WOMEN IN THE LIFE OF BALZAC
JUANITA HELM FLOYD
MY SISTER NANNIE
" . . . for no one knows the secret of my life, and I do not wish to disclose it to any one." Lettres a l'Etrangere, V. I, p. 418, July 19, 1837.
This text was originally published in 1921 by Henry Holt and Company.
In presenting this study of Balzac's intimate relations with various women, the author regrets her inability, owing to war conditions, to consult a few books which are out of print and certain documents which have not appeared at all in print, notably the collection of the late Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.
The author gladly takes this opportunity of acknowledging her deep gratitude to various scholars, and wishes to express, even if inadequately, her appreciation of their inspiring contact; especially to Professor Chester Murray and Professor J. Warshaw for first interesting her in the great possibilities of a study of Balzac. To Professor Henry Alfred Todd she is grateful for his sympathetic scholarship, valuable suggestions as to matter and style, and for his careful revision of the manuscript; to Professor Gustave Lanson, for his erudition and versatile mind, which have had a great influence; to Professor F. M. Warren, for reading a part of the text and for many general ideas; to Professor Fernand Baldensperger, for reading the text and for encouragement; to Professor Gilbert Chinard, Professor Earle B. Babcock and Professor LeBraz for re-reading the text and for valuable suggestions; and to Professor John L. Gerig for his sympathetic interest, broad information, and inspiring encouragement.
To still another would she express her thanks. The Princess Radziwill has taken a great interest in this work, which deals so minutely with the life history of her aunt, and she has been most gracious in giving the author much information not to be found in books. She has made many valuable suggestions, read the entire manuscript, and approved of its presentation of the facts involved.
JUANITA H. FLOYD. Evansville, Indiana.
A quantity of books have been written about Balzac, some of which are very instructive, while others are nothing but compilations of gossip which give a totally wrong impression of the life, works and personality of the great French novelist. Having the honor of being the niece of his wife, the wonderful Etrangere, whom he married after seventeen years of an affection which contained episodes far more romantic than any of those which he has described in his many books, and having been brought up in the little house of the rue Fortunee, afterwards the rue Balzac, where they lived during their short married life, I can perhaps better appreciate than most people the value of these different books, none of which gives us an exact appreciation of the man or of the difficulties through which he had to struggle before he won at last the fame he deserved. And the conclusion to which I came, after having read them most attentively and conscientiously, was that it is often a great misfortune to possess that divine spark of genius which now and then touches the brow of a few human creatures and marks them for eternity with its fiery seal. Had Balzac been one of those everyday writers whose names, after having been for a brief space of time on everyone's lips, are later on almost immediately forgotten, he would not have been subjected to the calumnies which embittered so much of his declining days, and which even after he was no longer in this world continued their subterranean and disgusting work, trying to sully not only Balzac's own colossal personality, but also that of the devoted wife, whom he had cherished for such a long number of years, who had all through their course shared his joys and his sorrows, and who, after he died, had spent the rest of her own life absorbed in the remembrance of her love for him, a love which was stronger than death itself.
Having spent all my childhood and youth under the protection and the roof of Madame de Balzac, it was quite natural that every time I saw another inaccuracy or falsehood concerning her or her great husband find its way into the press, I should be deeply affected. At last I began to look with suspicion at all the books dealing with Balzac or with his works, and when Miss Floyd asked me to look over her manuscript, it was with a certain amount of distrust and prejudice that I set myself to the task. It seemed to me impossible that a foreigner could write anything worth reading about Balzac, or understand his psychology. What was therefore my surprise when I discovered in this most remarkable volume the best description that has ever been given to us of this particular phase of Balzac's life which hitherto has hardly been touched upon by his numerous biographers, his friendships with the many distinguished women who at one time or another played a part in his busy existence, a description which not only confirmed down to the smallest details all that my aunt had related to me about her distinguished husband, but which also gave an appreciation of the latter's character that entirely agreed with what I had heard about its peculiarities from the few people who had known him well, Theophile Gautier among others, who were still alive when I became old enough to be intensely interested in their different judgments about my uncle. After such a length of years it seemed almost uncanny to find a person who through sheer intuition and hard study could have reconstituted with this unerring accuracy the figure of one who had remained a riddle in certain things even to his best friends, and who in the pages of this extraordinary book suddenly appeared before my astonished eyes with all the splendor of that genius of his which as years go by, becomes more and more admired and appreciated.
One must be a scholar to understand Balzac; his style and manner of writing is often so heavy and so difficult to follow, reminding one more of that of a professor than of a novelist. And indeed he would have been very angry to be considered only as a novelist, he who aspired and believed himself to be, as he expressed it one day in the course of a conversation with Madame Hanska, before she became his wife, "a great painter of humanity," in which appreciation of his work he was not mistaken, because some of the characters he evoked out of his wonderful brain remind one of those pictures of Rembrandt where every stroke of the master's brush reveals and brings into evidence some particular trait or feature, which until he had discovered it, and brought it to notice, no one had seen or remarked on the human faces which he reproduced upon the canvas. Michelet, who once called St. Simon the "Rembrandt of literature," could very well have applied the same remark to Balzac, whose heroes will live as long as men and women exist, for whom these other men and women whom he described, will relive because he did not conjure their different characters out of his imagination only, but condensed all his observations into the creation of types which are so entirely human and real that we shall continually meet with them so long as the world lasts.
One of Balzac's peculiarities consisted in perpetually studying humanity, which study explains the almost unerring accuracy of his judgments and of the descriptions which he gives us of things and facts as well as of human beings. In his impulsiveness, he frequented all kinds of places, saw all kinds of people, and tried to apply the dissecting knife of his spirit of observation to every heart and every conscience. He set himself especially to discover and fathom the mystery of the "eternal feminine" about which he always thought, and it was partly due to this eager quest for knowledge of women's souls that he allowed himself to become entangled in love affairs and love intrigues which sometimes came to a sad end, and that he spent his time in perpetual search of feminine friendships, which were later on to brighten, or to mar his life.
Miss Floyd in the curious volume which she has written has caught in a surprising manner this particular feature in Balzac's complex character. She has applied herself to study not only the man such as he was, with all his qualities, genius and undoubted mistakes, but such as he appeared to be in the eyes of the different women whom he had loved or admired, and at whose hands he had sought encouragement and sympathy amid the cruel disappointments and difficulties of an existence from which black care was never banished and never absent. With quite wonderful tact, and a lightness of touch one can not sufficiently admire, she has made the necessary distinctions which separated friendship from love in the many romantic attachments which played such an important part in Balzac's life, and she has in consequence presented to us simultaneously the writer, whose name will remain an immortal one, and the man whose memory was treasured, long after he had himself disappeared, by so many who, though they had perhaps never understood him entirely, yet had realized that in the marks of affection and attachment which he had given to them, he had laid at their feet something which was infinitely precious, infinitely real, something which could never be forgotten.
Her book will remain a most valuable, I was going to say the most valuable, contribution to the history of Balzac, and those for whom he was something more than a great writer and scholar, can never feel sufficiently grateful to her for having given it to the world, and helped to dissipate, thanks to its wonderful arguments, so many false legends and wild stories which were believed until now, and indeed are still believed by an ignorant crowd of so-called admirers of his, who, nine times out of ten, are only detractors of his colossal genius, and remarkable, though perhaps sometimes too exuberant, individuality.
At the same time, Miss Floyd, in the lines which she devotes to my aunt and to the long attachment that had united the latter and Balzac, has in many points re-established the truth in regard to the character of a woman who in many instances has been cruelly calumniated and slandered, in others absolutely misunderstood, to whom Balzac once wrote that she was "one of those great minds, which solitude had preserved from the petty meannesses of the world," words which describe her better than volumes could have done. She had truly led a silent, solitary, lonely life that had known but one love, the man whom she was to marry after so many vicissitudes, and in spite of so many impediments, and but one tenderness, her daughter, a daughter who unfortunately was entirely her inferior, and in whom she could never find consolation or comfort, who could neither share her joys, nor soothe her sorrows.
