Scarcely six months after, when Werdet was threatened with a bankruptcy which was likely to involve him—a repetition in minor degree of Scott's entanglement with Constable—he veered completely round, called Werdet a rotten plank, an empty head, an obstinate mule, and other names more expressive than polite, affirmed that he had always considered him a bit of a fool, and dropped all further connection with him. Werdet, it is true, was no business genius, but he was really attached to Balzac, and had yielded to the great man's importunities as long as his purse would support the strain.
The Lily in the Valley was published by Werdet in the week after the lawsuit was finished, and was well received by the public. Its success, however, was more considerable abroad than in France. The author complained of the smallness of the numbers sold in France compared with those of foreign editions; but Werdet's figures indicate a very fair sale, and are larger than those given by Balzac, who in this instance at least was not so accurate as his publisher.
The novel deals with the struggle in the heart of a Madame de Mortsauf, torn between her affection for Felix de Vandenesse and her determination to remain outwardly faithful in conduct towards her husband. With his invariable enthusiasm for subjects that pleased him in his own work, Balzac believed and affirmed that this secret combat waged in a valley of the Indre was as important as the most famous military battle ever fought. Possibly the amount of early personal biography in the book—yet a good deal romanced—led him to this conviction. Possibly, too, the richness with which he adorned its style helped to foster the opinion he held, which critics have not ratified. Not even Lamartine, his eulogist, found much to say in favour of the story. To the first part alone he gave his approval, likening it to the Song of Solomon. The rest he thought vulgar, and hinted that the heroine degenerates into a sort of hermaphrodite character. Brunetiere's estimate, given in a parenthesis, is not much more favourable. And Taine, when dipping into the book for examples of Balzac's style, neutralizes his praise of one portion by his depreciation of another.
Apart from the question of the novel's style, which is turgid because the lyric note intrudes, the most legitimate objection to the book is the sentimentalism which pervades it throughout, and palls on the reader before he reaches the conclusion. Like Richardson in his Pamela, but far to a greater extent than Richardson, Balzac has placed the struggle on the physical plane. Madame de Mortsauf permits de Vandenesse to make love to her, to caress her, and she accords him everything with the single exception of that which would confer on her husband the right to divorce her. The interest of the book therefore is largely a material one. The moral issue is thrown into the background. And de Vandenesse, moreover, is not a person that inspires us with respect or even pity. He consoles himself with Lady Dudley, while swearing high allegiance to his Henriette.
In sooth, the swain's position resembled the novelist's own. Honore was also inditing oaths of fidelity to his "dear star," his "earth-angel" in far-away Russia, while worshipping at shrines more accessible. Lady Dudley may well have been, for all his denial, the Countess Visconti, of whom Madame Hanska was jealous and on good grounds, or else the Duchess de Castries, to whom he said that, in writing the book, he had caught himself shedding tears. His reminiscences of Madame de Berny aided him in composing the figure of the heroine, whose death-bed scene was soon to become sober reality. Madame de Berny died in July, having had a last pleasure in perusing the story that immortalized her affection for the novelist. Balzac had been intending to pay her a farewell visit; but he was then in the midst of embarrassments of all kinds, and the journey was postponed until it was too late.
At this moment, the affair of the Chronique was being liquidated; and then Madame Bechet, his late publisher, was dunning him for some arrears of copy that he owed her. His brother Henry, too, going from bad to worse, was in a position that necessitated Madame de Balzac's giving up the remnants of her capital; and, to crown all, a son of Laurence, the dead sister, quitting an unhappy home, was living as a vagabond on the streets of Paris, whence he had to be rescued. Since, to these worries and griefs, there was added certain disquieting news from Eve, whose aunt, from reading some of his books, supposed him to be a gambler and debauchee and was trying to turn her niece against him, it was not astonishing that he should have been completely unnerved. While at Sache, where he had come to stay with some friends, the de Margonnes, in order to terminate the work he was obliged to do for Madame Bechet, he had an attack of apoplexy; and, on recovering from it, was glad to seize an opportunity offered him of a journey to Italy to escape for a while from the scene of his toiling and moiling and to have a radical change. His good genius on this occasion was the Count Visconti, who, having some legal business of a litigious nature to settle at Turin and not being able to attend to it personally, asked him to go instead. On this trip he was accompanied by Madame Marbouty, a woman of letters, better known under her pseudonym, Claire Brunne, whose acquaintance he had made some years back at Angouleme. Madame Marbouty's exterior had much in common with that of George Sand, and the resemblance between the two women gave rise to the report that it was the authoress of Indiana who accompanied Balzac to Italy at this date.
