During the year of 1836, he had had the unique experience of corresponding for some months continuously with an unknown lady, who called herself Louise, and to whom, in remembrance of their epistolary intercourse, he dedicated his short tale Facino Cane. Whether he really had the opportunity of learning who she was—as he asserted —and refrained from availing himself of it through deference to her wishes, is doubtful. Some, if not all, of the letters he received from "Louise" were written in English; and at least one water-colour painting was sent him which had been executed by the lady's own hand. From the tone of his own epistles, which grew warmer onwards till the end, one may conjecture that the dame was a second Madame Hanska, smitten with the novelist's person through reading his works; and Balzac, whose heart was made of inflammable stuff and whose brain was always castle-building, indulged for a time the hope of meeting with another ideal princess to espouse. Like the Orientals, he was quite capable of nourishing sentiments of devotion towards as many beautiful and fortuned women as showed themselves amenable. The sudden cessation of Louise's letters, towards the end of 1836, freed him from the risk of Eve's learning of these divided attentions; and it may be presumed that the latter divinity was kept in ignorance of his worshipping elsewhere.
Facino Cane was a blind old violinist who encountered Balzac, if there is any truth in the story, one evening at a restaurant where he was playing for the members of a wedding-party. Something in the old man's dignified aspect moved the novelist deeply, and, accosting him, Balzac drew forth gradually the narration of his life. Facino was, in reality, a Venetian nobleman, at present reduced to dire poverty and obliged to dwell in the Hospice of the Quinze-Vingts.[*] In his youth he had been imprisoned within the Doge's Palace, and, while there, had accidentally come upon the secret treasures it contained. After his escape from confinement, his dream had been to meet with some one who would help him to gain possession of this wealth, without taking advantage of his blindness. And now he confided his plan to Balzac with undiminished faith in the possibility of its accomplishment. The pathos of the old man's situation is created with sober touches. Among the novelist's minor tales, this is one of the simplest and best.
[*] Hospital founded by Saint Louis for three hundred noblemen whose sight had been destroyed by the Saracens.
In his reminiscences, Theophile Gautier mentions, apropos of Facino Cane, that Balzac himself was persuaded he knew the exact spot, near the Pointe-a-Pitre, where Toussaint Louverture, the black dictator of Santo Domingo, had his booty buried by negroes of that island, whom he then shot. To Sandeau and Gautier the novelist explained, with such eloquence and precision, his scheme for obtaining the interred wealth that they were wrought up to the point of declaring themselves ready to set out, armed with pick-axe and spade, and to put into action Edgar Allen Poe's yarn of the Gold Bug. When money was the theme, Balzac's tongue was infinitely persuasive.
One is tempted to wonder whether his returning to Italy in the spring of 1837, and his visit to Venice, after Florence and Milan, were not an indirect consequence of his Facino Cane story. It is certain that he regarded the ancient land of the Caesars as a possible El Dorado; and, curiously enough, he came back this time, if not with Sindbad's diamonds, yet with some prospect of becoming a Silver King. Throughout the remainder of the twelvemonth, a plan, connected with this prospect, was simmering in his head, a plan which, we shall see, was less chimerical than most of those that he concocted.
While he was at Milan, the Italian sculptor Puttinati modelled his bust, which pleased him so much that he gave him a order for a group representing Seraphita showing the path heavenward to Wilfrid and Minna. At Venice, he began Massimilla Doni, one of his philosophic novels, in which the love episode is interwoven with mysticism and music, and Rossini's Mose is analysed with skill. His best production of the year was Cesar Birotteau. The subject he had borne in his mind for a long while, but had feared to start on it on account of the difficulty of treating it imaginatively. At last, tempted by an offer of twenty thousand francs if he would complete it by a fixed date, he sat down to the task and wrote the novel in three weeks.
The Grandeur (or Rise) and Fall of Cesar Birotteau, to give the book its fuller title, has neither plot nor progress of love-passion. Its value—which is great—is almost entirely dependent on a number of little things that make up an imposing whole. The subject is a commonplace one. Birotteau, who is a dealer in perfumes, and has invented a Sultana cosmetic and a Carminative Water, has reached a position of influence and substance. Urged by his wife's desire to shine in society, he allows himself to be inveigled into an expenditure that compromises his fortune and reduces him to insolvency. Although retaining the esteem of his fellow-citizens, who are convinced of his integrity, Cesar is stricken to the heart, less by the loss of his money than by his failure to meet his engagements. In vain, his wife and daughter hire themselves out in order to aid in remedying the disaster for which they are largely responsible. In vain, friends rally round him, until, little by little, the debts are paid, the perfumer is rehabilitated, and is honoured even by the King. On the very evening when, in the society of his family and friends and his daughter's betrothed, he regains the feeling of independence and freedom, death overtakes him. Joy succeeding to the strain is too much for him.
In the background of the novel is a tableau of the Restoration epoch which is admirable; and the intricacies of finance and law, which form so considerable a part of the story, are handled with an ease and fancy that no other writer of fiction has quite equalled. We have a romance of ledgers and day-books, in a business atmosphere that amazingly well reveals the bent and moral worth of the various characters. Cesarine, Villerault, Popinot have traits which one smiles to recognize. And Birotteau's development both of qualities and foibles is free from caricature, yet pleases much.
As was the case with Eugenie Grandet, Balzac does not seem to have cared for this masterpiece. The rapidity with which he composed it, and the fatigue he had undergone, caused him to regard it with some irritation. He did not realize that it was all elaborated in his brain before he put in on paper. Probably also he spoke of it under the disappointment he experienced from his continued failures in play-writing. Twice, during the twelvemonth, he tackled pieces which he described to Madame Hanska. One of them, the Premiere Demoiselle, refashioned as the School for Husbands and Wives, treated the unsavoury theme of an adulterous husband who keeps his mistress in his own house; and the other, Joseph Prudhomme, much better in conception, dealt with the not uncommon incident of a girl's making a respectable marriage after a first betrayal, and her bringing up in secret the child born out of wedlock. Certain situations arising from the plot were both original and affecting. But in neither undertaking did he manage to go on to the end. Heine, whom he consulted in his difficulties, advised him to abandon further efforts in writing for the stage. "You had better remain in your galleys," he said. "Those who are used to Brest cannot accustom themselves to Toulon."
The advice was not palatable to a man of his temperament. He wanted all domains to open before him; and poured out his soul in lamentations, even while exhausting himself in fresh attempts. Now that Madame de Berny was dead, his Eve was the chief recipient of these jeremiads. "Are you not tired of hearing me vary my song in all moods?" he asked her. "Does not this unceasing egotism of a man struggling in a narrow circle bore you? Tell me, for, by your letter, you appear to me inclined to throw me over as a sorry pauper that knows only his paternoster, and always says the same thing."
To him, as to ambitious men in every century, reflection came now and again, whispering what folly it was to spend life in the sole pursuit of glory. Just now the whisperings must have been more insistent, for he had thoughts of going to live in some sylvan retreat on the banks of the Cher or the Loire, right away from Paris. A visit to Sache, after an illness, afforded him the excuse for searching; and, as he still proposed to write—for his pleasure,—it was congruent he should meditate a sort of Heloise and Abelard idyll—two lovers drawn to the cloister, and telling in epistles to each other the history of their vocation.[*]
[*] This novel was never written, or at least completed. The Sister Marie des Anges, so often spoken of in the novelist's correspondence, may have been the one here alluded to.
As a preliminary step towards carrying his determination into execution, he dismissed his servants, with the exception of Auguste, finally got rid of his lease in the Rue Cassini, whence he had removed his furniture in the preceding year; and then, feeling still a sneaking kindness for the city in which he had triumphed, he compromised by retreating to Sevres, there to study the ways and means of dwelling secure from pestering military summonses addressed to Monsieur de Balzac, alias Madame Widow Brunet, Man of Letters, Chasseur in the First Legion, and also, if not secure from, at least not so accessible to the calls of dunning creditors. The flat in the Rue de Chaillot, however, was retained till the year 1839; and, from time to time, he made short stays in it. But, in case any of his friends wished to see him during these sojourns, they needed to know the pass-words, which were not infrequently changed. On arriving at the outside door, the visitor must announce, for instance, that the seasons of plums had arrived. Then, if he could further announce that he was bringing lace from Belgium, he would be permitted to enter. But, before it was lawful for him to cross the threshold of the novelist's sanctum, he must be prepared to state that Madame Bertrand was in good health.
At Sevres, Balzac soon hit upon a site that pleased his fancy. It was a plot of land on a steep slope, about forty perches in area.[*] This he bought by using his credit, and forthwith busied himself with builder's estimates, since he intended to have his hermitage inhabitable some time in the following spring.
[*] More land was subsequently bought.