In her convictions, Madame de Balzac was a curious mixture of atheism and profound faith in a Divinity before whom mankind was accountable for all its good or bad deeds. All through her long life she had been under the influence of her father, one of the remarkable men of his generation, who had enjoyed the friendship of most of the great French writers of the period immediately preceding the Revolution, including Voltaire; he had brought her up in an atmosphere of the eighteenth century with its touch of skepticism, and the Encyclopedia had always remained for her a kind of gospel, in spite of the fact that she had been reared in one of the most haughty, aristocratic circles in Europe, in a country where the very mention of the words liberty and freedom of opinion was tabooed, and that her mother had been one of those devout Roman Catholics who think it necessary to consult their confessor, even in regard to the most trivial details of their daily existence. Placed as she had been between her parents' incredulity and bigotry, my aunt had formed opinions of her own, of which a profound tolerance and a deep respect for the beliefs and convictions of others was the principal feature. She never condemned even when she did not approve, and she hated hypocrisy, no matter in what shape or aspect it presented itself before her eyes. This explains the courage she displayed when against the advice and the wishes of her family, she persisted in marrying Balzac, though it hardly helps us to understand from what we know of the latter's character, how he came to fall so deeply in love with a woman who in almost everything thought so differently from what he thought, especially in regard to those two subjects which absorbed and engrossed him until the last days of his life, religion and politics.
That he loved her, and that she loved him, in spite of these differences in their points of view, is to their mutual honor, but it adds to the mystery and to the enigmatical side of a romance that has hardly been equalled in modern times; and it accounts for the fact that some friction occurred between them later on, when my aunt found herself trying to restrain certain exuberances on the part of her husband regarding her own high lineage, about which she never thought much herself, though she had always tried to live up to the duties which it imposed upon her. I am mentioning this circumstance to explain certain exaggerations which we constantly find in Balzac's letters in regard to his marriage. His imagination was extremely vivid, and its fertility sometimes carried him far away into regions where it was nearly impossible to follow him, and where he really came to believe quite sincerely in things which had never existed. For instance in his correspondence with his mother and friends, he is always speaking of the necessity for Madame Hanska to obtain the permission of the Czar to marry him. This is absolutely untrue. My aunt did not require in the very least the consent of the Emperor to become Madame de Balzac. The difficulties connected with her marriage consisted in the fact that having been left sole heiress of her first husband's immense wealth, she did not think herself justified in keeping it after she had contracted another union, and with a foreigner. She therefore transferred her whole fortune to her daughter, reserving for herself only an annuity which was by no means considerable, and it was this arrangement that had to be sanctioned, not by the sovereign who had nothing to do with it, but by the Supreme Court of Russia, which at that time was located in St. Petersburg. Balzac, however, wishing to impress his French relatives with the grandeur of the marriage he was about to make, imagined this tale of the Czar's opposition, in order to add to his own importance and to that of his future wife, an invention which revolted my aunt so much that in that part of her husband's correspondence which was published by her a year or two before her death, she carefully suppressed all the passages which contained this assertion which had so thoroughly annoyed as well as angered her. I have sometimes wondered what she would have said had she seen appear in print the curious letter which Balzac wrote immediately after their wedding to Dr. Nacquart in which he described with such pomp the different high qualities, merits, and last but not least, brilliant positions occupied by his wife's relatives, beginning with Queen Marie Leszczinska, the consort of Louis XV, and ending with the husband of my father's stepdaughter, Count Orloff, whom the widest stretch of imagination could not have connected with my aunt.
I cannot refrain from mentioning here an anecdote which is very typical of Balzac. He was about to return to Paris from Russia after his marriage. My aunt coming into his room one morning found him absorbed in writing a letter. Asking him for whom it was intended she was petrified with astonishment when he replied that it was for the Duke de Bordeaux, as the Comte de Chambord was still called at the time, to present his respects to him upon his entrance into his family! My aunt at first could not understand what it was he meant, and when at last she had grasped the fact that it was in virtue of her distant, very distant, relationship with Queen Marie Leszczinska that he claimed the privilege of cousinship with the then Head of the Royal House of France, it was with the greatest difficulty and with any amount of trouble that she prevailed upon him at last to give up this remarkable idea, and to be content with the knowledge that some Rzewuski blood flowed in the veins of the last remaining member of the elder line of the Bourbons, without intruding upon the privacy of the Comte de Chambord, who probably would have been somewhat surprised to receive this extraordinary communication from the great, but also snobbish Balzac.
It was on account of this snobbishness, which had something childish about it, that he sometimes became involved in discussions, not only with my aunt, but also with several of his friends, Victor Hugo among others, who could not bring themselves to forgive him for thinking more of the great and illustrious families with which his marriage had connected him than of his own genius and marvelous talents. Hugo most unjustly accused my aunt of encouraging this "aberration," as he called it, of Balzac's mind; in which judgment of her he was vastly mistaken, because she was the person who suffered the most through it, and by it. But this unwarranted suspicion made him antagonistic to her, and probably inspired the famous description he left us of Balzac's last hours in the little volume called Choses vues. This was partly the cause why people afterwards said that my aunt's married life with the great writer had been far from happy, and had resolved itself into a great disappointment for both of them. The reality was very different, because during the few months they lived together, they had known and enjoyed complete and absolute happiness, and Madame de Balzac's heart was forever broken when she closed with pious hands the eyes of the man who had occupied such an immense place in her heart as well as in her life. Many years later, talking with me about those last sad hours when she watched with such tender devotion by his bedside, she told me with accents that are still ringing in my ears with their wail of agony: I lived through a hell of suffering on that day.
Nevertheless she bore up bravely under the load of the unmerited misfortunes which had fallen upon her. Her first care, after she had become for the second time a widow, was to pay Balzac's debts, which she proceeded to do with the thoroughness she always brought to bear in everything she undertook. She remained upon the most affectionate terms with his family, and it was due to her that Balzac's mother was able to spend her last years in comfort. These facts speak for themselves, and, to my mind at least, dispose better than volumes on the subject could do of the conscious or unconscious calumny cast by Victor Hugo on my aunt's memory. It must here be explained that the real reason why he did not see her, when he called for the last time on his dying friend, and concluded so hastily that she preferred remaining in her own apartments than at her husband's side, consisted in the fact that she did not like the poet, who she instinctively felt, also did not care for her, so she preferred not to encounter a man whom she knew as antagonistic to herself at an hour when she was about to undergo the greatest trial of her life, and she retired to her room when he was announced. But Hugo, who had often reproached Balzac for being vain, had in his own character a dose of vanity sufficient to make him refuse to admit that there could exist in the whole of the wide world a human being who would not have jumped at the chance of seeing him, even under the most distressing of circumstances.
I have said already that my aunt's opinions consisted of a curious mixture of atheism and a profound belief in the Divinity. Her mind was far too vigorous and too deep to accept without discussion the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church to which she belonged officially, and she formed her own ideas as to religion and the part it ought to play in human existence. She held the firm conviction that we must always try, at least, to do what is right, regardless of the sorrow this might entail upon us. In one of her letters to my mother, she says:
"You will know one day, my dear little sister, that what one cares the most to read over again in the book of life are those difficult pages of the past when, after a hard struggle, duty has remained the master of the battle field. It has buried its dead, and brushed aside all the reminders that were left of them, and God in his infinite mercy allows flowers and grasses to grow again on this bloody ground. Don't think that by these flowers, I mean to say that one forgets. No, on the contrary, I am thinking of remembrance, the remembrance of the victory that has been won after so many sacrifices; I am thinking of all those voices of the conscience which come to soothe us, and to tell us that our Father in Heaven is satisfied with what we have done."
