Honore de Balzac
Albert Keim and Louis Lumet
Translated from the French by
FREDERIC TABER COOPER
with illustrations from photographs
FREDERICK A. STOKES COMPANY, PUBLISHERS
Copyright, 1914 by Frederick A. Stokes Company
Of all the books perhaps the one best designed for training the mind and forming the character is "Plutarch." The lives of great men are object-lessons. They teach effort, devotion, industry, heroism and sacrifice.
Even one who confines his reading solely to biographies of thinkers, writers, inventors, poets of the spirit or poets of science, will in a short time have acquired an understanding of the whole History of Humanity.
And what novel or what drama could be compared to such a history? Accurate biographies record narratives which no romancer's imagination could hope to rival. Researches, sufferings, labors, triumphs, agonies and disasters, the defeats of destiny, glory, which is the "sunlight of the dead," illuminating the past, whether fortunate or tragic,—such is what the lives of Great Men reveal to us, or, if the phrase be allowed, paint for us in a series of fascinating and dramatic pictures.
This series of biographies is accordingly intended to form a sort of gallery, a museum of the great servants of Art, Science, Thought and Action.
It was Emerson who wrote a volume devoted to the Representatives of Humanity. Here we have still another collection of "Representative Men." This collection of profoundly interesting studies is entrusted to the care of two writers, Mr. Albert Keim and Mr. Louis Lumet, both of whom have already earned their laurels, the former as poet, novelist, playwright, historian and philosopher, and author of a definitive work upon Helvetius which deserves to become a classic, and the latter as publicist, art critic and scholar of rare and profound erudition. An acquaintance with the successive volumes in this series will give ample evidence of the value of such able collaborators.
On the mountain tops we breathe a purer and more vivifying air. And it is like ascending to a moral mountain top when we live, if only for a moment, with the dead who, in their lives did honour to mankind, and attain the level of those whose eyes now closed, once glowed like beacon-lights, leading humanity on its eternal march through night-time towards the light.
Chapter 1 :: The Treatise on the Human Will.
Chapter 2 :: The Garret.
Chapter 3 :: His Apprenticeship.
Chapter 4 :: In Business.
Chapter 5 :: The First Success.
Chapter 6 :: Dandyism.
Chapter 7 :: The "Foreign Lady."
Chapter 8 :: At Les Jardies.
Chapter 9 :: In Retirement.
The Treatise on the Human Will.
At Balzac's funeral, the glorious yet bitter seal upon his destiny, Victor Hugo delivered a magnificent address, and in his capacity as poet and seer proclaimed with assurance the judgment of posterity:
"His life has been brief yet full, and richer in works than in days.
"Alas! This powerful and indefatigable worker, this philosopher, this thinker, this poet, this genius has lived amongst us that life of storms, of struggles, of quarrels, of combats, which has always been the common lot of all great men. Today we see him at peace. He has escaped from controversies and enmities. He has entered, on the selfsame day, into glory and into the tomb. Henceforward he will shine far above all those clouds which float over our heads, among the brightest stars of his native land."
This discourse was admirable for its truth, its justice and its far-sightedness, a golden palm branch laid upon the author's tomb, around which there still arose clamours and bitter arguments, denying the greatness of his works, and rumours which veiled the features of the man behind a haze of absurd legends. A star of his country he certainly was, as Victor Hugo proclaimed him, one of those enduring stars which time—so cruel to others—fails to change, except to purify their light and augment their brilliance, to the greater pride of the nation. His life was indeed short, but it was one which set a salutary example, because, stripped of idle gossip, it teaches us the inner discipline, the commanding will and the courage of this hero who, in the midst of joy and sorrow alike, succeeded in creating an entire world.
Honore de Balzac was born at Tours on the 20th of March, 1799, on the ground floor of a building belonging to a tailor named Damourette, in the Rue de l'Armee d'Italie, No. 25,—now No. 35, Rue Nationale. The majority of his biographers have confused it with the dwelling which his father bought later on, No. 29 in the same street according to the old numbering, and the acacia which is there pointed out as having been planted at the date of his birth really celebrated that of his brother Henri, who was several years the younger.
Although born in Touraine, Balzac was not of Tourainian stock, for his birthplace was due merely to chance. His father, Bernard Francois Balssa or Balsa, came originally from the little village of Nougaire, in the commune of Montirat and district of Albi. He descended from a peasant family, small land-owners or often simple day labourers. It was he who first added a "c" to his patronymic and who later prefixed the particle for which the great novelist was afterwards so often reproached. Bernard Balssa, born July 22, 1746, left his native village at the age of fourteen years, never to return. What was his career, and what functions did he fulfil? Honore de Balzac says that his father was secretary to the Grand Council under Louis XV, and Laure Surville, his sister, wrote that under Louis XVI he was attorney to the Council. He himself, in an invitation to the marriage of his second daughter, Laurence, described himself as former secretary to the King's Council. During the revolution he was secretary to the minister of the navy, Bertrant de Molleville, and later was director of the commissary department in the first division of the Armee du Nord, stationed at Lille.
It is impossible to follow him through all the different wanderings necessitated by his functions, but it is known that upon returning to Paris he there married the daughter of one of his superior officers, Sallambier, attached to the Ministry of War and at the same time director of the Paris hospitals. At the time of the marriage, January 30, 1797, he was fifty-one years of age; his bride, Laure, was only eighteen, a young girl possessed of culture, beauty and distinction of manner. The first fruit of this union was a son, who, although nursed by the mother, died at an early age. Through the influence of his father-in-law, the elder Balzac obtained in 1799 the direction of the commissary department of the twenty-second military division, and installed himself at Tours, where the division was stationed, in the early months of the same year.
Francois soon had a reputation throughout the province. He was a sort of philosopher and reformer, a man with ideas. He despised the currently accepted opinions, and proclaimed his own boldly, indifferent to the consternation of his fellow townsmen. A large head emerging from the high, thick collar of his blue, white-braided coat, which opened to disclose an ample cravat, a smooth-shaven face and florid complexion, a powerful chin and full cheeks, framed in short, brown "mutton-chop" whiskers, a small mouth with thick lips, a long straight, slightly bulbous nose, an energetic face lit up by black eyes, brilliant and slightly dreamy, beneath a broad, determined forehead overhung with stray locks of hair, gathered back in the fashion of the Republic,—all these features proclaimed a rugged personality, a dominant character, conspicuously at variance with the placid bourgeoisie of Touraine. Francois Balzac had furthermore an agreeable presence and a self-satisfied manner, and it pleased him to boast of his southern origin.
The citizens of Tours spoke of him as "an eccentric," but he was greatly annoyed when the term reached his ears, for, good Gascon that he was, and proud of himself, body and mind, he felt that it was singularly humiliating to be treated with so little respect. In point of fact, he was quite justified in refusing to accept an appellation which, however well it might fit his manners as a well-intentioned fault-finder, caustic and whimsical in speech, in no way applied to his unusually broad and penetrating intelligence, teeming with new and strictly original ideas.
He was a disciple of Rousseau; he held certain social theories, and he was unsparing in his criticisms of existing governments. He had his own views as to how society at large should be governed and improved. The first of these views consisted in cultivating mankind, by applying the method of eugenic selection to marriage, in such a manner that after a few years there would be no human beings left save those who were strong, robust and healthy. He could not find sufficient sarcasm to express his scorn of governments which, in civilised countries, allowed the development of weaklings, cripples and invalids. Perhaps he based his theory upon his own example. Francois Balzac had the constitution of an athlete and believed himself destined to live to the age of a hundred years and upward. According to his calculations, a man did not reach his perfect development until after completing his first century; and, in order to do this, he took the most minute care of himself. He studied the Chinese people, celebrated for their longevity, and he sought for the best methods of maintaining what he called the equilibrium of vital forces. When any event contradicted his theories, he found no trouble in turning it to his own advantage.
"He was never," related his daughter, Mme. Laure Surville, in her article upon Balzac, "under any circumstances at a loss for a retort. One day, when a newspaper article relating to a centenarian was being read aloud (an article not likely to escape notice in our family, as may well be imagined) he interrupted the reader, contrary to his habit, in order to say enthusiastically, 'There is a man who has lived wisely and has never squandered his strength in all sorts of excesses, as so many imprudent young people do!' It turned out, on the contrary, that this wise old man frequently became drunk, and that he took a late supper every evening, which, according to my father, was one of the greatest enormities that one could perpetrate against one's health. 'Well,' resumed my father imperturbably, 'the man has shortened his life, no doubt about it.'"
Francois Balzac was not to be shaken in his opinions. Furthermore, he was not satisfied with asserting them in the course of conversation, but in spite of his lack of confidence in the influence of books upon prejudiced readers (for he considered that the sole exception was the reaction against chivalry brought about by Cervantes's Don Quixote), he wrote a number of pamphlets in which the vigour and originality of his mind are revealed. He published successively: An Essay regarding Two Great Obligations to be fulfilled by the French (1804), An Essay on the Methods of preventing Thefts and Assassinations (1807), A Pamphlet regarding the Equestrian Statue which the French People ought to raise to perpetuate the Memory of Henry IV (1815), The History of Hydrophobia (1819), etc. In the first of these works Francois Balzac proposed that a monument should be raised to commemorate the glory of Napoleon and the French army. Might that not be almost called the origin of the Arc-de-Triomphe?
