The third of the three principal books of 1841 was the Diaries of Two Young Wives, written, like the Country Doctor and the Village Cure, in a decidedly didactic tone. We have two girl friends, Renee de Maucombe and Louise de Chaulieu, reared in a convent school, who marry, each with an ideal of wedlock that differs. The former, a doctor in stays, as her school companion calls her, seeks in marriage a calm domestic happiness, the duties and joy of motherhood, and has a husband worthy but commonplace, to whom she gives herself at first without much positive attachment on her side. The latter makes of love a passion, and marries a Spanish exile, plain-looking but virile, whom she bends to her will. The two wives exchange their impressions during their early years of matrimony, and we see the happiness of the one develop while that of the other diminishes. The Spaniard dies and Louise de Chaulieu takes a second husband, a poor poet, whom she adores as much as her Spaniard had adored her. Carrying him off to Ville-d'Avray, she creates there a snug Paradise, where she fondles him as if he were a toy, until at length her feverish jealousy brings on her own illness and death.
The novel in its earlier phases was being worked at together with the Sister Marie des Anges, which was promised to Werdet but never completed, and seems to have had some connection with it. Possibly, in his primitive plan, the author intended to set in contrast the spouse and the nun: and certainly, in the original draft, there was only one bride.
In 1842, at the Odeon Theatre, was performed a dramatic piece from the novelist's pen, which by some critics has been considered his best play. There are even critics who hold that Balzac was a born dramatist, as he was a born novelist, basing their opinion on his possession of qualities common to dramatist and novelist. His force of characterization, his handling of plot, his sense of passion were all sufficient to procure him success on the stage, which explains why pieces adapted from his novels by other playwrights invariably caught the public fancy. But, in order to develop character, plot, and passion in his fiction, he employed interminable detail and slow action; and his effects were obtained rather by constant pressure throughout than by sudden impact. The brevity and condensation required by the drama were foreign to his genius; he could not help trying to put too much into his stage pieces, and the unity of subject was compromised.
The School of Great Men,[*] as he preferred to call his play at the Odeon, carries the spectator back to the Spain of Philippe II. Fontanares, a clever man of science but poor, and without influence, has discovered the means of navigating by steam. His valet Quinola, a genius in his way, resolves to aid his master, who, being in love, has all the greater claim on his pity; and he contrives to present the King with a petition in favour of Fontanares, and to obtain a ship for an experiment to be made. But now professional jealousies combine with love rivalries to thwart the inventor; and when, at last, the ship is made to move by its own machinery, the honour of the success is attributed to another. To avenge his wrongs, and the loss of his betrothed, who is given to his rival and dies, he blows up the steamer in presence of an assembled multitude, and quits his native land with a courtezan who has conceived a liking for him and will provide him with money to recommence his enterprise elsewhere.
[*] More usually called: The Resources of Quinola.
Before the first performance, Balzac was just as sanguine about the result as he had been with Vautrin. It followed several pieces, Felix Pyat's Cedric the Norwegian, Dumas' Lorenzino, and Scribe's Chaine, which had been coldly received. What if his Quinola should be the great attraction of the season! And his mind was filled visions of overflowing houses and showers of gold. Alas! if the representations went beyond the single one of Vautrin, they did not exceed twenty; and his share of profits was insignificant. The play is not dull to read, with its flavour of Moliere's comedies, and the keenness of Balzac's observation. But its colour and poesy do not compensate for the diffuseness of the plot and the undramatic conclusion.
Instead of acknowledging the defects of his composition, the unlucky dramatist was wroth with his public. For a while he caressed the thought of going to St. Petersburg, taking out letters of naturalization, and opening a theatre in the Russian capital with a view to establishing the pre-eminence of French literature—embodied in his own writings. It must be owned that he was beginning to imagine himself persecuted. Victor Hugo, he said, had changed towards him and was creating a conspiracy of silence round about him, so that no one should speak any more of his works. And he liked better being attacked than ignored. Later, he asserted that Hugo, after accepting the dedication of the Lost Illusions to himself, had induced Edouard Thierry to write an abusive article against him. "He is a great writer," said the novelist in telling this, "but he is a mean trickster."
By the death of Count Hanski, the one insuperable obstacle to his union with Eve had been removed; and now, in his letters to her, there was a sudden outburst of love protestations. He wanted the widow to marry him at once, or, at the outside limit, as soon as propriety would permit. Madame Hanska replied that there was her daughter Anna, only just in her teens, who would require her mother's entire attention and care for some years to come; and there were, besides, matters concerning the inheritance, which would hardly be settled within any shorter period. Balzac was dismayed. He could not understand the delay, the prudence, the hesitation. Not to speak of his affection, his pride was offended. He overwhelmed his Eve with reproaches. Women, he informed her, loved fools, as a rule, because fools were ever ready to sit at their feet. Recurring in subsequent letters to a quieter manner, he strove to shake her resolution by hints at his exhausted strength, his difficulty of composition,—this was nothing new—his lessened alertness of thought and his weaker invention. Cleverly he juxtaposed with these a description of his study, in the little Passy house, hung with red velvet, on which black silk cords stood out in agreeable contrast; on one wall was Eve's portrait, and opposite it was a painting of the Wierzchownia mansion. Here he toiled unceasingly, creating, always creating. God only created during six days, he added, while he—the inference was left to be drawn. Feeling how requisite it was he should put himself right, in every respect, with the lady of his choice, he made a fresh confession of his religious faith. His Catholicism, he told her, was outwardly of the Bossuet and Bonald type, but was esoterically mystical, Saint-Johnian, which form alone preserved the real Christian tradition. Somewhat encouraged by vague inquiries from Madame Hanska as to the income required by a household for living in Paris, he entered into particulars with gusto; and, stating that he had eighty thousand francs worth of furniture, he discussed the best manner of arranging an existence with eight hundred thousand francs capital. With three hundred thousand francs, a country residence and small estate might be bought and the means of inhabiting there provided. Another hundred thousand would buy a house in Paris to spend each winter; and the residue of four hundred thousand, if invested in French Rentes, would purchase an additional income of fifteen thousand francs for town expenses. These latter he subdivided into three thousand francs for carriage hire; five thousand for cooking; two thousand five hundred for dress and amusement; and two thousand five hundred for general charges; the remaining two thousand would go in sundries. Madame de Berny, he said, spent only eight hundred francs on her wardrobe, and kept her household with nine hundred francs. Once launched into detail, he went far. The Countess learnt that he had still the same carpets, covering seven rooms, that he had bought for fifteen hundred francs in the Rue Cassini. They had worn well and were economical. The red velvet in his study had cost him two francs fifty a yard; but then he would take it away to another house, instead of giving it to the landlord. Living was slightly dearer in Passy, he concluded. A mutton chop cost seven sous there, instead of the five charged in the city. These last details were thrown in by a habit he had grown into of defending himself against the strictures passed by Madame Hanska on his expenditure.
They were frequent—such strictures—because Balzac was always repeating to her that he was penniless; and she, comparing this talk with other statements about his gaining large sums yearly, argued that the penury must be his own fault. True, there was the debt. But the debt grew instead of diminishing. So, apparently, he was not starving himself to pay it back. The fact was that Balzac did not tell the truth either about his assets or his liabilities. He neither earned as much as he affirmed, nor owed as much. According to some of his early biographers, his average income was not more than twelve thousand francs a year. But these figures cannot include lump sums he received at irregular intervals, nor yet all the royalties due to him on continued sales of his books. Taking one year with another, he probably made, throughout the greater portion of his literary career, between twenty and twenty-five thousand francs annually. What must have increased his embarrassments, in the later Thirties and early Forties, was his hobby for buying pictures and articles of vertu; this, with his knack of dropping money in speculations and imprudent ventures, rendered it impossible for him to live within his means.
It is curious to notice how his impecuniosity reduced him to regard every goal of his ambition as having merely a cash value. Speaking of his election to the Academie Francaise, which he reckoned to be near, he explained to Eve that it would mean six thousand francs a year to him, since he would be a member of the Dictionary committee; and then there was the Perpetual Secretaryship, which, falling to him naturally, would raise his emoluments to more than double that amount. Emboldened by these calculations—a trifle previous—he confided to Eve his desire to start on a trip to Naples, Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria, unless she should veto the proposal. In that case, his desire would be hers. Four thousand francs was what the journey would cost. Would she authorize him to spend so much? At present she was the arbitress of his actions. As the trip was abandoned, we are obliged to suppose that Eve was not favourable to it.
Mention has already been made of the novelist's initiative in the beginnings of the Men of Letters Society, and of his scheme for a petition to the King. In its details, what he wished to see adopted was on the same lines as those followed now by the Nobel Prize distribution—at any rate as regards literature. His idea was to secure a small independence for prize-takers in tragedy, comedy, opera, fiction, Christian philosophy, linguistic or archaeological research, and epic poetry, by awarding them a capital of a hundred thousand francs, and even two hundred thousand to poets, and to open thus an easier way to position and fame. Finding that his programme was not acceptable to the more influential members of the Society, he resigned his seat on the committee, and ceased his active connection with the Society itself, continuing, however, to interest himself in is prosperity.