A person who had intimately known both Balzac and my aunt said one day that they completed each other by the wide difference which existed in their opinions in regard to the two important subjects of religion and politics. The remark was profoundly true, because it was this very difference which allowed them to bring into their judgments an impartiality which we seldom meet with in our modern society. They mutually respected and admired each other, and even when they were not in perfect accord, or just because they were not in perfect accord as to this or that thing, they nevertheless tried, thanks to the respect which they entertained for each other, to look upon mankind, its actions, follies and mistakes, with kindness and indulgence. The curious thing in regard to their situation was that my aunt who had been born and reared in one of the most select and prejudiced of aristocratic circles, never knew what prejudice was, and remained until the last day of her life a staunch liberal, who could never bring herself to ostracize her neighbor, because he happened to think or to believe otherwise than she did herself. She was perfectly indifferent to advantages of birth, fortune or high rank, and she was rather inclined to criticize than to admire the particular society and world amidst which she moved. Balzac on the contrary, though a bourgeois by origin, cared only for those high spheres for which he had always longed since his early youth, and of which a sudden freak of fortune so unexpectedly had opened him the doors. In that sense he was the parvenu his enemies have accused him of being, and he often showed himself narrow minded, until at last his wife's influence made him consider, without the disdain he had affected for them before, people who were not of noble birth or of exalted rank. On the other hand, Madame de Balzac, thanks to her husband's Catholic and Legitimistic tendencies and sympathies, became less sarcastic than had been the case when she had, perhaps more than she ought, noticed the smallnesses and meannesses of the particular set of people who at that period constituted the cream of European society. They both came to acquire a wider view of the world in general, thanks to their different ways of looking at it, and this of course turned to their great mutual advantage.
I will not extend myself here on the help my aunt was to Balzac all through the years which preceded their marriage, when there seemed no possibility of the marriage ever taking place. She encouraged him in his work, interested herself in all his actions, praised him for all his efforts, tried to be for him the guide and the star to which he could look in his moments of dark discouragement, as well as in his hours of triumph. Without her affection to console him, he would most probably have broken down under the load of immense difficulties which constantly burdened him, and he never would have been able to leave behind him as a legacy to a world that had never property appreciated or understood him, those volumes of the Comedie humaine which have made his name immortal. Madame Hanska was his good genius all through those long and dreadful years during which he struggled with such indomitable courage against an adverse fate, and her devotion to him certainly deserved the words which he wrote to her one day, "I love you as I love God, as I love happiness!"
All this has taken me very far from Miss Floyd's book, though what I have just written about my uncle and aunt completes in a certain sense the details she has given us concerning the wonderful romance which after seventeen years of arduous waiting, made Madame Hanska the wife of one of the greatest literary glories of France. Her work is magnificent and she has handled it superbly, and reconstituted two remarkable figures who were beginning to be, not forgotten, which is impossible, but not so much talked about by the general public, who a few years ago, had shown itself so interested in their life history as it was first disclosed to us in the famous Lettres a l'Etrangere, published by the Vicomte Spoelberch de Lovenjoul. She has also cleared some of the clouds which had been darkening the horizon in regard to both Balzac and his wife, and restored to these two their proper places in the history of French literature in the nineteenth century. She has moreover shown us a hitherto unknown Balzac, and a still more unknown Etrangere, and this labor of love, because it was that all through, can only be viewed with feelings of the deepest gratitude by the few members still left alive of Madame de Balzac's family, my three brothers and myself. I feel very happy to be given this opportunity of thanking Miss Floyd, in my brothers' name as well as in my own, for the splendid work which she has done, and which I am quite certain will ensure for her a foremost place among the historians of Balzac.
CATHERINE, PRINCESS RADZIWILL.
The steady rise of Balzac's reputation during the last few decades has been such that almost each year new studies have appeared about him. While the women portrayed in the Comedie humaine are often commented upon, no recent work dealing in detail with the novelist's intimate association with women and which might lead to identifying the possible sources of his feminine characters in real life has been published.
The present study does not undertake to establish the origin of all the characters found in the Comedie humaine, but is an attempt to trace the life of the novelist on the side of his relations with various women,—a story which is even more thrilling than those presented in many of his novels,—in the hope that it will help explain some of the interesting enigmas presented by his work. So far as the writer could find the necessary evidence, many of the women in Balzac's novels have been here identified with women he knew in the course of his life; and while giving due weight to the suggestions of various writers, and indicating some of the most striking resemblances, she has tried to avoid a mere promiscuous identification of characters.
In the case of many novelists such an investigation would not be worth while, but Balzac's place in literature is so transcendent and his life and writings are so closely and fascinatingly interblended, that it is hoped that the following study, in which the writer has striven to maintain correctness of detail, may not be unwelcome, and that it will throw light on Balzac's complex character, and help his readers better to understand and appreciate some of his most noted women characters. It is believed that this study will show that the influence of women on Balzac was much wider and his acquaintance with them much broader than has previously been supposed.
Apropos of remarks made by Sainte-Beuve and Brunetiere regarding Balzac's admission to the higher circles of society, Emile Faguet has this to say:
"I would point out that the duchesses and viscountesses at the end of the Restoration were known neither to Sainte-Beuve nor to Balzac, the former only having begun to frequent aristocratic drawing-rooms in 1840, and Balzac, in spite of his very short liaison with Madame de Castries, having become a regular attendant only a few months before that date. Sainte-Beuve himself has told us that the Faubourg Saint-Germain was closed to men of letters before 1830, and since it had to spend a few years becoming accustomed to their admittance, Sainte-Beuve's testimony is not at all valid as regards the great ladies of the Restoration, even at the end."
Perhaps it is due partly to the above statement and partly to the fact that Balzac tried to give the impression that he led a sort of monastic life, that it is generally believed the novelist never had access to the aristocratic society of his time, and never had an opportunity of observing the great ladies or of frequenting the marvelous balls and receptions that fill so large a place in his writings. Whether he made a success of such descriptions is not the question here, but the following pages will at least furnish proof that he not only had many social opportunities, but that his presence was sought by many women belonging to high life and the nobility.
In presenting in the following pages a somewhat imposing list of duchesses, countesses and women of varying degrees of nobility, it is not intended to picture Balzac as a preux chevalier, for he was far from being one. Even in the most refined of salons, he displayed his Rabelaisian manners and costume, and remained the typical author of the Contes drolatiques; but to maintain that he never knew women of the upper class or never even entered their society, involves a misapprehension of the facts. Neither would the present writer give the impression that this was the only class of women he knew or associated with, for he certainly was acquainted with many of the bourgeoisie and of the peasant class; but here it is difficult to make out a case, since his letters to or about women of these classes are rare, and literary men of his day have not given many details of his association with them.
From Balzac's youth, his most intense longings were to be famous and to be loved. At times it might almost be thought that the second desire took precedence over the first, but it was not the ordinary woman that this future Napoleon litteraire was seeking. His desire was to win the affection of some lady of high standing, and when urged by his family to consider marriage with a certain rich widow of the bourgeoisie, it can be imagined with what a sense of relief he wrote his mother that the bird had flown. An abnormal longing to mingle with the aristocracy remained with him throughout his life; and during his stay at Wierzchownia, after having all but made the conquest of a very rich lady belonging to one of the most noted families of Russia, he flattered himself by exaggerating her greatness.
Not being crowned from the first with the success he desired, Balzac needed encouragement in his work. For this he naturally turned to women who would give him of their time and sympathy. In his early years, he received this encouragement and assistance from his sister Laure, from Madame de Berny, Madame d'Abrantes, Madame Carraud and others, and in his later life he was similarly indebted to Madame Hanska. They gave him ideas, corrected his style, conceived plots, furnished him with historical background, and criticized his work in general. Is it surprising then that, having received so much from women, he should have accorded them so great a place in his writings as well as in his personal life?
While Balzac did not, as is often stated, create the "woman of thirty," this characteristic type having already appeared in Madame de Stael's Delphine, in Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, and in Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir, he must be credited with having magnified her charms and presented her advantages and superiority to a much higher degree than had been done before. Women indeed play in general an important role in his work, many of his novels bear their names; about one-third of the stories of La Comedie humaine are dedicated to women; and while not quite so large a proportion of the characters created are women, they are numbered among the most important personages of his prolific fancy.
If we are to believe his own testimony, his popularity among women was by no means limited to his Paris environment, for he writes: "Fame is conveyed to me through the post office by means of letters, and I daily receive three or four from women. They come from the depths of Russia, of Germany, etc.; I have not had one from England. Then there are many letters from young people. It has become fatiguing. . . ."
It was only a matter of justice that women should show their appreciation thus, for Balzac rendered them a gracious service in prolonging, by his enormous literary influence, the period of their eligibility for being loved. This he successfully extended to thirty years, even to forty years; with rare skill he portrayed the charm of a declining beauty—as one might delight in the glory of a brilliant autumn or of a setting sun. At the same time, and on the one hand, he depicted the young girl of various types, and women of the working and servant class. And since his own life is so reflected throughout his work, it is of interest to become acquainted with the inner and intimate side of his genius, which has left us some of the greatest documents we possess concerning human nature.
