Honore de Balzac, His Life and Writings
by Mary F. Sandars
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With what longing, in the midst of his harassing life in Paris, he would look back to the charming long fireside chats he had had with Madame Hanska; and as the time to meet her again came nearer, with what satisfaction special tit-bits of gossip were reserved to be talked over and explained during the long evenings at Wierzchownia! How he loved to rush in to his sister with the latest news of the personages of his novels, as well as with brilliant plans to improve his general prospects; and with what enthusiasm he poured out to Theophile Gautier, or even to Leon Gozlan, his confidences of all sorts! Plans, absurd and impossible, but worked out with a business-like arrangement of detail which, when mingled with somnambulists and magnetisers, had a weird yet apparently fascinating effect on his hearers; magnificent diatribes against the wickedness of his special enemies, journalists, editors, and the Press in general; strange fancies to do with the world where Eugenie Grandet or Le Pere Goriot had their dwelling,—all these ideas, opinions, and feelings came from his lips with an eloquence, a force, and a life which were all convincing. Yet by a strange anomaly, which is sometimes seen in talkative and apparently unreserved people, Balzac in reality revealed very little of himself—in fact, we may often suspect him of using a flow of apparently spontaneous words as a screen to mask some hidden feeling. Therefore, when people who had considered themselves his intimate friends tried to write about him after his death, they found that they really knew little of the essentials of the man, and could only string together amusing anecdotes, proving him to have been eccentric, amusing, and essentially bon camarade, but giving little idea of his real personality and genius.

Even in these early days at the card-parties—where sometimes the hostess noticed the defection of the two young guests, and, holding a card in each delicate hand, would beckon them to take their place at the game, which they would do with humble and discomfited faces, like schoolboys surprised at a forbidden amusement—M. de Petigny, Balzac's companion, must have been struck by his openness in some respects and the absolute mystery with which he surrounded himself in others. Where he lived, what he was doing, what his life was like—all these facts were hidden from his companion, till he revealed himself at last, on the verge of his hoped-for triumph. But, on the other hand, the sentiments and impressions of which M. de Petigny read afterwards in Balzac's books seemed to him only a pale, distant echo of the rich and vivid expressions which fell from his lips in these intimate talks. Magnetism, in which he had a strong faith all his life, was exercising his thoughts greatly. It was "the irresistible ascendency of mind over matter, of a strong and immovable will over a soul open to all impressions."[*] Before long he would have mastered its secrets, and would be able to compel every man to obey him and every woman to love him. He had already, he announced, begun to occupy his fixed position in life, and was on the threshold of a millennium.

[*] Article by M. Jules de Petigny.

Balzac's glimpses of society were, however, rare, and ceased altogether during the last few months of his stay in the Rue Lesdiguieres. However, other more satisfying pleasures were his: "Unspeakable joys are showered on us by the exertion of our mental faculties; the quest of ideas, and the tranquil contemplation of knowledge; delights indescribable, because purely intellectual and impalpable to our senses. So we are obliged to use material terms to express the mysteries of the soul. The pleasure of striking out in some lonely lake of clear water, with forests, rocks, and flowers around, and the soft stirring of the warm breeze—all this would give to those who knew them not a very faint idea of the exultation with which my soul bathed itself in the beams of an unknown light, hearkened to the awful and uncertain voice of inspiration, as vision upon vision poured from some unknown source through my throbbing brain."[*]

[*] "La Peau de Chagrin," by Honore de Balzac.

There was another side to the picture, and perhaps in this description, written in 1830, Balzac has slightly antedated his joy in his creative powers, and describes more correctly his feelings when he wrote "Les Chouans," "La Maison du Chat-qui-pelote," and the "Peau de Chagrin" itself, than those of this earlier period of his life, when the difficulties of expressing himself often seemed insurmountable, and the hiatus between his ideas and the form in which to clothe them was almost impossible to bridge over.

Writing did not at any time come easily to him, and "Stella" and "Coqsigrue," his first novels, were never finished; while a comedy, "Les Deux Philosophes," was also abandoned in despair. Next he set to work at "Cromwell," a tragedy in five acts, which was to be his passport to fame. At this play he laboured for months, shutting himself up completely, and loving his self-imposed slavery—though his want of faculty for versification, and the intense difficulty he experienced in finding words for the ideas which crowded into his imaginative brain were decided drawbacks. While engaged on this work, he may indeed have experienced some of the feelings he describes in the "Peau de Chagrin," quoted above; for, curiously enough, "Cromwell," his first finished production, was the only one of his early works about which he was deceived, and which he imagined to be a chef d'oeuvre. It was well he had this happy faith to sustain him, as, according to the account of M. Jules de Petigny, the circumstances under which the play was composed must, to put the matter mildly, have been distinctly depressing.

This gentleman says: "I entered a narrow garret, furnished with a bottomless chair, a rickety table and a miserable pallet bed, with two dirty curtains half drawn round it. On the table were an inkstand, a big copybook scribbled all over, a jug of lemonade, a glass, and a morsel of bread. The heat in this wretched hole was stifling, and one breathed a mephitic air which would have given cholera, if cholera had then been invented!" Balzac was in bed, with a cotton cap of problematic colour on his head. "You see," he said, "the abode I have not left except once for two months—the evening when you met me. During all this time I have not got up from the bed where I work at the great work, for the sake of which I have condemned myself to this hermit's life, and which happily I have just finished, for my powers have come to an end." It must have been during these last months in his garret, when he neglected everything for his projected masterpiece, that, covered with vermin from the dirt of his room, he would creep out in the evening to buy a candle, which, as he possessed no candlestick, he would put in an empty bottle.

The almost insane ardour for and absorption in his work, which were his salient characteristics, had already possession of him; and we see that he laboured as passionately now for fame and for love of his art, as he did later on, when the struggle to free himself from debt, and to gain a home and womanly companionship were additional incentives to effort. At the time of which M. de Petigny speaks, however, his troubles appeared to be over, as the masterpiece for which he had suffered so much was completed; and joyfully confident that triumph awaited him, Honore took it home with him to Villeparisis at the end of April, 1820. He was so certain, poor fellow, of success, that he had specially begged that among those invited to the reading of the tragedy, should be the insulting person who told his father fifteen months before, that he was fit for nothing but a post as copying clerk.


1820 - 1828

Reading of "Cromwell"—Balzac is obliged to live at home —Unhappiness—Writes romantic novels—Friendship with Madame de Berny—Starts in Paris as publisher and afterwards as printer —Impending bankruptcy only prevented by help from his parents and Madame de Berny.

Evidently Balzac's happy faith in the beauty of "Cromwell" had impressed his parents, as, apparently without having seen the play, they had assembled a large concourse of friends for the reading; and between happy pride in his boy's genius, and satisfaction at his own acuteness in discerning it, old M. de Balzac was no doubt nearly as joyous as Honore himself. The Balzac family were prepared for triumph, the friends were amused or incredulous, and the solemn trial began.[*] The tragedy, strongly Royalist in principles, opens, according to the plot as given by Balzac in a letter to his sister,[+] with the entrance of Queen Henrietta Maria into Westminster. She is utterly exhausted, and, disguised in humble garments, has returned from taking her children for safety into Holland, and from begging for the help of the King of France. Strafford, in tears, tells her of late events, and of the King's imprisonment and future trial; but during this conversation Cromwell and Ireton enter, and the Queen, in terror, hides behind a tomb, till, horrified at the discussion as to whether or not the King shall be put to death, she comes out, and, as Balzac remarks, "makes them a famous discourse." Act II. sounds a little dull, though no doubt it is highly instructive, as a great part of it is taken up with a monologue by the King detailing the events of his past reign. Later on Charles, instead of keeping Cromwell's son who has fallen into his hands, as a hostage for his own life, gives him up to his father without condition; but Cromwell, unmoved by this generosity, still plots for his King's death. The fifth Act, which Balzac remarks is the most difficult of all, opens with a scene in which the King tells the Queen his last wishes, which Balzac interpolates with (Quelle scene!); then Strafford informs the King of his condemnation (Quelle scene!); the King and Queen say good-bye —(Quelle scene!) again; and the play ends with the Queen vowing eternal vengeance upon England, declaring that enemies will rise everywhere against her, and that one day France will fight against her, conquer her, and crush her.

[*] The original MS., beautifully written out, and tied with faded blue ribbon, is in the possession of the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.

[+] "Honore de Balzac—Correspondance," vol. i, p. 28.

Honore began his reading with the utmost enthusiasm, modulating his sonorous voice to suit the different characters, and even contriving for a time to impart by his expressive reading a fictitious interest to the dull, tedious tragedy. Gradually, however, the feeling of disappointment and boredom among his audience communicated itself to him. He lost confidence; his beautiful reading began to decline in pathos and interest; and when at last he finished, and, glancing at the downcast faces round him, found that even Laure could not look up at him with a smile of congratulation, he felt a chill at his heart, and knew that he had not triumphed after all. Nevertheless, he very naturally rebelled against the strongly expressed adverse judgment of his enemy of the copying-clerk proposal, and begged to be allowed to appeal to a competent and impartial critic. To this request his father assented, and M. Surville, who was now engaged to Laure, proposed that M. Andrieux, of the Academie Francaise, formerly his own master at the Ecole Polytechnique, should be asked to give an opinion. Honore, his sister says, "accepted this literary elder as sovereign judge," no doubt hoping against hope that a really cultured man would see the beauties which were unfortunately hidden from the eyes of the unintellectual inhabitants of Villeparisis. However, the verdict of M. Andrieux was, if possible, more crushing than any of the events which had preceded it. In the honest opinion of this expert, the author of "Cromwell" ought to do anything, no matter what, except literature.