Later, his bust by David was placed in the Society's Committee Room, where it may be seen at present presiding silently over the meetings. Both the bust and the famous daguerreotype of him belong to the commencement of the Forties. The sculptor Etex had asked him to sit for a bust; but David had the preference, being a friend. His profile of the novelist, sketched in view of a medallion, an engraving of which appeared in 1843 in the Loire Illustree for August, was deemed by Madame Surville to be the only real likeness of her brother. Not until 1889 did the Men of Letters Society decide to honour Balzac by a statue to be erected amidst the life of the capital which he had so well described. And even then they allowed certain elements of prejudice and passion to dominate their counsels, with the result that a magnificent full-length figure of the novelist executed by the first sculptor in France was rejected; the committee's plighted word was violated; and in lieu was accepted and placed in one of the streets of Paris a sorry likeness hastily modelled by a man who, though a good sculptor, had one foot in the grave, and who had not, besides, the conception of what was required.[*]
[*] See my Life of Rodin (Fisher Unwin, 1906) or my later and smaller edition of the same sculptor's life (Grant Richards, 1907).
Of the novels that appeared in 1842, Albert Savarus, the first published, is worthy of attention chiefly as being a continuation of its author's personal experiences. The hero is the same ideal personification already seen in Louis Lambert and Z. Marcas. A barrister, he suddenly settles in a provincial town, bringing with him a past history that no one can penetrate and every one would like to know. When interviewed in his private consulting-room, he presents himself in a black merino dressing-gown girt about with a red cord, in red slippers, a red flannel waistcoat, a red skull-cap. The likeness is once again Balzac's own—adorned by fancy: a superb head, black hair sparsely sprinkled with white, hair like that of Saint Peter and Saint Paul as shown in our pictures, with thick glossy curls, hair of bristly stiffness; a white round neck, as that of a woman; a splendid forehead with the puissant furrow in the middle that great plans and thoughts and deep meditations engrave on the brow of genius; an olive complexion streaked with red; a square nose; eyes of fire; gaunt cheeks with two long wrinkles, full of suffering; a mouth with sardonic smile, and a small, thin, abnormally short chin; crow's feet at the temples; sunken eyes (he repeats himself a little) rolling beneath their beetling arches and resembling two burning globes; but, despite all these signs of violent passions, a calm, profoundly resigned mien; a voice of thrilling softness, . . . the true voice of the orator, now pure and cunning, now insinuating, but thunderous when required, lending itself to sarcasm and then waxing incisive. Monsieur Albert Savarus (alias Balzac) is of medium height, neither fat nor slim; to conclude, he has prelate's hands.
The mystery of Savarus' earlier life, revealed as the story goes on, is his meeting in Switzerland with Francesca, the wife of a rich Italian, whom he eventually wins to love him and to promise marriage when she is free and he has acquired wealth and fame. All the details of the prologue are those of Balzac's first relations with Madame Hanska. The development of the novel, in which Philomene de Watteville falls in love with Savarus, surprises his secret attachment to Francesca, intercepts his letters to her, and ruins his hopes, is less cleverly told. Savarus' retirement to a Carthusian monastery and fate's punishment of Philomene, who is mutilated and disfigured in a railway accident, form the denouement, which is strained to the improbable. The background of the story, with its glimpses of the manners and foibles of provincial society, is the most valuable portion of the book.
Between this relapse into lyricism and a much stronger work came the amusing Beginning in Life, suggested by his sister Laure's tale, Un Voyage en Coucou, and giving the adventures of the young Oscar Husson, a sort of Verdant Green, whose pretentious foolishness leads him into scrapes of every kind, until, having made himself the laughing-stock of all around him, and compromised many, he enlists and goes to the wars, whence he returns maimed for life. A comic character in the sketch is the bohemian artist Leon de Lora, nicknamed Mistigris, with his puns and proverbs that were the rage in the early Forties. A character of more serious calibre is Joseph Bridau, the talented painter. He and his scamp of a brother, Philippe, are the twin prominent figures in the novel above alluded to: La Rabouilleuse.
Originally called the Two Brothers, and subsequently A Bachelor's Household, this slice of intensely realistic fiction exhibits the art of the author at its highest vigour. Philippe Bridau, the mother's favourite of the two boys, enters the army, sees Waterloo, and, after, leads the life of an adventurer, with its ups and downs of fortune. His widowed mother's indulgence, his own innate selfishness, and the hardening influence of war combine to render him a villain of the Richard III type, absolutely heartless and conscienceless. He robs his own family, fixes himself leech-like on that of an uncle, marries the latter's widow for her money, when he has killed her lover in a duel, drives his wife into vice, lets her die on a pallet, and refuses to pay a visit to the deathbed of his mother, whose grey hairs he had brought down with sorrow to the grave. Like Shakespeare's ideal villain, he has the philosophy, the humour of his egotism. "I am an old camel, familiar with genuflections," he exclaims. "What harm have I done?" he asks, speaking of his robbery of his relative, the old Madame Descoings. "I have merely cleaned the old lady's mattress." And he is equally indifferent to what destiny reserves for him. "I am a parvenu, my dear fellow; I don't intend to let my swaddling-clothes be seen. My son will be luckier than I; he will be a grand seigneur. The rascal will be glad to see me dead. I quite reckon on it; otherwise he would not be my son."
Most of the other figures are of equal truth to life, and are presented so as to increase the effect of the complete picture: Jean-Jacques Rouget, the stupid infatuated uncle, who espouses the intriguing Flore Brazier; and Flore herself, whose petty vices are crushed by those of her second husband; Maxime Gilet, the bully of Issoudun, whose surface bravado is checked and mated by the cooler scoundrelism of Philippe; Agathe, the foolish mother, whose eyes are blind to the devotion of her son Joseph; and Girondeau, the old dragoon, companion to Philippe who casts him off as soon as prosperity smiles and he has no further need for him. And the narrow-horizoned, curiously interlaced existences of the county-town add the mass of their colour-value, sombre but rich. One could have wished in the book a little more counterbalancing brightness, and less trivial detail; but neither the defect of the one nor the excess of the other takes from the novel the right to be considered a masterpiece.
LETTERS TO "THE STRANGER," 1843, 1844
The great event of the year 1843 was Balzac's visit in the summer to Saint Petersburg, where Madame Hanska had been staying since the preceding autumn. He had hoped to go there in the January, commissioned to exploit an important invention for cheaper shipbuilding, in which his brother-in-law, Monsieur Surville, was concerned. Like each of his previous schemes for quickly becoming rich, this invention turned out to be a soap-bubble, bursting as soon as trial was made of it. What was left intact, however, was his determination to go to the banks of the Neva; and, throughout the spring, successive letters announced preparations for departure. The real motive of his journey was to try to persuade his lady-love to fix the date of their marriage. Her period of mourning was over, and no objection could be made now on the ground of propriety. Such sentimental arguments as Madame Hanska might still put forward, he trusted to be able to overcome by his presence.
In order that she might be the more anxious to see him, he talked again of abandoning literature, and sailing for America. This time the West Indies were his El Dorado. He did not say how the shy millions were to be coaxed into his purse there, unless he wished her to understand he intended to export spices, since he added: "If I had been a grocer for the last ten years, I should have become a millionaire." Forsooth, these details were mere bluff. His inmost thought was that Eve would prevent his going across the Atlantic now, as Madame de Berny had prevented him—so he said—in 1829. Moreover, there was Balthazar's prediction that he was to be happy with her for long years. The fortune-teller's sanctum he attended more frequently than church. Going one day to the house of a magnetizer, a Monsieur Dupotet, living in the Rue du Bac, he gave his hand to a hypnotized woman, who placed it on her stomach and immediately loosed it again with a scared look: "What is that head?" she cried. "It is a world; it frightens me." "She had not looked at my heart," commented Balzac proudly. "She has been dazzled by the head. Yet since I was born, my life has been dominated by my heart—a secret which I conceal with care." All this he related quite seriously to Eve. Probably, Madame de Girardin, who accompanied him on this pilgrimage, could have told Madame Hanska more.
Writing on his birthday, he inserted the prayer he had offered up to his patron-saint for the accomplishment of his desires, its burden indicating how near he believed himself to the longed-for goal: "O great Saint Honore, thou to whom is dedicated a street in Paris at once so beautiful and so ugly, ordain that the ship may not blow up; ordain that I may be no more a bachelor, by decree of the Mayor or the Counsul of France; for thou knowest that I have been spiritually married for nigh on eleven years. These last fifteen years, I have lived a martyr's life. God sent me an angel in 1833. May this angel never quit me again till death! I have lived by my writing. Let me live a little by love! Take care of her rather than of me; for I would fain give her all, even my portion in heaven; and especially let us soon be happy. Ave, Eva."