The singularities of Francois Balzac in no wise hurt him in the estimation of the inhabitants of Touraine. He served as administrator of the General Hospice from 1804 to 1812, and introduced there a practical reform in providing remunerative work for the old men. As an attache of the Mayor's office, he had the mayoralty offered him in 1808, but he refused it in order to consecrate himself entirely to the sick and convalescent.
At Tours the Balzac household led the life of prosperous bourgeois folk. The father had acquired a house with grounds and farm lands. The Balzacs entertained and were received in society. People enjoyed— perhaps with some secret smiles—the unexpected outbursts of the husband, and they liked him for his kindly ironies which had no touch of malice. As for the subtle and witty Madame Laure Balzac, who had preserved all the graces of the eighteenth century, she was found delightful by all those whom she admitted to the honour of entering her circle of acquaintances.
She was a young woman of distinguished manner, with a somewhat oval face and small, delicate features, overcast at times with a shade of melancholy. She had a somewhat distant manner which she redeemed by a gesture of charming welcome, or a gracious phrase. She was pious, but without bigotry, a mystic whose religion was that of St. John, all gentleness and impulse. She read Swedenborg, St. Martin, and Jacob Boehm. She had an ardent and untrammelled imagination, but her character was firm. Her decisions were promptly taken and she knew how to enforce their execution. She was a woman of principle; she respected social rules and customs and demanded that the members of her family should observe them.
Four more children were born to this marriage, two sons and two daughters: Honore, Laure, Laurence, and Henri, all of whom had widely different destinies. Laure became the wife of an engineer of bridges and highways, M. Midy de la Greneraye Surville, and was intimately associated with the life of her older brother, whom she survived down to 1854; Laurence died a few years after her marriage in 1821 to M. de Montzaigle; Henri, the youngest, went through divers ups and downs; but finding himself unable to achieve a position of independence, he finally went into exile in the Colonies.
Madame de Balzac's first son having died, as was thought, in consequence of the mother's attempt to nurse him herself, Honore was placed with a nurse in the country district outside of Tours. He remained there until four years of age, together with his sister Laure, and it is there, no doubt, that they formed that tender and trusting friendship which never wavered. When he returned to the paternal roof, Honore was a plump, chubby-cheeked little boy with brown hair falling in masses of curls, a contented disposition and laughing eyes. People noticed him when out walking in his short vest of brown silk and blue belt, and mothers would turn around to say, "What a pretty child!"
Honore was impulsive, with a heart overflowing with affection, but the training he received at home was rigorous and severe. Entrusted to the hands of servants, under the high and mighty surveillance of his governess, Mlle. Delahaye, he received from his father, who was already an old man, nothing more than an indulgent and often absent-minded affection, while, as for his mother, she carried out with great firmness her theories regarding the relation between children and parents. She received hers each evening in her large drawing room with cold dignity. Before kissing them she recapitulated all the faults they had committed during the day, which she had learned from the governess, and her reproofs were reinforced with punishments. Honore never approached her without fear, repressing all his feelings and his need of affection. He suffered in secret. Then he would take refuge with his sister Laure, his only friend and comforter.
Before he was five years old he was sent to a day-school in Tours known as the Leguay Institution. He had a taste for reading, indeed it was more than a taste, it was a sort of mental starvation which made him throw himself hungrily upon every book he encountered. Otherwise, Honore was frankly a mediocre and negligent. But concentrated in himself and deprived of the caresses which would have meant so much to him, he created a whole world out of his readings and sometimes gave glimpses of it to Laure by acting out before her dramas and comedies of his own manufacture and of which he was the hero. His exuberance made him a good comrade; yet he also loved solitude. When alone, he could give himself up to the fantasies born of his own imagination, and he invented his own games and used to play upon a cheap toy violin made of red wood airs which he enjoyed to the point of ecstasy and of which no one else could bear the sound.
At the age of eight years and some months, on the 22d of June, 1807, Honore entered a college school at Vendome. It was an institution celebrated throughout the districts of central France and directed by the Oratorian Fathers. Prior to the Revolution, cadets used to be trained there for the army, and it had preserved the military severity of its discipline. After their admission, the pupils were never allowed outside vacations and never left its walls until their course of study was terminated. Honore lived there until April 22, 1813,—and in Louis Lambert he has described his sufferings, his hopes and the tumultuous and confused awakening of his genius, throughout those long years of convent-like imprisonment. He had passed from the cold discipline of the family circle, which had nevertheless been tempered by an atmosphere of kindliness, to the hard and impersonal discipline of the college school. The warm-hearted and melancholy child must needs undergo this second severe test, and he was destined to come out from it in a state of self-intoxication, a bewilderment of dreams and ideas.
The college buildings, surrounded by walls, contained everything that would seem calculated to render existence laborious and gloomy for the students. The latter were divided into four sections, the Minions, the Smalls, the Mediums, and the Greats, to which they were assigned according to the grade of their studies. For diversion, they had a narrow garden which they could cultivate and a cabin; they had permission to raise pigeons and to eat them, in addition to the ordinary fare. The classrooms were dirty, being either muddy or covered with dust, according to the season, and evil-smelling as a result of crowding together within narrow spaces too many young folks who were none too clean and to whom the laws of hygiene were unknown. The masters were either overbearing or neglectful, incapable of distinguishing the individual from the crowd and concerned only with seeing that the rules were obeyed and discipline maintained. The pupils themselves were often cruel to each other.
It was here that Honore de Balzac formed his own character, alone, and suffered alone, sensitive and repressed child that he was. From the very first months of the sojourn in the College of Vendome, he was classed among the apathetic and lazy pupils, among those of whom nothing could be made, who would never be an honour to the school that trained them and could be ignored excepting for the purposes of punishment. Honore had an insurmountable aversion for all the required tasks, he was indifferent to the charms of Greek themes or Latin translations, and history alone had the power of stirring him and awakening his appetite for knowledge. He was habitually sluggish and stupid in the eyes of his masters, but what a formidable, unknown work was going on in the brain of this child!
We may picture him in the classroom, during study hour, leaning on his left elbow and holding an open book with his right hand, while he rubs his shoes one against the other, with a mechanical movement. What is he reading? Morality in Action and in Example. His obscure desires are taking definite form. To become a great man, a hero, one of those whose names are transmitted from age to age, such from choice will be his own destiny. He seizes his pen and rapidly writes "Balzac, Balzac, Balzac" over all the white margins of the book on morality. (This book passed into the possession of M. Jules Claretie.) Then once more he leans upon his elbow, gazing out of the window at a corner of verdure which he can just glimpse, and forthwith he is off again in one of his interminable reveries.
The harsh voice of his teacher interrupts him:
"You are doing nothing, M. Balzac."
The boy falls back from his dreams into the classroom. The reproof has hurt him keenly. He fixes his magnetic black eyes upon the teacher. Is it bitterness, disdain or anger towards him for having destroyed those fruitful meditations? At all events, the teacher feels something like a shock. He says:
"If you look at me like that, M. Balzac, you will receive the ferrule."
The ferrule! The thong of leather that cut so painfully when it fell with dreaded rhythm, one, two, three, on the tips of the fingers or the palm of the hand.
Punishments rained heavily on Balzac, the bad pupil, who seems to have been perpetually in disgrace over his tasks and lessons. These punishments included the extra copying of lines in such numbers that he has been declared the inventor of the three-pointed pen; and then there was imprisonment in the dormitory, "the wooden breeches," as it was called in the college, and where he remained for weeks at a time. Whether he suffered from these punishments and from the contempt of his teachers, Honore at least never complained; for whatever left his mind free to follow its own self-cultivation was a welcome opportunity.
He had a tutor, the librarian of the rich Oratorian library, who during those rare recreation hours, when he had no extra lines to copy, was supposed to give him special lessons in mathematics. But by a tacit agreement the teacher paid no attention to the pupil, and the latter was permitted to read and carry away any books which took his fancy. In point of fact, no book seemed to him too austere or too repellent or too obscure for his youthful understanding. He absorbed pell-mell works upon religion, treatises of chemistry and physics, and historical and philosophical works. He even developed a special taste for dictionaries, dreaming over the exact sense of words, the adventures that befall them in the course of time and their final destinies.
