[*] "Honore de Balzac," by Edmond Bire.
At the first election, which took place on January 11, 1849, the Duc de Noailles was at the head of the list, with twenty-five papers in his favour, and Balzac received two; at the second, on January 18th, when M. de Saint-Priest was the successful candidate, two members of the Academy again voted for Balzac at the first round of the ballot, but at the third and deciding round his name was not included at all. Balzac wrote to Laurent-Jan to ask for the names of his supporters, as he wished to thank them; and about the same time, in a letter to his brother-in-law, M. Surville, he let it be understood that he would never again present himself as a candidate for admission to the Academie Francaise, as he intended to put that body in the wrong.
This is anticipation; we must return to the end of September, 1848, when Balzac, after having arranged the necessary business matters, hurried back to Madame Hanska. For the better guardianship of his treasures, he left his mother with two servants installed in the Rue Fortunee, and he expected to return to Paris by the beginning of 1849. His family did not hear from him for more than a month after his arrival, when his mother received a letter full, as usual, of directions and commissions, but giving no news of his own doings. He was evidently ill at the time he wrote, and a few days afterwards was seized with acute bronchitis, and was obliged to put off his projected return to Paris.
Balzac's health all through the winter was deplorable, and under the direction of the doctor at Wierzchownia, he went through a course of treatment for his heart and lungs. This doctor was a pupil of the famous Franck, the original of Benassis in the "Medecin de Campagne," and Balzac appears to have had complete faith in him, and to have been much impressed by his dictum, that French physicians, though the first in the world for diagnosis, were quite ignorant of curative methods. Balzac's passion at this time for everything Russian, must have been peculiarly trying to his family. It surely seemed to them madness that he should separate himself from his country, should gradually see less and less of his friends, and should show an inclination to be ashamed of his relations, for the sake of a woman crippled with rheumatism, and no longer young, who, however passionately she may have loved him in the past, seemed now to have grown tired of him. Sophie and Valentine Surville were no doubt delighted to receive magnificent silk wraps from their uncle, trimmed with Russian fur; but the letter accompanying the gift must, we think, have rather spoiled their pleasure, or at any rate was likely to have hurt their mother's feelings. It was surely hardly necessary to inform "ma pauvre Sophie" that it was in vain for her to compete with the Countess Georges in proficiency on the piano, as the latter had "the genius of music, as of love"; and a long string of that wonderful young lady's perfections must have been rather wearying to those who had not the felicity of being acquainted with her. Apparently the young Countess possessed deep knowledge without pedantry, and was of delicious naivete, laughing like a little child; though this did not prevent her from showing religious enthusiasm about beautiful things. Further, she was of angelic goodness, intensely observant, yet extremely discreet, most respectful to her adored mother, very industrious, and she lived only for duty. "All these advantages are set off by a proud air, full of good breeding, an air of ease and grandeur which is not possessed by every queen, and which is quite lost in France, where every one wishes to be equal. This outward distinction, this look of being a great lady, is one of the most precious gifts which God, the God of women, can bestow on them."[*] To paint her character aright, Balzac says, it would be necessary to blend in one word virtues which a moralist would consider it impossible to find united in a single human being; and her "sublime education" was a crown to the whole edifice of her perfections.
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 345.
The only consolation which an impartial though possibly unprincipled observer, might have offered at this point to the unfortunate Sophie and Valentine, would be the fact that the young Countess was evidently extremely plain, as even Balzac's partiality only allows him to say: "Physically she possesses grace, which is more beautiful even than beauty, and this triumphs over a complexion which is still brown (she is hardly sixteen years old), and over a nose which, though well cut, is only charming in the profile."
Let us hope, however, that our pity is after all wasted on the nieces, and that in their joy at the idea of receiving handsome presents, they either skipped the unwelcome portions of their distinguished uncle's letter, or that, knowing the cause of his raptures, if they did read, they laughed and understood.
His Polar Star is seldom mentioned by name in Balzac's letters; she is generally "the person with whom I am staying," and he says little about her, except that she is very much distressed at the amount of his debts, and that the great happiness of his life is constantly deferred. Two fires had taken place on the estate, and the Countess was in addition burdened with three lawsuits: one about some property which should have come to her from an uncle, and about which it would be necessary for her to go to St. Petersburg. Balzac's letters as usual abound in allusions to his monetary difficulties, while the Survilles had been almost ruined by the Revolution of 1848, so that the outlook for the family was black on all sides.
All this time Balzac's relations were becoming more and more discontented with his doings, as well as with the general aspect of his affairs. Honore was evidently pursuing a chimera, and because of his illusions, many burdens were imposed on them. Madame de Balzac the principal sufferer, was tired of acting as custodian at the Rue Fortunee, where she was expected to teach Francois how to clean the lamps, and received careful instructions about wrapping the gilt bronzes in cotton rags. It seemed as though her son were permanently swallowed up by that terrible Russia, about which, as he remarked impatiently, she would never understand anything; and she longed to retire to her little lodgings at Suresnes, and to do as she pleased. Laure, too, had her grievances, though possibly she kept them to herself and strove to act as peacemaker. She and her family were in terrible monetary straits, and the sight of the costly house, which seemed destined never to be occupied, must have been slightly exasperating. She was quite willing to be useful to Honore, and did not mind when troublesome commissions were entrusted to her; but it was no doubt galling to notice that—though her daughters were expected to write continually, and were supposed to be amply rewarded for their labours, by hearing of the delight with which the young Countess listened to their letters—a strong motive lurking behind Balzac's anxiety to hear often from his family, was the desire to impress Madame Hanska favourably with the idea of their affection for himself, and their unity. At the same time, a sad presentiment warned her, that if ever her brother were married to this great lady, his family and friends would see little more of him. The prospect cannot have been very cheerful to poor Laure, as either Honore would return to France brokenhearted and overwhelmed with debt, or he would gain his heart's desire, and would be lost to his family.
The tone of Balzac's letters to his relations at this time has been adversely criticised, and it is true that the reader is sometimes irritated by the frequency of his requests for service from them, and his continual insistence on the wonderful perfections of the Hanski family, and their grandeur and importance. Occasionally, too, his letters show an irritability which is a new feature in his character. We must remember, however, in judging Balzac, that he was nearly driven wild by the position in which he found himself. It was necessary that he should always be bright, good-natured, and agreeable to the party at Wierzchownia, and his letters to his family were therefore the only safety-valve for the impatience and despair, which, though he never utters a word of reproach against Madame Hanska, must sometimes have taken possession of him.
His was a terrible dilemma. Ill and suffering, so that he was not able to work to diminish his load of debt, desperately in love with a cold-hearted woman, who used these debts as a lever for postponing what on her side was certainly an undesirable marriage; and enormously proud, so that failure in his hopes would mean to him not only a broken heart, but also almost unbearable mortification; Balzac, crippled and handicapped, with his teeth set hard, his powers concentrated on one point, that of winning Madame Hanska, was at times hardly master of himself. There was indeed some excuse for his irritation, when his family wrote something tactless, or involved themselves in fresh misfortunes, just as matters perhaps seemed progressing a little less unfavourably than usual. Their letters were always read aloud at the lunch table at Wierzchownia, and often, alas! their perusal served to prove anew to Madame Hanska, the mistake she had made in contemplating an alliance with a member of a family so peculiarly unlucky and undesirable.
