Honore de Balzac, by Albert Keim and Louis Lumet

Chapter 9. In Retirement.

Upon leaving Les Jardies, Balzac took refuge in the village of Passy, at No. 19, Rue Basse, and there buried himself. (Thanks to M. de Royaumont, this building has become the Balzac Museum, similar to that of Victor Hugo at Paris, and of Goethe at Frankfort.) It was there that he meant to make his last effort and either perish or conquer destiny. Under the name of M. de Brugnol he had hired a small one-storey pavilion, situated in a garden and hidden from sight by the houses facing on the street. His address was known only to trusted friends, and it was now more difficult than ever to discover him. And his life as literary galley-slave was now burdened, in this solitude, with new and overwhelming tasks.

In the midst of the stormy tumult of money troubles and creative labour there was only one single gleam of calm and tender light. In November, 1840, he formed the project of going to Russia, and promised himself the pleasure of joining the Comtesse de Hanska at St. Petersburg for two long months. This hope, which he clung to with all the strength of his ardent nature, was not to be realised until 1843, for his departure was delayed from day to day through his financial embarrassment and unfulfilled contracts with publishers.

Shutting himself into his writing den, a small narrow room with a low ceiling, he proceeded to finish The Village Cure and The Diaries of Two Young Brides; he began A Dark Affair for a journal called Le Commerce, The Two Brothers, later A Bachelor’s Establishment, for La Presse; Les Lecamus, for Le Siecle; The Trials and Tribulations of an English Cat, for one of Hetzel’s publications, Scenes from the Private and Public Life of Animals; he worked upon The Peasants and wrote Ursule Mirouet — altogether more than thirty thousand lines in the newspaper columns, in less than one year!

Meanwhile his business affairs, so entangled that he himself hardly knew where he stood, in spite of a portfolio bound in black in which he kept his promissory notes and every other variety of commercial paper — and which he called his Compte Melancoliques (his Melancholy Accounts), adding that they were not to be regarded as a companion volume to his Contes Drolatiques (his Droll Tales) — began to assume some sort of order, thanks to the efforts of his lawyer, M. Gavault, who had undertaken to wind them up. Balzac remained as poor as ever, for he had to turn over to M. Gavault all the money he took in, aside from what he needed for the strict necessities of life. He admitted proudly that at this period there were times when he contented himself with eating a single small roll on the Boulevard, and that he had gone for days together with one franc as his sole cash on hand.

But a new edition was soon destined to put him on his feet, enable him to liquidate a portion of his floating debt and to pay back some of his biggest loans. An agreement had been formed between Furne, Dubochet, Hetzel and Paulin to bring out an edition of his complete works under the glorious and definitive title of The Human Comedy. But it meant a vast amount of work, all his older volumes to revise and new ones to write — a task that he estimated would require not less than seven years to finish. If he had produced thirty thousand lines in 1841, he calculated that he was bound by his contracts to produce not less than forty thousand in 1842, not counting the work of correcting proofs of all the new editions of his published stories.

His mental powers were as fertile as ever, but his bodily strength, despite his robust constitution, sometimes broke down under the prodigious fever of creation. Balzac’s physician, Dr. Nacquart, obliged him to take a rest. “I am ill,” he wrote at this time. “I have been resting all through the latter part of May (1841) in a bathtub, taking three-hour baths every day to keep down the inflammation which threatened me, and following a debilitating diet, which has resulted in what, in my case, amounts to a disease, namely, emptiness of the brain. Not a stroke of work, not an atom of strength, and up to the beginning of this month I have remained in the agreeable condition of an oyster. But at last Dr. Nacquart is satisfied and I am back at my task and have just finished The Diaries of Two Young Brides and have written Ursule Mirouet, one of those privileged stories which you are going to read; and now I am starting in on a volume for the Montyon prize.” (Letters to a Foreign Lady, Volume 1, page 560, Letter of June-July, 1841.)

