In remembrance of many pleasant and instructive hours spent in his society, to the sculptor
whose statue of Balzac, with its fine, synthetic portraiture, first tempted the author to write this book.
PASSY, PARIS, 1910.
Excusing himself for not undertaking to write a life of Balzac, Monsieur Brunetiere, in his study of the novelist published shortly before his death, refused somewhat disdainfully to admit that acquaintance with a celebrated man's biography has necessarily any value. "What do we know of the life of Shakespeare?" he says, "and of the circumstances in which Hamlet or Othello was produced? If these circumstances were better known to us, is it to be believed and will it be seriously asserted that our admiration for one or the other play would be augmented?" In penning this quirk, the eminent critic would seem to have wilfully overlooked the fact that a writer's life may have much or may have little to do with his works. In the case of Shakespeare it was comparatively little—and yet we should be glad to learn more of this little. In the case of Balzac it was much. His novels are literally his life; and his life is quite as full as his books of all that makes the good novel at once profitable and agreeable to read. It is not too much to affirm that any one who is acquainted with what is known to-day of the strangely chequered career of the author of the Comedie Humaine is in a better position to understand and appreciate the different parts which constitute it. Moreover, the steady rise of Balzac's reputation, during the last fifty years, has been in some degree owing to the various patient investigators who have gathered information about him whom Taine pronounced to be, with Shakespeare and Saint-Simon, the greatest storehouse of documents we possess concerning human nature.
The following chapters are an attempt to put this information into sequence and shape, and to insert such notice of the novels as their relative importance requires. The author wishes here to thank certain French publishers who have facilitated his task by placing books for reference at his disposal, Messrs. Calmann-Levy, Armand Colin, and Hetzel, in particular, and also the Curator of the Musee Balzac, Monsieur de Royaumont who has rendered him service on several occasions.
The condition of French society in the early half of the nineteenth century—the period covered by Balzac's novels—may be compared to that of a people endeavouring to recover themselves after an earthquake. Everything had been overthrown, or at least loosened from its base—religion, laws, customs, traditions, castes. Nothing had withstood the shock. When the upheaval finally ceased, there were timid attempts to find out what had been spared and was susceptible of being raised from the ruins. Gradually the process of selection went on, portions of the ancient system of things being joined to the larger modern creation. The two did not work in very well together, however, and the edifice was far from stable.
During the Consulate and First Empire, the Emperor's will, so sternly imposed, retarded any movement of natural reconstruction. Outside the military organization, things were stiff and starched and solemn. High and low were situated in circumstances that were different and strange. The new soldier aristocracy reeked of the camp and battle-field; the washer-woman, become a duchess, was ill at ease in the Imperial drawing-room; while those who had thriven and amassed wealth rapidly in trade were equally uncomfortable amidst the vulgar luxury with which they surrounded themselves. Even the common people, whether of capital or province, for whose benefit the Revolution had been made, were silent and afraid. Of the ladies' salons—once numerous and remarkable for their wit, good taste, and conversation—two or three only subsisted, those of Mesdames de Beaumont, Recamier and de Stael; and, since the last was regarded by Napoleon with an unfriendly eye, its guests must have felt constrained.
At reunions, eating rather than talking was fashionable, and the eating lacked its intimacy and privacy of the past. The lighter side of life was seen more in restaurants, theatres, and fetes. It was modish to dine at Frascati's, to drink ices at the Pavillon de Hanovre, to go and admire the actors Talma, Picard, and Lemercier, whose stage performance was better than many of the pieces they interpreted. Fireworks could be enjoyed at the Tivoli Gardens; the great concerts were the rage for a while, as also the practice for a hostess to carry off her visitors after dinner for a promenade in the Bois de Boulogne.
Literature was obstinately classical. After the daring flights of the previous century, writers contented themselves with marking time. Chenedolle, whose verse Madame de Stael said to be as lofty as Lebanon, and whose fame is lilliputian to-day, was, with Ducis, the representative of their advance-guard. In painting, with Fragonard, Greuze and Gros, there was a greater stir of genius, yet without anything corresponding in the sister art.
On the contrary, in the practical aspects of life there was large activity, though Paris almost alone profited by it. Napoleon's reconstruction in the provinces was administrative chiefly. A complete programme was first started on in the capital, which the Emperor wished to exalt into the premier city of Europe. Gas-lighting, sewerage, paving and road improvements, quays, and bridges were his gifts to the city, whose general appearance, however, remained much the same. The Palais-Royal served still as a principal rendezvous. The busy streets were the Rues Saint-Denis and Saint-Honore on the right bank, the Rue Saint-Jacques on the left; and the most important shops were to be found in the Rue de la Loi, at present the Rue de Richelieu.
The fall of the Empire was less a restoration of the Monarchy than the definite disaggregation of the ancient aristocracy, which had been centralized round the court since the days of Richelieu. The Court of Louis XVIII. was no more like that of Louis XVI. than it was like the noisy one of Napoleon. Receiving only a few personal friends, the King allowed his drawing-rooms to remain deserted by the nobles that had returned from exile; and the two or three who were regular visitors were compelled to rub elbows with certain parvenus, magistrates, financiers, generals of the Empire whom it would not have been prudent to eliminate.
In this initial stage of society-decentralization, the diminished band of the Boulevard Saint-Germain—descendants of the eighteenth-century dukes and marquises—tried to close up their ranks and to differentiate themselves from the plutocracy of the Chaussee d'Antin, who copied their manners, with an added magnificence of display which those they imitated could not afford. In the one camp the antique bronzes, gildings, and carvings of a bygone art were retained with pious veneration; in the other, pictures, carpets, Jacob chairs and sofas, mirrors, and time-pieces, and the gold and silver plate were all in lavish style, indicative of their owner's ampler means. One feature of the pre-Revolution era was revived in the feminine salons, which regained most, if not the whole, of their pristine renown. The Hotel de la Rochefoucauld of Madame Ancelot became a second Hotel de Rambouillet, where the classical Parseval-Grandmaison, who spent twenty years over his poem Philippe-Auguste, held armistice with the young champion of the Romantic school, Victor Hugo. The Princess de Vaudemont received her guests in Paris during the winter, and at Suresnes during the summer; and her friend the Duchess de Duras' causeries were frequented by such men as Cuvier, Humboldt, Talleyrand, Mole, de Villele, Chateaubriand, and Villemain. Other circles existed in the houses of the Dukes Pasquier and de Broglie, the countess Merlin, and Madame de Mirbel.
With the re-establishment of peace, literary and toilet pre-occupations began to assert their claims. The Ourika of the Duchess de Duras took Paris by storm. Her heroine, the young Senegal negress, gave her name to dresses, hats, and bonnets. Everything was Ourika. The prettiest Parisian woman yearned to be black, and regretted not having been born in darkest Africa. Anglomania in men's clothes prevailed throughout the reign of Louis XVIII., yet mixed with other modes. "Behold an up-to-date dandy," says a writer of the epoch; "all extremes meet in him. You shall see him Prussian by the stomach, Russian by his waist, English in his coat-tails and collar, Cossack by the sack that serves him as trousers, and by his fur. Add to these things Bolivar hats and spurs, and the moustaches of a counter-skipper, and you have the most singular harlequin to be met with on the face of the globe."
Among the masses there were changes just as striking. For the moment militarism had disappeared, to the people's unfeigned content, and the Garde Nationale, composed of pot-bellied tradesmen, alone recalled the bright uniforms of the Empire. To make up for the soldier excitements of the Petit Caporal, attractions of all kinds tempted the citizen to enjoy himself after his day's toil was finished—menagerie, mountebanks, Franconi circus, Robertson the conjurer in the Jardin des Capucines. At the other end of the city, in the Boulevard du Temple, were Belle Madeleine, the seller of Nanterre cakes, famous throughout Europe, the face contortionist Valsuani, Miette in his egg-dance, Curtius' waxworks. By each street corner were charlatans of one or another sort exchanging jests with the passers-by. It was the period when the Prudhomme type was created, so common in all the skits and caricatures of the day. One of the greatest pleasures of the citizen under the Restoration was to mock at the English. Revenge for Waterloo was found in written and spoken satires. Huge was the success of Sewrin's and Dumersan's Anglaises pour rire, with Brunet and Potier travestied as grandes dames, dancing a jig so vigorously that they lost their skirts. The same species of revanche was indulged in when Lady Morgan, the novelist, came to France, seeking material for a popular book describing French customs. Henri Beyle (Stendhal) hoaxed her by acting as her cicerone and filling her note-books with absurd information, which she accepted in good faith and carried off as fact. On Sundays the most respectable families used to resort to the guinguettes, or bastringues, of the suburbs. Belleville had its celebrated Desnoyers establishment. At the Maine gate Mother Sagnet's was the meeting-place of budding artists and grisettes. At La Villette, Mother Radig, a former canteen woman, long enjoyed popularity among her patrons of both sexes. All these scenes are depicted in certain of Victor Ducange's novels, written between 1815 and 1830, as also in the pencil sketches of the two artists Pigal and Marlet.
