Honore de Balzac, by Albert Keim and Louis Lumet

Chapter 8. At Les Jardies.

It was in 1835 that Balzac conceived the idea of acquiring some land, situated between Sevres and Ville-d’Avray, for the purpose of building a house. He wished in this way to give a guarantee to his mother, evade compulsory service in the National Guard, and become a landed proprietor. He had explored all the suburbs of Paris before deciding upon a hillside with a steep slope, as ill adapted to building as to cultivation. But, having definitely made his choice, he acquired sections from the adjacent holdings of three peasants, thus obtaining a lot forty square rods in extent, to which he naturally hoped to add later on. He calculated that he would not have to spend more than twenty-five thousand francs, which he could borrow — in point of fact, the total cost came to more than ninety thousand — and that the interest to be paid would not come to more than the rent he was then paying for his apartment. The first step was to surround his property with walls, and Balzac then christened it with the name of Les Jardies. He laughed with sheer contentment, foreseeing himself in his mind’s eye already installed in his own abode, far from Paris, and yet near to it, and beyond the reach of importunate visitors and the curiosity of cheap journalism. Nevertheless Les Jardies cost him as much sarcasm and ridicule as his monstrous walking-stick set with turquoises. He had given his own plans to his architects, and he himself attentively superintended his contractors and masons. He experienced all the annoyances incident to construction, delays in the work, disputes with the workmen, the worry of raising money and meeting payments, and the impossibility of obtaining exactly what he wished. He was impatient to take possession of his own home, but the completion of it was delayed from month to month; it was to have been ready for occupancy by November 30, 1837, yet on his return from Sardinia in June 1838, it was not yet finished. But he was so eager to move in that in defiance of his physician’s orders he installed himself in August, in the midst of all the confusion and with the workmen still all around him. It was a dreadful condition of things, the upturned ground, the empty chambers, the chill of new plaster, and an irritating sense of things not finished and pushed along in haste; but he was exultant, and distracted his own attention by admiring the beauty of the surrounding landscape.

How delightful it was to live at Les Jardies! It required not more than ten minutes to reach the heart of Paris, the Madeleine, and it cost but ten sous. The Rue des Batailles and the Rue Cassini were at the other end of the world, and you must needs spend a couple of francs for the shortest drive which wasted an hour — such was the fashion in which Balzac dreamed! And he would gaze at his acre of ground, bare, ploughed-up clay, without a tree or a blade of grass, and he found no trouble in transforming it mentally into an eden of “plants, fragrance and shrubbery.” He planned to fill it with twenty-year magnolias, sixteen-year lindens, twelve-year poplars, birches and grape vines which would yield him fine white grapes the very next year. And then he would earn thirty thousand francs and buy two more acres of land, which he would turn into an orchard and kitchen-garden.

The house which was the object of so many witticisms was a small three-storied structure, containing on the ground floor a dining-room and parlour, on the next a bed-chamber and dressing-room, and on the upper floor Balzac’s working room. A balcony supported by brick pillars completely surrounded the second story, and the staircase — the famous staircase — ascended on the outside of the house. The whole was painted brick colour, excepting the corners, which had stone trimmings.

Behind the house itself, at a distance of some sixty feet, were the outhouses, including, on the ground floor, the kitchen, pantry, bathroom, stables, carriage-house and harness-room; on the floor above an apartment to let, and on the top floor the servants’ quarters and a guest chamber. Furthermore, Balzac had a spring of water on his own grounds!

