Honore de Balzac, by Albert Keim and Louis Lumet

Chapter 4. In Business.

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.

In addition to the above-mentioned periodicals, Honore de Balzac printed the Album of History and Anecdote, from January to April, 1827, and he seems also to have been its editor. For, as a matter of fact, subscriptions to it were received at the printing house, No. 17, Rue des Marais-Saint-Germain, and there are anecdotes to be found in it which he afterwards repeated in some of his works.

In spite of all his hopes and efforts, the business went from bad to worse, and Balzac endured all the agonies of a merchant who sees the dawn of the day when a note falls due and knows that his cash drawer is empty. We can picture him, anxiously studying his account books, with his elbows on his desk, and imagining a thousand ingenious means of meeting his financial troubles. But the hard reality shattered them, one by one, like thin glass. He was a prey to the money-lenders and the lawyers, who had no mercy upon a poor wretch who had failed to “make good,” and accomplish his ruin with mathematical indifference. The sheriffs, the attorneys, the usurers, the intrusive hordes of clerks and process-servers swooped down upon the printing house and the printer, eager to share the spoils. Honore de Balzac, alone in his “horrible struggle,” stood at bay against the pack, using all the stratagems that he had learned in long years of conflict to throw them off the track and save his last remaining resources. He put forth all his accumulated cleverness, his fertile spirit of invention, yet he finally had to yield to superior numbers, and witness the rapid and steady disintegration of a business on which he had staked so many hopes.

But a new opportunity presented itself; his imagination caught fire, and he foresaw a fortune, an assured fortune which nothing could take from him — and once again he laughed his deep, sonorous, powerful laugh, defying destiny. In September, 1827, a type foundry was offered for sale, after having failed, and Balzac, in conjunction with Barbier and the assignee Laurent, bought it for the sum of thirty-six thousand francs. Mme. de Berny, with her inalienable devotion, joined with him in the new venture, contributing nine thousand francs as her share. The business of the foundry had hitherto been limited to the production of fonts of type, but it was the ambition of the partners to extend its scope to engraving on steel, copper and wood, and to a special method of stereotyping invented by Pierre Duronchail, to which they had acquired the rights. A catalogue reproducing the various forms of type which the foundry could furnish, as well as vignettes, head and tail pieces and typographical ornaments, was widely circulated, yet the world at large failed to perceive the advantages offered by the rejuvenated and improved house of Gille Fils. After a three months’ trial, Barbier withdrew from the partnership formed for the exploitation of the foundry, and on April 3, 1828, a new association was formed between Laurent and Balzac, in which Mme. de Berny’s name also figured, but only as a silent partner. But every effort was in vain, nothing could avert disaster. On the 16th of April, 1828, the partnership of Laurent and Balzac was dissolved, the former remaining as assignee.

Balzac was dismayed. The menace of insolvency closed the horizon of all his hopes. He had wished to triumph without the aid of his family, to demonstrate that he could carry on a business and achieve a fortune. Yet now he was obliged to call his family to his assistance, to cry out for succour. The situation was desperate, and it was necessary to act quickly, wisely and energetically, for the family honour was at stake. Mme. de Balzac, who until now had shown herself a suspicious and dissatisfied mother, sacrificed herself in the presence of imminent disaster; she offered up all her private fortune to satisfy the creditors. At her request, one of her cousins, M. Sedillot, undertook the settlement of the unfortunate business difficulties of her son, Honore; and, being a prudent and experienced business man, he was able to limit the extent of the disaster. Barbier bought back the printing house for sixty-seven thousand francs, and Mme. de Berny put her son, Alexandre, in charge of the foundry, in place of Balzac. The liabilities amounted to 113,081 francs, of which 37,600 had been advanced by Mme. de Balzac while the only assets were the 67,000 francs resulting from the sale of the printing house. Among the debts recorded in the settlement there are some which prove that at this time Balzac had already acquired a taste for luxury; he owed Thouvenin, book-binder to the Duc d’Orleans, 175 francs for binding a Lafontaine, a Boileau, and a Thousand and One Nights, while the long unsettled bill of his shoemaker amounted to no less than three hundred francs!

The intervention of his mother and the sacrifices that she consented to make saved him from inevitable failure, but he had to endure an avalanche of reproaches. At the age of twenty-nine he withdrew from business, with debts amounting to ninety thousand francs, and how could he, rebellious son that he was, ever hope to clear himself, when he might by this time have been a prosperous notary, well on the road towards honours, if he had only listened to the wise counsel of his parents? His father, Francois Balzac, had learned of the disaster, in spite of all the precautions taken to keep him in ignorance, and he addressed a letter, very noble in tone, to M. Sedillot, thanking him for having saved the family name from dishonour. We get an echo of the recriminations which must have arisen within the family circle from the firm yet bitter reply that Balzac made to his sister Laure:

“Your letter has given me two detestable days and two detestable nights. I brooded over my justification, point by point, like Mirabeau’s Memoire to his father, and I was already fired with zeal for the task; but I have decided not to write it. I cannot spare the time, my dear sister, and besides I do not feel that I have been at all in the wrong.” And in the same letter he said further, with calm pride: “I must live, my dear sister, without asking anything of anybody; I must live in order to work and pay back every one to whom I am in debt.”

Yes, he was nearly twenty-nine years old, his debts amounted to ninety thousand francs, and he was alone and without resources — but although it was a heavy burden he did not consider that it was too heavy for his shoulders. He had debts, but he meant to pay them, by means of his pen and his genius; and so we shall see him undertaking the most formidable task that ever human brain produced — and that was destined to cease only at his death.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31