Balzac knew many women, and to understand him fully one should study his relations with them. If he has portrayed them well, it is because he loved them tenderly, and was loved by many in return. These feminine affections formed one of the consolations of his life; they not only gave him courage but helped to soften the bitterness of his trials and disappointments.
While an effort has been made in the following work to solve the questions as to the identity of the Sarah, Maria, Sofka, Constance-Victoire, Louise, Caroline, and the Helene of Balzac's dedications, and to show the role each played, no attempt has here been made to lift the tightly drawn veil which has so long enveloped one side of Balzac's private life. Whoever wishes to do this may now consult the recent publication of the late Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, or the Mariage de Balzac by the late Count Stanislas Rzewuski. It is far more pleasant—even if the charges be untrue—to think as did the late Miss K. P. Wormeley, that no supporting testimony has been offered to prove anything detrimental to the great author's character. Though doubtless much overdrawn, one prefers the delightful picture of him traced by his old friend, George Sand.
WOMEN IN THE LIFE OF BALZAC
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF BALZAC
In the delightful city of Tours, the childhood of Honore de Balzac was spent in the midst of his family. This consisted of an original and most congenial old father, a nervous, business-like mother, two younger sisters, Laure and Laurentia, and a younger brother, Henri. His maternal grandmother, Madame Sallambier, joined the family after the death of her husband.
At about the age of eight, Honore was sent to a semi-military college. Here, after six years of confinement, he lost his health, not on account of any work assigned to him by his teachers, for he was regarded as being far from a brilliant student, but because of the abnormal amount of reading which he did on the outside. When he was brought home for recuperation, his old grandmother alternately irritated him with her "nervous attacks" and delighted him with her numerous ways of showing her affection. At this time he wandered about in the fresh air of the province of Touraine, and learned to love its beautiful scenery, which he has immortalized in various novels.
After he had spent a year of this rustic life, his family moved to Paris in the fall of 1814. There he continued his studies with M. Lepitre, whose Royalist principles doubtless influenced him. He attended lectures at the Sorbonne also, strolling meanwhile about the Latin Quarter, and in 1816 was placed in the law office of M. de Guillonnet-Merville, a friend of the family, and an ardent Royalist. After eighteen months in this office, he spent more than a year in the office of a notary, M. Passez, who was also a family friend.
It was probably during this period of residence in Paris that he first met Madame de Berny, she who was later to wield so great an influence over him and who held first place in his heart until their separation in 1832. Probably at this same period, too, he met Zulma Tourangin, a schoolmate of his sister Laure, and who, as Madame Carraud, was to become his life-long friend. Of all the friendships that Balzac was destined to form with women, this with Madame Carraud was one of the purest, longest and most beautiful.
Having attained his majority and finished his legal studies, Balzac was requested by his father to enter the office of M. Passez and become a business man, but the life was so distasteful to him that he objected and asked permission to spend his time as best he might in developing his literary ability, a request which, in spite of the opposition of the family, was finally granted for a term of two years. He was accordingly allowed to establish himself in a small attic at No. 9 rue Lesdiguieres, while his family moved to Villeparisis.
His father's weakness in thus giving in to his son was most irritating to Balzac's mother, who was endowed with the business faculties so frequently met with among French women. She was convinced that a little experience would soon cause her son to change his mind. But he, on his part, ignored his hardships. He began to dream of a life of fame. In his garret, too, he began to develop that longing for luxury which was to increase with the years, and which was to cost him so much. At this time, he took frequent walks through the cemetery of Pere-Lachaise around the graves of Moliere, La Fontaine and Racine. He would occasionally visit a friend with whom he could converse, but he usually preferred a sympathetic listener, to whom he could pour out his plans and his innermost longings. Otherwise his life was as solitary as it was cloistered. He confined himself to his room for days at a time, working fiercely at the manuscript of the play, Cromwell, which he felt to be a masterpiece.
This work he finished and took to his home for approval in April, 1820. What must have been his disappointment when, certain of success, he not only found his play disapproved but was advised to devote his time and talents to anything except literature! But his courage was not daunted thus. Remarking that tragedies appeared not to be in his line, he was ready to return to his garret to attempt another kind of literature, and would have done so, had not his mother, seeing that he would certainly injure his health, interposed; and although only fifteen months of the allotted two years had expired, insisted that he remain at home, and later sent him to Touraine for a much needed rest.
During his stay at home, he was to suffer another disappointment. His sister Laure, to whom he had confided all his secrets and longings, was married to M. Surville in May, 1830, and moved to Bayeux. He was thus deprived of her congenial companionship. The separation is fortunate for posterity, however, since the letters he wrote to her reveal much of the family life, both pleasant and otherwise, together with a great deal concerning his own desires and struggles. Thus early in life, he realized that his was a very "original" family, and regretted not being able to put the whole group into novels. His correspondence gives a very good description of their various eccentricities, and he has later immortalized some of these by portraying them in certain of his characters.
Continually worried by his irritable mother, feeling himself forced to make money by writing lest he be compelled to enter a lawyer's office, he produced in five years, with different collaborators, a vast number of works written under various pseudonyms. He tutored his younger and much petted brother Henri, but found his pleasures outside of the family circle. It was arranged that he should give lessons to one of the sons of M. and Mme. de Berny, and thus he had an opportunity of seeing much of Madame de Berny, whose patience under suffering and sympathetic nature deeply impressed him. On her side, she took an interest in him and devoted much time in helping and indeed "creating" him. Unhappy in her married life, she must have found the companionship of Balzac most interesting, and realizing that the young man had a great future, she acted as a severe critic in correcting his manuscripts, and cheered him in his hours of depression. Her mother having been one of the Queen's ladies in waiting, the Royalist principles previously instilled in the mind of the young author were reinforced by this charming woman, as well as by her mother, who could entertain him indefinitely with her exciting stories of imprisonment and hairbreadth escapes.
After a few years of life at Villeparisis, Balzac removed to Paris. He had met an old friend, M. d'Assonvillez, whom he told of the conflict between his family and himself over his occupation, and this gentleman advised him to seek a business that would make him independent, even offering to provide the necessary funds. Balzac took the advice, and with visions of becoming extremely rich, launched into a publishing career, proposing to bring out one-volume editions of various authors' complete works, commencing with La Fontaine and Moliere. As he did not have the necessary capital for advertising, however, his venture resulted in a loss. His friend then persuaded him to invest in a printing-press, and in August, 1826, he made another beginning. He did not lack courage; but though he later manipulated such wonderful business schemes in his novels he proved to be utterly incapable himself in practical life.
A second time he was doomed to failure, but with his indomitable will he resolved that inasmuch as he had met with such financial disasters through the press, he would recover his fortunes in the same way, and set himself to writing with even greater determination than ever. Now it was that Madame de Berny showed her true devotion by coming to his aid in his financial troubles as well as in his literary ones; she loaned him 45,000 francs, saw to it that the recently purchased type-foundry became the property of her family, and, with the help of Madame Surville, persuaded Madame de Balzac to save her son from the disgrace of bankruptcy by lending him 37,000 francs. Thus, after less than two years of experience, he found himself burdened with a debt which like a black cloud was to hang over him during his entire life. Other friends also came to his rescue. But if Balzac did not have business capacity, his experience in dealing with the financial world, of which he had become a victim, furnished him with material of which he made abundant use later in his works.
In September, 1828, after this business was temporarily out of the way, Balzac went to Brittany to spend a few weeks with some old family friends, the Pommereuls. There he roved over the beautiful country and collected material for Les Chouans, the first novel which he signed with his own name. Notwithstanding the fact that before he had reached his thirtieth year, he was staggering under a debt amounting to about 100,000 francs, Balzac with his never-failing hope in the future and his ever-increasing belief in his destiny, cast aside his depression, and fought continually to attain the greatness which was never fully recognized until long after his death.