Meanwhile his project of retiring—to a distance of twenty minutes —from Paris society did not hinder him from occasionally putting in an appearance at one or another of the aristocratic houses where he had his entries, among them that of Madame de Castries, whom he continued to see, although she confined her worship to his talent, and merely patronized the man. Either from sheer mischievousness, or to revenge herself for some real or fancied slight—perhaps, indeed, to mock at his talk of refinement—she perpetrated upon him the practical joke of getting her Irish governess, a Miss Patrickson, to send him notes in English, signed Lady Neville, in one of which an appointment was made to meet him at the Opera. He went to the rendezvous; but no one was there waiting for him. This drew from him a sharp letter of reproach; and Miss Patrickson, who was, in her private life, a humble admirer of the great man, and had on one or two occasions translated some of his fiction, was so smitten with remorse for her trick that she revealed to him the name of the one who had invented it.
Les Jardies, where Balzac had decided to take up his residence, was built on the further side of the hill of Saint Cloud, facing the south, and with Ville d'Avray to the west. In front, there was the rising ground of the forest of Versailles; to the east, the outlook was down on Sevres and, beyond it, on Paris, with the city's smoky atmosphere fringing the uplands of Meudon and Bellevue. In the direction of these last places, a glimpse was obtainable of the plains of Montrouge and the road leading away to Tours. In summer weather especially, the landscape here presented charming contrasts, being a wealth of woodland and verdure in a miniature Switzerland.
The architecture of the would-be hermit's house was rather primitive. Three rooms, one over another, composed the main building. The ground floor served as drawing-room; above it was the anchoret's bedroom; and the top story was used as a study. Sixty feet away, rose a second building containing kitchens, stables, and servants' rooms. The whole stood in its own grounds, fenced in with walls, half of which, being situated on the steepest portion of the declivity, persisted in tumbling. One curious feature of the house was its outside staircase. Wags pretended that the owner had forgotten it in his plans, and been obliged to add it as an after-thought. The truth was that an inside staircase would have compelled him to build with less simplicity. "Since the staircase wants to be master in my dwelling, I will turn it out of doors," he said. And this was done, the said staircase being a sort of broad ladder.
Had the novelist stayed long enough in this rural retreat, he would have beautified the interior in accordance with his fanciful tastes. Friends who were invited out there were astonished to see scrawled in chalk on the walls:
"Here, a covering of Paros marble; here, a ceiling painted by Eugene Delacroix; here, a mosaic flooring formed of rare wood from the isles; here, a chimney-piece in cipolin marble."
Jokingly, Leon Gozlan one day himself inscribed on a convenient space:
"Here, a picture by Raphael, of priceless value, such as was never yet seen."
Of course, in the early days of his rusticating, he was enthusiastic about his Italian-looking brick cottage, with its covered platform or gallery running round the first floor and supported on slender pillars, Its value, he was sure, would double when he had created the garden of Eden round about it, planted with poplars, birches, vines, evergreens, magnolias and sweet peas. His humour-barometer went up to "set fair." For the moment, no pessimism clouded his sky. Here he would abide, here he would work or muse until the long-expected and at last approaching fortune should deign to enter beneath his roof; and then—well then, he believed he should have had enough of ambition's spoils, and should be content under the shadow of his vine, and watch from afar—just twenty minutes or half-an-hour at most—the march of events without seeking to mingle in them.
The original cost of the homestead was about forty thousand francs. Other expenses were incurred before the whole of the building and installation was completed, which made the total cost very considerably larger; and, as hardly any of the amount had been paid cash down, Balzac's liabilities, which were heavy enough without this extra charge, very soon introduced a disturbing element into his Arcadian existence. Within the twelvemonth, a distraint was levied upon him for non-payment of moneys that were owing. Lemer, one of his biographers, narrates that, paying a visit to Les Jardies at this date, for the purpose of soliciting the novelist's collaboration in an international album, he not only received a promise of help but an invitation for himself and a companion to remain and dine off a leg of mutton. As the two visitors declined, Balzac said: "Ah! you think, perhaps, I am an ordinary host who invites his guests gratis. On the contrary, I intend to make you pay for your meal. Aha! You shall aid me afterwards to flit. To-morrow, the bailiffs are coming to seize my furniture; and I don't mean them to find anything to carry away. So, to-night, I am going to put everything in my gardener's cottage. The gardener will transport all the bigger articles of furniture; but, for the books, manuscripts, and valuables, I shall be glad to have the co-operation of men of letters like you."
And the owner of Les Jardies was inconsolable when his visitors again expressed their inability to comply with his request.
Himself a guest once more of the Carrauds at Frapesle in February 1838, he took advantage of his proximity to Nohant to go and see George Sand; and spent two or three days with her. On his arrival, he surprised her clad in her dressing-gown, and smoking a cigar after dinner, beside the fire, in a huge, solitary room. Beneath the gown, she had on some red trousers, which allowed her smart stockings and yellow slippers to be seen. Since he used to meet her in the house of the Rue Cassini, she had grown stout, and now had a double chin; but her hair was still unbleached, and her bistre complexion preserved its tinge as of old. Working hard, she went to bed at six in the morning, and got up at noon. During the time he was at Nohant, Balzac adopted her habits. They talked from five in the evening all through the night and till five o'clock in the morning; and he learnt to know her more truly in these hours of familiar converse than in the four years of her liaison with Jules Sandeau. He summed her up as a tomboy, an artist, a mind great, generous, devoted and chaste (this last term would need explanation); her characteristic traits were those of a man, not a woman. She had, so he opined, neither force of conception, nor gift of constructing plots, nor faculty of reaching the true, nor the art of the pathetic. The French language she used she did not thoroughly know, but she had style. Of her glory she made little account, and despised the public. Her fate was to be duped—and duped she had been by Bocage, by de Lamennais, by Liszt, by Madame d'Agoult. Together they discussed the future revolution in manners and morals, and the influence their books might have in bringing it about. She suggested to him some subjects that he might develop, and taught him —up to then opposed to the weed—how to smoke latakia tobacco in a hookah pipe. Imagining the hookah to be something Russian, he asked Madame Hanska, to whom he related all this, to purchase him one, telling her that he would have his wonderful stick-knob, with its jewels, adapted to it, since he no longer bore the stick about with him as a fetish.
From Frapesle he returned with the plan matured which he had been preparing since his excursion to Italy. When at Genoa, in the previous year, a merchant had talked to him of the existence of huge hills of refuse metal left in the island of Sardinia by the Romans, who had worked silver mines there. Aware how defective the Roman methods of extraction were, Balzac thought there might be profit in treating this slag by some process that would cause it to yield whatever precious metal it contained; and he requested the merchant to procure him some specimens of the slag, and to forward them to Paris for examination, promising, if the tests were satisfactory, to include the Genoese in the company which he was sure of being able to float for the exploitation of the concern. Although the merchant did not forward the specimens, Balzac consulted some specialists in Paris, Monsieur Carraud amongst others, who all concurred in pronouncing the enterprise feasible. Finally, the novelist decided to proceed to the spot and investigate the matter personally. If success awaited him, he would gain enough to pay off all his debts; and these he estimated to be about two hundred thousand francs—a Falstaffian exaggeration, of course, but the real figures were large. At present, he had no ready money at all; and had to borrow from his mother, a cousin, and other friends, in order to get his travelling expenses.
Experience proved that he was correct in his theory. The slag yielded ten per cent of lead by a first treatment, and the lead ten per cent of pure silver. Unfortunately, the Genoese merchant had availed himself of Balzac's hint, and had sold the scheme to a Marseilles firm, who were already applying for the monopoly to the rulers of the island, when, in the spring if 1838,[*] he started on his journey thither; and, before he could do anything, they had obtained the concession. Once more, he had imprudently thrown out an idea, and lost his claim on it.
[*] Madame Surville wrongly places the date of the journey in 1833.
On his way south he saw much that was new and novel to him. Passing through Corsica, he went over the house where the Emperor Napoleon was born; and, according to his habit of seeking information, he ferreted out several things that contradicted received history. The Petit Caporal's father he discovered to have been a fairly rich landowner, not a sheriff's officer, as tradition said. Moreover, when the Emperor arrived at Ajaccio from Egypt, instead of being acclaimed and having a triumphal reception from his countrymen, he was outlawed, a price put upon his head, and he escaped only through the devotion of a peasant who hid him in the mountains.
Corsica he considered one of the finest places in the world, with mountains like those of Switzerland, and needing only the latter country's lakes. Completely undeveloped, and practically unexplored, it was inhabited by people that cultivated the dolce far niente to the utmost. Its population of eight thousand vegetated rather than lived, ignorant of everything beyond the simplest necessities of existence. The women disliked strangers, and the men did nothing but walk about all day, clad in their threadbare velvet coats, smoking to beguile the hours.
His account of Sardinia is equally curious. It was a wilderness, he says, with savannas of palm-trees, inhabited by savages. On horseback, he traversed a virgin forest, obliged to bend over his horse's neck to avoid the huge branches of holm-oaks and cork-trees, and laurels and heather that were thirty feet high. In one canton he found people naked, except for a waist-cloth, and living on coarse bread made from acorns mixed with clay. Their mud hovels had no chimney, the fire being lighted on the ground in the middle. There was no agriculture in the island, and the only work done by the men was tending their flocks of goats and other animals.