The love fervour of this prayer was a dominant note throughout the twelvemonth; we notice after the visit that the familiar thou prevails over the colder you; and the letters, both in number and length, very largely exceed those he had written up to the end of 1842. Funnily, he expresses admiration of himself for this work of supererogation, informing Eve, on one occasion, that the sixteen leaves he had recently sent her were worth sixteen hundred francs, even two thousand, counting extra leaves enclosed to Mademoiselle Henriette Borel, the governess, for whom he was negotiating an entrance into a nunnery. Love-letters estimated at five francs a page!!!
Let us grant that the epistles at present contained more gossip than ever, so that the recipient of them had her share of amusement. She was wonderfully well kept up in Paris happenings in society, including the stage and art galleries. She learnt that Madame d'Agoult—Daniel Stern[*]—had become Emile de Girardin's mistress, on losing Liszt, who had fallen into the toils of the Princess de Belgiojoso, the latter lady achieving her conquest after luring in succession Lord Normanby from his wife, Mignet from Madame Aubernon, and Alfred de Musset from George Sand. Going to see Victor Hugo's Burgraves, he reported that it was nothing to speak of as history, altogether poor as invention, but nevertheless poetic, with a poetry that carried away the spectator. It was Titian painting on a mud wall. He chiefly remarked the absence of feeling, which, in Victor Hugo, was more and more noticeable. The author of the Burgraves lacked the true. As he did not publish these opinions, he was able to go on dining with the poet and to praise the beauty of his fourteen-year-old daughter. On George Sand's Consuelo he pronounced a severer judgment still, calling it the emptiest, most improbable, most childish thing conceivable—boredom in sixteen parts. And yet he had conceived certain improbable plots himself.
[*] Her literary pseudonym
Like Charles Lamb, who left his office earlier in the afternoon to make up for arriving late in the morning, he counterbalanced these heavy-handed slatings of his friends by extolling his own performance past and present. Being engaged in revising the Chouans for a fresh edition, he was struck by qualities in it that he had hitherto held too lightly. It was all Scott and all Fenimore Cooper, he said, with a fire and wit, into the bargain, that neither of these writers ever possessed. The passion in it was sublime! Its landscapes and scenes of war were depicted with a perfection and happiness that surprised him. As a piece of self-praise there is probably nothing surpassing this in the annals of literature. In a competition, Balzac's blasts of vanity would beat the Archangel Michael's last trump for loudness.
Horace Vernet, he asserted, would never be a great painter. He was a colourist; he knew how to design and compose, had technical skill, and, now and again, found sentiment, but did not understand how to combine these talents in his pictures. He was clever, but had no genius. His alter ego was Delaroche, to whom he gave his daughter in marriage. Of the other painters, Boulanger, Delacroix, Ingres, Decamps, Jules Dupre were his favourites—true artists, he deemed them. At the Salon he saw hardly anything to please him besides a canvas by Meissonier and Cogniet's Tintoretto painting his Dead Daughter. He would have liked to see Boulanger's Death of Messalina, but the Salon Committee had refused it.
In music his preferences were as eclectic as in pictures. Liszt, whom he thought ridiculous as a man, he considered superb as a musician —the Paganini of the piano, yet inferior to Chopin, since he had not the genius of composition. And, in singing, Rubini was his idol —Rubini who triumphed in the role of Othello, giving the suspicion air in a manner no one could equal. It intoxicated him to hear this tenor with Tamburini, Lablache, and Madame Grisi; while Nourrit's song, Ce Rameau qui donne la Puissance et l'Immortalite in Robert le Diable made his flesh creep. It yielded a glimpse of life with all its dreams satisfied.
Originally intending to start for St. Petersburg early in June, Balzac was not able to leave Paris until a month later. As usual, filthy lucre had to do with his tarrying. In spite of a loan of 11,500 francs from lawyer Gavault—his guardian, the novelist called him—who for the privilege of the great man's friendship had been endeavouring during the two years past to introduce a little order into his affairs, he had not available cash enough for a trip so far, and stayed on, hoping to finish his David Sechard,* which was running as a serial in the Etat, and his Esther,[*] appearing similarly in the Parisien. June he spent at Lagny, where his manuscripts were being printed, in order to correct the proofs and get his money. But the Etat ceased issue while he was there; and the Parisien, being in parlous condition, refused likewise to pay up, so that he had to go off with a thinner-lined pocket than he had expected. Otherwise, he was in a fitting state of grace to meet his fair tyrant, whose envelope lectures had brought him into fear of her and at least outward obedience.
[*] Part of the Lost Illusions.
The torrents of coffee by the aid of which he had forced his last pen-work through, had been reduced to minimum doses; the occasional mustard foot-baths that cured his cerebral inflammations were replaced by entire ablutions every other day; he liked hot baths well enough; but, in the spells of composition, they were often indefinitely adjourned, so that this season of purification had its raison d'etre. And now, with his gaze turned to the east, he wondered how long he was going to remain there. His reply to a person who asked him to pledge himself for some novels on his return reads much as though he were counting on an offer to fix his residence in the empire of the czars. "I don't know whether I shall come back," he said. "France bores me. I am infatuated with Russia. I am in love with absolute power. I am going to see if it is as fine as I believe it to be. De Maistre stayed a long time at St. Petersburg. Perhaps I shall stay also." This he naturally repeated to Madame Hanska. Not that it was new to her. A similar hint had been given in January, when he capped his declaration, "I abhor the English; I execrate the Austrians; the Italians are nothing," with "I would sooner be a Russian than any other subject." The comic side of this fury is that Madame Hanska was a Pole, her late husband too; and neither she nor her family were reconciled to the Russian yoke. To make his renunciation more complete, he humbly spoke his dread she might turn from him with the "get away" said to a dog. No! She had no intention of dismissing him. His outpourings of devotion caressed her woman's pride, even if she did not accept them as gospel truth. And however tedious she found his vamping song of sixpence, his sittings in the parlour counting out his mirage-money, she put up with them in consideration of her privilege.
Sailing from Havre in the Devonshire, an English boat, Balzac arrived at St. Petersburg towards the end of July. He lodged in a private house not far from Eve's Koutaizoff mansion; but passed the three months of his sojourn almost entirely in her society. It was the first opportunity he had had of getting to know her intimately, their previous meetings being surrounded with too many restrictions to allow of familiar intercourse. No detailed record has come down to us of these days of tete-a-tete existence. All we learn from subsequent allusions is that, together with a good deal of billing and cooing, more sustained on the novelist's side, there were some lovers' tiffs, followed by reconciliations. Apparently the friction was mainly caused by Eve's evasiveness on the subject of their marriage.
It would seem as though there were an attack on her aloofness in the long criticism he sent her from his lodgings on Madame d'Arnim's Bellina, a French translation of which had been published not long before he left Paris. After some general remarks on the circumstance of a girl's fancying herself in love with a great man living at a distance, he waxed wroth over what he styled Bellina's head-love, and over head-love in general. To this monster, Merimee, in his Double Mistake, had given a thrust but a thrust that made it bleed only. The cleverer Madame d'Arnim had poisoned it with opium. "In order for the literary expression of love to become a work of art and to be sublime," he continued, "the love that depicts should itself be complete; it should occur in its triple form, head, heart, and body; should be a love at once sensual and divine, manifested with wit and poetry. Who says love says suffering; suffering from separation; suffering from disagreement. Love in itself is a sublime and pathetic drama. When happy, it is silent. Now, the cause of the tedium of Madame d'Arnim's book," he added, "is easily discoverable by a soul that loves. Goethe did not love Bellina. Put a big stone in Goethe's place—the Sphinx no power has ever been able to wrest from its desert sand—and Bellina's letters are understandable. Unlike Pygmalion's fable, the more Bellina writes, the more petrified Goethe becomes, the more glacial his letters. True, if Bellina had perceived that her sheets were falling upon granite, and if she had abandoned herself to rage or despair, she would have composed a poem. But, as she did not love Goethe, as Goethe was a pretext for her letters, she went on with her girl's journal; and we have read some (not intended for print) much more charming, not in units, but in tens."
In the rest of the criticism, Balzac swirls round his guns and directs his fire on Goethe's replies to Bellina. The latter's epistles were accompanied with presents of braces and slippers and flannel waistcoats, which were much more appreciated by the poet than her theories on music. Not so did he, Balzac, treat his Lina, his Louloup —such was the inference suggested. Every one of her, i.e. Eve's sayings was treasured up, after being duly pondered upon. Such adulation must have been delicious to Madame Hanska; and yet she sent her sighing swain back into his loneliness, with his bonds riveted tighter, his promises to break with all rivals more solemn, and a disappointment, over his deferred hopes, that brought on an illness after his return.