At last the smouldering indignation between Balzac and his relations burst into a flame. The immediate cause of ignition was a letter from Madame de Balzac, complaining that Honore had not written sufficiently often to her; and further, that he did not answer his nieces' epistles. These reproaches were received with much indignation, as Balzac remarked in his answer, which was dated February, 1849, that he had written seven times to his mother since his return to Wierzchownia in September, and that he did not like to send letters continually, because they were franked by his hosts. He goes on to say rather sadly, that it will not do for him to trespass on the hospitality offered him, because, though he has been royally and magnificently received, he has still no rights but those of a guest. On the subject of his neglect to write to his nieces, he is very angry, and cries in an outburst of irritability: "It seems strange to you that I do not write to my nieces. It is you, their grandmother, who have such ideas on family etiquette! You consider that your son, fifty years old, is obliged to write to his nieces! My nieces ought to feel very much honoured and very happy when I address a few words to them; certainly their letters are nice, and always give me pleasure."[*] A postscript to the letter contains the words: "Leave the house in the Rue Fortunee as little as possible, I beg you, because, though Francois is good and faithful, he is not very clever, and may easily do stupid things."
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 373.
Balzac followed this with another letter, which apparently impressed on his mother that to please the Wierzchownia family she must behave very well to him; and this communication naturally annoyed Madame de Balzac even more than the preceding one.
In reply, she wrote a severe reprimand to her son, in which she addressed him as "vous," and remarked that her affection in future would depend on his conduct. In fact, as Balzac wrote hotly to Laure, it was the letter of a mother scolding a small boy, and he was fifty years old! Unfortunately, too, it arrived during the dejeuner, and Balzac cried impulsively, "My mother is angry with me!" and then was forced to read the letter to the party assembled. It made a very bad impression, as it showed that either he was a bad son, or his mother an extremely difficult person to get on with. Fate had chosen an unfavourable moment for the arrival of this missive, which, later on, when her wrath had abated, Madame de Balzac announced that she had written partly in jest. Balzac had at last been allowed to write to St. Petersburg, to beg the Czar's permission for his marriage with Madame Hanska, and this had been very decidedly refused. Madame Hanska was not at this time prepared to hand over her capital to her daughter, and thus to take the only step, which would have induced her Sovereign to authorise her to leave his dominions. She therefore talked of breaking off the engagement, and of sending Balzac to Paris, to sell everything in the Rue Fortunee. She was tired of struggling; and in Russia she was rich, honoured, and comfortable, whereas she trembled to think of the troublous life which awaited her as Madame Honore de Balzac. Madame de Balzac's letter further strengthened her resolve. Apparently, in addition to evidence about family dissensions, it contained disquieting revelations about the discreditable Henri, and the necessity for supporting the Montzaigle grandchildren; and the veil with which Balzac had striven to soften the aspect of the family skeletons was violently withdrawn. He was in despair. At this juncture his mother's communication was fatal! She had done irreparable mischief!
The long letter he wrote to Madame Surville,[*] imploring her to act as peacemaker, and insisting on the benefits which his marriage would bring to the whole family, would be comical were it not for the writer's real trouble and anxiety; and the reader's knowledge that, underlying the common-sense worldly arguments—which were brought forward in the hope of inducing his family to help him by all the means in their power—was real romantic love for the woman who had now been his ideal for sixteen years.
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 378.
He put the case to Madame Surville as if it were her own, and asked what her course would be if she were rich, and Sophie an heiress with many suitors. Sophie, according to her uncle's hypothesis, was in love with a young sculptor; and her parents had permitted an engagement between the two. The sculptor, however, came to live in the same house with his fiancee, and his family wrote him letters which he showed to Madame Surville, containing damaging revelations about family matters. As a culminating indiscretion, his mother wrote to this sculptor, "who is David, or Pradier, or Ingres," a letter in which she treated him like a street boy. What would Laure do in these circumstances? Balzac asks. Would she not in disgust dismiss the sculptor, and choose a more eligible parti for Sophie? "Unsatisfactory marriages," he remarks sagely, "are easily made; but satisfactory ones require infinite precautions and scrupulous attention, or one does not get married; and I am at present most likely to remain a bachelor."[*]
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 328.
He appeals to Madame Surville's self-interest. "Reflect on the fact, my dear Laure, that not one of us can be said to have arrived at our goal, and that if, instead of being obliged to work in order to live, I were to become the husband of a most intellectual, well born and highly connected woman, with a solid though small fortune—in spite of this woman's desire to remain in her own country and to make no new relations, even family ones—I should be in a much more favourable position to be useful to you all. I know that Madame Hanska would show kindness to and feel keen interest in your dear little ones."
Surely, he says, it will be an advantage to the whole family, when he has a salon presided over by a beautiful, clever woman, imposing as a queen, where he can assemble the elite of Parisian society. He does not wish to be tyrannical or overbearing with his family, but he informs them that it will be of no use to place themselves in opposition to such a woman. He warns them that she and her children will never forgive those who blame him to them. Further on in his lengthy epistle, he gives instructions in deportment, and tells his relations that in their intercourse with Madame Hanska they must not show servility, haughtiness, sensitiveness, or obsequiousness; but must be natural, simple, and affectionate. It was no wonder that the Balzac family disliked Madame Hanska! And the poor woman cannot be considered responsible for the feeling evoked!
Towards the end of his letter, however, the reader forgives Balzac, and realises that the cry of a desperate man, ill and suffering, yet still clinging with determined strength to the hope which means everything to him, must not be criticised minutely. "Once everything is lost, I shall live no longer; I shall content myself with a garret like that of the Rue Lesdiguieres, and shall only spend a hundred francs a month. My heart, soul, and ambition will be satisfied with nothing but the object I have pursued for sixteen years: if this immense happiness escapes me, I shall no longer want anything, and shall refuse everything!"
1849 - 1850
Peace renewed between Balzac and his family—He thinks of old friends—Madame Hanska's continued vacillations—Dr. Knothe's treatment—Madame Hanska's relations with Balzac, and her ignorance about his illness—Visit to Kiev—Balzac's marriage —His letters to his mother, sister, and to Madame Carraud —Delay in starting for France—Terrible journey—Madame Honore de Balzac's pearl necklace and strange letter—Balzac's married life—Arrival of the newly-married couple in Paris.
The quarrel between Balzac and his family was quickly made up, and it was settled that his mother should—if she wished to do so—return at once to Suresnes; and come up every day to the Rue Fortunee, taking carriages for this purpose at Balzac's expense. However, having made a small commotion, and asserted her dignity by the announcement that she felt perfectly free to leave the Rue Fortunee whenever she chose to do so, Madame de Balzac's resentment was satisfied; and she remained there till a month before Balzac's return in May, 1850, when illness necessitated her removal to her daughter's house.[*] The nieces, of whom Balzac was really extremely fond, "sulked" no longer, but wrote letters which their uncle praised highly, and which he answered gaily and amusingly. The shadowy cloud, too, which had prevented the brother and sister from seeing each other clearly, dispersed for ever; and one of Honore's letters to Laure about this time contains the loving words, "As far as you are concerned, every day is your festival in my heart, companion of my childhood, and of my bright as well as of my gloomy days."[+]
[*] "Une Page perdue de Honore de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.
[+] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 420.
It is curious to notice that Balzac's thoughts now turned to those faithful friends of his youth, who had in late years passed rather into the background of his life. He wrote a long letter to Madame Delannoy, who had been a mother to him in the struggling days of his half-starved youth. He had paid off the debt he owed her, but he said he would never be able to thank her adequately for her tenderness and goodness to him. He thought also of Dablin, his early benefactor; and he remembered the old days at Frapesle, and wrote Madame Carraud a most affectionate letter, sending messages of remembrance to Borget and to the Commandant Carraud, and inquiring about his old acquaintance Periollas. The Carrauds, like others in those revolutionary days, had lost money; and Balzac explained that though owing to his illness he had been forbidden to write, he felt obliged to disobey his doctor's commands, that Madame Carraud should not believe that true friends can ever fail each other in trouble. He says: "I have never ceased thinking about you, loving you, talking of you, even here, where they have known Borget since 1833. . . . How different life is from the height of fifty years, and how far we are often from our hopes! . . . How many objects, how many illusions have been thrown overboard! and except for the affection which continues to grow, I have advanced in nothing!"[*]
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 422.