The journey back to Paris was effected through Switzerland, which enabled him to see Geneva again, though under less agreeable auspices than those of 1833. His prospects on returning to France were no better than when he left. Indeed, they were worse, for Werdet's bad circumstances forced him to pledge himself in several quarters in order to raise some ready money for his immediate wants; and, being pledged, he was bound to produce at high pressure. His Old Maid, which he sold to the Presse for eight thousand francs, was written in three nights, Facino Cane, in one night, and the Secret of the Ruggieri, in one night also. Rossini, happening to meet him during this spell of drudgery, condoled with him and remarked that he himself had gone through the mill.
"But when I did it," he added, "I was dead after a fortnight, and it took me another fifteen days to revive."
"Well!" replied Balzac, "I have only the coffin in view as a rest; yet work is a fine shroud."
Casting round for a means to free himself from a position that had grown intolerable, he was induced to lend himself to a scheme suggested by Chateaubriand's example. Chateaubriand, having fallen into financial straits, sold his pen to a syndicate, in return for an annual stipend. Balzac did something of the same kind. Victor Bohain, who played an intermediary role in the affair, discovered Chateaubriand's capitalist; and a company was formed which paid the novelist fifty thousand francs down to relieve his most pressing needs; and further engaged to allow him fifteen hundred francs a month for the first year, three thousand francs a month for the second year, and, afterwards, four thousand francs a month up to the fifteenth year, when the agreement was to come to an end. In return for these sums, Balzac promised to furnish a fixed number of volumes per year, half profits in which were to be his, after all publishing expenses were paid. The arrangement was signed on the 19th of November 1836; and this date, in so far as the general quality of his writing is concerned, marks a beginning of decadence. Thenceforward his fiction, published mostly in political dailies first of all—the Presse, the Constitutionnel, the Siecle, the Debats, the Messager—had to be composed hurriedly and without the corrections which were the sine qua non of Balzac's excellence; and consequently it contained many imperfections inherent in such kinds of literary work. There was irony in the situation. Hitherto, he had despised the daily press and the journalists that supplied it with matter, chiefly, it must be confessed, because of the slatings he had received through these organs of information; and he had revenged himself for the attacks by pillorying the journalistic profession in his novels. Lousteau, Finot, Blondet, and other members of the press appear in his pages as unprincipled men, only too willing to sell themselves to the highest bidder. Of course, such retaliation carried with it injustice; and men of high principle, like Jules Janin, resented this prejudiced condemnation of a class for no better reason than its having black sheep, which existed in every circle, trade and profession. Now, Janin had an easy task in convicting of inconsistency an accuser who, since it suited his purpose, was fain to belong to the press brotherhood. The real derogation, however, was not in Balzac's turning feuilletoniste, but in his slipping into the manner and his adopting the artifices that he blamed so unsparingly in Eugene Sue and Alexandre Dumas. Not to speak of his falling off in accurate observation, he inserted more and more padding in his fiction; the aridly didactic encroached upon the artist's creation; and, to make the arid portions go down with his readers, he spiced them with exciting episodes and all the stage tricks common in the serial story. To tell the truth, he had never quite shaken off his juvenile manner of the Heiress of Birague, which reasserted itself so much the more easily as his essentially vulgar temperament was ready to crop out on the slightest encouragement afforded to it. During his best period he had a mentor at his elbow in Charles Lemesle, who always read what he wrote before it went to the printer; and Balzac, though vain, was too intelligent not to avail himself of this friend's pruning. Under the new regime the revising was impossible, and, as a result, that difficult perfection which he had so perseveringly sought was destined to be attained but rarely in the rest of his achievement.