Honore had asked for an impartial judgment, and had promised to abide by it. His discomfiture and sense of failure ought therefore to have been complete. Genius does not, however, follow the ordinary road; and with a mixture of pluck, confidence in himself, and pride which always characterised him, Honore did not allow that he was beaten, and would not show the feelings of grief and disappointment which must have filled his heart. "Tragedies are not my line"—that is all he said; and if he had been allowed to follow his own bent, he would at once have returned to his garret, and have begun to write again with unabated ardour.

Naturally, however, the Balzac family refused to allow him to continue the course of senseless folly which was already beginning to ruin his health. Madame de Balzac was specially strong on this point; and though he had only been allowed fifteen months, instead of the two years promised for his trial, she insisted that he should come home at once, and remain under the maternal eye. Indeed, this seemed quite necessary, after the privations he had gone through. His sufferings never made him thin at any period of his life; but now his face was pale and his eyes hollow, and his lifelong friend, Dr. Nacquart, sent him at once to recruit in the air of his native Touraine.

After this followed a time of bitter trial for poor Honore. His sister Laure married M. Surville in May, 1820, about a month after his return home, and went to live at Bayeux, so that he was deprived of her congenial companionship; and, in spite of his fun and buoyancy, his letters to her show his extreme wretchedness. Years afterwards he told the Duchesse d'Abrantes that the cruel weight of compulsion under which he was crushed till 1822 made his struggles for existence, when once he was free, seem comparatively light. Continually worried by his nervous, irritable mother, deprived of independence, of leisure, of quiet, he saw his dreams of future fame vanish like smoke, and the hated lawyer's office become a certainty, if he failed to make money by writing. In deadly fear of this, and with the paralysing consciousness that his present circumstances were peculiarly unpropitious as a literary education, he rebelled against the hard fate which denied him opportunity to work for fame. "Laure, Laure," he cries at this time, "my two only and immense desires—to be loved and to be celebrated—will they ever be satisfied?"

Whatever his aspirations might be, it was necessary that he should do something to support himself, as his parents firmly refused to grant him the 1,500 francs—about sixty pounds—a year for which he begged, to enable him to live in Paris and to carry out his vocation. He was therefore obliged to write at his home at Villeparisis in the midst of distractions and discouragements. In these unpropitious circumstances he produced in five years—with different collaborators, whose names are now rescued from absolute oblivion by their transitory connection with him—eight novels in thirty-one volumes. That he managed to find a publisher for most of his novels, and to make forty pounds, sixty pounds, or eighty pounds out of each, is according to his sister, a remarkable proof of his strength of will, and also of his power of fascination. The payment generally took the form of a bill payable at some distant period—a form of receiving money which does not seem very satisfying; but at any rate Balzac could prove to his family that he was earning something, and was himself cheered by his small successes. We can imagine his feverish anxiety, and the cunning with which he would exert every wile to induce the publisher—himself a struggling man—to accept his wares, when he knew that a refusal would mean mingled scoffs and lamentations at home, and possibly a menace that not much longer leisure would be allowed him for idling. There is pathos in the fate of one whose genius is unrecognised till his day on earth is over, but far harder seems the lot of the man who longs and struggles, feeling that the power is in him, and who yet, by some strange gulf between thought and expression, can only produce what he knows to be worthless. It speaks much for Balzac's courage, patience, and determination, or perhaps for the intuitive force of a genius which refused to be denied outlet, that he struggled through this weary time, and in spite of opposition kept to his fixed purpose of becoming a writer.

These early works—"L'Heritiere de Birague," "Jean-Louis," "Le Centenaire," "Le Vicaire des Ardennes," "La Derniere Fee," "Wann Chlore," and others, published in 1822 and the three following years —were written under the pseudonyms of Lord R'hoone, Viellergle, and Horace de Saint-Aubin, and are generally wild tales of adventure in the style of Mrs. Radcliffe. Though occasionally the reader comes across a paragraph faintly reminiscent of the Balzac of later years, these youthful attempts are certainly not worthy of the great man who wrote them, and he consistently refused to acknowledge their authorship. The two first, "L'Heritiere de Birague" and "Jean-Louis," were written with the collaboration of M. Auguste le Poitevin de l'Egreville, who took the name of Viellergle, while Balzac adopted that of Lord R'hoone, an anagram of Honore, so that these two novels are signed with both pseudonyms.[*] It is amusing to find that the sage Honore, in 1820, prudently discourages a passing fancy on the part of his sister Laurence for his collaborator, by remarking that writers are very bad partis, though he hastens to add that he only means this from a pecuniary point of view! Laure, at Bayeux, is made useful as an amateur advertising agent, and is carefully told that, though she is to talk about the novels a great deal, she is never to lend her copies to any one, because people must buy the books to read them. "L'Heritiere" brought in about thirty-two pounds, and "Jean-Louis" fifty-three pounds, unfortunately both in bills at long date; but it was the first money Honore had ever earned, and he was naturally excited. However, with "La Derniere Fee" he was not so fortunate, as both versions—one of which appeared in 1823 and the other in 1824—were published at his own cost. Nevertheless, he has no illusions about the worth of his books, "L'Heritiere" being, he says, a "veritable cochonnerie litteraire," while "Jean-Louis" has "several rather funny jokes, and some not bad attempts at character, but a detestable plot."

[*] See "Une Page perdue de Honore de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.

In the same year, 1822, he writes one of his droll, beseeching letters to beg M. and Mme. Surville to help him out of a great difficulty, and to write one volume of "Le Vicaire des Ardennes" while he writes the other, and afterwards fits the two together. The matter is most important, as he has promised Pollet to have two novels, "Le Vicaire" and "Le Savant"—the latter we never hear of again—ready by October 1st. It is necessary to be specially quick about "Le Vicaire," partly because Auguste, his collaborator, is writing a novel of the same name, and Balzac's production must come out first, and also for the joyful reason that he will actually receive twenty-four pounds in ready money for the two books, the further fifty-six pounds following in bills payable at eight months. What do the Survilles think about it? He throws himself on their generosity, though he is afraid Laure will never manage to write sixty pages of a novel every day. Apparently the Survilles, or at least M. Surville—for it is certain that the devoted Laure would have worked herself to death to help Honore—did not see their way to proceeding at this rate of composition, as the next letter from Balzac, written on August 20th, is full of reproaches because the manuscript has not been at once returned to him, that he may go on with it himself. Perhaps this want of help prevented the carrying out of the contract, and was the reason that the world has not been enriched by the appearance of "Le Savant." Honore, however, judging by his next letter, did not bear malice: he was accustomed to make continual requests, reasonable and sometimes very unreasonable, to his family; and the large good-humour which was one of the foundations of his robust character, prevented him from showing any irritation when they were refused.

From 1821 to 1824 he wrote thirty-one volumes, and it is an extraordinary proof of his versatility, that in 1824, in the midst of the production of these romantic novels, he published a pamphlet entitled "Du Droit d'Ainesse" which argues with singular force, logic, and erudition against the revolutionary and Napoleonic theories on the division of property; and a small volume entitled "Histoire impartiale des Jesuites," which is an impassioned defence of religion and the monarchy. "The Bourbons are the preservers of the sublime religion of Christ, and they have never betrayed the trust which confided Christianity to them," he cries. No one reading these political essays would think it likely that they were the work of the romantic writer of "La Derniere Fee" or "Argow the Pirate," which were employing Balzac's pen at the same time.

Young men are often very severe critics of the doings of their family; and Balzac, cursed with the sensitiveness of genius, and smarting under the bitter disappointment of disillusionment and of thwarted and compressed powers, was not likely to be an indulgent critic; but making due allowance for these facts, it does not appear that his home was a particularly comfortable place at this time. Old M. de Balzac was as placid as an Egyptian pyramid and perennially cheerful; but the restless Madame de Balzac was now following in the footsteps of her nervous mother and becoming a malade imaginaire. This did not add to the comfort of her family, while the small excitements she roused perpetually were peculiarly trying to her eldest son, who was himself not of a placid nature.

However, there were compensations, though the discreet Honore does not mention these in his letters to Laure, as in 1821 his friendship with Madame de Berny began, and only ceased in 1836 with her death, which in spite of his affection for Madame Hanska, was a lifelong sorrow to him. One of Honore's home duties was to act as tutor to his younger brother Henry—the spoilt child of the family—who, owing to supposed delicacy, was educated at home; and as the Bernys lived near Villeparisis, it was arranged that he should at the same time give lessons to one of M. and Madame de Berny's boys. This may have helped to bring about the intimacy between the two houses, and Honore was struck by Madame de Berny's patience and sweetness to a morose husband many years older than herself. Later on, the Bernys left the neighbourhood of Villeparisis, and divided their time between the village of Saint-Firmin, near Chantilly, and Paris; and Balzac occasionally paid them visits in the country, and saw Madame de Berny continually in Paris. She was twenty-two years older than Honore, and no doubt supplied the element of motherliness which was conspicuously absent in Madame de Balzac.