The political society of the Restoration was characterized by a good deal of cynicism. Those who were affected by the change of regime, partisans and functionaries of the Empire, hastened in many cases to trim their sails to the turn of the tide. However, there was a relative liberty of the press which permitted the honest expression of party opinion, and polemics were keen. At the Sorbonne, Guizot, Cousin, and Villemain were the orators of the day. Frayssinous lectured at Saint-Sulpice, and de Lamennais, attacking young Liberalism, denounced its tenets in an essay which de Maistre called a heaving of the earth under a leaden sky.
The country's material prosperity at the time was considerable, and reacted upon literature of every kind by furnishing a more leisured public. In 1816 Emile Deschamps preluded to the after-triumphs of the Romantic School with his play the Tour de faveur, the latter being followed in 1820 by Lebrun's Marie Stuart. Alfred de Vigny was preparing his Eloa; Nodier was delighting everybody by his talents as a philologian, novelist, poet, and chemist. Beranger was continuing his songs, and paying for his boldness with imprisonment. The King himself was a protector of letters, arts, and sciences. One of his first tasks was to reorganize the "Institut Royal," making it into four Academies. He founded the Geographical and Asiatic Societies, encouraged the introduction of steam navigation and traction into France, and patronized men of genius wherever he met with them.
Yet the nation's fidelity to the White Flag was not very deep-rooted. Grateful though the population had been for the return of peace and prosperity, a lurking reminiscence of Napoleonic splendours combined with the bourgeois' Voltairian scepticism to rouse a widespread hostility to Government and Church, as soon as the spirit of the latter ventured to manifest again its inveterate intolerance. Beranger's songs, Paul-Louis Courier's pamphlets, and the articles of the Constitutionnel fanned the re-awakened sentiments of revolt; and Charles the Tenth's ministers, less wisely restrained than those of Louis XVIII., and blind to the significance of the first barricades of 1827, provoked the catastrophe of 1830. This second revolution inaugurated the reign of a bourgeois king. Louis-Philippe was hardly more than a delegate of the bourgeois class, who now reaped the full benefits of the great Revolution and entered into possession of its spoils. During Jacobin dictature and Napoleonic sway, the bourgeoisie had played a waiting role. At present they came to the front, proudly conscious of their merits; and an entire literature was destined to be devoted to them, an entire art to depict or satirize their manners. Scribe, Stendhal, Merimee, Henry Monnier, Daumier, and Gavarni were some of the men whose work illustrated the bourgeois regime, either prior to or contemporaneous with the work of Balzac.
The eighteen years of the July Monarchy, which were those of Balzac's mature activity, contrasted sharply with those that immediately preceded. In spite of perceptible social progress, the constant war of political parties, in which the throne itself was attacked, alarmed lovers of order, and engendered feelings of pessimism. The power of journalism waxed great. Fighting with the pen was carried to a point of skill previously unattained. Grouped round the Debats—the ministerial organ—were Silvestre de Sacy, Saint-Marc Girardin, and Jules Janin as leaders, and John Lemoinne, Philarete Chasles, Barbey d'Aurevilly in the rank and file. Elsewhere Emile de Girardin's Presse strove to oust the Constitutionnel and Siecle, opposition papers, from public favour, and to establish a Conservative Liberalism that should receive the support of moderate minds. Doctrines many, political and social, were propounded in these eighteen years of compromise. Legitimists, Bonapartists, and Republicans were all three in opposition to the Government, each with a programme to tempt the petty burgess. Saint-Simonism too was abroad with its utopian ideals, attracting some of the loftier minds, but less appreciated by the masses than the teachings of other semi-secret societies having aims more material.
Corresponding to the character of the regime was the practical nature of the public works executed—the railway system with its transformation of trade, the fortification of the capital, the commencement of popular education, and the renovation of decayed or incompleted edifices. Unfortunately, the rapidity of the development and the rush of speculation prevented any co-ordinating method in the effort, so that the epoch was poor in its architectural achievement compared with what had been produced in the past. Even other branches of art were greatest in satire. Daumier's Robert Macaire sketches and the Mayeux of Travies had large material supplied them in the various types of citizen, greedy of pleasure and gold. The mot: "Enrichissez-vous," attributed to Guizot, was the axiom of the time, accepted as the nec plus ultra by the vast majority of people. It invaded all circles with its lowering expedience; and he who was to depict its effects most puissantly did not escape its thrall.
* * * * *
When Balzac began to write, no French novelist had a reputation as such that might be considered great. Up to the epoch of the Restoration, the novel had been declared to be an inferior species of literature, and no author had dreamed of basing his claims to fame on fiction. Lesage had been and was still appreciated rather on the ground of his satire; and the Abbe Prevost, his slightly younger contemporary, received but little credit in his lifetime for the Manon Lescaut that posterity was to prize. Throughout the eighteenth century, he was chiefly regarded as a literary hack who had translated Richardson's Pamela and done things of a similar kind to earn his livelihood. Rousseau too was esteemed less for his Nouvelle Heloise than for his political disquisitions. No novelist since 1635 had ever been elected to the French Academy on account of his stories. Jules Sandeau was the first to break the tradition by his entrance among the Immortals in 1859, to be followed in 1862 by Octave Feuillet.
Lesage was the writer who introduced into France with his Gil Blas what has been called the personal novel—in other words, that story of adventures of which the narrator is the hero, the aim of the story being to illustrate first and foremost the vicissitudes of life in general and those of a single person in particular. The subsequent introduction of letters into the personal novel, which allowed more than one character to assume the narrator's role, brought about a change which those who initiated it scarcely anticipated. Together with the larger interest, due to there being several narrators, came a tendency to introspection and analysis, diminishing the prominence of the facts and enhancing the effect produced by these facts on the thoughts and feelings of the characters. It was this development of the personal novel at the commencement of the nineteenth century, exhibited in Chateaubriand's Rene, Madame de Stael's Corinne, Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, George Sand's Indiana, and Sainte-Beuve's Volupte, which contributed so much to create and establish the Romantic School of fiction with its egoistic lyricism.
The historical novel, which more commonly is looked upon as having been the principal agent in the change, gave, in sooth, only what modern fiction of every kind could no longer do without, namely, local colour. The so-styled historical novels of Madame de la Fayette —Zayde and the Princesse de Cleves—in the seventeenth century, and those of Madame de Tencin and Madame de Fontaines in the eighteenth, were simply historic themes whereon the authors embroidered the inventions of their imaginations, without the slightest attention to accuracy or attempt at differentiating the men and minds of one age from those of another; nor was it till the days of Walter Scott that such care for local colour and truth of delineation was manifested by writers who essayed to put life into the bones of the past.
Even Lesage, so exact in his description of all that is exterior, lacked this literary truthfulness. His Spain is a land of fancy; his Spaniards are not Spanish; Gil Blas, albeit he comes from Santillana, is a Frenchman. Marivaux was wiser in placing his Vie de Marianne and his Paysan parvenu in France. His people, though modelled on stage pattern, are of his own times and country; and, in so far as they reveal themselves, have resemblances to the characters of Richardson.
To the Abbe Barthelemy, Voltaire, and Rousseau the novel was a convenient medium for the expression of certain ideas rather than a representation of life. The first strove to popularize a knowledge of Greek antiquity, the second to combat doctrines that he deemed fallacious, the third to reform society. However, Rousseau brought nature into his Nouvelle Heloise, and, by his accessories of pathos and philosophy, prepared the way for a bolder and completer treatment of life in fiction. Different from these was Restif de la Bretonne, who applied Rousseau's theories with less worthy aims in his Paysan perverti and Monsieur Nicolas, ou Le Coeur humain devoile. If mention is made of him here, it is because he was a pioneer in the path of realism, which Balzac was to explore more thoroughly, and because the latter undoubtedly caught some of his grosser manner.
The novelists and dramatists whom Balzac made earliest acquaintance with were probably those whose works were appearing and attracting notice during his school-days—Pigault-Lebrun, Ducray-Duminil, and that Guilbert de Pixerecourt who for a third of the nineteenth century was worshipped as the Corneille of melodrama. These men were favourite authors of the nascent democracy; and, in an age when reprints of older writers were much rarer than to-day, would be far more likely to appeal to a boy's taste than seventeenth- and eighteenth-century authors. At an after-period only, when he had definitely entered upon his maturer literary career, was he to take up the latter and use them, together with Rabelais, La Bruyere, Moliere, and Diderot, as his best, if not his constant, sources of inspiration. In the stories of the first of the three above-mentioned modern writers, the reader usually meets with some child of poor parentage, who, after most extraordinary and comic experiences, marries the child of a nobleman. In those of the second, the hero or heroine struggles with powerful enemies, is aided by powerful friends, and moves in an atmosphere of blood and mystery until vice is chastized and virtue finally rewarded. The two writers, however, differ more in their talent than in their methods, the first having an amount of originality which is almost entirely wanting to the second. With both, indeed, the main object is to impress and astonish, and the finer touches of Lesage and Prevost are seldom visible in either's work. As for Pixerecourt, whose fame lasted until the Romantic drama of the older Dumas, Alfred de Vigny, and Victor Hugo eclipsed it, he wrote over a hundred plays, each of which was performed some five hundred times, while two at least ran for more than a thousand nights.