A tour through Genoa, Florence, and Milan made up the rest of this interesting trip, which lasted from March till June. Disappointed in the object for which he left home, it furnished him with leisure to gather fresh subjects for his pen, and even to begin one—the Diaries of Two Young Wives. What he wished to describe in this book was stated in the following remarks to Madame Hanska: "I have never seen a novel in which happy love, satisfied love, is depicted. Rousseau puts too much rhetoric in his attempt, and Richardson too much preaching. The poets have too many flourishes; the novelists are too much the slaves of facts. Petrarch is too exclusively occupied with his images of speech and his concetti; he sees the poetry more than the woman. Pope has given perhaps too many regrets to Heloise; he wanted her to be better than nature; and the better is an enemy to the good. In fine, God, who created love with humanity, has alone understood it; for none of his creatures has described, so as to please me, the elegies, fantasies, and poems of this divine passion of which each speaks and which so few have really known."
Did Balzac himself ever know it? By his own confession, never in his youth. In the years of his adolescence there is no sign of such a feeling having agitated his breast, where ambition reigned to the exclusion of everything else. If, then, he thought of marriage, its prosaic, advantageous side only appears to have entered into count; and the liaison, which stood him in lieu of it, stirred, beyond sense, nothing but sentiments of common gratitude. In riper age, his attachment to Madame Hanska was a bizarre medley of flattered vanity, artistic appreciation of beauty, and cold calculation. His epistles reek with each and all of these; and his eternal complaints of financial embarrassment not infrequently read like the expressions of a pauper's whining.
That they ultimately wearied out the recipient of them is evident from the remonstrances he drew upon himself. Eve blamed his lightness of character, the facility with which he let himself be tempted, his tendency to waste in travelling the funds he would have done more wisely to employ in reducing his obligations or avoiding them. At such moments he defended himself sharply, his tone savouring less of the boudoir than the forum. Any and every excuse was pressed into service; everything and everybody were responsible but himself. Even his mother he accused of causing his indebtedness—his mother who had ruined herself for him, and from whose remaining pittance he took in this self-same year the wherewithal to go to Sardinia, although earning many thousands of francs annually. The truth is that Balzac exploited all the women that loved him, himself incapable of loving any one of them with that entire devotion which, if roused, is unique in a man's life; and, as he was ignorant of it, so he has never described it adequately, faithfully. In one or two instances, he obtains a glimpse of it—as Moses obtained a vision of the promised land—from afar; when he tries to get nearer, he presents us with mere sensualism.
What Madame Hanska probably enjoyed most in his letters were the obiter dicta which he was never tired of pronouncing on his contemporaries. Scribe, whose Camaraderie he had been to see, he summed up as a man who was conversant in his trade but had no veritable art, who possessed talent but not the higher dramatic genius, and who, moreover, was altogether lacking in style. Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas was to him an infamy in verse, and the rest of this author's pieces miserable melodramas. Theophile Gautier's poetry was decadent, his style sparkling with great wit; yet the man was wanting in force of ideas. When, however, he added that Gautier would do nothing that would last because he was engaged in journalism, he spoke with all his hatred of a profession that refused him the honour he deemed his due. Eugene Sue, also, he looked upon with jaundiced eyes, as being a rival whose material success amazed him—a rival, indeed, whom no less a critic than Sainte-Beuve erroneously declared to be his equal. Sue, he informed Madame Hanska, was a man of narrow bourgeois mind, perceiving merely certain insignificant details of the vulgar evils of French contemporary society. To Balzac, besides, it was blasphemy in Sue that he spoke slightingly of the century which to this Legitimist was the grandest epoch in French history, slightingly of Louis XIV., who, in the said Legitimist's opinion, was France's premier king.
The latter half of 1838 was spent at Les Jardies, where the novelist was busy either with his pen or in improving the interior and exterior of the property. A scheme for cultivating a pine-apple orchard in his grounds kept him from fretting over the sorry termination of his Sardinian dream. He intended to set five thousand plants, and sell the fruit at five francs a piece, instead of twenty which was the ordinary price. After deducting the expenses of the undertaking, he reckoned he could gain twenty thousand francs a year out of his pine-apples. If they had been willing to grow in the open air, he would undoubtedly have gone from theory into practice. But, as this difficulty presented itself in the initial stage, he threw up incontinently his market-gardening; and, since he was in urgent want of cash, he bethought himself that, lying by him, he had a collection of Napoleon's sayings, which he had been making for the past seven years, cutting them out of books that dealt with the Emperor's life. The number was just then five hundred. For a sum of five thousand francs he disposed of the fruits of his industry to a retired hosier named Gandy, who published them subsequently under the title Maxims and Thoughts of Napoleon, the preface being also supplied by the novelist.
Besides Gambara, a second study of the musical art, containing a lyrically expressed analysis of Robert le Diable, Balzac produced in 1837 and 1838 two longer works, the Employees or the Superior Woman and the Firm of Nucingen. The former, with its criticism of the bureaucratic system, depicted a state of things which has survived several changes of regime in France, in spite of much in it that contradicts common sense. Rabourdin, the head clerk in a government department, seeks to simplify the useless machinery that clogs rather than advances the administration of the country. Having a practical mind, he believes that a hundred functionaries at twelve thousand francs a year would do the same work better than a thousand employees at twelve hundred francs, and cost no more. As in other of the novelist's books that preached reform, there are parts in this one where the main thread of the story disappears like a river in a canyon; and readers of the Presse, in which it came out as a serial, railed at the author, called his contribution stupid, and threatened to cease subscribing if it were not withdrawn. Yet, perused in volume form, it reveals comedy in abundance. The portraits are limned with master hand; and Celestine Rabourdin, the wife of the head clerk, has, together with her grace and taste, the gift of amusing by the skill with which she bamboozles the dissolute des Lupeaulx.
The Firm of Nucingen is a scathing satire of the world of stock-jobbing, where the money of the small investor is robbed with impunity under cover of legality. Balzac's Jewish banker, who thrives on others' ruin is a type that exists to-day, as then, without any adequate effort made by law to suppress him. Less happy in indicating a remedy than in branding an evil, the novelist naively held that France had only to adopt his doctrine of absolute rule for the suppression to become a fact. An unprejudiced reading of history should have informed him that regimes have always so far existed for the benefit of their creators, and that, although constitutional monarchies and republics have not yet found out a system capable of defending the interests of all individual citizens, and perhaps never will, absolute monarchy has shown to satiety its inability to defend the interests of more than a few.
In perusing such a book as the foregoing, one is led to ask why it was so inoperative on the life of the country. One reason perhaps is that Balzac wrote from his head rather than from his heart. Whatever may be, in other respects, the superiority of the Realistic over the Romantic school of fiction, it is inferior in this, viz., that its emotiveness tends to the negation, not to the affirmation, of action. One cannot but recollect to the novelist's disadvantage, as applying to this reference, the following statement he made to Madame Hanska for another purpose: "I have never in my life confused the thoughts of my heart with those of my head, and, excepting a few lines written only for you to read (for instance, Madame de Chaulieu's jealous letter), I have never expressed in my books anything of my heart. It would have been the most infamous sacrilege." Unconsciously insincere, like the majority of people in their justificative confessions, Balzac often allowed his heart to intrude where it had no business to be present. Nevertheless in his realist pictures he exercised himself with all the cold delight of the anatomist, and with none of the warm emotion that might have become communicative. This Brunetiere implicitly admits when he says that most of Balzac's novels are, so to speak, inquiries,—collections of documents.
The year 1838 closed questioningly for the hermit at Les Jardies. The yoke of his treaty with the publishing syndicate was hardly twelve moons old; and, however, it galled his neck to the extent of his cogitating how he might pay off the earnest money he had received, and be his own man again. And how was he to do it unless by increasing his earnings? All his actual revenue was swallowed up by his debts and habits of living. Ah! if only he could become a successful dramatic author! Alone, he did not for the moment feel equal to trying. But there was the possibility of collaboration. His late secretary, the Marquis de Belloy, had recently seemed disposed to come and help him again. But de Belloy desired some acknowledgment in coin; and Balzac, on the contrary, judged that the honour of collaborating with a novelist of his celebrity ought to be sufficient wage.
"My dear de Belloy," (he wrote back)—"Not a halfpenny; much work, your six hours a day, in three shifts, that's what awaits you at Sevres, if you are in the mind to come and realize things which are not vague plans but definite arrangements, and the relative result of which will depend on the brilliant wit that you have had the fatal imprudence to cast to the winds. I am at the grindstone, and forswear any one that will not tackle it. I have put my neck in the big collar because the other one was irksome. Your devoted Mar tyr " ine " ried man " about"
he concluded, punning on his nickname. Like his fellow mortals, he was often most merry when he was most sad.