He had entered on what was indeed a period of struggle. Establishing himself in Paris in the rue de Tournon, and later in the rue de Cassini, he battled with poverty, lacking both food and clothing; but his courage never wavered. Drinking black coffee to keep himself awake, he wrote eighteen hours a day, and when exhausted would run away to the country to relax and visit with his friends. The Baron de Pommereul was only one of a rather numerous group. He frequently visited Madame Carraud at her hospitable home at Frapesle, and M. de Margonne in his chateau at Sache on the Indre. Often he would spend many weeks at a time with the latter, where he made himself perfectly at home, was treated as one of the family, and worked or rested just as he wished. Leading the hermit's life by preference, he needed the quietude of the country atmosphere in order to recover from the great strain to which he subjected himself when the fit of authorship was upon him. Thus it happened that several of his works were written in the homes of various friends.
Les Chouans and other novels met with success. Balzac's reputation now gradually rose, so that by 1831 he was attracting much favorable attention. Among the younger literary set who sought his acquaintance was George Sand with whom he formed a true friendship which lasted throughout his life. Now, too, though he was not betrayed into neglecting his work for society, he accepted invitations, won by his growing reputation, to some of the most noted salons of the day, among them the Empire salon of Madame Sophie Gay, where he met many of the literary and artistic people of his time, including Delphine, the daughter of Madame Gay, who, as Madame de Girardin, was to become one of his intimate friends. Here he met Madame Hamelin and the Duchess d'Abrantes, who was destined to play an important role in his life, and also the tender and impassioned poetess, Madame Desbordes-Valmore. The beautiful Madame Recamier invited him to her salon, too, and had him read to her guests, and he was also a frequent visitor in the salon of the Russian Princess Bagration, where he was fond of telling stories. Besides the salons, he was invited to numerous houses, dining particularly often with the Baron de Trumilly, who took a great interest in his work.
As his fame increased, letters arrived from various part of Europe. Some of these were anonymous, and many were from women. Several of the latter were answered, and early in 1832 Balzac learned that one of his unknown correspondents was the beautiful Marquise de Castries (later the Duchess de Castries). Throwing aside her incognito, she invited him to call, and he, anxious to mingle with the exclusive society of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, gladly accepted and promptly became enraptured with her alluring charm. It was doubtless owing to the influence of her relative, the Duc de Fitz-James, that he became active in politics at this time.
In the course of this same year (1832) there came to him an anonymous letter of great significance, dated from the distant Ukraine, and signed l'Etrangere. Though not at that time giving him the slightest presentiment of the outcome, this letter was destined eventually to change the entire life of the novelist. A notice in the Quotidienne acknowledging the receipt of it brought about a correspondence which in the course of events revealed to the author that the stranger's real name was Madame Hanska.
Love affairs, however, were far from being the only things that occupied Balzac. He was continually besieged by creditors; the clouds of his indebtedness were ever ready to burst over his head. Meanwhile, his mother became more and more displeased with him, and impatient at his constant calls upon her for the performance of all manner of services. She now urged him to make a rich marriage and thus put an end to his troubles and hers. But such was not Balzac's inclination, and he rightly considered himself the most deeply concerned in the matter.
All the while he was prodigiously productive, but the profits from his works were exceedingly small. This fact was due to his method of composition, according to which some of his works were revised a dozen times or more, and also to the Belgian piracies, from which all popular French authors suffered. In addition to this, his extravagant tastes developed from year to year, and thus prevented him from materially reducing his debts.
Unlike most Frenchmen, Balzac was particularly fond of travel in foreign countries, and when allured by the charms of a beautiful woman, he forgot his financial obligations and allowed nothing to prevent his responding to the call of the siren. Thus he was enticed by the Marquise de Castries to go to Aix and from there to Geneva in 1832, and one year later he rushed to Neufchatel to meet Madame Hanska, with whom he became so enamored that a few months afterwards he spent several weeks with her at this same fatal city of Geneva where the Marquise had all but broken his heart. In the spring of 1835 he followed a similar desire, this time going as far as the beautiful city of the blue Danube.
The charms of his sirens were not enough, however, to keep so indefatigable a writer from his work. He permitted himself to enjoy social diversions for only a few hours daily and some of his most delightful novels were written during these visits, where it seemed that the very shadow of feminine presence gave him inspiration. It should be added, too, that in the limited time given to society during these journeys, he not only worshipped at the shrine of his particular enchantress of the moment, but managed to meet many other women of social prominence.
As his fame spread, his extravagance increased; with his famous cane, he was seen frequently at the opera, at one time sharing a box with the beautiful Olympe. But his business relations with his publisher, Madame Bechet, which seemed to be promising at first, ended unhappily, and the rapidly declining health of his Dilecta, Madame de Berny, not to mention the failure of another publisher Werdet, which there is not space here to recount, cast a gloom from time to time over his optimistic spirit. He now became the proprietor of the Chronique de Paris, but aside from the literary friendships involved, notably that of Theophile Gautier, he derived nothing but additional worries from an undertaking he was unfitted to carry out. An even greater anxiety was the famous lawsuit with Buloz, which was finally decided in his favor, but which proved a costly victory, since it left him physically exhausted.
In order to recuperate, he sought refuge in the home of M. de Margonne, and travelled afterwards with Madame Marbouty to Italy, where he spent several pleasant weeks looking after some legal business for his friends, M. and Mme. Visconti. It was on his return from this journey that he learned of the death of Madame de Berny.
During this period of general depression, Balzac devoted a certain amount of attention to another correspondent, Louise, whom he never met but whose letters cheered him, especially during his imprisonment for refusing to serve in the Garde Nationale. In the same year (1836), he was drawn by the charming Madame de Valette to Guerande, where he secured his descriptive material for Beatrix.
In the spring of 1837, he went to Italy for the second time, hoping to recuperate, and wishing to see the bust of Madame Hanska which had been made by Bartolini. He visited several cities, and in Milan he was received in the salon of Madame Maffei, where he met some of the best known people of the day. He had now thought of another scheme by means of which he might become very rich,—always a favorite dream of his. He believed that much silver might be extracted from lead turned out of the mines as refuse, and was indiscreet enough to confide his ideas to a crafty merchant whom he met at Genoa. A year later, when Balzac went to Sardinia to investigate the possibility of the development of his plans, he found that his ideas had been appropriated by this acquaintance. On his return from this trip to Corsica and Sardinia, on which he had endured much physical suffering, and had spent much money to no financial avail, he stopped again at Milan to look after the interests of the Viscontis. In the Salon of the same year (1837), the famous portrait by Boulanger was displayed. About the same time, together with Theophile Gautier, Leon Gozlan, Jules Sandeau and others, he organized an association called the Cheval Rouge for mutual advertisement.
Balzac now bought a piece of land at Ville d'Avray (Sevres), and had a house built, Les Jardies, which afforded much amusement to the Parisians. He went there to reside in 1838 while the walls were still damp. Here he formed another scheme for becoming rich, this time in the belief that he would be successful in raising pineapples at his new home. Les Jardies was a three-story house. The principal stairway was on the outside, because an exterior staircase would not interfere with the symmetrical arrangement of the interior. The garden walls, not long after completion, fell down as they had no foundations, and Balzac sadly exclaimed over their giving way! After a brief residence here of about two years, he fled from his creditors and concealed his identity under the name of his housekeeper, Madame de Brugnolle, in a mysterious little house, No. 19, rue Basse, Passy.
Aside from his novels, which were appearing at a most rapid rate, Balzac wrote many plays, but they all met with failure for various reasons. Other literary activities, such as his brief directorship of the Revue Parisienne, numerous articles and short stories, and his cooperation in the Societe des Gens-de-Lettres, which was organized to protect the rights of authors and publishers, occupied much of his precious time; in addition, he had his unremitting financial struggles.
This "child-man," however, with his imagination, optimism, belief in magnetism and clairvoyance, and great steadfastness of character, kept on hoping. Not discouraged by his ever unsuccessful schemes for becoming a millionaire, he conceived the project of digging for hidden treasures, and later thought of making a fortune by transporting to France oaks grown in distant Russia.
In the spring of 1842 Balzac's novels were collected for the first time under the name of the Comedie humaine. This was shortly after one of the most important events of his life had occurred, when on January 5 he received a letter from Madame Hanska telling of the death of her husband the previous November. Balzac wished to leave for Russia immediately, but Madame Hanska's permission was not forthcoming, and it was not until July of 1843 that Balzac arrived at St. Petersburg to visit his "Polar Star."