She was a gentle and pathetic figure, the woman who understood Balzac as Madame Hanska did not; who made light of her troubles and sufferings for fear of grieving him in the midst of his own struggles; and who, while performing her duties conscientiously as devoted wife and mother, for twelve years gave up two hours every day to his society. She lent him money, interceded with his parents on his behalf, corrected his proofs, acted as a severe and candid though sympathetic critic, and above all cheered and encouraged him, and prevented him from committing suicide in his dark days of distress. On the other hand, the friendship of a man like Balzac must have been of absorbing interest to a woman of great delicacy of feeling, and evidently considerable literary powers, whose surroundings were uncongenial; and his warm and enduring affection helped her to tide over many of the troubles of a sad life.

Recent researches have discovered several interesting facts about the origin of the woman to whom may be ascribed the merit of "creating" the writer who was destined to exercise so great an influence on his own and succeeding generations.[*] Curiously enough, Louise Antoinette Laure Hinner, destined at the age of fifteen years and ten months to become Madame de Berny, was, like Madame Hanska, a foreigner, being the daughter of Joseph Hinner, a German musician, who was brought by Turgot to France. Here he became harpist to Marie Antoinette, and married Madame Quelpee de Laborde, one of the Queen's ladies in waiting. Two years later, on May 23rd, 1777, the future Madame de Berny came into the world, and made her debut with a great flourish of trumpets, Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette, represented by the Duc de Fronsac and Laure Auguste de Fitz-James, Princesse de Chimay, being her god-parents. When in 1784 her father died, her mother married the Chevalier de Jarjayes, one of Marie Antoinette's most loyal adherents during the Revolution. It was he who conceived the project of carrying off Louis XVII. from the Temple, and who was entrusted with the precious duty of carrying the seal, ring, and hair belonging to the Royal Family to the exiled Monsieur and Comte d'Artois.[*]

[*] See "Balzac, Imprimeur," in "La Jeunesse de Balzac," by MM. Hanotaux et Vicaire.

We can easily see whence Balzac derived his strong Royalist principles —how from boyhood the lessons taught him by his masters, M. Lepitre and M. Guillonnet de Merville, would be insisted on, only with much greater effect and insistence, by this charming woman of the world. Her mother, still living, had passed her time in the disturbed and exciting atmosphere of plots and counterplots; and she herself could tell him story after story of heartrending tragedies and of hairbreadth escapes, which had happened to her own relations and friends. From her he acquired those aristocratic longings which always characterised him, and through her influence he made acquaintance with several people of high position and importance, and thus was enabled to make an occasional appearance in the beau-monde of Paris.

Her portrait gives the idea of an elegant rather than pretty woman, with a long neck, sloping shoulders, black curls on the temples, at each side of a high forehead, and large, languishing dark eyes, under pencilled eyebrows. The oval face has a character of gentle melancholy, and there is something subdued and suffering in the whole expression which invites our pity. She wears in the portrait an Empire dress, confined under the arms by a yellow ribbon.

"La dilecta," as Balzac calls her, cannot have been a very happy woman. Of her nine children, watched with the most tender solicitude, only four lived to grow up; and of these her favourite son, "beautiful as the day, like her tender and spiritual, like her full of noble sentiments," as Balzac says, died the year before her; and only an insane daughter and a wild, unsatisfactory son survived her. This terrible blow broke her heart, and she shut herself up and refused to see even Balzac during the last year of her life. The end must at any rate have been peaceful, as, in order to prolong her existence as much as possible, it had been found necessary to separate her from the irritable husband with whose vagaries she had borne patiently during thirty tedious years; but perhaps she was sorry in the end that this was necessary. Madame de Mortsauf, in the "Lys dans la Vallee," is intended to be a portrait of her, though Balzac says that he has only managed to give a faint reflection of her perfections. However this may be, Henriette de Mortsauf is a charming and ethereal creation, and from her we can understand the fascination Madame de Berny exerted over Balzac, and can realise that, as he says to Madame Hanska, her loss can never be made up to him. It is possible also to sympathise with the feeling, perhaps unacknowledged even to himself, which peeps out in a letter to Madame Hanska in 1840.[*] In this he reproaches his correspondent for her littleness in not writing to him because he cannot answer her letters quickly, and tells her that he has lately been in such straits that he has not been able to pay for franking his letters, and has several times eaten a roll on the Boulevards for his dinner. He goes on: "Ah! I implore you, do not make comparisons between yourself and Madame de Berny. She was of infinite goodness and of absolute devotion; she was what she was. You are complete on your side as she on hers. One never compares two great things. They are what they are." Certainly Balzac never found a second Madame de Berny.

[*] "Lettres a L'Etrangere."

From 1822 to 1824 we know little of Balzac's history, except that he passed the time at home, and was presumably working hard at his romantic novels; but in 1824 a change came, one no doubt hailed at the time with eager delight, though it proved unfortunately to be the foundation of all his subsequent misfortunes.

When he went up to Paris to make arrangements for publishing his novels, he stayed in the old lodgings of his family in the Rue du Roi Dore, and here he often met a friend, M. d'Assonvillez, to whom he confided his fear of being forced into an occupation distasteful to him. M. d'Assonvillez was sympathetic, advised him to seek for a business which would make him independent, and, carried away by Honore's powers of persuasion and eloquence, actually promised to proved the necessary funds. We can imagine Balzac's joy at this offer, and the enthusiasm with which he would take up his abode in Paris, and feel that he was about to earn his living, nay, more, that he would no doubt become enormously rich, and would then have leisure to give up his time to literature. What however decided him to become first publisher and then printer we do not know. He started his publishing campaign with the idea of bringing out compact editions of the complete works of different authors in one volume, and began with Moliere and La Fontaine, carrying on the two publications at the same time, for fear of competition if his secret should be discovered. The idea, which had already been thought of by Urbain Canel, was a good one; but unfortunately Balzac was not able to obtain support from the trade, and had not sufficient capital for advertising. Therefore by the end of the year not twenty copies were sold, and he lost 15,000 francs on this affair alone. Consequently, in order to save the rent of the warehouse in which the books were stored, he was obliged to part with all the precious compact editions for the price by the weight of the paper on which they were printed.

Matters now looked very black, as Balzac owed about 70,000 francs; but M. d'Assonvillez was evidently much impressed by his business capacity, and was naturally anxious to be repaid the money he had lent. He therefore introduced Honore to a relation who was making a large fortune by his printing-press; and Balzac, full of enthusiasm, dreamt of becoming a second Richardson, and of combining the occupations of author and printer. His father was persuaded to provide the necessary funds, and handed him over 30,000 francs—about 1,200 pounds—with which to start the enterprise. In August, 1826, Balzac began again joyously, first by himself and afterwards with a partner named Barbier, whom he had noticed as foreman in one of the printing-offices to which he had taken his novels. Unfortunately a printing-licence cost 15,000 francs in the time of Charles X.; and when this had been paid, Barbier had received a bonus of 12,000 francs, and 15,000 francs had been spent on the necessary materials, there remained very little capital with which to meet the current expenses of the undertaking. Nevertheless, the young partners started full of hope, having bought from Laurent for 30,000 francs the premises at No. 7, Rue des Marais Saint-Germain, now the Rue Visconti, a street so narrow that two vehicles cannot pass in it. A wooden staircase with an iron handrail led from a dark passage to the large barrack-like hall they occupied: an abode which Balzac tried to beautify, possibly for Madame de Berny's visits, by hangings of blue calico.

There Balzac developed quickly. He learnt the struggle of a business life, the duel between man and man, through which thousands pass without gaining anything except business acuteness, but which introduced the great psychologist to hundreds of new types, and showed to his keen, observant eyes man, not in society or domesticity, but in undress, fighting for life itself, or for all that makes life worth living. In the Rue de Lesdiguieres he had struggled with himself, striving in cold and hunger to gain the mastery of his art. Here he battled with others; and since, except on paper, he never possessed business capacity, he failed and went under; but by his defeat he paved the way to future triumph. He passed through an experience possibly unique in the career of a man of letters, one which imparts the peculiar flavour of business, money, and affairs to his books, and which fixed on him for all his days the impression of restless, passionate, thronging humanity which he pictures in his books. The abyss between his early romantic novels and such a book as the "Peau de Chagrin" is immeasurable, and cannot be altogether accounted for by any teaching, however valuable, or even by the strong influence which intercourse with Madame de Berny exercised. Something else definite must have happened to him—some great opening out and development, which caused a sudden appearance on the surface of hitherto latent, unworkable powers. This forcing-process took place at his first contact with the war of life; and though he bore the scars of the encounter as long as he lived, he grew by its clash, ferment, and disaster to his full stature. In "La Maison du Chat-qui-pelote," "Illusions Perdues," and "Cesar Birotteau" he gives different phases of this life, spent partly in the printer's office and partly in the streets, rushing anxiously from place to place and from person to person, trying vainly by interviews to avert the impending ruin.