"The absorption of ideas through reading had become in his case a curious phenomenon," so Honore de Balzac has recorded in Louis Lambert, in which he has painted in the person of his hero his own formative years in the college school of Vendome. "His eye would take in seven or eight lines at once, and his mind would grasp the meaning with a velocity equal to that of his glance; sometimes even a single word in a phrase was enough to give him the essence of it. His memory was prodigious. He retained thoughts acquired through reading with the same fidelity as those suggested to him in the course of reflection or conversation. In short, he possessed every kind of memory: that of places, of names, of things, and of faces. Not only could he recall objects at will, but he could see them again within himself under the same conditions of position and light and colour as they had been at the moment when he first perceived them. This same power applied equally to the most intangible processes of the understanding. He could remember, according to his own expression, not merely the exact spot from which he had gleaned a thought in any given book, but also the conditions of his own mind at far-off periods. By an undreamed-of privilege, his memory could thus retrace the progress and entire life history of his mind from the earliest acquired ideas down to the latest ones to unfold, from the most confused down to the most lucid. His brain, which while still young was habituated to the difficult mechanism of the concentration of human forces, drew from this rich storehouse a multitude of images admirable for their reality and freshness, and which supplied him with mental nutriment through all his periods of clear-sighted contemplation."
Such was the mental condition of Honore at the time when he was regarded by his masters as a dullard, a mediocre pupil who might as well be left to reap the consequences of his own laziness. Clad in his grey uniform, ill shod and with hands red and swollen from chilblains, he held aloof from his comrades, indifferent alike to their games and their taunts. The ruddy colour of well-rounded cheeks, due to long walks in the open air of the countryside around Tours, had disappeared and his face was now as white and delicate as a young girl's, while his eyes had become blacker and more mysterious than ever.
Honore de Balzac received visits from his parents at Easter and at the time of the distribution of prizes. It was a joyous occasion, long awaited by the boy, who retained the warmest affection for his family. But his joy was short-lived. The pupil Balzac had won no prizes, he had received black marks, he had done no work; consequently, instead of the loving greeting that he expected, he was met only with words of disappointment and censure; he was told that he did not appreciate the sacrifices that were being made to educate him, he was idle and lazy; they hoped that next year he would do better and at last give them some little satisfaction.
Honore listened to these reproofs with bowed head, and probably he made promises, in his desire to bring a smile to their faces and to receive some of those endearments that he had hungered for, through long days of solitude. But each year he again took up his interrupted dream, more laboriously and more fiercely than before.
The college school at Vendome possesses a literary society whose membership is confined to the Greats, and which gives performances of scenes from tragedies and comedies, poetic recitations, etc. Honore conceived the ambition to have some writing of his own produced by this society. He practised rhyming, composed poems, and undertook an epic, one line of which has remained famous,
"O Inca! luckless and unhappy king,"
for it made him the butt and by-word of the entire school. He was nicknamed "The Poet," and laughed at for his formless efforts. The director of the school, M. Mareschal, told him a fable, with the charitable intent of turning him aside from his ambitions. There was once upon a time a young linnet in a soft and downy nest; but the young linnet longed for the free and open air and the blue sky. Its wings had not yet grown, and yet the imprudent bird made up its mind to fly. What happened? Why, simply that the young linnet fell from the tree in which the nest was built, and hurt itself pitifully. Warning to poets who presume too far upon their powers. Honore disregarded the fable, just as he had disregarded reproofs, mockery and punishment, and burrowed deeper than ever into the Oratorian library, in a sort of somber phrensy. He neglected his studies and assigned tasks for the sake of the secret and forbidden work that constituted what he called later on, in Louis Lambert, his contraband studies. Although he continued to write poetry, his mind as it ripened and gathered strength in its singular solitude aspired to still loftier works, based upon metaphysics and pure reason.
While his comrades translated Virgil and Demosthenes, he had begun to write a Treatise upon the Will, a symbolic work which contained the germs of his entire destiny. His fellow students, rendered curious by his sustained application, continuing month after month, tried in vain to steal glimpses over his shoulder, but Honore de Balzac would permit no profane eye to fall upon his manuscript. He eluded their persistence and entrusted the precious pages to a box which he could secure under lock and key. A conspiracy was formed. They wanted to know what he had been writing all this time with such serious intent that nothing could take his attention from it. During a recreation period Honore was copying, as usual, some extra lines as a punishment. A turbulent troupe invaded the classroom and flung themselves upon the box which concealed the manuscript. They wanted to know and they were going to know! Honore defended the box energetically, for it was his heart and brain which they wanted to know, it was all his knowledge and beautiful dreams that they wished to lay bare to the light of day. There followed a veritable battle around that little wooden casket. Attracted by the outcries of the assailants, one of the masters, Father Haugoult, arrived in the midst of the tumult. Balzac's crime was proclaimed, he was hiding papers in his box and refused to show them. The master straightway ordered this bad pupil to surrender these secret and forbidden writings. Honore could not do otherwise than obey, for the box would be broken open if he did not unlock it of his own accord; so, with trembling hands, he despoiled himself of his treasures.
With careless fingers the master fumbled over the manuscript and with an air of disdain and a voice of severity summed up the case against this bad pupil:
"And it was for the sake of such nonsense that you have been neglecting your duties!"
Honore held back his tears, profoundly hurt at this blow to his dreams and his creative pride; but he retained a confused sense of injustice and a conviction of the superior quality of his work.
He had now been at the Vendome school for more than six years, and had given himself up to a prodigious amount of work, the extent of which no one even suspected. He had grown thin and pallid and half dazed, intoxicated with the ideas which whirled within his brain without system or order. He seemed to be attacked by some grave malady, the cause of which could not be explained. The director of the school, M. Mareschal Duplessis, became anxious and wrote to the boy's parents to come and take him out of school. They came post-haste. Honore was apparently in a somnambulistic state, hardly answering the questions put to him; his features were drawn and haggard, for he had been carrying too heavy a burden of readings, feelings and thoughts. His family could no more understand than his masters did the origin of his strange disorder. And Mme. Sallambier, who had come to live with her daughter at Tours, after the death of her husband in 1804, summed up the opinion of the family:
"That is the state in which the schools give us back the fine children that we send them!"
His dazed condition, however, soon passed away after Honore's removal from the Vendome school. He was required to take long walks and play outdoor games, in consequence of which his cheeks filled out and regained their natural healthy colour. In appearance he was now a big lad, naive and contented, who laughingly submitted to his sisters' teasing. But he had put his ideas in order: the new and troubled wine of books, to the intoxication of which he had succumbed, had clarified itself; his intellect was now exceptionally profound and mature. But his family was not willing to perceive this, and when by chance some remark of his revealed it his mother would answer:
"Honore, you do not understand what you are saying!"
He did not try to dissuade her from this opinion, but consoled himself by turning to Laure and Laurence and confiding his plans to them:
"You shall see! I am going to be a great man!"
The girls laughed at this somewhat heavy-witted brother, who was so behind-hand in his studies, that although in the second form when he left Vendome, he had to be put back into the third at Tours, in the institution conducted by a M. Chretien. They greeted him with profound bows and mock reverence, and, while he responded with a good-natured smile, there was a certain pride mingled with it and an indefinable secret certainty as to the future.
In 1814 Francois Balzac was appointed Director of the Commissary Department of the First Military District, and the whole family removed to Paris, settling in the Marais quarter. Honore continued his studies at two different schools successively, first at the Lepitre school, in the Rue Saint-Louis, and then at the establishment of Sganzer and Bauzelin, in the Rue de Thorigny, where he continued to display the same mediocrity and the same indifference regarding the tasks required of him. Having finished the prescribed courses, he returned to his family, which at this time was living at No. 40, Rue du Temple, and his father decided that he should study law, supplementing the theoretical instruction of the law school with practical lessons from an attorney and notary. Honore was enrolled in the law school November 4, 1816, and at the same time was intrusted to a certain M. de Merville, who undertook to teach him procedure. He spent eighteen months in these studies, and was then transferred to the office of M. Passez, where the same lapse of time initiated him into the secrets of a notary's duties. In the month of January, 1819, he passed his examinations in law.
During these three years the life of Honore de Balzac had been extremely laborious. He faithfully attended the law school courses and copied legal and notarial documents. Yet all this did not prevent him from satisfying his literary tastes by attending the lectures given at the Sorbonne by Villemain, Guizot and Cousin. Nor had he given up his ambition to write and to become a great man, as he had predicted to his sisters, Laure and Laurence. Mme de Balzac, severe mother that she was, had regulated the employment of his time in such a way that he could never be at liberty. His bed-chamber adjoined his father's study, and he was required to go to bed at nine o'clock and rise at five, under such strict surveillance that he could later write, in The Magic Skin, "Up to the age of twenty-one I was bent beneath the yoke of a despotism as cold as that of a monastic order." In the evening, after dinner, he rendered an account of his day, and was then permitted to take a hand at Boston or whist, at the card-table of his grandmother Mme. Sallambier. The latter, sympathising with her grandson, who was so strictly limited in money that he hardly had, from day to day, two crowns that he could call his own, allowed herself to be beaten to the extent of moderate sums, which Honore afterwards spent in the purchase of new books.
In spite of this strict family discipline, Honore was at this time a congenial companion, full of high spirits and eager to please. He was delightfully ingenuous, and laughed heartily at jests at his own expense, frankly admitting his own blunders. But at times he would draw himself up in a haughty manner, half in fun and half in earnest: "Oh! I have not forgotten that I am destined to be a great man!"