If it was natural that Balzac should familiarize himself in his adolescence with such writers of his own countrymen as every one discussed and very many praised, it was natural also he should extend his perusals to the translated works of contemporary novelists on the further side of the Channel, the more so as the reciprocal literary influence of the two countries was exceedingly strong at the time, stronger probably than to-day when attention is solicited on so many sides. To the novels of Monk Lewis, Maturin, Anne Radcliffe, and other exponents of the School of Terror, as likewise to the novels of Godwin, the chief of the School of Theory, he went for instruction in the profession that he was wishing to adopt. Mrs. Radcliffe's stories he thought admirable; those of Lewis he cited as hardly being equalled by Stendhal's Chartreuse de Parme; and Maturin—oddly as it strikes us now—he not only styled the most original modern author that the United Kingdom could boast of, but assigned him a place, beside Moliere and Goethe, as one of the greatest geniuses of Europe. And these eulogiums were not the immature judgements of youth, but the convictions of his riper age. As will be seen later, the influence remained with him. In all he wrote there enters some of the material, native and foreign, out of which Romanticism was made.
To the true masters of English fiction his indebtedness was equally large, exception made perhaps for Fielding and Smollett; and one American author should be included in the acknowledgment. Goldsmith, Sterne, Walter Scott, and Fenimore Cooper were his delight. The first and last of Richardson's productions he read only when his own talent was formed. Pamela and Sir Charles Grandison he chanced upon in a library at Ajaccio; and, after running them through, pronounced them to be horribly stupid and boring. But Clarissa Harlowe, on the contrary, he highly esteemed. Already in 1821 he had studied it; and, when composing his Pierrette, towards the end of the thirties, he spoke of it as a magnificent poem, in a passage which brands the procedure of certain hypocrites, their oratorical precautions, and their involved conversations, wherein the mind obscures the light it throws and honeyed speech dilutes the venom of intentions. The phrase, says Monsieur Le Breton, in his well-reasoned book on Balzac, is that of a man who was conversant with the patient analysis, the conscientious and minute realism of this great painter of English life. In Monsieur Le Breton's opinion, Balzac's long-windedness is, in a measure, due to Richardson, who reacted upon him by his defects no less than by his excellencies.
Throughout Balzac's correspondence, as throughout his novels, there are numerous remarks which are so many confessions of the hints he received in the course of his English readings. In one passage he exclaims: "The villager is an admirable nature. When he is stupid, he is just the animal; but, when he has good points, they are exquisite. Unfortunately, no one observes him. It needed a lucky hazard for Goldsmith to create his Vicar of Wakefield." Elsewhere he says: "Generally, in fiction, an author succeeds only by the number of his characters and the variety of his situations; and there are few examples of novels having but two or three dramatis personae depending on a single situation. Of such a kind, Caleb Williams, the celebrated Godwin's masterpiece, is in our time the only work known, and its interest is prodigious."
Sterne, even more than Scott, was Balzac's favourite model. Allusions to him abound in the Comedie Humaine. Tristram Shandy the novelist appears to have had at his fingers' ends. Not a few of Sterne's traits were also his own—the satirical humour, in which, however, the humour was less perfect than the satire, the microscopic eye for all the exterior details of life especially in people's faces and gestures and dress; and both had identical notions concerning the analogy between a man's name and his temperament and fate.
Scott and Cooper being Balzac's elder contemporaries, it happened that their books were given to the French public in translation by one or the other of the novelist's earlier publishers, Mame and Gosselin. His taste for their fiction was no mere passing fancy. It was as pronounced as ever in 1840, at which date, writing in the Revue Parisienne, he declared that Cooper was the only writer of stories worthy to be placed by the side of Walter Scott, and that his hero Leather-stocking was sublime. "I don't know," said he, "if the fiction of Walter Scott furnishes a creation as grandiose as that of this hero of the savannas and forests. Cooper's descriptions are the school at which all literary landscapists should study: all the secrets of art are there. But Cooper is inferior to Walter Scott in his comic and minor characters, and in the construction of his plots. One is the historian of nature, the other of humanity." The article winds up with further praise of Scott, whom its author evidently regarded as his master.
The part played by these models in Balzac's literary training was to afford him a clearer perception of the essential worth of the Romantic movement. Together with its extravagancies and lyricism, Romantic literature deliberately put into practice some important principles which certain forerunners of the eighteenth century had already unconsciously illustrated or timidly taught. It imposed Diderot's doctrine that there was beauty in all natural character. And its chief apostle, Hugo, with the examples of Ariosto, Cervantes, Rabelais and Shakespeare to back him, proved that what was in nature was or should be also in art, yet without, for that, seeking to free art from law and the necessity for choice.
This spectacle of a vaster field to exploit, this possibility of artistically representing the common, familiar things of the world in their real significance, seized on the youthful mind of him who was to create the Comedie Humaine. It formed the connecting link between him and his epoch, and in most directions it limited the horizon of his life.
For all his aristocratic name, Honore de Balzac was not of noble birth. The nobiliary particule he did not add to his signature until the year 1830. In his birth certificate we read: "To-day, the 2nd of Prairial, Year VII. (21st of May 1799) of the French Republic, a male child was presented to me, Pierre-Jacques Duvivier, the undersigned Registrar, by the citizen Bernard-Francois Balzac, householder, dwelling in this commune, Rue de l'Armee de l'Italie, Chardonnet section, Number 25; who declared to me that the said child was called Honore Balzac, born yesterday at eleven o'clock in the morning at witness's residence, that the child is his son and that of the citizen, Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, his wife, they having been married in the commune of Paris, eighth arrondissement, Seine Department, on the 11th of Pluviose, Year V."
The commune referred to in the birth certificate was Tours. There in the street now rechristened and renumbered and called the Rue Nationale, a commemorative plate at No. 29 bears the following inscription: "Honore de Balzac was born in this house on the 1st of Prairial, Year VII. (20th of May 1799); he died in Paris on the 28th[*] of August 1850."
[*] The registered date of Balzac's death was the 18th of August. The date on the commemorative plate is wrong. See also in a subsequent chapter, M. de Lovenjoul's remark on the subject.
This former capital of Touraine, which the novelist says disparagingly in the Cure of Tours was in his time one of the least literary places in France, has had, at any rate, an honourable past. It was one of the sixty-four towns of Gaul that, under Vercingetorix, opposed the conquest of Caesar; and to it, in 1870, the French Government retired when the Germans marched on the capital. Its ancient industry in silk stuffs, established by Louis XI. in the fifteenth century, raised its population to eighty thousand. By revoking the Edict of Nantes, King "Sun" chased away three thousand of the wealthy, manufacturing families, who migrated to Holland; and Tours lost, with a quarter of its inhabitants, its weaving supremacy, which fell into the hands of Lyons. Situated on the Loire, in a rich but flat district, its surroundings are less interesting than its own architectural possessions, including a cathedral of mingled Gothic and later styles, a bit of the Norman-English Henry the Second's castle, and its three bridges. The fine central one, of fifteen arches and a quarter of a mile long, is a prolongation of the Rue Nationale, and has near it statues of Rabelais and Descartes.
Balzac's father, who at the time of Honore's birth was fifty-three years of age, was not a native of Tours. He came from Nougayrie, a small hamlet close to Canezac in the Tarn Department and province of Languedoc. He was, therefore, a man of the south. On the registers he was inscribed as a son of Bernard-Thomas Balssa, laboureur, or peasant farmer; but he subsequently changed his name to Balzac. Recent investigations have disclosed the fact that—whether by his own initiative or that of his son—he was the first to employ the "de" before the family name, prefixing it in the announcements made of the marriage of his second daughter Laurence.
Although of humble origin, the elder Balzac acquired both education and position. He embraced the legal profession, and was said by his son to have acted as secretary to the Grand Council under Louis XV., by his daughter Laure to have been advocate to the Council under Louis XVI. There is no documentary proof that he held either of these offices; but he figured in the Royal almanacs of 1793 as a lawyer, and would seem to have served the Republican Government, although his children subsequently asserted that he had always been an unswerving Royalist. The family tradition was that he had become suspect to Robespierre through his efforts to save several unfortunates from the guillotine, and would himself have perished had not a friend succeeded in getting him sent on a mission to the frontier to organize the commissariat department there. Thenceforward attached to the War Office, he returned to Paris, and in 1797 married Laure Sallambier, the daughter of one of his hierarchic chiefs, she being thirty-two years his junior. The next year he went to Tours as administrator of the General Hospice, and remained there for seventeen years.
