At the first hearing of this play in the green-room of the Odeon, the company had been rather disenchanted as we know, because, after reading four acts admirably, Balzac was forced to improvise the unwritten fifth, and this he did so badly that Madame Dorval, the principal actress, refused to act. However, on the same day Lireux, the director of the Odeon, came to the Restaurant Risbeck, where Balzac was dining with Leon Gozlan, and said that he would accept the play. Balzac at once insisted that for the first three representations he must have command of the whole of the theatre, but he promised that Lireux should share the receipts with him, and these he said would be enormous. He also stipulated that for his three special performances no journalists should be admitted, there being war to the knife between him and them. As the place of Balzac's abode was being kept strictly secret for fear of his creditors, the time of the rehearsal each day was to be communicated to him by a messenger from the theatre, who was told to walk in the Champs Elysees, towards the Arc de l'Etoile. At the twentieth tree on the left, past the Circle, he would find a man who would appear to be looking for a bird in the branches. The messenger was to say to him, "I have it," and the man would answer, "As you have it, what are you waiting for?" On receiving this reply the emissary from the Odeon would hand over the paper, and depart without looking behind him. The only comment that Lireux, who appears to have been a practical man, made on these curious arrangements was, that if the twentieth tree had been struck by lightning during the night, he supposed that the servant must stop at the twenty-first, and Balzac assented gravely to this proposition.
The great writer worked with his usual energy at the rehearsals, continually rewriting parts of the play, and besides this occupation spending hours in the theatre bureau, as he had determined to sell all the tickets himself. For the first night of "Les Ressources de Quinola" the audience was to be brilliantly representative of the aristocracy, beauty, and talent of France. The proscenium would, Balzac hoped, be occupied by ambassadors and ministers, the pit by the Chevaliers de St. Louis, and the orchestra stalls by peers; while deputies and state functionaries were to be placed in the second gallery, financiers in the third, and rich bourgeoisie in the fourth. Beautiful women were to be accommodated with particularly prominent places; the price of the seats was to be doubled or trebled; and to avoid the continual interruptions to which "Vautrin" was subjected, tickets were only to be sold to Balzac's assured friends. Therefore many persons who offered fabulous sums of money were refused admittance, and told that every seat was taken. By these means Balzac ultimately overreached himself, as people believed that all the seats were really sold, and that it was no use to apply for tickets. When, therefore, March 19th, 1842, the night of Balzac's anticipated triumph arrived, instead of a brilliant assemblage crowding the Odeon, it was three parts empty; and the small audience, who had paid enormously for their seats, and naturally expected a brilliant throng in the theatre, were in a critical and captious mood.
The scene of the play was laid in Spain in the time of Phillip II., and much of the dialogue was witty and spirited; but Balzac had mixed up serious situations and burlesque in a manner irritating to the audience, and there were many interruptions. Balzac was fortunately unaware of his want of success; he had completely disappeared, and it was not till half-past twelve, long after the finish of the performance, that he was discovered fast asleep at the back of a box. The fourth representation of "Les Ressources de Quinola" was specially tumultuous. Lireux, being now master of the theatre, invited all the journalistic world to be present, and they, furious at their exclusion during the first three nights, encouraged the general clamour. Some of the hooters were turned out, and the audience then amused themselves by ejaculating "Splendid!" "Admirable!" "Superb!" and "Sublime!" at every sentence, and by singing comic couplets, such as:
C'est M. Balzac, Qu'a fait tout ce mic-mac!
During the intervals.
However, after two scenes had been entirely cut out, and several others suppressed, "Quinola" ran for nineteen nights. Many years afterwards, in 1863, it was acted at the Vaudeville, and was a great success. During his lifetime Balzac's plays received little applause —in fact, were generally greeted with obloquy; but when it was too late for praise or blame to matter, his apotheosis as a dramatist took place; and on this occasion his bust was brought to the stage, and crowned amid general enthusiasm.
The year 1842 is important in the annals of Balzac's life, as on April 23rd his novels were for the first time collected together to form the "Comedie Humaine," his great title to fame. The preface to this ranks among the celebrated prefaces of the world, and it was written at the suggestion of his friend Hetzel, who objected strongly to the prefaces signed Felix David, which had been placed in 1835 at the beginning of the "Etudes de Moeurs au XIXieme Siecle," and of the "Etudes Philosophiques." In an amusing letter Hetzel tells Balzac that a preface should be simple, natural, rather modest, and always good-humoured. "Sum up—sum up as modestly as possible. There is the true pride, when any one has done what you have. Relate what you want to say quite calmly. Imagine yourself old, disengaged from everything even from yourself. Speak like one of your own heroes, and you will make something useful, indispensable.
"Set to work, my fat father; allow a thin publisher to speak thus to Your Fatness. You know that it is with good intentions."[*]
[*] "Trois Lettres," in "Autour de Honore de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.
We may be grateful to Hetzel for this advice, which Balzac evidently followed; as the preface is written in a quiet and modest tone unusual with him, and he follows Hetzel's counsel, and gives a concise summary of his intention in writing the "Comedie Humaine."
He explains that he has attempted in his great work to classify man, as Buffon has classified animals, and to show that his varieties of character, like the differences of form in the lower creation, come from environment. The three great divisions of the Comedie Humaine are "Etudes de Moeurs," "Etudes Philosophiques," and "Etudes Analytiques"; and the "Etudes de Moeurs" comprise many subdivisions, each of which, in Balzac's mind, is connected with some special period of life.
The "Scenes de la Vie Privee," of which the best-known novels are "Le Pere Goriot" (1834), "La Messe de l'Athee" (1836), "La Grenadiere" (1832), "Albert Savarus" (1842), "Etude de Femme" (1830), "Beatrix" (1838), and "Modeste Mignon" (1844), Balzac connects with childhood and youth. The "Scenes de la Vie de Province," to which belong among others "Eugenie Grandet" (1833), "Le Lys dans la Vallee" (1835), "L'Illustre Gaudissart" (1833), "Pierrette" (1839), and "Le Cure de Tours" (1832), typify a period of combat; while "Scenes de la Vie Parisienne," which contain "La Duchesse de Langeais" (1834), "Cesar Birotteau" (1837), "La Cousine Bette" (1846), "Le Cousin Pons" (1847), "Facino Cane" (1836), "La Maison de Nucingen" (1837), and several less-known novels, show the effect of Parisian life in forming or modifying character.
Next Balzac turns to more exceptional existences, those which guard the interests of others, and gives us "Scenes de la Vie Militaire," comprising "Une Passion dans la Desert" (1830), and "Les Chouans" (1827); and "Scenes de la Vie Politique," which contain "Un Episode sous la Terreur" (1831), "Une Tenebreuse Affaire" (1841), "Z. Marcas" (1840), and "L'Envers de l'Histoire Contemporaine" (1847). He finishes the "Etudes de Moeurs" with "Scenes de la Vie de Campagne," consisting of "Le Medecin de Campagne" (1832), "Le Cure de Village" (1837 to 1841), and "Les Paysans" (1844); and these are to be, Balzac says, "the evening of this long day. Here are my purest characters, my application of the principles of order, politics, morality."
There are no subdivisions to the "Etudes Philosophiques," among which we find "La Peau de Chagrin," written in 1830, and considered by Balzac a link between the "Etudes de Moeurs" and the "Etudes Philosophiques"; "Jesus-Christ en Flandre" (1831), "Massimilla Doni" (1839), "La Recherche de l'Absolu" (1834), "Louis Lambert" (1832), and "Seraphita" (1835). To the division entitled "Etudes Analytiques" belong only two books, "La Physiologie du Mariage" (1829), and "Petites Miseres de la Vie Conjugale" (1830 to 1845).
"The Comedie Humaine" was never finished, but, incomplete as it is, it remains a noble memorial of Balzac's genius, as well as an astonishing testimony of his extraordinary power of work. The last edition of it which was published in Balzac's lifetime appeared in 1846, and formed sixteen octavo volumes. It consists of eighty-eight novels and tales, and by far the greater number of these appeared in the first edition of 1842. A strong connection is kept up between the different stories by the fact that the same characters appear over and over again, and the reader finds himself in a world peopled by beings who, as in real life, at one time take the foremost place, and anon are relegated to a subordinate position; but who preserve their identity vividly throughout.
Balzac found it impossible to manage without a pied-a-terre in Paris, and for some reason he could no longer lodge with Bouisson, his tailor, so in 1842 he took a lodging in the same house with his sister, Madame Surville, at 28, Rue du Faubourg Poissonniere. Life was brightening for him; he was beginning by his strenuous efforts to diminish perceptibly his load of debt, and the star of hope shone brightly on his path.
After many doubts on the part of Madame Hanska, who was most particular in observing the proprieties, he was allowed in 1843 to meet her in St. Petersburg, and arrived on July 17th, after a rough passage from Dunkerque, during which his discomforts were nothing to him, so joyous was he at the thought of soon seeing his beloved one. Madame Hanska was established at the Hotel Koutaizoff, in the Rue Grande Millione, and Balzac took a lodging near, and thought St. Petersburg with its deserted streets a dreary place. All minor feelings were, however, merged in the happiness of being near Madame Hanska, of hearing her voice, and of giving expression to that passionate love which had possessed him for more than ten years. In his sight she was as young and beautiful as ever, and his fascinated eyes watched her with rapture, as she leant back thoughtfully in the little arm-chair in the blue drawing-room, her head resting against a cushion trimmed with black lace. He could recall every detail afterwards of that room, could count the points of the lace, and see the bronze ornaments filled with flowers, in which he used to catch his knees in his rapid pacings up and down; and his eyes would fill with tears, and the creations of his imagination fade and become unreal, beside the haunting pictures of his memory. He loved Madame Hanska with a love which had grown steadily since their first meeting, and which now was threatening to overmaster him, so that even work would become impossible. Nevertheless, though she was most charming and affectionate, and he stayed in St. Petersburg until September, nothing definite was settled.