Every one of Balzac’s novels cost him unimaginable and never ending toil. After having brooded over his subject, planned the situation, characterised his personages, and decided upon the general philosophy that he intended to express, there followed the task of translating all that he had conceived and thought into an adequate literary form. Balzac often proceeded in bursts of enthusiasm, flashes of illumination, and in a few nights would map out the entire scenario of a whole novel. This first effort was in a certain sense the parent-cell, which little by little gathered to itself the elements necessary for the final composition of the work. The proof sheets sent to Balzac always had broad margins, and it is not too much to say that he amplified the initial draft as though he were attaching the muscles and tendons to the bones of a skeleton; then one set of proofs followed another, while he imparted to his story a network of veins and arteries and a nervous system, infused blood into its veins and breathed into it his powerful breath of life — and all of a sudden there it was, a living, pulsating creation, within that envelope of words into which he had infused the best that he possessed in style and colour. But he suffered bitter disillusions when the work was finally printed; the creator never found his creation sufficiently perfect. Balzac suffered with all the sensibility of his artistic conscience from blemishes which he regarded as glaring faults, and which he followed up and corrected with unparalleled ardour. He was aided in this task by Mme. de Berny, his sister Laure, Charles Lemesle and Denoyers; and he himself, a literary giant, who did not hesitate to write to Mme. Carraud that his work was in its own line a greater achievement than the Cathedral at Bourges was in architecture, spent whole days in shaping and reshaping a phrase, like some sublime mason who — by a prodigy — had built a cathedral single-handed and whose heart bled upon discovering a neglected carving in the shadow of some buttress and expended infinite pains to perfect it, although it was almost invisible amidst the vastness and the beauty of the whole structure.

Accordingly his work became steadily more laborious to Balzac, and from time to time we can hear him grumbling and groaning; we can see him at his task, his broad face contracted, his black eyes bloodshot, his skin bathed in perspiration and showing dark, almost greenish, in the candle-light, while his whole body trembled and quivered with the unseen effort of creation. His fatigue was often extreme; the use of coffee troubled his stomach and heated his blood; he had a nervous twitching of the eyelids, and suffered from painful shortness of breath and a congested condition of the head that resulted in over-powering somnolence.

But he rallied and his will power dominated illness itself and imposed his own rules upon his overstrained body. At the same time he dreamed of a calmer life, he pictured the delights of bucolic days and longed to know when this driving slavery was to end. Accordingly we find him consulting a sorcerer, a reader of cards, the celebrated Balthazar, in regard to his future. He was amazed to find how much of his past this man was able to reveal to him, a past made up of struggles and of obstacles overcome, and he joyously accepted predictions that assured him victory. Balzac was superstitious, not in a vulgar way, but through a deep curiosity in the presence of those mysteries of the universe which are unexplained by science. He believed himself to be endowed with magnetic powers; and, as a matter of fact, the irresistible effect of his words, the subtle force which emanated from his whole personality and confirmed by his contemporaries. He believed in telepathy, he held that two beings who love each other, and whose sensibilities are in a certain degree in harmony, are able, even when far apart, mutually to respond to emotions felt by the one or the other. He consulted clairvoyants as to the course of diet to be followed by Mme. Hanska, and gravely communicated their replies to her, urging her to follow their advice. Occurrences apparently quite trivial troubled him profoundly, and he was anxious for several days because he had lost a shirt-stud given him by Mme. de Berny and could not determine what could be the meaning of the loss. His sorcerer had predicted that he would shortly receive a letter which would change the entire course of his life, and, as a confirmation of his clairvoyance, Mme. de Hanska announced a few months later the death of her husband, M. de Hanski, which permitted Balzac to indulge in the highest hopes.

This event brought him an access of fresh courage, for in order to make the journey to St. Petersburg it was essential that he should first achieve a triumph, brief, brilliant and complete. He decided once again to make a bold attempt at the theatre, and the scene of battle was to be the Odeon. He offered The Resources of Quinola to the manager, Lireux, who accepted it with enthusiasm. Balzac read his comedy to its future interpreters — notwithstanding that he had as yet written only four acts of it — and calmly informed them that he would have to tell them the general substance of the fifth. They were amazed at such bold disregard of professional usages, but it was passed over, for Lireux was all impatience to produce The Resources and to begin the rehearsals.