The journey back was made by land through Riga, Taurogen, and Berlin. In the Prussian capital, Von Humboldt came to see him with a message from the King and Queen; and Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream was seen on the stage, without pleasure being derived from it. To its poesy the novelist was little open. Instead of pushing on straight to France, he bent his course southwards to Dresden, where he visited the Pinakothek. The Saxon town pleased him more than Berlin, both by its structural picturesqueness and surroundings. The palace, begun by Augustus, he esteemed the most curious masterpiece of rococo architecture. The Gallery he thought over-rated; but he none the less admired Correggio's Night, his Magdalene and two Virgins, as also Raphael's Virgins, and the Dutch pictures. His highest enthusiasm was aroused by the theatre, decorated by the three French artists Desplechin, Sechan, and Dieterle. He reached Passy on the 3rd of November, having crowded into the preceding week visits to Maintz, Cologne, Aix-la-Chapelle, and several places in Belgium.
The form assumed by his malady was arachnitis, an inflammation of the network of nerves enveloping the brain. For the time being, Nacquart, his doctor, conjured it away, as he had done in the case of other seizures from which the patient had suffered. He had known Balzac since boyhood and was well acquainted with his constitution. Unfortunately he could not change the novelist's abnormal manner of living and working. And the mischief was in them.
Balzac's three months' absence from Paris had caused profane tongues to wag considerably. Notwithstanding his reticence concerning Countess Hanska, a legend had gathered round about their relations to each other. More than one paper reported that he had been off on an expedition, wife, and fortune-hunting—which was true; and one daily, at least, spoke of his having been engaged by the Czar as a kind of court litterateur. The Presse especially annoyed him by copying from the Independance Belge a story of his having been surprised by the Belgian police dining in an hotel with an Italian forger, whose grand behaviour and abundance of false bank-notes had completely captivated him. The forger was certainly arrested in the hotel where he had put up, but the dinner and the chumming were inventions; at any rate, Balzac affirmed they were, uttering furious anathemas against the scorpion Girardin, who had allowed so illustrious a name to be taken in vain.
On the 26th of September, during the St. Petersburg visit, his third finished theatrical piece, Pamela Giraud, was produced at the Gaite Theatre. Differing essentially from his previous efforts, this play is an ordinary melodramatic comedy. Pamela, like Richardson's heroine, is an honest girl, who, occupied in the humble trade of flower-selling, loves a young man, Jules Rousseau, that she believes to belong to her own modest rank, whereas, in reality, he is the son of a big financier. Involved in a Bonapartist conspiracy, which has just been discovered, Jules comes one night to her room and tries to persuade her to fly with him. She refuses; and, while he is with her, the police enter and arrest him. To save him she consents, though opposed by her parents, to say in Court that her lover had spent the night of the conspiracy with her; and Jules is acquitted through this false confession of her being his mistress. Once the happy result obtained, Jules and his family forget her. The lawyer, however, smitten by her beauty and virtue, proposes to marry her, and is about to carry his intention into effect when, remarking that she is pining for the ungrateful Jules, he contrives to bring him to Pamela's feet again, and the marriage is celebrated.
Pamela Giraud was written in 1838, but no theatre had been willing to stage it in its original form. Ultimately two professional playwrights, Bayard and Jaime, who had already dramatized, the one, Eugenie Grandet and the Search for the Absolute, the other, Pere Goriot, pruned the over-plentifulness of its matter and strengthened the relief of various parts; and, in the amended guise, it was performed. Balzac resented the modifications, which explains his equanimity on hearing, as he travelled homewards, that the piece had fallen flat. He considered that, presented as he wrote it, the chances of success would have been greater. He was wrong, and those critics as well who attributed the failure to enmities arising out of a recent publication of his, entitled the Monography of the Press. Neither of the two chief dramatis personae was capable of properly interesting a theatrical audience. The character of Jules is contemptible from beginning to end, and that of Pamela ceases to attract after the trial. The conclusion of this play, as that of Vautrin, is an anticlimax and leaves an unsatisfactory impression.
Why did Balzac write his Monography of the Parisian Press? Not altogether from a pure motive, one must own. There is too much gall in his language, too much satire in the thought. He was sufficiently acquainted with the inner ring of journalistic life to be able to say truly what were its blemishes; and, without doubt, at the time when he composed the chief of his novels, these had a prejudicial effect on literature as on other phases of activity. But his pamphlet, besides its indiscriminate condemnations, erred in adopting a style which rendered the turning of the tables only too easy. And Jules Janin, whom he had already indisposed by sketching a seeming portrait of him in the Provincial Great Man in Paris, came down heavily on the daring satirist in the Debats of the 20th of February 1843. The retort, so he informed Madame Hanska, made him laugh immoderately. Perhaps; but the laugh must have been somewhat forced—what the French call "yellow."
In the Monography, men of letters, baptized by the novelist gendelettres—one of the few words coined by Balzac which have become naturalized—may be divided into several categories. First, there are the publicistes, occupied in scratching the pimples of the body politic. From these pimples they extract a book which is a mystification. Not far removed from the publicistes are the chief managing editors and proprietors general, big wigs who sometimes become prefects, receivers general, or theatrical directors. The type of this class is glory's porter, speculation's trumpeter, the electorate's Bonneau. He is set in motion by a ballet-dancer, a cantatrice, an actress; in short, he is a brigand-captain, with other brigands under him. And of the latter:—There are the Premiers Paris, alias, first tenors. In writing Premiers Paris, it is impossible for a man to avoid mental warp and rapid deterioration. In such writing, style would be a misfortune. One must know how to speak jesuitically; and, in order to advance, one must be clever in getting one's ideas to walk on crutches. Those who engage in the trade confess themselves corrupt; like diplomatists, they have as a pension the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles Lettres, a few librarianships, even archiveships.
Next to the Premiers Paris come the Faits Paris; then the Camarillists, other banditti commissioned to distort Parliamentary speeches; then the newspaper Politicians, who have not two ideas in their heads. If appointed under-officials, they would be unable to administer the sweeping of the streets. Consequently, the more incapable a man is, the better he is qualified to become the Grand Lama of a newspaper. Indeed, nothing is more explicable than politics. It is a game at ninepins.
In addition to its Politicians, the newspaper has its Attaches. The Attaches of the Republican party are watched very closely. One day two Republicans meet, and the first says to the second: "You have sold yourself; people find you are getting fatter." Whence it follows that any paper knowing its trade will have only exceedingly thin Attaches; otherwise your Attache will be a mere detached Attache, that is to say, a sort of paid spy, who is mostly a professor of rhetoric or philosophy. He will dine at all tables, with mission to attack political leaders; he runs in and out of newspaper offices, like a dog seeking his master; and, when he has bitten sharply, he becomes the professor of a fantastic science, the private secretary of some cabinet, or else consul-general.
Afterwards come the gendelettre pamphleteers. According to the author of the Monography, the pamphlet is the brochure masterpiece; and he himself is its most illustrious exponent. The Abbe de Lamennais does not know how to speak to the proletariat. He is not Spartacus enough, not Marat enough, not Calvin enough; he does not understand how to storm the positions of the ignoble bourgeoisie at present in power.
Following on are the gendelettre-vulgarisateurs, who have invented Germany. The type of this class is appointed professor in the College de France. He marches at the head of the Nothingologues; he is the almighty king of the Sorbonne. Such people are the skin parasites of France. The Nothingologue is ordinarily monobible;[*] and, as the bourgeoisie are essentially lacking in intelligence, they are infatuated with him. The Monobible becomes a director of canals, railways, the defender of negroes, or else the advocate of slavery; in a word, the Nothingologue is an important man, quite as the convinced gendelettre, who reserves to himself the Council of State, and as the sceptic gendelettre, who becomes Master of Requests or Governor of the Marquisas Isles.
[*] In Balzac's use of the word: A man who has written only one book and boasts of it always.
Replying to this diatribe, with its medley of shrewdness and exaggeration, Janin pointed out that it insulted Quinet, professor at the College de France; Sainte-Beuve, the poet, novelist, and critic, the historian of Port-Royal; Philarete Chasles, professor of Foreign Literature; Loeve Weimars, Consul at Bagdad; not to speak of Planche, Berlioz, Michel and Chevalier; and that it came amiss from a man who had lived and still lived on newspapers; who himself had been the chief managing editor, tenor, Jack-of-all-trades, canard-seller, camarillist, politician, premier-Paris, fait-Paris, detache-attache, pamphleteer, translator, critic, euphuist, bravo, incense-bearer, guerillero, angler, humbug, and even, what was more serious, the banker of a paper of which he was the only, unique, and perpetual gendelettre, and which, so admirably written, cleverly conducted, and signed with so great a name, did not live six months.
Within a very few years, Janin was to bury the hatchet of polemics beside Balzac's grave, and, forgetting the soreness generated in him by the Monography of the Press to constitute himself the dead author's apologist.