The annals of this last year of Balzac's life, are a record of constantly disappointed hope and of physical suffering. One after another he was forced to give up his many plans, and to remain in suffering inaction. He had intended to go to Kiev to present himself to the Governor-General, but this expedition was put off from month to month owing to his ill health. A visit to Moscow on his way back to Paris, was another project which had to be abandoned, as he was never well enough to make his proposed visit to France till he took his last painful and difficult journey in April, 1850, and sight-seeing was then impossible. His hopefulness, however, never left him, and his projected enterprises, whether they took the shape of writings or of travels, were in his eyes only deferred, never definitely relinquished. The wearing uncertainty about Madame Hanska's intentions was the one condition of his life which continued always, if continuance can be considered applicable to anything so variable as that lady's moods. In April, 1849, Balzac wrote to his sister: "No one knows what the year 1847, and February, 1848, and above all the doubt as to what my fate will be, have cost me!"[*]
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 392.
Sometimes, Madame Hanska, cruelly regardless of the agony she caused the sick man by her heedless words, would threaten to break off the engagement altogether. On other occasions, Balzac would write to his family to say that, for reasons which he was unable to give in his letters, the question of the marriage was postponed indefinitely; and once he made the resolution that he would not leave Wierzchownia till the affair was settled in one way or another. In a crisis of his terrible malady he wrote: "Whatever happens, I shall come back in August. One must die at one's post. . . . How can I offer a life as broken as mine! I must make my situation clear to the incomparable friend who for sixteen years has shone on my life like a beneficent star."[*]
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 401.
The relations between Balzac and Madame Hanska at this time are mysterious. He shows his usual caution in his letters to his family, and the reader is conscious that much was passing at Wierzchownia, on which Balzac is absolutely silent, and that many events that he does record are carefully arranged with the intention of conveying certain impressions to his hearers. One of his motives is clear. He was nervously afraid that gossip about his secret engagement, and possibly approaching marriage, should be spread abroad prematurely; and that the report might either frighten Madame Hanska into dismissing him altogether, or might reach the ears of her relations, and cause them to remonstrate with her anew on the folly of her proceedings.
Other discrepancies are puzzling. All through 1849 Balzac, as we have seen, was very ill. He was suffering from aneurism of the heart, a complaint which the two doctors Knothe told him they could cure. With perfect faith in their powers, Balzac wrote to his sister expressing regret that, owing to the ignorance of the French doctors Soulie had been allowed to die of this malady, when he might have been saved if Dr. Knothe's treatment had been followed. The younger doctor, however, soon gave up Balzac's case as hopeless; but the father, who was very intimate with the Wierzchownia family, always expressed himself confidently about his patient's ultimate recovery; and Balzac wrote: "What gratitude I owe to this doctor! He loves violins: when once I am at Paris I must find a Stradivarius to present to him."[*]
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 404.
Dr. Knothe's principal prescription was pure lemon juice. This was to be taken twice a day, to purify and quicken the circulation of the blood in the veins, and to re-establish the equilibrium between it and the arterial blood. Either as a consequence of this treatment, or in the natural course of the illness, a terrible crisis took place in June, 1849, during which Balzac's sufferings were intense; and for twenty-five hours the doctor never left him. After this he was better for a time, and though his eyesight had become so weak that he was unable to read at night, he could walk, go upstairs, and lie flat in bed. In October he was seized with what he called Moldavian fever, a disease which came, he said, from the swamps of the Danube, and ravaged the Odessa district and the steppes; and again he became dangerously ill. In January, 1850, the fever was followed by a terrible cold in his lungs, and he was obliged to remain for ten days in bed. However, he was cheered by the society of Madame Hanska and Madame Georges Mniszech, who showed "adorable goodness" in keeping him company during his imprisonment.
After hearing all this, it is startling to read in a letter from Madame Honore de Balzac to her daughter written from Frankfort on May 16th, 1850,[*] that it is awkward that she should know nothing of the regimen to which Balzac has been subjected by Dr. Knothe; because when they arrive in Paris, his own doctor is certain to ask for particulars! The most indifferent hostess could not fail, one would think, to interest herself sufficiently about the welfare of the solitary and expatriated guest under her roof, to consult with the doctor about him when he was dangerously ill. More especially would she feel responsibility, when it was owing to her own action that the patient was cut off from all other advice, except that of a medical man who was her peculiar protege. He would thus be completely in her charge; and she would naturally be nervously anxious, for her own comfort and satisfaction, to acquaint herself with the course of the malady, and with the treatment used to subdue it. If we add to these considerations the fact that the sufferer was not a mere acquaintance, was not even only a great friend; but was the man who loved her, the man whose wife she had promised to become, Madame Hanska's ignorance appears totally inexplicable.
[*] Unpublished letter in the possession of the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.
We must remember, however, that we only have Balzac's account of his illness, and of his interviews with the doctor; and that the malady being heart disease, it is possible that Dr. Knothe considered it his duty to deceive his patient—possible therefore that Madame Hanska knew before her marriage that Balzac was a dying man, and that the doctor's prescriptions were useless.
Owing to the burning of her letters, we have only Balzac's enthusiastic and lover-like descriptions to guide our idea of Madame Hanska; and she remains to some extent a shadowy figure, difficult to realise. Several characteristics, however, stand out clearly: among them her power of hiding her thoughts and feelings from those to whom she was most deeply attached; also an occasional self-control, which seems strangely at variance with her naturally passionate and uncontrolled nature. She was extremely proud; and the wish, while pleasing herself, to do nothing which would lower her in the eyes of the world, exercised a powerful influence over her actions. Intellectually brilliant, a clever woman of business, and mentally active; she was yet on some occasions curiously inert, and carried the state of mind embodied in the words "live and let live," to dangerous lengths. She must have possessed great determination, as even Balzac's adoration, and his undoubted powers of fascination, could not move her from the vacillations which, designedly or no, kept him enchained at her feet while she remained free.
Among much however, in her character that we cannot admire, she possessed one virtue in perfection—that of maternal love. The bond of affection between the mother and her daughter Anna was strong and enduring, and Madame Hanska would willingly have sacrificed everything for her beloved child's happiness. This was the true, engrossing love of her life; her affection for Balzac not having remained in its first freshness, as his love for her had done. On the contrary, it was at this time slightly withered, and had been partially stifled by prudential considerations, so that it was difficult to discover among the varied and tangled growths which surrounded it.
It is an interesting problem whether Balzac, in spite of his brave words, realised that Madame Hanska no longer cared for him. When he wrote that he was sure that none of these deferments proceeded from want of love, did he pen these words with a wistful attempt to prove to himself that the fact was as he stated? After eighteen months in the same house with Madame Hanska, could he really believe that only material difficulties kept her apart from him? Or did he at last understand: and though stricken to death, cling still, for the sake of his pride and his lost illusions, to what had been for so long his one object in life? We do not know.
The only thing of which we are certain is, that if the fact of Madame Hanska's indifference had slowly and painfully dawned upon Balzac, he would never have told, and would have used words to hide his knowledge.
On the other hand, there is sometimes a ring of truth about his words, which seem to prove that he had not yet tasted the full bitterness of the tragedy of his life. On November 29th, 1849, he wrote to Madame Surville[*]: "It is the recompense of your life to possess two such children; you must not be unjust to fate; you ought to be willing to accept many misfortunes. The case is the same with me and Madame Hanska. The gift of her affection accounts to me for all my troubles, my worries, and my terrible labours. I have been paying in advance for the price of this treasure: as Napoleon says, everything is paid for here, nothing is stolen. I seem, indeed, to have paid very little. Twenty-five years of work and struggle are nothing compared to a love so splendid, so radiant, so complete. I have been fourteen months in a desert, for it is a desert; and it seems to me that they have passed like a dream, without an hour's weariness, without a single dispute; and that after five years to travel together, and sixteen years of intimate acquaintance, our only troubles have been caused by the state of our health and by business matters."