LETTERS TO "THE STRANGER," 1839, 1840
Sometimes, notwithstanding his affected indifference, Balzac was provoked by the pleasantries, the fleerings and floutings of satirists and caricaturists, who, finding so many weak points in his armour—so much that was ridiculous in his exaggerations, might be excused for choosing him as a quarry for their wit, if not for the wit's grossness. In 1839, the Gazette des Ecoles inserted in one of its numbers a lithograph exhibiting the novelist in the debtors' prison at Clichy, clad in his monk's gown, and sitting at a table on which there were bottles of wine and a champagne glass. In his left hand he grasped a pipe that he was smoking, and his right arm was round a young woman's waist. Beneath the lithograph was the inscription: "The Reverend Father Dom Seraphitus, Mysticus Goriot, of the Regular Order of Clichy Friars, taken in by all those he has himself taken in, receives amidst his forced solitude the consolations of Sancta Seraphita (Scenes of the Hidden Life, sequel to those of Private Life)."
The last sentence being open to the interpretation that the subject of the caricature was a dishonest man, a complaint was lodged with the Procureur-General against the proprietor of the paper, and was supported by the newly-constituted Men of Letters Society.
This Society, of which Balzac may be considered almost the founder, came into existence during his journey to Italy in the preceding year. On his return, he at once became a member; and, for a while, took a prominent part in all its deliberations, being elected on the committee, as also Victor Hugo, with whom thenceforward his relations were, at least outwardly, most cordial. In the first lawsuit engaged by the Society against the Memorial de Rouen for the purpose of defending the principle of literary property, he pleaded with all the force of his talent, and composed a Literary Code and some Notes on Literary Ownership containing not a few excellent suggestions. His, too, was the initiative for the drawing up of a petition to the King, with a view to the establishment of literary prizes to be bestowed on well-deserving authors every ten years. The King, or rather his advisers, rewarded this zeal but ill. At one of the committee meetings Balzac was prevented from attending by a three days' confinement in a dirty lock-up at Sevres, the cause being the old one which had partly driven him from Paris—his unwillingness to go, as he humorously put it, into the vineyards of his village, and, dressed in uniform, to see that truants from Paris were not eating the grapes.
His rural retreat, indeed, was scarcely the safe asylum he had fondly hoped it would be. Allusion has already been made to one defect—that of the walls which, unlike those of Jericho, did not wait for the trumpeters' blast before they fell down. They had an incurable preference for tumbling down of themselves. Constructed on a subsoil of sandy nature, their foundations yielded at every spell of rain. In vain, architect after architect was applied to, and one mode or another was recommended of relaying and buttressing. At the next downpour, the servant would disturb his master with the news: "The walls have toppled over again, sir, into the neighbours' gardens." And the neighbours' gardens were planted with all kinds of edible vegetables, which were crushed and pounded out of shape and succulence, so that the owner of Les Jardies had claims for damage continually sent in, until, in sheer despair, pledging his credit more deeply, he purchased the land beyond, content, at length, that his walls should be able to carry on their freaks in his own demesne, without let or hindrance or objection from any one. It is said that the land on which Les Jardies stood was so much on the incline that Frederick Lemaitre, who once ventured over there, was compelled to take a couple of stones and place them at each step under his feet in order to approach the house. This was, no doubt, one of the actor's jokes. It is probable that, in selecting the site, Balzac had in his thought the facility the place would afford for reconnoitering when any one came to his doors. The domestics were directed to keep a sharp look-out; and, as soon as a figure was seen approaching that appeared to be a creditor or of the State functionary tribe, the blinds of the abode were lowered, the dog Turk was dungeoned, and every trace of there being inhabitants vanished. After ringing uselessly, the unwelcome visitor generally retreated under the impression that the place was deserted. Then, when the last echo of his steps had died away in the distance, the blinds were drawn up again, Turk, barking with joy, was released from his captivity, and, like the castle of the Sleeping Beauty, Les Jardies re-awoke to its normal activity. How ever the tiers of planted beds perched one above the other—a modern example of the hanging gardens of Babylon—were made to resist the solicitations of the walls was a puzzle to Balzac's familiars. As for trees, only one, a walnut, managed, by dint of perpetual acrobatism, to conserve a stable equilibrium.
Most of the fiction published by Balzac in 1839—A Provincial Great Man in Paris, the Secrets of the Princess de Cadignan, and the Village Cure—was written with great verve, and may be classed in the list of his important work. The second of the three just mentioned, which is the shortest, gives us the story of a woman who, after losing her fourteenth lover, succeeds in getting a fifteenth, d'Arthez, to believe her virtuous and a sort of saint maligned by envy. There is cleverness and to spare in the way the wiles of this sly jade are related, and falsehood shown as a fine art in the service of passional love. Balzac was thoroughly at home in treating such a theme. Both d'Arthez and the Princess are prominent characters in certain others of his books. The former appears in the Provincial Great Man in Paris, which the author calls an audacious and frightfully exact painting of the inner morals of the French capital.
It formed a sequel to a previously published short novel, the Two Poets, and made part of a still larger series united under the title Lost Illusions, the entire work being completed in the Forties with Splendour and Wretchedness of Courtezans, this last portion having also more than one section. The first two volumes of the Lost Illusions narrate the early experiences of Lucien de Rubempre, a young poet of Angouleme, whose family, with some claims to gentility, has fallen into narrow circumstances, the widowed mother being obliged to earn money as a midwife, and the daughter as a laundry-woman. The latter's marriage with David Sechard, a printer, alters the situation of the family for the better; and Lucien is enabled to occupy himself in the printing-house, while pursuing his poetical efforts. Though his literary talent, for the time being, has no value in cash, it procures him the friendship of Madame de Bargeton, a grand dame of Angouleme; or, more properly speaking, it is the pretext and justification; for Lucien really owes the lady's favour to his Apollo-like beauty. Subsequently the poet, desirous of shining in Paris, quits his native place with a sum of money scraped together by his sister and brother-in-law, and goes to the capital, accompanied by Madame de Bargeton. His liaison there with the lady is but of short duration. In compensation, however, he becomes acquainted with a new literary world, into which he enters with his meagre stock of poems, plus a novel; and, after a number of adventures, turns journalist, a metamorphosis that supplies the author with an opportunity to rage furiously against all those of that ilk. The rest of the first part of the Lost Illusions is taken up with the amours of Lucien and an actress named Coralie, who gives the poet her heart and person, yet he sharing the second with the rich Camuzot. Coralie really loves Lucien, even though playing afresh the role of Manon to his des Grieux; but Lucien, less constant in affection, and finding how difficult it is to secure wealth and position, abases his pen to vile uses, and would gladly abandon his mistress for a profitable marriage. At length a duel, in which he is dangerously wounded, lays him on a sick-bed, and Coralie, who has sacrificed her situation on the stage to her love for him, and is herself ill, rises to nurse him back to health, and dies under the strain.
The further history of Lucien de Rubempre belongs to the Splendour and Wretchedness of Courtezans. Both the beginning and the middle and the end exhibit the strong and the weak points of the novelist. The defects were dwelt upon in the Revue de Paris, soon after the book's first part came out, in probably the longest critical article devoted to any single one of Balzac's writings. By the irony of events, Jules Janin, who was the author of it, praised, some dozen years later, where now he cursed. There was exaggeration in his panegyric, pronounced in 1850 under the impulse dictating generosity to the memory of a dead foe; and there was exaggeration also in his polemic indited under the smart of Balzac's gibes against the press. However, the closing words of the article, save for the tone, can hardly be gainsaid: "Never," asserted Janin, "has Monsieur de Balzac's talent been more diffuse, never has his invention been more languishing, never has his style been more incorrect, even if we include the days when the illustrious novelist had nothing to fear from serious criticism, days when he was too unknown to be noticed by the small newspapers, days when Monsieur Honore de Balzac was as yet only Monsieur Horace de Saint-Aubin."[*]
[*] A nom de guerre of Balzac in his apprenticeship days.