For months all Paris talked of the staircase at Les Jardies which Balzac, great architect that he was, had forgotten to put into the plans for his house. Under the caption, “Literary Indiscretions,” the following humorous note appeared in La Caricature Provisoire;

“M. de Balzac, after having successively inhabited the four corners of the globe and the twelve wards of Paris, seems to have definitely transferred his domicile to the midst of an isolated plain in the outskirts of Ville-d’Avray; he occupies a house which he has had built there for his own particular accommodation by a direct descendant of the marvellous architect to whom the world owes the cathedral of Cologne. This house, in which no doors or windows are to be found, and which is entered through a square hole cut in the roof, is furnished throughout with an oriental luxury of which even the pashas themselves would be incapable of forming an idea. The great novelist’s private study has a floor inlaid with young girl’s teeth and hung with superb cashmere rugs that have been sent him by all the crowned heads of the universe. As to the furniture, the chairs, sofas and divans, they are one and all stuffed with women’s hair, both blonde and brunette, sent to the author of La Grenadiere by a number of women of thirty who did not hesitate a minute to despoil themselves of their most beautiful adornment — a sacrifice all the more rare since they have passed the age at which the hair would grow again!”

Balzac removed to Les Jardies as soon as the walls of the dwelling had been raised and the floorings laid, and he lived there before there was a piece of furniture in any of the rooms, aside from the few indispensable things. Leon Gozlan has amusingly related the manner in which the novelist supplied their lack by an effort of imagination. He wrote on the walls with charcoal what he intended the interior decoration of his house to be: “Here a wainscoting of Parian marble; here a stylobate of cedar wood; here a ceiling painted by Eugene Delacroix; here an Aubusson tapestry; here a mantelpiece of cipolino marble; here doors on the Trianon model; here an inlaid floor of rare tropical woods.”

Leon Gozlan says that “Balzac did not resent pleasantries at the expense of these imaginary furnishings,” and he adds, “he laughed as heartily as I, if not more so, the day when I wrote, in characters larger than his own, on the wall of his bed-chamber, which was as empty as any of the others:

“HERE A PAINTING BY RAPHAEL, BEYOND ALL PRICE, AND THE LIKE OF WHICH HAS NEVER BEEN SEEN.’”

Balzac laughed, but Gozlan did not understand that he found more pleasure in desiring things than in actually possessing them, for in the former case he was limited only by the extent of his own desires, which were almost infinite.

Among the various speculative schemes which Balzac dreamed of, in connection with Les Jardies, and which were to make his fortune — a dairy, vineyards which were to produce Malaga and Tokay wine, the creation of a village, etc. — particular mention should be made of his plans for the cultivation of pineapples, which we have upon the authority of Theophile Gautier:

“Here was the project,” he tells us, “a hundred thousand square feet of pineapples were to be planted in the grounds of Les Jardies, metamorphosed into hothouses which would require only a moderate amount of heating, thanks to the natural warmth of the situation. The pineapples were expected to sell at five francs each, instead of a louis (twenty francs), which was the ordinary price; in other words, five hundred thousand francs for the season’s crop; from this amount a hundred thousand francs would have to be deducted for the cost of cultivation, the glass frames, and the coal; accordingly, there would remain a net profit of four hundred thousand, which would constitute a splendid income for the happy possessor — ‘without having to turn out a page of copy,’ he used to say. This was nothing; Balzac had a thousand projects of the same sort; but the beautiful thing about this one was that we went together to the Boulevard Montmartre to look for a shop in which to sell these pineapples that were not yet even planted. The shop was to be painted black, with gold trimmings, and there was to be a sign proclaiming in enormous letters: PINEAPPLES FROM LES JARDIES.

“However, he yielded to our advice not to hire the shop until the following year, in order to save needless expense.”

When the first satisfaction of being a landed proprietor had passed, Balzac realised that he had added a new burden to those he already carried, and he confided to Mme. Carraud: “Yes, the folly is committed and it is complete! Don’t talk of it to me; I must needs pay for it, and I am now spending my nights doing so!” Forty thousand francs had been added to his former debts, to say nothing of all sorts of trouble which Les Jardies was still destined to cost him.