Between the copying of two writs Honore de Balzac feverishly continued his literary efforts. He did not yet know how to make use of the material he had already amassed, ideas drawn from books and observations drawn from life; and he tried to measure his strength with that of the classic writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In overhauling Balzac's youthful papers, Champfleury has recovered the greater part of these essays. They show the greatest variety of interests. Here are five stanzas of wretched verse concerning the book of Job, two stanzas on Robert-le-Diable, a projected poem entitled, Saint Louis, the rough drafts of several novels, Stenie or Philosophic Errors, Falthurne: the Manuscript of the Abbe Savonati, translated from Italian by M. Matricante, Primary School Principal, The Accursed Child, The Two Friends, a satiric sketch, The Day's Work of a Man of Letters, Some Fools, and, furthermore, fragments of a work on idolatry, theism and natural religion, a historic monograph on the Vaudois, some outlined letters on Paris, literature, and the general police system of the realm of letters. In his youthful enthusiasms, Honore de Balzac shifted from Beaumarchais to Moliere, from Voltaire to Rousseau, from Racine to Corneille, and, contrary to his temperament, he drew up plans for violent and pathetic dramas, suited to the taste of the day.
After he had passed his examinations in law, and the question arose of a choice of career, his father announced to him the one which he had decided Honore should adopt: he should be a notary. One of their friends was willing to turn over his practice to him after a few years of apprenticeship. It was an honourable position, remunerative and much sought after. Honore de Balzac had arrived at the turning point of his existence. Here were two avenues before him, the first that of a notary, paved with gold, where he might reap honour, profit and esteem, a straight and easy route, restful and without unknown dangers; the second, lying outside of all the paths traced by society, and offering to those who entered upon it only a nebulous future, full of perils, uncertain combats, care, privation and want. It is a road which one must hew out for oneself, through the obscure forest of art and ideas, and many are the imprudent who have over-estimated their strength and perished there in the midst of indifference and contempt.
Everything urged Balzac towards a notary's career. The family fortune had diminished; the father had been placed upon the retired list, he had lost money in investments, it was absolutely necessary to cut down expenses, and Honore, as the oldest son, was expected to make a position for himself rapidly. Why did he hesitate to come to a decision and gratefully accept the proposition made by his father? The family brought pressure to bear, yet Honore continued to say, "No, I will not be a notary." It was considered nothing less than scandalous. His mother reproached him for his ingratitude and warned him that he was driving her to despair. She was ashamed of a son who repaid the sacrifices they had made to educate him with such a want of proper feeling. Yet Honore persisted in his attitude of revolt, Honore, who throughout his childhood and youth had hitherto always submitted docilely to all the rules and commands of the family. "No, I will not be a notary,—I wish to become an author,—a celebrated author." They laughed at him. What promise of talent had he ever given to justify such absurd pretensions? Was it those wretched scribblings which had formerly caused so much merriment that now inspired him with such pride? Very well! he must simply get over it. His little absurdities were all very funny, when he was at the age of frivolity and nonsense, but now that he had come to years of discretion, it was time he learned that life was not play: "So, my boy, you will be a notary." "No," repeats Honore, "I shall not." His black eyes flash, his thick lips tremble, and he pleads his cause before the family tribunal, the cause of his genius which no one else has recognised and which he himself perceives only confusedly within him.
"From childhood I looked upon myself as foreordained to be a great man," he wrote in The Magic Skin, "I struck my brow like Andre Chenier, 'There is something inside there!' I seemed to feel within me a thought to be expressed, a system to be established, a science to be expounded. I often thought of myself as a general, or an emperor. Sometimes I was Byron, and then again I was nothing. After having sported upon the pinnacle of human affairs, I discovered that all the mountains, all the real difficulties still remained to be surmounted. The measureless self-esteem which seethed within me, the sublime belief in destiny, which perhaps evolves into genius if a man does not allow his soul to be torn to tatters by contact with business interests, as easily as a sheep leaves its wool on the thorns of the thicket through which it passes,—all this was my salvation. I wished only to work in silence, to crown myself with glory, the one mistress whom I hoped some day to attain."
What he actually said lacked the precision and the form of these phrases, but he was eloquent, and his father, who had no reason to suppose that he had an imbecile for a son, was the first to yield, in a measure, to his arguments. His mother still resisted, frightened at the risks he must run, far from convinced by his words, and without confidence in the future. Nevertheless, she was forced to yield. It was decided to try an experiment,—but it was to be kept a close secret, because their friends would never have finished laughing at such parental weakness. Two years were accorded to Honore, within which to give some real proof of his talent. Hereupon he became joyously expansive, he was sure that he would triumph, that he would bring back a masterpiece to submit to the judgment of his assembled family and friends. But, since a failure was possible and they wished to guard themselves from such a mortification, his acquaintances were to be told that Honore was at Albi, visiting a cousin. Furthermore, in the hope of bringing him back to the straight path, through the pinch of poverty, his mother insisted that nothing more should be granted him than an annual allowance of fifteen hundred francs (less than 300 dollars), and that he should meet all his needs out of this sum. Honore would have accepted a bare and penniless liberty with equal fervour and enthusiasm.
For the sake of economy, the Balzac family decided upon a provincial life, and removed to Villeparisis, in the department of Seine-et-Oise, where they secured a small yet comfortable bourgeois house. This was in the early months of 1819; Honore, at the age of twenty-one, was left alone in Paris.
They had installed him in a garret, high up under a mansarde roof, in the Rue Lesdiguieres, No. 9, and it was he himself who chose this lodging because of the ease with which he could reach the Arsenal library during the daytime, while at night he would stay at home and work.
Ah, what a long, deep breath he drew, and how heartily he laughed his silent, inward laugh, as he stood with crossed arms and let his black eyes make inspection of his cramped and miserable dwelling. He was free, free! Here was his desk, covered with brown leather, his ink and pens, here were four chairs and a cupboard in which to hang his clothes and store away a few plates and his precious coffee pot, there was his monastic bed, and beyond it some shelves nailed to the wall to hold his books. He sat down and dreamed, for he had just won his first victory, he was no longer accountable to anyone in the world for each and every hour of his life.
"I rejoiced," he has written in The Magic Skin, "at the thought that I was going to live upon bread and milk, like a hermit in the Thebiade, plunged in the world of books and ideas, in an inaccessible sphere, in the midst of all the tumult of Paris, the sphere of work and of silence, in which, after the manner of a chrysalis, I was about to build myself a tomb, in order to emerge again brilliant and glorious." Next, he calculates what his expenses were during this studious retreat: "Three cents' worth of bread, two of milk, three of sausage prevented me from dying of hunger and kept my mind in a lucid condition... My lodgings cost me three cents a day, I burned three cents' worth of oil per night, I did my own housework, I wore flannel night-shirts, in order to cut down my laundry bill to two cents a day. I warmed my room with coal instead of wood, for I found that the cost divided by the number of days in the year never exceeded two cents. I had a supply of suits, underclothing and shoes sufficient to last a year, and I did not need to dress excepting to go to the libraries and do a few errands. The sum total of these expenses amounted to only eighteen cents, which left me two cents over for emergencies." Balzac somewhat exaggerates his poverty and reduces his expenses to suit the pleasure of his poetic fantasy, but undoubtedly it was a brusque transition from the bourgeois comfort of family life to the austerity of his garret.
Nevertheless, he was exuberant and joyous,—as irresponsible as a young colt freshly turned out to pasture. His sister Laure, now living at Villeparisis with her parents, continued to receive his confidences. He wrote her the most minute details of his solitary existence,—jesting and burlesquing in a vein of frank and familiar humour.
"You ask, my dear sister, for details of my domestic arrangements and manner of living; well, here they are:
"I wrote directly to mamma, in regard to the cost of my purchases,—a little subterfuge to get an increased allowance,—but now you are going to tremble: it is much worse than a purchase,—I have acquired a servant!
"'A servant! What are you thinking of, my brother?'
"Yes, a servant. He has as odd a name as the servant of Dr. Nacquart (Balzac's physician); his is called Tranquil; mine is called Myself. A bad bargain, beyond question! Myself is lazy, awkward, and improvident. When his master is hungry or thirsty, he sometimes has neither bread nor water to offer him; he does not even know how to protect him from the wind which blows in through door and window, as Tulou blows upon his flute, but less agreeably.
"As soon as I am awake, I ring for Myself, and he makes up my bed. Then he starts in sweeping, but he is far from expert in that line of exercise.
"'What do you wish, sir?'
"'Look at that spider's-web, where that big fly is buzzing loud enough to deafen me! Look at the sweepings scattered under the bed! Look at the dust on the window-panes, so thick that I can hardly see!'
"'But Monsieur, I do not see . . .'
"'Come, hold your tongue! No answering back!'
"Accordingly, he holds his tongue.
