In spite of sheriff's summonses and stormy discussions with those to whom he still had indebtedness, and in spite, too, of a tropical summer, the would-be bride-groom toiled cheerfully on through 1846. His Passy cottage was becoming, with the continually augmented collection, quite a museum, and Bertall, the artist-caricaturist, was in ecstasies over a china service estimated by its owner at some thousands of francs. His good humour rendered him his former conversational brilliancy, which had been somewhat damped during the past twelvemonth, and, at one of Delphine Gay's dinners, where he met Hugo and Lamartine, he replied to Jove's heavy artillery with a raking fire from his own quick-firing guns. Lamartine was enchanted. Balzac must go to the Chamber was his verdict. But Balzac, at present, was content to correspond with his Eve and to occupy himself with the restoration of the pictures she was helping him to buy. One of these, the Chevalier of Malta, he had acquired on Gringalet's recommendation when in Rome. It had been bistered over by the dealer with a view to hiding a scratch, and there was also the dirt of age upon it. Requisitioning a clever craftsman in picture-restoring, he submitted the treasure to him. "It's a masterpiece," pronounced the expert: "but what will it be worth when the dirt is off?" Three days later the restorer came back with his drugs and implements. And, first, he rubbed a corner with some cotton dipped in one of his mixtures, which frothed the painting white. Then for an hour he scrubbed the surface progressively until he had a lot of little cotton balls all black. Afterwards, he began again, for the dirt was in layers, and, at the conclusion of the scrubbing and brushing, the chevalier emerged as life-like and fresh as when painted by the pupil of Raphael—Albert Durer or another—three hundred years before. The scratch was easily repaired, and Balzac was beside himself with joy. Relating to Georges Mniszech this happy result, which enriched his gallery containing already more than half-a-dozen old masters of great value, he said: "When connoisseurs and dilletanti come to visit my collection I shall say to them, 'I owe this head to a young professor of entomology; he is a charming young man, full of wit and feeling, who, for the moment, is buried in bliss, science, and the steppes of the Ukraine. He is so versed in paintings that he is a boon to his friends. Oh! I assure you he out-experts all the experts of Paris put together. What is his name?—Gringalet!—No, really!—As truly as I am called Bilboquet.'"
The bliss referred to was Georges' approaching marriage with Eve's daughter Anna, which was celebrated very unostentatiously at Wiesbaden in October, owing to the recent death of the Count's father. Balzac went to the wedding, and stayed with the family for four days. He had already spent a short time with them in August, on the occasion of the old Count Mniszech's death, and, on his return journey, had been accompanied by Madame Hanska as far as Strasburg, where she made him such a definite statement regarding their marriage as amounted to an official engagement. It was between the two visits that he commissioned Georges to buy Atala a Voltaire-armchair for her greater ease and comfort.
While at the wedding, he was able to tell Eve that he had at last come upon a house which was everything that could be desired for them two selves. It was the smaller remaining portion of the splendid mansion and grounds built for the famous financier, Beaujon, by the architect Girardin in the eighteenth century. The original property, situated near the Arc de Triomphe, was nicknamed by contemporaries Beaujon's Folly. At the owner's death, the mansion and grounds were sold, and subsequently the Rues Chateaubriand, Lord Byron, and Fortunee were cut through the place. The abode chosen by the novelist bordered on the Rue Fortunee. From its staircase there was an entrance into a private chapel, which the financier had had constructed in his old age for his soul's edification, and in which he was finally buried. The outside of the house in Balzac's time was modest in appearance. Alone, a cupola, seen above the containing walls, suggested memories of bygone glory. Inside, there were still very substantial pieces of luxury and artistic decoration that needed only touching up to be practically what they had been of yore. Balzac detailed all this to his betrothed, and his selection was approved. No sooner was he in Paris again than the bargain was settled, and orders were given for the necessary repairs and renovation to be executed.
The end of 1846 seemed to smile on these projects of a speedy installation in conformity with his desires. Though the North Railway Shares had declined considerably, he was earning a good deal of money. Cousin Bette yielded him thirteen thousand francs, and Cousin Pons was sold for nine—modest prices indeed; but the total, with other sources of revenue, gave him for the twelvemonth an income of about fifty thousand francs. In the Beaujon mansion the workmen soon accomplished prodigies, transforming its dilapidated rooms into ship-shape and elegance. Bilboquet issued special instructions for apartments to be fitted up for Gringalet and Zephirine—a bedchamber and small salon, both circular and sculptured, with paintings on the arches, worthy of the destined aristocratic occupants.
Urged on by the sight of these preparations, he threw himself with almost frenzy into fresh literary labour. Dr. Nacquart warned him against the consequences of such brain debauch, as he termed it, prophesying that harm would ensue. And the doctor was right. Balzac was soon to pay for his excesses. Just now there was much in the political firmament that caused the novelist anxiously to wish that his own fortunes and those of Eve were indissolubly united. "Make haste!" was his constant cry to her.
"I see," he said, "Italy and Germany ready to move. Peace hangs only by a thread—the life of Louis-Philippe, who is growing old; and, if war comes, Heaven knows what would happen to us. . . . For a young and ambitious sovereign who would not want, like Louis-Philippe, above all to die quietly in his bed, how favourable the moment would be to regain the left bank of the Rhine. The populations are harassed by petty, imbecile royalties. England is at loggerheads with Ireland, who seeks to ruin her or separate from her. All Italy is preparing to shake off the yoke of Austria. Germany desires her unity, or perhaps more liberty merely. Anyway, we are on the eve of great catastrophes. In France, it is our interest to wait, our cavalry and navy not being strong enough to enable us to triumph on land and sea; but, when these two are improved and our defence-works completed, France will be redoubtable. One must admit, that, by the manner Louis-Philippe is administering and governing, he is making her the first Power in the world. Just think! Nothing is factitious with us. Our army is a fine one; we have money; everything is strong and real at present. When the port of Algiers is terminated, we shall have a second Toulon in front of Gibraltar; we are advancing in the domination of the Mediterranean. Spain and Belgium are with us. This man has made progress. If he were ambitious and wished to chant the Marseillaise, he would demolish three empires to his advantage."
The foregoing outlook on the future neglected certain signs of the times equally necessary to be taken into account with others that were perceived. In politics especially, the humourist's detachment is essential to correct perspective, and of humour Balzac had but small share. As compensation, pleasantry was not wanting in this Duc de Bilboquet, peer of France and other places—as he subscribed himself to his dear Gringalet.
In February 1847, for the second time, Madame Hanska came to Paris incognito. The Beaujon house was nearly ready, and as mistress of it that was to be, her instructions were required for the garnishing. The happy Bilboquet conducted her to the Opera, the Italiens, the Conservatoire, and also to the Varietes where they saw Bouffe and Hyacinthe play in the laughable Filleul de tout le Monde. It was intended that she should stay till April, and that then he should take her back to Germany, leaving her there to pursue her journey to Wierzchownia, whither he was to proceed later. The novelist's so far published correspondence has large gaps in the year 1847, with an entire lack of letters to Eve—yet such exist—so that we do not learn whether the intermediate programme was executed. Until the third volume of the Letters to the Stranger is published, it will be impossible to fill in accurately the history of the months between February and October, in which, however, events of importance occurred. One of these was Balzac's burning all Madame Hanska's epistles to him. Why? Apparently on account of a quarrel. And the quarrel? Was it caused by her finding out that, in 1846, he had a liaison with a lady resulting in the birth of a six months' child, which did not survive? Monsieur de Lovenjoul, who is the authority for this last information, mentions that the harassment Balzac suffered from the affair was largely responsible for the rapid progress of the heart-disease that finally killed him.
During the month of April[*] he was occupied in removing his furniture from the Passy cottage to his new residence. Theophile Gautier, who paid him a visit there not long after the installation, gave a sketch of what he saw in an article that appeared in the Artiste. He says:
[*] On the house in Passy; the dates indicating the period of the novelist's residence there are incorrect. It is to be hoped that the error, which has been pointed out to the Curator, will be rectified.