In spite of his formidable powers of production, which had caused him to be called by Hippolyte Souverain “the most fertile of French novelists,”— a title, by the way, of which he was far from proud — Honore de Balzac could not succeed in freeing himself from debt. Nevertheless, between 1836 and 1839 he published: The Atheist’s Mass, The Interdiction, The Old Maid, The Cabinet of Antiques, Facino Cane, Lost Illusions (1st part); The Superior Woman (later The Employees), The Cabinet of Antiques (2d part), The House of Nucingen, Splendours and Miseries of Courtezans (1st part), A Daughter of Eve, Beatrix, Lost Illusions (2d part), A Provincial Great Man in Paris, The Secrets of the Princesse de Cadignan, The Village Cure, and to these he added in 1840 Pierrette, Pierre Grassou, and A New Prince of Bohemia. His prices had risen, new illustrated editions of his earlier works had been issued, and he was receiving high rates for his short stories, not only from the magazines but from newspapers such as the Figaro, the Presse, the Siecle and the Constitutionnel; yet nothing could extinguish his debts, those debts which he had been so long carrying like a cross. “Why,” said he, “I have been bowed down by this burden for fifteen years, it hampers the expansion of my life, it disturbs the action of my heart, it stifles my thoughts, it puts a blight on my existence, it embarrasses my movements, it checks my inspirations, it weighs upon my conscience, it interferes with everything, it has been a drag on my career, it has broken my back, it has made me an old man. My God, have I not paid dearly enough for my right to bask in the sunshine! All that calm future, that tranquillity of which I stand so much in need, all gambled away in a few hours and exposed to the mercy of Parisian caprice, which for the moment is in a censorious mood!”

Balzac now staked all his hopes upon his first play, Vautrin, which was about to be produced at the Porte Saint-Martin theatre. From the very outset of his literary career his thoughts had steadily turned to the drama, and his earliest attempt had been that ill-fated Cromwell, which had failed so ignominiously when read to his family. Yet this setback had not definitely turned him aside from the stage; and, while he rather despised the theatre as a means of literary expression, he had never ceased to consider it as the most rapid method of earning money and founding a fortune. All the time that he was writing his Human Comedy, one can feel that he was constantly pre-occupied with the composition of plays, of which he drafted the scenarios without ever elaborating them. In 1831 he invited Victor Ratier, editor of La Silhouette, to collaborate with him, specifying, however, “that it was more a question of establishing a literary porkshop than a reputation”; in 1832 he announced to his mother that he had “taken the step of writing two or three plays for stage production!” and he added, “This is the greatest misfortune which could happen to me; but necessity is stronger than I, and it is impossible to extricate myself in any other way. I shall try to find some one who will do me the service of signing them, so that I shall not need to compromise my own name.” Thereafter he conceived successively a Marie Touchet, a tragedy in prose entitled Don Philip and Don Carlos, a farce comedy, Prudhomme Bigamist, a drama, The Courtiers, written in collaboration with Emmanuel Arago and Jules Sandeau, and a high-class comedy, The Grande Mademoiselle, also in collaboration with Sandeau. Then, in 1836, he reverted to Marie Touchet, and composed La Gina, a drama in three acts, and Richard the Sponge-Hearted. Finally, in 1839, he wrote for the Renaissance Theatre The School of Married Life, with the obscure aid of Lassailly, a five-act play for which he was offered an award of six thousand francs, and which he himself produced in print. But it was never performed, in spite of many promises.

This first unsuccessful attempt at stage production discouraged him at first, yet he never gave up his determination to succeed. He prepared a second play, intending to ask Theophile Gautier to collaborate with him; this second play was Vautrin.

The first performance of Vautrin took place March 14, 1840. Balzac expected that this play would bring him in at least six thousand francs. Tickets had been greatly in demand, and speculators had so completely cornered them that the audience, composed largely of the author’s friends, could not obtain them at the box office. It was a tumultuous evening, and one would have to go back to the great opening nights of Victor Hugo in order to find a parallel case of hostile demonstrations. Frederik Lemaitre, who played the role of Jacques Collin, had conceived the idea of making himself up to resemble Louis Philippe. The King of France, far from being pleased at seeing himself masquerading as a bandit, suppressed the play, which consequently had only the one performance. It was a disaster, but Balzac bore up valiantly under it. Leon Gozlin, who called upon him at Les Jardies on the very day when the royal interdiction reached him, relates that he talked of nothing else but his plans for improving his property. Balzac’s friends, headed by Victor Hugo, tried to use their influence with the government officials, but the latter were powerless to do otherwise than to confirm the order of Louis Philippe; the royal edict had been imperative. The government offered to pay Balzac an indemnity, but he proudly refused.