The father of the novelist was a man out of the common. A contemporary of his, Le Poitevin Saint-Alme, relates that he united in himself the Roman, the Gaul, and the Goth, and possessed the attributes of these three races—boldness, patience, and health. He avowed himself a disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, considering a return to nature to be the main condition of happiness. He shunned doctors, advocated exercise, long walks, woollen garments for every season, and a more scientific propagation of his species. His daughter—afterwards Madame Surville—says of him in the short biography she wrote of her brother: "My father often railed at mankind, whom he accused of unceasingly contributing to their own misfortune. He could never meet an ill-formed fellow-creature without fulminating against parents and governments, who were less careful to improve the human race than that of animals."
In addition to his notions on hygiene, he interested himself in the problems of sociology, anticipating Fourier and Saint-Simon, and writing numerous pamphlets on philanthropic and scientific questions. Large traces of his influence are found in his son's books. His hobby was health cultivation. Every man, he said, ought to strive for an equilibrium of the vital forces. In his own case there was an extra reason for his aiming at longevity. Being still unmarried at the age of forty-five, he had sunk most of his fortune in life annuities, one of which was a tontine; and, after his marriage, he encouraged his family to hope for his surviving all the competitors of his series, and thus being able to bequeath them a huge capital. This hope was not realized. His death occurred in 1829, when he was eighty-three, and the twelve thousand francs income accruing from his annuities disappeared.
His memory was extraordinary. At seventy, happening to meet a friend of his childhood, whom he had not seen since he was fourteen, he unhesitatingly began speaking to him in the Provencal tongue, which he had ceased using for half a century. Equally great was his benevolence. On one occasion, hearing that his friend General de Pommereul was in monetary difficulties, he called at the General's house, and, finding only Madame de Pommereul, said to her, as he placed two heavy bags on the table: "I am told you are short of cash. These ten thousand crowns will be more useful to you than to me. I don't know what to do with them. You can give me them back when you have recovered what has been stolen from you." Having uttered these few brusk words, he turned and hurried away. Later we shall meet with a younger General de Pommereul, to whom the novelist dedicated his Melmoth Reconciled, adding, "In remembrance of the constant friendship that united our fathers and subsists between the sons."
When young, the novelist's father must have been endowed with great physical strength. He used to relate that, during the time he was a clerk to a Procureur, he was requested one day to cut up a partridge at his master's table. With the first dig of the knife, he not only severed the partridge but the dish also, and drove his weapon into the wood of the table. Detail worth noticing, this feat procured him the respect of the Procureur's wife. The portrait sketched of him by his daughter Laure represents him, between sixty and seventy, as a fine old man, still vigorous, with courteous manners, speaking little and rarely of himself (in this very different from Honore), indulgent towards the young, whose society he was fond of, allowing to all the same liberty that he claimed for himself, upright and sound in judgment notwithstanding his eccentricities, of equable humour, and so mild in character that he made every one around him happy. Delighting in conversation, now grave, now curious, now prophetic, he was always eagerly listened to by his elder son, whose indebtedness to him cannot be doubted.
Balzac's mother, who was married at eighteen, was a Parisian by birth. Her father was Director of the Paris Hospitals. At the Hotel-Dieu there is a Sallambier ward which perpetuates his memory. A small, active woman of nervous temperament, irritable and inclined to worry about trifles, she yet had abundant practical sense—a quality less developed in her husband. Her daughter tells us she was beautiful, that she had remarkable vivacity of mind, much firmness and decision, and boundless devotion to her family. Her affection, however, was expressed rather by action than in speech. She had great imagination, adds Madame Surville; and, says the novelist, "this imagination, which she has bequeathed me, bandies her ever from north to south and from south to north." Exceedingly pious, with a bias to mysticism, she possessed a library of books bearing on such doctrines, which were read by her son and afterwards utilized by him in his fiction.
Honore was the second child of his parents. The first dying in infancy through the poorness of Madame Balzac's milk, he was sent to a house on the outskirts of the town and suckled by a foster-mother. His sister Laure, a year younger than himself, was submitted to the same treatment, and the two children remained away from home until they were four and three years old respectively. From her remembrance of him, when both were toddling mites, his sister speaks of him as a charming little boy, whose merry humour, shapely, smiling mouth, large brown eyes, at once bright and soft, high forehead and rich black hair caused him to be noticed a great deal in their daily outings.
In 1804 came the first important event of his life, a visit to Paris to see his maternal grandparents. It was a wonderful change from his home surroundings in Tours, where a certain severity prevailed. Here he was spoiled to his heart's content; and his happiness was rendered complete by Mouche, the big watch-dog, with whom he was on the best of terms. One evening a magic-lantern exhibition was given in the grandson's honour. Noticing that Mouche was not among the spectators, he rose from his seat with an authoritative: "Wait." Then, going out, he shortly after came back, dragging in his canine friend, to whom he said: "Sit down there, Mouche, and look; it will cost you nothing. Granddad will pay for you!" A few months later his grandfather died, and the widow went to live with the Balzacs at Tours. This death made a deep impression on the child's mind, and for a while dwelt so constantly in his memory that, on one occasion, when Laure was being scolded by her mother for an offence which the culprit aggravated by a fit of involuntary tittering, he approached his sister and whispered in her ear, with a view to restoring her gravity: "Think of grandpapa's death."
Distinguished in these juvenile years more by kindness than cleverness, he nevertheless manifested a certain inventiveness in improvizing baby comedies which had more appreciative audiences than some of his maturer stage productions. On the contrary, his conception of music and his own musical execution had no admirers beyond himself. For hours he would scrape the chords of a small, red violin, drawing from them most excruciating sounds, himself lost in ecstasy, and most amazed when he was begged to cease his concert, which was somewhat calculated to give his friend Mouche the colic.
The boy's initial steps in the path of learning were taken under the care of a nursery governess, Mademoiselle Delahaye, whom he quitted to attend the principal day-school in the town, known as the Leguay Institution. When he was eight he entered the College school at Vendome, a quiet spot in Touraine, with something of the aspect of a university town. On the registers of the school may be read the following inscription: "No. 460, Honore Balzac, aged eight years and five months. Has had small-pox; without infirmities; sanguine temperament; easily excited and subject to feverishness. Entered the College on June 22nd 1807; left on the 22nd of August 1813."
An old seventeenth-century foundation of the Oratorians, the school possessed at this period a renown almost equal to that of Oxford and Cambridge. In his Louis Lambert, Balzac gives us a description of the place. "The College," he says, "is situated in the middle of the town and on the little river Loir, which flows hard by the main school-buildings. It stands in a spacious enclosure carefully walled in, and comprises all the various establishments necessary in an institution of this kind—a chapel, a theatre, an infirmary, a bakery, gardens, watercourses. The College, being the most celebrated centre of education in France, is recruited from several provinces and even from our colonies, so that the distance at which families live does not permit of parents' seeing their children. As a rule, pupils do not spend the long holidays at home, and remain at the College continuously until their studies are terminated." As a matter of fact, Balzac passed his six years there without once returning to Tours, being entirely cut off from his family, save for such rare visits as were suffered from its members.
The school life was semi-monastic, with a discipline of iron. "The leathern ferule played its terrible role with honour" among Minions, Smalls, Mediums, and Greats. There were, however, certain mitigations —long walks in the woods, cards, and amateur theatricals during vacation; gardening and pigeon-fancying; stilt-walking, sliding and clog-dancing; and, withal, the joys of a chapman's stall set up in the enclosure itself.
Louis Lambert is a slice of autobiography, attempting also a portrait of the novelist, psychologically as well as outwardly, while he was at Vendome. Although the author speaks of himself as distinct from his hero, they make up one and the same individual. Of himself he says: "I had a passion for books. My father, being desirous I should enter the Ecole Polytechnique, paid for me to take private lessons in mathematics. But my coach, being the librarian of the college, let me borrow books, without much troubling about what I chose, from the library, where during playtime he gave me my tuition. Either he was very little qualified to teach, or he must have been pre-occupied with some undertaking of his own; for he was only too willing I should read in the hours he ought to have devoted to me, himself working at something else. Thus, by virtue of a tacit agreement between us, I did not complain of learning nothing, and he kept secret my book-borrowing. This precocious passion led me to neglect my studies and instead to compose poems, which indeed were of no high promise, if judged by the following verse: 'O Inca! O roi infortune,' commencing an epopee on the Incas. The line became only too celebrated among my companions, and I was derisively nicknamed the poet. Mockery, however, did not cure me, and I continued my efforts in spite of the apologue of the Principal, Monsieur Mareschal, who one day related to me the misfortunes of a linnet that tried to fly before being fully fledged. He wished, no doubt, to turn me from my inveterate habit. As I continued to read, I was continually punished, and grew to be the least active, most idle, most contemplative pupil of the Smalls."