Matters seemed, however, quite hopeless; but when, towards the end of 1827, an opportunity occurred of becoming possessed of a type-foundry, the partners, perhaps with the desperation of despair, did not hesitate to avail themselves of it. This new acquisition naturally only appeared likely to precipitate the catastrophe, and Barbier prepared to leave the sinking ship. At this juncture Madame de Berny came forward with substantial help, and allowed her name to appear as partner in his place. However, even this assistance did not long avert disaster—bankruptcy was impending, and Madame de Berny and Laure implored Madame de Balzac to prevent this. The latter, wishing at all costs to keep the matter from the ears of her husband, now a very old man and failing in health, begged a cousin, M. Sedillot, to come forward, and at least to save the honour of the family. M. Sedillot, who appears to have been a good man of business, at once set gallantly to work to disentangle the embroglio, and to free Honore from its meshes. As a result of his efforts, the printing-press was sold to M. Laurent, and the type-foundry became the property of the De Bernys, under whom it was highly successful. At the same time, to save Honore from disgrace, Madame de Balzac lent 37,000 francs and Madame de Berny 45,000, the latter sum being paid back in full by Balzac in 1836, the year of Madame de Berny's death. "Without her I should be dead," he tells Madame Hanska. He was most anxious not to sell the type-foundry, and his parents have been severely criticised for their refusal to provide further funds for the purpose of carrying on that and the printing-office.

This blame seems a little unfair. It is true that, after Balzac had been obliged, to his intense grief, to part with both businesses at a loss, a fortune was made out of the type-foundry alone. But the Balzacs had lost money, and had their other children to provide for; while Honore, though well equipped with hope, enthusiasm, and belief in himself, had hitherto failed to justify a trust in his business capacities. In fact, if his parents had been endowed with prophetic eyesight, and had been enabled to take a bird's-eye view of their celebrated son's future enterprises, which were always, according to his own account, destined to fail only by some unfortunate slip at the last, it seems doubtful whether they would have been wise to alter the course they adopted.


1828 - 1829

Life in the Rue de Tournon—Privations and despair—Friendships —Auguste Borget—Madame Carraud—The Duchesse d'Abrantes—George Sand, etc.—Balzac writes "La Peau de Chagrin" and the "Physiologie du Marriage"—His right to be entitled "De Balzac."

In September, 1828, before the final winding up of affairs, Balzac had fled from Paris, and had gone to spend three weeks with his friends the Pommereuls in Brittany. There he began to write "Les Chouans," the first novel to which he signed his name. With his usual hopefulness, dreams of future fame filled his brain; and in spite of his misfortunes, his relief at having obtained temporary escape from his difficulties and freedom to pursue his literary career was so great, that his jolly laugh often resounded in the old chateau of Fougeres. It was certainly a remarkable case of buoyancy of temperament, as the circumstances in which he found himself were distinctly discouraging. He was now twenty-nine years old; he owed about 100,000 francs, and was utterly penniless; while his reputation for commercial capacity had been completely destroyed. His most pressing liabilities had been paid by his mother, who was all his life one of his principal creditors; and he was now firmly under the yoke of that heavy burden of debt which was destined never again to be lifted from his shoulders. Once again, as they had done nine years before, his parents cast off all responsibility for their unsatisfactory son. They had saved the family honour, which would have been compromised by his bankruptcy; but they felt that whether he lived or starved was his own affair. His position was infinitely worse than it had been in those early days in the Rue Lesdiguieres, when submission would have led to reinstatement in favour. He was now, as he graphically expressed it, "thrown into" the Rue de Tournon,[*] and apparently no provision was made for his wants. His parents, who had moved from Villeparisis to Versailles the year before, in order to be near Madame Surville, limited their interference in his affairs to severe criticism on his want of respect in not coming to see his family, and righteous wrath at his extravagance in hanging his room with blue calico. These reproaches he parried with the defence that he had no money to pay omnibus fares, and could not even write often because of the expense of postage; while anent the muslin, he stated that he possessed it before his failure, as La Touche and he had nailed it up to hide the frightful paper on the walls of the printing-office. Uncrushed by the scathing comments on his attempts at decoration, curious though characteristic efforts on the part of a starving man, he writes to his sister a few days later: "Ah, Laure, if you did but know how passionately I desire (but, hush! keep the secret) two blue screens embroidered in black (silence ever!)."[+] He reopens his letter about the screens to answer one from Madame Surville, written evidently at the instigation of M. and Mme. de Balzac, to blame his supposed idleness; and the poor fellow, to whom this fault at least could at no time be justly imputed, asks her if he is not already unhappy enough, and tells her pathetically how he suffers from these unjust suspicions, and that he can never be happy till he is dead. In the end, however, he returns with childlike persistence to the screens as a panacea for all his ills, and finishes with: "But my screens—I want them more than ever, for a little joy in the midst of torment!"

[*] He says himself "Rue Cassini," but this is a mistake.

[+] "Correspondance," vol. i. p. 82.

He had now apparently completely gone under, like many another promising young man of whom great things are expected; and he had in his pride and misery hidden himself from every one, except a few intimate friends. With the death on June 19, 1829, of his father, whose last days were saddened by the knowledge of his son's disaster, the world was poorer by one castle in the air the less; for besides his natural sorrow at the death of the kind old man, who was so much softer than his wife, the dream of becoming a millionaire by means of the Tontine capital faded way, like all poor Honore's other visions. Even Balzac's buoyancy was not always proof against the depressing influence of two or three days of starvation, and he sometimes descended to the lowest depths, and groped in those dark places from which death seems the only escape. When he tells us in "La Peau de Chagrin" that Raphael walked with an uncertain step in the Tuileries Gardens, "as if he were in some desert, elbowed by men whom he did not see, hearing, through all the voices of the crowd, one voice alone, the voice of Death," it is Balzac himself, who, after glorious aspirations, after being in imagination raised to heights to which only a great nature can aspire, now lay bruised and worsted, a complete failure, and thought that by suicide he would at least obtain peace and oblivion. He knew to the full the truth of his words: "Between a self-sought death and the abundant hopes whose voices call a young man to Paris, God only knows what may intervene, what contending ideas have striven within the soul, what poems have been set aside, what moans and what despair have been repressed, what abortive masterpieces and vain endeavours."[*]

[*] Honore de Balzac, "La Peau de Chagrin."

Looking back years afterwards at this terrible time, he can find only one reason why he did not put an end to himself, and that was the existence of Madame de Berny: "She was a mother, a woman friend, a family, a man friend, an adviser," he cries enthusiastically; "she made the writer, she consoled the young man, she formed his taste, she cried like a sister, she laughed, she came every day, like a merciful slumber, to send sorrow to sleep."[*] Certainly there was no woman on earth to whom Balzac owed so deep a debt of gratitude, and certainly also he joyfully acknowledged his obligations. "Every day with her was a fete," he said to Madame Hanska long afterwards.

[*] "Lettres a l'Etrangere."

About this time another friendship was beginning, which, though slower in growth and not so passionate in character, was as faithful, and was only terminated by Balzac's death. When Madame Surville went to live at Versailles, she was delighted to find that an old schoolfellow, Madame Carraud, was settled there, her husband holding the post of director of the military school at Saint-Cyr. Honore had known Madame Carraud since 1819; but he first became intimate with her and her husband in 1826, and later he was their constant guest at Angouleme, where Commandant Carraud was in charge of the Government powder-works, or at Frapesle in Berry, where Madame Carraud had a country house. She was a woman of much intelligence and ambition, high-principled and possessing much common sense. Balzac occasionally complained that she was a little wanting in softness; but, nevertheless, he invariably turned to her for comfort in the vicissitudes of his more passionate attachments. He was also much attached to M. Carraud, a man of great scientific attainments and a good husband, but, to his wife's despair, utterly lacking in energy and ambition; so that instead of taking the position to which by his abilities he was entitled, he soon retired altogether from public life, and Madame Carraud, who should, according to Balzac, have found scope for her talents in Paris, was buried in the country. Nevertheless, the Carrauds were a happy couple, genuinely devoted to each other; and Madame Carraud cited the instance of their affection, in spite of the difference of their point of view on many subjects, when in 1833 she wrote to Honore urging him to marry.[*] "There is no need to tell you that my husband and I are not sympathetic in everything. We are so unlike each other that the same objects appear quite differently to us. Yet I know the happiness about which I speak. We both feel it in the same degree, though in a different way. I would not give it up for the fullest existence, according to generally received ideas. I have not an empty moment."

[*] Letter from Madame Carraud in the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul's collection, published in La Revue Bleue, November 21st, 1903.

She was an ardent politician, and we gain much of our knowledge of Balzac's political views from his letters to her when he wished to become a deputy; while she also possessed the faculty which he valued most in his women friends, that of intelligent literary criticism. She could be critical on other points as well; and, like Madame Hanska, blamed Balzac for mobility of ideas and inconstancy of resolution, which she said wasted his intellect. She complained that, in the time that he might have used to bring one plan successfully to completion, he generally started ten or twelve new ones, all of which vanished into smoke, and brought him no advantage.[*]

[*] "L'Ecole des Menages" in "Autour de Honore de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.