Madame Hanska was a prudent person; her dearly-loved daughter Anna was growing up, and it was quite necessary to settle her in life before taking any decided step. Besides, though she hardly allowed this to herself, there is no doubt that she was rather alarmed at the prospect of becoming Madame Honore de Balzac. The marriage would be decidedly a mesalliance for a Rzewuska, and her family constantly and steadily exerted their influence to prevent her from wrecking her future. What, they asked her, would be her life with a husband as eccentric, extravagant, and impecunious, as they believed Balzac to be? They collected gossip about him in Paris, and told Madame Hanska endless stories, occasionally true, often false, and sometimes merely exaggerated, about his oddities, his love affairs, and his general unsuitability for alliance with an aristocratic family. It was no doubt pleasant to have a man of genius and of worldwide fame as a lover; but what would be her position if she took the fatal step, and bound herself to him for life? Madame Hanska listened and paused: she well understood her advantages as a great and moneyed lady; and she was under no illusions as to the harassed and chequered existence which she would lead with Balzac. She had often lent him money, his letters kept her well informed about the state of his affairs; and the idea of becoming wife to a man who was often forced to fly from his creditors, must have been extremely distasteful to a woman used to luxury and consideration. Maternal affection, love of her country, prudence, social and worldly considerations—besides the fear of the Czar's displeasure—were all inducements to delay; and even if she had felt towards Balzac the passionate love for the lack of which posterity has reproached her, it surely would have been the duty of an affectionate mother to think of her child's welfare before her own happiness. Later on, when Anna was married, and Balzac, broken in health and tortured by his longings, was kept a slave to Madame Hanska's caprices, the hard thing may be said of her, that she was in part the cause of the death of the man she pretended to love. In 1843, however, whatever motives incited her, her action in delaying matters appears under the circumstances to have been right; and Balzac seems to have felt that he had no just cause for complaint.
He wrote to Madame Hanska, at each of the stopping-places during his tiring overland journey back to France, and describes vividly the miserable, jolting journey through Livonia, where the carriage road was marked out by boughs thrown down in the midst of a sandy plain, and all around was depressing poverty and desolation. Berlin, peopled with Germans of "brutal heaviness," he detested, and he loathed the society dinner parties, with no conversation—nothing but tittle-tattle and Court gossip; and complained of the trains, which travelled he said no quicker than a French diligence. Nevertheless, in contrast to Russia, the great voyant was struck with the air of "liberte de moeurs" which prevailed throughout Germany. He liked Dresden, and enjoyed his visit to its picture gallery, where he especially admired a Madeleine and two Virgins by Correggio, as well as two by Raphael, one of them presumably the San Sisto Madonna. The gem of the whole collection, however, in his opinion, was Holbein's Madonna; and he longed to have Madame Hanska's hand in his while he gazed at it. As he was away from her, he was very restless, and soon tired of all he saw. He longed to be back in Paris, and to find distraction in his work. "Think of my trouble, my sadness, and my sorrow, and you will be full of pity and of indulgence for the poor exile,"[*] he writes.
[*] "Lettres a l'Etrangere."
1843 - 1846
Pamela Giraud—Balzac again attempts to become member of the Academie Francaise—Mlle. Henriette Borel's reception into a religious house—Comte Georges Mniszech—"Les Paysans" started in La Presse—Madame Hanska's unreasonableness hinders Balzac's work—He travels with her and her daughter, and they return with him to Passy—Comtesse Anna engaged to Comte Georges Mniszech —Balzac takes Madame Hanska and her daughter to Brussels—He meets Madame Hanska at Baden-Baden—Leaves Paris again, meets Wierzchownia party at Naples—Buys bric-a-brac for future home —Work neglected—Dispute with Emile de Girardin—Balzac's unhappiness and suspense—He goes to Rome—Comes back better in health and spirits—"La Cousine Bette" and "Le Cousin Pons" —Balzac goes to Wiesbaden—Marriage of Comtesse Anna and Comte Georges Mniszech—Balzac and Madame Hanska secretly engaged —Parisian gossip.
On September 26th, 1843, during Balzac's absence in St. Petersburg, another play of which he was author was produced at the Gaite. It was called "Pamela Giraud," and the plot is contrived with an ability which proves Balzac's increased knowledge of the art of writing for the theatre. At the same time he has attempted no innovations, but he has kept to the beaten track; and the play is an old-fashioned melodrama with thrilling and heart-rending situations, and virtue triumphant at the end. Owing to Balzac's attack on journalism in the "Monographie de la Presse Parisienne," which had appeared in March, and finished with the words, "Si la presse n'existait pas, il faudrait ne pas l'inventer," the whole newspaper world was peculiarly hostile to him at this time, and his play received no mercy, and was a failure. Curiously enough, Balzac seemed rather pleased at this news, which reached him at Berlin, on his journey home to France. He had made use of the services of two practised writers for the theatre to fit his melodrama to the exigencies of the stage, and possibly this fact dulled his interest in it. At any rate he was strangely philosophical about its fate.
On November 28th, 1843, soon after his return to Paris, a vacancy was left in the Academy by the death of M. Vincent Campenon; and Charles Nodier and Victor Hugo proposed Balzac as a candidate for the empty seat. Balzac, however, soon withdrew, as he found that his impecunious condition would be a reason for his rejection, and he wrote promptly to Nodier and to M. de Pongerville, another member of the Academy, that if he could not enter L'Academie because of honourable poverty, he would never present himself at her doors when prosperity was his portion. In September, 1845, another vacancy occurred; but in spite of Madame de Girardin's entreaties that Balzac should again come forward as a candidate, he refused decidedly, and wrote to Madame Hanska that in doing this he knew himself to be consulting her wishes.
The year 1844 was not an unhappy one with Balzac, though his health was bad, and he speaks of terrible neuralgia; so that he wrote "Les Paysans" with his head in opium, as he had written "Cesar Birotteau" with his feet in mustard. Apparently Madame Hanska held out hopes that in 1845 his long probation might come to and end, as he writes: "Days of illness are days of pleasure to me, for when I do not work with absorption of all my moral and physical qualities, I never cease thinking of 1845. I arrange houses, I furnish them, I see myself there, and I am happy."[*] It was a joy to him to fulfil Madame Hanska's commissions, and thus to come in contact with people who had been at any time connected with her. Therefore, in spite of his busy life, he took much trouble over the arrangements for the entrance of Anna's former governess, Mlle Henriette Borel, into a religious house in Paris, and was present at her reception into the Couvent de la Visitation, Rue l'Enfer, in December, 1845. He was rather annoyed on this occasion, as he was working tremendously hard at the "Comedie Humaine," and at his "Petites Miseres de la Vie Conjugale," and the good nuns, who "thought the world turned only for themselves," told him that the ceremony would take place at one o'clock and would last an hour, whereas it was not over till four, and as he had to see Lirette afterwards, he could not get away till half-past five. However, he was consoled by the idea that he was representing his dear Countess and Anna, who were in Italy at the time, and he thought the service imposing and very dramatic. He was specially thrilled when the three new nuns threw themselves on the ground, were covered with a pall, while prayers for the dead were recited over them; and after this rose up crowned with white roses, as the brides of Christ. Lirette was radiant when she had taken the veil, and wished that every one would enter a religious house.
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 102.
In July, 1844, Madame Hanska and her daughter made the acquaintance of the Comte Georges Mniszech, who appeared to be a very suitable partifor Anna. Balzac naturally took a keen interest in all the prospective arrangements, and consulted anxiously with Madame Hanska about the young Comte's character, which must of course have proved perfect, before a treasure like the young Countess could be confided to his keeping. It is strikingly characteristic of Balzac's disinterestedness, that though he knew that the young Countess's marriage would remove the principal obstacle between him and Madame Hanska, he was most insistent in recommending caution till the young man had been for some time on probation. However, an engagement soon took place, and it seemed as though the great desire of Balzac's heart would in a short time be within his reach, and that happiness would shine upon him at last.
In 1844 he published among other books "Modeste Mignon," "Gaudissart II," a fragment of the first part of "L'Envers de L'Histoire Contemporaine," which he entitled "Madame de la Chanterie," the end of the first part of "Splendeurs et Miseres des Courtisanes," the third and last part of "Beatrix," and the first part of "Les Paysans." This began to appear in La Presse on December 3rd, and the disputes about its publication led to Balzac's final rupture with Emile de Girardin.
"Les Paysans" was never finished; but was intended to be the most considerable, as it is, even in its present fragmentary condition, one of the most remarkable of Balzac's novels. For eight years he had at intervals started on the composition of this vivid picture of the deep under-current of struggle which was going on between the peasant of France and the bourgeoisie; that deadly fight for the possession of the soil which resulted, as the great voyant plainly descried it must, in the Revolution of 1848, and the victory of the peasant. Balzac also intended to depict the demoralisation of the people by their abandonment of the Catholic religion; and the novel, in emulation of Victor Hugo and of Dumas, was to fill many volumes. The first version of it, entitled "Le Grand Proprietaire," was begun about 1835, and the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul in his interesting book entitled "La Genese d'un Roman de Balzac," gives the text of this, the MS. of which forms part of his collection. About the year 1836 or 1838, Balzac altered the title of his proposed novel to "Qui a Terre, a Guerre," and it was not till 1839 that he named the work "Les Paysans." In 1840 Balzac offered "Les Paysans," which he said was ready to appear in fifteen days, to M. Dujarier, the manager of La Presse, and received 1,650 francs in advance for the novel. However, in 1841 he substituted "Les Deux Freres," which was the first part of "La Rabouilleuse," for "Les Paysans," and offered the latter work as if finished to Le Messager and also to the publisher Locquin, under the title of "La Chaumiere et le Chateau."