And now for the alter ego. "Louis Lambert was slender and thin, not more than four feet and a half in height, but his weather-beaten face, his sun-browned hands seemed to indicate a muscular vigour which he had not in a normal state. So, two months after his entering the college, when his school life had robbed him of his well-nigh vegetable colour, we remarked that he became pale and white like a woman. His head was unusually big; his hair, beautifully black and naturally curly, lent an ineffable charm to his forehead, the size of which struck us as extraordinary, though, as may be imagined, we little recked of phrenology. The beauty of this prophetic forehead resided chiefly in the extremely pure cut of the two brows, under which shone his dark eyes—brows that appeared to be carved in alabaster. Their lines had the somewhat rare luck to be perfectly parallel in joining each other at the beginning of the features. These latter were irregular enough, but the irregularity disappeared when one saw his eyes, whose gaze possessed an astonishing variety of expression. Sometimes clear and terribly penetrating, sometimes angelically mild, this gaze grew dull and colourless, so to speak, in his contemplative moments. His eye then resembled a pane of glass no longer illuminated by the sun. The same was true of his strength, which was purely nervous, and also of his voice. Both were equally mobile and variable. The latter was alternately sweet and harmonious, and then at times painful, incorrect, and rugged. As for his ordinary strength, he was incapable of supporting the fatigue of any games whatever. He seemed obviously feeble and almost infirm; but once, during his first year at school, one of our bullies having jeered at this extreme delicacy that rendered him unfit for the rough games practised in the playground, Lambert with his two hands gripped the end of one of our tables containing twelve desks in two rows; then, stiffening himself against the master's chair and holding the table with his feet placed on the bottom cross-bar, he said: 'Let any ten of you try to move it.' I was there and witnessed this singular display of strength. It was impossible to drag the table from him. He appeared at certain moments to have the gift of summoning unusual powers, or of concentrating his whole force on a given point."
That Louis Lambert is an attempted revelation of Balzac's adolescent mind we have both Madame Surville's and Champfleury's additional testimony to prove. Discounting the exaggerations, due either to literary morbidity of the kind that produced Chateaubriand's Rene and Sainte-Beuve's Joseph Delorme, or to the natural vanity of which the novelist had so large a share, there yet remains a considerable substratum of truth in this record of twin, boyish existence, which affords a valuable secondary help towards understanding its author's character.
The major punishment inflicted at Vendome was imprisonment in the dormitory. Referring to himself and his double, Balzac says: "We were freer in prison than anywhere. There we could talk for days together in the silence of the room, where each pupil had a cubicle six feet square, whose partitions were provided with bars across the top, and whose grated iron door was locked every evening and unlocked every morning under the surveillance of a Father, who assisted at our going to bed and getting up. The creak of the doors, turned with singular celerity by the dormitory porters, was one of the peculiarities of the school. In these alcoves we were sometimes shut up for months on end. The scholars thus caged fell under the stern eye of the Prefect, who came regularly, and even irregularly, to see whether we were talking instead of working at our tasks. But nutshells on the stairs or the fineness of our hearing nearly always warned us of his arrival, so that we were able to indulge safely in our favourite studies."
One of the confinements was inflicted on Honore for his faulty Latin and impertinence. "Caius Gracchus was a noble heart," he translated with a free paraphrase of vir nobilis. "What would Madame de Stael say, if she happened to learn you had thus misconstrued the sense?" asked the master. (Madame de Stael was supposed to be Louis Lambert's patroness.) "She would say you are a stupid," muttered Honore. "Mister poet, you will go to prison for a week," retorted the master, who had overheard the comment.
Among the long walks enjoyed by the pupils on Thursdays, when there were no lessons, was one to the famous castle of Rochambeau. In 1812, Balzac paid his first and impatiently anticipated visit to this spot. "When we arrived on the hill," he says, "whence the castle was visible, perched on its flank, and the winding valley with the glittering river threading its way through a meadow artistically laid out by Nature, Louis Lambert said to me: 'Why, I saw this last night in a dream.' He recognized the clump of trees under which we were, the arrangement of the foliage, the colour of the water, the turrets of the castle, in fine, all the details of the place. . . . I relate this event," he continues, "first because each man can find in his existence some phenomenon of sleeping or waking analogous to it; and next, because it is true and gives an idea of Lambert's prodigious intelligence. In fact, he deduced from the occurrence an entire system, possessing himself, like Cuvier, in another order of things, of a fragment of life to reconstruct a whole creation." And Lambert is made to develop a theory of the astral body and astral locomotion. The younger self announces also: "I shall be celebrated—an alchemist of thought."
With such notions in his head at this early age, it was not surprising he should have begun, while in his tender teens, a metaphysical composition entitled Treatise of the Will. After working for six months on it, a day of misfortune arrived. The pieces of paper on which it had been written were hidden away from all eyes in a locked box, which gradually assumed the weird attraction of a Blue Beard's secret chamber to his mocking class-companions, so that at length their inquisitiveness drove them to essay capturing the said box by violence. Amidst the noise caused by the child-author's desperate defence of his treasure, Father Hagoult suddenly appeared; and, being apprized of what was inside the box, insisted on its being opened. The papers were at once confiscated, and were never given back. Their loss caused the boy a serious shock, which, combining with debility of longer standing, brought on a malady that necessitated his leaving the school. The Principal himself advised the removal. In 1813, between Easter and prize distribution, he wrote to Madame Balzac asking her to come immediately and fetch her son away. The lad, he explained, was prostrated by a kind of coma, which alarmed his teachers all the more as they were at a loss to account for it. To them Honore was simply an idler. It did not occur to them that his condition was owing to cerebral fatigue. Thin and sickly-looking at present, he had the air of a somnambulist, asleep with his eyes open, oblivious of the questions put to him, and unable to answer when asked: "What are you thinking of? Where are you?" His return home produced a painful impression. "So this is how the college authorities remit to us the nice children we entrust to them," exclaimed his grandmother. And it must be confessed that the good Fathers, engrossed by the training of their charges' souls, paid but little attention to the bodies.
In the rooms where the pupils worked, the exhalations by which the air was constantly vitiated mingled with the smells left by the debris of lunches and teas and by other accumulated dirt. There were also cupboards and closets where each pupil used to keep his private booty —pigeons killed on fete days or dishes pilfered from the refectory. Swept only once a day, the place was always filthy, and was further rendered disagreeable by odours coming from the wash-house, dressing-room, pantries, etc. All this with the mud brought in from the outside playgrounds made the atmosphere insupportable. Moreover, the pupils' petty ailments and pains were almost entirely unheeded. In winter chaps and chilblains were Honore's unceasing lot. His woman's complexion, and especially the skin of his ears and lips, cracked under the least cold; his soft white hands reddened and swelled. Constant colds harassed him; and, until he was inured to the Vendome regimen, pain was his daily portion.
A lively recollection of what he went through in these school-days persisted during his maturer years. Writing in 1844 to Monsieur Fontemoing, one of his few boy-companions that he maintained relations with, he said: "When David is ready to inaugurate his statue of Jean Bart in Dieppe, I shall perhaps be there to enjoy the spectacle; and then we will spend one or two days recalling to mind the cages, wooden breeches and other Vendomoiseries."
His memory was probably less faithful in 1832, when striving to reproduce the tenour of the lost Treatise of the Will. At thirteen he could scarcely have had such definite notions of intuition and other operations of the mind; and there must be a fairly long antedating of reflection in attributing to Louis Lambert, even with the latter's two years seniority, thoughts like the following:—
"Often amid calm and silence, when our inner faculties are lulled and we indulge in sweet repose, and darkness hovers round us, and we fall into a contemplation of other things, straight an idea darts forth, flashes through the infinite space created by our brain, and then, like a will-o'-the-wisp, vanishes never to return—an ephemeral apparition like that of such children as yield boundless joy and grief to bereaved parents; a species of still-born flower in the fields of thought. At times also the idea, instead of forcibly gushing and dying without consistence, dawns and poises in the fathomless limbo of the organs that give it birth; it tires us by its long parturition; then it develops and grows, is fertile, rich, and productive in the visible grace of youth and with all the qualities of longevity; it sustains the most inquiring glances, invites them, and never wearies them. Now and again ideas are generated in swarms, one evolves another; they interlace and entice, they abound and are dalliant; now and again, they arise pale and looming, and perish through want of strength or nourishment—the quickening substance is insufficient. And, last of all, on certain days they plunge into the abysses, lighting up their depths; they terrify us, and leave us in a soul despair. Our ideas have their complete system; they are a kingdom of nature, a sort of efflorescence of which a madman perhaps might give an iconography. Yes, all attests the existence of these delightful creations I may compare to flowers. Indeed, their production is no more surprising than that of perfumes and colour in the plant."