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 426.
When he wrote these words, Balzac must have at last felt tolerably confident about a happy solution to his troubles. However, in a later letter to his mother, he says that the Wierzchownia party are going to Kiev for the great Fair, that he will avail himself of this occasion for the renewal of his passport, and that he will not know till he arrives there, whether the great event will at last take place. In any case, he will start for France directly after the party return to Wierzchownia in the beginning of February; and as caution is still highly important, his mother must judge from his directions about the Rue Fortunee, whether he is coming back alone, or is bringing his bride with him. She is, in any case, not to be sparing about fires in the library and the picture gallery; and can write to him at Berlin, and at Frankfort, on his way home.
The great Fair at Kiev, which was called the "Foire des Contrats," was a notable occasion for gaiety; and extensive preparations were made beforehand for the enjoyment of a thoroughly festive time. A house was hired by Madame Hanska and the Mniszechs, and furniture, carriages, and servants, were despatched in advance. The weather, however, was an important consideration; and on this occasion, owing to the inclemency of the season, the roads were unfortunately impassable, so that the pleasure trip had to be deferred from the middle till the end of February. This was no doubt a sad disappointment to the Countess Anna, who thereby missed much enjoyment, and the delay must have caused intense irritation to the impatient Balzac, but Madame Hanska's feelings on the subject remain, as usual, enigmatical.
When the Wierzchownia party at last arrived at Kiev, Madame Georges Mniszech found plenty of gaiety awaiting her, and enjoyed herself immensely, going out to balls in costumes of regal magnificence. Her partners were often very rough, and on one occasion Balzac relates that a handkerchief belonging to the young Countess, which had cost more than 500 francs, was torn to pieces in a figure of the mazurka, in which men contend for the dancer's handkerchief. However, "La mere adorable" at once repaired the deficiency in her daughter's trousseau by presenting her with one of the best of her own, "twice as nice, with only linen enough to blow one's nose on, all the rest being English point lace."
Balzac was unable to be present at any of these festivities, as the journey to Kiev had caused him acute suffering; and two days after his arrival, while he was paying his State visits to the authorities,[*] he caught the most violent cold he had ever had, and spent the time of his stay at Kiev in his bedroom, where his only pleasure was to see the Countess Anna before she started for her parties, and to admire her beautiful clothes. He ascribes his malady to "a terrible and deleterious blast of wind called the 'chasse-neige,' which travels by the course of the Dnieper, and perhaps comes from the shores of the Black Sea," and which managed to penetrate to him, though he was wrapped up with furs so that no spot seemed left for the outside air to reach. He was now very ill, and the slightest agitation, even a sentence spoken rather loudly in his presence, would bring on a terrible fit of suffocation. He still hoped to return to Paris before long, and clung to the idea that his wife would accompany him; but he said it would be impossible to travel without a servant, as he was unable to carry a parcel or to move quickly. As he remarks, "Tout cela n'est pas gai!"
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 436.
However, his expedition and its attendant suffering were not useless,[*] as the "four or five successive illnesses and the sufferings from the climate, which I have laughed at for her sake, have touched that noble soul; so that she is, as a sensible woman, more influenced by them, than afraid of the few little debts which remain to be paid, and I see that everything will go well." On March 11th, 1850, he writes from Berditchef that "everything is now arranged for the affair his mother knows of," but that the greatest discretion is still necessary. Madame de Balzac is given minute directions about the flowers which are to decorate the house in the Rue Fortunee, as a surprise to Madame Honore; and as we read, we can imagine Balzac's pride and delight when he wrote the name. His ailments and sufferings are forgotten, and the letter sounds as though written by an enthusiastic boy. He will send from Frankfort to let Madame de Balzac know the exact day that he and his bride will reach Paris; and in order that the mystery may be preserved, will merely say, "Do not forget on such a day to have the garden arranged,"[+] and his mother will understand what he means. The whole house is evidently photographed in his mind like the houses in his novels. He knows the exact position of each vase: of the big jardiniere in the first room, the one in the Japanese drawing-room, the two in the domed boudoir, and the two tiny ones in the grey apartment. They are all to be filled with flowers; but the marquetry jardiniere in the green drawing-room, evidently the future Madame Honore's special abode, is to be filled with "belles, belles fleurs!"
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 438.
[+] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 444.
The wedding took place at seven o'clock on the morning of March 14th, 1850, at the church of Saint Barbe at Berditchef. In the unavoidable absence of the Bishop of Jitomir, the ceremony was performed by the Abbe Comte Czarouski, whom Balzac calls a holy and virtuous priest, and likens to Abbe Hinaux, the Duchesse d'Angouleme's confessor.
The Countess Anna accompanied her mother, and was in the highest spirits; and the witnesses were the Comte Georges Mniszech, the Comte Gustave Olizar brother-in-law to the Abbe Comte Czarouski, and the cure of the parish of Berditchef. Madame Honore de Balzac had given her capital to her children, but received in exchange a large income, a fact which she wisely concealed because of Balzac's creditors; and Balzac speaks with admiration of her noble generosity and disinterestedness, in this denuding herself of her fortune.
The newly-married couple travelled back to Wierzchownia, arriving, quite tired out, at half-past ten at night; and the next morning, as soon as he woke, Balzac wrote to inform his mother of the great event. He explained, with a well-adjusted prevision of future discord, if the elder Madame de Balzac's dignity were not sufficiently considered, that his wife had intended writing herself to offer her respects, but that her hands were so swollen with rheumatic gout that she could not hold a pen. He further informed his family, who had hitherto been kept in ignorance of the fact, that from the same cause she was often unable to walk. However, this did not depress him, as he remarked with his usual cheerfulness, that she would certainly be cured in Paris, where she would be able to take exercise and would follow a prescribed treatment. On the same day he penned a delighted letter to his sister, containing the exultant words: "For twenty-four hours, therefore, there has now existed a Madame Eve de Balzac, nee Rzewuska, or a Madame Honore de Balzac, or a Madame de Balzac the younger." He could hardly believe in his own good fortune, and the joyful letter finishes with the words, "Ton frere Honore, au comble du bonheur!"
Two days later, Balzac wrote to Madame Carraud a letter in which he said: "Three days ago I married the only woman I have ever loved, whom I love more than ever, and whom I shall love till death. This union is, I think, the recompense which God has had in reserve for me after so much adversity, so many years of work, so much gone through and overcome. I did not have a happy youth or happy springtide; I shall have the most brilliant of summers and the sweetest of autumns." In his newly-found happiness he did not forget that his old friend was now in straitened circumstances, but begged her from himself and Madame Honore to consider their house as her own: "Therefore, whenever you wish to come to Paris you will come to us, without even giving us notice. You will come to us in the Rue Fortunee as if to your own home, just as I used to go to Frapesle. This is my right. I must remind you of what you said to me one day at Angouleme, when, having broken down after writing 'Louis Lambert,' I was afraid of madness, and talked of the way in which people afflicted in this manner were neglected. On that occasion you said, 'If you were to become mad I should take care of you!' I have never forgotten those words, or your look and expression. I am just the same now as I was in July, 1832. It is because of those words that I claim you to-day, for I am nearly mad with happiness."[*]
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 448.
In another part of the letter he tells her: "Ah! I never forget your maternal love, your divine sympathy with suffering. Therefore, thinking of all you are worth, and of the way in which you are struggling with trouble, I, who have so often waged war with that rough adversary, tell you that, knowing your unhappiness, I am ashamed of my happiness; but we are both too great for these littlenesses. We can say to each other that happiness and unhappiness are only conditions in which great hearts live intensely, that as much strength of mind is required in one position as in the other, and that misfortune with true friends is perhaps more endurable than happiness surrounded by envy."