"He brushes my coat and he sweeps my room while he sings, and he sings while he sweeps, laughs while he talks, and talks while he laughs. All things considered, he is a good lad. He has carefully put away my linen in the wardrobe beside the chimney, after first lining it with white paper; out of six cents' worth of blue paper, with the border thrown in, he has made me a screen. He has painted the room white, from the book-shelves to the chimney. When he ceases to be satisfied,—a thing which has not yet occurred,—I shall send him to Villeparisis, to get some fruit, or else to Albi to see how my cousin is." (April 12, 1819.)
Honore de Balzac was intoxicated with his liberty, and revelled in it to his heart's content. He could dream, idle, read or work, according to his mood. Ideas swarmed in his brain, and every day he drafted projects for tragedies, comedies, novels and operas. He did not know which of all these to work out to a finish, for every one of them seemed to him capable of being developed into a masterpiece. He brooded over a possible novel which was to be called Coquecigrue, but he doubted whether he had the ability to carry it out according to his conception; so, after long hesitation, he decided in favour of a classic drama in verse, Cromwell, which he considered the finest subject in modern history. Honore de Balzac rhymed ahead desperately, laboriously, for versification was not his strong point, and he had infinite trouble in expressing, with the required dignity, the lamentations of the Queen of England. His study of the great masters hampered him: "I devour our four tragic authors. Crebillon reassures me, Voltaire fills me with terror, Corneille transports me, and Racine makes me throw down my pen." Nevertheless, he refused to renounce his hopes. He had promised to produce a masterpiece, he was pledged to achieve a masterpiece, and the price of it was to be a blessed independence.
In the silence of his mansarde garret he worked, with his brow congested, his head enveloped in a Dantesque cap, his legs wrapped in a venerable Touraine great-coat, his shoulders guaranteed against the cold, thanks to an old family shawl. He toiled over his alexandrian lines, he sent fragments of his tragedy to Laure, asking her for advice: "Don't flatter me, be severe." Yet he had high ambitions: "I want my tragedy to be the breviary of peoples and kings!" he wrote. "I must make my debut with a masterpiece, or wring my neck."
Meanwhile Cromwell did not wholly absorb him. Honore de Balzac was already a fluent writer, full of clamorous ideas and schemes that each day were born anew. Between two speeches of his play, he would sketch a brief romance of the old-fashioned type, draft the rhymes of a comic opera, which he would later decide to give up, because of the difficulty of finding a composer, hampered as he was by his isolation. In addition to his literary occupations, he took an anxious interest in politics. "I am more than ever attached to my career," he wrote to his sister Laure, "for a host of reasons, of which I will give you only those that you would not be likely to guess of your own accord. Our revolutions are very far from being ended; considering the way that things are going, I foresee many a coming storm. Good or bad, the representative system demands immense talent; big writers will necessarily be sought after in political crises, for do they not supplement their other knowledge with the spirit of observation and a profound understanding of the human heart?
"If I should become a shining light (which, of course, is precisely the thing that we do not yet know), I may some day achieve something besides a literary reputation, and add to the title of 'great writer' that of great citizen. That is an ambition which is also tempting! Nothing, nothing but love and glory can ever fill the vast recesses of my heart, within which you are cherished as you deserve to be."
In order to enlighten himself in regard to the legislative elections, he appealed to one of his correspondents, M. Dablin, a rich hardware merchant and friend of the family, who had often come to the aid of his slender purse. He asked him for a list of the deputies, and inquired what their political opinions were and how the parties would be divided in the new Chamber, and when he did not receive as prompt an answer as he had expected, he repeated his questions with a certain show of impatience. At this period of isolation, M. Dablin was also his factotum and his mentor. Balzac commissioned him to buy a Bible, carefully specifying that the text must be in French as well as Latin; he wished to read the Sicilian Vespers; he felt it his duty, as a simple soldier in the ranks of literature, to attend a performance of Cinna, by the great General Corneille, from the safe seclusion of a screened box, and he would be glad to see Girodet's Endymion at the Exposition, "some morning when there is no one else there," in order not to betray his incognito!
How happy he was during those hours of liberty that were never to return and which he was destined to remember with unparalleled emotion, in his subsequent inferno of ceaseless toil! He was utterly irresponsible, he made an orgy out of a melon or a jar of preserves sent him from Villeparisis, and he decorated his garret with flowers, which were the gift of Laure, his beloved confidante. He had his dreams and his hours of exultation, when he listened to the mingled sounds of Paris, which rose faintly to his dormer window during the beautiful golden evenings of springtime, evenings that seemed to young and ambitious hearts so heavy-laden with ardent melancholy and hope; and he would cry aloud: "I realised today that wealth does not make happiness, and that the time that I am spending here will be a source of sweet memories! To live according to my fantasy, to work according to my taste and convenience, to do nothing at all if I so choose, to build beautiful air-castles for the future, to think of you and know that you are happy, to have Rousseau's Julie for my mistress, La Fontaine and Moliere for my friends, Racine for my master and the cemetery of Pere Lachaise for my promenade! . . . Oh! if all this could last forever!"
And his twenty years, burning with the fever of vast desires, betray themselves in a single exclamation: "To be celebrated and to be loved!"
But there were times when he left his garret at nightfall, mingled with the crowd and there exercised those marvellous faculties of his which verged upon prodigy. He has described them in a short tale, Facino Cano, and they appear to have been an exceptional gift. "I lived frugally," he writes; "I had accepted all the conditions of monastic life, so essential to those who toil. Even when the weather was fine, I rarely allowed myself a short walk along the Boulevard Bourdon. One passion alone drew me away from my studious habits; yet was not this itself a form of study? I used to go to observe the manners and customs of suburban Paris, its inhabitants and their characteristics. Being as ill-clad and as careless of appearances as the labourers themselves, I was not mistrusted by them, I was able to mingle with groups of them, to watch them concluding their bargains and quarrelling together at the hour when they quit their work. In my case, observation had already become intuitive, it penetrated the soul without neglecting the body, or rather it grasped so well the exterior details that it straightway passed above and beyond them; it gave me the faculty of living the life of the individual on whom it was exerted, by permitting me to substitute myself for him, just as the dervish in the Thousand and One Nights took the body and soul of those persons over whom he pronounced certain words.
"To throw off my own habits, to become some one else than myself, through an intoxication of the moral faculties, and to play this game at will, such was my way of amusing myself. To what do I owe this gift? Is it a form of second sight? Is it one of those qualities, the abuse of which might lead to madness? I have never sought the sources of this power; I possess it and make use of it, that is all."
Some evenings he would not go out, because ideas were surging in his brain; but if the rebellious rhymes refused to come he would descend to the second floor and play some harmless games with certain "persons," or it might be a hand at boston, for small stakes, at which he sometimes won as much as three francs. His resounding laughter could be heard, echoing down the staircase as he remounted to his garret, exulting over his extensive winnings. Nothing, however, could turn him aside from his project of writing Cromwell, and he set himself a date on which he should present his tragedy to the members of his family gathered together for the purpose of hearing him read it. After idling away long days at the Jardin des Plantes or in Pere-Lachaise, he shut himself in, and wrote with that feverish zeal which later on he himself christened "Balzacian"; revising, erasing, condensing, expanding, alternating between despair and enthusiasm, believing himself a genius, and yet within the same hour, in the face of a phrase that refused to come right, lamenting that he was utterly destitute of talent; yet throughout this ardent and painful effort of creation, over which he groaned, his strength of purpose never abandoned him, and in spite of everything he inflexibly pursued his ungoverned course towards the goal which he had set himself. At last he triumphed, the tragedy was finished, and, his heart swelling with hope, Honore de Balzac presented to his family the Cromwell on which he relied to assure his liberty.
The members of the family were gathered together in the parlour at Villeparisis, for the purpose of judging the masterpiece and deciding whether the rebel who had refused to be a notary had not squandered the time accorded him in which to give proof of his future prospects as an author. The father and mother were there, both anxious, the one slightly sceptical, yet hoping that his son would reveal himself as a man of talent; the other as mistrustful as ever, but at the same time much distressed to see her son so thin and sallow, for during those fifteen months of exile he had lost his high colour and his eyes were feverish and his lips trembling, in spite of his fine air of assurance. Laurence was there, young, lively and self-willed; and Laure also, sharing the secret of the tragedy and sighing and trembling on behalf of Honore, her favourite brother. It was a difficult audience to conquer, for they had also invited for that evening such friends as knew of the test imposed upon the oldest son; and these same friends, while perhaps regarding it as a piece of parental weakness, nevertheless now played the role of judges.
"At the end of April, 1820," relates Mme Surville, "he arrived at my father's home with his finished tragedy. He was much elated, for he counted upon scoring a triumph. Accordingly, he desired that a few friends should be present at the reading. And he did not forget the one who had so strangely underestimated him. (A friend, who judged him solely on the strength of his excellent handwriting, declared, when the question arose of choosing a position for him, that he would never make anything better than a good shipping clerk.)
"The friends arrived, and the solemn test began. But the reader's enthusiasm rapidly died out as he discovered how little impression he was making and noted the coldness or the consternation on the faces before him. I was one of those who shared in the consternation. What I suffered during that reading was a foretaste of the terrors I was destined to experience at the opening performances of Vautrin and Quinola.