The preceding remarks might be applied in substance to the Village Cure, which is one of the most incoherent of the novelist's productions. "I have no time to finish the book; just the part that concerns the Cure will be wanting," he explained to a correspondent. A good deal else was lacking when it was published, the whole resembling a patchwork of odds and ends of the crudest and least harmonious design. Its central figure is Veronique, the wife of a Limoges banker named Grasselin, and greatly her senior, to whom she has been married by her parents before she has had the time to know anything of love and its behests. Led by her goodness of heart to patronize a youth in her husband's employ, she falls in love with him, as he with her, and, through weakness, becomes his mistress. A murder, of which the young Tascheron is accused, and, as the issue proves, quite justly, interrupts this culpable idyll; and the assassin is condemned and executed, without revealing the secret of his liaison, and without Madame Grasselin's interfering to save him, otherwise than vaguely, through the Cure of the district. None the less, she is aware that the act has been committed indirectly through the young man's love for her. Smitten with remorse, after the execution, she quits Limoges, and, removing into the country, endeavours there by a life of charity and devotion to religion to redeem her lapse from her wifely duty. Then, finally, she dies in presence of the Archbishop, of Bianchon the great doctor, and of the Procureur-General and other witnesses, whom she has sent for to listen to her confession of moral complicity, the death scene being narrated with much theatrical emphasis. On to this melodramatic subject, wilfully rendered obscure, and really incomprehensible, the novelist did his best to tack various illustrations of Catholic repentance. He intended the book to be the glorification of Catholicism, the refutation of Protestantism, the embodiment of virtues private and social in people who bowed themselves to his ideal of faith; the story he used simply as a thread to connect these things together. Consequently, the action is intermittent, being checked by irrelevant episodes, and by long tirades on agriculture, sociology, and on other theories set forth by the writer with much zeal but also with much acrimony. Catholicism is asserted to be the only Church which has shown humanity its way of safety; Tascheron's sister, who returns from America, is made to relate that in a certain place where Catholic influence prevailed, the Protestants were very soon chased away. To this religion of such charming mansuetude whenever it has the upper hand, a Protestant engineer named Gerard is converted by puerile arguments which in any other domain than the theological would seem to be the divagations of a lunatic; and the Cure Bonnet proclaims the necessity of passive obedience by the masses to the Church's rule in matters civil as well as ecclesiastic. To add spice to this farrago of absurdity, Balzac spits out his hatred of the English, albeit he is compelled to acknowledge their common sense. As he confessed to the Marquis de Custine, it was his delight to abuse England, and its inhabitants, whether men or women.
From what we know of his relations with Madame Visconti, we may, however, suppose that his prejudice against the perfide Albion was not very deep-rooted. Indeed in his sentiments, as in his conduct, consistency was conspicuous by its absence. We find this would-be Legitimist, absolutist, ultra-orthodox worshipper of every old-time privilege and doctrine, yet continually saying and doing things that savour more of the democratic than the aristocratic. Towards the disintegration of monarchic attachments, his fiction contributed at least as much as that of George Sand; and even his comic resistance to the compulsory service required of him in the National Guard showed how little he was inclined to accept for himself those doctrines of authority which he would fain impose on others.
Such incongruity between his theory and practice may have struck the members of the Academie Francaise, who manifested their disapproval of his candidature so unmistakably in 1839 that he withdrew in favour of Victor Hugo. This forced concession perhaps tinged the portrait he sketched of Hugo for Madame Hanska about the same time. "Victor Hugo," he said, "is an exceedingly witty man; he has as much wit as poetry in him. His conversation is most delightful, with some resemblance to that of Humboldt, but superior and allowing more dialogue. He is full of bourgeois ideas. He execrates Racine, and treats him as a sorry sort of man. On this point he is quite mad. His wife he has thrown over for J——; and gives for such conduct reasons of signal meanness (she bore him too many children; notice that J—— has borne him none). In fine, there is more good than bad in him. Although the good traits are an outcome of pride, and although in everything he is a deeply calculating man, he is amiable on the whole, and, besides, is a great poet. Much of his force, value, and quality he has lost by the life he leads, having overdone his devotion to Venus."
Calling Hugo a great poet meant little in Balzac's mouth. Of poetry he made but small account, probably because he succeeded so ill in it himself. When poets appear in his stories, they are rarely estimable characters. For Lucien de Rubempre he has only little sympathy. The three specimens of Lucien's verse given in the novel he procured from his acquaintances. The sonnet to Marguerite was composed by Madame de Girardin; the one to Camellia, by Lassailly, and that to Tulipe, by Theophile Gautier.
A movement of disinterested generosity displayed by him in the same year was his fight, in conjunction with the artist Gavarni, on behalf of Sebastien Benoit Peytel. Peytel was a notary living at Belley, who, on the 20th of August 1839, was condemned to death by the Ain Assizes on a charge of murdering his wife and man-servant. Balzac had known him some time before in Paris, when both were on the staff of the theatrical journal Le Voleur. The Court of Cassation was appealed to in vain and the sentence was carried out at Bourg on the 28th of October. As long as there seemed the slightest chance of preventing the execution, Balzac continued his efforts to save the notary, though blamed by his family and friends for his interference, which they set down as quixotic. Presumably Peytel had committed the crime in a fit of jealous passion, to punish his wife's adultery. A curious drawing by Balzac exists in the first volume of his general correspondence, in which Gavarni is represented mocking the headsman; and, accompanying the design, is an autograph letter to Dutacq, managing director of the Siecle, referring to an article on the question published by the novelist in that paper.
The time and money he gave to this lost cause were all the more meritorious as his own concerns demanded greater attention than ever. A new departure had occurred in journalism. The appearance of certain cheaper newspapers necessitated a change in the roman feuilleton; and the Presse and Siecle, which had inaugurated the reform, and to both of which Balzac contributed fiction, laid down the principle that they would print only short tales complete in three or four numbers. This was hard on the novelist. For him to compress a story within artificial limits determined by an editor was a task even more difficult than to write a play.
It must have been the desire to escape from such servitude which induced him to launch into another adventure with a journal of his own. The Revue Parisienne, which he founded in July 1840, was not a newspaper but a magazine, intended to supply the public, at a reasonable price, with tales, novels, poetry, and articles of criticism both literary and political, and to give the same public for their money more than three times as much matter as they would get in other reviews. The success of Alphonse Karr's monthly Guepes, which was reported to be selling extraordinarily, encouraged him to believe that his own fame, wider spread in 1839 than in 1836, and greater, would suffice to assure a similar result. Author and editor combined, he made the three numbers of his review, which were all he was able to bring out, at any rate the equal of the older established monthlies. In the three appeared his Z. Marcas, and A Prince of Bohemia, the former a resuscitation of the Louis Lambert species of hero transformed into a politician. The Russian Letters, likewise political, furnish a very exact and comprehensive sketch of the general state of mind in Europe at the commencement of the Forties. One article of criticism praised to the skies Stendhal's Chartreuse de Parme published in the previous year. A letter he had addressed to Stendhal in April 1839 was more moderate in its tone, though eulogistic with its well-turned compliment: "I make a fresco, and you have made Italian statues." He blamed the writer in his letter for situating the plot of the Chartreuse in Parma. "Neither state or town," he told him, "should have been named. It should have been left to the imagination to discover the Prince of Modena and his minister. Hoffman never failed to obey this law without exception in the rules of the novel. If everything be left undefined as regards reality, then everything becomes real." In short, notwithstanding parts that were too long drawn out, he found the whole a fine piece of work; and, if a modern Machiavelli were to write a novel, it would be, he said, the Chartreuse de Parme.
Between the judicious language employed in the letter and the article of the Revue Parisienne, the difference was so enormous that Beyle himself remarked: "This astonishing notice, such as never one writer had from another, I read, let me own it, amid bursts of laughter. Whenever I came to fresh flights of eulogy—and I met with them in every paragraph—I could not help thinking how my friends would look when they saw them." "The reason for this augmented enthusiasm must be sought," says Sainte-Beuve, "in the fact that Stendhal lent or gave Balzac a sum of five thousand francs in the interval, and thus received back a service of amour propre for the service rendered in cash. Since the proof of this gift or loan was found in Beyle's papers, at his death, Sainte-Beuve's explanation seems well grounded; and yet, for Balzac's credit, one could have wished his praise more spontaneous."
The cessation of the Revue Parisienne forced its founder again to enter the ranks of paid contributors to the daily press, and to comply with its exigencies. Yet not entirely. His qualities and his defects alike led him frequently to break from restraint and to follow his own bent, maugre the complaints of readers, maugre editors' entreaties; and, even in the final phase of his production, there were some masterpieces supporting comparison with those of his best period.
At the end of the Thirties, he was again, like Bruce's spider, renewing his efforts to climb on to the stage. He had three pieces in hand, La Gina, Richard the Sponge-Heart, and his School for Husbands and Wives, already mentioned. The last he had now managed to carry through to its conclusion; and, in February 1839 there seemed to be some prospect of his getting it played. Pereme, an influential acquaintance of his in the theatrical world, had persuaded the Renaissance theatre to accept it on approval, but was less fortunate with regard to the fifteen thousand francs which Balzac had asked for on account. The roles were discussed and partially distributed. Henry Monnier and Frederick Lemaitre were to be chief actors on the men's side, Mesdames Theodore and Albert on the women's. On the 25th of the month, the author presented himself with his manuscript before the reading committee; and, to his intense annoyance and dismay, was compelled to put it back into his pocket. Either the committee feared the expense which the representation would have entailed, or else the elder Dumas, who was one of their most successful suppliers of dramas, and had recently fallen out with them, must have made up the quarrel just before Balzac's comedy was read. Whatever the reason was, the rejection of the piece grievously affected the novelist, who, besides losing a great deal of valuable time, had spent money to no purpose in having his comedy printed.