"When one entered this dwelling, which, indeed, was not easy, since the occupant kept himself close there, a thousand tokens of luxury and comfort were noticeable which were but little in agreement with the poverty that he pleaded. One day, however, he received us, and we saw a dining-room wainscoted in old oak, with table, chimney-piece, sideboards, dressers, and chairs, all in wood so carved as to have caused envy to Cornejo Duque and Verbruggen, if they had been present; a drawing-room upholstered in buttercup damask, and with doors, cornices, skirting-board, and embrasures in ebony; a library arranged in bookcases inlaid with tortoise-shell and brass in Boule style; a bathroom in yellow and black marble, with stucco bass-reliefs; a dome boudoir, whose ancient paintings had been restored by Edmond Hedouin; a gallery lighted from above, which we recognized later in the collection of Cousin Pons. There were what-nots laden with all sorts of curiosities, Dresden and Sevres china, cornet-shaped vases of frosted celadon, and, on the carpeted staircase, large porcelain bowls, and a magnificent lantern suspended by a red silk cord. 'Why! you have emptied one of Aboulcasem's siloes,' we laughingly remarked to Balzac, as we gazed at all these splendours. 'We were quite right in asserting that you were a millionaire.' 'I am poorer than ever I was,' he replied, with a humble, sly air. 'Nothing of this is mine. I have furnished the house for a friend that I am expecting. I am only the keeper and porter.'"
Within three short years from this date, the charge fell on her—the friend. She became the porteress of the abode which the other had prepared with such lavish attention and expenditure, to serve him only as a pall.
In 1875, the widow and her son-in-law, Count Mniszech, resolved to modify the Hotel Beaujon and the adjoining buildings, with the intention of perpetuating the novelist's memory. The rotunda of the private chapel they planned to convert into a kind of circular atrium, with a fountain in the middle and a trellised gallery running round it, decorated with busts, statues, and other works of art. Changes likewise were to be effected in the courtyard, to which the pillars of the chapel nave had been removed; and a statue of the late owner was to be erected there, close to a tree, the seed of which had been planted on the occasion of his marriage. The facade of the house on the Rue Fortunee, now the Rue Balzac, was also to be embellished, and the central pavilion made to represent the novelist's apotheosis, with a monumental bass-relief and a niche. Only a small portion of these alterations was completed. On Madame de Balzac's death, in 1882, the property was bought by the Baroness Salomon de Rothschild; and, before the end of the century, it was demolished and the ground it covered was incorporated into the Baroness's own gardens. All that now marks the site is the small dome forming the corner of the Rue Balzac and the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honore.
Whatever menaces of rupture between the lovers may have darkened their horizon in the spring and summer of 1847 had vanished before the autumn. At the end of September, Balzac went by invitation to Wierzchownia, and remained its guest for over four months. The sight of Russia's huge oak forests, of which the Mniszech family possessed some twenty thousand acres, suggested to him another of the grandiose schemes for gaining a large fortune that he was for ever elaborating in his brain. His project was to establish an exportation to France of oak timber, either by sea or rail; which, with every expense figured out, might yield, so he calculated, a profit of a million two hundred thousand francs for a part area, and would still leave the estate well wooded after thinning out the trees. The thing was a gold-mine for him and his family if a banker could be induced to take it up. Alas! his brother-in-law was obliged to pour cold water on the project, proving to him that the expenses, contrary to what he had estimated, would far exceed the receipts. The weak point in the affair, however, was one that cheaper transport following on increased railway communication could remedy. Balzac's only mistake was in imagining that this could be provided immediately. The visitor to Wierzchownia was not wrong in thinking that Russia's natural productions must sooner or later be one of the chief supplies of the European market. A better knowledge of the country, acquired during his stay, enabled him to perceive that internal reorganization was needed before the country's immense wealth could be exploited to the same degree as was possible in a country like France. In the Forties, Russia presented curious contrasts—great magnificence, and yet entire want of the commonest conveniences. Madame Hanska's estate was the only one boasting of a Carcel lamp and a hospital. There were ten-foot mirrors, and no paper on the walls. Still, he had not to complain of his apartments in pink stucco, with fine carpets on the floor, and furniture that was comfortable. It astonished him to find that the whole of the Wierzchownia castle—as big as the Louvre—was heated by means of straw, which was burnt in stoves, the weekly consumption being as much as could be seen in the Saint-Laurent market at Paris. But, then, everything was huge. One of the Mniszech estates extended over a surface as large as the Seine and Marne Department, and was watered by no fewer than three rivers, the Dnieper being one of them. And the cholera was colossal also—a conscientious cholera, carrying off its forty to fifty victims a day in Kiew alone, and a total of nine thousand at Savataf. To reassure his relatives, Balzac added that this plague paid most of its calls at the houses of rich uncles, to which category he did not belong, and passed by people who had debts. Ergo, he was inoculated against its attacks.
LAST YEARS: MARRIAGE AND DEATH
It is time something was said now about Balzac's last dramatic compositions. Since the Gaite fiasco, in 1843, no other theatre had been brought up to the point of producing a further piece from his pen, although several negotiations were opened respecting plays supposed to be well in hand. In 1844, there was his comedy Prudhomme en Bonne Fortune, which the Gymnase had some thoughts of staging. Poirson, the manager, whom the author met one day in an omnibus, was enchanted with the idea, and proposed help even on most advantageous terms. The rehearsals were fixed for March, and the first performance for May; but, for some reason that we do not learn, the execution of the project was abandoned. Probably it was the burden of unfinished novels and a lurking desire to go on with Mercadet, which was lying still in its unachieved state.
Twelve months later, Mercadet appears to have received the last touches, and to be awaiting only an opportunity for its representation. But Frederick Lemaitre, who was to assume the chief role, had previous engagements that monopolized him; so Balzac, meanwhile, turned again to a subject he had often toyed with, Richard the Sponge-Heart, the name recalling that of Richard the Lion-Heart, without there being the least analogy between the Norman king and the hero of the play. In each preceding attempt, the author had stopped short at the end of the first act, and, on recommencing, had produced a different version. The hero was a joiner, living in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, whose habitual drunkenness had procured him his nickname. Had it been developed, the piece would no doubt have been a popular drama, on the lines subsequently followed by Zola's Assommoir. There was talk of performing it at the Varietes in 1845; the year, however, slipped away, and it was not forthcoming. Dining with Gautier in December, at the house of Madame de Girardin, Balzac agreed with Theophile to go on with the drama in collaboration as soon as the theatres should have worked off some of their stock. Evidently, this was not done. However, Monsieur Henri Lecomte, in his Life of Frederick Lemaitre, affirms that Balzac did terminate Richard the Sponge-Heart, and that it was handed to Frederick to study. Then, some months afterwards, being in want of money, he asked the actor to take it to the publisher, Paulin, and obtain an advance of a thousand francs on it. If Paulin had it, he must either have mislaid or destroyed it, for, from this date, all traces of it were lost; and, to-day, a few fragments alone remain in Monsieur de Lovenjoul's collection.
In 1846, vague mention was made in the correspondence with Madame Hanska of a military farce called the Trainards or Laggards. However, nothing came of it. But in August 1847, after the publication of Cousin Pons, the novelist paid a visit to Monsieur Hostein, manager of the Theatre Historique, which had been inaugurated in the preceding February. On this stage, which was subsequently transformed into the Theatre Lyrique, and later demolished to make room for the Boulevard of the Prince Eugene, several pieces of Alexandre Dumas had just been played in succession; and Balzac said to himself that he would have a better chance of meeting with appreciative audiences in these new premises. Monsieur Hostein relates in his Reminiscences that the novelist, calling on him one day at his Bougival country-residence, went out and sat with him by the river-side, and there explained that he wished to write a great historic drama entitled Peter and Catherine (of Russia). Asked for an outline of it, Balzac tapped his forehead and said: "It is all there. I have only to write. The first tableau can be rehearsed the day after to-morrow."
"We are," he continued, "in a Russian inn, with many people running in and out, since troops are passing through the place.
"One of the servants is a lively girl. Pay attention to her. She is not beautiful, but attractive! And the visitors notice her, and joke with her. She smiles at every one; but those who go too far in gesture or language soon discover they have made a mistake.
"All at once, a soldier enters, bolder than the rest. He gets the girl to sit down with him, and wants to clink glasses with her. On the innkeeper's objecting, he rises in a rage, thumps the table with his fist, and cries: 'Let no one oppose my will, or I will set fire to the inn.'
"The innkeeper orders the girl to obey, for the troops are everywhere, and the peasant is alarmed. Sitting down again, the soldier drinks with the girl, tells her she shall be happy with him, and promises her a finer home than she has.
"But while they are talking, a door opens at the back, and an officer appears. Those present rise with respect, except the girl and her companion. Approaching them, the officer lays his hand heavily on the soldier's arm, and says: 'Stand up, fellow. Go to the counter, and write your name and that of your regiment, and hold yourself at my orders.'