In April, 1843, Balzac had paid back part of his debt to La Presse by publishing "Honorine" in its columns, but in September, 1844, he received 9,000 francs in advance for the still unwritten "Les Paysans." It was further arranged that when this debt had been worked out, he should be given sixty centimes a line for the remainder of the novel, and that La Presse should pay for composition and corrections. It will be noticed that Emile de Girardin, the autocratic chief of La Presse, had at last wearied of the bickering which had gone on between him and Balzac ever since their first relations of 1830, and in 1840 had handed over the task of dealing with the aggravating author to his subordinate Dujarier. The treaty concerning "Les Paysans" was therefore drawn up with Dujarier, and matters no doubt would have proceeded harmoniously, had not the latter been killed in a duel in March, 1845.
The first number of "Les Paysans" appeared on December 3rd, 1844, and then, owing to a most untoward concatenation of circumstances, there was a long pause in Balzac's contributions to La Presse. Madame Hanska had unfortunately decided for some time that she would in 1845 make one of those journeys which more than anything else threw Balzac and his affairs into inextricable confusion. Before M. de Hanski's death, however, Balzac was at any rate welcomed with effusion when, in his longing to see Madame Hanska, he left his affairs in Paris to take care of themselves. In those early days she was devotedly attached to him; besides, an adorer was a fashionable appendage for an elegant married woman, and the conquest of a distinguished man of letters like Balzac was something to be proud of. Now, however, there was no husband as a protector in the eyes of the world; and marriage, a marriage about which she felt many qualms, loomed large before her startled eyes. She had no intention of giving up the delightful luxury of Balzac's love; but might she not by judicious diplomacy, she sometimes asked herself, manage to enjoy this, without taking the last irrevocable step? Her position was not enviable, the state of feeling embodied in the words "she would and she wouldn't" always betokening in the subject a wearing variability of mind posture; but compared with the anguish of Balzac, whom she was slowly killing by her vacillations, her woes do not deserve much sympathy.
At St. Petersburg, possibly during one of their walks on the quay, or on a cozy evening when the samovar was brought up at nine o'clock, and placed on the white table with yellowish lines—she had promised Balzac that he might meet her next year at Dresden. However, when she arrived there, and found herself in a circle of her own relations, who according to Balzac poisoned her mind against him, she not only objected to his presence, but, in her sudden fear of gossip, she forbade him to write to her again during her stay at Dresden. She sent off another letter almost at once, contradicting her last command; but she would not make up her mind whether Balzac might come to her at Dresden, whether she would consent to meet him at Frankfort, or whether he should prepare a house for her and Anna in Paris. Balzac could settle to nothing. In order to work as he understood the word, it was necessary that he should exclude all outside disturbing influence, and hear only the voices of the world where Le Pere Goriot, old Grandet, La Cousine Bette, and their fellows, toiled, manoeuvred, and suffered. How could he do this, how could he even arrange his business affairs, when a letter might come by any post, telling him to start at once and meet his beloved one? Precious time was wasted, never to be recalled; and when Balzac, raging with impatience and irritation, dared very gently, and with words of affection, to express the feelings which devoured him, the divinity was offended, and he received a rebuke for his impatience and tone of authority.
In April, 1845, he writes: "Shall I manage to write two numbers of the 'Paysans' in twelve days? That is the problem, for I have not a single line written. Dresden and you, between you, turn my head; I do not know what will become of me. There is nothing more fatal than the state of indecision in which you have kept me for three months. If I had started on January 1st, and had returned on February 28th, I should have been more advanced in my work, and I should have had two good months, like the ones at St. Petersburg. Dear sovereign star, how do you expect me to conceive an idea or write a single phrase, with my heart and head agitated as they have been since last November? It has been enough to make a man mad! In vain I have stuffed myself with coffee: I have only succeeded in increasing the nervous trembling of my eyes, and I have written nothing; this is my situation to-day, April 10th; and I have La Presse behind me, sending to me every day, and the 'Paysans,' which is my first long work. I am between two despairs, that of not seeing you, of not having seen you, and the literary and financial trouble, the trouble of self-respect. Oh, Charles II. was quite right to say: 'But she?' in all the affairs submitted to him by his ministers.
"I can only write you this word, and it is full of sadness, for I must work and try to forget you for several days, to belong in the future more thoroughly and surely to you. It is noon; I start again at 'Les Paysans' for the tenth time, and all the muscles in my face work like those of an animal; Nature has had enough of work—she kicks over the traces. Ah! why have I debts? Why must I work whether I wish to or not? I am so unhappy, so tormented, so despondent, that I refuse to be hopeless; you must surely see that I am more than ever yours, and that I pass my life uselessly away from you, for the glory gained by inspired work is not worth a few hours passed with you! In the end I trust only in God and in you alone: in you who do not write me a word more for that; you who might at least console me with three letters a week, and who hardly write me two, and those so short!"[*]
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 142.
However, on April 18th he received a letter from Madame Hanska containing the words, "I wish to see you," and rushed off at once to Dresden oblivious of everything but his one desire. La Presse apparently submitted to this interruption philosophically. Its readers had not found the opening of "Les Paysans" amusing, while Le Moniteur de l'Armee had strongly and rather absurdly objected to it, as likely to lower military prestige. La Presse had therefore decided in any case to put off the appearance of "Les Paysans" till February, and to begin the year 1845 with "La Reine Margot," by Alexandre Dumas.
Meanwhile Balzac was having a delightful time. Having joined Madame Hanska at Dresden, he travelled with her and the Comtesse Anna and Comte Georges Mniszech, who had lately become engaged, to Cannstadt, Carlsruhe, and Strasburg; and to his intense delight, in July, the Countess and her daughter came to him at Passy, and took up their abode in a little house near the Rue Basse, with a carefully chosen housemaid, cook, and man. The Czar had prohibited the journey to France, so they travelled incognito as Balzac's sister and niece, the Countess Anna taking the name of Eugenie, perhaps in remembrance of Balzac's heroine Eugenie Grandet.[*] In the morning they went by cab or on foot into Paris, and in the evening a carriage was at their disposal, and they visited the theatre and the opera. We can easily realise the excitement and joy Balzac felt in showing them all his treasures—the bust by David D'Angers, the precious Medici furniture of ebony encrusted with mother-of-pearl, the Cellini statuettes, and the pictures by Giorgione, Palma, Watteau, and Greuze.
[*] "La Genese d'un Roman de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.
July passed quickly in this mode of life, Balzac acting as cicerone to the two ladies, and their identity was fortunately not discovered. In August he conducted them as far as Brussels on their way back to Dresden, and together they visited Fontainebleau, Orleans, Bourges, his much-loved Tours, Blois, Rotterdam, La Hague, and Antwerp. At Brussels they were met by M. Georges Mniszech, who took charge of the two Countesses in Balzac's place. The latter felt obliged to write afterwards to the Count to apologise for his cold good-bye, and to explain that he had been forced to assume indifference, because he feared a complete breakdown unless he sternly repressed all appearance of feeling.
However, he was not away for long from Madame Hanska, as he spent from September 20th till October 4th with her at Baden-Baden, where she had been ordered for a course of the waters. The time there was the happiest in his life, as it seemed to him that he could now plainly see a picture of the future, which he prayed for and dreamed of in the midst of his crushing work.
On October 16th, 1845, he left Paris again, met Madame Hanska, her daughter, and prospective son-in-law at Chalons, and started with them on their Italian tour. It took a day to travel by boat from Chalons to Lyons, and another day to go by boat from Lyons to Avignon; but the time flew from Madame Hanska and Balzac, who were engrossed all the way in delightful talk. They arrived at Marseilles on October 29th, and stayed for two nights at the Hotel d'Orient, where Balzac's friend Mery had secured rooms for them. They then went by sea to Naples, and there Balzac worked so hard at sight-seeing, saw so much, and talked so volubly, that he was quite exhausted. He remained a few days only at Naples, and had a very tiring journey back, as the sea was extremely rough; and when he reached Marseilles Mery insisted on taking him into society, so that he had no opportunity of resting even there. It was altogether a very expensive journey. He could not drink the water on board the boat coming home, and therefore was obliged to quench his thirst with champagne; and as the captain and the steward showed him extraordinary politeness, they had also to be given champagne, and invited to a lunch party at the Hotel d'Orient when the ship arrived at Marseilles. Balzac was evidently rather ashamed of this escapade, and begged Madame Hanska not to let Georges know anything of his extravagance, as he would be certain to make fun of it.
The bric-a-brac shops at Marseilles were another terrible cause of temptation, and one to which Balzac apparently succumbed without a struggle, consoling himself with the reflection that his purchases were "de vraies occasions a saisir."
When he arrived at Passy on November 17th, and retired to bed with an attack of fever as the result of all his fatigues, he might be expected to feel slightly depressed at the thought of the time he had wasted during the last few months, and of his small advance in the work of paying off his debts. As far as we can judge, however, these were not his reflections. He was dreaming of the past year, the happiest year of his life, because so much of it had been spent with Madame Hanska; and when his mind turned to more practical subjects, he thought of various projects for buying the house which was to be their future home, and of the way it should be decorated. His mind dwelt constantly on these preparations for his married life; and he continued to correspond with Mery, and to entrust him with delicate commissions which required much bargaining. At this Mery was not, according to his own account, very successful, as he remarks in an amusing letter to Balzac: "I call to witness all the marble false gods which decorate Lazardo's dark museum. I have neglected nothing to succeed with your message. I have paid indolent visits, I have taken the airs of a bored 'agathophile,' I have turned my back on the objects of your desire. All my efforts have been in vain. They obstinately continue to ask fabulous prices."[*]
[*] Letters from the collection of the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, published in the Revue Bleue of December 5th, 1903.
In February, 1845,[*] Balzac had written cheerfully about the 30,000 francs for "Les Paysans" which he would obtain from the publisher, and the 10,000 from the journal; of the 15,000 francs which would come to him from "La Comedie Humaine," and the 30,000 from the sale of Les Jardies, besides 10,000 francs from his other works and 20,000 from the railway du Nord; and had calculated that his most pressing liabilities would soon be discharged. His figures and computations on the subject of money can never be relied on, and the railway du Nord was a most unfortunate speculation, and proved a constant drain on his resources. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that he was beginning to diminish perceptibly the burden of debt which pressed upon him, and that if Madame Hanska had not existed, and if on the other hand he had not himself embarked on some mad scheme or senseless piece of extravagance, he might in a few years have become a free man. These long months of expensive inaction rendered this happy solution to the troubles of his life impossible.