It must be acknowledged that, in dramatic composition, whatever Balzac had so far done by himself was done grudgingly, and, when possible, shifted on to other shoulders. Gozlan relates that Lassailly, who went to Les Jardies and lived there for some little time as a paid secretary, would be rung up at night, when his employer usually worked—rung up not once nor twice, but several times, to hear himself asked whether, in his waking or his dreaming, he had hatched any good plan; and poor Lassailly would have sorrowfully to avow that his brain had conceived nothing of any importance in the way of drama.
How Harel, the managing director of the Porte-Saint-Martin, was brought to give in the same twelve-month to the rejected of the Renaissance a firm promise that anything he liked to do for that theatre should be acted is an impenetrable mystery. But then Harel himself was an oddity, and he may have felt bowels of compassion for a confrere so original. The story goes that once he tried to borrow thirty thousand francs from King Louis-Philippe. "Ah! Monsieur Harel," replied the monarch, smiling, "I was thinking of applying to you for a similar sum."
The subject that, after much cogitation, Balzac chose for Harel's stage was Vautrin—the Vautrin of Pere Goriot and the Lost Illusions—back at his old trade of acting Providence to a presumably fatherless and friendless young man, whose fortunes he sought to advance by means similar to those that had brought Lucien de Rubempre (we are anticipating a little) to so miserable an end. In the concluding act of the play, the young man discovers that he has a family, and a father who is a noble; and he marries the girl he loves. But Vautrin is arrested, and, although he has been the instrument of his protege's happiness, he is led off to prison once more. The theme, as treated, was a somewhat hackneyed one, and was further spoiled by ill-managed contrasts of the serious and comic, of which in any form the French stage was not tolerant. Objection has been made on the same score to the School for Husbands and Wives at the Theatre Francais, where it had been offered after its rejection by the Renaissance.
Balzac himself had no great opinion of his dramatic arrangement of Vautrin. He had done wrong, he said, to put a romantic character on the stage. After the play was finished, he re-wrote nearly the whole of it; and, from what Theophile Gautier relates about the way in which it was primitively composed, we can well believe that the revision was necessary. When the treaty with Harel was signed, Balzac installed himself in the small apartment which he rented at his tailor's, No. 104 Rue de Richelieu, and sent for Gautier. "I am going to read to Harel to-morrow," he announced, "a grand five-act drama." "Ah!" replied Gautier; "so I suppose you want us to hear it and to give you our opinion." "The play is not yet written," answered Balzac coolly. "You shall do one act; Ourliac, a second; Laurent Jan, a third; de Belloy, a fourth; and I, the fifth. There are not so many lines in one act. With all of us working together, we shall be able to complete it by to-morrow." Objections were timidly put forward as to the hotch-potch that was likely to result from so improvized a method of work; but the hasty playwright overruled them all. It need hardly be said that the five acts were not ready on the morrow, nor for some time after. In fact, Laurent Jan was the only collaborator who gave any considerable help. To him, in acknowledgment, Balzac dedicated the piece, which was performed on the 14th of March 1840.
Knowing what a number of enemies he had among the Parisian journalists and critics, whom he had satirized with increased causticity in his latest fiction, the author endeavoured to pack the theatre with his friends, but there was a large leakage in the sale of tickets; and, on the eventful evening, the seats were occupied by a majority of persons hostile to him. He must have had an inkling of this; for, when sending a ticket to Lamartine, he said to him: "You will see a memorable failure. I have done wrong, I believe, to appeal to the public. Morituri te salutant Caesar." The first portion of the performance was received, on the whole, favourably, though there was no enthusiasm; but, when Frederick Lemaitre, who was entrusted with the role of Vautrin, came on to the stage, in the fourth act, dressed as a Mexican general, and wearing his forelock of hair in a way that appeared to imitate a like peculiarity in the King, there was an outcry among the audience; and Louis-Philippe's son, who was present, was informed by complaisant courtiers that the travesty was intended as an insult to his father. The next day, Harel was advertized that the authorities forbade any other presentation of the piece; and, on the 16th, the Press, following the Government's lead, were practically unanimous in anathematizing the unhappy dramatist, the Debats being particularly acrimonious, and asserting that Vautrin was a thoroughly immoral play.
Balzac's friends, Victor Hugo included, did what they could to get the interdiction raised; but the Minister was inflexible. All that he would consent to was an indemnity of five thousand francs offered through Cave, the Under-Secretary for Fine Arts. This, Balzac indignantly refused. One might have expected such continued ill-luck to prostrate its victim, at least momentarily. Gozlan went out to Les Jardies for the purpose of cheering the hermit up. He found him calm and collected. "You see that strip of land bordering the garden over there?" the latter said, looking out of the window. "Yes." "I am about to establish there a dairy, with an installation of the best kind, the cows of which will bring me in three thousand francs a year." Gozlan stared. "And you see the other strip down yonder farther than the wall?" "Yes." "Well, I intend to plant that with rare vegetables of the sort that used to be supplied to the King's table. That will bring me in another three thousand francs a year." Gozlan waited for what would come next. "And you see the plot right facing the southern sun?" "Yes." "Ah! there I shall plant a vineyard, which will furnish exquisite grapes that I can sell for wine-making in quantities sufficient to bring me in twelve thousand francs a year. This means a revenue of eighteen thousand francs annually. And then, the walnut-tree you see there—I can utilize it to the tune of two thousand francs a year." "How?" "Ah! that is my secret. So we get a total of twenty thousand francs a year, which I shall gain by the refusal of my Vautrin."
This was brave talk on the part of the obstacle-breaker, as he loved to call himself. 'Twas also the bravest temper he could assume in face of the outside world. To Madame Hanska he revealed more the cankering disappointment, just as he had a twelvemonth previously, after the mishap of the School for Husbands and Wives. He had fresh thoughts of leaving France, which being, for the nonce, a bear-garden, he said, he detested, and of going away to America, perhaps to Brazil, where he should soon grow rich. He even told her she might next hear from him at Havre or Marseilles, just as he was on the point of embarking for the other side of the Atlantic. He had been reading Fenimore Cooper again; and the descriptions given by this painter of Nature always aroused his roaming instincts. He envied especially Cooper's power and skill in reproducing the details of a landscape. Once, in a pastry-cook's shop that he had entered with Gozlan to devour a plate of macaroni, he brandished a book of Cooper's, which he had been carrying under his arm, while he recounted his fruitless efforts to get experts in botany to tell him how to describe the differences between certain grasses that he wanted to distinguish appropriately in his fiction. An English girl who had served him in the shop listened open-mouthed to the great man, whose name had been uttered by Gozlan; and, when the moment came for settling, marked her appreciation of what she had heard and seen by charging him nothing for the macaroni. Balzac, not to be outdone in generosity, made her a gift of his copy of Cooper, expressing his regret that he had not one of his own novels with him that he might have offered her instead.
No account of this macaroni feast figures in his almost daily letters at this time despatched to Madame Hanska. To her, if he mentioned his diet, its meagreness was emphasized rather. Being in one of his chronic hard-up crises, he excused himself for the intervals that had occurred between some of his previous epistles on the ground of having no ready money for the postage—the rates for Russia, it is true, were high; and he spoke of buying a bit of dry bread on the boulevards, or of intending to beg from Rothschild; then flourished his big debt at the end, quoting fantastic sums, variable as the barometer, which would oblige him sooner or later, notwithstanding his constant devotion to the Countess, whom he loved more than he loved God, to barter himself away to some agreeable young woman who should be willing to bestow her person upon him, plus a couple of hundred thousand francs. Once or twice there was really a question of his making a match through the good offices of his mother, of whom he none the less said fretfully that she did not think much about him. But, on each occasion, the negotiations fell through—why we do not learn. Such information, maybe, he reserved for the various dames in Paris whose houses he still frequented. Madame de Girardin had managed to get him back; and some sort of relations had been re-established between him and her husband, mostly business, since Monsieur de Girardin continued to be editor of the Presse.
One day, Gozlan met him in the Champs Elysees, just as he had left Delphine's salon. He looked chilly and anxious. The chill he attributed to the unheated drawing-room that he had quitted; but it was due mostly to his condition of mind, then much exercised by something of prime importance to him, the finding of a name for a story which he had written but could not christen, in spite of protracted meditation. It was a man's name he wanted—a name unusual, striking, suggestive of the extraordinary nature of the person he had created. "Why not try the names you see in the street?" said Gozlan incautiously. "The very thing," answered Balzac, whose face grew radiant. "Come along with me. We will seek together." Realizing too late into what an adventure he had allowed himself to be entangled, Gozlan tried in vain to escape. Protests were of no use. Balzac dragged him off; and, with noses in the air and absorbed gaze, the two men promenaded along the Rue Saint-Honore and a number of other streets, knocking up against the people they met and provoking a good deal of profane language from these latter, who regarded them as a couple of imbeciles. At length, Gozlan, like Columbus' sailors, having more than enough of the tramp, refused to play follow-my-leader any longer; and only after a long palaver was he dragged up one last narrow street dubbed variously the Rue du Bouloi, du Coq Heron, and de la Jussienne throughout its course. Here, suddenly, Balzac stopped dead, and pointed to the word Marcas, inscribed over a door. "That's what I've been looking for," he cried. "It exactly suits my man. The person that owns the name ought to be some one out of the common,—an artist, a worker in gold, or something of the kind." Inquiry proved that the real Marcas was a modest tailor. However, his name was selected, and the initial Z was tacked on to it for the book, Z being by the novelist's interpretation a letter of mystic import.