Besides his continuation of Lucien de Rubempre's story in the Splendour and Wretchedness of Courtezans, Balzac published, in the year 1843, two complete novels, viz. Honorine, and The Muse of the County, and a portion of an historical study on Catherine de Medici. This last work, to which the Calvinist Martyr belongs, was undertaken with the idea of composing, as he said, a retrospective history of France treated clairvoyantly, and, as the fragment shows, with his peculiar bias towards despotism. In the experiment made with Catherine de Medici, he started out thinking to justify and rehabilitate her memory. Instead, he found himself obliged to exhibit her committing the worst actions imaginable; and, his conclusions not concording with his premises, he abandoned further incursions into the past. History is a dangerous ground for a doctrinaire to investigate.
The former of the two novels is mainly psychological. The wife of a Count Octave, having quitted her husband for another, has repented of her fault and separated from her lover, but, through shamefastness, will not return to her husband. She seeks to gain a livelihood by flower-making; and her husband, who still loves her and is full of forgiveness, helps her secretly to obtain orders. At length, by the good offices of a secretary and the latter's uncle, a priest, he pleads with his wife more efficaciously, and induces her to return to him, yet without her pardoning herself; and she dies in giving birth to a child, dies because she wishes, rather from wounded pride, it would appear, than on account of her husband, to whose affection she is strangely insensible. The heroine is not particularly interesting with her morbidness and hysterical posing; she probably stands for one of Balzac's principles, and his principles are the most tedious thing about him.
With the Muse of the County, which the author declared to be Constant's Adolphe treated realistically, we are back in the truer Balzacian manner. Dinah de la Baudraye—a Sancerre Catherine de Vivonne—married to an apology for a man, is human flesh and blood; and her love for the journalist Etienne Lousteau is natural, though culpable. Indeed, her subsequent devotion to this shallow egotist is not without greatness. Here the novelist, as much by his wit as by his denouement, gives perhaps the best practical condemnation of adultery.
"Bah!" says the little de la Baudraye, "do you call it vengeance, because the Duke of Bracciano will kill his wife for putting him into a cage and showing herself to him in her lover's arms. Our tribunals and society are much more cruel."
"In what?" asked Lousteau.
"In letting the woman live with a slender allowance. Every one turns away from her. She has neither dress nor consideration, two things which are everything to a woman."
"But she has happiness," replied Madame de la Baudraye grandly.
"No!" replied the husband, lighting his candle to go to bed; "for she has a lover."
Dinah's punishment is of this kind. Persuaded at length to go back to the house of her husband, who had been made a peer of France and accepts Lousteau's children with her, she lives to see her former lover and father of her children sink so low that she must despise him, while still occasionally tempted to yield to his caresses.
When Alexandre Dumas, the younger, was received into the French Academy in 1875, the Count d'Haussonville, who welcomed him, asserted that the elder Dumas, like Balzac, Beranger, de Lamennais and others, had preferred to remain an outsider. In the case of Balzac, the Count was mistaken. The so-called preference was Hobson's choice. He stayed outside only because he could not get in. Between 1839 and 1849, he made several attempts to secure the promise of a number of votes sufficient to elect him. Having stood aside at the earlier date in favour of Victor Hugo, who was admitted in 1841, he thought he might count on a reciprocal service from the poet. And, on Bonald's death in the same year, he asked him, during the visit to Les Jardies, to use his influence with his colleagues in the Academy. "Hugo promised but little," says Gozlan; and Balzac had to wait for a better opportunity. This happened at the end of 1843, when Campenon died, and a vacancy occurred which he might reasonably claim to fill. Encouraged at present by Hugo and Charles Nodier, he began the round of visits required by Academy etiquette; but soon discovered that the members whose votes he solicited did not consider him rich enough. He therefore withdrew from the list of candidates, writing to Nodier that, if he could not succeed in entering the Academy while in honourable poverty, he would never present himself at the moment when prosperity should have bestowed her favours on him.
And, so far as personal solicitation was concerned, he never did. Though not abandoning his desire of belonging to the Forty, and esteeming rightly that the value of his work entitled him to a place among them, he felt after this rebuff that, if a fresh proposal were made, it should come from the other side. He might have done more to provoke it had not Madame Hanska been against his taking any further action in the matter, however indirect. Maybe she realized better than he did the uselessness of his candidature. The enemies he had in the Academy and its entourage were too powerful for his claims to be considered. Many years afterwards, Victor Hugo related that the novelist put himself forward for the vacancy left by Ballanche's death at the end of 1847, and apropos added the following anecdote.
"I was driving," he said, "down the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, when in front of the Church I perceived Monsieur de Balzac, who beckoned to me to stop. I was going to get out of the carriage, but he prevented me, and said: 'I was just coming to see you. You know I am on the list for the Academy.' 'Really!' 'Yes. What do you think of my chances?' 'You are too late, I fear. You will get only my vote.' 'It is your vote especially I want.' 'Are you quite in earnest?' 'Quite.' Balzac quitted me. The election was virtually decided. For political motives. The candidature of Monsieur Vatout had a majority of supporters. I tried to canvass for Balzac, but met with no success. It vexed me to think that a man of Balzac's calibre should have only one vote, and I reflected that if I could obtain a second one, I might create some change of opinion. How was I to gain it? On the election day I was sitting beside the excellent Pongerville, one of the best of men. I asked him point blank, 'For whom are you voting?' 'For Vatout, as you know.' 'I know it so little that I ask you to vote for Balzac.' 'Impossible!' 'Why?' 'Because my bulletin is ready. See.' 'Oh! that makes no matter.' And on two bits of paper I wrote in my best hand: 'Balzac.' 'Well!' quoth Pongerville; 'well! you will see.' The apparitor who was collecting the votes approached us. I handed him one of the bulletins I had prepared. Pongerville, in his turn, stretched out his hand to put Vatout's name in the urn; but, with a friendly tap on his fingers, I caused his paper to flutter to the floor. He looked, appeared irresolute for a moment; and, as I presented him with the second bulletin, on which Balzac's name was inscribed, he smiled, took it, and gave it with good grace. And that is how Honore de Balzac had two votes in his favour at the Academy."
This story is inexact chronologically. Balzac was not a candidate in 1847-48, when Monsieur Vatout was chosen, but at two later elections, those of the 11th and 18th of January 1849. In each of these he obtained two votes; and since the second election was to fill the chair of Monsieur Vatout, who died after occupying it during a twelvemonth, it would seem that Victor Hugo, deceived by his memory, confused the two events. As for the conversation with Balzac, it probably refers to the candidature which the novelist did begin in 1844; and either Hugo's age in 1877, when he told the story, or his capacity for embellishing was responsible for the interview being tacked on to the election incident of 1849.
The Pongerville mentioned by Hugo was the same in whose album, in 1844, Balzac wrote a couple of complimentary verses. He happened to come across the album at his sister's, and, after inserting his poetry, took the book to Pongerville's house without finding him at home. He had certainly reckoned, at the close of the preceding year, on having this Academician's vote, as well as Dupaty's, Hugo's, and Nodier's. Pongerville may have deemed his own tardy support a sufficient reward for the verses.
Although Balzac's monetary embarrassments were fated to persist as long as he lived, the causes being so much in the man, their burden was somewhat less felt in and from the year 1844. This better state of things was proved by his looking round for a more commodious residence. The Passy cottage, picturesque as it was, accorded but ill with his designs of marrying so grand a dame; and even for his work was not very suitable, being close to the flats of the Rue Basse, where families lived with children that disturbed his meditations. He would have liked to free Les Jardies from its mortgage and keep the place as a summer resort, while renting a snug mansion in the city during the winter; but the two abodes were hardly within his means, unless Eve would loosen her purse-strings. "I will not sell it," he informed her, referring to his "Folly"; "it was built with my blood and brains. I will stick to it—if I cannot dispose of it advantageously," he finished up with, inconsequently. And still she made no sign; or, rather she proffered no cash. Business advice she gave in plenty. About each of the Paris houses suggested she had some objections to make, so that, after fixing successively on a residence belonging to Madame Delannoy (one of his creditor friends) in the Rue Neuve-des Mathurins, on the old mansion opposite his Passy abode once possessed by the Princesse de Lamballe, on the property in the Rue Ponthieu, and on a plot of land in the Allee des Veuves where he thought they could build, the end of the year arrived without any definite solution being reached. The two "louloups," as he called himself and Eve, filled their correspondence with calculations and figures, the Paris "louloup" expressing his conviction that figures were the foundation of their happiness.