"The soldier stands up automatically, obeys, and, having presented the paper, retires.
"Then the officer sits down and flirts with the girl, who accepts his compliments.
"But now a stranger shows himself at the door. He is clad in a big cloak. At the sight of him, men and women fall on their knees, except the officer, who is too agreeably occupied to notice the new arrival. In a moment of enthusiasm, he says to the girl: 'You are divine. I will take you with me. You shall have a fine house, where it is warm.'
"Just then, the man in the cloak draws near. The officer recognizes him, turns pale, and bows down, uttering: 'Oh, pardon, sire!'
"'Stand up,' orders the master, meantime examining the servant, who, on her side, looks without trembling at the all-powerful Czar.
"'You may withdraw,' the latter tells the officer. 'I will keep this woman, and give her a palace.'
"Thus met for the first time Peter I and she who became Catherine of Russia."
Having given this prologue, Balzac went on to speak of the staging of his play, which he promised to arrange in accordance with what he knew of the country's scenery and customs, Russia being, from an artistic point of view, admirable to exhibit theatrically. Monsieur Hostein was quite gained over by the prospect of something so novel; and Balzac, paying him a second call, some few days later, pledged himself to start for Kiew and Moscow very shortly, and, from there, to go to Wierzchownia and finish his drama. The journey to Russia was made; and Balzac, in due course, returned, but he did not bring with him the denouement of Peter and Catherine.
Not that his mind was less preoccupied with the drama. On the contrary, Champfleury, who went to see him in the Rue Fortunee, soon after his arrival in Paris, found him more bent on writing for the stage than ever. One idea of his now was to create a feerie, or sort of pantomime, sparkling throughout with wit. Another was to form an association for dramatic authors of standing (himself naturally included), not to defend their interests, but to get them to work in common, and to keep thus the various Paris theatres provided with their work. It was a trust scheme before the era of trusts. If the thing were managed, they might renew the miracles of those indefatigable and marvellous Spanish playwrights—Calderon, who composed between twelve and fifteen hundred pieces, Lope de Vega, who composed more than two thousand. However, he feared that many of his colleagues might not care to fall in with his suggestions. "They are idlers, donkeys," he added. "There is only one worker among them, and that is Scribe. But what a piece of literature his Memoirs of a Hussar Colonel is!"
Another visitor to the Rue Fortunee in February 1848 was Monsieur Hostein, to whom the novelist had offered for the spring a piece that should replace Peter and Catherine. This time the manuscript was ready. It lay on the table, bearing on its first page the title, Gertrude, a Bourgeois Tragedy. The piece was a five-act one, in prose. A couple of days later, actors and actresses were assembled in Balzac's drawing-room. Madame Dorval pursed her lips at the words, Gertrude, tragedy. "Don't interrupt," cried the author, laughing. However, after the reading of the second act they had to interrupt. The play was overloaded with detail. A good deal of pruning was effected, together with a change in title, before the first performance on the 25th of May; and more excisions might have been made with advantage. Alterations less beneficial were those introduced into the cast, Madame Dorval being eliminated in favour of Madame Lacressonniere. This lady was a much poorer actress, but was a persona grata with Monsieur Hostein. Both public and critics accorded Balzac's new effort a very fair reception, notwithstanding the mediocrity of the acting and the peculiar circumstances under which it was produced, just as the Revolution storm was breaking out.
The Maratre, or Stepmother, as the piece was called when staged, presents the home of a Count de Grandchamp, who, after being a general under the First Empire, has turned manufacturer under the restoration. He has a grown-up daughter, Pauline, and a second wife named Gertrude, the latter still a young, handsome woman, with a ten-year-old son, the little Napoleon. Though they are outwardly on good terms, the stepmother and stepdaughter nevertheless hate each other. They are in love with the same man, Ferdinand, the manager of the general's works. On this hatred the entire interest of the play turns. Ferdinand really loves Pauline; but he has formerly been engaged to Gertrude, who jilted him to marry the general, and this fact somewhat embarrasses him in his wooing. Moreover, his father was an officer under the Revolution Government, and, if the general should learn that, it would ruin his chances of obtaining the old gentleman's consent. The plot arising out of these relations is, at first, cleverly dealt with by the author, who involves matters further by a second suitor for Pauline, to whom Gertrude tries to marry her, in order that she herself may regain Ferdinand's affection. In the second act, a word-duel is fought between the two women, during a whist-party, each seeking to surprise the opponent's true sentiments towards Ferdinand. This scene is exceedingly original; and, subsequently, a bold employment is made by the author of the enfant terrible—the young Napoleon—for the purpose of helping on the unravelling of the plot. The concluding portion of the piece and its sombre tragedy—the deaths of Pauline and Ferdinand—is heavier in dialogue and cumbrous in construction, with its officers of justice who supply a useless episode. One might sum up the Stepmother as a weak ending to a strong beginning. None the less it shows progress on Vautrin and Pamela Giraud.
A few days after the Revolution, Theodore Cogniard, manager of the Porte-Saint-Martin Theater, wrote to Balzac and proposed to reproduce Vautrin. Balzac, in replying, referred to Lemaitre's toupet, and explained that, when disguising Vautrin as a Mexican general, he had in his mind General Murat. He told Cogniard he was willing to allow the revival, if care were taken against there being any caricature of the now disposed monarch. The manager agreed, but the performances did not come off, apparently on account of the disturbed state of the city. In 1850, an unauthorized revival was put on the stage of the Gaite, while Balzac was at Dresden. Being informed of it, the novelist protested in a letter to the Journal des Debats, and the piece was at once withdrawn.
The Stepmother was Balzac's last dramatic composition played during his lifetime. This was partly his own fault. In the short epoch of the Second Republic, when neither the Comedie Francaise nor the Odeon, the two national homes of the drama, were thriving, it was to the directors' interest to seek out men of talent; and he had overtures from both theatres. Mauzin of the Odeon even promised him, as he had promised Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, a premium of six thousand francs and a percentage of receipts on any sum over a thousand francs. Balzac consented to write a tragedy entitled Richard Sauvage, and got as far as—a monologue. With Lockroy of the Theatre Francais also he made an arrangement for a comedy. There had been talk at first, both inside and outside the Francais, of a satirical piece called the Petty Bourgeois, but having nothing except the name in common with his unfinished novel similarly yclept. His motive for not proceeding with it he set forth to the journalist Hippolyte Rolle, in a letter published in his correspondence. "Is it on the morrow of a battle," he wrote, "when the bourgeoisie have so generously shed their blood on behalf of threatened civilization, and when they are in mourning, that one can drag them before the footlights?"
The manager, he said, had been pleased to accept in exchange another comedy which would be soon performed. This comedy was the resuscitated Mercadet, the title of which had been altered to the Speculator in 1847, and the Jobber in 1848. Under the last appellation, it was read by the Comedie Committee in August, and unanimously approved. However, between this date and December, Balzac had taken his departure to Wierzchownia, where he seemed likely to remain for a while; and, in his absence, the members of the Committee repented of their bargain. Another solemn sitting was held in December, and an amended resolution was passed, accepting the Jobber on condition that certain corrections were made in it. On being apprized of the proviso, Balzac immediately cancelled his treaty with Lockroy, and entered into negotiations with Hostein, who professed himself only too happy to place the Theatre Historique at the author's disposal. Alas! the same difficulties and worse cropped up here. Hostein wrote that his public was a boulevard one, much fonder of melodrama than comedy, and that, if the Jobber were to succeed, it must be completely modified. Naturally, Balzac refused. He had not withdrawn it from the first theatre in Paris, which demanded only trifling alterations, to permit it to be cut up by a theatre of less importance.
Content to wait till a more complaisant director should make overtures to him, he filled in his leisure at Wierzchownia by inventing the King of Beggars, which he announced to his friend Laurent Jan as an up-to-date play flattering the all-powerful plebs; and he likewise sketched a tragedy in which Madame Dorval was to have the chief role. This was in April, 1849, and, a few weeks later, Madame Dorval was dead. Only on the 23rd of August 1851, a year after his own death, did his executors meet with a director, Monsieur Montigny of the Gymnase, who undertook to stage Mercadet the Jobber. Less intransigent than Balzac, the executors allowed its five acts to be reduced to three, and a considerable amount of suppression and remodelling to be operated by a professional playwright, Adolphe Dennery. Performed with these concessions to theatrical requirements and popular taste, and with Geoffroy in the chief role, failing Lemaitre and Regnier, Mercadet pleased the public greatly, too greatly for some bull and bear habitues of the Bourse, who feared that their pockets might suffer. Owing to their complaints, the Minister for the Interior temporarily suspended the representations, basing his interdiction on the ground that expressions struck out by the Censor had been inserted again by the actors. Prudently, Monsieur Montigny ordered a few more excisions, and the prohibition was raised. Seventeen years elapsed before the Comedie Francaise at last placed Mercadet on its repertory and inaugurated the event by a special performance with Got as the Jobber.