Another rather longer tale than this, belonging to the year 1840, was Pierrette, which the author dedicated to Madame Hanska's daughter Anna, characterizing it as a pearl "sweated through suffering," and telling her that there was nothing in it improper—he used the English word. The story is a painful one, and is scarcely suitable for a young girl's perusal, the heroine, a simple Breton maid, being the victim of an avaricious Provins family, the Rogrons, who under cover of the law, inflict on her such terrible ill-treatment that she ultimately dies from it. Pierrette first appeared as a serial in the Siecle. In the final edition of the novelist's works it is classed under the Celibates; and, apropos of this heading, may be mentioned the fact that Balzac reproved celibacy as a state injurious to society, and held the opinion, dear to the hearts of certain Parliamentarians of to-day, that the unmarried should be taxed for the benefit of those having large families.
Of course, the agricultural projects entertained for a moment after the interdiction of Vautrin soon faded from Balzac's mind, which was still harping on the necessity of his conquering the suffrages of the public in his character of dramatist. He now set himself to write a play called Mercadet or the Faiseur,[*] the latter word implying by its meaning the tragi-comedy of a penniless financier—the novelist's own experience was there to guide him—who invents a thousand and one stratagems for keeping his creditors at bay, and for creating the illusion of a wealth which he had not; who deceives himself as well as others; who is neither entirely a rogue nor entirely honest; but who, after all, reaches relative tranquillity and competency more through accident than purpose. The piece was not performed in its author's life-time; but friends were acquainted with it already in 1840, when Gautier and the rest of the inner circle were summoned to Les Jardies to hear the hermit read it, differing considerably then from the arrangement that was ultimately played. Balzac read it well, with all the inflections peculiar to each character and suitable to every change of circumstance. He had in him, says Gautier, the stuff of a great actor, possessing a full, sonorous, metallic voice of rich, powerful timbre, and kept his audience under the spell from the beginning to the end of the recitation. If Vedel and Desmousseaux, the administrators of the Comedie Francais heard him interpret his own pieces, they might be excused for having, as he asserted they had, a high opinion of his dramatic talent.
[*] English, Jobber.
The greatest honour done to Les Jardies during the hermit's residence there was a visit of Victor Hugo, who came to talk over the affairs of the Men of Letters Society. During lunch, the conversation naturally turned on literature, and the host waxed bitter against the stupidity of kings that neglected letters, and against Louis-Philippe in particular, who had recently put a stop to the evening gatherings —chimney-gatherings they were called—held by the Duke of Orleans for the purpose of honouring the arts. In the afternoon the guests were shown round the domain, and expected to admire its beauties. Hugo was extremely sober in his praises until they came to the famous walnut-tree. Encouraged by the notice accorded to his favourite, the master of Les Jardies repeated to Hugo what he had already affirmed to Gozlan, to wit, that the tree was worth fifteen hundred francs to him (to Gozlan he had said two thousand). "In walnuts, I suppose?" retorted the chief guest quizzingly. "No," replied Balzac, chuckling, "not in walnuts." And he proceeded to explain that, by an old custom, the inhabitants of the neighbourhood had been accustomed to make the shadow of the walnut-tree a "temple of all the gods," and that he had only to exploit the offerings, in the same way as a guano island is exploited to-day, for the fifteen hundred francs to be added to his revenues.
A few months later, in December, Les Jardies, with its walnut-tree and other advantages, was abandoned in hasty flight; and the hermit took refuge in the Passy quarter of Paris. On the house and property a distraint had been levied for moneys due which had not been paid. In total, his desire to abide under his own vine and under his own fig-tree had cost him a sum that he estimated between one hundred thousand and one hundred and twenty thousand francs. Deduction made for his Falstaffian speech, the amount was probably about eighty thousand. This might have been gradually saved and the interest meantime given regularly, if he had been willing to live well within his income. With his system of spending not only what he earned but hoped to earn each year, perpetual insolvency was inevitable.
At Les Jardies he had small creditors as well as great, fear of whom haunted him to the extent of curtailing his walks abroad. Leon Gozlan relates that, going over to Ville d'Avray early one morning, he found Balzac taking a constitutional round the asphalt of his house. "Come and have a stroll in the woods," said the visitor. "I am afraid," answered Balzac. "Of what or whom?" "Of the keeper." Not understanding why the novelist, who would not explain, should be in dread of this humble functionary, and imagining that much study and labour had made his friend a little mad, Gozlan took no denial, and, button-holing Balzac, lugged him off into the leafy avenues. And there, sure enough, after a while, they saw the bugbear, who, as soon as he perceived the two pedestrians, bore down on them with plodding but vigorous step. The shorter of the two turned pale, but tried to put on an air of dignified indifference. Soon the official ran in under their lee, passed alongside with slackened pace, and clarioned into the novelist's ear: "Monsieur de Balzac, this is beginning to get musical." The owner of Les Jardies quailed in his shoes. He owed the man thirty francs.
LETTERS TO "THE STRANGER," 1841, 1842
The abode that Balzac chose, on coming back to live within the city walls, was not far from the Rue de Chaillot which had been his address before he removed to Sevres. It was situated in what is now called the Rue Raynouard, but then bore the name of the Rue Basse. In reality, the street is low only at one end, to which it descends from some high land that forms the Passy and Trocadero quarter, and, for some distance, overhangs the Seine. The whole of the street is narrow and winding, and still has an old-time provincial aspect, though the modern building has begun to make its appearance in it, replacing the ancient mansions surrounded by gardens with ever-encroaching blocks of flats.
Balzac's new house was at Number 19 (at present Number 47). It stood —and the house still stands—in a back garden, on a lower level than the road, from which it was masked by houses fronting the causeway. Any one approaching it from the side of the Rue Basse would enter the common vestibule of one of these houses, go down some stone steps, and would then find himself in a courtyard, opposite a fairly good-sized, apparently one-storied cottage, with the tree adorned garden to the right of him. Once inside the cottage, however, he would notice that it was built on the extreme upper edge of a precipitous slope, and that on the farther side the structure had lower stories, with an issue through them into a lane at the rear leading to the Seine banks and the lower portion of the Rue Basse. Whoever, therefore, inhabited the cottage could quit it fore or aft, an advantage which must have weighed with the incoming tenant, tracked as he was by creditors, and hiding himself here under the name of Madame de Brugnol.
The insistence of these claimants on his purse was such that, acting on the advice of his solicitor, Gavault, in the course of the year 1841, he executed a fictitious sale of Les Jardies for the sum of seventeen thousand five hundred francs, his hope being to preserve his hermitage for the days of wealth and ease to come. Meanwhile, he took his mother to live with him. After giving him and her other son, Henry, all she possessed, and the latter being now in the colonies, where he ultimately died in poverty, she was dependent on what Honore could pay her each month. The living-together arrangement was not very successful. Madame Balzac's nervous, fretful temperament had not been improved by age and trouble; and her elder son found it hard to bear with her complainings, excusable and even justifiable though they might be. It is not pleasant to read the passages in his letters to Madame Hanska, in which he reiterates the old charge of his misfortunes being all due to his mother. In some of them he goes so far as to say that she was a monster and a monstrosity, that she was hastening the death of his sister Laure—Laure outlived them both —after hastening those of his sister Laurence and his grandmother, that she hated him before he was born, that she had a dreadful countenance, that the doctor affirmed her to be not mad but malicious, that his father had stated in 1822 he—Honore—would never have a worse enemy than his mother. Had his mother been all this and more, it would have been ungenerous and unfilial to blacken her reputation to a stranger. And, being false, it was odious. Madame Balzac's partiality towards the second son—heavily enough punished—did not prevent her from loving the elder, though their characters (hers and his) were not made to comprehend each other; and her lack of enthusiasm in the days of his literary apprenticeship was natural enough in a parent who understood only too well the impractical, improvident mind he possessed, and feared its consequences. The fact was that Balzac ill supported remonstrances from his own family, and especially from his mother, and, when irritated by them, forgot every benefit he had received from her.
This peculiarity of temperament rendered his feelings toward many of his friends exceedingly variable. One day he was lauding them to the skies, another depreciating them to a cipher. Even his sister, Laure, in spite of her loyalty to him, did not escape attacks from his fickle humour. Like her mother, she never thoroughly penetrated the nature of this wayward, excitable, compass-boxing brother of hers, whose gaze was so much in the clouds and whose feet so often in the mire. But she defended him to others; and, as far as her purse and her husband's could possibly afford, she gave him money when he was hard up—and when he was not!—money which he was never in a hurry to pay back. Yet her, too, he maligned to "The Stranger," because she now and again ventured on expostulations.