Warned by the failure of Vautrin, Balzac took the most minute care in arranging for the opening night audience which he relied upon to sweep Quinola heavenward on a mounting wave of glory. To begin with, he did away with the claquers and fixed the price of admission at five francs, while the general scale of prices was as follows: balcony seats twenty five francs, stalls twenty francs, seats in the open boxes of the first tier twenty-five francs, open boxes of the second tier twenty francs, closed boxes of the second tier twenty five francs, baignoir boxes twenty francs. He had no use for mere nobodies, but determined to sift out his audience from amongst the most distinguished men and women in all Paris, ministers, counts, princesses, academicians, and financiers. He included the two Princesses Troubetskoi, the Countess Leon, the Countess Nariskine, the Aguados, the Rothschilds, the Doudeauvilles, the Castries, and he decided that there should be none but pretty women in the front seats of the open boxes. And he counted upon piling up a fine little surplus, since the revenues of the box-office were in his hands for the first three nights. Alas, on the night of March 19, 1842, The Resources of Quinola met with the same reception as Vautrin had done before it; in spite of all his precautions, his enemies had gained admission to the Odeon, and throughout the whole evening, from the first act onward, there was a ceaseless storm of hisses and cat-calls. He had wasted four months, only to arrive at another defeat.

And all the while his financial difficulties were becoming keener, more pressing, more imminent, and Balzac, overburdened, recapitulated his disasters as follows: the Chronique de Paris, the Trip to Sardinia, the Revue Parisienne and Vautrin; nevertheless he proudly squared his shoulders. “My writings will never make my fortune until the time comes when I shall no longer be in need of a fortune for it takes twenty-five years before a success begins to pay, and fifty years before a great achievement is understood.” And he returned to his work! His Complete Works were now published, for he had written a “Foreword,” summing up his method, his art and his idea; he composed Albert Savarus, in order “to respond with a masterpiece to the barkings of the press”; he completed The Peasants, The Two Brothers (later A Bachelor’s Establishment), he wrote The Pretended Mistress, A Debut in Life, which appeared in La Legislature, David Sechard, The Evil Doings of a Saint, The Love of Two Beasts; he began The Deputy from Arcis and The Brothers of Consolation; he dreamed of bringing out a new edition — and we know the labour that new editions cost him! — of Louis Lambert and Seraphita; and, lastly, he corrected three volumes of the Comedie Humaine!

Living as a recluse at Passy, shut up in his working room with its hangings of red velvet, seated at his table, with one shapely hand supporting his massive head and his eyes fixed upon a miniature reproducing the somewhat opulent contours of Mme. Hanska’s profile, and hence straying to an aquarelle representing the chateau at Wierzchownia, Balzac interrupted his proof correcting to forget his weariness in golden dreams: It was impossible that he should fail to be elected to the Academie Francaise — which would mean two thousand francs — hereupon he smiled — he was sure of being appointed a member of the dictionary committee — six thousand francs more — his smile broadened — and why should he not become a member of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres and its permanent secretary? — another six thousand francs — total, fourteen thousand! — and laughing his vast sonorous laugh — in view of this assured and honourable position — Balzac made plans for a prompt marriage with his far-off and long-awaited bride.

But his dreams were of short duration. There was no end of ink-stained paper which had to be inked still further, for without money there could be no journey to St. Petersburg. And then there were losses of time, which he regretted but could not avoid, such as having to pose for David of Angers, who was modelling his monumental bust; having to take long walks, in order to keep down his growing corpulence; and inviting a few friends to Le Rocher de Cancale, Victor Hugo and Leon Gozlan, in order to entertain a Russian, M. de Lenz, who wished to meet him — a sumptuous and lively dinner which cost him a hundred and twenty francs — a sum which he naturally had to borrow, and with no small difficulty!

After alternating between hope and despair, Balzac set forth by way of Dunkerque for St. Petersburg, where he arrived July 29, 1843, not returning to Paris until the 3rd of November. This was his fourth meeting with Mme. Hanska in the space of ten years, and the first since the death of M. de Hanski. (Hanski is the masculine form for Hanska. [Translator’s Note.]) Balzac was happy and irresponsible, he laughed his deep, resounding laugh of joyous days, that laugh which no misfortune could quite extinguish. He was carefree and elated, and found the strength to write a short story, Honorine, without taking coffee. He indulged in jests; the Emperor of Russia, he declared, valued him to the extent of thirty-two roubles, for that was the cost of his permit of residence. And heart and soul he gave himself up to his dear Countess Hanska.