If he did not die too soon, she might consider she would marry a million in giving him her hand, he said. Slily, he now and again quoted his worth in the estimation of a rival feminine authority. For example, Madame de Girardin was about to write an article on the great conversationalists of the day, and had mentioned that she held him to be one of the most charming. However, when he raised his rate of exchange in this way, he was always prudent enough to follow up with concessions. His intimacy with the Englishwoman, Madame Visconti, who was Eve's bugbear, he broke off completely—at least he swore he had done so and offered to send his beloved tyrant the cold letter in which his whilom friend and benefactress bade him good-bye. To let Eve see it would not be gallant on his part, he confessed; but what could he deny her, if she persisted. He was her Paris agent, even her Paris errand-boy, at one time negotiating the entrance of the governess, Mademoiselle Borel, into the Saint-Thomas-de-Velleneuve nunnery; at another, purchasing gloves, millinery, and other articles of dress. Yet she never considered him submissive enough, notwithstanding his pretty flattery.
"Why shouldn't you have a poet?" he asked, thinking of himself, "as other people have a dog, a monkey, a parrot—the more so as I have in me something of these three creatures: I always repeat the same phrase, I imitate society, I am faithful." And again in a burst of lyricism, he exclaimed: "Adieu, loved friend, to whom I belong like the sound to the bell, the dog to his master, the artist to his ideal, prayer to God, pleasure to cause, colour to the painter, life to the sun. Love me, for I need your affection, so vivifying, so coloured, so agreeable, so celestial, so ideally good, of such sweet dominance, and so constantly vibrating." With comparisons of this sort he was lavish. "I am like Monsieur de Talleyrand," he told her in another letter. "Either I show a stolid, tin face and do not speak a word, or else I chatter like a magpie." Adopting the expression first invented by Guizot, he characterized their mutual relations as an entente cordiale, impatient, none the less, for the realization of his fancy, which was to see his idol enter a tabernacle prepared to receive her on the return from a delightful honeymoon. Meanwhile, he was amassing furniture and bric-a-brac, just as the bird bits of straw; and he implored her not to scold him. In the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin, he had ferreted out two Dresden vases, which he bought, resolving to deprive himself for a time of his grapes at forty sous a pound, in order to retrieve the money.
The retrieval indeed was not easy, since his passion for collecting curios led him far, and he generally succumbed to the temptation of something ancient and rare. In the previous autumn he had bought, for thirteen hundred and fifty francs, a secretaire and commode in ebony, with inlaid pearl, that had apparently been manufactured at Florence in the seventeenth century; these objets d'art he estimated at values ranging up to forty or fifty thousand francs. A description of them appeared in the press, and rich amateurs inquired whether he were willing to sell; but, either because he asked too much or really did not want to part with them, they were kept, as also his Christ by Bouchardon or Girardon, which he obtained for two hundred francs and valued at several thousands. If he had no cash for his purchases —and this frequently happened—he placed one of his already acquired treasures (possibly unpaid for, too) in the establishment of his "respectable relative," as he styled the pawnbroker, and thus secured the coveted object.
In his intercourse with his own family, Madame Hanska was a continuously troubling factor. The prospect of his alliance with this foreign aristocrat had less charm for Madame Balzac and Laure than for Honore. They probably perceived the chimera he was pursuing, and could not be expected to show enthusiasm. This attitude on their side and a certain hauteur on his, partly caused by offended dignity, widened the breach between him and them. "I have now no family," he told "The Stranger," "and am glad that the coldness should be established before I am completely happy; for later the reason of it would have been attributed to you, or to what would have been termed my uppishness. The isolation, which you wish, will be likewise my dearest desire. My sister," he proceeded, "has suppressed for ever the literary question betwixt us, with her blue-stocking whims. I cannot talk to her of my affairs, nor yet of my mother's. She asserts that her husband is a greater man than I am." Madame de Berny, he added, had foreseen his mother's and sister's transformation when she told him he was a flower that had sprung up on a dunghill! If Madame de Berny told him this, it was no doubt in a fit of anger against them for endeavouring to sever the liaison, an endeavour they were perfectly justified in. These portions of Balzac's confidences, which reflect upon his character seriously, and besmirch him more than those against whom they were spoken, cannot be overlooked in a biography. They have to be included in our judgment of him, and, in a measure, concern the tragic close of his love romance.
We are fonder of him in the expansive moods when his naive wonder at his own performances carries him into self-panegyric, which, not infrequently, we can endorse, though with some discount. Thus, for instance, the Bourgeois of Paris he declared to be one of those masterpieces that leave everything else behind. "It is grand, it is terrifying in verve, in philosophy, in novelty, in painting, in style." And yet there was Eugene Sue selling the Wandering Jew to a newspaper for a hundred thousand francs, while the Philosophy of Conjugal Life, a publication of his own in Hetzel's Diable a Paris, fetched only eight hundred; and the Peasants was paid for only at the rate of sixty centimes a line. His Modeste Mignon which appeared in the Debats, sold rather dearer, six thousand francs being given, and for the Bourgeois, nine thousand. The explanation of Sue's getting more than he he imagined to be because Sue lived in grander style than himself with flunkeys to open the door and overawe the publishers who flocked to the successful writer, whereas he, living in a cottage, had to cool his heels in an office ante-chamber, and was exploited on account of his neediness. There was some truth in what he said; but he did not sufficiently realize that Sue wrote, for the market, exciting tales that everybody rushed to read. His own books were, of course, most of them infinitely superior; but they appealed to a much smaller public. All the same, he was loth to resign himself to the depreciation Sue's bargains effected in his own. Feverishly he strove to demonstrate by his painfully gained successes that they were masterpieces, as he said, by the side of Sue's chimney-fronts, and as far above them as Raphael was above Dubufe. Moliere, Lesage, Voltaire, Walter Scott—these were the only names he acknowledged as rivals to his own. Sue was nothing but a spangled and satined Paul de Kock.
We can grant him that, in fiction, his proper manner was as far in advance of his epoch as, in politics, his doctrine was behind it. George Sand was a medium in both, although she dwelt always a little too much in the clouds. At a dinner with her towards the end of January, the antagonism of their principles manifested itself over his recent visit to Russia.
"If you were to see the Czar," Balzac said to her, "you would fall in love with him and jump from your bousingotism[*] to autocracy."
[*] A word used to characterise the dress and manners of the Romanticists, who were fond of Robespierre waistcoats, long hair, and other peculiarities intended to distinguish them from ordinary mortals.
Madame Dudevant waxed angry. It was not kind in a man who had resisted her blandishments to make merry over her foibles.
The Russians, he gravely told her, were extremely amiable, easy to get on with, exceedingly literary, since everything was done on paper, and Russia was the only country in which people knew how to obey.
The mention of obedience in a people irritated the hostess; but on her seething he poured a drop of cold water by asking jestingly:
"Would you, in a great danger, wish your servants to deliberate about what you had ordered them to do?"
The Sandist-Philosophico-Republico-Communico-Pierre-Lerouxico-Geranico-Deisto train (the epithets are Balzac's) stopped dead at the question. Then Marliani, one of the guests, remarked that argument was impossible with poets. Balzac bowed, and added:
"You hear what he says?"
"You are a dreadful satirist," retorted George Sand. "Go on with your Comedie Humaine."
It was not necessary to give the recommendation. He was for ever going on; and the further he went, the further his horizons receded. The embracing lines were rather indiscriminate. He came to think himself capable of reducing every domain to his scale. Men's ambitions, however, are part of their motive power; and, had his been less sweeping, the qualities of his work might have diminished with the defects. "Four men," he cried in one of his vauntings, "have had an immense life, Napoleon, Cuvier, O'Connell, and—I mean to be the fourth! The first lived with the life of Europe; he inoculated himself with armies! The second espoused the globe! The third incarnated in himself a people! As for me! I shall have borne a whole society in my head! It is just as well to live thus as every evening to say, 'Spades, hearts, trumps;' or to wonder why Madame such a one has done such and such a thing."