Balzac was not, after all, destined to start on his journey homeward as quickly as he had intended. His health was terribly bad, his eyes had become so weak that he could neither read nor write, and the chronic heart and lung malady was gaining ground so rapidly, that his breathing was affected if he made the slightest movement. It was absolutely necessary that he should rest for a time at Wierzchownia before attempting any further exertion. Another delay was caused by the young Countess being attacked by measles. Her devoted mother, who in her crippled state could not attempt any active nursing, sat by her daughter's bedside all day, and refused to leave Wierzchownia till her anxiety about her darling's health should be over.
It was, therefore, not till the end of April that M. and Madame Honore de Balzac started for what proved to be a terrible journey. They did not arrive in Dresden till about May 10th, having taken three weeks to go to a distance which ought naturally to have been accomplished in five or six days. The roads were in a fearful condition, and their lives were in danger not once, but a hundred times a day. Sometimes fifteen or sixteen men were required to hoist the carriage out of the mud-holes into which it had fallen. It is a wonder that Balzac survived the torture of the journey, and it must have been very trying to the rheumatic Madame Honore. When at last they arrived at Dresden they were both utterly exhausted, while Balzac was extremely ill, and felt ten years older than when he started. His sight was so bad that he could not see the letters that he was tracing on the paper, and was obliged to apologise to his correspondents for his extraordinary hieroglyphics, while he told Madame Surville that the swollen condition of his wife's hands still rendered it impossible for her to write.
However, Madame Honore was well enough to amuse herself by visits to the jewellers' shops, where she bought a magnificent pearl necklace, a purchase of which Balzac evidently approved, as he remarked that it was so beautiful that it would make a saint mad! On his part, he was greeted on his arrival by a new vexation; as letters from Paris told him of "Vautrin" being put on the stage without his permission, and, as we have seen, he wrote with much indignation, to put a stop to this infringement of his rights.
An interesting letter already referred to, which is now in the possession of the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, is dated from Frankfort, the travellers' next stopping-place. It is written to the Countess Anna, and was begun by Balzac, and finished by his wife. About Balzac's part of the letter there is not much to remark, except that he was evidently very fond of his step-daughter, that he told her how ill he was, and that the handwriting is the scrawl of a man who could not see. His high spirits indeed have disappeared, but this change of tone is easily accounted for by the state of his health. It is Madame Honore's part of the letter which strikes the reader as curiously inadequate. It is dated May 16th, only five days after Balzac's letter from Dresden informing his family of his wife's inability to hold a pen, and is perfectly written; so that her rheumatic gout must have abated suddenly. She begins her letter by commenting placidly on the sadness of seeing the sufferings of our "poor dear friend," says she tries in vain to cheer him, and contrasts regretfully the difference between her feelings during this journey, and her happiness when she last visited the same places, with her darling child at her side. The principal subject in her present rather wearying life, is the wonderful pearl necklace, which she takes out of its case conscientiously every day, that the air may preserve the whiteness of the pearls. She states, indeed, that she does not care much about it, and has only bought it to please her husband; but it seems to have pressed the unfortunate husband rather into the background, and to have become the chief centre of its owner's thoughts and solicitude.
The chilling unsatisfactory impression the letter leaves on the reader, however, is not conveyed so much by what is said by Balzac's newly-married wife, as by what she leaves unsaid. It must be remembered that the Countess Eve possessed the power of expressing herself with the utmost warmth, and with even exaggerated emphasis, when she saw fit occasion for the display of feeling. We must also keep the fact in mind, that in writing to the daughter who was her intimate friend, she would naturally give some indications of her real self; and though it might be impossible for one of her curiously secretive temperament to lift the veil altogether, and to open her heart without reserve, she would be likely in some way to enable the reader to realise her mental attitude. Therefore it is disconcerting and disquieting to discover that the one noticeable characteristic of the letter, is utter want of feeling. No anxiety is expressed about the growing illness of the sick man, not a word tells of fears so terrible that she hardly dares breathe them, about the ultimate result of his malady; on the contrary, everything is taken as a matter of course, and as though the writer had expected it beforehand. There is not even a recognition of Balzac as her husband; he is merely "our poor dear friend," a person for whom she feels vague pity, and in whom Anna's degree of interest is likely to be the same as her own.
Balzac was only married for about five months, and very little is known of his life during that time. It is certain, however, that his marriage did not bring him the happiness which he had expected, and Madame Hanska's letter from Frankfort helps to explain the reason of the tragedy. Perhaps he had raised his hopes too high for fulfilment to be a possibility in this world of compromise, and very likely his sufferings had made him irritable and exacting. Nevertheless, so quick a wearing out of the faithful and passionate love which had lasted for sixteen years, and so sudden a killing of the joy which had permeated the man's whole being when he had at last attained his goal, seems a hard task for a woman to accomplish; and can only be explained by her employment of the formless yet resistless force of pure indifference.
Balzac's awakening, the knowledge that the absolute perfection he had dreamed of was only an ideal created by his own fancy, must have been inexpressibly bitter. Utter moral collapse and vertigo were his portion, and chaos thundered in his ears, during his sudden descent from the heights clothed with brilliant sunshine, to the puzzling depths, where he groped in darkness and sought in vain for firm footing. "Our poor dear friend" seems, for the moment, to have merited even more sympathy than the measure accorded to him by his wife, in her intervals of leisure after caring for her pearl necklace.
Balzac's mother had, as we have already seen, taken up her abode with Madame Surville, long before the often-deferred appearance in Paris of her son and daughter-in-law; but Honore had given directions, that at any rate she was to leave the Rue Fortunee before he and his bride arrived. It would, he said, compromise her dignity to help with the unpacking, and Madame Honore should visit her mother-in-law next day to pay her respects. Balzac was anxious that the first meeting should take place at Laure's house rather than at Madame de Balzac's lodging at Suresnes, as it was now impossible for him to mount any steps, and there were fewer stairs at No. 47, Rue des Martyrs than at his mother's abode.[*] His health, he wrote, was so deplorable that he would not remain for long in Paris, but would go with his wife to Biarritz to take the waters.
[*] "Correspondance," vol. ii. p. 456.
The travellers did not after all arrive in Paris till near the end of May. This is proved by a letter from Madame de Balzac[*] to a friend, written on the 20th of that month, in which she says that they are now expected every day, but that their progress is a slow one, owing to her son's illness and the heavy condition of the roads. She adds that she has now been in bed for three months, so Laure must evidently have acted as her deputy, in the task of superintending Francois' preparations in the Rue Fortunee. No doubt Francois worked strenuously, as he, like all Balzac's servants, was devoted to his master, though on this occasion he unwittingly provided him with a ghastly home-coming.
[*] "Une Page perdue de Honore de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.
The travellers did not arrive at the Rue Fortunee till late at night.[*] The house was brilliantly lit, and through the windows they could see the flowers with which the rooms were decorated; but in vain they rang at the courtyard gate—no one appeared to let them in. It was a miserable arrival, and utterly inexplicable, as Balzac had planned the arrangements most carefully beforehand, going minutely into commissariat details, that his bride might find everything absolutely comfortable on her arrival in her new home. It was impossible to force an entrance, so M. and Madame Honore de Balzac, utterly worn out by the fatigues of the journey, and longing for rest, were obliged to sit in the carriage and spend the time in agitation and vain conjecture, while a messenger was despatched for a locksmith. When the door was at last opened, a terrible solution to the problem presented itself. The excitement and strain of the preparations, and of the hourly expectation of the travellers, had completely upset the mental balance of the unfortunate Francois, and he had gone suddenly mad! It was a sinister omen, a wretched commencement to Balzac's home life; and he, always superstitious, was no doubt doubly so in his invalided and suffering condition. Francois Munch was sent to a lunatic asylum, where he was cared for at his master's expense.
[*] "Un Roman d'Amour," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.