Balzac’s trip to Russia was the source of numerous legends. It was said that he went for the purpose of asking the Czar to authorise him to write a work that should be to a certain extent official, for the purpose of refuting M. de Custine’s Russia in 1839, and that, having demanded an audience in too cavalier a tone, he was ordered to regain the frontier by the shortest possible route. Others related that he had gone there in pursuit of a princess whom he was bent upon marrying.

The return trip was made in short stages through Germany and Belgium, and Balzac stayed over long enough in Berlin, Dresden and Liege to become acquainted with these cities and their museums. But he had no sooner arrived in Paris than he was attacked with inflammation of the brain, and Dr. Nacquart put him on a very strict regime. In Paris he once again found his tasks and his financial difficulties faithfully awaiting him, and, faithful in his turn, he set to work again with true “Balzacian fury.” But now a new element had entered into his life: his marriage to Mme. Hanska, although still far distant, and dependent upon chance, was at least a settled question, and he left St. Petersburg taking her formal promise with him. Consequently, whatever the hardships of his existence, his periods of poverty and toil, he was now sustained by the hope of realising a union that had been so long desired, and he strove towards it with all his tenacious energy, as towards a supreme goal. For the next seven years his every act was designed as a preparation for his marriage, the future organisation of his life, when he should become the husband of Countess Hanska. He concerned himself with her financial affairs, with the lawsuit brought against her after the death of her husband, with the difficulties arising from a contested inheritance; and from a distance he gave her advice as to the management of her property and the investment of her principal. And at the same time he kept her informed of his efforts to find a home worthy of their happiness, told her of household furnishings he had bought, and sketched the various scales of domestic and social life which one could live according to the amount of one’s income.

These were no longer dreams, practically speaking, but projects for an assured future. Nevertheless, he was still destined to pass through many a disastrous period before the triumph came. In 1843 he was a candidate for the Academie Francaise, and he had reason to believe that he would be welcomed there with especial honours. His already extensive achievements, surpassing all contemporary production, were further augmented by Honorine, The Muse of the Department, Lost Illusions (part three), The Sufferings of an Inventor, a Monograph on the Parisian Press, which had aroused great anger, The Splendour and Misery of Courtezans (second part), Modeste Mignon, and Madame de la Chanterie (later The Seamy Side of Contemporary History), and there was no other writer who was in a position to dispute the sceptre with him. Nevertheless, legitimate as his candidacy was, he felt the opposition to it, and, realising the cause, he wrote to Nodier, who was supporting him, this proudly sad letter:


“I know to-day so surely that my financial position is one of the reasons for the opposition to my candidacy for the Academie, that I beg you, though with profound regret, not to use your influence in my favour.

“If I am debarred from the Academie by reason of a most honourable poverty, I shall never again present myself in the days when prosperity accords me her favours. I am writing to the same effect to our friend Victor Hugo, who has been working for me.

“God give you health, my good Nodier.”

And, this letter being written, Balzac once more buried himself in his work with such energy that he had a rush of blood to the head, together with such atrocious neuralgic pains that it was necessary to apply leeches. None the less he continued to work, and, if he went out at all, it was for the purpose of visiting his printers or going on the trail of works of art. From the time that the question of his marriage was assured he began an assiduous search for beautiful adornments for his future home, their home; and he prided himself on his instinct as a collector and his cleverness as a buyer. He could get the upper hand of the oldest antiquary. He had bought some Florentine furniture worthy of the Louvre, a commode and a writing-desk that had belonged to Marie de Medicis, for thirteen hundred and fifty francs — a unique bargain! — and he could sell them again at a profit of thousands of francs if he wished to. Perhaps he would consent to part with the commode, but he intended to keep the writing desk and place it between two ebony wardrobes which he already possessed, and it would cost him nothing, because the sale of the other piece, the commode, would cover the entire cost! And although in his letters to Mme. Hanska he defended himself against the charge of prodigality, these “good bargains” still continued. A clock of royal magnificence and two vases of pale green garnet, also Bouchardon’s “Christ” in a frame by Brustolone. And for years he continued in pursuit of bric-a-brac, paintings and other works of art. In 1845, on his way home after accompanying Mme. Hanska to Naples, he passed through Marseilles, where he found some Chinese vases and plates at Lazard’s curio shop, and, after reaching Paris, he wrote to Lazard, ordering some Chinese Horns-of-plenty and some “very fine bookcases ten metres long by three high, richly ornamented or richly carved.” And, not content with giving these instructions to the dealer, he wrote to Mery, who had entertained him at Marseilles, explaining what he wanted from Lazard, and giving the following excellent lesson in the art of bargaining:

“While you are jollying the worthy Lazard, do me the favour of sending from time to time some of your friends to bargain for the two objects in question, and have them always make an offer, some of fifty, others of a hundred, others of twenty-five francs less than yours. After a fortnight of this manoeuvring, some fine morning Lazard will let you have them.”