The hero of the piece is a financier who has very little cash, but innumerable projects for gaining money. These involve methods which are not always straight-forward; yet, since he believes in the success of what he advocates, he is not absolutely unprincipled, though he does not mind to some extent gulling the gullible. His chief aim is to trick his creditors—themselves, as it happens, not worthy of much pity; and, himself kind-hearted, loving his wife and daughter, and not a libertine, he appeals to the sympathies of the reader or the audience. Most of the amusement of the play—and it is very amusing —is derived from the metamorphoses adopted by the Jobber in dealing with each sort of creditor. Moreover, the love-passages between Julie, the daughter, and a poor clerk who thinks her an heiress, are so managed as to strengthen the comic side of certain situations. The unexpected arrival of a rich uncle from America releases the Jobber ultimately from the tangle into which he has twisted himself. It is the least original part of the comedy; but was suggested, like the rest of the play, by Balzac's own circumstances. Was he not always expecting a windfall; and was not Eve a kind of rich—relative? To add one more detail concerning Mercadet, it was revived at the Comedie Francaise in 1879, and again in 1890, there being as many as 107 performances. Its indisputable qualities have caused some writers to conclude that, if Balzac had lived longer, he would have become as great a dramatist as he was a novelist. This is very doubtful. Notwithstanding its long incubation of nearly a decade, and the advantage it possessed in embodying so much personal experience, Mercadet was still weak in construction and was largely wanting in dramatic compression. And, at fifty years of age, with failing powers, Balzac would have found the task increasingly hard to acquire an art for which, by his own confession, he had no born aptitude.
The temporary government which was set up, in consequence of the February Revolution of 1848, conceived the curious idea of summoning the members of the Men of Letters Society to a meeting in the Palais Mazarin, for the purpose of eliciting from them an expression of opinion on the situation of literature and the best way to protect it. Balzac, who had newly arrived from Wierzchownia, went to the meeting and was chosen chairman. But no sooner was the discussion opened than it degenerated into dispute and tumult; the place became a bear-garden, and, after vainly endeavouring to restore order, he took up his hat and left the room.
When the general elections were held, for the forming of a Constituent Assembly, he stood as a candidate, and published a long declaration of his opinions in the Constitutionnel, in which had appeared his Poor Relations. The candidature had no success; it could scarcely be expected to have any. His political style was not one to catch the popular vote; and his sympathies were too visibly autocratic to commend themselves at such a moment. What deceived him was that, at first, there appeared to be a chance for the establishment of a strong central power well disposed towards sage reforms of a social, administrative, and financial character, with men like Lamartine to elaborate them; and to a government of this kind he could have given his support. When he realized that the trend of events was towards a Republic of Utopian experiment which he regarded as doomed to failure and disaster, he quietly dropped out of the struggle, and, leaving Paris once more in September, retraced his steps to Wierzchownia.
The political disturbances of the previous six months had been prejudicial both to his invested capital and to his income accruing from work. It was difficult to sell fiction advantageously when people were more interested in facts; nor did he care much to continue his efforts under a regime that he looked upon as a usurpation. Until the speedy overthrow which he confidently reckoned upon, he said to himself that he would do better to occupy himself with the question of his marriage. The hope was at present a forlorn one, but it was worth risking. He started with the intention of coming back, like the Spartan, either on his shield or under it.
Short of available cash, as always, he borrowed five thousand francs from his publisher, Souverain, for the expenses of his journey and pocket-money, and placed his mother in charge of his Beaujon mansion, with procuration to buy the complement of his domestic articles.
The warm welcome he received on reaching Madame Hanska's residence made him so sanguine that he wrote to Froment-Meurice, his jeweller in Paris, asking that the cornaline cup might be sent him which had been on order for the past two years. The jeweller was evidently not anxious to oblige such a bad payer. This cup, the novelist said, was to be flanked by two figures, Faith and Hope, the former holding a scroll, with Neuchatel and the date 1833 on it, the latter, another scroll, with a kneeling Cupid—the whole resting on a ground covered with cacti and various thorny plants besides, in silver gilt.
The blasts of winter in a rigorous climate laid him by with bronchitis in November. He suffered at the same time great difficulty in breathing; and the doctors diagnosed certain symptoms of heart trouble that caused them to consider his case a grave one. This malady relegated all matrimonial projects for the moment into the background. Madame Hanska did not hide that she regretted having put so much of her money into the purchase and furnishing of a house that they hardly seemed likely to inhabit together. Adding up what it had cost them both, they estimated the total at three hundred and fifty thousand francs. Into these figures the price of pictures entered for a large amount. The most recent were Greuze's Jeune Fille Effrayee, from the last King of Poland's Gallery; two Canalettis, once the property of Pope Clement XIII; James II of England's Wife, by Netscher; the same king's portrait, by Lely, in addition to a Van Dyck, two Van Huysums, and three canvases by Rotari, a Venetian painter of the eighteenth century.
The winter was not propitious to Madame Hanska either. Two fires on her estate did enormous damage, and her money losses were important. Balzac, though tenacious of his plan, talked constantly of going back to his loneliness, yet stayed on still; and Eve, who either would not or could not screw up her courage, invented fresh reasons for procrastinating. One of these was the Emperor's refusal to sanction the marriage unless Madame Hanska's landed property were transferred to her daughter's husband. A scolding letter from the novelist's mother, accusing Honore of remissness towards his nieces and family, was by chance read to the Wierzchownia hostess, and this further complicated a situation already sufficiently involved. Balzac's bile was stirred. He relived his feelings in a long reply to Laure. It seemed after all he would return to Paris under his shield. "I had a marriage which made my fortune," he told her. "Everything is now upset for a bagatelle. Know that it is with marriages as with cream; a changed atmosphere, a bad odour, spoils them both. Bad marriages are easily arranged; good ones only with infinite precaution. . . . I can tell you, Laure," he continued, "it is something, when one wishes, to be able in Paris to open one's drawing-room and gather in it an elite of society who will find there a woman as polished and imposing as a queen, illustrious by her birth, allied to the greatest families, witty, educated, and beautiful. One has thus a fine means of domination. With a household thus established, people are compelled to reckon; and many persons of high position will envy it, especially since your dear brother will bring to it only glory and a clever conduct."
Here we have the secret of Balzac's persistence, and ample proof also of what has already been asserted, to wit, that his affection for the Stranger was a fancy born and bred rather in the head than in the heart.
It was perhaps to take the edge off this quip quarrelsome that the following amusing lines were addressed in the next month to his nieces, giving them particulars about animal and vegetables foods in Russia. "The country," he said, "has no veal—I mean eatable veal, for cows produce calves here as well as elsewhere; but these calves are of Republican leanness. Beef, such as one gets in Paris, is a myth; one remembers it only in dreams. In reality, one has meat twenty years old, which is stringy and which serves to bulk out the packets of hemp intended for exportation. One consoles one's self with excellent tea and exquisite milk. As for the vegetables, they are execrable. Carrots are like turnips, and turnips are like nothing. On the other hand, there are gruels galore. You make them with millet, buckwheat, oats, barley; you can make them even with tree-bark. So, my nieces, take pity on this country, so rich in corn, but so poor in vegetables. Oh! how Valentine would laugh to see the apples, pears, and plums! She wouldn't give over at the end of a year. Good-bye, my dear girls, and accept the Republic patiently; for you have real beef, veal, and vegetables, and a kind uncle happy and fed on gruel."
Ill again with his heart in the April of 1849, Balzac had the good luck to be attended by a pupil of the famous Doctor Franck, the latter being the original of his Country Doctor. This disciple, and his son to a less extent, were men of a newer and more enlightened school; and the elder man, by bold experiments, reduced his patient's arterio-sclerosis to the point of what seemed to be convalescence. But the treatment was tedious and lasted on into the summer, so that the novelist was left weak and delicate at the end. In such a condition he was less than ever fit to carry on his wooing.