On his return home he became very ill, and from this time onward his robust constitution, which he had so abused by overwork and by the use of strong coffee, began to break under the continual strain and his illnesses became more and more frequent. His visit to his Chatelaine, however, had increased his longing to be constantly in her society, and he was ever planning to visit her. During her prolonged stay in Dresden in the winter and spring of 1845, he became so desperate that he could not longer do his accustomed work, and when the invitation to visit her eventually came, he forgot all in his haste to be at her side.
With Madame Hanska, her daughter Anna, and the Count George Mniszech, Anna's fiance, Balzac now traveled extensively in Europe. In July, after some preliminary journeys, Madame Hanska and Anna secretly accompanied him to Paris where they enjoyed the opportunity of visiting Anna's former governess, Lirette, who had entered a convent. In August, after visiting many cities with the two ladies, Balzac escorted them as far as Brussels. In September he left Paris again to join them at Baden, and in October, went to meet them at Chalons whence all four—Count Mniszech being now of the party—journeyed to Marseilles and by sea to Naples. After a few days at Naples, Balzac returned to Paris, ill, having spent much money and done little work.
Ever planning a home for his future bride, and buying objects of art with which to adorn it, Balzac with his numerous worries was physically and mentally in poor condition. In March, 1846, he left Paris to join Madame Hanska and her party at Rome for a month. He traveled with them to some extent during the summer, and a definite engagement of marriage was entered into at Strasbourg. In October he attended the marriage of Anna and the Count Mniszech at Wiesbaden, and Madame Hanska visited him secretly in Paris during the winter.
He was now in better spirits, and his health was somewhat improved, enabling him to do some of his best work, but he was being pressed to fulfil his literary obligations, and, as usual, harassed over his debts. In September he left for Wierzchownia, where he remained until the following February, continually hoping that his marriage would soon take place. But Mme. Hanska hesitated, and the failure of the Chemin de Fer du Nord added more financial embarrassments to his already large load. The Revolution of 1848 brought him into more trouble still, and his health was obviously becoming impaired. Yet he continued hopeful.
After spending the summer in his house of treasure in the rue Fortunee, he again left, in September, 1848, for Wierzchownia, this time determined to return with his shield or upon it. During his prolonged stay of eighteen months, while his distraught mother was looking after affairs in his new home, his health became so bad that he could not finish the work outlined during the summer. No sooner had he recovered from one malady than he was overtaken by another. Unable to work, distracted by bad news from his family, and being the witness of several financial failures incurred by Madame Hanska, Balzac naturally was supremely depressed. At this time, a touch of what may not uncharitably be termed snobbishness is seen in his letters to his family when he extols the unlimited virtues of his Predilecta and the Countess Anna.
After seventeen long years of waiting, with hope constantly deferred, Balzac at last attained his goal when, on March 14, 1850, Madame Hanska became Madame Honore de Balzac. His joy over this great triumph was beyond all adequate description, but he was unable to depart for Paris with his bride until April. After a difficult journey, the couple arrived at Paris in May, but the condition of Balzac's health was hopeless and only a few more months were accorded him. With his usual optimism, he always thought that he would be spared to finish his great work, and when informed by his physician on August 17 that he would live but a few hours, he refused to believe it.
Unless he had been self-centered, Balzac could never have left behind him his enormous and prodigious work. In spite of certain unlovely phases of his private character and failure to fulfil his literary and financial obligations, he was a man of great personal charm. Though at various times he was under consideration for election to the French Academy, his name is not found numbered among the "forty immortals." But he was the greatest of French novelists, a great creator of characters, who by some competent critics has been ranked with Shakespeare, and he has left to posterity the incomparable, though unfinished Comedie humaine, which is in itself sufficient for his "immortality."
RELATIVES AND FAMILY FRIENDS
"Farewell, my dearly beloved mother! I embrace you with all my heart. Oh! if you knew how I need just now to cast myself upon your breast as a refuge of complete affection, you would insert a little word of tenderness in your letters, and this one which I am answering has not even a poor kiss. There is nothing but . . . Ah! Mother, Mother, this is very bad! . . . You have misconstrued what I said to you, and you do not understand my heart and affection. This grieves me most of all! . . ."
The above extract is sadly typical of a relationship of thirty years, 1820-1850, between a mother, on the one hand, who never understood or appreciated her son—and a son, on the other, whose longings for maternal affection were never fully gratified. To his mother Balzac dedicated Le Medicin de Campagne, one of his finest sociological studies.
Madame Surville has described Balzac's mother, and her own, as being rich, beautiful, and much younger than her husband, and as having a rare vivacity of mind and of imagination, an untiring activity, a great firmness of decision, and an unbounded devotion to her family; but as expressing herself in actions rather than in words. She devoted herself exclusively to the education of her children, and felt it necessary to use severity towards them in order to offset the effects of indulgence on the part of their father and their grandmother. Balzac inherited from his mother imagination and activity, and from both of his parents energy and kindness.
Madame de Balzac has been charged with not having been a tender mother towards her children in their infancy. She had lost her first child through her inability to nurse it properly. An excellent nurse, however, was found for Honore, and he became so healthy that later his sister Laure was placed with the same nurse. But she never seemed fully to understand her son nor even to suspect his promise. She attributed the sagacious remarks and reflections of his youth to accident, and on such occasions she would tell him that he did not understand what he was saying. His only reply would be a sweet, submissive smile which irritated her, and which she called arrogant and presumptuous. With her cold, calculating temperament, she had no patience with his staking his life and fortune on uncertain financial undertakings, and blamed him for his business failures. She suffered on account of his love of luxury and his belief in his own greatness, no evidence of which seemed sufficient to her matter-of-fact mind. She continued to misjudge him, unaware of his genius, but in spite of her grumbling and harassing disposition, she often came to his aid in his financial troubles.
Contrary to the wishes of his parents, who had destined him to become a notary, Balzac was ever dreaming of literary fame. His mother not unnaturally thought that a little poverty and difficulty would bring him to submission; so, before leaving Paris for Villeparisis in 1819 she installed him in a poorly furnished mansard, No. 9, rue Lesdiguieres, leaving an old woman, Madame Comin, who had been in the service of the family for more than twenty years, to watch over him. Balzac has doubtless depicted this woman in Facino Cane as Madame Vaillant, who in 1819-1820 was charged with the care of a young writer, lodged in a mansard, rue Lesdiguieres.
After fifteen months of this life, his health became so much impaired that his mother insisted on keeping him at home, where she cared for him faithfully. On a former occasion Madame de Balzac had had her son brought home to recuperate, for when he was sent away to college at an early age, his health became so impaired that he was hurriedly returned to his home. Balzac probably refers to this event in his life when he writes, in Louis Lambert, that the mother, alarmed by the continuous fever of her son and his symptoms of coma, took him from school at four or five hours' notice.
During the five years (1820-1825) that Balzac remained at home in Villeparisis, he longed for the quiet freedom of his garret; he could not adapt himself to the bustling family circle, nor reconcile himself to the noise of the domestic machinery kept in motion by his vigilant and indefatigable mother. She was of a nervous, excitable nature, which she probably inherited from her mother, Madame Sallambier. She imagined that he was ill, and of course there was no one to convince her to the contrary. Had she known that while she thought she was contributing everything to the happiness of those around her, she was only doing the opposite, we may be sure that she of all women would have been the most wretched.
Balzac having failed in his speculations as publisher and printer, was aided by his mother financially, and she figured as one of his principal creditors during the remainder of his life. (E. Faguet in Balzac, is exaggerating in stating that Madame de Balzac sacrificed her whole fortune for Honore, for much of her means was spent on her favorite son, Henri.)