1850 AND AFTER
Balzac's ill-health—Theophile Gautier and Victor Hugo—Balzac's grief about the unfinished "Comedie Humaine"—His interview with the doctor—Victor Hugo's account of his death-bed—Balzac's death and funeral—Life afterwards in the Rue Fortunee—Reckless extravagance—House rifled at Madame de Balzac's death—Fate of Balzac's MSS.—His merits as a writer.
When Balzac's friends came to visit him in the Rue Fortunee, they were much shocked by the change in his appearance. His breathing was short, his speech jerky, and his sight so bad that he was unable to distinguish objects clearly. Nevertheless, as Gautier says,[*] every one felt such intense confidence in his wonderful constitution that it seemed impossible to think of a probably fatal result to his malady. Balzac himself, optimistic as ever, clung persistently to his hope of speedy recovery. His fame was now at its zenith, the series entitled "Les Parents Pauvres" had awakened the utmost enthusiasm; and the elite of the Parisian world were eager to flock to the Rue Fortunee to stare at the curiosities collected there, and to make the acquaintance of Balzac's rich and distinguished Russian wife.
[*] "Portraits Contemporains: Honore de Balzac," by Theophile Gautier.
However, in his native country, Balzac was destined never to receive a full guerdon of adulation and admiration; for though he was visited by a few friends, the doctors insisted on keeping him otherwise in the strictest retirement.
Theophile Gautier relates that he went to the Rue Fortunee to say good-bye to his friend before starting for Italy, and, though disappointed not to see him, was relieved about his health when told that he was out driving. However, a little later, a letter was brought to Gautier which had been dictated by Balzac to his wife, in which he explained that he had only gone to the Customhouse to get out some luggage, and had done this against the express orders of his doctors. However, he spoke cheerfully of his health, saying that he was feeling better, and that the next day the doctors intended to attack the chronic malady from which he was suffering. For two months at least he expected to be kept like a mummy, and not to be allowed to speak or to move; but there were great hopes of his ultimate recovery. If Gautier came again, he hoped for a letter beforehand naming the day and hour, that he might certainly be at home; as in the solitude to which he was doomed by the doctors, his friend's affection seemed to him more precious than ever. All this was written in Madame de Balzac's handwriting, and under it Balzac had scrawled: "I can neither read nor write!"[*] Gautier left for Italy soon after this, and he never saw his friend again. He read the news of Balzac's death in a newspaper when he was at Venice, taking an ice at the Cafe Florian, in the Piazza of St. Mark; and so terrible was the shock, that he nearly fell from his seat. He tells us that he felt for the moment unchristian indignation and revolt, when he thought of the octogenarian idiots he had seen that morning at the asylum on the island of San Servolo, and then of Balzac cut off in his prime; but he checked himself, for he remembered that all souls are equal in the sight of God.
[*] "Portraits Contemporains: Honore de Balzac," by Theophile Gautier.
Victor Hugo also visited the invalid, and says that even a month before his death he was perfectly confident about his recovery, and was gay and full of laughter, discussing politics, stating his own legitimist views with decision, and accusing his visitor of being a demagogue. He said: "I have M. de Beaujon's house without the garden, but I am owner of the gallery leading to the little church at the corner of the street. A door on my staircase leads into the church. One turn of the key, and I am at Mass. I care more for the gallery than for the garden."[*]
[*] "Choses Vues," by Victor Hugo.
When Victor Hugo got up to go, Balzac accompanied him with difficulty to this staircase, to point out the precious door; and called to his wife, "Mind you show Hugo all my pictures." Though Balzac does not appear to have been very intimate with the great romantic poet in former years, he seems to have found special pleasure in his society at this time. Hugo was at the seaside when Balzac next sent for him. He hurried back,[*] however, at the urgent summons, and found the dying man stretched on a sofa covered with red and gold brocade. Balzac tried to rise, but could not; his face was purple, and his eyes alone had life in them. Now that happiness in his married life had failed him, his mind had reverted to the yet unfinished "Comedie Humaine"; and he talked long and sadly of projected herculean labours, and of the fate of his still unpublished works. "Although my wife has more brains than I, who will support her in her solitude, she whom I have accustomed to so much love?" "Certainly," Victor Hugo remarks drily, "she was crying a great deal."
[*] See letter written by Madame Hamelin to the Countess Kisselef quoted in "Histoire des Oeuvres de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, p. 406.
Nevertheless, though Balzac did at last realise his dangerous state, he had no idea that his end was approaching so near, and he still hoped to be able to add a few more stones to the edifice of the "Comedie Humaine," that great work, which was now again the principal object of his life, the one bright vision in a world of disappointment. In August, however, an agonising suspicion began for the first time to visit him momentarily, a terrible fear to assail him. What if there were not time after all? What if the creations which floated through his mind while he lay suffering and helpless, were never destined to be put into shape? What if his opportunity for work on earth were really over? It was a horrible idea; a fancy, he told himself, born only of weakness. Destiny must intend him to finish his appointed task. Robbed of everything else he had longed for, that one consolation surely remained. He would ask the doctor, would be content with no vague and soothing generalities, but would insist on knowing the exact truth. It could not—ah, it could not be as black as the nightmares of his imagination!
He approached the subject cautiously on the doctor's next visit.[*] Perhaps, he said, he had after all never realised sufficiently the acuteness of his malady. He certainly felt terribly ill, and knew that he was losing ground; while, in spite of all his efforts, he was unable to eat anything. His duty required that he should bequeath a certain legacy to the public, and he had calculated carefully, and had discovered that he would be able in six months to accomplish his task. Could the doctor promise him that length of time? There was no answer to this searching question, but a shake of the head from the pitying doctor. "Ah," cried Balzac sorrowfully, "I see quite well that you will not allow me six months. . . . Well, at any rate, you will at least give me six weeks? . . . Six weeks with fever is an eternity. Hours are like days . . . and then the nights are not lost." Again the doctor shook his head, and Balzac once more lowered his claims for a vestige of life. "I have courage to submit," he said proudly; "but six days . . . you will certainly give me that? I shall then be able to write down hasty plans that my friends may be able to finish, shall tear up bad pages and improve good ones, and shall glance rapidly through the fifty volumes I have already written. Human will can do miracles." Balzac pleaded pathetically, almost as though he thought his interlocutor could grant the boon of longer life if he willed to do so. He had aged ten years since the beginning of the interview, and he had now no voice left to speak, and the doctor hardly any voice for answering. The latter managed, however, to tell his patient that everything must be done to-day, because in all probability to-morrow would not exist for him; and Balzac cried with horror, "I have then only six hours!" fell back on his pillows, and spoke no more.
[*] The following account of Balzac's interview with his doctor is taken from an article written by Arsene Houssaye in the Figaro of August 20th, 1883. It is right to add that the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, the great authority on Balzac, throws grave doubts on the accuracy of the story.
He died the next day, and Victor Hugo gives us one more glimpse of him.[*] The poet was told by his wife, who had visited Madame de Balzac during the day, that Balzac's last hour had come; and directly after dinner he took a cab and drove rapidly to the Rue Fortunee. "I rang. It was moonlight, occasionally veiled by clouds. The street was deserted. No one came. I rang a second time. The door was opened. A servant appeared with a candle. 'What does Monsieur want?' she said. She was crying.
[*] "Choses Vues, 1850: Mort de Balzac," by Victor Hugo.
"I gave my name. I was shown into the room on the ground floor. On a pedestal opposite the fireplace was the colossal bust of Balzac by David. In the middle of the salon, on a handsome oval table, which had for legs six gilded statuettes of great beauty, a wax candle was burning. Another woman came in crying, and said: 'He is dying. Madame has gone to her own rooms. The doctors gave him up yesterday.' After going into medical details, the woman continued: 'The night was bad. This morning at nine o'clock Monsieur spoke no more. Madame sent for a priest. The priest came, and administered extreme unction. Monsieur made a sign to show that he understood. An hour afterwards he pressed the hand of his sister, Madame Surville. Since eleven o'clock the death rattle has been in his throat, and he can see nothing. He will not last out the night. If you wish it, Monsieur, I will call M. Surville, who has not yet gone to bed.'