And Balzac added a postscript to this little lesson in the fine art of bargaining: “Never become a collector, for if you do you give yourself into the keeping of a demon as exacting and jealous as the demon of gambling.” But while warning his friends against his own ruling passion he surrendered himself to it with passionate delight. During his leisure hours he wandered at random through Paris, like a hunter on the trail of his quarry — through Paris which he knew down to the remotest of its back alleys and which he loved even in its slums. When he ran across some rare and precious piece, or something that merely appealed to his individual taste, he derived an intense joy out of employing all his trickery, his readiness of speech, his persuasive powers, to beat down the price of the coveted object. It was a battle in which he chose to come out conqueror. It pleased him to be recognised as a man with the business instinct; and he threw out his chest when he repeated the remark of his publisher, Souverain, “M. de Balzac is better at figures than Rothschild!”

In 1846, during a new trip to Italy with Mme. Hanska, her daughter Anna and the latter’s husband, Count Georges Mniszech, he ransacked all Naples, Rome and Genoa, and no longer confined his attention to furniture and bric-a-brac, but had his eye open for paintings as well, because his latest ambition was to found a gallery. This taste for paintings came to him rather late in life, for his artistic appreciation had long been limited to the works of Girodet, a taste which called forth many a sarcasm from the far better informed Theophile Gautier. In Rome Balzac purchased a Sebastiano del Piombo, a Bronzino and a Mierevelt, he hunted up some Hobbemas and Holbeins, he secured a Natoire and a Breughel — which he decided to sell, as it proved not to be genuine — for he wanted “pictures of the first rank or none at all”; furthermore, he brought back to Paris a Judgment of Paris, attributed to Giorgione, a Greuze — a sketch of his wife — a Van Dyck, a Paul Brill, The Sorceresses, a sketch of the birth of Louis XIV representing the Adoration of the Shepherds, an Aurora by Guido, a Rape of Europa, by Annibale Carrachio or Domenichino — and there we have the beginning of his gallery such as he described it in Cousin Pons. At the same time he did not neglect other forms of art for the sake of his paintings; he acquired a Saxon dinner service and a set of Dutch furniture from Amsterdam; Mme. Hanska sent him some porcelains from Germany; he sent to Tours for a writing desk and a commode of the Louis XVI period, he bought a bed supposed to have belonged to Mme. de Pompadour and which he intended for his guest chamber, besides a parlour set in carved woodwork, “of the last degree of magnificence,” and a dining-room fountain made by Bernard Palissy for Henry II or Charles IX. Little by little he accumulated these marvels, destined to adorn his home after the marriage.

And, in the hope of hastening the date, he made one supreme effort, with his brain as clear and as fertile as in the periods of his most furious production. Between 1844 and 1847 he produced, in addition to the works already mentioned, The Peasants, The Splendour and Misery of Courtezans (third part), Cousin Bette, The Involuntary Comedians, The Last Incarnation of Vautrin, Cousin Pons, The Deputy from Arcis, and The Lesser Bourgeoisie. He foresaw the dawn of his deliverance: he would be able to achieve his gigantic task in peace.

Balzac was fully conscious of his genius and of the greatness of the monument which he had already partly raised. He objected to being classed with the men of letters of his period, and for some time past had claimed recognition as standing on a higher level. Eugene de Mirecourt was witness of a scene which bore evidence to his justifiable pride:

“It was during the winter of 1843,” he wrote, “that Messrs. Maulde and Renon published a Picture of the Great City, which was edited by Marc Fournier, the present manager of the Port-Saint-Martin theatre.

“One evening Balzac entered the publishers’ office and said:

“‘Our agreement, gentlemen, was that I should be paid for my Monograph on the Parisian Press at the rate of five hundred francs a page.’

“‘That is so,’ they replied.