M. Auguste Fessart was a contemporary of the family, an observer of a great part of the life of Honore, and his confidant on more than one occasion. In his Commentaires on the work entitled Balzac, sa Vie et ses Oeuvres, by Madame Surville, he states that the portrait of Madame de Balzac is flattering—a daughter's portrait of a mother—and declares that Madame de Balzac was very severe with her children, especially with Honore, adding that Balzac used to say that he never heard his mother speak without experiencing a certain trembling which deprived him of his faculties. Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, in reviewing the Commentaires of M. Fessart, notes the recurring instances in which pity is expressed for the moral and material sufferings almost constantly endured by Balzac in his family circle. These sufferings seem to have impressed him more than anything else in the career of the novelist. In speaking of Balzac's financial appeal to his family, M. Fessart notes: "And his mother did not respond to him. She let him die of hunger! . . . I repeat that they let him die of hunger; he told me so several times!" When Madame Surville speaks of their keeping Balzac's presence in Paris a secret, saying that it was moreover a means of keeping him from all worldly temptations, M. Fessart replies: "And of giving him nothing, and of allowing him to be in need of everything!" Finally, when Madame Surville speaks of her parents' not giving Balzac the fifteen hundred francs he desired, M. Fessart confirms this, saying that his family always refused him money.
A letter from Balzac to Madame Hanska testifies to this attitude of his family towards him: "In 1828 I was cast into this poor rue Cassini, in consequence of a liquidation to which I had been compelled, owing one hundred thousand francs and being without a penny, when my family would not even give me bread."
MM. Hanotaux et Vicaire, to whose admirable work we shall have occasion to refer often, state that Madame de Balzac advanced thirty-seven thousand six hundred francs for Balzac on August 16, 1822, and that his parents paid a total of forty-five thousand francs for him.
Having read M. Fessart's description of Madame de Balzac, one can agree with Madame Ruxton in saying that Balzac has portrayed his own youth in his account of the early life of Raphael in La Peau de Chagrin, Balzac's mother, instead of Raphael's father, being recognized in the following passage:
"Seen from afar, my life appears to contract by some mental process. That long, slow agony of ten years' duration can be brought to memory to-day in some few phrases, in which pain is resolved into a mere idea, and pleasure becomes a philosophical reflection . . . When I left school, my father submitted me to a strict discipline; he installed me in a room near his own study, and I had to rise at five in the morning and retire at nine at night. He intended me to take my law studies seriously. I attended school, and read with an advocate as well; but my lectures and work were so narrowly circumscribed by the laws of time and space, and my father required of me such a strict account, at dinner, that . . . In this manner I cowered under as strict a despotism as a monarch's until I became of age."
In confirmation of this idea, Madame Ruxton[*] quotes Madame Barnier, granddaughter of the Duchesse d'Abrantes, who knew both Balzac and his mother, and who describes her as a cold, severe, superior, but hard-hearted woman, just the opposite of her son. Balzac himself states: "Never shall I cease to resemble Raphael in his garret."
[*] In La Dilecta de Balzac, Balzac states that he has described his own life in La Peau de Chagrin. For a picture of Balzac's unhappy childhood drawn by himself, see Revue des deux Mondes, March 15, 1920.
After the death (June 1829) of her husband, Madame de Balzac lived with her son at different intervals, and during his extended tour of six months in 1832 she attended to the details of his business. With her usual energy and extreme activity, she displayed her ability in various lines, for she had to have dealings with his publisher, do copying, consult the library,—sending him some books and buying others,—have the servant exercise the horses, sell the horses and carriage and dismiss the servant, arrange to have certain payments deferred, send him money and consult the physician for him, not to mention various other duties.
While Madame de Balzac was certainly requested to do far more than a son usually expects of his mother, her tantalizing letters were a source of great annoyance to him, as is seen in the following:
"What you say about my silence is one of those things which, to use your expression, makes me grasp my heart with both hands; for it is incredible I should be able to produce all I do. (I am obeying the most rigorous necessity); so if I am to write, I ought to have more time, and when I rest, I wish to lay down and not take up my pen again. Really, my poor dear mother, this ought to be understood between us once for all; otherwise, I shall have to renounce all epistolary intercourse. . . . And this morning I was about to make the first dash at my work, when your letter came and completely upset me. Do you think it possible to have artistic inspirations after being brought suddenly face to face with such a picture of my miseries as you have traced? Do you think that if I did not feel them, I should work as I do? . . . Farewell, my good mother. Try and achieve impossibilities, which is what I am doing on my side. My life is one perpetual miracle. . . . You ask me to write you in full detail; but, my dear mother, have you yet to be told what my existence is? When I am able to write, I work at my manuscripts; when I am not working at my manuscripts, I am thinking of them; I never have any rest. How is it my friends are not aware of this? . . . I beg of you, my dear mother, in the name of my heavy work, never to write me that such a work is good, and such another bad: you upset me for a fortnight."
Balzac appreciated what his mother did for him, and while he never fully repaid her the money she had so often requested of him, she might have felt herself partially compensated by these kind words of affection:
"My kind and excellent mother,—After writing to you in such haste, I felt my inmost heart melt as I read your letter again, and I worshipped you. How shall I return to you, when shall I return to you, and can I ever return to you, by my love and endeavors for your happiness, all that you have done for me? I can at present only express my deep thankfulness. . . . How deep is my gratitude towards the kind hearts who pluck some of the thorns from my life and smooth my path by their affection. But constrained to an unceasing warfare against destiny, I have not always leisure to give utterance to what I feel. I would not, however, allow a day to pass without letting you know the tenderness your late proofs of devotion excite in me. A mother suffers the pangs of labor more than once with her children, does she not, my mother? Poor mothers, are you ever enough beloved! . . . I hope, my much beloved mother, you will not let yourself grow dejected. I work as hard as it is possible for a man to work; a day is only twelve hours long, I can do no more. . . . Farewell, my darling mother; I am very tired! Coffee burns my stomach. For the last twenty days I have taken no rest; and yet I must still work on, that I may remove your anxieties. . . . Keep your house; I had already sent an answer to Laura, I will not let either you or Surville bear the burden of my affairs. However, until the arrival of my proxy, it is understood that Laura, who is my cash keeper, will remit you a hundred and fifty francs a month. You may reckon on this as a regular payment; nothing in the world will take precedence of it. Then, at the end of November to December 10, you will have the surplus of thirty-six thousand francs to reimburse you for the excess of the expenditure over the receipts during the time of your stewardship; during which, thanks to your devotion, you gave me all the tranquility that was possible. . . . I entreat you to take care of yourself! Nothing is so dear to me as your health! I would give half of myself to keep you well, and I would keep the other half, to do you service. My mother, the day when we shall be happy through me is coming quickly; I am beginning to gather the fruits of the sacrifices I have made this year for a more certain future. Still, a few months more and I shall be able to give you that happy life—that life without cares or anxiety—which you so much need. You will have all you desire; our little vanities will be satisfied no less than the great ambitions of our hearts. Oh do, I pray you, nurse yourself! . . . Your comfort in material things and your happiness are my riches. Oh! my dear mother, do live to see my bright future realized!"[*]
[*] In speaking of Balzac's relations to his mother, Mr. F. Lawton (Balzac) states: "Madame Balzac was sacrificed to his improvidence and stupendous egotism; nor can the tenderness of the language—more frequently than not called forth by some fresh immolation of her comfort to his interests—disguise this unpleasing side of his character and action. . . . And his epistolary good-byes were odd mixtures of business with sentiment."
Thus did the poor mother alternately receive letters full of scoldings and of terms of endearment from her son whose genius she never understood. She was faithful in her duties, and her ambitious son probably did not realize how much he was asking of her. But she may have had a motive in keeping him on the prolonged visit during which this last letter was written, for she was interested in his prospective marriage. Although her full name is never mentioned, the women in question, Madame D——, was evidently a widow with a fortune, and in view of this prospect was most pleasing to Madame de Balzac. However, this matrimonial plan fell through, and Balzac himself was never enthusiastic over it. He felt that his attentions to Madame D—— would consume his very precious time, and that the affair could not come off in time to serve his interests. Could it be that Balzac was alluding to this same Madame D—— when he wrote some time later: "My beloved mother,—the affair has come to nothing, the bird was frightened away, and I am very glad of it. I had no time to run after it, and it was imperative it should be either yes or no."
This marriage project, like many others planned either for or by Balzac, came to naught, and his mother evidently became displeased with him, for she left him on his return, when he was in great need of consolation and sympathy. As frequently happened under such circumstances, Balzac expressed his deep regrets at his mother's conduct to one of his best friends, Madame Carraud, and confided to her his loneliness and longings.