"The woman left me. I waited several minutes. The candle hardly lighted up the splendid furniture of the salon, and the magnificent paintings by Porbus and Holbein which were hanging on the walls. The marble bust showed faintly in the obscurity, like the spectre of a dying man. A corpse-like odour filled the house.
"M. Surville came in, and confirmed all that the servant had told me. I asked to see M. de Balzac.
"We crossed a corridor, went up a staircase covered with a red carpet and crowded with artistic objects—vases, statues, pictures, and stands with enamels on them. Then we came to another passage, and I saw an open door. I heard the sound of difficult, rattling breathing. I entered Balzac's room.
"The bedstead was in the centre of the room. It was of mahogany, and across the foot and at the head were beams provided with straps for moving the sick man. M. de Balzac was in this bed, his head resting on a heap of pillows, to which the red damask sofa cushions had been added. His face was purple, almost black, and was inclined to the right. He was unshaved, his grey hair was cut short, and his eyes open and fixed. I saw his profile, and it was like that of the Emperor Napoleon.
"An old woman, the nurse, and a servant, stood beside the bed. A candle was burning on a table behind the head of the bed, another on a chest of drawers near the door. A silver vase was on the stand near the bed. The women and man were silent with a kind of terror, as they listened to the rattling breathing of the dying man.
"The candle at the head of the bed lit up brilliantly the portrait of a young man, fresh-coloured and smiling, which was hanging near the fireplace. . . .
"I lifted the coverlet and took Balzac's hand. It was covered with perspiration. I pressed it. He did not respond to the pressure. . . .
"I went downstairs again, carrying in my mind the memory of that livid face, and, crossing the drawing-room, I looked again at the bust —immovable, impassive, proud, and smiling faintly, and I compared death with immortality."
Balzac died that night, Sunday, August 17th, 1850, at half-past eleven, at the age of fifty-one.
The dying man's almost complete isolation is strange, and the servant's news that M. Surville had not yet gone to bed has a callous ring about it. Perhaps, however, the doctors had told Madame de Balzac and Madame Surville that Balzac was unconscious, and they had therefore withdrawn, utterly exhausted by the fatigues of the night before. In any case, it seems sad, though possibly of no moment to the dying man, that several of his nearest relations should have deserted him before the breath had left his body. Our respect for the elder Madame de Balzac is decidedly raised, because, though there had occasionally been disagreements between her and her son, the true mother feeling asserted itself at the last, and she alone watched with the paid attendants till the end came.
However, some one was busy about the arrangements, as Balzac's portrait was taken by Giraud directly after his death, and a cast was made of his beautifully-shaped hand. His body was taken into the Beaujon Chapel before burial, so that he passed for the last time, as Victor Hugo remarks, through that door, the key of which was more precious to him than all the beautiful gardens which had belonged to the old Farmer-General.
The funeral service was held on Wednesday, August 20th, at the Church of Sainte Philippe du Roule. The rain was descending in torrents, but the procession, followed by a large crowd, walked the whole way across Paris to the Cemetery of Pere-la-Chaise, where the interment took place. The pall-bearers were Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Monsieur Baroche, and Sainte-Beuve. At the grave Victor Hugo spoke, finishing with the words: "No, it is not the Unknown to him. I have said this before, and I shall never tire of repeating it: it is not darkness to him, it is Light! It is not the end, but the beginning; not nothingness, but eternity! Is not this the truth, I ask you who listen to me? Such coffins proclaim immortality. In the presence of certain illustrious dead, we understand the divine destiny of that intellect which has traversed earth to suffer and to be purified. Do we not say to ourselves here, to-day, that it is impossible for a great genius in this life to be other than a great spirit after death?"[*]
[*] "Funerailles de Balzac," in "Actes et Paroles," by Victor Hugo.
The Cemetery of Pere-la-Chaise had been one of Balzac's favourite haunts in the old half-starved days of the Rue Lesdiguieres. "Here I am back from Pere-la-Chaise," he wrote to his sister in 1820,[*] "and I have brought with me some good big inspiring reflections. Decidedly, the only fine epitaphs are these: La Fontaine, Messena, Moliere, a single name, which tells all and makes one dream." Probably Madame Surville remembered these words and repeated them to Madame Honore de Balzac, for the monument erected to Balzac is a broken column with his name inscribed on it.
[*] "Correspondance," vol. i. p. 24.
The fortunes of the inhabitants of the Rue Fortunee were not happy after Balzac's death. Madame Honore de Balzac's contemporaries considered that she as not really as overwhelmed with sorrow at her husband's death as she appeared to be, and that when she wrote heartbroken letters, she slightly exaggerated the real state of her feelings; but she assumed gallantly the burdens laid upon her by the state of pecuniary embarrassment in which her husband died. If Balzac had lived longer and had been able to work steadily, there is little doubt that he would in a few years have become a free man, as the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul tells us[*] that in the years between 1841 and 1847, after which date his productions became very rare, he had enormously diminished the sum he owed.
[*] "La Genese d'un Roman de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.
Under Balzac's will his widow might have refused to acknowledge any liability for his debts, but she set to work bravely, with the aid of MM. Dutacq and Fessart, to make as much money as she could out of Balzac's published works, and to bring before the public those that were still unpublished. In this way, "Mercadet le Faiseur" was acted a year after Balzac's death, and "Les Petits Bourgeois" and "Le Depute d'Arcis" were published, the latter being finished, according to Balzac's wish, by Charles Rabou. "Les Paysans," which was to have filled eight volumes, and of which, as we have already seen, only a few chapters were written, presented great difficulty; but at last Madame de Balzac, aided by Champfleury and by Charles Rabou, managed to give some consistency to the fragment, and it appeared in the Revue de Paris in April, May and June, 1855. Unfortunately, however, no information was given as to the unfinished state in which it had been left by Balzac, and therefore no explanation was offered of the insufficiency of the denouement, and the inadequacy of the last chapters. Madame de Balzac worked hard, and long before her death in April, 1882, the whole of Balzac's debts were paid off.
This was most creditable to her; but side by side with her admirable conduct in this respect, she seems to have either actively abetted, or at any rate acquiesced in mad extravagance on the part of Madame Georges Mniszech, who with her husband, had come to live in the Rue Fortunee after Balzac's death. Perhaps Madame de Balzac was too busy with her literary and business arrangements, to pay attention to what was happening, or possibly maternal devotion prevented her from denying her beloved daughter anything she craved for. At all events the results of her supineness were lamentable, especially as M. Georges Mniszech was not capable of exercising any restraint on his wife; he being for some years before his death in 1881, in the most delicate state of health, both mental and physical.
Madame Georges Mniszech—after years of the wild Russian steppes, suddenly plunged into the fascinations of shopping in Paris, and left to her own devices—seems to have shown senseless folly in her expenditure. Additions were made to the house in the Rue Fortunee, though Balzac's rooms were left untouched; and the Chateau de Beauregard, at Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, was bought as a country residence. Madame de Balzac and her daughter were, however, rich, and could quite afford to live comfortably, and even luxuriously. Their ruin seems to have been brought about by reckless expenditure on things which were of absolutely no use, and were only bought for the amusement of buying. Several sales of pictures took place, and on February 9th, 1882,[*] the Chateau de Beauregard and its contents were sold by order of the President of the Civil Tribunal of Corbeil.
[*] "Life of Balzac," by Frederick Wedmore.