“‘I have received only fifteen hundred francs and there are four pages; accordingly you still owe me five hundred francs.’

“‘But your corrections, M. de Balzac! Have you any idea what they amounted to?’

“‘There was nothing said about my paying for corrections.’

“‘That is true,’ replied M. Renon, ‘but I ought to tell you that Alexander Dumas’s article, Filles, Lorettes et Courtisanes, also ran to four pages, yet we have not given him a centime more than we have given you.’

“Balzac started and turned pale. It is evident that he must have been in great financial need before he would have come to make such a request. But he quite forgot this in the face of the words he had just heard. For, without pressing his claim further, he arose, took his hat and said, with an accent of solemn dignity:

“‘From the moment that you compare me with that negro I have the honour of wishing you good evening!’

“He went out. And that was how the mere name of Alexandre Dumas saved the business office of The Great City five hundred francs.” (Balzac, by Eugene de Mirecourt, pp. 80-82.)

In order to hasten his liberation from debt and his settlement with creditors, Balzac tried to augment the sums which he received from editors and publishers with the profits from various speculations. He expected a rise in value of the shares which he held in the company of the Chemins de Fer du Nord, and, either trusting to reliable information or else himself possessing an intimate knowledge of the development of real estate in Paris, he urged Mme. Hanska to invest her capital in land in the Monceau district. He cited the example of Louis-Philippe, who was the cleverest speculator of his time, and who had acquired tracts of immense extent.

Mme. Hanska's Chateau at Wierzchownia in Poland.

After the close of 1846 Balzac retired from the outside world and gave himself up almost entirely to his great work. Through an intermediary he had purchased the residence of the financier, Baujon, in the Rue Fortunee, and with great secrecy he had it repaired and redecorated, with a view to making it habitable at the earliest possible date. Here he deposited his wealth of furnishings — which had already begun to excite public wonderment, owing to certain indiscreet revelations — but his life, which had always been closely hidden, had now become practically unknown. He was unwilling to show himself again in public until he could return in triumph after his marriage. Mme. Hanska visited Paris a second time, in 1847, and approved of all his arrangements. Balzac in return went to Wierzchownia that same year, and he was dazzled by the vastness of her estates — which were equal in extent to a whole department of France — and by the possibilities of neglected and undeveloped resources which might be made to yield millions. After his return to Paris he had but one desire: to go back to Wierzchownia, celebrate his marriage, and realise the dream which he had tenaciously pursued for seventeen years.

He remained in Paris six months, living in his new home in the Rue Fortunee, denying himself to all but his most intimate friends, and hiding his prosperity until the day should come when he could announce his good fortune to the world at large. One of the last portraits of Balzac at this period is the one traced by Champfleury, whom he had received as a disciple and fervent admirer:

“M. de Balzac,” he wrote, “descended the stairs enveloped in his famous monk’s robe. His face is round, his black eyes are excessively brilliant, the general tone of his complexion verges upon olive, with patches of violent red in the cheeks, and pure yellow towards the temples and around the eyes. His abundant hair is a dense black, intermingled with threads of silver; it is an astonishing head of hair. In spite of the amplitude of his dressing-gown, his girth appears enormous.” And, further on, he gives us this second sketch: “but at the age of forty-nine M. de Balzac ought to be painted rather than sculptured. His keen black eyes, his powerful growth of hair intermingled with white, the violent tones of pure yellow and red which succeed each other crudely in his cheeks, and the singular character of the hairs of his beard, all combine to give him the air of a festive wild boar, that the modern sculptors would have difficulty in reproducing.”

Arriving in Paris a few days before the Revolution, Balzac witnessed the turbulent scenes of 1848. It is said that he was one of the first to reach the Tuileries, mingling with the excited populace, and he brought away a fragment of the tapestry which covered the throne of Louis-Philippe. He attended an Assembly of Men-of-Letters, which met to decide what their attitude should be towards the provisional government, but he had an absent-minded and detached air, as though he found himself a stranger among all those writers. He found no one he knew, and seemed to be searching for his comrades of earlier days. His frequent journeys outside of France, which began in 1845, his long periods of residence in foreign countries, in company with Mme. Hanska, seemed to have weaned him away from the environment in which he had lived and developed, and fitted him for a different mode of life.