To give himself a countenance, he spoke again of departure, fixing the date for the month of October. Madame Hanska was apparently willing to let him go. She had played the hostess generously during nearly a twelvemonth to this invalid, and it seemed to her enough. Not that she intended to sever the engagement. She wished merely to wait and see how matters turned out. Meantime, he could watch over their common property, now augmented by the acquisition of an extra plot of land at the side, which could be resold later at a large profit. But a resumption of the old burden was more than Balzac could face. In September he was prostrated by what Dr. Knothe called an intermittent brain fever, which continued for more than a month. His constitution pulled him through, with the aid of good nursing; and then, realizing that her tergiversations had been partly responsible for the attack, Eve, at last, in conversations between them that followed his recovery, let him understand that she relented and was willing to accompany him back to Paris as his wife, if the Emperor would permit of such a transfer of the estate to Count Mniszech as might enable her to receive a share of its revenues.
The victory was won, yet at a heavy cost. For a man so worn down by illness Russia was not the place to recruit in. Its biting winds throughout the winter of 1849 and 1850 withered what little vitality Balzac had still remaining, and at Kiew, where he had gone with Madame Hanska on business, he was again laid up with fever.
All the different formalities required by Russian law having been finally complied with, the wedding was celebrated on the 14th of March, in the Church of Saint Barbara at Beriditchef, some few hours distant from Wierzchownia. At once the bridegroom despatched the news to his family and friends. His joy was such that he fancied he had never known happiness before. "I have had no flowery spring," said his letter to Madame Carraud. "But I shall have the most brilliant of summers, the mildest of autumns. . . . I am almost crazy with delight."
More than a month elapsed ere the newly married couple were able to set out on their journey to the French capital, and, even then, they had to travel along roads studded with quagmires into which their carriage frequently sank up to the axle. Sometimes fifteen or sixteen men and a crick were necessary to extricate them. Though on their honeymoon, they found the repetition of these incidents monotonous, and were so tired when they reached Dresden that they stayed there to recover themselves. From this town Balzac sent a few lines to his mother and sister mentioning the approximate date of their reaching home; and instructions were given that everything should be in order, flowers on the table, and a meal prepared. He did not want his mother to be at the house to receive them, deeming it more proper that his wife should call on her first, either at Laure's, or at Suresnes where she was living. They got into Paris on the 22nd or 23rd of May.
Monsieur de Lovenjoul relates that the two travellers drove up to the Beaujon mansion a little before midnight. Weary with the journey, they stepped out of the cab and rang the bell, rang more than once, for no one came to open the door. Through the windows they could see the lamps lighted and signs of their being expected. But where was the valet, Francois Munck, who had been left in charge by the novelist's mother? Apparently, he had deserted his post. Balzac kept on ringing, shouting at intervals, and thumping the gate. Still there was silence inside. The one or two people passing at this late hour stopped out of curiosity, and began in their turn to call and knock; while the cabman, tired of waiting, put down the luggage on the footpath.
Madame de Balzac grew impatient. It was cold standing in the night-air. Her husband, nonplussed and exceedingly annoyed, did not know what to say to the bystanders. One of the latter offered to fetch a locksmith, named Grimault, who lived in a street close by. The suggestion was gladly agreed to, since there seemed nothing else to be done. However, until such time as the locksmith should come, they continued battering at the gate and throwing tiny pebbles at the windows; and the master, thus shut out from his own dwelling, hallooed to the invisible valet: "I am Monsieur de Balzac." It was useless. The door refused to open. Around Madame de Balzac, now seated on one of the trunks, other passers-by had gathered and listened to the novelist's excited comments on his predicament. The occurrence was certainly extraordinary.
At length, the locksmith was brought and the gate was forced. The whole party, hosts and impromptu guests, hurried through the narrow courtyard, entered the house without further hindrance, and were met by a strange spectacle. The valet had been seized with a sudden fit of madness and had smashed the crockery, scattered the food about, spilt a bottle of wine on the carpet, upset the furniture, and ruined the flowers. Having performed these exploits, he was wandering aimlessly to and fro with demented gestures, and in this state they discovered him. After securing and fastening him up in a small room, the visitors helped to place the luggage in the yard and then retired, with profuse thanks from the novelist, who being thoroughly unnerved by this untoward incident, was obliged to go straight to bed. The next day, Francois was taken to an asylum at his master's expense, as is proved by a receipt still existing in which Balzac is dubbed a Count. Perhaps the title was a piece of flattery on the doctor's part, or the novelist may have imagined that his marrying a Countess conferred on him letters of nobility.
Anyway, this assumed lordship was poor compensation for the immense disappointment of his marriage in every other respect. From the moment he and his wife took possession of their fine Beaujon residence, whatever bonds of friendship and tenderness had previously existed between them were irremediably snapped asunder. Peculiarities of character and temperament in each, which, as long as they were lovers, had been but slightly felt, now came into close contact, clashed, and were proved to be incompatible. Moreover, there were disagreeable revelations on either side. The husband learnt that his wife's available income was very much inferior to what he had supposed or been led to believe, and the wife learnt that her husband's debts, far from being paid, as he had asserted, subsisted and were more numerous and larger than he had ever in sober truth admitted. So, instead of coming to Paris to be the queen of a literary circle, the Stranger saw herself involved in liabilities that threatened to swallow up her own fortune, if she lent her succour.
Reproaches and disputes began in the week following their instalment. The disillusioned Eve withdrew to her own apartments in anger; and Balzac, whose bronchitis and congestion of the liver had grown worse, remained an invalid in his. They had intended spending only a fortnight or so in Paris, and then travelling south to the Pyrenees and Biarritz; but this programme was perforce abandoned. All through the month of June the patient was under medical treatment, able to go out only in a carriage, and, even so, in disobedience to the doctor's orders. One of these visits was to the door of the Comedie Francaise, where Arsene Houssaye, the Director, came to speak to him about Mercadet, and indulgently promised him, it should be staged soon, the Resources of Quinola also.
On the 20th of June, he wrote, through his wife, to Theophile Gautier, telling him that his bronchitis was better and that the doctor was proceeding to treat him for his heart-hypertrophy, which was now the chief obstacle to his recovery. At the end of the letter he signed his name, adding: "I can neither read nor write." They were the last words of his correspondence. From that date his heart-disease undermined him rapidly; and the few friends whom he received augured ill from what they remarked. Not that he lost hope himself. Although suffering acutely at intervals from difficulty in breathing, and from the oedema of his lower limbs, which slowly crept upwards, he spoke with the same confidence as always of his future creations that he meditated. His brain was the one organ unattacked. From Dr. Nacquart he inquired every day how soon he might get to work again.
The month of July and the first half of August passed thus, the dropsy gaining still on him in spite of all that Nacquart and other medical men could do to combat it. To every one but the patient himself, it was evident that he was dying. Houssaye, who came to see him on the 16th of August, found Dr. Nacquart in the room. He relates that Balzac, addressing the latter, said: "Doctor, I want you to tell me the truth. . . . I see I am worse than I believed. . . . I am growing weaker. In vain I force myself to eat. Everything disgusts me. How long do you think I can live?"—The doctor did not reply.—"Come, doctor," continued the sick man, "do you take me for a child? I can't die as if I were nobody. . . . A man like me owes a will and testament to the public."—"My dear patient, how much time do you require for what you have to do?" asked Nacquart.—"Six months," replied Balzac; and he gazed anxiously at his interlocutor.—"Six months, six months," repeated the doctor, shaking his head.—"Ah!" cried Balzac dolorously; "I see you don't allow me six months. . . . You will give me six weeks at least. . . . Six weeks with the fever, is an eternity. Hours are days; and then the nights are not lost."—The doctor shook his head again. Balzac raised himself, almost indignant.—"What, doctor! Am I, then, a dead man? Thank God! I still feel strength to fight. But I feel also courage to submit. I am ready for the sacrifice. If your science does not deceive you, don't deceive me. What can I hope for yet? . . . Six days? . . . I can in that time indicate in broad outlines what remains to be done. My friends will see to details. I shall be able to cast a glance at my fifty volumes, tearing out the bad pages, accentuating the best ones. Human will can do miracles. I can give immortal life to the world I have created. I will rest on the seventh day."—Since beginning to speak, Balzac had aged ten years, and finally his voice failed him.—"My dear patient," said the doctor, trying to smile, "who can answer for an hour in this life? There are persons now in good health who will die before you. But you have asked me for the truth; you spoke of your will and testament to the public."—"Well?"—"Well! this testament must be made to-day. Indeed, you have another testament to make. You mustn't wait till to-morrow." —Balzac looked up.—"I have, then, no more than six hours," he exclaimed with dread.