A few months prior to the production of Vautrin, Balzac, then at the height of his financial difficulties and literary labours, had nevertheless courageously undertaken the defense of a man accused of murder whom he believed to be innocent. This act was in accordance with his conception of his duty as a citizen, and it bore witness to his generosity and sense of justice. The case in question was that of a certain notary, Peytel by name, of Belley, who was accused of the premeditated murder of his wife and man-servant. Balzac had had a slight acquaintance with him in 1831, at the time when Peytel was part owner of the Voleur, to which Balzac contributed. This acquaintance had sufficed him to judge of the man’s character and to conclude that he was incapable of the double crime with which he was charged. Regardless of his own most pressing interests, Balzac, accompanied by Gavarni, set out for Bourg, where the trial and sentence of death had already taken place. He saw the condemned man, and the conversations which they had together still further strengthened his opinion. This opinion he set forth in a Comment on the Peytel Case, which the Siecle published in its issues of September 15-17, 1839, and with a compelling force of argument and a fervent eloquence he demonstrated the innocence of the unfortunate notary. Nevertheless, the Court of Cassation found no reason for granting a new trial, and Peytel was executed at Bourg, October 28, 1839. This was a bitter blow to Balzac, who had believed that he could save him. Furthermore, his efforts and investigations had cost him ten thousand francs!

This was a cruel loss, both in time and in money. His novels were not bringing him in a hundredth part of what he estimated that he ought to be earning, in view of his extraordinary rate of production. He placed the blame upon the unauthorised Belgian reprints, which, according to his calculations, had robbed him of more than a million francs. Literary works were not at that time properly protected, and it was the province of the Society of Men of Letters to demand from the Government an effective defense against the “hideous piracy” of foreign countries. Balzac was admitted to the Society in 1839 — although with no small difficulty, for he had many enemies, and received only fifty-three votes, while forty-five were necessary for election — but it was not long before he had made his influence felt and had been chosen as a member of the committee. Leon Gozlan, who served with him, acknowledged his influence. “Balzac,” he wrote, “brought to the Society a profound, almost diabolical knowledge of the chronic wretchedness of the profession; a rare and unequalled ability to deal with the aristocrats of the publishing world; an unconquerable desire to limit their depredations, which he had brooded over on the Mount Sinai of a long personal experience; and, above all else, an admirable conviction of the inherent dignity of the man of letters.”

It was Balzac’s ambition to form a sort of author’s league, under the direction of “literary marshals,” of whom he should be the first, and including in its membership all the widely scattered men of letters, banded together in defense of their material and moral interests. He himself set an example by requesting the support of the Society against a little sheet entitled Les Ecoles, which had libelled him in a cartoon in which he was represented in prison for debt, wearing his monkish robe and surrounded by gay company. The cartoon bore the following legend: “The Reverend Father Seraphitus Mysticus Goriot, of the regular order of the Friars of Clichy, at last taken in by those who have so long been taken in by him.” This was in September, 1839, and on the 22d of the following October Balzac appeared as the representative of the Society of Men of Letters before the trial court of Rouen, in an action which it had begun against the Memorial de Rouen, for having reprinted certain published matter without permission. But he did not limit himself to a struggle from day to day, to discussions in committee meetings, to appeals to the legislature — his ambition was to become himself the law-maker for the writers. In May, 1840, two months after the disastrous failure of Vautrin, he offered to the consideration of the Society of Men of Letters a Literary Code, divided into titles, paragraphs, and articles, in which he laid down the principles from which to formulate practical rules for the protection of the interests of authors, and for the greater glory of French literature.