Modeste Mignon, which was published in 1844 with the extra attraction of some of Auber's music in it is one of Balzac's brighter and lighter books, and reproduces part of his own last love-story more objectively treated than in Albert Savarus. Its plot was suggested to him by a short tale which Madame Hanska composed, intending to submit it for his approval, but which she threw in the fire, afterwards sending him, in one of her epistles, an outline of what she had done. Since he utilized her invention, he paid her back by selecting as his point of departure the adventure of a well-educated girl of literary tastes, who, through reading the verses of the celebrated Canalis, at once a poet and a statesman, fell in love with him and expressed her (literary) admiration in a letter, though she had never seen him. There were other such cases in the first half of the nineteenth century besides that of the Polish Countess and the author of Eugenie Grandet. Disdaining to reply to a correspondent who did not appear to be a person with whom he could take liberties, Canalis delegated the task to his friend and secretary, La Briere, who answered under cover of the great man's name and ultimately found out and, incognito, beheld the lady. She was beautiful and he lost his heart to her. When later the subterfuge was discovered, Canalis, interested now, wanted to marry the lady, she being presumably rich. Through pique, Modeste, for a while, listened to his suit and smiled on him, albeit, in verity, she was touched by La Briere's sincere affection. The circumstances leading to the unmasking of Canalis' selfish character and to Modeste's marriage with La Briere are handled in a less Balzacian way than the introductory chapters, which, however, are more than usually tortuous. But the whole story is pleasing; and, in the discursive paragraphs, there is less dogmatism and a more delicate sense of contrasts than the novelist is wont to exhibit when astride a hobby-horse. The following passage has an aroma of Shelley's Defence of Poetry in it, which merits our attention. The divine in man says:
"In order to live, thou shalt bend thyself towards earth; in order to think thou shalt raise thyself heavenwards. We want the life of the soul as much as that of the body; whence there are two utilities. Thus it is certain that a book will not serve as foot-gear; an epic, from the utilitarian point of view, is not worth an economical soup from the kitchen of a Benevolent Society; and a self-acting boiler, rising a couple of inches on itself, procures calico a few pence a yard cheaper; but this machine and the improvements of industry do not breathe life into a nation, and will not tell the future that it has existed; whereas Egyptian art, Mexican art, Grecian art, Roman art, with their masterpieces accused of uselessness, have attested the existence of these peoples in the vast expanse of time, there where huge intermediary nations, destitute of great men, have disappeared without leaving their visiting cards on the globe. All works of genius are the epitome of a civilization, and presuppose an immense utility. Forsooth, a pair of boots will not outvie a stage-play in your eyes, and you will not prefer a windmill to the Church of Saint Ouen. So, a people is animated with the same sentiment as a man; and man's favourite idea is to survive himself mentally as he reproduces himself physically. The survival of a people is the work of its men of genius."
Beatrix, the other completed novel of the year, is a drawn-out, ill-composed work, which is not redeemed sufficiently by its minute description of Breton manners and its portrait of George Sand in Felicite des Touches. Six years separated the publication of the first part of the book from that of the conclusion, and, in the interval, the unity of plan suffered. Balzac devoted a good deal of labour to its execution. In all the conjugal ruses employed by Sabine de Grandlieu to detach Calyste, her husband, from Beatrix, he displays his peculiar talent, but the ultimate effect is poor.
LETTERS TO "THE STRANGER," 1845, 1846
Though fertile in incidents, the year of 1845 was, from a literary point of view, more barren than any in Balzac's past career, exception, of course, made for the time lost during his printing-house adventure. Beyond his short, witty sketch, A Man of Business, relating the tricks employed by the princes of bohemianism to pay their debts and indulge their caprices gratis, no finished work was published. The Peasants, which the author never entirely got through, was taken up repeatedly, and as often put aside from sheer inability to proceed.
The deadlock in which he found himself had been preparing since his visit to Saint Petersburg. Whether the intimacy created there between Madame Hanska and himself was that of two lovers in the chaster sense, or, as Monsieur Gabriel Ferry assets, in his Balzac et ses Amies, that of a closer union, it had haunted him during his subsequent twelvemonth's loneliness. And when Eve, who had come to spend the winter at Dresden, discouraged, from fear of her society friends' backbiting, the idea of his going there to see her, he grew incapable of concentrating his mind on his books; and, even in his letters to her, chafed and was irritable, scolding her for not stamping her envelopes, and recommending her to acquire habits of order and economy! confessing the while that, to escape from his melancholy, he had been playing lansquenet, dining out, going to the theatres, and leading a nonchalant life.
The tone was a bold one to assume, but clever. His tyrant, already repenting the pledges given, had been hinting it would be better not to carry them out. Her own relatives were quite as much against the match as Balzac's, she reminded him, while narrating all the malicious tittle-tattle that mutual acquaintances were constantly telling her. She defended him, she said. "A mistake!" retorted Balzac. "When, in your presence, any one attacks me, your best plan is to mock the slanderers by outdoing them. When some one sneeringly remarked to Dumas that his father was a nigger, he answered: 'My grandfather was a monkey.'"
His scolding for once did good. Eve did not like his "wounding prose," but she talked no more of breaking with him. On the contrary, she relented as far as to remove the embargo on his going to Dresden; so in May he went. And, what was more, she came in August to Paris; incognito, since the visit was without the Czar's permission, she and her daughter Anna travelling from the frontier under the names of Balzac's sister and niece.
In the novelist's correspondence, there is a curious letter written on the 2nd of August to Madame Emile de Girardin. In it the writer excuses himself for not calling on her, being obliged to remain at home on account of the disquieting condition of a lady friend of his who had hurt herself and was under medical treatment. The inference is that the lady in question was staying in his house; and a note written to Madame Hanska, on the 4th of September, with its allusion to the Passy garden in which they had walked so much together, makes it sufficiently plain that she was the August guest. Although no proofs have yet come to light which we can accept as irrefutable, there seems to be ground for the supposition put forward that a premature confinement was the illness, carefully concealed from every one.
If the supposition be correct, it explains the convalescent's being joined by Balzac again in September at Baden-Baden, where the arrangements were made for Eve and himself to meet in October at Chalon-sur-Saone and to travel together to Italy. It was during this second stay in Germany that the play of the Saltimbanques they had seen suggested to the novelist the amusing nicknames which he henceforth adopted when writing to Madame Hanska's family. Anna was dubbed Zephirine; her betrothed, Gringalet; Eve, Atala; and himself, Bilboquet. Georges, the betrothed, who was a Pole bearing the title of Count Mniszech, was a young man of scientific tastes and considerable learning, for whom Balzac conceived a great liking, and whom he helped in his entomological researches.
The ramble southwards was probably the most pleasurable experience in the novelist's life, being an anticipated honeymoon. From Chalon they journeyed along the banks of the Rhone, visiting no fewer than twenty-three towns on the way. At Naples they parted, and the prospective bridegroom turned Paris-wards, going via Pisa, Civita Vecchia, and Marseilles; in this last city he comforted himself for the separation by hunting out further adornments for the home he was still busily striving to find in the capital.
At Marseilles lived a poet-friend of his named Mery, whom he had enlisted as a collaborator in his teeming dramatic schemes. Him he commissioned to bargain for certain articles of vertu which Lazard, the famous dealer in antiquities, quoted too dear—eight hundred francs for a mirror, and five hundred for a statuette. "Let Lazard see that you will give a thousand francs for the two things," he advised Mery; "but don't offer more than nine. Glance stoically at the articles when passing by, and joke the dealer. Then send acquaintances to offer a little less than you. After a fortnight's haggling, Lazard will let you have them one fine morning." For getting the better of these sly shopkeepers, Balzac had a good many devices up his sleeve.
Back in Passy, he was seized again by the same restlessness as in the spring, thwarting his efforts to settle down to his desk. The utmost he could accomplish was to wander about, note-book in hand, collecting material for later use. Happening in December to be near the Assize Courts, he went in to listen to the trial of Madame Colomes, a niece of Marshal Sebastiani, who was accused of forging bills. He was struck by her strong resemblance to the dead Dilecta, and also by her attachment, herself being forty-five years of age, to a young man of twenty. The latter, after wasting in riotous living the money she had procured him by her forgeries, fled and left her to bear the brunt of her shame. The most repugnant detail of this unfortunate woman's case Balzac utilized not long afterwards in his Cousin Bette.
Perhaps it was less his ennui than the curiosity for new sensations which caused him to accept Gautier's invitation to pass an evening with Baudelaire and one or two others, at the Hotel Pimodan, for the purpose of eating hashish. He experienced none of the extraordinary phenomena usually attributed to the consumption of this drug, his explanation being that the dose was too weak, or his brain too strong. However, he owned to having heard celestial voices and to having seen divine paintings while he descended Lauzun's staircase, in a promenade that seemed to have lasted twenty years. He does not appear to have repeated the intoxication. Yet, on receiving another unkind epistle from Eve, shortly afterwards, he mentioned the possibility of arming himself against his sea of troubles through the drug's lethal properties.
In anything that had to do with the function of the brain, he was as interested as if medicine had been his profession. A book of Dr. Moreau's on madness, which he read during these months of mental relaxation, drew from him an acknowledgment wherein he foreshadowed his intention of studying anatomy and myology. "I believe," he said, "we shall do no good until we have determined the action exercised by the physical organs of thought in the production of madness. The organs are the containing sheaths of some fluid or other as yet inappreciable. I hold this for proved. Well! there are a certain number of organs which are vitiated by their lack, by their constitution, others which are vitiated by an excess of afflux. People, who, like Cuvier and Voltaire, have exercised their organs early, have rendered them so powerful that no excess can affect them; whereas those who keep to certain portions of the ideal encephalos, which we represent as the laboratory of thought—the poets, who leave deduction and analysis inactive and exploit the heart and imagination exclusively—may become mad. In short, there would be a fine experiment to make. I have thought of it for twenty years. This would be to reconstitute the brain of an idiot, to demonstrate whether a thinking apparatus can be created by developing its rudiments. Only by building up a brain shall we know how one is demolished."