"With Cromwell he had not yet avenged himself upon M. — (the friend of whom mention has just been made); for, blunt as ever, the latter pronounced his opinion of the tragedy in the most uncompromising terms. Honore protested, and declined to accept his judgment; but his other auditors, though in milder terms, all agreed that the work was extremely faulty.
"My father voiced the consensus of opinion when he proposed that they should have Cromwell read by some competent and impartial authority. M. Surville, engineer of the Ourcq Canal, who was later to become Honore's brother-in-law, suggested a former professor of his at the Polytechnic School. (Mlle. Laure de Balzac was married in May, 1820, one month after the reading of Cromwell, to M. Midy de Greneraye Surville, engineer of Bridges and Highways.)
"My father accepted this dean of literature as decisive judge.
"After a conscientious reading, the good old man declared that the author of Cromwell had better follow any other career in the world than that of literature."
Such was the judgment passed upon this masterpiece which had been intended to be "the breviary of peoples and of kings!" Yet these successive condemnations in no way shook Balzac's confidence in his own genius. He wished to be a great man, and in spite of all predictions to the contrary he was going to be a great man. No doubt he re-read his tragedy in cold blood and laughed at it, realising all its emphatic and bombastic mediocrity. But it was a dead issue, and now with a new tensity of purpose he looked forward to the works which he previsioned in the nebulous and ardent future; no setback could turn him aside from the path which he had traced for himself.
The precious hours of liberty, in the mansarde garret, had taken flight. After fifteen months of independence, study and work, Honore returned to the family circle, summoned home by his mother. She desired, no doubt, to care for him and restore his former robust health which had been undermined by a starvation diet, but she also wished to keep him under strict surveillance, since privation had failed to bend his will and the disaster of his tragedy had not turned him aside from his purpose. Honore, unconquered by defeat, had asked that they should assure him an annual allowance of fifteen hundred francs, in order that he might redeem his failure at an early date. This request was refused, and nothing was guaranteed him beyond food and lodging, absolutely nothing, unless he submitted to their wishes.
What years of struggle those were! Honore de Balzac refused to despair of his destiny, and he valiantly entered upon the hardest of all his battles, without support and without encouragement, in the midst of hostile surroundings. He used to go from Villeparisis to Paris, seeking literary gatherings, knocking at the doors of publishers, exhausting himself in the search for some opening. And how could he work under the paternal roof? Nowhere in the house could he find the necessary quiet, and he was practically looked upon as an incapable, an outcast who would be a disgrace to his family. He himself felt the precariousness of his present situation, and in consequence became taciturn, since he could not communicate to the others his own unwavering faith in the future, and he was forced to admit that, at the age of twenty-two, he had not yet given them any earnest of future success.
In order to demonstrate that it is not impossible to live by literature, and more especially for the sake of establishing his material independence, he was ready to accept any sort of a task whatever. And all the more so, since his mother had not given up hope of making him accept one of those fine careers in which an industrious young fellow may win esteem and fortune. The "spectre of the daily grind" stared him in the face, and although he had escaped a notary's career, through the death of the man to whose practice he was to have succeeded, they gave him to understand that the sombre portals of a government position might open to him.
"Count me among the dead," he wrote to his sister Laure, who, since her marriage, had resided at Bayeux, "if they clap that extinguisher over me. I should turn into a trick horse, who does his thirty or forty rounds per hour, and eats, drinks and sleeps at the appointed moment. And they call that living!—that mechanical rotation, that perpetual recurrence of the same thing!"
In spite of a few short trips, and occasional brief sojourns in Paris, in the one foothold which his father had retained there, he was constrained by necessity to remain beneath the family roof-tree. They gave him his food and his clothing, but no money. He suffered from this, and groaned and grumbled as if he were in a state of slavery. Nevertheless, his unquenchable good humour and his determination to make his name famous and to acquire a fortune saved him from the impotence of melancholy. He drew spirited sketches of the family and sent them to Laure, to prove to her that he was resigned.
He admired his father's impassiveness in the midst of all the confusion of the household, like an Egyptian pyramid, indifferent to the hurricane. The fine old man who expected to live upwards of a hundred years and share with the State, as last survivor, the profits of a Lafarge tontine policy in which he held a share, a sum amounting to millions, studied the writings of the Chinese because they were famous for their longevity. He had lost nothing of his serenity nor of his caustic wit, and Honore confessed that he himself had very nearly choked, laughing at some of his jests. Nevertheless he was not a father in whom one could confide, and the son, isolated and forced to conceal his feelings, found relief only in his brief periods of work in Paris, and in observing the habits and manners of the family circle. He witnessed the preparations for the marriage of his sister, Laurence, to M. de Montzaigle, visiting inspector of the city imposts of Paris, and he drew this picturesque portrait of his future brother-in-law: "He is somewhat taller than Surville; his features are quite ordinary, neither homely nor handsome; his mouth is widowed of the upper teeth, and there is no reason for assuming that it will contract a second marriage, since mother nature forbids it; this widowhood ages him considerably, but on the whole he is not so bad—as husbands go. He writes poetry, he is a marvellous shot; if he fires twenty times, he brings down not less than twenty-six victims! He has been in only two tournaments, and has taken the prize both times; he is equally strong in billiards; he rhymes, he hunts, he shoots, he drives, he . . . , he . . . , he . . . And you feel that all these accomplishments, carried to the highest degree in one and the same man, have given him great presumption; that is the trouble with him up to a certain point, and that certain point, I am very much afraid, is the highest degree in the thermometer of self-conceit."
Honore admitted, however, that his sister Laurence would be happy in her marriage and that M. de Montzaigle was a thorough gentleman; but it was not after this fashion that he himself understood marriage and love: "Presents, gifts, futile objects, and two, three or four months of courtship do not constitute happiness," he wrote; "that is a flower which grows apart and is very difficult to find."
Meanwhile Honore de Balzac, tired of the discomfort of trying to work at Villeparisis, between his ever-distrustful mother and his indulgent but sceptical father, hired a room in Paris, no one knows by what means. There he shut himself in, and there he composed the novels of his youthful period, having for the time being put aside his dreams of glory. To earn money and to be free, that was his immediate necessity. Later on, when he had an assured living, he would be able to undertake those great works, the vague germs of which he even then carried within him.
His repeated efforts at last bore fruit; he found collaborators, namely Poitevin de Saint-Alme, who signed himself "Villargle," Amedee de Bast, and Horace Raisson, and then a publisher, Hubert, who undertook to bring out his first novel. It was issued in 1822, in four volumes, under the somewhat cumbrous title of The Heiress of Birague, a Story based upon the Manuscripts of Don Rage, Ex-Prior of the Benedictines, and published by his two Nephews, A. de Villargle and Lord R'Hoone. This work brought him in eight hundred francs in the form of long-period promissory notes, which he was obliged to discount at a usurious rate, besides sharing the profits with his collaborator. Nevertheless the fact that he had earned money renewed his faith in his approaching deliverance, and he uttered a prolonged and joyous shout. He informed Laure of his success, and suggested that she should recommend his novel as a masterpiece to the ladies of Bayeux, promising that he would send her a sample copy on condition that she should not lend it to any one for fear that it might injure his publisher by decreasing the sales. Straightway he began to build an edifice of figures, calculating what his literary labours would bring him in year by year, and feeling that he already had a fortune in his grasp. This was the starting point of those fantastic computations which he successively drew up for every book he wrote, computations that always played him false, but that he continued to make unweariedly to the day of his death.
From this time on, Honore de Balzac devoted himself for a time, with a sort of feverish zeal, to the trade of novel-maker for the circulating libraries. He realised all the baseness of it, but, he argued, would he not be indebted to it for the preservation of his talent? The Heiress of Birague was followed by Jean-Louis, or the Foundling Girl, published by Hubert in four volumes, for which he received thirteen hundred francs. His price was going up, and his productive energy increased in proportion. Still working for Hubert, he followed Jean-Louis with Clotilde de Lusignan, or the Handsome Jew, "a manuscript found in the archives of Provence, and published by Lord R'Hoone," in four volumes. It brought him in two thousand, a princely sum!
Henceforward, nothing could stop him on his road to success, and he had no doubt that he would soon earn the twenty thousand francs which were destined to form the basis of his fortune. He changed publishers and, in 1822, he brought out through Pollet, within the space of a few months, The Centenarian or the Two Beringhelds, by Horace de Saint-Aubin, in eight volumes, and The Vicar of the Ardennes, which appeared over the same pseudonym, and for which he had requested the collaboration of his sister and his brother-in-law, Surville.
This was a year of unbridled production. Honore lived in a state of exaltation; one of his letters to Laure was signed, "writer for the public and French poet at two francs a page." He had almost realised his dream of liberty. But when this fever of writing chapter after chapter, novel after novel, had cooled off, he realised what wretched stuff they were, and he regretted the precious hours of his youth that they were costing him, because of his impatience to prove his talent by results. He admitted this to his sister, frankly and with dignity, in the full confidence of his inborn gift.