The club of Universal Fraternity, in Paris, having placed him upon its list of candidates for the legislative elections, he sent to its president the following public letter, proud and somewhat disillusioned, in reply to the question of a member, who wished to know his political opinions:

“I have already stated that if the functions of a representative were entrusted to me I would accept them. But I thought from the beginning and I still think that it is superfluous for any man whose life and works have been public property for twenty years to make a profession of faith.

“There are some men whom the votes solicit, and there are others who must solicit votes, and it is the latter who must prove the soundness of their political views. But, as to me, if I have not taken my place, through my writings, amongst the nine hundred individuals who represent in our country either intelligence, or power, or commercial activity, or a knowledge of laws and men and business, the ballot will tell me so!”

But although Balzac had for twenty years had an ambition to hold political office, to be a cabinet minister and have a share in the government, he witnessed the Revolution of 1848 with no other feeling than sorrow, for he felt that it augured no good for France. Besides, at this time he had no other wish than to return to Russia, join Mme. Hanska, and close the great mystery of his life with a glorious marriage. During the few months that he remained in Paris, from February to September, 1848, he showed nothing of his customary literary activity, and seems to have had no other thought than that of putting his new home in order, and transforming it into a sumptuous abode. And when everything was ready to receive the future bride he set out for Wierzchownia, at the end of September, leaving his home in the care of his mother, with whom he had often had clashes and periods of coldness, yet who had never refused her son a devotion which, although at times somewhat churlish, was based upon a deep affection and a precise recognition of her duties.

Accordingly Mme. de Balzac watched over his interests, just as she formerly did in 1832, when he had gone to Aix in the company of Mme. de Castries; and Balzac sent instructions to her from Russia, but their tone showed an assurance, a certain complete tranquillity, which he had not had in the days of his laborious youth. These instructions related to business ventures which he was thinking of undertaking — during his first sojourn he had considered the plan of utilising Count Mnizscek’s forests by converting them into railway ties — and now he wanted her to send him a work by Vicat, treating of mortars and hydraulic cement; then there were orders relating to the care he wished to be given to the final settling of his home — which cost him not less than four hundred thousand francs. Mme. de Balzac must needs oversee the various contractors, Grohe, the upholsterer, Paillard, who had the contract for furnishing the parlour, Feuchere, the worker in bronze, from whom Balzac wished his mother to order two brackets in gilded copper, while at the same time she was to send him a complete list of all his table silver. He went into the most minute details, which showed his love of order, begging his mother to remind Francois, one of his servants, to fill and clean the lamps, “for that is an essential matter,” he insisted. Each of these letters to his mother contains some such trivial recommendation, which goes to show that he had the instinct of a careful housekeeper who hates needless waste.

From Russia he continued to supervise his theatrical interests, and entrusted them so far as they related to Mercadet, to his friend, Laurent-Jan, while at the same time he protested against a performance of Vautrin which he had not authorised. He announced to Laurent-Jan that he was hard at work and was preparing some scenarios for him. He had not renounced the idea of making money through the dramatic branch of his art. For there were times when Mme. Hanska became anxious regarding his personal debts, which were not yet wholly paid off, as well as their mutual debts incurred in relation to their future home and its furnishings. He feared that his mother, who was herself easily alarmed, might write some discouraging news as to his financial position, and in this way alarm the countess. Accordingly he sent her one day a secret letter, through the post-office in Berditcheff, in which he gave her most explicit orders in this connection. For he had now been in Wierzchownia almost twelve months, and his marriage, although ostensibly agreed upon, had not yet taken place, and he knew that in such a case the whole thing might fall through at any time, up to the very moment of the ceremony. As a matter of fact, he was a sick man, his heart and lungs were both affected, he had lost the last of his teeth, and there were some days when he found it impossible even to move his arms without a sense of suffocation.

Nevertheless his constancy was at last recompensed, after months of despair, during which he said, “I must regard the project which brought me here as indefinitely postponed.” In March, 1850, preparations were made for the marriage, and in announcing it to his mother he said that he would notify her of the day of his return, so that she could decorate the rooms with flowers, “beautiful, beautiful flowers.” And on March 15th he despatched two letters, one to Mme. de Balzac and the other to Laure, in which he announced the event so long delayed. “Yesterday, at Berditcheff, in the parish church of St. Barbara, a delegate of the bishop Jatomir, a saintly and virtuous priest, closely resembling our own Abbe Henaux, confessor of the Duchess of Angouleme, blessed and celebrated our marriage.” And he signed the letter to his sister: “Your brother, Honore, at the pinnacle of happiness!”