Madame de Balzac was much occupied with religious ideas, and had made a collection of the writings of the mystics. Balzac plunged into the study of clairvoyance and mesmerism, and his mother, interested in the marvelous, helped him in his studies, as she knew many of the celebrated clairvoyants and mesmerists of the time.
At various times, Balzac's relations with his mother were much estranged; at one time he did not even know where she was. When she was disappointed in her favorite child, Henri, she seemed to recognize the great wrong involved in her lack of affection for Honore and his sister Laure. But she never gave him the attentions that he longed for. In May, 1840, he wrote to Madame Hanska that he was especially sad on the day of his fete catholique (May 16) as, since the death of Madame de Berny, there was no one to observe this occasion, though during her life every day was a fete day; he was too busy to join with his sister Laure in the mutual observance of their birthdays, and his mother cared little for him; once the Duchesse de Castries had sent him a most beautiful bouquet,—but now there was no one.
The same year (1840) he took his mother to live with him Aux jardies. This he regarded as an additional burden. Her continual harassing him for the money he still owed her, her nervous and discordant disposition, her constant intrigues to force him to marry, and her numerous little acts that placed him in positions beneath the dignity of an author's standing were an incessant source of annoyance to him.
She did not remain with him long, but he tried to perform his filial duties and make her comfortable, as various letters show. One of these reads as follows:
"My dear Mother,—It is very difficult for me to enter into the engagement you ask of me, and to do so without reflection would entail consequences most serious both for you and for myself. The money necessary for my existence is, as it were, wrung from what should go to pay my debts, and hard work it is to get it. The sort of life I lead is suitable for no one; it wears out relations and friends; all fly from my dreary house. My affairs will become more and more difficult to manage, not to say impossible. The failure of my play, as regards money, still further complicates my situation. I find it impossible to work in the midst of all the little storms raised up in a household where the members do not live in harmony. My work has become feeble during the last year, as any one can see. I am in doubt what to do. But I must come to some determination within a few days. When my furniture has been sold, and when I have disposed of 'Les Jardies,' I shall not have much left. And I shall find myself alone in the world with nothing but my pen, and an attic. In such a situation shall I be able to do more for you than I am doing at this moment? I shall have to live from hand to mouth by writing articles which I can no longer write with the agility of youth which is no more. The world, and even relations, mistake me; I am engrossed by my work, and they think I am absorbed in myself. I am not blind to the fact, that up to the present moment, working as I work, I have not succeeded in paying my debts, nor in supporting myself. No future will save me. I must do something else, look out for some other position. And it is at a time like this that you ask me to enter into an engagement! Two years ago I should have done so, and have deceived myself. Now all I can say is, come to me and share my crust. You were in a tolerable position; I had a domestic whose devotion spared you all the worry of housekeeping; you were not called on to enter into every detail, you were quiet and peaceful. You wished me to count for something in your life, when it was imperative for you to forget my existence and allow me the entire liberty without which I can do nothing. It is not a fault in you, it is the nature of women. Now everything is changed. If you wish to come back, you will have to bear a little of the burden which is about to weigh me down, and which hitherto has only pressed upon you because you chose to take it to yourself. All this is business, and in no way involves my affection for you, which is always the same; so believe in the tenderness of your devoted son."
Later, when Balzac purchased his home in the rue Fortunee, his mother had the care of it while he was in Russia. He asked her to visit the house weekly and to keep the servants on the alert by enquiring as though she expected him; yet Balzac wrote his nieces to have their grandmother visit them often, lest she carry too far the duties she imposed on herself in looking after his little home. He cautioned her to allow no one to enter the house, to insist that his old servant Francois be discreet, and especially that she be prudent in not talking about his plans; and that by all means she should take a carriage while attending to his affairs; this request was not only from him but also from Madame Hanska.
She was most faithful in looking after his home and watching the workmen to see that his instructions were carried out. In fact, she never left the house except when, on one occasion, owing to the excessive odors of the paint, she spent two nights in Laure's home.
Balzac's stay at Wierzchownia, however, was far from tranquil, for his mother was discontented with the general aspect of his affairs and increased his vexations by writing a letter in which she addressed him as vous, declaring that her affection was conditional on his behavior, a thing he naturally resented. "To think," he writes, "of a mother reserving the right to love a son like me, seventy-two years on the one side, and fifty on the other!"
This letter caused a serious complication in his affairs in Russia, but the mother evidently became reconciled for a few months later she wrote to him expressing her joy at the news of his recovery, and asking him to extend to his friends her most sincere thanks for their care of him in his serious illness. Aside from knowing of his illness and her inability to see him, she was most happy in feeling that he was with such good friends.
She complained of his not writing oftener, but he replied that he had written to her seven times during his absence, that the letters were posted by his hostess and that he did not wish to abuse the hospitality with which he was so royally and magnificently entertained. He resented his mother's dictating to him, a man of fifty years of age, as to how often he should write to his nieces, for while he enjoyed receiving their letters, he thought they should feel honored in receiving letters from him whenever he had time to write to them.
When the poor mother attempted to be gracious to her son by sending him a box of bonbons, she only brought him trouble, for she packed it in newspapers, and in passing the custom-house, it was taken out and the candy crushed. Instead of thanking her for her good intentions, he rebuked her for her stupidity in regard to sending printed matter into Russia, as it endangered his stay there.
Balzac was always striving to pay his mother his long-standing indebtedness, but the Revolution of 1848, in connection with his continued illness, made this impossible. This burden of debt was also, at this time, preventing his obtaining a successful termination of his mission to Russia, for, as he explained to his mother, the lady concerned did not care to marry him while he was still encumbered with debt. Being a woman past forty, she desired that nothing should disturb the tranquillity in which she wished to live.
Owing to this critical situation and to his poor health, Balzac had repeatedly requested his mother never to write depressing news to him, but she paid little attention to this request and sent him a letter hinting at trouble in so vague a manner and with such disquieting expressions that, in his extremely nervous condition, it might have proved fatal to him. Yet it did not affect him so seriously as it did Madame Hanska, who read the letter to him, for owing to his terrible illness and the method of treatment, his eyes had become so weak that he could no longer see in the evening. Madame Hanska was so deeply interested in everything that concerned Balzac that this news made her very ill. For them to live in suspense for forty days without knowing anything definite was far worse than it would have been had his mother enumerated in detail the various misfortunes. From the preceding revelations of the disposition of Madame de Balzac, one can easily understand how it happened that her son has immortalized some of her traits in the character of Cousine Bette.
During the remainder of Balzac's stay in the Ukraine, he was preoccupied with the thought of his mother having every possible comfort, with his becoming acclimatized in Russia,—impossible though it was for him in his condition,—and above all with the realization of his long-cherished hope. But he cautioned his mother to observe the greatest discretion in regard to this hope, "for such things are never certain until one leaves the church after the ceremony."
What must have been his feeling of triumph when he was able to write:
"My very dear Mother,—Yesterday, at seven in the morning, thanks be to God, my marriage was blessed and celebrated in the church of Saint Barbara, at Berditchef, by the deputy of the Bishop of Jitomir. Monseigneur wished to have married me himself, but being unable, he sent a holy priest, the Count Abbe Czarouski, the eldest of the glories of the Polish Roman Catholic Church, as his representative. Madame Eve de Balzac, your daughter-in-law, in order to make an end of all obstacles, has taken an heroic and sublimely maternal resolution, viz., to give up all her fortune to her children, only reserving an annuity to herself. . . . There are now two of us to thank you for all the good care you have taken of our house, as well as to testify to you our respectful tendresses."
Balzac was not only anxious that his bride should be properly received, but also that his mother should preserve her dignity. On their way home he writes her from Dresden to have the house ready for their arrival (May 19, 20, 21), urging that she go either to her own home or to Laure's, for it would not be proper for her to receive her daughter-in-law in the rue Fortunee, and that she should not call until his wife had called on her. After reminding her again not to forget to procure flowers, he suggests that owing to his extremely feeble health he meet her at Laure's, for there he would have one less flight of stairs to climb. These suggestions, however, were unnecessary, as his mother had been ill in bed for several weeks in Laure's house.