Hardly a year passed without Balzac spending some time at the hospitable house at Frapesle, the doors of which were always open to him; and there, away from creditors, publishers, journalists, and all his other enemies, he was able to write in peace and quietness. There, too, he made many pleasant acquaintances, among them M. Armand Pereme, the distinguished antiquary, and M. Periollas, who was at one time under M. Carraud at Saint-Cyr, and afterwards became chief of a squadron of artillery. To Madame Carraud he also owed an introduction to his most intimate male friend, Auguste Borget, a genre painter who travelled in China, and drew many pictures of the scenery there. Borget lodged in the same house with Balzac in the Rue Cassini, and is mentioned by him in a letter to Madame Hanska, in 1833, as one of his three real friends beside her and his sister, Madame de Berny and Madame Carraud being the other two. It was a very real grief to Balzac when Borget was away; and he says that even when the painter is travelling, sketching, and never writes to him, he is constantly in his remembrance; while in another letter he speaks of his friend's nobility of soul and beauty of sentiment. To Borget was dedicated the touching story of "La Messe de l'Athee"; and in case of Balzac's sudden death it was to this "good, old, and true friend" that the duty of burning Madame Hanska's letters were entrusted, though eventually their recipient performed this painful task himself in 1847.

A still older friend was M. Dablin, a rich, retired ironmonger with artistic tastes, who left his valuable collection of artistic objects to the Louvre. He was known to Balzac before 1817; and in 1830 the successful writer remembers with gratitude that M. Dablin used to be his only visitor during his martyrdom in the Rue Lesdiguieres in 1819. At that time and later he was most generous in lending Honore money; and the only cloud that came between them for a long time was his indignation when Balzac wished to find him further security than his own life for a loan he had promised. Later on, in 1845, when M. Dablin, rather hurt by some heedless words from Balzac, and evidently jealous of his former protege's grand acquaintances, complained that honours and fortune changed people's hearts—the great novelist found time, after his daily sixteen hours of work, to write a long letter to his old benefactor.[*] In this he tells him that nothing will alter his affection for him, that all his real friends are equal in his sight; and he makes the true boast that, though he may have the egotism of the hard worker, he has never yet forsaken any one for whom he feels affection, and is the same now in heart as when he was a boy.

[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 115.

Other early and lifelong friendships were with Madame Delannoy, who lent him money, and was in all ways kind to him, and with M. de Margonne, who lived at Sache, a chateau on the Indre, in the beautiful Touraine valley described in "Le Lys dans la Vallee," and who had held Balzac on his knees when a child. Balzac often paid him visits, especially when he wanted to meditate over some serious work, as he found the solitude and pure air, and the fact that he was treated in the neighbourhood simply as a native of the country and not as a celebrity, peculiarly stimulating to his imagination and powers of creation. He wrote "Louis Lambert," among other novels at the house of this hospitable friend. Madame de Margonne he did not care for: she was, according to his unflattering portrait of her, intolerant and devout, deformed, and not at all spirituelle. But she did not count for much; Balzac went to the house for the sake of her husband.

An intimacy was formed about this time between Balzac and La Touche, the editor of the Figaro, who, as has been already mentioned, helped him in the prosaic task of nailing up draperies. This intimacy must have been of great value to Balzac's education in the art of literature, and is remarkable for that reason in the history of a man in whose writings small trace of outside influence can be descried, and who, except in the case of Theophile Gautier, seemed little affected by the thought of his contemporaries. Therefore, though a long way behind Madame de Berny—without whom Balzac, as we know him, would hardly have existed—La Touche deserves recognition for his work, however small, in moulding the literary ideals and forming the taste of the great writer. Besides this, his friendship with Balzac is almost unique in the history of the latter, in the fact that, for some reason we do not know, it was suddenly broken off; and that almost the only occasion when Balzac showed personal dislike almost amounting to hatred, in criticism, was when, in 1840, in the Revue Parisienne, he published an article on "Leo," a novel by La Touche. He became, George Sand says, completely indifferent to his old master, while the latter —a pathetic, yet thorny and uncomfortable figure, as portrayed by his contemporaries—continued to belittle and revile his former pupil, while all the time he loved him, and longed for a reconciliation which never took place. La Touche had a quick instinct for discovering genius: he introduced Andre Chenier's posthumous poems to the public, and launched Jules Sandeau and George Sand. But he was soured by seeing his pupils enter the promised land only open to genius, while he was left outside himself. Sooner or later, the eager, affected little hypochondriacal man with the bright eyes quarrelled with all his friends, and a rupture would naturally soon take place between the ultra-sensitive teacher, ready to take offence on the smallest pretext, and the hearty, robust Tourainean, who, whatever his troubles might be, faced the world with a laugh, who insisted on his genius with cheery egotism, and who, in spite of real goodheartedness and depth of affection, was too full of himself to be always careful about the feelings of others. How much Balzac owed to La Touche we do not know; but though, as we have already seen, there were other reasons for his sudden stride in literature between 1825 and 1828, it is significant that "Les Chouans," the first book to which he affixed his name, and in which his genius really shows itself, was written directly after his intercourse with this literary teacher. No doubt La Touche, who was cursed with the miserable fate of possessing the temperament of genius without the electric spark itself, magnified the help he had given, and felt extreme bitterness at the shortness of memory shown by the great writer, whom he vainly strove to sting into feeling by the acerbity of his attacks.

Never at any time did Balzac go out much into society, but his anonymous novels, though they did not bring him fame, had opened to him the doors of several literary and artistic salons, and he was a frequenter of that of Madame Sophie Gay, the author of several novels, one of which, "Anatole," is said to have been read by Napoleon during the last night spent at Fontainebleau in 1814. Hers was essentially an Empire salon, antagonistic to the government of the Bourbons, and Balzac's feelings were perhaps occasionally ruffled by the talk that went on around him, though more probably the interest he found in the study of different phases of opinion outweighed his party prepossessions. Those evenings must have been an anxious pleasure; for, with no money to pay a cab fare, there was always the agonising question as to whether on arrival his boots would be of spotless cleanliness, while the extravagance of a pair of white gloves meant a diminution in food which it was not pleasant to contemplate. Then, too, he felt savage disgust at the elegant costumes and smart cabriolets owned by empty-headed fops with insufferable airs of conquest, who looked at him askance, and to whom he could not prove the genius that was in him, or give voice to his belief that some day he would dominate them all. The restlessness and discomfort, and at the same time the sense of unknown and fascinating possibilities which are the birthright of talented youth, and in the portrayal of which Balzac is supreme, must have been well known to him by experience; and his almost Oriental love of beauty and luxury made his life of grinding poverty peculiarly galling.

Conspicuous in her mother's salon, queen of conversationalists, reciting verses in honour of the independence of Greece, exciting peals of laughter by her wit and her power to draw out that of others, was a brilliant figure—that of the beautiful Delphine Gay, who was, in 1831, to become Madame de Girardin. She is a charming figure, a woman with unfailing tact and a singular lack of literary jealousy, so that all her contemporaries speak of her with affection. She made strenuous efforts to keep the peace between Balzac and her husband, the autocratic editor of La Presse; and till 1847, when the final rupture took place, Balzac's real liking for her conquered his resentment at what he considered unjustifiable proceedings on the part of her husband. Once indeed there was a complete cessation of friendly relations, and even dark hints about a duel; but usually Madame de Girardin prevailed; and though there were many recriminations on both sides, and several times nearly an explosion, Balzac wrote for La Presse, visited her salon, and was generally on terms of politeness with her husband. She was proud of her beautiful complexion, and had a drawing-room hung with pale green satin to show it to the best advantage; while, like her mother, she wrote novels, one of which she called "La Canne de M. de Balzac," after the novelist's famous cane adorned with turquoises.

One of the habituees of Madame Gay's salon was the Duchesse d'Abrantes; and between her and Balzac there existed a literary comradeship, possibly cemented by the impecunious condition which was common to both. In 1827 she lived at Versailles; and whenever Balzac went to see his parents, he also paid her a visit; when long talks took place about their mutual struggles, misfortunes and hopes of gaining money by writing. The poor woman was always in monetary difficulties. After the fall of the Empire and the death of her husband, whom she courageously followed throughout his campaign in Spain, she continued to live in the same luxury that had surrounded her during her days of splendour; and as the Bourbon Government refused to help her, she was soon reduced to a state of destitution, and turned to her pen to pay off her creditors. She wrote several novels, which at this time are completely forgotten; but in 1831 she began to bring out her Memoirs, and these give a graphic account of the social life under the Empire, and have become a classic. These Memoirs were first published in sixteen volumes, and it must have been a relief to the public when a second edition, consisting of only twelve volumes, was brought out three years later.

In 1829, the time of which we are now writing, Balzac could only sympathise when the poor Duchess, formerly raised to great heights and now fallen very low, felt depressed at her reverses, and took a gloomy view of life. He would assure her that happiness could not possibly be over for ever, and would predict a bright dawn some future day; while as soon as he began to prosper himself, he did his best to lend her a helping hand. He effected an introduction to Charles Rabou, so that her articles were received by the Revue de Paris, and he assisted as intermediary between her and the publishers, taking infinite trouble on her behalf, and in the end gaining most advantageous terms for her. No assistance, however, was of permanent use. She, who knew so much, had never learnt to manage money, and, helped by her eldest son, Napoleon d'Abrantes, she spent every penny she earned. On July 7th, 1838, she died in the utmost poverty in a miserable room in the Rue des Batailles, having been turned out of the hospital, where she had hoped to end her days in peace, because she could not pay her expenses in advance. Balzac writes to Madame Hanska: "The papers will have told you about the Duchesse d'Abrantes' deplorable death. She ended as the Empire ended. Some day I will explain this woman to you; it will be a nice evening's occupation at Wierzchownia."[*]

[*] "Lettres a l'Etrangere."