Having been appointed a member of the Committee of Official Relations, a committee which had been created at his suggestion for the purpose of seeing that men of letters should exercise a just influence over the government, Balzac drew up in 1841, some highly important Notes to be submitted to Messieurs the Deputies constituting the Committee on the Law of literary Property. But that same year, after having worked upon a Manifesto which the Committee was to present to the ruling powers, he handed in his resignation from the Society, on the 5th of October, and it was found impossible to make him reconsider his decision. It may be that he had received some slight which he could not forgive, or perhaps he had decided that it was to his interest to retain in his own name the right to authorise the republication of his works.

At this period he had attained that supremacy of which he had formerly dreamed in his humble mansarde chamber in the Rue Lesdiguieres, and he wished to have it crowned by some sort of official recognition. He made up his mind to present himself for election to the Academie Francaise, in December, 1839, but withdrew in favour of the candidacy of Victor Hugo, notwithstanding that the latter begged him, in a dignified and gracious message, not to do so.

An intercourse which, without being especially cordial, was fairly frequent had been established between these two great writers as a result of their joint labours on the committee of the Society of Men of Letters. During the month of July, 1839, Victor Hugo breakfasted with Balzac at Les Jardies, in company with Gozlan, for the purpose of discussing the great project of the Manifesto. Gozlan, who formed the third member of this triangular party, has left the following delectable account of the interview:

“Balzac was picturesquely clad in rags; his trousers, destitute of suspenders, parted company with his ample fancy waistcoat; his downtrodden shoes parted company with his trousers; his necktie formed a flaring bow, the points of which nearly reached his ears, and his beard showed a vigorous four days’ growth. As for Victor Hugo, he wore a gray hat of a very dubious shade, a faded blue coat with gilt buttons resembling a casserole in colour and shape, a much frayed black cravat, and, as a finishing touch, a pair of green spectacles that would have delighted the heart of the head clerk of a county sheriff, enemy of solar radiation!”

They made the circuit of the property, and Victor Hugo remained politely cold before the dithyrambic praises which Balzac lavished on his garden. He smiled only once, and that was at sight of a walnut tree, the only tree that the owner of Les Jardies had acquired from the community.

Victor Hugo had revealed to him the enormous profits that he drew from his dramatic writings, and it is easy to believe that Balzac’s persistent efforts to have a play produced were due to the momentary glimpse of a steady stream of wealth that was thus flashed before his dazzled eyes. After the catastrophe of Vautrin, he still pursued his dramatic ambitions with Pamela Giraud and Mercadet, but failed to find any theatre that would consent to produce them. What was worse, the year 1840 was, beyond all others, a frightful one for Balzac. He faced his creditors like a stag at bay; and all the while he found the burden of Les Jardies becoming constantly heavier. The walls surrounding the property had slipped on their clay foundation and broken down, while Balzac himself had sustained a serious fall on the steep slopes of his garden, and had consequently lost more than a month’s work. Furthermore, he underwent imprisonment at Sevres for having refused to take his turn at standing guard over his neighbours’ vineyards.

In his distress he thought seriously of expatriating himself and setting out for Brazil; and, before coming to a final decision, he awaited only the success or failure of a publishing venture such as he had already undertaken in vain. In the month of July, 1840, he started the Revue Parisienne, of which he was the sole editor, and through which he proclaimed a dictatorial authority over the arts and letters, society and the government. He had to abandon it after the third number.

Balzac remained in France, but he was obliged to quit Les Jardies. His creditors looked upon this property as their legitimate prey, and neither ruse nor sacrifice could any longer keep it from them. He first made a fictitious sale of it to his architect, and then a real one, on the advice of his lawyer. It had cost him more than ninety thousand francs, and he got back only seventeen thousand five hundred. But he had lived there through some beautiful dreams and great hopes.

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