The details of this narration given to the Figaro many years after the event[*] do not read much like history. A more probable account tells that Balzac, after one of his fits of gasping, asked Nacquart to say whether he would get better or not. The doctor hesitated, then answered: "You are courageous. I will not hide the truth from you. There is no hope." The sick man's face contracted and his fingers clutched the sheet. "How long have I to live?" he questioned after a pause. "You will hardly last the night," replied Nacquart. There was a fresh silence, broken only by the novelist's murmuring as if to himself: "If only I had Bianchon, he would save me." Bianchon, one of his fictitious personages, had become for the nonce a living reality. It was Balzac who had taken the place of his medical hero in the kingdom of shadows. Anxious to soften the effect of his sentence, Nacquart inquired if his patient had a message or recommendation to give. "No, I have none," was the answer. However, just before the doctor's departure, he asked for a pencil, and tried to trace a few lines, but was too week; and, letting the pencil drop from his fingers, he fell into a slumber.
[*] 20th of August 1883.
In his Choses Vues, Victor Hugo informs us that, on the afternoon of the 18th, his wife had been to the Hotel Beaujon and heard from the servants that the master of the house was dying. After dinner he went himself, and reached the Hotel about nine. Received at first in the drawing-room, lighted dimly by a candle placed on a richly carved oval table that stood in the centre of the room, he saw there an old woman, but not, as he asserts, the brother-in-law, Monsieur Surville. No member of Balzac's own family was present in the house that evening. Even the wife remained in her apartments. The old woman told Hugo that gangrene had set in, and that tapping now produced no effect on the dropsy. As the visitor ascended the splendid, red-carpeted staircase, cumbered with statues, vases, and paintings, he was incommoded by a pestilential odour that assailed his nostrils. Death had begun the decomposition of the sick man's body even before it was a corpse. At the door of the chamber Hugo caught the sound of hoarse, stertorous breathing. He entered, and saw on the mahogany bed an almost unrecognizable form bolstered up on a mass of cushions. Balzac's unshaven face was of blackish-violet hue; his grey hair had been cut short; his open eyes were glazed; the profile resembled that of the first Napoleon. It was useless to speak to him unconscious of any one's presence.
Hugo turned and hastened from the spot thinking sadly of his previous visit a month before, when, in the same room, the invalid had joked with him on his opinions, reproaching him for his demagogy. "How could you renounce, with such serenity, your title as a peer of France?" he had asked. He had spoken also of the Beaujon residence, the gallery over the little chapel in the corner of the street, the key that permitted access to the chapel from the staircase; and, when the poet left him, he had accompanied him to the head of the stairs, calling out to Madame de Balzac to show Hugo his pictures.
Death took him the same evening.[*] During the last hours of his life Giraud had sketched his portrait for a pastel;[+] and, on the morning of the 19th, a man named Marminia was sent to secure a mould of his features. This latter design had to be abandoned. An impression of the hands alone was obtainable. Decomposition had set in so rapidly that the face was distorted beyond recognition. A lead coffin was hastily brought to cover up the ghastly spectacle of nature in a hurry.
[*] De Lovenjoul says that Balzac died on the 17th, not the 18th. This discrepancy is most curious, the latter date figuring as the official one, as well as being given by Hugo and others.
[+] De Lovenjoul says that the sketch was made after death. But, if the mask was not possible, it is difficult to understand how a pencil likeness could have been drawn.
Two days later, on the 21st of August, the interment took place at Pere Lachaise cemetery. The procession started from the Church of Saint-Philippe-du-Roule, to which the coffin had been transported beforehand. There was no pomp in either service or ceremony. A two-horse hearse and four bearers—Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Francis Wey, and Baroche, the Minister for the Interior made up the funeral accessories. But an immense concourse of people followed the body to the grave. The Institute, the University, the various learned societies were all represented by eminent men, and a certain number of foreigners, English, German, and Russian, were present also. Baroche attended rather from duty than appreciation. On the way to the cemetery, he hummed and hawed, and remarked to Hugo: "Monsieur Balzac was a somewhat distinguished man, I believe?" Scandalized, Hugo looked at the politician and answered shortly: "He was a genius, sir." It is said that Baroche revenged himself for the rebuff by whispering to an acquaintance near him: "This Monsieur Hugo is madder still than is supposed."
Over the coffin, as it was laid under the ground near the ashes of Charles Nodier and Casimir Delavigne, the author of Les Miserables and Les Feuilles d'Automne pronounced an oration which was a generous tribute to the talent of his great rival. On such an occasion there was no room for the reservations of criticism. It was the moment to apply the maxim, De mortuis nil nisi bonum. "The name of Balzac," he said, "will mingle with the luminous track projected by our epoch into the future. . . . Monsieur de Balzac was the first among the great, one of the highest among the best. All his volumes form but a single book, wherein our contemporary civilization is seen to move with a certain terrible weirdness and reality—a marvellous book which the maker of it entitled a comedy and which he might have entitled a history. It assumes all forms and all styles; it goes beyond Tacitus and reaches Suetonius; it traverses Beaumarchais and attains even Rabelais; it is both observation and imagination, it lavishes the true, the intimate, the bourgeois, the trivial, the material, and, through every reality suddenly rent asunder, it allows the most sombre, tragic ideal to be seen. Unconsciously, and willy nilly, the author of this strange work belongs to the race of revolutionary writers. Balzac goes straight to the point. He grapples with modern society; and from everywhere he wrests something—here, illusion; there, hopes; a cry; a mask. He investigates vice, he dissects passion, he fathoms man—the soul, the heart, the entrails, the brain, the abyss each has within him. And by right of his free, vigorous nature—a privilege of the intellects of our time, who see the end of humanity better and understand Providence—Balzac smilingly and serenely issues from such studies, which produced melancholy in Moliere and misanthropy in Rousseau. The work he has bequeathed us is built with granite strength. Great men forge their own pedestal; the future charges itself with the statue. . . . His life was short but full, fuller of works than of days. Alas! this puissant, untired labourer, this philosopher, this thinker, this poet, this genius lived among us the life of all great men. To-day, he is at rest. He has entered simultaneously into glory and the tomb. Henceforth, he will shine above the clouds that surround us, among the stars of the fatherland."
To the credit of Balzac's widow it should be said that, although not legally obliged, she accepted her late husband's succession, heavy as it was with liabilities, the full extent of which was communicated to her only after the funeral. The novelist's mother, having renounced her claim on the capital lent by her at various times to her son, received an annuity of three thousand francs, which was punctually paid until the old lady's demise in 1854. Buisson the tailor, Dablin, Madame Delannoy, and the rest of the creditors, one after the other, were reimbursed the sums they had also advanced, the profits on unexhausted copyright aiding largely in the liberation of the estate. Before Eve's own death, every centime of debt was cleared off.
In the romance of Balzac's life it will be always arduous, if not infeasible, to estimate exactly Madame Hanska's role, unless, by some miracle, her own letters to the novelist could arise phoenix-like from their ashes. The liaison that she is said to have formed soon after her husband's death with Jean Gigoux, the artist, who painted her portrait in 1852, may be regarded either as a retaliation for Honore's infidelities, which she was undoubtedly cognizant of, or else as the rebound of a sensual nature after the years spent in the too idealistic realm of sentiment. And, whichever of these explanations is correct, the irony of the conclusion is the same.
THE COMEDIE HUMAINE
The idea of joining his separate books together and forming them into a coherent whole was one that matured slowly in Balzac's mind. Its genesis is to be found in his first collection of short novels published in 1830 under the titles: Scenes of Private Life, and containing The Vendetta, Gobseck, The Sceaux Ball, The House of the Tennis-playing Cat, A Double Family, and Peace in the Household. Between these stories there was no real connexion except that certain characters in one casually reappeared or were alluded to in another. By 1832, the Scenes of Private Life had been augmented, and, in a second edition, filled four volumes. The additions comprised The Message, The Bourse, The Adieu, The Cure of Tours, and several chapters of The Woman of Thirty Years Old, some of which had previously come out as serials in the Revue de Paris or the Mode.
It has already been related how the novelist all at once realized what a gain his literary production might have in adopting a plan and building up a social history of his epoch. And, in fact, this conception did stimulate his activity for some time, serving too, as long as it was uncrystallized, to concentrate his visions upon objective realities.