The happiness was brief. Balzac seems to have been destined to have a life made up solely of toil and struggles, and at the very moment when he had forced his way out of the jungle of obstacles and superhuman efforts, and had reached that vast plain where travellers along the path of life repose, destiny forbade him any joy. At the moment when he was hoping for happiness, peace, and love, death was at his elbow.

The house in the Rue Fortunée (now Rue Balzac), in which Balzac died, August 18, 1850.

He returned with his wife to Paris towards the end of May, 1850, in a state of exhaustion, and yet full of dreams, projects and hopes — but only to take to his bed and await his destined hour. nothing could be more dramatic than his last weeks. He suffered from heart, lungs and liver. Every care was taken of him, and hope was offered of a cure; yet he never rose again. His work had killed him. No one can read without emotion the simple line that he traced on June 20, 1850, on a letter dictated to his wife for Theophile Gautier, who had called to see him: “I can no longer read nor write!”

Honore de Balzac died during the night of August 18, 1850, at a time when his beautiful and weary eyes had barely caught a fleeting glimpse of fortune, glory and peace.

The famous novelist on his death bed, by Eugène Giraud.

Victor Hugo was notified and hurried to his bedside.

“We traversed a corridor,” he has recorded, “we ascended a staircase covered with a red carpet and encumbered with works of art, vases, statues, paintings, cabinets containing enamels; then another corridor, and I saw a door standing open. I heard a rattling breath, loud and sinister. I found myself in Balzac’s bedroom.

“A bed stood in the middle of the chamber. It was a bed of acacia wood, at the head and foot of which were cross-pieces and straps, apparently forming part of an apparatus for lifting and moving the sick man. M. de Balzac lay in this bed, with his head supported on a pile of pillows, to which had been added some red damask cushions taken from the sofa in the same room. His face was purple, almost black, and was turned towards the right. He was unshaven, but his gray hair was cut short. His eyes were wide open and staring. I saw him in profile, and, seen thus, he resembled the emperor.

“An old woman, the nurse, and a man-servant were standing, one on each side of the bed. A candle was burning behind the headboard on a table, and another on a commode near the door. On still another table a silver vase had been placed. The man and woman stood silent, listening in a sort of terror to the noisy rattle of the dying man’s breath.

“The candle at the head of the bed vividly lighted a portrait of a young man, high coloured and smiling, which hung above the mantle.

“An insupportable odour emanated from the bed. I lifted up the coverlid and took Balzac’s hand. It was bathed in sweat. I pressed it, but he did not return the pressure.

“The nurse said to me:

“‘He will die at daybreak.’

“I descended the stairs, carrying away that livid face in my thoughts; as I crossed the parlour I once again came upon the motionless bust (of Balzac, by David of Angers), impassible, proud and vaguely radiant, and I drew a comparison between death and immortality.

“On reaching my home, as it happened to be Sunday, I found several callers waiting for me, amongst others Riza-Bey, the Turkish charge d’affaires, Navarrete, the Spanish poet, and Count Arrivabene, an Italian exile. I said to them:

“‘Gentlemen, Europe is about to lose a great mind.’

“He died during the night, at fifty-one years of age.”

Balzac loved to compare his struggles with the military campaigns of Bonaparte, and to point out that he had conducted them without halt or bivouac, after the manner of the great conqueror. He wished to equal him in glory and to surpass him in the achievements that he should leave behind him for the benefit of future generations. He has recorded his great desire: “In short, here is the game I am playing; during this present half century four men will have exerted an immense influence: Napoleon, Cuvier, O’Connell, and I should like to be the fourth. The first lived upon the blood of Europe, he inoculated himself with armies; the second espoused the globe; the third was the incarnation of an entire people; as for me, I shall have borne an entire social epoch in my head.”

More fortunate than the young Corsican sub-lieutenant, Balzac produced a work possessing a permanence which the other could not have — since thought is always greater than action — and although death surprised him before he could lay the last stone of his edifice, its incompleted grandeurs might well suffice the loftiest ambition.

Statue of Balzac, by Falguière, erected in Paris, on the Avenue Friedland.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005


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