Still, without being a Pascal, Balzac in the first half of his teens, was evidently not an ordinary child. There was a ferment of thought, as he said, reacting on itself and seeking to surprise the secrets of its own being. Fostered by the moral isolation in which he lived during these six years, his self-analysis grew unwholesome, there being little or nothing on the physical side to counterbalance it. Fortunately, the return to saner surroundings occurred before the evil was irremediable. Running wild for a few months in the open air, he recovered his natural vivacity and cheerfulness. Every day he went for a long ramble through one or another of the landscapes of Touraine, and on his way home enjoyed the magnificent sunsets lighting up the steeples of his native town and glinting on the river covered with craft, both large and small. To check his reveries, Madame Balzac forced him to amuse his two sisters Laure and Laurence and to fly the kite of his little brother Henry,[*] who had been born while he was at Vendome.
[*] The name is spelt in the English way.
On Sundays and fete days he regularly accompanied his mother to the Cathedral of saint-Gatien, where he must have been an observant spectator if not consistently a devout listener. He prayed by fits and starts; and in the intervals studied closely and with an eye for effect the appearance of priestly persons and functions, with altar and stained-glass window in the background, and gathered materials for his Abbes Birotteau, Bonnet, and others. The period was one of compensation and adjustment. What he had been striving to assimilate had now the leisure to arrange itself in his brain, which was no longer overheated.
As soon as his health was considered sufficiently strong, he began attending classes at the institution of a Monsieur Chretien, and supplemented them by private lessons received at home. His conviction that he would become a famous man was as strong as ever, and his naive assertion of it was frequent enough to provoke great teasing in the domestic circle. Far from being irritated, he laughed with those that laughed at him, his sisters saying: "Hail to the great Balzac!" On the part of his elders the bantering was intended to damp his exalted notions, which they regarded as ill-founded, judging him, as his Vendome professors, by the smallness of his Latin and Greek. His mother in particular had no faith in his prophecies nor yet in his occasional utterances of deeper things than his years warranted: "You certainly don't know what you are talking about," was her habitual snub. And, when Honore, not daring to argue further, took refuge in his sly, not to say supercilious, smile, she taxed him with overweeningness—an accusation that had some truth in it. She might well be excused for her scepticism, for the youth had also large ignorance in some of the commoner things of life, and, moreover, allowed himself to be taken in easily. Laure seems to have traded a good deal on his credulity for the sake of fun. One day she gave him a so-called cactus seedling, supposed to have come from the land of Judaea. Honore preserved it preciously in a pot for a fortnight, only to discover at length that this plant was a vulgar pumpkin.
At the end of 1814, Monsieur Balzac came to reside in Paris, being placed at the head of the Commissariat of the First Military Division; and Honore's education was continued in the capital, for a while at the establishment of a Monsieur Lepitre, Rue Saint-Louis, and then at another kept by Messieurs Sganzer and Beuzelin, Rue de Thorigny, both being situated in the Marais Quarter, near his father's house. So far as the subjects of the curriculum were concerned, he was still a mediocre pupil. However, literature began to attract his attention and efforts, and one composition of his for an examination—the speech of Brutus's wife after the condemnation of her sons—treasured up by his sister Laure, is mentioned by her as exhibiting some of the energy and realistic presentment in which he was ultimately to excel.
When he was seventeen, his father, seeing that there was no chance of his getting into the Ecole Polytechnique, decided to put him into the legal profession; and, for the purpose of preliminary training, induced a solicitor friend, Guillonnet de Merville,[*] to take him into his office in the place of a clerk—no other than Eugene Scribe, the future dramatist—who had just quitted law for literature. During the eighteen months passed here, Balzac went to lectures at the Sorbonne University, and was coached by private tutors. Among the College professors he heard were Villemain, Guizot, and Cousin. These great teachers converted his passion for reading into more serious habits of study; and, in order to profit more by their lessons, he often spent his leisure hours in the libraries of the city and sought out old books of value in the cases of the dealers along the Quays.
[*] An Episode under the Terror was dedicated to him.
The pocket-money required for such purchases was principally supplied by his grandmother, who permitted him to win from her at whist or boston in the evenings he remained at home. A friend of his grandmother's that lived in a neighbouring flat was likewise very kind to him. She was an old maiden lady who had been acquainted with Beaumarchais, and delighted to chat with her protege about the author of the Mariage de Figaro. Though now a young man, Honore was not tall; five feet two was his exact height. Retaining his childish love of laughter and fun of every kind, he showed at present greater facility in learning, with a faculty of memory that was prodigious. Having to go with his sisters to balls, he took lessons in dancing; but, happening to meet with an unlucky fall, and resenting the smiles and giggling his accident called forth among the girls, he renounced attempts at tripping on the light, fantastic toe, and devoted subsequent visits to the task of jotting down notes.
A second period of eighteen months in the office of a notary, Maitre Passez, completed his law apprenticeship. In the first pages of Colonel Chabert the novelist gives us a sketch of the interior where he acquired his knowledge of chicane. Our nostrils are familiarized with its stove-heated atmosphere, our eyes with the yellow-billed walls, the dirty floor, the greasy furniture, the bundles of papers, the chimney-piece covered with bottles and glasses and bits of bread and cheese; and our ears are assailed by the quips and jokes and puns of the clerks and office-boys who were his companions for a time. He lingers over his reminiscences, which, though pleasant from their connection with his lost youth, had none the less to do with men and things that settled the foundation of his maturer pessimism. An article of his in 1839, entitled the Notary, says:—
"After five years passed in a notary's office, it is hard for a young man to conserve his candour. He has seen the hideous origins of all fortunes, the disputes of heirs over corpses not yet cold, the human heart in conflict with the Code. . . . A lawyer's office is a confessional where the various passions come to empty out their bag of bad ideas and to consult about their cases of conscience while seeking means of execution."
While we have no conclusive evidence on the point, it is yet probable that, at least for a while, Balzac had, during these years of legal training, serious thoughts of adopting law as his career. Otherwise he would scarcely have troubled to gain such an extensive acquaintance with everything appertaining to its theory and practice—knowledge which he afterwards utilized in several of his books, notably in Cesar Birotteau and the Marriage Contract. However, in 1819, he had definitely made up his mind to follow Scribe's example. At this date his father informed him that an opportunity offered itself for him to become a junior partner in a solicitor's practice, which might be ultimately purchased with money advanced him and the dowry that an advantageous marriage would bring. When the newly-fledged Bachelor of Laws declared that it was impossible for him to accept the proposal, and that he had determined to become a man of letters, trusting to his pen for a living, the elder Balzac's astonishment was unbounded. If any echoes of his son's recent cogitations and conversations on the subject had come to the father's ears, they had been deemed so much empty talk; and the friends who were consulted in the dilemma had nothing more encouraging to say. One of them pronounced that Honore was worth nothing better than to make a scrivener of or a clerk in some Government department. The poor fellow had a good handwriting —this, indeed, deteriorated later. Through his parents' influence, it was thought he might ultimately attain a moderate competency. Perhaps Laure, the favourite sister and early confidante of the novelist, may have used persuasion at this juncture with her father and mother. At any rate, as the issue of a great deal of lively discussion, the parents agreed to let Honore make a two years' experiment as a free lance in the ranks of the book-writing tribe. By the end of that time, they no doubt imagined he would be glad enough to re-enact the parable of the prodigal son and start in some safer trade.
EXPERIMENTS IN LITERATURE AND BUSINESS
It happened that Honore's enlistment in the army of litterateurs coincided with considerable changes in his parents' circumstances. His father had just been retired on a pension and had recently lost money in two investments. As there were a couple of daughters to be provided for, the family, for the sake of economy, quitted Paris and went to live at Villeparisis, six leagues distant from the capital, where a modest country-house had been bought. Honore, by dint of insistence, obtained permission to remain in Paris, where he would be freer to work and could more easily get into relations with publishers; and a meagrely furnished attic-study was rented for him at No. 9 Rue Lesdiguieres, a street near the Arsenal, still bearing the same name. A small monthly allowance was made him, just enough to keep him from starving; and an old woman, Mother Comin—the Iris-messenger, he facetiously called her—who had been in the family's service and was staying on in the city, undertook to pay him occasional visits and to report should he be in difficulties.
The novelty of his semi-independence caused him at first to look with cheerful eye on his narrow surroundings. To his sister he wrote in April 1819:—
"Here are some details about my way of living. I have taken a servant.
"A servant! What can you be thinking of!
"Yes; a servant. His name is as funny as that of Dr. Nacquart's domestic. The Doctor's is Tranquil; mine is Myself. He is a bad acquisition! . . . Myself is idle, clumsy, and improvident. When his master is hungry and thirsty, he has sometimes neither bread nor water to give him; he does not know how to protect himself against the wind, which blows through the door and window like Tulou through his flute, but less agreeably. As soon as I am awake, I ring for Myself, and he makes my bed. He sets to sweeping, and is not very deft in the exercise.