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 123.
Meanwhile fresh misfortunes were gathering. On November 27th, 1845, Emile de Girardin, who since Dujarier's death had resumed business relations with Balzac, addressed to him a most discourteous letter. He apparently disbelieved in the terms of the agreement by which the great writer was to be paid sixty centimes a line for "Les Paysans," and demanded a certified copy of it;[*] and he also announced that for "Les Petites Miseres de la Vie Conjugale," which was about to appear in the Revue, he could not pay more than forty centimes, which was, he said, his maximum price to contributors. Later on, in March, 1846, Girardin despatched another message to complain of the delay in continuing "Les Paysans," and in this he remarked with bitter emphasis that as La Presse paid so highly for what was published in her pages, she had at least the right of objecting to being treated lightly. Balzac replied on March 16th, 1846, that he was the one who ought to bear malice, as Dujarier had upset his arrangements by interrupting the publication of "Les Paysans" to substitute "La Reine Margot," by Dumas, and that now his brain required rest, and that he was starting that very day for a month's holiday in Rome.
[*] "La Genese d'un Roman de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul (from which the whole account of the dispute between Balzac and Emile de Girardin is taken).
If Balzac had remained in France it is doubtful whether he would have written much, as he had been in a miserably unsettled state all the winter of 1845 to 1846. His health was bad: he mentions continual colds and neuralgia, and on one occasion remarks that owing to complete exhaustion he has slept all through the day. Besides this, his suspense about Madame Hanska's ultimate decision made him absolutely wretched. He writes to her on December 17th, 1845: "Nothing amuses me, nothing distracts me, nothing animates me; it is the death of the soul, the death of the will, the weakening of the whole being; I feel that I can only take up my work again when I see my life determined, fixed, arranged."[*] Later on in the same letter he says: "I am crushed; I have waited too long, I have hoped too much; I have been too happy this year, and I do not want anything else. After so many years of misfortune and of work, to have been free as a bird, superhumanly happy, and to return to one's cell! . . . is it possible? . . . I dream: I dream by day and by night, and the thought of the heart driven back on itself prevents all action of the thought of the brain; it is terrible!"
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 200.
On one occasion Madame Hanska wrote apparently reproaching him with talking indiscreetly about her; and without finishing the letter, the end of which was affectionate, and would have calmed his mind, he at once jumped out of the cab in which he was driving, and walked for hours about Paris. He was wearing thin shoes, and there were two inches of snow on the ground; but his agitation was so great at her unjust accusations, and his indignation so fierce at the wickedness of the people who had libelled him, that he hardly knew where he was going, and returned at last, still so excited by the anguish of his mind, that he was not conscious of bodily fatigue. Such crises, and the consequent exhaustion afterwards, were not conducive to work; particularly in a man whose heart was already affected, and who had overstrained his powers for years.
Possibly in the hope of obtaining distraction and relief from the anxious misery of thought, he went into society more than usual this year; and in spite of the strained relations between him and Emile de Girardin, he often dined at the editor's house, and was on most friendly terms with Madame de Girardin. On January 1st, 1846, he wrote to Madame Hanska, "I dined, as I told you in my last letter, with Nestor Roqueplan, the director of the Theatre des Varietes, the last Wednesday of December, and the last day of the month with the illustrious Delphine. We laughed as much as I can laugh without you, and far from you. Delphine is really the queen of conversation; that evening she was especially sublime, brilliant, charming. Gautier was there as well; I left after having a long talk with him. He said that there was no hurry for 'Richard, Coeur d'Eponge'; the theatre is well provided at present. Perhaps Gautier and I will write the piece together later on."[*]
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 212.
Balzac's mind was still running on the theatre. Owing to failing health and to his unfortunate love affair, he now found it more difficult to concentrate his mind than formerly, and the incessant work of earlier years was no longer possible; so that the easy road to fortune offered by a successful play became doubly attractive. "Richard Coeur d'Eponge," however, never appeared; and except several fragments, which are in the hands of the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, it is doubtful whether it was written, though Balzac often discussed the plot with Gautier.
What, after all, were novels, essays, or plays, of what interest were scenes, plots, or characters, what was fame, what was art itself, compared with Madame Hanska? How was it possible for a man to work, with the gloriously disquieting prospect before him that in so many months, weeks, days, he should meet his divinity? The phantoms of his imagination faded to insignificance, and then to utter nullity, beside the woman of flesh and blood, the one real object in a world of shadows. On March 17th, 1846, he started on his journey to Rome, and everything became a blank, except the intoxicating thought that each hour diminished the distance between him and the woman he loved. She evidently received him with enthusiasm, and showed so much affection, that though nothing definite was settled, he felt that her ultimate decision to marry him was certain; and was only deferred to a more convenient season, when her daughter Anna should have become La Comtesse Mniszech. Therefore the whole world brightened for him, and he became again full of life and vigour. He stayed for a month in the Eternal City, was presented to the Pope, admired St. Peter's extremely, and said that his time there would for ever remain one of the greatest and most beautiful recollections of his life. As the route by sea was crowded by travellers who had spent Holy Week in Rome, and all wanted to return at the same time, he travelled back by Switzerland; and explored fresh country and hunted for curiosities on the way. Several pictures were to follow him from Italy: a Sebastian del Piombo, a Bronzino, and a Mirevelt, which he describes as of extreme beauty; and with his usual happy faith in his own good luck, he hoped to pick up some other bargains such as "Hobbemas and Holbeins for a few crowns," in the towns through which he would pass on his journey. A definite engagement did not take place till some months later; but some tacit understanding must now have been allowed by Madame Hanska, as there began to appear from this time in Balzac's letters exact descriptions of the Sevres china, the inlaid furniture, and the bric-a-brac, which he was buying evidently with her money as well as his own, to adorn their future home together. As usual, on his return he found his affairs in utter confusion, was pursued by creditors, and was absolutely without money. As a last misfortune, his housekeeper, Madame de Brugnolle, in whose name the habitation at Passy had been rented, and who generally managed his business affairs, was busy preparing for her approaching marriage, and had naturally no time to spare for her supposed lodger's difficulties. Altogether Balzac felt that the world was a harassing place.
However, his health was admirable, "et le talent! . . . oh! je l'ai retrouve dans sa fleur!"[*] He was full of hope and confidence; and although the shares of the railway du Nord continued to fall in value, he considered that with steady work at his novels, and with the help of a successful comedy, he would soon have paid off his debts, and would have a little house of his own, with room for his beautiful things; which, owing to want of space, and also to fear of his creditors, were never unpacked. It was necessary to prove that he was as young, as fresh, and as fertile as ever, and with this object in view, in June, 1846, he began the two books which were to form the series entitled "L'Histoire des Parents Pauvres." The first, "La Cousine Bette," appeared in the Constitutionnel from October to December, 1846, and is intended to represent "a poor relation oppressed by humiliations and injuries, living in the midst of three or four families of her relations, and meditating vengeance for the bruising of her amour-propre, and for her wounded vanity!"[*] The second received several names in turn. It was first called "Le Vieux Musicien," next "Le Bonhomme Pons," and then "Le Parasite," a title on which Balzac said he had decided definitely. However, Madame Hanska objected, as she declared that "Le Parasite" was only suitable for an eighteenth-century comedy, and the book appeared in April, 1847, as "Le Cousin Pons." Though intensely tragic, it is not as horrible or revolting as its pendant, the gloomy "Cousine Bette"; and Balzac has portrayed admirably the simple old man with his fondness for good dinners; "the poor relation oppressed by humiliations and injuries, pardoning all, and only revenging himself by doing kindnesses." Side by side with him is the touching figure of his faithful friend Schmucke, the childlike German musician, who dies of grief at the death of Pons. In writing these two remarkable books, his last important works, Balzac proved conclusively that his hand had not lost its cunning, and that the slow rate of literary production during the last few years of his life was caused by his unhappy circumstances, and not by any failure in his genius.
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 243.
After all, the year 1846 ended for him with agitation which increased his heart disease. His beloved trio, whom he had christened the "troupe Bilboquet," after the vaudeville "Les Saltimbanques," had now moved to Wiesbaden; and thither their faithful "Bilboquet," the "vetturino per amore," as Madame de Girardin laughingly called him, rushed to meet them. He found "notre grande et chere Atala" rather crippled with rheumatism, and not able to take the exercise which was necessary for her, but in his eyes as beautiful as ever. The "gentille Zephirine," otherwise the Countess Anna, was gay, charming, and beautifully dressed; and "Gringalet," the Count, was completely occupied—when not making love—with his collection of insects, on which he spent large sums. About this collection Balzac made many rather heavy jokes, calling the Count a "Gringalet sphynx-lepidoptere-coleoptere-ante-diluvien,"[*] but in an anxious desire to ingratiate himself with Madame Hanska's family, he often despatched magnificent specimens of the insect species from Paris to add to it.
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 287.
Balzac travelled about a little with the Hanski family, and remained with them till September 15th, when he was obliged to go back to Paris. Either at this time, or when he returned for the wedding of the Comtesse Anna and the Comte Georges Mniszech, which took place at Wiesbaden on October 13th, 1846, a secret engagement was contracted between him and Madame Hanska.
He was now terribly anxious that there should be no further delay about his marriage, and on his way back from Germany on one of these two occasions, he applied to M. Germeau, then prefect of Metz,[*] who had been at school with him at Vendome, to know whether the necessary formalities could be abridged, so that the wedding might take place at once. This was impossible; and though the great obstacle to their union was now removed, Madame Hanska refused to be parted from her beloved daughter, and insisted on accompanying the newly married couple on their honeymoon. Her determination caused Balzac terrible agony of mind, as she was unwell, and was suffering a great deal at the time, and he therefore wished her to remain quietly somewhere in France; moreover, despair seized him at her hesitation to become his wife, when the course at last seemed clear. His trouble at this time appears to have had a serious effect on his health, and some words spoken half in malice, half in warning by Madame de Girardin, must have sounded like a knell in his ears. He tells them apparently in jest to Madame Hanska to give her an example of the nonsense people talk in Paris. In his accuracy of repetition, however, we can trace a passionately anxious desire to force Madame Hanska herself to deny the charges brought against her; and perhaps lurking behind this, a wish unacknowledged even to himself, to shame her if—even after all that had passed—she were really not in earnest.