Another of Balzac's friendships, rather different in character from those already mentioned, was that with George Sand, "his brother George" he used to call her. He first made her acquaintance in 1831, and would often go puffing up the stairs of the five-storied house on the Quai Saint-Michel, at the top of which she lived. His ostensible object was to give advice about her writing, but in reality he would leave this comparatively uninteresting subject very quickly, and pour out floods of talk about his own novels. "Ah, I have found something else! You will see! You will see! A splendid idea! A situation! A dialogue! No one has ever seen anything like it!" "It was joy, laughter, and a superabundance of enthusiasm, of which one cannot give any idea. And this after nights without slumber and days without repose,"[*] remarks George Sand.

[*] "Autour de la Table," by George Sand.

There were limitations in his view of her, as he never fully realised the scope of her genius, and looked on her as half a man, so that he would sometimes shock her by the breadth of his conversation. After her rupture with Jules Sandeau, whose side in the affair he espoused vehemently, he disapproved of her for some time, and contrasted rather contemptuously the versatility of her affairs of the heart with the ideal of passionate, enduring love portrayed in her novels. However, later on, when he himself had been disappointed in Sandeau, and when the latter had further roused his indignation by writing a novel called "Marianna," which was intended to drag George Sand's name through the mud, Balzac defended her energetically. About the same time (1839) he brought out his novel "Beatrix," in which she is portrayed as Mlle. de Touches, with "the beauty of Isis, more serious than gracious, and as if struck with the sadness of constant meditation." Her eyes, according to Balzac, were her great beauty, and all her expression was in them, otherwise her face was stupid; but with her splendid black hair and her complexion—olive by day and white in artificial light—she must have been a striking and picturesque figure. Later on Balzac appears to have partly reconciled himself to her moral irregularities, on the convenient ground that she, like himself, was an exceptional being; and we hear of several visits he paid to Nohant, where he delighted in long hours of talk on social questions with a comrade to whom he need not show the galanteries d'epiderme necessary in intercourse with ordinary women. He says of her: "She had no littleness of soul, and none of those low jealousies which obscure so much contemporary talent. Dumas is like her on this point. George Sand is a very noble friend."[*]

[*] "Lettres a l'Etrangere."

This is all anticipation; we must now go back to 1828 and 1829, and picture Balzac's existence first in the Rue de Tournon and then in one room at the Rue Cassini. Insufficiently clad and wretchedly fed, he occasionally went to evening parties to collect material for his writing; at other times he visited some sympathising friend, and poured out his troubles to her; but he had only one real support—the sympathy and affection of Madame de Berny. It was a frightfully hard life. He took coffee to keep himself awake, and he wrote and wrote till he was exhausted; all the time being in the condition of a "tracked hare," harassed and pursued by his creditors, and knowing that all his gains must go to them.

His only relaxations were little visits. He went to Tours, where he danced at a ball with a girl with red hair, and with another so little "that a man would only marry her that she might act as a pin for his shirt."[*] He travelled to Sache, to see M. de Margonne; to Champrosay, where he met his sister; and to Fougeres in Brittany, at the invitation of the Baron de Pommereul. During the last-named visit, as we have already seen, he not only collected the material, but also wrote the greater part of his novel "Les Chouans," which proved the turning-point of his career.

[*] "Correspondance," vol. i. p. 82.

This novel, the first signed with his name, Honore Balzac, was published by Canel and Levavasseur in March, 1829, and in December of the same year the "Physiologie du Mariage by a Celibataire," appeared, and excited general attention; though many people, Madame Carraud among the number, were much shocked by it. Each of these books brought in about fifty pounds—not a large sum, especially when we think that Balzac must at this time have owed about two thousand pounds; but he had now his foot upon the first rung of the ladder of fame, and editors and publishers began to apply to him for novels and articles.

It is a curious fact that Balzac, who answered a question put to him during his lawsuit against the Revue de Paris on the subject of his right to the prefix "de," with the rather grandiloquent words, "My name is on my certificate of birth, as that of the Duke of Fitz-James is on his,"[*] should on the title-page of "Les Chouans" have called himself simply M. H. Balzac, and on that of the "Scenes de la Vie Privee," which appeared in April, 1830, M. Balzac, still without the "de." In 1826 he gives his designation and title as "H. Balzac, imprimeur, Rue des Marais, St.-Germain, 31," and we have already seen that he was entered on the school register as Honore Balzac, and that his parents at that time called themselves M. and Mme. Balzac. Occasionally, however, as early as 1822, in letters to his sister Honore insists on the particle "de," and all his life he claimed to be a member of a very old Gaulish family—a pretension which gave his enemies a famous opportunity for deriding him.

[*] First Preface to the "Lys dans la Vallee," p 482, vol. xxii. of "Oeuvres Completes de H. de Balzac," Edition definitive.

In 1836, during his lawsuit with the Revue de Paris, he certainly spoke on the subject with no doubtful voice:

"Even if my name sounds too well in certain ears, even if it is envied by those who are not pleased with their own, I cannot give it up. My father was quite within his rights on this subject, having consulted the records in the Archive Office. He was proud of being one of the conquered race, of a family which in Auvergne had resisted the invasion, and from which the D'Entragues took their origin. He discovered in the Archive Office the notice of a grant of land made by the Balzacs to establish a monastery in the environs of the little town of Balzac, and a copy of this was, he told me, registered by his care at the Parliament of Paris."[*]

[*] See First Preface to the "Lys dans la Vallee."

Balzac continues for some time in this strain, giving his enemies a fresh handle for ridicule. After the loss of the lawsuit, the Revue de Paris, raging with indignation, answered him with "Un dernier mot a M. de Balzac," an article which the writer, after a reflection full of venom, must have dashed off with set teeth and a sardonic smile, and in which there is a most scathing paragraph on the vexed question of the "de":

"He [Balzac] tells us that he is of an old Gaulish family (You understand, 'Gaulish'—one of Charlemagne's peers! A French family, what is that? Gaulish!) It is not his own fault, poor man! Further, M. de Balzac will prove to you that the Bourbons and the Montmorencies and other French gentlemen must lower their armorial bearings before him, who is a Gaul, and more—a Gaul of an old family! In fact, this name 'De Balzac' is a patronymic name (patronymically ridiculous and Gaulish). He has always been De Balzac, only that! while the Montmorencies—those unfortunate Montmorencies—were formerly called Bouchard; and the Bourbons—a secondary family who are neither patronymic nor Gaulish (of old Gaulish family is of course understood) were called Capet. M. de Balzac is therefore more noble than the King!"

Towards the end, rage renders the talented writer slightly incoherent, and we can imagine a blotted and illegible manuscript; but the question raised is an interesting one, and Balzac attached great importance to it. A favourite form of spite with his enemies was to adopt the same measures as did this writer, who, except in the title, calls him throughout "M. Balzac," a form of insult which possessed the double advantage of imposing no strain on the mind of the attacking party, and yet of hitting the victim on a peculiarly tender spot.

Balzac's statement that he was entered "De Balzac" on the register of his birth is on the face of it untrue, as he was born on the 2nd Prairial of the year VII., a time when all titles were proscribed; so that the omission of the "de" means nothing, while his contention that he dropped the "de" in 1826, because he would not soil his noble name by associating it with trade, might very easily be correct. Unfortunately, however, for Balzac's argument, when old M. Balzac died, on June 19th, 1829, he was described in the register as Bernard Francois Balzac, without the "de." He does not even seem to have stood on his rights during his lifetime, as in 1826, after the death of Laurence, who had become Madame de Montzaigle—it must have been a satisfaction to the Balzac family to have one indisputable "de" among them—cards were sent out in the names of M. and Madame Balzac, M. and Madame Surville, and MM. Honore and Henri Balzac.

Still, it might be possible for us to maintain, if it so pleased us, that, in spite of certain evidence to the contrary, the Balzacs were simple, unpretentious people, who, having dropped the "de" at the time of the Revolution, did not care to resume it; but here M. Edmond Bire, who furnishes us with the information already given, completely cuts the ground away from under our feet. It appears that M. Charles Portal, the well-known antiquary, has in his researches discovered the birth register of old M. Balzac. He was born on July 22nd, 1746, at La Nougarie, in the parish of Saint-Martin de Canezac, and is described in this document, not as Balzac at all, but as Bernard Francois Balssa, the son of a labourer! At what date he took the name of Balzac, and whether his celebrated son knew of the harmless deception, we do not know; but possibly his change of name was another of the little reserves which the clever old gentleman thought it necessary to maintain about his past life, and Honore really considered himself a member of an old family.

At any rate, as M. Bire says, he certainly earned by his pen the right to nobility, and in this account of him he will be known by his usual appellation of "De Balzac."


1829 - 1832

Work and increasing fame—Emile de Girardin—Balzac's early relations with the Revue de Paris and quarrel with Amedee Pinchot—First letters from Madame Hanska and the Marquise de Castries—Balzac's extraordinary mode of writing—Burlesque account of it from the Figaro.

The record of the next few years of Balzac's life is a difficult one, so many and varied were the interests crowded into them, so short the hours of sleep, and so long the nights of work, followed without rest by an eight hours' day of continual rush. Visits to printers, publishers, and editors, worrying interviews with creditors, and letters on business, politics, and literature, followed each other in bewilderingly quick succession, and the only respite was to be found in occasional talks with such friends as Madame de Berny, Madame Carraud, or the Duchesse d'Abrantes.