Needing, between 1834 and 1837, a more comprehensive title for the rapidly increasing list of his works, he called them Studies of Manners and Morals in the Nineteenth Century, subdividing them into Scenes of Private Life, Scenes of Parisian Life, and Scenes of Provincial Life. However, some things he had written were classible conveniently neither under the specific names nor under the generic one. These outsiders he called Tales and Philosophic Novels, subsequently shortening the title, between 1835 and 1840, to Philosophic Studies. The question was what wider description could be chosen which might embrace also this last category. Writing to Madame Hanska in 1837, he used the expression Social Studies, telling her that there would be nearly fifty volumes of them. Either she, or he himself, must, on reflection, have judged the title unsatisfactory, for no edition of his works ever bore this name. Most likely the thought occurred to him that such an appellation was more suitable to a strictly scientific treatise than to fiction.
The expression Comedie Humaine, which he ultimately adopted, is said to have been suggested to him by his whilom secretary, the Count Auguste de Belloy, after the latter's visit to Italy, during which Dante's Divine Comedy had been read and appreciated. But already, some years prior to this journey, the novelist would seem to have had the Italian poet's masterpiece before his mind. In his Girl with the Golden Eyes, he had spoken of Paris as a hell which, perhaps, one day would have its Dante. De Belloy's share in the matter was probably an extra persuasion added to Balzac's own leaning, or the Count may have been the one to substitute the word human.[*]
[*] A communication has been made to me, while writing this book, by Monsieur Hetzel, the publisher, tending to show that his father, who was also known in the literary world, had a large share in the choice of the Comedie Humaine as a title.
Madame Hanska was at once informed of the choice. "The Comedie Humaine, such is the title of my history of society depicted in action," he told her in September 1841. And when, between 1841 and 1842, Hetzel, together with Dubochet and Turne, brought out sixteen octavo volumes of his works illustrated, they each carried his name, while a preface set forth the reasons which had led the author to choose it. Thereafter, every succeeding edition was similarly styled, including Houssiaux' series in 1855, and the series of Calmann-Levy, known as the definitive one, between 1869 and 1876.
Against the appellation itself no objection can reasonably be made. Balzac's fiction takes in a world—an underworld might appropriately be said—of Dantesque proportions. As soon as it was fully fledged, it started with a large ambition. "My work," he said to Zulma Carraud in 1834, "is to represent all social effects without anything being omitted from it, whether situation of life, physiognomy, character of man or woman, manner of living, profession, zone of social existence, region of French idiosyncrasy, childhood, maturity, old age, politics, jurisdiction, war." And in the Forties the same intention was stated as clearly. "I have undertaken the history of the whole of society. Often have I summed up my plan in this simple sentence: A generation is a drama in which four or five thousand people are the chief actors. This drama is my book."
When Hetzel decided to publish a so-far complete edition of the Comedie, he induced the novelist to insert a preface composed for the occasion. Balzac wished at first to use an old preface that he had written in conjunction with Felix Davin, and placed, under the latter's signature, at the beginning of the Study of Manners and Morals in the Nineteenth Century. Hetzel objected to this, and urged that so important an undertaking ought to be preceded by an author's apology. His advice was accepted, and the preface was developed into a veritable doctrine and defence. Here are some of its essential passages:—
"The Comedie Humaine," says Balzac, "first dawned on my brain like a dream—one of those impossible projects, it seemed, that are caressed and allowed to fly away; a chimera which smiles, shows its woman's face, and forthwith unfolds its wings, mounting again into a fancied heaven. But the chimera, as many chimeras do, changed into reality. It had its commands and its tyranny to which I was obliged to yield.
"It was born from a comparison between humanity and animality. It would be an error to believe that the great quarrel which in recent times has arisen between Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire is concerned with a scientific innovation. The unity of composition involved in it had already, under other terms, occupied the greatest minds of the two preceding centuries. On reading over again the extraordinary works of such mystic writers as Swedenborg, Saint-Martin, etc., who have studied the relations of science with the infinite, and the writings of the finest geniuses in natural history, such as Leibnitz, Buffon, Charles Bonnet, etc., one finds in the monads of Leibnitz, in the organic molecules of Buffon, in the vegetative force of Needham, in the jointing of similar parts of Charles Bonnet—who was bold enough to write in 1760: 'The animal vegetates like the plant;' one finds, I say, the rudiments of the beautiful law of self for self on which the unity of composition reposes. There is only one animal. The Creator has made use only of one and the same pattern for all organized beings. The animal is a principle which acquires its exterior form, or, to speak more exactly, the differences of its form, in the surroundings in which it is called upon to develop. The various zoologic species result from these differences. The proclamation and upholding of this system, in harmony, moreover, with the ideas we have of the Divine power, will be the eternal honour of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who was the vanquisher of Cuvier on this point of high science, and whose triumph was acknowledged in the last article written by the great Goethe."
Continuing his exposition, the novelist says all men resemble each other, but in the same manner as a horse resembles a bird. They are also divided into species. These species differ according to social surroundings. A peasant, a tradesman, an artist, a great lord are as distinct from each other as a wolf is from a sheep. Besides, there is another thing peculiar to man, viz. that male and female are not alike, whereas among the rest of the animals, the female is similar to the male. The wife of a shopkeeper is sometimes worthy to be the spouse of a prince, and often a prince's wife is not worth an artist's. Then, again, there is this difference. The lower animals are strictly dependent on circumstances, each species feeding and housing itself in a uniform manner. Man has not such uniformity. In Paris, he is not the same as in a provincial town; in the provinces, not the same as in rural surroundings. When studying him, there are many things to be considered—habitat, furniture, food, clothes, language. In fine, the subject taken up by a novelist who wishes to treat it properly, comprises man as an integral portion of a social species, woman as not peculiarly belonging to any, and entourage from its widest circumference of country down to the narrowest one of home.
"But," he goes on, "how is it possible to render the drama of life interesting, with the three or four thousand varying characters presented by a society? How please at the same time the philosopher, and the masses who demand poetry and philosophy under striking images? If I conceived the importance and poetry of this history of the human heart, I saw no means of execution; for, down to our epoch, the most celebrated narrators had spent their talent in creating one or two typical characters, in depicting one phase of life. With this thought, I read the works of Walter Scott. Walter Scott, the modern trouvere, was then giving a gigantic vogue to a kind of composition unjustly called secondary. Is it not really harder to compete with the registry of births, marriages, and deaths by means of Daphnis and Chloe, Roland, Amadis, Panurge, Don Quixote, Manon Lescaut, Clarissa, Lovelace, Robinson Crusoe, Ossian, Julie d'Etanges, My Uncle Toby, Werther, Rene, Corinne, Adolphe, Gil Blas, Paul and Virginia, Jeanie Deans, Claverhouse, Ivanhoe, Manfred, Mignon, than to arrange facts almost similar among all nations, to seek for the spirit of laws fallen into decay, to draw up theories which lead people astray, or, as certain metaphysicians, to explain what exists? First of all, nearly all these characters, whose existence becomes longer, more genuine than that of the generations amid which they are made to be born, live only on condition of being a vast image of the present. Conceived in the womb of the century, the whole human heart moves beneath their outward covering; it often conceals a whole philosophy. Walter Scott, therefore, raised to the philosophic value of history the novel—that literature which from century to century adorns with immortal diamonds the poetic crown of the countries where letters are cultivated. He put into it the spirit of ancient times; he blended in it at once drama, dialogue, portraiture, landscape, description; he brought into it the marvellous and the true, those elements of the epopee; he made poetry mingle in it with the humblest sorts of language. But having less invented a system than found out his manner in the ardour of work, or by the logic of this work, he had not thought of linking his compositions to each other so as to co-ordinate a complete history, each chapter of which would have been a novel and each novel an epoch. Perceiving this want of connection, which, indeed does not render the Scotchman less great, I saw both the system that was favourable to the execution of my work, and the possibility of carrying it out. Although, so to speak, dazzled by the surprising fecundity of Walter Scott, always equal to himself and always original, I did not despair, for I found the reason of such talent in the variety of human nature. Chance is the greatest novelist in the world. To be fertile, one has only to study it. French society was to be the historian. I was to be only the secretary. By drawing up an inventory of virtues and vices, by assembling the principal facts of passions, by painting characters, by choosing the principal events of society, by composing types through the union of several homogeneous characters, perhaps I should succeed in writing the history forgotten by so many historians, that of manners and morals. With much patience and courage, I should realize, with regard to France in the nineteenth century, the book we all regret which Rome, Athens, Tyre, Memphis, Persia, India have not unfortunately left about their civilizations, and which like the Abbe Barthelemy, the courageous and patient Monteil had essayed for the Middle Ages, but in a form not very attractive."