Madame de Balzac died in April of the same year; and the very day of her funeral, Madame Georges Mniszech's creditors pushed her and her maid into the street, and rifled the house in the Rue Fortunee. The booty was transported to the auction-room known as l'Hotel Drouot, and there a sale was held by order of justice of Balzac's library, his Buhl cabinets, and some of his MSS., including that of "Eugenie Grandet," which had been given to Madame Hanska on December 24th, 1833. During the shameless pillage of the house, the vultures who ransacked it found evidence of the most reckless, the most imbecile extravagance, proof positive that the wisdom, prudence, even the principles of poor Balzac's paragon the Countess Anna, had been routed by the glitter and glamour of the holiday city. One room was filled with boxes containing hats, and in another, piles of costly silks were heaped, untouched since their arrival from the fashionable haberdasher or silk mercer.[*] Balzac's treasures, the curiosities he had amassed with so much trouble, the pictures of which he had been so proud, were ruthlessly seized; while precious manuscripts and letters, which would perhaps have brought in a hundred thousand francs if they had been put up for sale, were thrown out of the window by the exasperated throng.
[*] "Journal des Goncourts," vol. viii. P. 48.
The Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul rescued a page of the first of Balzac's letters to Madame Hanska which has been found up to this time, from a cobbler whose stall was opposite the house. The cobbler, when once started on the quest by the Vicomte, discovered many other letters, sketches, and unfinished novels, which had been picked up by the neighbouring shopkeepers, and were only saved in the nick of time from being used to wrap up pounds of butter, or to make bags for other household commodities. It was an exciting chase, requiring patience and ingenuity; and Balzac's former cook held out for years, before she would consent to sell a packet of letters which the Vicomte coveted specially. Sometimes incidentally there were delightful surprises, and occasionally real joys; as on the occasion when the searcher found at a distant grocer's shop, the middle of the letter, of which the first page had been saved from destruction at the hands of the cobbler.
The bitter dislike Balzac had evoked in the literary world, and his occasional obscurity and clumsy style, have militated very strongly against his popularity in his native land, where perfection in the manipulation of words is of supreme importance in a writer. While in France, however, Balzac's undoubted faults have partially blinded his countrymen to his consummate merits as a writer, and they have been strangely slow in acknowledging the debt of gratitude they owe to him, the rest or the world has already begun to realise his power of creating type, his wonderful imagination, his versatility, and his extraordinary impartiality; and to accord him his rightful place among the Immortals. Nevertheless we are still too near to him, to be able to focus him clearly, and to estimate aright his peculiar place in literature, or the full scope of his genius.
Some very great authorities claim him as a member of the Romantic School; while, on the other hand, he is often looked on—apparently with more reason—as the first of the Realists. His object in writing was, he tells us, to represent mankind as he saw it, to be the historian of the nineteenth century, and to classify human beings as Buffon had classified animals. No doubt this scheme was very imperfectly carried out: certainly the powerful mind of Balzac with its wealth of imagination, often projected itself into his puppets, so that many of his characters are not the ordinary men and women he wished to portray, but are inspired by the fire of genius. This fact does not, however, alter the aim of their creator. He intended to be merely a chronicler, a scientific observer of things around him; and though his works are tinged to a large extent with the Romanticism of the powerful school in vogue in his day, this object marks him plainly as the forerunner of the Realists, the founder of a totally new conception of the scope and range of the novel.
Theophile Gautier's words should prove to the modern reader, the debt of gratitude he owes to the inaugurator of a completely original system of fiction. Speaking of Balzac's impecunious and ambitious heroes, Gautier cries:[*] "O Corinne, who on the Cape of Messina allowest thy snowy arm to hang over the ivory lyre, while the son of Albion, clothed in a superb new cloak, and with elegant boots perfectly polished, gazes at thee, and listens in an elegant pose: Corinne, what wouldst thou have said to such heroes? They have nevertheless one little quality which Oswald lacked—they live, and with so strong a life that we have met them a thousand times." Balzac's own words, speaking of his play "La Maratre,"[+] might also serve for a motto for his novels: "I dream of a drawing-room comedy, where everything is calm, quiet, and amiable. The men play whist placidly by the light of candles with little green shades. The women talk and laugh while they work at their embroidery. They all take tea together. To sum up, everything announces good order and harmony. Well, underneath are agitating passions; the drama stirs, it prepares itself secretly, till it blazes forth like the flame of a conflagration."
[*] "Portraits Contemporains: Honore de Balzac," by Theophile Gautier.
[+] "Historiettes et Souvenirs d'un Homme de Theatre," by H. Hostein.
Balzac is essentially a Realist, in his use of the novel as a vehicle for the description of real struggling life; with money and position, the principal desiderata of modern civilisation, powerful as determining factors in the moulding of men's actions. Life, as portrayed in the old-fashioned novel, where the hero and heroine and their love affairs were the sole focus of attraction, and the other characters were grouped round in subordinate positions, while every one declined in interest as he advanced in years, was not life as Balzac saw it; and he pictures his hero's agony at not having a penny with which to pay his cab fare, with as much graphic intensity, as he tells of the same young gentleman's despair when his inamorata is indifferent to him.
Nevertheless, if we compare Balzac with the depressing writers of the so-called Realist School, we shall find that his conception of life differed greatly from theirs. In Flaubert's melancholy books, even perfection of style and painstaking truth of detail do not dissipate the deadly dulness of an unreal world, where no one rises above the low level of self-gratification; while Zola considers man so completely in his physical aspect, that he ends by degrading him below the animal world. Balzac, on the other hand, believed in purity, in devotion, and unselfishness; though he did not think that these qualities are triumphant on earth. In his pessimistic view of life, virtue generally suffered, and had no power against vice; but he knew that it existed, and he believed in a future where wrongs would be righted.
He is a poet and idealist, and thus akin to the Romanticists—though he lacks their perfection of diction—in his feeling for the beauty of atmospheric effects, and also in his enthusiasm for music, which he loved passionately. The description of Montriveau's emotions when the cloistered Duchesse de Langeais plays in the church of Spain—and Balzac tells us that the sound of the organ bears the mind through a thousand scenes of life to the infinite which parts earth from heaven, and that through its tones the luminous attributes of God Himself pierce and radiate—is totally unrealistic both in moral tone, and in its accentuation of the power of the higher emotions. His intense admiration for Sir Walter Scott—an admiration which he expresses time after time in his letters—is a further proof of his sympathy for the school of thought, which glorified the picturesque Middle Ages above every other period of history.
Whichever school, however, may claim Balzac, it is an undisputed fact that he possessed in a high degree that greatest of all attributes —the power of creation of type. Le Pere Goriot, Balthazar Claes, Old Grandet, La Cousine Bette, Le Cousin Pons, and many other people in Balzac's pages, are creations; they live and are immortal. He has endowed them with more splendid and superabundant vitality than is accorded to ordinary humanity.
To do this, something is required beyond keenness of vision. The gift of seeing vividly—as under a dazzling light—to the very kernel of the object stripped of supernumerary circumstance, is indeed necessary for the portrayal of character; but although Dickens, as well as Balzac, possessed this faculty to a high degree, his people are often qualities personified, or impossible monsters. For the successful creation of type, that power in which Balzac is akin to Shakespeare, it is necessary that a coherent whole shall be formed, and that the full scope of a character shall be realised, with its infinite possibilities on its own plane, and its impotence to move a hairsbreadth on to another. The mysterious law which governs the conduct of life must be fathomed; so that, though there may be unexpected and surprising developments, the artistic sense and intuition which we possess shall not be outraged, and we shall still recognise the abiding personality under everything. Balzac excels in this; and because of this power, and also because—at a time when Byronic literature was in the ascendant, and it was the fashion to think that the quintessence of beauty could be found by diving into the depths of one's own being—he came forward without pose or self-consciousness, as a simple observer of the human race, the world will never cease to owe him a debt of gratitude, and to rank him among her greatest novelists.