LETTERS TO "THE STRANGER," 1837, 1838
By the agreement which farmed out Balzac's future production, Werdet was implicitly sacrificed. The final breach did not occur until the middle of 1837, but no fresh book was given him after the November of 1836. There was one unpublished manuscript that he then had in his possession—the first part of Lost Illusions, and this appeared in the following spring. The novelist was intending at the time to bring out a new edition of the Country Doctor, of which Werdet held the rights. His idea was to present it for the Montyon prize of the Academy, and, if successful, to devote the money to raising a statue at Chinon in memory of Rabelais. Lemesle was one Sunday at Werdet's place, engaged in revising the book, when Balzac arrived in an excited state of mind, and sprang on the astonished publisher the demand that their respective positions should be legally specified in writing, and a clean sweep made which should leave him perfectly free. Previously their business relations had been carried on by verbal understandings, which, as a matter of fact, did not bind the novelist overmuch, since he never sold either a first or a subsequent edition of any of his novels for more than a comparatively short period—usually a year—at the end of which he recovered his entire liberty, whether the edition were exhausted or not. Werdet acquiesced, though grievously offended and disappointed; but asked that certain accounts outstanding from the year before should be settled on the same occasion. The promise was given, and everything was put straight, except the reimbursement of the money Werdet had advanced. Instead of acquitting this debt, the ingenious author endeavoured to squeeze a little more cash out of his long-suffering publisher. For once, Werdet lost his temper, and sent the great man off with a flea in his ear. It would almost look as if Balzac had provoked the quarrel, since, on the very evening after the tiff, he returned to Werdet's and offered to redeem all existing copyrights that the publisher held for the price of sixty-three thousand francs. His proposal was accepted, and Bethune, who was acting on behalf of the novelist's syndicate, paid over the amount.
The transaction was the best possible for Werdet, who was too poor to continue playing Maecenas to his Horace. Against such incurable improvidence, and such little regard for strict equity in money dealings, nothing but the impersonality of a syndicate could stand. Nevertheless, one cannot help regretting that the intercourse of the two men should have ceased. Having so great a personal regard for his hero, and having besides his share of the observant faculty, Werdet, could have supplied us with biographical details of the last twelve years of the novelist's life much more interesting than those of Gozlan, Gautier, and Lemer. His naive narrations, which are well composed and have humour, carry with them a conviction of their sincerity, whatever the errors of chronology.
Werdet's prosperity finished with Balzac as it had commenced with him. He was ultimately compelled to file his petition in bankruptcy, and, abandoning business on his own account, to take up travelling for other firms. His creditors were not tender towards the novelist, and used to the utmost the lien they had upon the few unterminated engagements that involved him in the liquidation. A letter addressed by Balzac to the Marquis de Belloy, his former secretary, testifies to the annoyance the creditors caused him:—
"MY DEAR CARDINAL" (he wrote, calling the Marquis by a nickname), —"Your old Mar" (a familiar appellation applied to Balzac by his friends) "would like to know if you are at Poissy, as it is possible he may come and request you to hide him. There is a warrant out against him on Werdet's account, and his counsellors recommend him to take flight, seeing that the conflict between him and the officers of the Commercial Tribunal is begun. If you are still at Poissy, a room, concealment, bread and water, together with salad, and a pound of mutton, a bottle of ink, and a bed, such are the needs of him who is condemned to the hardest of hard literary labour, and who is yours.
The last occasion on which Werdet forgathered with his favourite author was at his house in the Rue de Seine, where, in February 1837, he gave a dinner. Some young members of the fair sex were present; and Balzac, whether to produce a greater impression upon these or because he had been making some society calls, arrived nearly an hour late. Nothing very special occurred during the evening, but the soiree had its conclusion disturbed by a thunderbolt. On rising to depart, Balzac sought his wonderful stick—an inseparable companion—which was nowhere to be found. Every nook was explored without result. The great man yielded to a veritable fit of despair. A suspicion crossed his mind: "Enough of this trick, gentlemen," he cried to the male guests. "For Heaven's sake, restore me my stick. I implore you!" and he tore at his long hair in vexation. But the guests assured him they were as ignorant as himself of the stick's whereabouts. Werdet then said he would take a cab and inquire at all the places the novelist had visited in the course of the afternoon. Two hours later he came back, announcing that his jaunt had been useless. At this news, Balzac fainted outright. The loss of his talisman was overwhelming. When he was brought round again, Werdet suggested what ought to have been suggested in the first instance, namely, that they should proceed to the livery stables and see whether the stick had been left in the carriage which the novelist had used while on his peregrinations. The proposal was jumped at. He went thither, accompanied by Werdet, and had the ineffable joy of discovering the missing bauble quietly reposing in a corner of the vehicle.