The beginning of the new year did not bring back his former zeal for labour. Much of his time he frittered away in adding to his collections. Here he picked up a portrait of Queen Marie Leczinska by a pupil of Coypel, there, a Flemish lustre for which he paid four hundred and fifty francs. Eve reproached him with his idleness, presumably because he was too frequently at the house of Madame de Girardin. To calm her he penned a few remarks anent that lady not exactly complimentary. "Madame de Girardin," he said, "who is charming among a few friends, is a less agreeable hostess when she holds a large reception. She belies her origin only by her talent; but, when she is outside her talent, she becomes once more her mother's daughter, that is to say 'bourgeoise' and 'Gay' thoroughbred." To the soiree which drew from him this jibe, he had been invited to meet Sheridan's granddaughter—an English bore, he styled her—who looked him up and down through an eye-glass as if he were an actor. His relations with Emile, Delphine's husband, continued to be marked by breezes. Before starting for Rome on the 17th of March, he sent him a few sharp lines complaining of the Presse's delay in printing the Peasants. As a matter of fact, the readers of the Presse were not pleased with the story; and the editor had been obliged to request the author to modify the unpublished part. Balzac complied, but felt sore.
The earlier chapters of this novel appeared in 1844; the last ones did not come out until five years after the novelist's death. The plot of the book turns on the struggle waged by the peasants and petty bourgeois of Soulanges against a new but estimable landlord, General Montcornet, whose estate they are determined to have by hook or by crook in their own hands, not hesitating, at least some of them, to assassinate the honest agent who strives to protect his employer's property against their depredations. All these country folk Balzac has portrayed with effects depending on the painter's and sculptor's art as much nearly as on the writer's; and the inmates and visitors of the village-inn and coffee-house are individualized with an anatomical intensity fringing on the brutal. Like the Village Cure and the Country Doctor, the Peasants is a novel with a purpose and a warning. The author preaches against the dividing up of the land; and advocates agriculture on a large scale by a reversion to the old estates with their castles and forests. As adjuvants to these he pleads for the development of Catholicism, a wider influence of the clergy both in education and private life. His picture of peasant avarice has been repeated by later writers, Guy de Maupassant and Zola. True in many particulars, it is traced by a prejudiced mind, and cannot be accepted as thoroughly representative.
At Rome he found Madame Hanska, and stayed with her there till May. Instead of describing the Eternal City to his sister, he referred her to de Lamennais' accounts, himself being fully occupied with his companion and sight-seeing. He was duly received by the Pope, and obtained a small crown chaplet for his mother, together with His Holiness' blessing. Saint Peter's surpassed his expectations, and the choir's Miserere so delighted him that he went to hear it a second time in lieu of that of the Sixtine Chapel. The journey back through Genoa, the Grisons, and Bale was a pretext for continuing his bric-a-brac purchases, Holbein's Saint Peter being added to his treasures.
Reaching Paris at last, he now took up his pen with his old ardour. Fresh pledges for the future had been given him by Eve. These served to lure him onward; and behind him were the creditors who had lent him money for his trip, and were wanting some of it restored. At this period Madame Hanska's funds and his own were partly associated. Some of her capital and some of his own, probably the sum accruing from the sale of Les Jardies, at present definitive, had been invested in North Railway Shares. Besides, not a few of his paintings and antique pieces of furniture had been paid for with advances from her strong-box.
The two works that issued from his new effort of creation were Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons. These, with Pierrette, made up his series of the Poor Relations.
The Old Musician, as he originally called Pons, was meant to give us the case of a man overwhelmed with humiliations and insults, yet preserving his generosity and pardoning everybody and everything, avenging himself only through kindness. Composed, like Cesar Birotteau, very rapidly, it bears evidence of the author's haste. There is no proper love interest in the book, the lack being supplied by the friendship between Pons and the old German musician, Schmucke. A number of subordinate biographies are interwoven with the principal story—those of the banker Brunner, the Auvergnat Remonencq, the Cibots, who were Pons' porters and caterers, Doctor Poulain and Lawyer Fraisier. We have plots within plots, wheels within wheels, in this strange, pathetic life of the musician, whose collecting hobby and expert's skill in finding out rarities Balzac dwells on with all the greater detail as he was indulging at that time his own bent in this direction with peculiar zest and success. But the complexity and crowding are foils one is glad to have against the sordid treachery of the Cibot household, as, too, against the woes of Pons and Schmucke. Perhaps nowhere in his achievement has the novelist got deeper down to the rockbed of genuine humanity than in this work. Cousin Pons was published in 1847. Cousin Bette came a year earlier.
Besides the two novels just mentioned, Balzac finished, during this same period, the long series in which Vautrin is a chief, if not the chief, character; and also a book variously named the Brothers of Consolation and the Reverse Side of Contemporary History. In the Vautrin sequels he took up again the fortunes of Lucien de Rubempre, who, after returning in disgrace to his family, loses courage and is on the point of drowning himself when he meets with an Abbe Carlos Herrera; the latter changes the young man's suicidal intentions by promising to procure him wealth, rank, and honours. Herrera is no other than Vautrin, who, having escaped from prison, is at the head of a formidable association of convicts. Carefully hiding his identity from Lucien, he persuades him to accept monetary help; and gradually Lucien contrives to enter aristocratic society, becomes the favourite of the Duchess of Serizy, and will be received as the betrothed of the nobly born Clotilde de Grandlieu, provided he can show that he possesses sufficient landed property. It so happens that his mistress Esther, a Jewess of great beauty, who is as fond of him as Coralie was, kills herself on learning that she must give him up. And Esther being in reality an heiress whose father, Gobseck, has just died, Vautrin forges a will by which the fortune is bequeathed to Lucien. Unluckily for the ex-convict's plans, some police spies have been on the track of his proceedings, and an untimely arrest of him and his protege casts them into prison. These adventures are told in Whither Bad Ways Lead and two other volumes. A concluding book, entitled Vautrin's Last Incarnation, relates the outlaw's duel with justice in his confinement, the suicide of his disciple, and his own pardon at the price of entering into the Government's secret police. The later portions of this drawn-out piece of fiction are written in the melodramatic style, and the characterization is distinctly inferior. The author loses himself in the various imbroglios, and the actors degenerate into creatures of romance, lacking consistency.
The Reverse Side of Contemporary History has similar defects. It was commenced in the Musee des Familles in 1842, was continued in 1844, and was completed only in 1848 in the Spectateur Republicain. We meet at first with a certain Godefroi who reaches middle age without obtaining any permanent satisfaction out of his life, and who thinks of burying himself in some quiet quarter of Paris where he can dwell unknowing and unknown. An accident introduces him to a kind of lay community whose presiding spirit is a Madame de la Chanterie, and whose members are a priest and three old gentlemen. These people are devoting what remains to them of their existence to alleviating pain and distress. Godefroi is admitted into the association, and, during his novice expedition, has a curious experience which leads to the disclosure of Madame de la Chanterie's past. This is narrated in the second half of the book. We get the whole of that lady's tragic history, an unjust trial of which she was the victim, the Nemesis which punished the bad judge in his daughter's frightful malady and his poverty, and the heaping of coals of fire on his head by the woman who had suffered so direly through him. On arriving at the end of the story we cannot recognize it as the one we were made acquainted with at the outset. The tangle of episode and explanation—the latter confusing more than it explains—which intervenes in the middle, issues in a coarser thread that persists till the close. And yet the start was a fair one.
With Cousin Bette, we are back among the monstrosities. Bette is the poor relation who, unlike Pons, revenges herself for her humiliations and the insults bestowed on her. She aids in the pecuniary and moral ruin of the Hulot family, acts in cold blood, and attains her object before she dies. She is not the only perverted nature delineated. There is the Baron Hulot, whose odious licentiousness brings him to a veritable cretinism. There is Crevel, a grotesque, contemptible dupe; there are the Marneffes, sinks of corruption; and, with these, other minor characters—the vindictive Brazilian who wreaks his wrath on Madame Marneffe and on Crevel by his mysterious death-causing gift. The ideally virtuous Adeline Hulot also the novelist belittles, making her offer herself to Crevel to save her husband from the consequences of his degrading passions. Nearly all the book is harrowing, and even the atmosphere of the bohemian circles, where conversation is one sparkle of satire, is heavily tainted with vice.
George Sand protested against Madame Hulot's portrait as unnatural; and, herself being the contrary of prudish in sexual relations, the opinion cannot be called prejudiced. Balzac defended his treatment, while admitting there was force in what she said. Arguing with her on their respective methods, he replied: "You seek to paint man as he ought to be. I take him as he is. Believe me, we are both right. Both ways lead to the same goal. I am fond of exceptional beings. I am one myself. Moreover, I need them to give relief to my common characters; and I never sacrifice them without necessity. But these common characters interest me more than they interest you. I aggrandize them; I idealize them in an inverse direction, in their ugliness or their stupidity. I give to their deformity terrifying or grotesque proportions. You could not do this. You are wise not to look at people and things that would cause you nightmare. Idealize in that which is pretty and beautiful. This is woman's task."