"Just look at the cobweb where that big fly is buzzing loud enough to deafen me, and at those bits of fluff under the bed, and at that dust on the windows blinding me.
"Why, sir, I don't see anything.
"Tut, tut! hold your tongue, impudence!
"And he does, singing while he sweeps and sweeping while he sings, laughs in talking and talks in laughing. He has arranged my linen in the cupboard by the chimney, after papering the receptacle white; and, with a three-penny blue paper and bordering, he has made a screen. The room he has painted from the book-case to the fireplace. On the whole, he is a good fellow."
In the introduction to Facino Cane, which Balzac wrote some fifteen years later, there is a return of memory to this sojourn in the Lesdiguieres garret. "I lived frugally," he says; "I had accepted all the conditions of monastic life, so needful to the worker. When it was fine, the utmost I did was to go for a stroll on the Boulevard Bourdon. One hobby alone enticed me from my studious habits, and even that was study. I used to observe the manners of the Faubourg, its inhabitants, and their characters. Dressed as plainly as the workmen, indifferent to decorum, I aroused no mistrust, and could mix with them and watch their bargaining and quarrelling with each other as they went home from their toil. My faculty of observation had become intuitive; it penetrated the soul without neglecting the body, or rather it so well grasped exterior details that at once it pierced beyond. It gave me the power of living the life of the individual in whom it was exercised, enabling me to put myself in his skin, just at the dervish of the Arabian Nights entered the body and soul of those over whom he pronounced certain words."
The would-be man of letters pushed his hobby even to dogging people to their homes, and to registering in note-book or brain their conversations—records of joys, sorrows, and interests.
"I could realize their existence," he affirms; "I felt their rags on my back. I walked with my feet in their worn-out shoes; it was the dreaming of a man awake. . . . To quit my own habits and become another by the intoxication of my moral faculties at will, such was my diversion. To what do I owe this gift? Is it second sight? Is it one of those possessions of the mind that lead to madness? I have never sought out the causes of this gift. I have it and use it—that is all I can say."
Honore's 'prentice attempts at producing a masterpiece oscillated between the novel and the drama. Two stories, entitled respectively Coquecigrue (an imaginary animal) and Stella, were abandoned before they were begun. A comic opera had the same fate. The Two Philosophers, a farce in which a couple of sham sages mocked at the world and quarrelled with each other, while secretly coveting the good things they affected to despise, appears to have been worked at, but uselessly. Next a tragedy, tackled with greater resolution, was composed and entirely finished. Curiously, the subject of it, Cromwell, was the same as that chosen by Victor Hugo, a few years later, to achieve the overthrow of classicism and the substitution of Romanticism in its stead.
The drama was written in verse, a form of literary composition foreign to Balzac's talent. Even during the months he laboured at his task, he confessed to Laure, 'midst his sallies of joking, that what he was writing teemed with defective lines. He polished and repolished, however, hoping to overcome these drawbacks, upheld by his invincible self-confidence. The piece, as sketched out in his correspondence, made large alterations in English history. Its interest hinged chiefly on the dilemma created in Cromwell's mind by his two sons falling into the hands of a small Royalist force, and by Charles's ordering them to be given up without conditions to their father, although the King was a prisoner. Posed in the third act, the dilemma was solved in the fourth by Cromwell's decision to condemn the King, notwithstanding his generosity. At the close of the play, the Queen escaped from England, crying aloud for vengeance, which she intended to seek in all quarters. France would combat the English, would defeat and crush them in the end.
"I mean my tragedy to be the breviary of peoples and kings," he proudly informed his sister. "It is impossible for you not to find the plan superb. How the interest grows from scene to scene! The incident of Cromwell's sons is most happily invented. Charles's magnanimity in restoring to Cromwell his sons is finer than that of Augustus pardoning Cinna." In blowing his own trumpet Balzac was early an adept.
To stimulate his imagination and reflection, he transferred his daily walk from the Jardin des Plantes to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. "There I make," he explained, "studies of grief useful for my Cromwell. Real grief is so hard to depict; it requires so much simplicity." His garret had still its charm. "The time I spend in it will be sweet to look back upon," he said. "To live as I like, to work in my own way, to go to sleep conjuring up the future, which I imagine beautiful, to have Rousseau's Julie as a sweetheart, La Fontaine and Moliere as friends, Racine as a master, and Pere Lachaise as a promenade ground! Ah! if it could only last for ever!" His dreaming led him on to wider anticipations even than those of literary glory. "If I am to be a grand fellow (which, it's true, we don't yet know), I may add to my fame as a great author that of being a great citizen. This is a tempting ambition also."
At the end of April 1820, he went to Villeparisis with his completed tragedy. Counting on a triumph, he had requested that some acquaintances should be invited to the house to hear it read aloud. Among those present was the gentleman who had advised his turning clerk in the Civil Service. The reading commenced, and, as it progressed, the youthful author noticed that his audience first showed signs of being bored, then of being bewildered, and lastly of being frankly dissatisfied and hostile. Laure was dumbfounded. The candid gentleman broke out into uncompromising, scathing condemnation; and those who were most indulgent were obliged to pronounce that the famous tragedy was a failure. Honore defended his production with energy; and, to settle the dispute, his father proposed it should be submitted to an old professor of the Ecole Polytechnique, whom he knew, and who should act as umpire. This course was adopted; and the Professor, after careful examination of the manuscript, opined that Honore would act wisely in preferring any other career to literature.
The verdict was received with more calmness than might have been expected. Instead of twisting his own neck, as he had hinted he might, if unsuccessful, the young author quietly remarked that tragedies were not his forte and that he intended to devote himself to novels.
As the price of their assent to his continuance in writing, Honore's parents stipulated that he should quit his garret and come home. The return was all the more advisable as Laure was about to be married to a Monsieur Surville, who was a civil engineer, and a gap was thus created in the home circle, which his presence could prevent from being so much felt.[*] His health besides had suffered during his fifteen months of self-imposed privations. In after-life he complained much to some of his friends—Auguste Fessart and Madame Hanska amongst others—of his parents' or rather his mother's hardness to him while he was in the Lesdiguieres Street lodgings, and asserted that, if more liberality had then been displayed, most of his subsequent misfortunes would have been avoided. This is by no means certain. His troubles and burdens would seem to have been caused far more by mistakes of judgment and improvidence than by any stress of circumstance.
[*] Laurence, the younger sister, was married in 1821, twelve months after her sister. Her husband was Monsieur de Montzaigle. She died before the close of the decade.
For the next five years he remained with his father and mother, excepting the occasional visits paid to Touraine, L'Isle-Adam, or Bayeux, at which last place his sister Laure was settled for a while. In a letter to her there he banteringly spoke of his desire to enter the matrimonial state: "Look me out some widow who is a rich heiress," he said; "you know what I require. Praise me up to her—twenty-two years of age, amiable, polite, with eyes of life and fire, the best husband Heaven has ever made. I will give you fifty per cent on the dowry and pin-money." He alluded to his mother's worrying disposition and susceptibility: "We are oddities, forsooth, in our blessed family. What a pity I cannot put us into novels." This he was to do later.
Beforehand there was his Romantic cycle to be run through, in more than forty volumes, if Laure's statement could be believed. What she meant no doubt was sections of volumes or else tales; and even the composition of forty tales in five years would be a considerable performance. True, there were partnerships with Le Poitevin de l'Egreville,[*] Horace Raisson, Etienne Arago. And the material turned out was of the coarsest kind, generally second-hand, a hash-up of stories already published, imitations of Monk Lewis, Maturin, Mrs. Radcliffe, and French writers of the same school, with a little shuffling of characters and incidents. The preface to the novel that opened the series—The Heiress of Birague—speaks of an old trunk bequeathed by an uncle and filled with manuscripts, which the author had merely to edit. And the apology had more truth in it than he meant it to convey.
[*] Son of Le Poitevin Saint-Alme.
Balzac was quite aware of the small merit of this hack-work. To Laure he confessed: "My novel is finished. I will send it to you on condition of your not lending it or boasting of it as a masterpiece." He could appreciate better achievement, and spoke of Kenilworth as the finest thing in the world. His excuse was that he had no time to reflect upon what he wrote. He must write every day to gain the independence that he sought; and had none but this ignoble way, as he said, of securing it.
Moreover, there was still the dreaded possibility of his having to embrace another profession than literature. The notary was dead and the business had been taken over by some one else, so that this danger no longer threatened him; but the candid friend was inquiring about a second sinecure. "What a terrible man!" exclaimed Honore.
He indulged in a fit of premature discouragement, seeking for some one or something to cast a little brightness over what he deemed his dull existence. "I have none of the flowers of life," he lamented; "and yet I am in the season when they bloom! What is the good of fortune and joys when youth is past? Of what use the actor's garments if one does not play the role? The old man is one who has dined and looks at others eating. I am young and my plate is empty, and I am hungry, Laure. Will ever my two only, immense desires—to be celebrated and to be loved—be satisfied?" They were, but at a cost that was dearly paid.