One may well believe the novelist when he explains that "it was no small task to depict the two or three thousand prominent figures of an epoch," representing typical phases in all existences, which, says he, "is one of the accuracies I have most sought for. I have tried to give a notion also of the different parts of our beautiful land. My work has its geography, as it has its genealogy and its families, its places and things, its persons and its facts, as it has its blazonry, its nobles and its commoners, its artisans and its peasants, its politicians and its dandies, its army, in fine, its epitome of life —all this in its settings and galleries."
The Human Comedy, as finally arranged and classified in 1845, had three chief divisions: Studies of Manners and Morals, Philosophic Studies, Analytic Studies; and the first of these was subdivided into Scenes of Private Life, Scenes of Provincial Life, Scenes of Parisian Life, Scenes of Military Life, Scenes of Political Life, Scenes of Country Life.
Even if we include the unwritten books, the diminution from first to second and from second to third is considerable. In the novelist's mind, this difference was intentional. According to his conception, the first large series represented the broad base of effects, upon which was superposed the second plane of causes, less numerous and more concentrated. In the latter, he strove to answer the why and wherefore of sentiments; in the former, to exhibit their action in varying modes. In the former, therefore, he represented individuals; in the latter, his individuals became types. All this he detailed to Madame Hanska, insisting on the statement that everywhere he gave life to the type by individualizing it, and significance to the individuals by rendering them typical. At the top of the cone he treated, in his analytical studies, of the principles whence causes and effects proceed. The manners and morals at the base, he said, were the spectacle; the causes above were the side-scenes; and the principles at the top were the author.
Coming to the subdivisions, he explains that his Scenes of Private Life deal with humanity's childhood and adolescence, and the errors of these, in short, with the period of budding passions; the Scenes of Provincial Life, with passions in full development—calculation, interest, ambition, etc.; the Scenes of Parisian Life, with the peculiar tastes, vices and temptations of capitals, that is to say, with passion unbridled. The interpretation assigned to these categories is a fanciful one. Passions are born and bred and produce their full effect in every place and phase of life. They may assume varying forms in divers surroundings, but such variation has no analogy with change of age. Only by forcing the moral of his stories was the author able to give them these secondary significations. Indeed, he was often in straits to decide in which category he ought to class one and another novel. Pere Goriot was originally in the Scenes of Parisian Life, where it has a certain raison d'etre. Ultimately, it found its way into the Scenes of Private Life. And a greater alteration was made by removing Madame Firmiani and the Woman-Study from the Philosophic Studies, and placing them also in the Private Life series.
Be it granted that the plan of the Comedy was grandiose in its scope; it was none the less doomed in its execution to suffer for its ambitiousness, since an attempt was made to subordinate imagination to science in a domain where the rights of imagination were paramount.
That which Balzac has best rendered in it is the struggle for life on the social plane; and that which forms its most legitimate claim to be deemed in some measure a whole is the general reference to this in all the so-called parts. Before the Revolution, the action of the law was narrower, being chiefly limited to members of one class. With the fall of ancient privilege the sphere of competition was opened to the entire nation; and, instead of nobles contending with nobles, churchmen with churchmen, tradesmen with tradesmen, there was an interpenetration of combatants over all the field of battle, or rather, the several smaller fields of battle became one large one. Balzac's fiction reproduces the later phase in minute detail, and, mostly, with a treatment suited to the subject.
Brunetiere, whose chapter on the Comedy is written more gropingly than the rest of his study of the novelist, makes use of an ingenious comparison with intent to persuade that the stories had from the very first a predestined organic union, with ramifications which the author saw but obscurely and which were joined together more closely—as also more consciously—during the lapse of years. "Thus," he says, "brothers and sisters, in the time of their infancy or childhood, have nothing in common except a certain family resemblance—and this not always. But, as they advance in age, the features that individualized them become attenuated, they return to the type of their progenitors, and one perceives that they are children of the same father and mother. Balzac's novels," he concludes, "have a connection of this kind. In his head, they were, so to speak, contemporary."
The simile is not a happy one. It does not help to reconcile us to an artificial approximation of books that are heterogeneous, unequal in value, and, frequently, composed under influences far removed from the after-thought that was given to them by a putative father. Balzac was not well inspired in relating his novels to each other logically. Such natural relationship as they possess is that of issuing from the same brain, though acting under varying conditions and in different states of development; and it is true that, if the story of this brain is known, and its experiences understood, a certain classification might be made—perhaps more than one—of its creations, on account of common traits, resemblances of subject or treatment, which could serve to link them together loosely. But, between this arrangement and the artificial hierarchy of the Comedy, it is impossible to find a bridge to pass over.
One of the real links betwixt the novels is the reappearance of the same people in many of them, which thing is not in itself displeasing. It has the advantage of allowing the author to display his men and women in changed circumstances, to cast side-lights upon them, and to reveal them more completely. However, here and there, we pay for the privilege in meeting with bores whose further acquaintance we would fain have been spared. And then, also, we are likely enough to come across a hero or heroine as a child, after learning all about his or her maturer life; to accompany people to the grave and see them buried, and yet, in a later book, to be introduced to them as alive as ever they were. This is disconcerting. Usually, Balzac remembers his characters well enough to be consistent in other respects when he makes them speak and act, or lets us into his confidence about them. Still, he is guilty of a few lapses of memory. In The Woman of Thirty Years Old, Madame d'Aiglemont has two children in the early chapters; subsequently, one is drowned, and, instead of one remaining, we learn there are three—a new reading of Wordsworth's We are seven. Again, in the Lost Illusions, Esther Gobseck has blond hair in one description of her, and black in another. We are reduced to supposing she had dyed it. Mistakes of the kind have been made by others writers of fiction who have worked quickly. In the Comedy, the number of dramatis personae is exceedingly large. Balzac laughingly remarked one day that they needed a biographical dictionary to render their identity clear; and he added that perhaps somebody would be tempted to do the work at a later date. He guessed rightly. In 1893, Messrs. Cerfbeer and Cristophe undertook the task and carried it through in a book that they call the Repertory of the Comedie Humaine.[*] All the fictitious personages or petty folk that live in the novelist's pages are duly docketed, and their births, marriages, deaths, and stage appearances recorded in this Who's Who, a big volume of five hundred and sixty-three pages, constituting a veritable curiosity of literature.
Much has been said in the preceding chapters of the large use Balzac made of his own life, his adventures, his experiences, in composing the integral portions of his Comedy, so that its contents, for any one who can interpret, becomes a valuable autobiography. And the lesser as well as the greater novels supply facts. In the Forsaken Woman, Madame de Beauseant, who has been jilted by the Marquis of Ajuda-Pinto, permits herself to be wooed by Gaston de Nueil, a man far younger than herself. After ten years, he, in turn, quits her to marry the person his mother has chosen for him; but, unable to bear the combined burden of his remorse and yearning regret, he commits suicide. This tale, like the Lily in the Valley, is a adaptation of Balzac's liaison with Madame de Berny. It was written in the very year he severed the material ties that bound them. The only distinction between his case and that of Gaston de Nueil was that he had no desire to kill himself, and was content to be no more than a friend, since he was the freer to flirt with Madame de Castries. And when the latter lady kept him on tenter-hooks, tormenting him, tempting him, but never yielding to him, he revenged himself by writing the Duchess de Langeais, attributing to the foolish old general his own hopes, fears, and disappointments at the hands of the coquettish, capricious duchess. "I alone," he said in a letter, "know the horrible that is in this narrative." And, if, in Albert Savarus, we have a confession of his political ambitions and campaigns, we get in Cesar Birotteau and the Petty Bourgeois his financial projects, which never brought him anything; in A Man of Business—as well as elsewhere—his continual money embarrassments. How deeply he felt them, he often lets us gather from his fiction. "I have been to a capitalist," he wrote in one of his epistles to Madame Hanska, "a capitalist to whom are due indemnities agreed on between us for works promised and not executed; and I offered him a certain number of copies of the Studies of Manners and Morals. I proposed five thousand francs with deferred payment, instead of three thousand francs cash. He refused everything, even my signature and a bill, telling me my fortune was in my talent and that I might die any time. This scene is one of the most infamous I have known. Some day I will reproduce it."