Success was arriving. But success with Balzac never meant leisure, or relief from a heavy burden of debt; it merely gave scope for enormous prodigies of labour. His passion for work amounted to a disease; and who can measure the gamut of emotion, ranging from rapture down to straining effort, which was gone through in those silent hours of darkness, when the man, the best part of whom lived only in solitude and night, sat in his monk's habit, before a writing-table littered with papers? Then, impelled by the genius of creation, he would allow his imagination full sway, and would turn to account the material collected by his keen powers of observation and his unparalleled intuition. It was strenuous labour, with the attendant joy of calling every faculty, including the highest of all—that of creation—into activity, and the hours no doubt often passed like moments. But the fierce battling with expression, the effort to tax super-abundant powers to the utmost, left their mark; and in the morning Balzac would drag himself to the printer or publisher, with his hair in disorder, his lips dry, and his forehead lined.

Jules Sandeau, who had been taken by Balzac to live with him, and who remarked that he would rather die than work as he did, says that sometimes, when the passion and inspiration for writing were strong on him, he would shut himself up for three weeks in his closely curtained room, never breathing the outside air or knowing night from day. When utterly exhausted, he would throw himself on his pallet-bed for a few hours, and slumber heavily and feverishly; and when he could fast no longer, he would call for a meal, which must, however, be scanty, because digestion would divert the blood from his brain. Otherwise, hour after hour, he sat before his square table, and concentrated his powerful mind on his work, utterly oblivious of the fact that there was anything in the world save the elbowing, crushing throng of phantom—yet to him absolutely real—personages, whom he took into his being, and in whose life he lived. For the time he felt with their feelings, saw with their eyes, became possessed by them, as the great actor becomes possessed by the personality he represents. "C'etait un voyant, non un observateur," as Philarete Chasles said with truth.

In 1829 Balzac was introduced by the publisher M. Levavasseur to Emile de Girardin, who became—and the connection was life-long—what Mme. de Girardin called La Touche,—an "intimate enemy." At first all was harmony. Emile de Girardin's letters, beginning in 1830 with "Mon tres-cher Monsieur," are addressed in 1831 to "Mon cher Balzac"; but it is doubtful whether the finish of one written in October, 1830, and ending with "Amitie d'ambition!!!"[*] is exactly flattering to the recipient—it savours rather strongly of what is termed in vulgar parlance "cupboard love." However, Girardin was the first to recognise the great writer's talents, and at the end of 1829, or the beginning of 1830, after having inserted an article by Balzac in La Mode, of which he was editor, he invited his collaboration, as well as that of Victor Varaigne, Hippolyte Auger, and Bois le Comte, in forming a bibliographical supplement to the daily papers, which was to be entitled "Le feuilleton des journaux politiques." This was a failure, but Balzac was associated with Emile de Girardin in several other literary enterprises; and it was through the agency of this energetic editor that he wrote his letters on Paris in the Voleur, which, extending from September 26th, 1830, to March 29th, 1831, would form a volume in themselves. After the Revolution of 1830 stories went out of fashion, the reviews and magazines being completely occupied with the task of discussing the political situation; and Balzac wrote numberless articles in the Silhouette, which was edited by Victor Ratier, and in the Caricature, edited by M. Philippon. A few years later, the latter journal became violently political; but at this time it consisted merely of witty and amusing articles, ridiculing all parties impartially.

[*] "La Genese d'un Roman de Balzac," p. 105, by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.

With Victor Ratier, Balzac contemplated a partnership in writing for the theatre, though he thought Ratier hardly sufficiently industrious to make a satisfactory collaborator. However, he threatened him in case of laziness with a poor and honest young man as a rival, and, to rouse Ratier to energy, remarked that the unnamed prodigy was, like himself, full of courage, whereas Ratier resembled "an Indian on his mat."[*] Balzac's imaginative brain was to supply the plot and characters of each drama; but he was careful, as in the case of his early novels, that his name should not appear, as the plays were to be mere vaudevilles written to gain money, and would certainly not increase their author's reputation. Ratier was therefore to pose as their sole author, and was to undertake the actual writing of the play, unless he were too lazy for the effort, when the honest and unfortunate young man would take his place. The pecuniary part of the bargain was not mentioned, except the fact that both partners would become enormously rich; and that result is so invariable a characteristic of Balzac's schemes that it need hardly be noticed. However, this brilliant plan came to nothing, not, as we may suppose, from any failure on the part of the indolent Ratier—as there was in this case his unnamed rival to fall back upon—but most probably because its promoter had not a moment's leisure in which to think of it again.

[*] "Correspondance," vol. i. p. 115.

Towards the end of 1830 he began to write for the Revue de Paris, a journal with which his relations, generally inharmonious, culminated in the celebrated lawsuit of 1836. The review was at this time the property of a company; and the sole object of the shareholders being to obtain large dividends, they adopted the short-sighted policy of cutting down their payment to authors, a course which led to continual recriminations, and naturally made the office of chief editor very difficult. When Balzac first wrote for the review, Charles Rabou held this post, following Dr. Veron; but he resigned in a few months, and was succeeded in his turn by Amedee Pichot. With him Balzac waged continual war, finally dealing a heavy blow to the review by deserting it altogether in 1833.

The cause of the dispute, in the first instance, was one which often reappears in the history of Balzac's relations with different editors. Being happily possessed of devoted friends, who allowed him complete freedom while he stayed with them, he found it easier to write in the quiet of the country than amidst the worries and distractions of Paris. In 1830, after travelling in Brittany, he spent four months, from July to November, at La Grenadiere, that pretty little house near to Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire, which he coveted continually, but never succeeded in acquiring. In 1834 he thought the arrangements for its purchase were at last settled. After three years of continual refusals, the owners had consented to sell, and he already imagined himself surrounded with books, and established for six months at a time at this studious retreat. However, pecuniary difficulties came as usual in the way, and except as a visitor, Balzac never tasted the joys of a country life.

From La Grenadiere he wrote a remarkable letter to Ratier,[*] full of love for the beauty of nature, a feeling which filled him with a sense of the littleness of man, and expressing also that uncomfortable doubt which must occasionally assail the mind of any man possessed of powerful physique as well as imagination—the doubt whether the existence of the thinker is not after all a poor thing compared with that of the active worker, who is tossed about, risks his life, and himself creates a living drama. He finishes with the words: "And it seems to me that the sea, a man-of-war, and an English boat to destroy, with a chance of drowning, are better than an inkpot, and a pen, and the Rue Saint-Denis."

[*] "Correspondance," vol. i. p 98.

In May, 1831, Balzac was again away from Paris, this time taking up his abode in Nemours, where he describes himself as living alone in a tent in the depths of the earth, subsisting on coffee, and working day and night at "La Peau de Chagrin," with "L'Auberge Rouge," which he was writing for the Revue de Paris, as his only distraction.

These absences did not apparently cause any friction; but when, in November, 1831, Balzac went to Sache to stay with M. de Margonne, and then moved on to the Carrauds, he left "Le Maitre Cornelius," which he was writing for the Revue de Paris, in an unfinished and uncorrected condition. Thereupon, Amedee Pichot, who naturally wanted consecutive numbers of the story for his magazine, committed what was in Balzac's eyes an unpardonable breach of trust, by publishing the uncorrected proofs, leaving out or altering what he did not understand. Balzac was furious at his signature being appended to what he considered unfinished work. Amedee Pichot was also very angry, because Balzac had unduly lengthened the first part of the story, and had kept him two months waiting for the finish. Therefore, as diligence was the only mode of transit, and it was necessary that "Le Maitre Cornelius" should end with the year, it was impossible to send the proofs before printing for correction to Angouleme. Nevertheless, as he had undoubtedly exceeded his rights as editor, he thought it wise to temporise, and wrote an explanatory and conciliatory letter; and as this did not pacify Balzac, he dispatched a second of similar tenor. However, a few days later, on January 9th, 1832, he felt compelled by the tone of Balzac's correspondence to send a third beginning: "Sir, I find from the tone of your letter that I am guilty of doing you a great wrong. I have treated on an equality and as a comrade a superior person, whom I should have been contented to admire. I therefore beg your pardon humbly for the 'My dear Balzac' of my preceding letters. I will preserve the distance of 'Monsieur' between you and me."[*]

[*] "Une Page Perdue de Honore de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul; from which the whole account of the dispute between Balzac and Pichot is taken.