[*] See "Une Page Perdue de Honore de Balzac," p. 276, by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.
He says: "Madame de Girardin told me that she heard from a person who knew you intimately, that you were extremely flattered by my homage; that from vanity and pride you made me come wherever you went; that you were very happy to have a man of genius as courier, but that your social position was too high to allow me to aspire to anything else. And then she began to laugh with an ironical laugh, and told me that I was wasting my time running after great ladies, only to fail with them. Hein! Isn't that like Paris!"[*]
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 295.
The reader of Balzac's life is forced to the sad conclusion that Parisian gossip had on this occasion sketched the situation tolerably correctly; though the truth of the picture was no doubt denied with much indignation by Madame Hanska.
1846 - 1848
Balzac buys a house in the Rue Fortunee—Madame Hanska's visit to Paris—Balzac burns her letters—Final breach with Emile de Girardin—Balzac's projects for writing for the theatre—He goes to Wierzchownia—Plan for transporting oaks from Russia to France —Balzac returns to Paris at the eve of the Revolution of 1848 —Views on politics—Stands for last time as deputy.
Much of Balzac's time, whenever he was in Paris in 1845 and 1846, was taken up with house-hunting; and some of his still unpublished letters to Madame Hanska contain long accounts of the advantages of the different abodes he had visited. He was now most anxious to be permanently settled, as there was no room for his art treasures in the Rue Basse; but as Madame Hanska's tastes had to be consulted as well as his own, it was necessary to be very careful in his choice. However, in October, 1846, he at last found something which he thought would be suitable. This was the villa which had formerly belonged to the financier Beaujon, in the Rue Fortunee, now the Rue Balzac. The house was not large, it was what might now be described as a "bijou residence," but though out of repair, it had been decorated with the utmost magnificence by Beaujon, and Balzac's discriminating eye quickly discerned its aesthetic possibilities.
In front of the house was a long narrow courtyard, the pavement of which was interrupted here and there by flower-beds. This courtyard was bordered by a wall, and above the wall nothing could be seen from the road but a cupola, which formed the domed ceiling of the financier's boudoir. Some of the inside adornments possessed a delightful fitness for the uses to which they were destined. For instance, what could have been a more graceful compliment to the Mniszechs than to lodge them during their visits to Paris, which would of course be frequent, in a set of rooms painted with brilliant exotic butterflies, poised lightly on lovely flowers? Apparently foreseeing, as Balzac remarks, that a "Lepidopterian Georges" would at some time inhabit the mansion, Beaujon had actually provided a beautiful bedroom and a little drawing-room decorated in this way.[*] It seemed quite providential!
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 289.
Balzac was very happy superintending the building operations, deciding exactly where his different treasures would look best in his new abode, and hunting for fresh acquisitions to make every detail perfect. Later on, his letters from Russia to his mother when she was taking charge of the house—then furnished and decorated—show how dearly he loved all his household goods, and how well he was acquainted with their peculiarities; how he realised the danger, unless it were held by the lower part,[*] of moving the greenish-grey china vase with cracked glaze, which was to stand on one of the consoles in black wood and Buhl marqueterie; and how he thought anxiously about the candle ornaments of gilt crystal, which were only to be arranged after the candelabra had been put up in the white drawing-room. In 1846 and 1847, his letters are instinct with the passion of the confirmed collector, who has no thought beyond his bric-a-brac. His excitement is intense because Madame Hanska has discovered that a tea service in his possession is real Watteau, and because he has had the "incredible good fortune" to find a milk jug and a sugar basin to match it exactly. When we remember that the man who thus expresses his delight was in the act of writing "Les Parents Pauvres," and of evoking scenes of touching pathos and gloomy horror, we are once more amazed at the extraordinary versatility of Balzac's mind and genius.
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 337.
The deep thinker, the pessimistic believer in the omnipotence of vice and in the helpless suffering of virtue, who drags to light what is horrible from among the dregs of the people, seems to have nothing in common with the charming, playful figure of "le vieux Bilboquet," who gave Madame Hanska's daughter and her son-in-law a big place in his heart, and was never jealous when, avowedly for their sakes, his wishes, feelings, and health were unconsidered; whose servants, hard-worked though they were, adored him; and who never forgot his friends, or failed to help them when adversity fell upon them.
At the beginning of 1847, peace for a time visited Balzac's restless spirit. In February he went to Germany to fetch Madame Hanska, and leaving the Mniszechs to go back alone to Wierzchownia, she travelled with him to Paris, and remained there till April. It is significant, as the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul remarks,[*] that during the time of her stay in Paris, when Balzac's mind was no longer disturbed by his constant longing to see her, he accomplished the last serious bout of work in his life, beginning the "Depute D'Arcis" in L'Union, "La Cousine Bette" in the Constitutionnel, and "La Derniere Incarnation de Vautrin" in La Presse.
[*] "La Genese d'un Roman de Balzac," p. 194
He had other duties at the same time, being occupied with what he calls the most beautiful work of his life, that of preventing "a mother separated from so adorable a child as her Grace the Countess Georges, from dying of grief." He writes to the Mniszechs on February 27th, 1847[*]: "Our dear adored Atala is in a charming and magnificent apartment (and not too dear). She has a garden; she goes a great deal to the convent" (to see Mlle. Henriette Borel). "I try to distract her and to be as much as possible Anna to her; but the name of her dear daughter is so daily and continually on her lips, that the day before yesterday, when she was enjoying herself immensely at the Varietes—in fits of laughter at the 'Filleul de Tout le Monde,' acted by Bouffe and Hyacinthe—in the midst of her gaiety, she asked herself in a heartbroken voice, which brought tears to my eyes, how she could laugh and amuse herself like this, without her 'dear little one.' I allow, dear Zephirine, that I took the liberty of telling her, that you were amusing yourself enormously without her, with your lord and master, His Majesty the King of the Coleoptera; that I was sure that you were at this time one of the happiest women in the world; and I hope that Gringalet, on whom I drew this bill of exchange, will not contradict me. I have four tolerably strong attractions to bring forward against the thought of you: 1st, the Conservatoire; 2nd, the Opera; 3rd, the Italian Opera; 4th, the Exhibition."
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 312.
Balzac's hands were certainly pleasantly full at this time. His power of writing, which had temporarily deserted him, seemed now to have returned in full vigour; and he had made forty or fifty thousand francs in three months, so was hopeful of paying off his debts, a point on which Madame Hanska wisely laid much stress. She still refused to decide anything definitely about the date of their marriage; but the house was to a great extent her property, and at this time she identified herself completely with Balzac in all the arrangements to do with it. Though he kept on his rooms in the Rue Basse and left his effects there, he moved in April 1847 to the Rue Fortunee, that he might be better able to superintend the building and decorating, and might himself keep watch over his treasures, which must gradually be unpacked and bestowed to the best advantage. About the middle of April he conducted Madame Hanska to Forbach on her way back to Wierzchownia, and himself returned to Paris to finish the house, put his affairs in order, and then follow her to Wierzchownia. There he hoped the wedding would quickly take place, and that Monsieur and Madame Honore de Balzac would return to Paris, and would live to a ripe old age in married happiness; he writing many masterpieces, she helping with advice, and forming a salon where her social position, cleverness, and charm would surround her with the highest in the land. The prospect was intoxicating; surely no one was ever so near the attainment of his most radiant visions!
On Balzac's return to Paris, however, he was confronted by realities of the most terrible nature.
When he arrived at the Rue Basse, he found to his horror that the lock of his precious casket had been forced, and some of Madame Hanska's letters had been abstracted. It was a case of blackmail, as the thief demanded 30,000 francs, in default of which the letters would at once be handed over to the Czar. If this were to happen, Balzac's hopes of happiness were annihilated, and the consequences to Madame Hanska would be even more serious. Unless approached with the utmost caution, the Czar would certainly refuse his consent to the marriage of a Russian subject with a foreigner, and would be furious if he were to discover a secret love affair between the French novelist and one of his most important subjects. Yet how could Balzac find 30,000 francs?
Already in the grip of heart disease the agony he endured at this time took him one stage further down the valley of death. In the end he managed by frightening the thief, to effect the return of the letters without any immediate payment; but the anguish he had passed through, and the thought of the terrible consequences only just evaded, decided him to burn all the letters he had received from Madame Hanska. It was a terrible sacrifice. He describes in an unpublished letter to her his feelings, as he sat by the fire, and watched each letter curl up, blacken, and finally disappear. He had read and re-read them till they had nearly dropped to pieces, had been cheered and comforted by the sight of them when the world had gone badly, and had owned them so long that they seemed part of himself. There was the first of all, the herald of joy, the opening of a new life; and almost as precious at this moment seemed the one which discovered to him the identity of his correspondent, and held out hopes of a speedy meeting. One after another he took them out of the box which had held some of them for many years, and each seemed equally difficult to part with. However, as he wrote to Madame Hanska, he knew that he was doing right in destroying them, and that the painful sacrifice was absolutely necessary.
Meanwhile, Emile de Girardin was naturally becoming impatient about the continuation of "Les Paysans," which he had never received.[*] He wrote to Balzac at the end of April, 1847, that the printer had been ready for the finish of the book since the November before, and that unless Balzac could produce it in June, the idea of its appearance in La Presse must be given up altogether; and in this case he must ask the author to settle with M. Rouy about the advances of money already made to him. He further remarked with scathing though excusable distrust in Balzac's fulfilment of his business engagements, that he refused to continue to bring out the work at all, unless he were absolutely certain that it was completely written and that no further interruption would ensue. Friendly social relations still subsisted, however, between Balzac and the Girardins, as, about the same time that Emile penned this uncompromising epistle, the following note reached Balzac,[+] the last he ever received from the peace-making Madame de Girardin:
"It is the evening of my last Wednesday. Come, cruel one. Mrs. Norton will be here. Do you not wish me to have the glory of having presented you to this English 'Corinne'? Emile tells me that 'La Derniere Incarnation de Vautrin' is admirable. The compositors declare that it is your chef-d'oeuvre.