"At all events, I am beginning to feel and estimate my strength. To know what I am worth, and yet sacrifice the first flower of my ideas on such stupidities! It is heart-breaking! Oh, if I only had the cash, I would find my niche fast enough and I would write books that might last a while!
"My ideas are changing so fast that before long my whole method will change! In a short time the difference between the me of today and the me of tomorrow will be the difference between a youth of twenty and a man of thirty. I think and think, and my ideas are ripening; I realise that nature has treated me kindly in giving me the heart and brain that I have. Believe in me, dear sister, for I have need of some one who believes, though I have not given up the hope of being somebody one of these days. I realise now that Cromwell did not even have the merit of being an embryo; and as to my novels, they are not worth a damn; and, what is more, they are no incentive to do better."
This letter was dated from Villeparisis, on a certain Tuesday evening, in the year 1822; Honore de Balzac was twenty-three years old; he read his destiny clearly, but he was fated to achieve it only after surmounting the hardest obstacles, by "the sweat of toil," to borrow his own vigorous phrase. While waiting for that desired epoch, when he would be able to be himself and nothing else, he was forced to continue to turn the millstone that ground out the worthless grain. In 1823, his productive power seems to have fallen off, either because he had exhausted the patience of his publishers, or for some other reason. During that year he published nothing excepting The Last Fairy or the New Wonderful Lamp, brought out by Barba.
After the hopes begotten in 1822 and his amazing effort of rapid production, Balzac once more encountered his old difficulty of placing his stories, and for nearly three years he waged a fruitless fight. In order to disarm his mother and give proof of his good will, he gave lessons to his brother Henri and to young de Berny, the son of a neighbouring family in Villeparisis; he exhausted himself in efforts that for the most part were in vain. Nothing, however, broke down his courage. He succeeded in 1824 in publishing through Buissot Annette and the Criminal, in four volumes, which was a continuation of The Vicar of the Ardennes, and was confiscated by the police, and then through Delongchamps an Impartial History of the Jesuits. Finally Urbain Canel bought his Wann-Chlore in 1825, and that was the last of the novels of his youth.
It is interesting to ask, how much headway Honore de Balzac had made since the days of his vast enthusiasm over Cromwell, in his garret in the Rue Lesdiguieres. Had he drawn any nearer to fame, that "pretty woman whom he did not know," and whose kisses he so eagerly desired during his long nights of labour and of dreams? He has descended into the literary arena with valiant heart, as a soldier willing to serve in the ranks, yet cherishing the legitimate hope of earning promotion. He had not shrunk from the humblest tasks, and yet, after three years of struggle, he found himself back at the starting point. His novels had brought him neither fame nor fortune, and he had not even acquired the leisure that was necessary to him before he could achieve those works which seethed and teemed within his brain, filling it with the nebulous and confused elements of an unborn world. What was he to do?
Honore de Balzac refused to admit defeat, and, with a promptness of decision which belongs rather to men of action than to the contemplative type, he turned his attention to business and commercial enterprises. He had none of the prejudices of men of letters, who refuse to recognise that there are any employments worthy of their faculties outside of literature. Little he cared as to the means, provided he could lay the foundation of his fortunes, and assure his independence. Novels had not brought him material emancipation. Very well then! he would abandon them without regret. Nevertheless, he would preserve the memory of them, and recognise that they had been useful as a literary exercise. In fact, he said to Champfleury, in 1848, "I wrote seven novels, simply as a training. One to break myself in to dialogue; one to learn how to write description; one to learn how to group my characters; one as a study in composition, etc." Although Balzac never publicly acknowledged these works of his youth, they had their share in his intellectual development; and, because of this claim, they should not be wholly set aside from the rest of his gigantic work. In any case, they are by no means destitute of merit.
Relinquishing his career as man of letters, from which he could not make a living, Honore de Balzac flung himself into business with the same activity that he had applied to the production of novels. As early as 1822, he had entertained various business schemes, and he would have accepted the appointment of deputy supervisor of the construction work on the Saint-Martin canal, under his brother-in-law, Surville, if he had been able to give the required security. But he had at his command only five hundred francs, which was an inadequate sum. The attraction of business, which was one of the characteristics of his temperament, enticed him into the most chimerical adventures, although the first business connection which he formed, and which was in the nature of publishing and bookselling, resulted in giving him the financial start which he so ardently desired.
Having started in to be a "literary man-of-all-work," to borrow the phrase of Hippolyte Auger, his collaborator on the Feuilleton des Journaux Politiques, who was closely in touch with him in those early days, Honore de Balzac had formed relations with the second rate papers, the publishers of novels, the promoters of all sorts of works that might lend themselves to speculating purposes in the publishing line. It was undoubtedly due to the chance demands of literary work that he found himself flung headlong into business. He had reached the point where he was ready to accept any proposition of a promising nature, in his eagerness to become free, to escape the strict surveillance of his family and the reproaches of his mother, and furthermore he was urged into this path by a certain Mme. de Berny, a woman who loved him and who wished to see him become a great man, for she alone recognised his genius.
How and when had they become acquainted? Perhaps at Paris, since the de Bernys dwelt at No. 3 Rue Portefoin, and the Balzacs at No. 17, perhaps later on at Villeparisis, as a result of the neighbourly relations between the two families. However this may be, Mme. de Berny exerted a profound and decisive influence upon Honore de Balzac; she was his first love and, it should be added, the only real one, if we may judge by the length of time that he cherished an unchanging memory of her.
Laure Antoinette Hinner was born at Versailles on May 24th, 1777; she was the daughter of a German harpist who had been summoned from Wetzlar to the Court of France, and her mother was Louise Guelpee de Laborde, lady-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette. She had no less personages than the king and queen for her god-father and god-mother, and she grew up within sound of the festivities of the Trianon, in an atmosphere of frivolity and exaggerated refinements. Her mother, left a widow when the child was barely ten years old, took a second husband, Francois Regnier de Jarjayes, a fervent royalist, involved in all the plots which had for their object the deliverance of the royal family. After the brilliant days of court life, she lived through the tragic hours of the Revolution, in the midst of conspirators, and in an atmosphere of restlessness and anxiety. In 1793, Laure Hinner, at the age of fifteen years and ten months, was married at Livry to Gabriel de Berny, who was himself only twenty. The union seems to have resulted unhappily, in spite of the fact that it was blessed with nine children; the sensibility of the wife and her warm-hearted tenderness accorded ill with the cold and reserved character of the husband.
When Balzac entered into his close friendship with Mme. de Berny, the latter was forty-five years of age and a grandmother. In spite of her years and her many children, she was still beautiful, on the order of tender and mature beauty. Balzac borrowed certain traits from her for the noblest heroines in his works; and she served successively as model for Mme. Firmiani, for Mme. de Mortsauf in The Lily in the Valley, and for Pauline in Louis Lambert; and he spoke constantly of her in his correspondence with Mme. de Hanska, yet always with a sort of reverence and passionate gratitude.
She was a woman of almost clairvoyant intelligence, instinctive and unerring, and was endowed with rich qualities of heart and brain, which she had never had a chance to use. She treasured letters and souvenirs, and she held in reserve a store of tenderness of a rather maternal sort. Balzac, isolated in the midst of his own family, thrust back upon himself and suffering from the need of expansion, surrendered himself utterly to this new friend, with the impetuosity born of happiness and freedom. She was his confidential adviser, his comforter and his friend. She listened to his dreams, she shared the elation of his ambitions, she espoused his projects and fostered his genius; and when he was too cruelly wounded in the struggle, she consoled him with words of soothing tenderness.
It caused Mme. de Berny actual suffering to see her young friend toiling for sheer mercenary ends, and squandering the precious years of his youth in writing novels that were frankly hack-work; and it hurt her also to see the condition of financial servitude in which his family kept him. While the father, Francois de Balzac, watched his son's efforts with indulgent irony, for he held that novels were to the Europeans what opium is to the Chinese, and while the mother, irritated at the rebellion of her first-born, maintained her attitude of hostile distrust, Mme. de Berny alone had confidence in his future, notwithstanding that appearances were all against him.
Mme. de Berny and Honore de Balzac undoubtedly put their heads together, to seek for some means of bettering a situation so painful and humiliating for a young man of twenty-five. Accordingly, when chance seemed to offer them a good opportunity, they hastened to take advantage of it.
The publisher, Urbain Canel, had conceived the idea of bringing out the French classics in single compact octavo volumes, to be issued in installments. He was to begin this collection with a Lafontaine, for which he had ordered a preface from Balzac, who had previously done work for him. We may well believe that he at the same time enlarged upon his projects and that he aroused Balzac's interest by dwelling upon the magnitude, the novelty and the large remuneration of his enterprise. It was a question of nothing more nor less than the production of an entire library. Balzac's imagination awoke to the possibilities of this scheme which seemed to him a colossal one, capable of laying the foundations of numerous fortunes. He calculated what he might make out of it personally, and decided that at last destiny had deigned to smile upon him. Canel was far richer in hopes for the success of his project than in money to carry it out, and he was ready to accept all offers of co-operation, if not actually to solicit them. When Mme. de Berny was informed of the scheme by Balzac, she did not try to dissuade him from joining in it, but, on the contrary, devoted and trusting friend that she was, offered to aid him by placing a considerable sum of money at his disposal.