However, Balzac was furious. His respect for his own name and his intense literary conscientiousness were stronger even than his desire for money, and it was a very black crime in his eyes for any one to produce one of his works before the public until it had been brought to the highest possible pitch of perfection. This intense anxiety to do his best, which caused him the most painstaking labour, often pressed very hardly on managers of magazines. He was generally paid in advance, so that his money was safe; and though he could be absolutely trusted to finish sooner or later what he had undertaken, he showed a lofty indifference to the exigencies of monthly publication. Moreover, as is shown in the evidence given later on during his lawsuit with the Revue de Paris, he would sometimes, in his haste for money, accept new engagements when he already had a plethora of work in hand. Nevertheless, whatever the failures to fulfil a contract on his part might be, he was implacable towards those who did not rightly discharge their obligations to him; and Pichot was never forgiven. In September, 1832, after endless disputes about the rate and terms of payment, the most fertile source of recriminations between Balzac and his various publishers and editors, a formal treaty was drawn up between the great writer, who was at Sache, and Amedee Pichot, as director of the Revue de Paris. By this, with the option of breaking the connection after six months, Balzac undertook to write for the Revue for a year, being still entitled during that time to furnish articles to the Renovateur, the Journal Quotidienne Politique, and L'Artiste. In spite of this legal document, there were many disputed points; and the letters which passed between the two men, and which now began with the formal "Monsieur," were full of bickerings about money matters, about Balzac's delay in furnishing copy, and about the length of his contributions. On one occasion Pichot is severe in his rebukes, because Balzac has prevented the Duchesse d'Abrantes from providing a promised article, by telling her that his own writing will fill two whole numbers of the Revue. On another, it is curious to find that Balzac, who was rather ashamed of the immoral reputation of his works, thanks M. Pichot quite humbly for suppressing a passage in the "Voyage de Paris a Java," which the director considered unfit for family perusal, and excuses himself on the subject with the naive explanation that he was at the same time writing the "Contes Drolatiques"![*] Finally, in March, 1833, after six months of the treaty had expired, Balzac withdrew altogether from the Revue de Paris. He gave no explicit explanation for this step; but in 1836, at the time of his lawsuit with the Revue de Paris, he stated as the reason for his desertion that he considered Pichot to be the author, under different pseudonyms, of the adverse criticism of his novels which appeared in its pages. In the Revue he had, among other novels, brought out the beginning of "L'Histoire des Treize," and the parsimonious shareholders now had the mortification of seeing the great man carry his wares to L'Europe Litteraire; while the Revue de Paris, in consequence of his desertion, declined in popularity.

[*] "Autour de Honore de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.

Balzac was now fairly launched on the road of literary fame, and some of his writings at this time had a momentous influence on his life. In April, 1830, Madame Hanska, his future wife, read with delight, in her far-off chateau in Ukraine, the "Scenes de la Vie Privee," containing the "Vendetta," "Les Dangers de l'Inconduite," "Le Bal de Sceaux, ou Le Pair de France," "Gloire et Malheur," "La Femme Vertueuse" and "La Paix de Menage"—two volumes which Balzac had published as quickly as he could, to counteract the alienation of his women-readers by the "Physiologie du Mariage." In August, 1831, appeared "La Peau de Chagrin," which so disappointed Madame Hanska by its cynical tone, that she was impelled to write the first letter from L'Etrangere, which reached Balzac on February 28th, 1832, a date never to be forgotten in the annals of his life. He was not, however, very exact in remembering it himself, and in later life sometimes became confused in his calculations between the number of years since he had received this letter, and the time which had elapsed since he first had the joy of meeting her. "La Peau de Chagrin" greatly increased Balzac's fame, and in October, 1831, another anonymous correspondent, Madame la Marquise de Castries, also destined to exercise a strong, though perhaps transitory, influence over Balzac, had written to deprecate its moral tone, as well as that of the "Physiologie du Mariage." Balzac answered her that "La Peau de Chagrin" was only intended to be part of a whole, and must not be judged alone; and the same idea is enlarged upon in a letter to the Comte de Montalembert,[*] written in August, 1831, which shows Balzac's extreme anxiety not to dissociate his writings from the cause of religion. In it he explains, with much insistence, that, in site of the apparent scepticism of "La Peau de Chagrin," the idea of God is really the mainspring of the whole book, and on these grounds he begs for a review in L'Avenir. The letter also contains an announcement which is interesting as a proof that two years before the date given by his sister, the idea of his great systematic work was already formulated, and that in his imagination it had assumed colossal proportions. He says: "'La Peau de Chagrin' is the formula of human life, an abstraction made from individualities, and, as M. Ballanche says, everything in it is myth and allegory. It is therefore the point of departure for my work. Afterwards individualities and particular existences, from the most humble to those of the King and of the Priest, the highest expressions of our society, will group themselves according to their rank. In these pictures I shall follow the effect of Thought on Life. Then another work, entitled 'History of the Succession of the Marquis of Carabas,' will formulate the life of nations, the phases of their governments, and will show decidedly that politics turn in one circle, and are evidently stationary; and that repose can only be found in the strong government of a hierarchy."

[*] Letters sent by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul to the Revue Bleue, November 14th, 1903.

The "Peau de Chagrin," which is a powerful satire on the vice and selfishness of the day, suffers in its allegorical, though not in its humanly interesting side, by the vivid picture it gives of Balzac's youth; as, in spite of the introduction of the influence of the magic Ass Skin, the account of Raphael in the early part of the book, as the frugal, determined genius with high intellectual aspirations, does not harmonise with his weak, despicable character as it unfolds itself subsequently. The critics exercised their minds greatly about the identity of the heroines, the beautiful and heartless Fedora—in whom apparently many ladies recognised their own portrait—and the humble and exquisite Pauline, type of devoted and self-forgetting love. Mademoiselle Pelissier, who possessed an income of twenty-five thousand francs, and had a house in the Rue Neuve-du-Luxembourg, where she held a salon much frequented by political personalities of the day, was identified by popular gossip as the model of Fedora. It was said by Parisian society that Balzac was anxious to marry her, but that the lady, who afterwards became Madame Rossini, refused to listen to his suit, though she confessed to a great admiration for his fascinating black eyes.

The original of Pauline has never been discovered, but, possibly with a few traits borrowed from Madame de Berny, she is what Balzac describes in the last pages of "La Peau de Chagrin" as an "ideal, as a visionary face in the fire, a face with unimaginable delicate outlines, a floating apparition, which no chance will ever bring back again."

Since the year 1830 Balzac had lodged in the Rue Cassini, a little, unfrequented street near the Observatory, with a wall running along one side, on which was written "L'Absolu, marchand de briques," a name which Theophile Gautier fancies may have suggested to him the title of his novel "La Recherche de l'Absolu." Borget, Balzac's great friend and confidant, had rooms in the same house; and later on, when Borget was on one of his frequent journeys, these rooms were occupied by Jules Sandeau, after his parting with George Sand. In despair at her desertion, he tried to commit suicide; and Balzac, touched with pity at his forlorn condition, proposed that he should come to Borget's rooms, and took complete and kindly charge of him—a generosity which Sandeau, after having lived at Balzac's expense for two years, repaid in 1836, by deserting his benefactor when he was in difficulties.

Balzac was now in the full swing of work. He writes to the Duchesse d'Abrantes in 1831:[*] "Write, I cannot! The fatigue is too great. You do not know that I owed in 1828, above what I possessed. I had only my pen with which to earn my living, and to pay a hundred and twenty thousand francs. In several months I shall have paid everything, and I shall have arranged my poor little household; but for six months I have all the troubles of poverty, I enjoy my last miseries. I have begged from nobody, I have not held out my hand for a penny; I have hidden my sorrows, and my wounds."

[*] "Correspondance," vol. i. p. 131.

Poor Balzac! over and over again we hear the same story about the beautiful time in the future, which he saw coming nearer and nearer, but which always evaded his grasp at the last. Very often, when he appears grasping and dictatorial in his business dealings, we may trace his want of urbanity to some pressing pecuniary anxiety, which he was too proud to reveal. No doubt these difficulties often sprang from his extraordinary want of reflection and prudence, as his desire to make a dashing appearance before the world led him frequently into the most senseless extravagance. For instance, when he went out of Paris in June, 1832, intending to travel for several months, he left behind him two horses with nothing to do, but naturally requiring a groom, food, and stabling; and it was not till the end of July that, on his mother's recommendation, he sent orders that they were to be sold. His money affairs are so complicated, and his own accounts of them so conflicting, that it is impossible to understand them thoroughly. Apparently, however, from 1827 to 1836 he could not support himself and satisfy his creditors without drawing bills. These he often could not meet, and had to renew; and the accumulated interest on these obligations formed a floating debt, which was from time to time increased by some new extravagance.

In his vain struggles to escape, he worked as surely no man has ever worked before or since. In 1830 he brought out about seventy, and in 1831 about seventy-five publications, including novels, and articles serious and satirical, on politics and general topics; and in twelve years, from 1830 to 1842, he wrote seventy-nine novels alone, not counting his shorter compositions. Werdet, who became his publisher in 1834, gives a curious account of his doings; and this may, with slight modifications, be accepted as a picture of his usual mode of life when in the full swing of composition.

He usually went to bed at eight o'clock, after a light dinner, accompanied by a glass or two of Vouvray, his favourite wine; and he was seated at his desk by two o'clock in the morning. He wrote from that time till six, only occasionally refreshing himself with coffee from a coffee-pot which was permanently in the fireplace. At six he had his bath, in which he remained for an hour, and his servant afterwards brought him more coffee. Werdet was then admitted to bring proofs, take away the corrected ones, and wrest, if possible, fresh manuscript from him. From nine he wrote till noon, when he breakfasted on two boiled eggs and some bread, and from one till six the labour of correction went on again. This unnatural life lasted for six weeks or two months, during which time he refused to see even his most intimate friends; and then he plunged again into the ordinary affairs of life, or mysteriously and suddenly disappeared—to be next heard of in some distant part of France, or perhaps in Corsica, Sardinia, or Italy. It is not surprising that even in these early days, and in spite of Balzac's exuberant vitality, there are frequent mentions of terrible fatigue and lassitude, and that the services of his lifelong friend, Dr. Nacquart, were often in requisition, though his warnings about the dangers of overwork were generally unheeded.

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