"Only till this evening, I implore you.
"DELPHINE GAY DE GIRARDIN."
[*] "La Genese d'un Roman de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, from which the whole account of Balzac's rupture with Girardin is taken.
[+] "La Genese d'un Roman de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, p. 262
Balzac on his side, was now most anxious to finish "Les Paysans," especially as his penniless state at this time would render it most difficult for him to pay back the money advanced to him by La Presse. He was in special difficulties, as he had lately borrowed ten or fifteen thousand francs from the impecunious Viscontis, giving them as guarantee some shares in the unfortunate Chemin de Fer du Nord, and as the railway was a failure, and these shares were a burden instead of a benefit, Balzac was bound in honour to relieve his friends of their troublesome possession, and to pay back what he owed them. This necessity was an additional incentive to action, and Balzac's letters to Madame Hanska about this time, contain several indications of his anxiety about "Les Paysans." On June 9th he speaks of his desire to bring it to a close; and on the 15th he writes that he must certainly finish it at once, to avoid the lawsuit with which he has been for so long threatened by La Presse. However, he seems to have experienced an unconquerable difficulty in its composition, as in that of "Seraphita," the other book about which he had cherished a peculiarly lofty ideal. Therefore in July the termination of "Les Paysans" had not yet reached the office of La Presse, and on the 13th of the month Balzac received the following letter:[*]
"PARIS, July 13th, 1847
"'Le Piccinino' will be finished this week. Only seven numbers of 'Les Paysans' are completed in advance. We are therefore at the mercy of an indisposition, of any chance incident, things of which it is necessary for me to see the possibility, and to which I must not expose myself.
"Really you high dignitaries of the periodical are insupportable, and you will manage so cleverly that the periodical will some day fail you completely.
"For my part, my resolution on this matter is taken, and firmly taken, and if I had not a remainder of the account to work out, I would certainly not publish 'Les Paysans,' as I have not received the last line.
"EMILE DE GIRARDIN."
[*] "La Genese d'un Roman de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, p. 268.
Balzac's answer to this missive is lost. It must have been despatched at once, and was evidently not conciliatory, as it was answered on the same day in the following terms:
"PARIS, July 13th, 1847.
"I only publish 'Les Paysans' because we have an account to settle. Otherwise I certainly should not publish it, and the success of 'La Derniere Incarnation de Vautrin' would certainly not impel me to do it.
"Therefore if you are able without inconvenience to pay back to the Presse what it advanced to you, I will willingly give up 'Les Paysans.' Otherwise I will publish 'Les Paysans,' and will begin on Monday next, the 19th. But I insist that there shall be no interruption. I count on this.
"EMILE DE GIRARDIN."
Girardin's bitter resentment is excusable, when we remember that it was in September, 1844, nearly three years before, that Balzac had received 9,000 francs in advance for "Les Paysans." Since then only one number of the promised work had been produced, and the great writer's only explanation for his long delay in finishing the book was the inadequate one, that Dujarier had interrupted "Les Paysans" after the first chapters had been published, to be able to begin Alexandre Dumas' novel "La Reine Margot," before the end of 1844.
In Balzac's reply, written next day, he definitely withdrew "Les Paysans" from publication, and said that he would pay what he owed La Presse within the space of twenty days, and would not charge for what had not yet been printed; though it had been written and composed specially for La Presse, and at the request of the Presse. As to Emile de Girardin's insinuations about the failure of "La Derniere Incarnation de Vautrin," Balzac remarked that this had been written for L'Epoque, not for La Presse, and that it had not been necessary for Girardin to purchase it from the moribund journal, unless he had approved of it. Girardin had hurt him on his tenderest point when he branded his works as failures. With pride and bitterness in his heart he went through the accounts with Mr. Rouy, and found that out of the 9,000 francs received from La Presse, he still owed 5,221 francs 85 centimes. How he raised the money it is impossible to guess, but on August 5th he paid 2,500 francs, and on September 1st 2,000 more, so that only 721 francs 85 centimes remained of his debt, and he made his preparations to start for Wierzchownia with his mind at rest.
He heard from Emile de Girardin again, as we shall see later on, but he had seen Madame de Girardin for the last time. She did not forget him, however, and the news of his death was so terrible a shock that she fainted away. She died in 1855, and was deeply mourned by her friends. Theophile Gautier, in his admiring account of her, says that for some years before her death, she became a prey to depression and discouragement at the conditions surrounding her. It may have been that her brilliant, exciting life led naturally to a partly physical reaction, and that she became too tired by the emotions she had gone through, to adapt herself with buoyancy to the ever variable conditions of existence. At all events she is a refreshing figure in the midst of much that is unsatisfactory—a woman witty, highly gifted, a queen of society, who was yet kindly, generous, and absolutely free from literary jealousy.
Before the middle of September when Balzac left for Wierzchownia, we hear once of him again. He was still dreaming of the theatre as a means of relief from all his embarrassments,[*] and on a hot day in August, 1847, he went to Bougival, to pay a visit to M. Hostein, the director of the Theatre Historique, a new theatre which had not yet been opened six months. There, sitting in the shade on the towing path by the river, he unfolded to the manager his design of writing a grand historical drama on Peter I. and Catherine of Russia, to be entitled "Pierre et Catherine." Nothing was written, it was all still in his head; but he at once sketched the first scene to the manager, and talked with enthusiasm of the enormous success which would be caused by the novelty of introducing the Russian peasant on the stage. The play could be written very quickly; and M. Hostein,[+] carried away by Balzac's extraordinarily persuasive eloquence, already began to reflect about suitable scenery, dresses, and decorations, for the framing of his masterpiece. However, to his disappointment Balzac returned in a few days, to announce that there would be some delay in the production of his play, as he wished to study local colouring on the spot, and was on the point of starting for Russia. He said that when he returned to Paris in the spring, he would bring M. Hostein a completed play, and with this promise the manager was obliged to be satisfied.
[*] "Honore de Balzac," by Edmond Bire.
[+] "Historiettes et Souvenirs d'un Homme de Theatre," by M. Hostein.
Balzac was in an enormous hurry to reach Wierzchownia, and set himself with much energy to the task of finishing the house in the Rue Fortunee. His efforts in this direction were doubtless the reason that the writing of "Pierre et Catherine" was postponed till the moujik could be studied in his native land. At last, however, the work of decoration was complete, and his mother left in charge, with minute directions about the care of his treasures. He had toiled with breathless haste, and managed after all to start earlier than he had expected. Once on the journey his northern magnet drew him with ever-increasing strength, and regardless of fatigue, he travelled for eight days in succession without stoppage or rest, and arrived ten days before his letter announcing his departure from Paris. The inhabitants of the chateau were naturally much surprised at his sudden appearance, and Balzac considers that they were touched, or rather—though he does not say this—that She was touched by his empressement.
He was much delighted with his surroundings. Wierzchownia was a palace, and he was interested and amused with the novelty of all he saw. He writes: "We have no idea at home of an existence like this. At Wierzchownia it is necessary to have all the industries in the house: there is a confectioner, a tailor, and a shoemaker."[*] He was established in a delicious suite of rooms, consisting of a drawing-room, a study, and a bedroom. The study was in pink stucco, with a fireplace in which straw was apparently burnt, magnificent hangings, large windows, and convenient furniture. In this Louvre of a Wierzchownia there were, as Balzac remarks with pleasure, five or six similar suites for guests. Everything was patriarchal. Nobody was bored in this wonderful new life. It was fairy-like, the fulfilment of Balzac's dreams of splendour, an approach of reality to the grandiose blurred visions of his hours of creation. He who rejoiced in what was huge, delighted in the fact that the Count Georges Mniszech had gone to inspect an estate as big as the department of Seine-et-Marne, with the object of dismissing a prevaricating bailiff. It gave him intense satisfaction to record the wonders of this strange new life: to tell those at home of the biting cold, which rendered his pelisse of Siberian fox of no more protection than a sheet of blotting-paper; or to mention casually that all the letters were carried by a Cossack across sixty "verstes" of steppes.
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 324.
The Russians were eager to show their admiration of the celebrated French novelist, and Balzac experienced the truth of the adage, that a prophet is not without honour save in his own country. On the journey out the officials were charmingly polite to him, and when he went to Kiev to pay his respects to the Governor-General, and to obtain permission for a lengthy sojourn in Russia, he was overwhelmed with attentions. A rich moujik had read all his books, burnt a candle for him every week to St. Nicholas, and had promised a sum of money to the servants of Madame Hanska's sister, if they could manage that he might see the great man. This atmosphere of adoration was very pleasant to one whose reward in France for the production of masterpieces, seemed sometimes to consist solely in condemnation and obloquy. Balzac enjoyed himself for the time, and rested from his literary labours, except for working at the second part of "L'Envers de l'Histoire Contemporaine," which is called "L'Initie," and writing the play which he had promised Hostein as a substitute for "Pierre et Catherine."