In April, 1825, a partnership for the purpose of publishing French classics, and more especially a Lafontaine in one octavo volume, to be issued in installments, was formed between Messrs. Urbain Canel, publisher, Charles Carron, physician, Honore de Balzac, man of letters, and Benet de Montcarville, retired officer. It was not long before the partners quarrelled, and M. Hanotaux has published a letter (La Jeunesse de Balzac: Balzac Imprimeur, 1825-1828 (The Youth of Balzac: Balzac as Printer), by G. Hanotaux and G. Vicaire, Paris, 1903.), written by M. Carron, in which the latter complains of Balzac's arrogant tone, while at the same time apologising to him for having called him a liar. At all events, when a second partnership was formed later in that same month of April, with a view to the publishing of a Moliere, to form a part of the same collection as the Lafontaine, the only members left were Canel and Balzac, who agreed each to put up half the capital and divide the profits and losses equally.
Balzac had taken his role quite seriously, and the first partnership was barely formed when he set off for Alencon, in order to make arrangements with a certain engraver, Godart fils, who had been chosen to reproduce the drawings by Deveria, with which the collection was to be illustrated. He was the most active of all the partners; nevertheless, as business ventures, the Lafontaine and the Moliere were very far from profitable. The volumes were to be issued in four parts at five francs each, making the cost of the complete work in each case twenty francs. But when the installments of the Lafontaine were issued, during the months of April and May, in an edition of three thousand copies, they met with no success. Urbain Canel declared that he could go no further with the venture, the partners withdrew, and Balzac was left alone to bear the whole burden of the enterprise. His share of the capital had been furnished him by a certain M. d'Assouvillez, and, in order to buy out Canel's interest, Mme. de Berny endorsed notes to the amount of nine thousand, two hundred and five francs, between May 15, 1825, and August 31, 1826. Altogether, the net result of the transaction was a loss to Balzac of fifteen thousand francs. Being unable to continue by himself the publication of these two works, he sold the Lafontaine to Baudouin, who paid for it by transferring to Balzac a number of uncollectable claims. One of these, amounting to 28,840 francs, was a debt owed by a bookseller in Reims, named Fremeau, who had failed and who cleared off this obligation by turning over to Balzac an entire shopful of battered old volumes, out of date and worthless.
Did this first disastrous experience turn him aside from further business ventures? Not at all. Balzac was by nature dogged and persevering. Hope illuminated his calculations; he found the best of reasons to explain the failure of an edition of classic authors; but he conjured up still better ones for assailing new enterprises. The edition of the classics had not been a success,—well, no matter! He would establish himself as a printer. In the course of his peregrinations among the printing-houses he had made the acquaintance of a young foreman named Barbier, in whose welfare he had become interested and whose special ability he had recognised. He decided to take him into partnership.
Balzac's father, when asked to help his son to establish himself in business, gave a guarantee of thirty thousand francs, which represented the invested capital, that had yielded the interest of fifteen hundred francs, the sum allowed him at an earlier period. Mme. de Berny interested herself in the proposed venture, and so did M. d'Assouvillez, the former silent partner. Balzac acquired the establishment of Laurens Sr., Printer, No. 17, Rue des Marais-Saint-Germain, now Rue Visconti, at the cost of thirty thousand francs, plus twelve thousand francs as an indemnity to Barbier, because he was resigning from an assured position, and fifteen thousand francs for equipments. On the 12th of April, 1826, he sent in an application to the Minister of the Interior, and, thanks to two letters of recommendation from M. de Berny, counsellor to the Royal Court of Paris, he obtained his license on January 1st, as successor to Jean-Joseph Laurens, retired.
What was Balzac's life during the two years that he practised the profession of printer? In his contract of partnership with Barbier he had reserved for himself the offices of bookkeeper and cashier, signing papers and soliciting orders, while his associate was to attend to the technical end of the enterprise. In order to feed his presses with work, Balzac counted upon his energy, his will power, his spirit of initiative and his tact; he mentally recapitulated the number of publishers with whom he had had relations, and who beyond a doubt would entrust their work to him. The printing house was located on the ground floor of a distinctly gloomy building in the Rue des Marais, a street so narrow that two carriages found it difficult to pass each other.
When he had finished his round of calls upon clients, he watched the busy labour of his workmen in the fetid atmosphere of the composing room, and he swelled with joy as though he himself were the motor power of the various parts of a living organism. Nothing discouraged him, neither physical fatigue nor the mental strain of carrying on so huge an enterprise. Then, when it seemed as though he was on the point of bending beneath the burden, a secret consolation caused him once again to square his shoulders. On the floor above the printing house he had fitted up a little apartment quite luxuriously, and there each day he received Mme. de Berny, who came to bring him the comfort of brave and tender words, which seemed to him to open the golden gates of the future. For Mme. de Berny these were the hours in which she could lay bare her ardent and sensitive soul, while for Balzac they were a whole education in sentiment and social graces at the hands of a woman rich in sensibility and in memories. At this period she exerted a most effective influence over the ideas of her young friend; she pictured to him the conditions of fashionable life prior to the Revolution, with its great ladies, its court intrigues, and its mysteries of passion and ambition; and she imbued him with monarchical principles. But, above all else, it was she herself who was the life-giving flame which fired his genius. All of Balzac's life seems to have been impregnated with these first lessons received from her, and he could never recall without emotion the aid that he received from Mme. de Berny during those early years of hard struggles. In 1837 he wrote as follows to Mme. Hanska:
"I should be very unjust if I did not say that from 1823 to 1833 an angel sustained me through that hideous battle. Mme. de B..., although married, has been like an angel to me. She has been mother, sweetheart, family, friend and counsellor; she has formed the writer, she has consoled the man, she has created my taste; she has wept and laughed with me like a sister, she has come day after day and every day to lull my sorrows, like a beneficent sleep. She has done even more, because, although her finances are in control of her husband, she has found means to lend me no less than forty-five thousand francs, and I paid back the last six thousand francs in 1836, including five per cent. interest, of course. But it was only gradually that she came to speak of my debt. Without her I should certainly have died. She often became aware that I had had nothing to eat for several days; and she provided for all my needs with angelic goodness. She encouraged me in that pride which preserves a man from all baseness, and which today my enemies reproach me for, as being a foolish self-satisfaction, and which Boulanger has perhaps somewhat exaggerated in his portrait of me." (The original of this portrait of Honore de Balzac is at the chateau of Wierzchownia; there is a copy of it in the Palace at Versailles.)
The illusions which Balzac cherished of the rapid success of his printing house vanished very soon, and from the outset he found himself facing the realities of a difficult situation. In spite of all his efforts, clients remained rare, and there was no sort of order either in the business organisation or in the financial management. M. Gabriel Vicaire has made an investigation to determine how many works issued from Balzac's presses, and he has been unable to count more than one hundred and fifty, or thereabouts, which was a small number, during a space of two years, for an important and well-equipped printing house. The first order that he filled was a druggist's prospectus, Anti-mucous Pills for Longevity, or Seeds of Life, for Cure, a Parisian druggist, of No. 77, Rue Saint-Antoine; it was a four-leaf 8vo pamphlet, dated July 29, 1826. The average orders seem to have been commonplace enough; nevertheless, Balzac did print a number of interesting books for various publishers; among others, The Historical and Literary Miscellanies of M. Villemain, for Ladvocat, and La Jacquerie, Feudal Scenes, followed by the Carvajal Family, a drama by the "author of the dramatic works of Clara Gazul" (Merimee), for Brissot-Thivars. He was also the printer for two periodicals, the Gymnase, for Carnot and Hippolyte Auger, the editors of that review of social tendencies, and the Annales Romantiques, for Urbain Canel. The latter was the publisher of the younger literary school, and brought out in his magazine the works of Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, Benjamin Constant, Chateaubriand, Delavigne, etc. Are we to suppose that business cares had turned Balzac aside from all his literary projects? And what must his feelings have been when he read on pages still smelling of fresh ink names already familiar, and some of them long since famous, while he himself was still only a simple printer? There is reason for thinking that his business venture, with all its cares and anxieties, never interrupted the silent but fabulous labour that was shaping itself inside his brain, and that when he saw new authors becoming famous he merely said, "My day will come." Meanwhile, he yielded to an influence absolutely opposed to his natural bent, and contributed to the Annales two poems perfectly romantic in tone: an Ode to a Young Girl and Verses Written in an Album.
But in reality Balzac never had the gift of versification, even in his youth; and later on, when he had need of poems for his Human Comedy, he applied to his friends, Theophile Gautier, Mme. de Girardin, or Lassailly, merely indicating the general tone of the verses he wanted them to write.