However great Balzac's potential genius, it was too little developed, too little exercised at this period for him to produce anything of real, permanent worth. The fiction in which he was destined to excel, the only fiction he was peculiarly fitted to write, demanded maturity of experience that he could hardly acquire before another decade had passed over his head. Yet the stories he reeled off had a certain market value. The Heiress of Birague was sold for eight hundred francs, Jean-Louis, or the Foundling Girl, for thirteen hundred; and a higher price still was obtained (whether the money was actually received is uncertain) for the Handsome Jew, afterwards republished under a fresh title, The Israelite.
Contemporary critics declined to acknowledge that, in these books and their congeners,[*] there were some traces of a master-hand. To-day the traces are perceptible, because criticism has a better opportunity of discovering them. Here and there, and especially in Argow, the Pirate, is to be noticed a beginning of the realism that was afterwards the novelist's excellence. The theme, that of a brigand purified by love, is, as Monsieur le Breton remarks in his study of Balzac, a romantic one in the manner of Byron, and has things in common with Walter Scott's Heart of Midlothian, Victor Hugo's Bug-Jargal, and Pixerecourt's Belveder. There is an atmosphere of imagination in it, the action is quick, and the characters are strongly though distortedly drawn. Moreover, a breath of healthy sentiment runs through the story, which is not always the case in the later and more celebrated novels. Balzac must have learnt much and acquired much that was useful to him during this puddling of his ore in the furnace of his early efforts; and, if in his maturer age he retained certain defects of the Romantic school, it was because a lurking sympathy with them in his nature prevented his shaking himself free of them, when he reformed his manner.
[*] Other youthful productions were The Centenarian, The Last Fairy, Don Gigadas, The Excommunicated Man, Wann-Chlore, or Jane the Pale, The Curate of the Ardennes, and Argow, the Pirate.
The style of his letters at this same period was admirable, sparkling with wit and with a humour that unfortunately grew rarer, bitterer, and even coarser often, in his later career. Some of his rapidly sketched pictures were incidents of home life. This one represents his mother's fidgety disposition:—
"Louise, give me a glass of water."
"Ah, my poor Louise, I'm in a bad way; I am indeed!"
"It's worse than other years."
"Lud! . . . Ma'am!"
"My head is splitting. . . . . Oh, Louise! The shutters are slamming; it's enough to break all the panes in the drawing-room."
Already, with the faculty of exaggeration which characterised him all his life, he anticipated gaining within the next twelvemonth no less than twenty thousand francs; forgetting the small result of his Cromwell, he spoke of having a lot of theatrical pieces in hand, plus an historical novel, Odette de Champdivers, and another dealing with the fortunes of the R'hoone family. R'hoone was an anagram of his own name Honore. Lord R'hoone was one of his pseudonyms. And "Lord R'hoone," he told Laure, "will soon be the rage, the most amiable, fertile author; and ladies will regard him as the apple of their eye. Then the little Honore will arrive in a coach with head held up, proud look, and fob well garnished. At his approach, amidst flattering murmurs from the admiring crowd, people will say: 'He is Madame Surville's brother.' Then men, women, and children, and unborn babes will leap as the hills. . . . And I shall be the ladies' man, in view of which event I am saving up my money. Since yesterday I have given up dowagers, and intend to fall back on thirty-year-old widows. Send all you can find to Lord R'hoone, Paris. This address will suffice. He is known at the city gates. N.B.—Send them, carriage paid, free of cracks and soldering. Let them be rich and amiable; as for beauty, it is not a sine qua non. Varnish wears off, but the underneath earthenware remains."
Through all these displays of fireworks one fact stands out, that Balzac was in too great a hurry to reap fame and wealth—wealth especially. It was his hurry that inspired his constant complaint: "Ah! if only I had enough bread and cheese, I would soon make my mark and write books to last." This was not altogether true nor just to his parents. He had his bread and cheese and a home to eat it in, which authors have not always enjoyed who have gained immortality by their unaided pen. Although his family were anxious to see him independent, they did not oblige him to depend upon what he earned. Nothing at the moment prevented him from striving to produce something of good quality and spending the time necessary over it. He saw the better, but followed the worse.
"My ideas," he wrote to Laure, "are changing so much that my execution will soon change also. . . . In a short time there will be the same difference between the me of to-day and the me of to-morrow as exists between the young man of twenty and the man of thirty! I am reflecting; my ideas are ripening. I recognize that Nature has treated me favourably in giving me my heart and my head. Believe in me, dear sister, for I need some one to believe in me. I do not despair of doing something one day. I see at present that Cromwell had not even the merit of being an embryon. As for my novels, they are not up to much."
How could they be when he supplied them, so to speak, machine-made! "Citizen Pollet" button-holed him in August 1822 and induced him to sign an agreement binding him to deliver a couple of these stories by the 1st of October. Six hundred francs were paid cash down, and the rest in deferred bills. The second of the couple was the Curate of the Ardennes, which Laure helped him to write.
It surprises at first sight to read that the demand for this cheap fiction was so great in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The explanation is that, during the last years of the Empire, the article had scarcely been in the market at all, so that, in the Restoration period, which was one of peace and leisure, there was quite a rush for it. On the whole, Balzac did not manage to hit the public fancy with his work in this line. The further he went with it the less he liked it, and such bits of better stuff as he introduced in lieu of the blood and mystery rather lessened than increased the saleableness of his books. For the printing of the Last Fairy he had to pay, himself; and he was obliged to own, after five years' catering for popular taste, he was no nearer emerging from obscurity than he had been at the commencement. It was discouraging and humiliating; he had started with such confidence and boasting. Now those who had spoken against his literary vocation seemed to be justified, and those who had been most inclined to believe in him were sceptical.
However, there was still one woman who kept her faith in his capacity for soaring above the common pitch. She it was who, understanding him better than his own family, became a second mother to him. Attracted by him, in spite of his weaknesses of conceit, loudness, and vulgarity, she polished his behaviour, guided his perceptions, corrected his pretentiousness, influencing him through the sincerity and strength of her affection.
Twenty-two years his senior, she was the daughter of a German harpist named Henner, in favour at the Court of Louis XVI., whom Marie-Antoinette had married to Mademoiselle Quelpee-Laborde, one of her own ladies-in-waiting. Both King and Queen stood as god-parents to the Henners' little girl, who, when grown up, was married to a Monsieur de Berny, of ancient, noble lineage, and bore him nine children. The date at which Balzac made her acquaintance has been variously stated. Basing themselves upon his Love-story at School, some writers have supposed he knew her when he was a boy, but there is no evidence to confirm this hypothesis. The first definite mention of her and her family occurs in a gossipy letter he wrote to Laure in 1822 from Villeparisis, where the de Berny family were settled: "I may tell you," he says, "that Mademoiselle de B. has narrowly escaped being broken into three pieces in a fall; that Mademoiselle E. is not so stupid as we imagined; that she has a talent for serious painting and even for caricature; that she is a musician to the tips of her toes; that Monsieur C. continues to swear; that Madame de B(erny) has become a bran, wheat, and fodder merchant, perceiving after forty years' reflection that money is everything."
At this date, the relationship between him and Madame de Berny was one of ordinary friendship, yet with indications of warmer feelings on either side that his parents noticed and disapproved. With a view to discouraging the intimacy, they induced him to pay visits that took him from home for some time; but the object they aimed at was not attained. The intimacy ripened. Madame de Berny was his only confidante. His few male friends were too old or too young for his unbosomings. There was the Abbe de Villers whom he stayed with at Nogent, and there was Theodore Dablin, the retired ironmonger, whom he used to call his "cher petit pere." Besides these two elders, there was the young de Berny, who was considerably his junior. But to none of them could he talk unreservedly of his ambitions literary and political. For a man between twenty and thirty years of age, whose mind is seething with evolving thought, there is no more sympathetic and appreciative adviser than a woman some years his senior. Madame de Berny listened to his expression of Imperialistic opinions tinged with Liberalism, as she listened to his confession of hopes and disappointments; and, in turn, talked with persuasive accents of those pre-Revolution days which she had known as a child. She was able also to draw the curtain aside and show him something of the history of the revolution itself and of the Terror, during which she and her parents' family had been imprisoned. It was his first mingling with the grandeurs that were his delight. Through her narration, he was able to enter the old Court society and watch the intrigues of the personages who had been famous in it. Madame de Berny's mother was still living, and added her own reminiscences to those of her daughter. Later, by their agency he was introduced to some of the aristocratic partisans of the fallen dynasty—the Duke de Fitz-James and the Duchess de Castries. Under Madame de Berny's education, his Imperialism was transformed into Legitimism.