His ever-active brain had now evolved a plan for transporting sixty thousand oaks to France, from a territory on the Russian frontier belonging to Count Georges Mniszech and his father. He was anxious that M. Surville should undertake the matter, as, after abstruse and careful calculations—which have the puzzling veneer of practicality always observable in Balzac's mad schemes—he considered that 1,200,000 francs might be made out of the affair, and that of course the engineer who arranged the transport would reap some of the benefit. The blocks of wood would be fifteen inches in diameter at the base, and ten at the top. They would first be conveyed to Brody, from there by high road to Cracow, and thence they would travel to France by the railway, which would be finished in a few days. Unfortunately, there were no bridges at Cologne over the Rhine, or at Magdeburg over the Elbe; but Balzac was not discouraged by the question of the transshipment of sixty thousand oaks, any more than in his old days in the Rue Lesdiguieres, he had been deterred from the idea of having a piano, by the attic being too small for it. M. Surville was to answer categorically, giving a detailed schedule of the costs of carriage and of duty from Cracow to France; and to this, Balzac would add the price of transport from Brody to Cracow. He discounted any natural astonishment his correspondent would feel, at the neglect hitherto of this certain plan for making a fortune, by remarking that the proprietors were Creoles, who worked their settlements by means of moujiks, so that the spirit of enterprise was entirely absent.[*] M. Surville, however, received this brilliant proposition without enthusiasm, and did not even trouble to write himself about the matter, but sent back an answer by his wife, that the price of transporting the freight from one railway to another at Breslau, Berlin, Magdeburg, and Cologne, would render the scheme impossible. Balzac showed unusual docility at this juncture; he was evidently already half-hearted about the enterprise, and remarked that since his first letter he had himself thought of the objections pointed out by M. Surville, and had remembered hearing that a forest purchased in Auvergne, had ruined the buyer, owing to the difficulty of transport.
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 321.
Balzac was very happy at Wierzchownia, though the fulfilment of the great desire of his life seemed still distant. Madame Hanska's hesitation continued: she considered herself indispensable to her children; besides, owing to the unfortunate state of the Chemin de Fer du Nord, Balzac's pecuniary affairs would certainly be in an embarrassed condition for the next two years. Living in the same house with her, seeing her every day, and feeling sure of her affection, and of a certain happy consummation to his long probation, would not after all have been very painful, except for one great drawback, which increased continually as time went on; and that was the terrible effect of the inclement climate on Balzac's health. He had suffered from heart disease for some years, and in a letter to his sister, he traces its origin to the cruelty of the lady about whom she knows —possibly Madame de Castries. His abuse of coffee, however, and the unnatural life which he had led with the object of straining the tension of every power to its uttermost, and thus of forcing the greatest possible quantity and quality of literary work out of himself, had done much to ruin his robust constitution. Nevertheless, if he had been able to take up his abode with his wife in the Rue Fortunee, and to enjoy the freedom from anxiety which her fortune would have assured to him; if he had been happy with her, and surrounded by his beautiful things, had at last lived the life for which he had so long yearned, it seems as though several years at least might have remained to him. The enormous labours of his earlier years would indeed have been impossible,[*] but "Les Parents Pauvres" had shown that his intellect was now at its best, and material for many masterpieces was still to be found in that capacious brain and fertile imagination. However, the rigours of the Russian climate, aided no doubt by the privations and anxieties Balzac suffered in Paris after the Revolution of 1848, and by the barbarous treatment which he underwent at the hands of the doctor at Wierzchownia, rendered his case hopeless; and at this time only one more stone was destined to be laid on the unfinished edifice of the "Comedie Humaine."
[*] "Balzac, sa Vie, son Oeuvre," by Julien Lemer.
In February, 1848, it was absolutely necessary that Balzac should go to Paris, as money must at once be found, to meet the calls which the ill-fated Chemin de Fer du Nord was making on its shareholders. Balzac suffered terribly from cold on the journey, and arrived at the Rue Fortunee at a most unfortunate time, just before the Revolution of February, 1848.
In consequence of the disturbed state of the political atmosphere, the outlook for literature was tragic; and Balzac, who was in immediate want of money, found himself in terrible straits. Living with two servants in his luxurious little house, surrounded by works of art which had cost thousands of francs, he was almost dying of hunger. His food consisted of boiled beef, which was cooked and eaten hot once a week, and the remaining six days he subsisted on the cold remains. It seemed impossible to raise money for his present pressing necessities. He managed to sell "L'Initie,"[*] at a ridiculously small price, to an ephemeral journal called Le Spectateur Republicain, but only received in return bills at a long date, and it was doubtful whether he was ever paid the money due to him.
[*] "La Genese d'un Roman de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.
Nevertheless, whatever effects his privations may have had on his health, they did not subdue his spirits, as both Lemer and Champfleury,[*] who each spent several hours with him in the Rue Fortunee, talk of his undiminished vivacity, his hearty fits of laughter, and his confident plans for the future. Lemer, who had known him before, does indeed remark that he seemed much aged; but Champfleury, who saw him for the first time, is only struck with his strength, animal spirits, and keen intelligence. In the midst of the despondent unhealthy tendencies of the literary talent of his day, he was still, with his joie de vivre, a man apart. Naif, full of a charming pride, he loved literature "as the Arab loves the wild horse he has found a difficulty in subduing." Nevertheless, material prosperity, as ever, occupied an important place in the foreground of his scheme of life, and his mind was still running on the theatre, as the great means of gaining money. He warned Champfleury not to follow his example, which led after the production of many books to an existence of deplorable poverty, but to write only three novels a year, so that ten months annually should be left for making a fortune by working for the theatre, "car il faut que l'artiste mene une vie splendide."[+]
[*] "Balzac, sa Vie, son Oeuvre," by Julien Lemer.
[+] "Grandes Figures d'Hier et d'Aujourd'hui," by Champfleury.
Schemes still coursed each other through his quick-moving brain. He wished to create an association of all the great dramatists of the day, who should enrich the French stage with plays composed in common. He was rather despondent about this, however, as he said that most writers were cowardly and idle, and he as afraid they would therefore refuse to join his society. Scribe was the only one who would work; "Mais quelle litterature que 'Les Memoires d'un Colonel de Hussards!'" he exclaimed in horror.[*] Another plan for becoming colossally rich of which he talked seriously, was to gain a monopoly of all the arts, and to act as auctioneer to Europe: to buy the Apollo Belvedere, for instance, let all the nations compete for it against each other, and then to sell to the highest bidder.
[*] "Notes Historiques sur M. de Balzac," by Champfleury.
He took a gloomy view of the political situation, because, though he had a great admiration for Lamartine, he feared that the poet would not have sufficient strength of mind, to take advantage of the great majority he would doubtless have in the next Assemblee Constituante, and to make himself the chief of a strong government, when he might justify his magnificent role, by presiding at the accomplishment of the great social and administrative reforms, demanded by justice, and material, moral, and intellectual progress. In one of his remarks was a touch of sadness. He told Lemer that, at the present crisis, all authors should sacrifice their writing for a time, and throw themselves with energy into politics. "Et pour cela il faut etre jeune," he added with a sigh; "et moi, je suis vieux!"
However, on March 18th, 1848, a letter written by him appeared in the Constitutionnel, in which he stated that he would stand as deputy if requested to do so.[*] In consequence, the "Club de la Fraternite Universelle" wrote to inform him that his name had been put on the list of candidates for election, and invited him to explain his political views at a meeting of the Club. In the Constitutionnel of April 19th Balzac answered this request by refusing to go to the meeting, and at the same time announced that he had no intention of canvassing, and wished to owe his election solely to votes not asked for, but given voluntarily. He further commented on the fact that from 1789 to 1848 France had changed its constitution every fifteen years, and asked if it were not time, "for the honour of our country, to find, to found, a form, an empire, a durable government; so that our prosperity, our commerce, our arts, which are the life of our commerce, the credit, the glory, in short, all the fortune of France, shall not be periodically jeopardised?"
[*] "Honore de Balzac," by Edmond Bire.
Naturally, these uncompromising views did not meet with favour from the "citoyens membres du Club de la Fraternite Universelle," and Balzac was not elected a member of the Assemblee Nationale.
1848 - 1849
Description of interior of house in the Rue Fortunee—"La Maratre" —Projected plays—"Le Faiseur"—Balzac seeks admission for the last time to the Academie Francaise—He returns to Wierzchownia —Failing health—Letters to his family—Family relations are strained.
During his stay in Paris, which lasted from February till the end of September, Balzac was careful not to admit any strangers to the mysterious little house in the Rue Fortunee. Even his trusted friends were only shown the magnificence of his residence with strict injunctions about secrecy, so afraid was he that the news of his supposed riches should reach the ears of his creditors. He was only the humble custodian, he said, of all these treasures. Nothing belonged to him; he was poorer than ever, and was only taking charge of the house for a friend. This was difficult to believe, and his acquaintances, who had always been sceptical about his debts, laughed, and said to his delight, yet annoyance, that he was in reality a millionaire, and that he kept his fortune in old stockings.
Theophile Gautier, after remarking how difficult it was to gain an entrance to this carefully-guarded abode, describes it thus: "He received us, however, one day, and we were able to see a dining-room panelled in old oak, with a table, mantelpiece, buffets, sideboards, and chairs in carved wood, which would have made a Berruguete, a Cornejo Duque, or a Verbruggen envious; a drawing-room hung with gold-coloured damask, with doors, cornices, plinths, and embrasures of ebony; a library ranged in cupboards inlaid with tortoiseshell and copper in the style of Buhl; a bathroom in yellow breccia, with bas-reliefs in stucco; a domed boudoir, the ancient paintings of which had been restored by Edmond Hedouin; and a gallery lighted from the top, which we recognised later in the collection of 'Cousin Pons.' On the shelves were all sorts of curiosities—Saxony and Sevres porcelain, sea-green horns with cracked glazing; and on the staircase which was covered with carpet, were great china vases, and a magnificent lantern suspended by a cable of red silk."[*]
[*] "Portraits Contemporains: Honore de Balzac," by Theophile Gautier.
The gallery, the holy of holies of this temple of Art, where the treasures laboriously collected and long concealed, were at last assembled, is described exactly in "Le Cousin Pons." It was a large oblong room, lighted from the top, the walls painted in white and gold, but "the white yellowed, the gold reddened by time, gave harmonious tones which did not spoil the effect of the canvases."[*]
[*] "Le Cousin Pons," by Honore de Balzac.