Madame Balzac made two stays in the Passy cottage, neither of them very long. After leaving the first time, she asked her son to pay her a somewhat larger sum per month, which would allow her to live decently elsewhere. Considering that he had borrowed from her a couple of thousand pounds—over fifty thousand francs—and that the sum he had paid her irregularly was not five per cent interest on the money, this request was not unreasonable. Yet he refused to accede to it on the ground of being in financial straits; and offered her a home with him once more, but in language that spoke of strained relations between them, as well as of a personal discouragement that was real.
"The life I lead," he wrote, "suits no one; it wearies relatives and friends alike. All leave my melancholy home. . . . It is impossible for me to work amidst the petty tiffs aroused by surroundings of discord; and my activity has waned during the past year. . . . You were in a tolerable situation. I had a trustworthy person who spared you all household worries. You were not obliged to trouble about domestic matters; you were in peace and silence. You insisted on interfering with me when you should have forgotten I existed, and should have let me have my entire liberty, without which I can do nothing. This is not your fault; it is in the nature of women. To-day, everything is changed. If you like to come back, you will have a little of the weight that will fall on me and that hitherto affected you only because you wished it."
The conclusion of the letter, in which he assured her of his love, could not counterbalance the harshness of its contents. Madame Balzac, be it granted, was cantankerous; but how many sons who have never sponged on their mothers have supported them cheerfully, gladly, for long years out of meagre resources, and have borne with a smile the natural peevishness of old age, not to say its egoisms!
At this period, Balzac's acquaintance with the grand dames of Paris was considerably diminished. Madame de Castries he seems to have broken with altogether. Madame Visconti, who lived a good deal at Versailles, he saw but seldom. In lieu of these, he regularly visited George Sand, who was at present settled in a small flat of the Rue Pigalle in Paris, and was there enjoying the society of Chopin. With a connoisseur's envy, the novelist describes to Eve the interior, the elegantly furnished dining-room in carved oak, the cafe-au-lait upholstered drawing-room, with its superb Chinese vases of fragrant flowers, its cabinet of curiosities, its Delacroix pictures, its rosewood piano, and the portrait of the authoress by Calamatta. What struck him as much as anything was the bedroom in brown, with the bed on the floor in Turkish fashion. He was careful to assure his correspondent that, Chopin being the maitre de ceans, she had no need to be jealous. But jealous she was, though not of George Sand. As Paris was a resort for rich Russians, Madame Hanska's cousins among the number, she had frequent reports of Balzac's doings, distorted by society gossip, the true and the untrue being fantastically mixed; and it was no small task to disabuse her mind and persuade her that his conduct was blameless. Indeed, at bottom she remained sceptical.
In 1841, three books were published which merit attention on the part of a student of his works. The first, A Shady Affair, has the right to be styled an historical novel. Dealing with the Napoleonic epoch, its interest gathers chiefly round the person of the brave peasant Michu, whose devotion to the Legitimist house of Cinq-Cygne brings him, an innocent victim, to the scaffold. The character of Laurence de Cinq-Cygne, a girl of the Flora MacDonald type, and the characters also of the two cousins de Simeuse, who both loved her and conspired with her, and whose pardon she gained only to lose these faithful knights dying on a field of battle, are drawn with great power and naturalness. And the plot, in which, together with other police spies, the same Corentin reappears that was the evil genius of the Chouans, is more rapid and less cumbered than in the earlier work. When the Shady Affair came out in the Commerce journal, Balzac was accused of having identified a certain Monsieur Clement de Ris with his Malin de Gondreville, who plays an evil role in the story—that of an unscrupulous, political turncoat, Revolutionary to begin with, Senator under the Empire, and Peer under the Restoration. The novelist defended himself against the imputation; but the resemblances between the fictitious and the real personage were, all the same, too close to be quite accidental.
Something, however, more important than the question of likeness or portraiture in the book, is that it gives us Balzac's conception of what the historical novel should be. His contemporary Dumas, and his predecessor Walter Scott—the latter in a less degree than Dumas—did not weave a romance on to a warp of history, but romanced the history itself. What he tried to do was to keep the historical action exact and accurate, and to throw its romantic elements into relief without dislocating them. His opinion was that history might so be written as to be a sort of novel, which, perhaps, will account for his answer to Lamartine, who, in 1847, asked him if he could explain how it was that the History of the Girondins had obtained a greater success than the most popular novels of the same date. "Gad!" he replied, "the reason is that you wrote this fine book as a novelist, not as an historian." The Shady Affair recreates for us the Napoleonic atmosphere, silent and heavy, yet electrically charged with grudge, hatred, and ambition, all ready to burst out at one or another point. Underhand plotting was the order of the day; there was a language of the eye rather than of the tongue, since no one was sure that in his own family there might not be eavesdroppers listening to betray him.
Ursule Mirouet is a very different kind of story. We have here the old Doctor Minoret, who after making a fortune in Paris, returns to spend the last few years of his life in Nemours, his native town. Having lost wife and child by death, he brings back with him a baby niece, who is an orphan, and to whom he devotes himself with tender care. In Nemours there are other less estimable branches of the Minoret stock, cousins of the Doctor's, whose hopes of inheriting his fortune are damped by the presence of little Ursule. Chief of these relatives is the burly postmaster, Minoret Levrault, whose son Desire is destined to the law and is sent by his parents to study in Paris. Although a disciple of Voltaire, and scouting all religious practice for himself, the Doctor is friendly with the Cure, and allows his niece to be brought up to Church. At the time the story opens an unexpected event astonishes the town. The Doctor has become converted, and goes to Mass. The cause of the change is a wonderful experience of clairvoyance he meets with in the capital, whither he has been summoned by a colleague with whom he had quarrelled years before over the new-fangled doctrines of Mesmerism. What necessary connection there is between clairvoyance and Catholicism, or indeed any particular form of religion, the novelist does not attempt to prove. It suffices for the sceptical old Doctor to be told by a hypnotized woman in Paris what Ursule is doing at Nemours, and the conversion is wrought. Soon after, Doctor Minoret dies, bequeathing his fortune in just and appropriated shares to his various relatives, Ursule included. She is at the time a fine young woman, beloved by a young gentleman of the place. The rest of the novel tells how the big postmaster contrives to destroy the part of the will favourable to Ursule and to steal certain moneys that belong to her; how Minoret's ghost appears in dreams and signs to confound the guilty man and his guilty wife, who are at last induced to confess their ill deeds, the repentance being hastened by the death of their son Desire; and, in fine, how Ursule marries Monsieur de Portenduere and is happy.
In its general construction, the book holds well together, and the characters in the main are depicted without exaggeration, while the traits of individuality are ingeniously marked. The Doctor and Ursule are less firmly and informingly delineated. As usual, when Balzac shows us the figure of a virtuous girl in an ordinary domestic circle, he represents her with passive rather than active qualities. She has no strong likes or dislikes, no particular mental bias, and possesses but small attractiveness. In fact, the novelist seems at a loss to imagine. In the case of Ursule, we see that she cultivates flowers, but we do not feel that she is fond of them. As for the Doctor, he would have or might have been less a puppet, had the author himself judged with wiser reserve the mysterious forces that exist in the world of sub-consciousness.
His belief in these forces being alloyed with much superstition, he was always consulting fortune-tellers, even those that divined by cards. One of them, a certain Balthazar, who was subsequently convicted and imprisoned for dishonesty, told him that his past life had been one series of struggles and victories, a reading too agreeable to be doubted; and that he would soon have tranquillity, a prophecy which unhappily was not fulfilled. Concerning the prospects of a union with Madame Hanska, the cartomancer was mute, though he described the lady in language sufficiently clever for his client to acknowledge the likeness. His clairvoyance was exceedingly limited; otherwise he would have warned his client of the approaching death of Count Hanski, this event taking place towards the close of the year.
Occupied with her own affairs, which were complicated by her husband's illness, and perhaps also resenting the falling off in the number of her distant worshipper's epistles, caused by an indisposition in the spring and a visit to Brittany to recuperate, she wrote only once or twice during 1841; and, as chance would have it, these letters were lost, so that, for nearly twelve months, he had no news from her. Pathetically he announced that his sister was planning to marry him to a Mademoiselle Bonnard, god-daughter to King Louis-Philippe; but still no answer came. On the 1st of November, as he related to his Eve afterwards, he lost one of the two shirt-studs which Madame de Berny had given him, and which he wore alternately with another pair presented to him by Madame Hanska. Beginning on the morrow, he put on thenceforth only the pair that Eve had given him; and this trifling occurrence affected him so much that all his familiars noticed it. He looked upon the loss as a sign from Heaven. Poor Madame de Berny! Now that the stud from her had disappeared, he had no further tenderness for her memory. Instead of recalling her kindness to him, he preferred to speak, in connection with what he styled his horrible youth, of the years which she—the Dilecta—had tarnished. Too opportune to be sincere, this condemnation of his first liaison cannot but be regarded as an incense of flattery offered to the coy goddess of his later vows.