There were fourteen statues in this gallery mounted on Buhl pedestals, and all round the walls were richly decorated ebony buffets containing objets d'art, while in the centre stood carved wooden cases, which showed to great advantage some of the greatest rarities in human work —costly jewellery, and curiosities in ivory, bronze, wood, and enamel. Sixty-seven pictures adorned the walls of this magnificent apartment, among them the four masterpieces, the loss of which is the most tragic incident in the melancholy story of poor old Pons. There were a "Chevalier de Malte en Priere," by Sebastian del Piombo; a "Holy Family," by Fra Bartolommeo; a "Landscape," by Hobbema; and a "Portrait of a Woman," by Albert Durer. Apparently they were in reality mediocre as works of art, but they were a source of the utmost pride and delight to their owner, who said enthusiastically of one of them—the Sebastian del Piombo—that "human art can go no further." When we know that in the novel Balzac is speaking of his own cherished possessions, we think of his own words, "Ideas project themselves with the same force by which they are conceived,"[*] and can understand the reason of the positive pain we feel, when the poor old Cousin Pons is bereft of his treasures. The great voyant was transported by his powerful imagination into the personality of the old musician, and the heartrending situation he had evoked must have been torture to him; though with the courage and conscientiousness of the true artist he did not hesitate in the task he had set himself, but ever darkened and deepened the shadows of his tragedy towards the close.
[*] "Le Pere Goriot," by Honore de Balzac.
It is not surprising to hear that this sumptuous house cost 400,000 francs, but it is astonishing, and it gives the inhabitant of steady-going England an idea of the inconvenience of revolutions, that its owner and occupant should in 1848 have been starving in the midst of magnificence, and that it should have been impossible for him to find a purchaser for some small curiosity, if he had wished to sell it to buy bread. Part of the cost of the house had been defrayed by Madame Hanska, but Balzac had evidently overstepped her limits, and had involved himself seriously in debt. One of the alleged reasons given by the lady for the further deferment of her promise to become Madame Honore de Balzac, was the state of embarrassment to which Balzac had reduced himself by his expenditure in decoration; and, in his despair and disgust, the home he had been so happily proud of, and which seemed destined never to be occupied, soon became to him "that rascally plum box."
At this time, however, he was still tasting the joys of ownership, and was, as usual, hopeful about the future. His dreams of theatrical success seemed at last destined to come true.[*] Hostein, who had rushed to the Rue Fortunee as soon as he heard of the arrival of the great man, to ask for the play promised him in place of "Pierre et Catherine," found Balzac as usual at his desk, and was presented with a copy-book on which was written in large characters, "Gertrude, tragedie bourgeoise." The play was read next day in Balzac's drawing-room to Hostein, Madame Dorval, and Melingue; and Hostein accepted it under the name of "La Maratre," Madame Dorval expressing much objection to its first title. Eventually, to Madame Dorval's and Balzac's disappointment, Madame Lacressoniere, who had much influence with Hostein, was entrusted with the heroine's part; and the tragedy was produced at the Theatre-Historique on May 25th, 1848. In spite of the disturbed state of the political atmosphere, which was ruinous to the theatres, the play met with considerable success; and the critics began to realise that when once Balzac had mastered the metier of the theatre, he might become a great dramatist. About this time, Cogniard, the director of the Porte-Saint-Martin, received a letter with fifty signatures, asking for a second performance of "Vautrin." He communicated this request to Balzac, who stipulated that if "Vautrin" were again put on the stage, all caricature of Louis Philippe should be avoided by the actor who played the principal part. He added that when he wrote the play he had never intended any political allusion. However, "Vautrin" was not acted till April, 1850, when, without Balzac's knowledge, it was produced at the Gaite. Balzac, who heard of this at Dresden, on his journey to Paris from Russia, wrote to complain of the violation of his dramatic rights, and in consequence the play was withdrawn from the boards of the Gaite.
[*] "Honore de Balzac," by Edmond Bire.
During his stay in Paris in 1848, Balzac sketched out the plots of many dramas. The director of the Odeon, in despair at the emptiness of his theatre after the political crisis of June, offered Victor Hugo, Dumas, and Balzac[*] a premium of 6,000 francs, and a royalty on all receipts exceeding 4,000 francs, if they would produce a play for his theatre; and in response to this offer Balzac promised "Richard Sauvage," which he never wrote. The manager of the Theatre Francais, M. Lockroy, also made overtures to the hitherto despised dramatist; and Balzac thought of providing him with a comedy entitled "Les Petits Bourgeois," but abandoned the idea. "Is it," he wrote to Hippolyte Rolle, "the day after a battle when the bourgeoisie have so generously shed their blood for menaced civilisation; is it at the time when they are in mourning, that they should be represented on the stage?"[+]
[*] "Honore de Balzac," by Edmond Bire.
[+] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 332.
At this time, however, Balzac had in his portfolio a play quite ready to be acted—one which had several times changed its title, being called by its author successively "Mercadet," "Le Speculateur," and "Le Faiseur." It was read and accepted by the Comedie Francaise on August 17th, 1848, under the name of "Le Faiseur"; and when Balzac returned to Russia at the end of September, he asked his friend Laurent-Jan to take charge of the comedy during his absence. Evidently he heard that matters were not going very smoothly, as in December he wrote to Laurent-Jan from Wierzchownia to say that if the Comedie Francaise refused "Mercadet"—which had been "recue a l'unanimite" on August 17th—it might be offered to Frederick Lemaitre; and a few days later, hearing that the piece was "recue seulement a corrections," by the Comedie Francaise, he withdrew it altogether. "Le Faiseur" or "Mercadet" was then offered to the Theatre Historique, and Balzac already saw in imagination his sister and his two nieces attending the first night's performance, decked out in their most elegant toilettes. As he was in Russia, and his mother did not go to the theatre, they would be the sole representatives of the family; and Hostein must therefore provide them with one of the best boxes in the theatre. If there were hissings and murmurings, as Balzac expected from past experiences, his younger niece Valentine would be indignant; but Sophie would still preserve her dignity, "and you, my dear sister. . . . But what can a box do against a theatre?"
Nevertheless, though Hostein accepted "Le Faiseur," he announced that his clients preferred melodrama to comedy, and that, in order to fit it for his "theatre de boulevard," the play would require modifications which would completely change its character. Balzac naturally objected to these proposed alterations, as they sounded infinitely more sweeping than the "corrections" of the Comedie Francaise, and the play was never acted during his life. On August 23rd, 1851, however, as we have already seen, "Mercadet le Faiseur," with certain modifications made by M. Dennery, and also with omissions —for the play as Balzac originally wrote it was too long for the theatre—was received with tremendous acclamations at the Gymnase; and on October 22nd, 1868, it was acted at the Comedie Francaise, and again in 1879 and in 1890.
Mercadet, first played by Geoffroy, who conceived Balzac's creation admirably, and at the Comedie Francaise less successfully by Got, is a second Figaro, with a strong likeness to Balzac himself. He is continually on the stage, and keeps the audience uninterruptedly amused by his wit, good-humour, hearty bursts of laughter, and ceaseless expedients for baffling his creditors. The action of the play is simple and natural, and the dialogue scintillates with bon mots, gaiety, and amusing sallies. The play had been conceived and even written in 1839 or 1840, and never did Balzac's imperishable youth shine out more brilliantly than in its execution. It is curious to notice that his innate sense of power as a dramatist, which never deserted him, even when he seemed to have found his line in quite a different direction, was in the end amply justified.
His vivacity and hopefulness never forsook him for long. Even in his terrible state of health in 1849, and in spite of his disappointment at the non-appearance of "Le Faiseur," he was in buoyant spirits, and informed his sister in one of his letters, that he was sending a comedy, "Le Roi des Mendiants," to Laurent-Jan, as soon as he could manage to transport it to St. Petersburg. There, the French Ambassador would be entrusted with the charge of despatching it to Paris, as manuscripts were not allowed to travel by post.[*] About three weeks later,[+] he wrote to ask his mother to tell Madame Dorval that he was preparing another play, with a great role in it designed specially for her. However, owing to Balzac's failing health the drama never took form, and Madame Dorval died on April 20th, 1849, about three weeks after his letter was despatched.
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 393.
[+] "Correspondance," vol. ii, p. 397.
At the time of his stay in the Rue Fortunee in 1848, he was, however, satisfied about "Mercadet," which had, as we have seen, been accepted by the Comedie Francaise; and the production of which would help, he doubtless hoped, to relieve him from his monetary difficulties. Ready money was an ever-pressing necessity. Emile de Girardin, in his political activity during the Revolution of 1848, had not forgotten his personal resentments, and soon after Balzac's arrival in Paris he requested him to pay at once the 721 francs 85 centimes which he still owed La Presse.[*] This Balzac could not possibly do, and most probably he forgot all about the matter. Not so his antagonist, who on October 7th, 1848, after Balzac had returned to Russia, demanded immediate payment; and four days afterwards applied to the Tribunal of the Seine for an order that the debt should be paid from the future receipts of "Le Faiseur," which was at that time in rehearsal at the Theatre Francais. This demand was granted, but as after all the play was withdrawn, Emile de Girardin did not receive his money. However, he was paid in the end, as he wrote Balzac a receipt dated December 30th, 1848, for 757 francs 75 centimes, a sum which included legal expenses as well as the original debt.
[*] "La Genese d'un Roman de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.
There were to be two elections to the Academie Francaise in January, 1849, as M. Chateaubriand's and M. Vatout's armchairs were both vacant; and Balzac determined again to try his fortune. He wrote the required letter before his departure to Russia, and this was read at a meeting of the illustrious Forty on October 5th, 1848.[*] Apparently, Balzac's absence from France, which prevented him from paying the prescribed visits, militated against his chances of success, as his ardent supporter, M. Vacquerie, wrote in L'Evenement of January 9th, 1849: "Balzac is now in Russia. How can he be expected to pay visits? He will not become a member of the Academie because he has not been in Paris? And when posterity says, 'He wrote "Splendeurs et Miseres des Courtisanes," "Le Pere Goriot," "Les Parents Pauvres," and "Les Treize,"' the Academie will answer: 'Yes, but he went on a journey.'"