Balzac, by Frederick Lawton

Chapter VII

Letters to “The Stranger,” 1835, 1836

The Rue des Batailles, whither Balzac removed his household goods in 1834, was one of those old landmarks of Paris which have disappeared in the opening up and beautifying of the city. Commencing at the fortifications, it penetrated inwards along the waste ground of the Trocadero, and crossed the Rue Chaillot at a point which has since become the Place d’Iena. Its direction from there was very nearly the same as that of the present Avenue d’Iena. No. 12, where Balzac had his flat, probably occupied the site whereon now stands the mansion of Prince Roland Bonaparte. From its windows a good view was obtained of the Seine, the Champ de Mars, the Ecole Militaire, and the Dome of the Invalides.

As a matter of fact, the house of the Rue des Batailles was for a time a supplementary dwelling rented by the novelist, so Werdet says, as a hiding-place from the myrmidons of the law. The flat in the Rue Cassini was retained, and its furniture also; and an arrangement was made with the landlord by which a notice-board hung continually on the door, with the words: “This apartment to let.” In reality the tenant often sojourned there still, and his cook stayed on the premises to look after them, and serve her master with meals, whenever he wished to work in his old study without being disturbed. At the Rue des Batailles he lived under the pseudonym of Widow Brunet, so that temporarily the sergeant-major of the National Guard was outwitted.

The second flat, when he took it, was composed of five small rooms; but an army of workmen was summoned; and what with the pulling down of partitions and their reconstruction on a more commodious plan, the place was metamorphosed into four luxuriously furnished chambers, the study being fitted up as a sort of boudoir. One of its walls was a graceful curve against which rested a large, real Turkish divan in white cashmere, its drapery being caught and held with lozenge-shaped bows of black and flame-coloured silk. The opposite wall formed a straight line broken only by a white marble chimney-piece pinked out in gold. The entire room was hung in red stuff as a background, and this was covered with fluted Indian muslin, having a top and bottom beading of flame-coloured stuff ornamented with elegant black arabesques. Under the muslin the red assumed a rose tint, which later was repeated in the window curtains of muslin lined with taffety, and fringed in black and red. Six silver sconces, each supporting two candles, projected from the wall above the divan, to light those sitting or lying there. From the dazzlingly white ceiling was suspended an unpolished silver-gilt lustre; and the cornice round it was in gold. The carpets of curious designs were like Eastern shawls; the furniture was lavishly upholstered. The time-piece and candelabra were of white marble incrusted with gold; and cashmere covered the single table, while several flower-stands filled up the corners, with their roses and other blooms. This study, which Balzac himself has left us a description of in his novel The Girl with the Golden Eyes, was soon abandoned as a workroom for another more simple and austere, up under the roof. The latter, however, he likewise began, being tormented by the desire of change, to adorn almost as fantastically.

Throughout the time that Werdet continued to be Balzac’s publisher, and up to the end of 1836, when their active business relations ceased, it is difficult to be quite accurate in speaking of their relations and the things spoken of by both in which they were mutually concerned. There is frequent discordance in their narration of the same event, and one is often embarrassed in trying to reconcile them. On the one hand, it is certain that Balzac was not always exact in his statements; on the other, Werdet’s memory, in the seventies, when he wrote his Portrait Intime of the novelist, was as certainly now and again treacherous. An example of such discrepancy is furnished by the information given concerning Seraphita, which Werdet says he bought from Buloz at the end of 1834, and for which he had to wait till December 1835. He even makes it a reproach that the novelist, after being extracted from a dilemma, should have dealt with him so cavalierly. Now, from documents published by the Viscount de Lovenjoul, there must be a mistake in Werdet’s dates. During the year of 1835, the Revue de Paris published, after long delay, some further chapters of Seraphita; and not until the end of November in this same twelvemonth was the treaty signed which rendered Werdet possessor of the book.

Seraphita, or Seraphitus — the name is designedly spelt both ways in different parts of the book — is an attempt on the novelist’s part to represent in fiction the dual sex of the soul. The scene is laid in the fiords of Norway. There, in a village, we meet with a person of mysterious nature who is loved simultaneously by a man and a woman, and who is regarded by each as being of the opposite sex. By whiles this hermaphrodite seems to respond to the affection of each admirer, and by whiles to withdraw on to a higher plane of existence whither their mortality hinders them from following. To the old pastor of the village, Seraphita-Seraphitus talks with assurance of the essence of phenomena and the invisible world, but, forsooth, only to initiate the shades that visit spiritualistic seances, and to say what is either obscure verbiage, or a hash-up of philosophies often digested without much sustenance derived from them. In the end, this dual personage vanishes from our mundane atmosphere, translated bodily to heaven; and leaves his or her lovers to repair their loss — just like a forlorn widow or widower — by making a match based on rules of conduct laid down by the departed one.

Seraphita was Balzac’s pocket Catholicism. He had another Catholicism, entirely orthodox, for the use of the public at large. Esoterically understood, his novel teaches a doctrine of mysticism, intuitionalism, and materialism combined. Plotinus, the Manicheans, and Swendenborg are borrowed from without reserve. Ordinary reason is despised. He believes himself for the nonce inspired, like the Pope when launching bulls. “The pleasure,” he writes, “of swimming in a lake of pure water, amidst rocks, woods, and flowers, alone and fanned by the warm zephyr, would give the ignorant but a weak image of the happiness I felt when my soul was flooded with the rays of I know not what light, when I listened to the terrible and confused voices of inspiration, when from a secret source the images streamed into my palpitating brain.” On the contrary, he holds — and this does not square well with the preceding — that the soul is an ethereal fluid similar to electricity; that the brain is the matrass or bottle into which the animal transports, according to the strength of the apparatus, as much as the various organisms can absorb of this fluid, which issues thence transformed into will; that our sentiments are movements of the fluid, which proceeds from us by jerks when we are angry, and which weighs on our nerves when we are in expectation; that the current of this king of liquids, according to the pressure of thought and feeling, spreads in waves or diminishes and thins, then collects again, to gush forth in flashes. He believes also that our ideas are complete, organized beings (the theosophic notion) which live in the invisible world and influence our destinies; that, concentrated in a powerful brain, they can master the brains of other people, and traverse immense distances in the twinkling of an eye. In short, he anticipates not a little of the science of the present day, yet mixing up the true and false in his guesses by the very exuberance of his fancy. At the close, he gives us his vision of the universe: “They heard the divers parts of the Infinite forming a living melody; and, at each pause, when the accord made itself felt like a huge respiration, the worlds, drawn by this unanimous movement, inclined themselves towards the immense being who, from his impenetrable centre, sent everything forth and brought it back to himself. The light engendered melody, the melody engendered light; the colours were light and melody, the movement was number endowed with speech; in fine, all was at once sonorous, diaphanous, mobile; so that, all things interpenetrating each other, distance was without obstacles, and might be traversed by the angels throughout the depths of the infinite. There was the fete. Myriads of angels all hastened in like flight, without confusion, all similar, yet all dissimilar, simple as the field-rose, vast as worlds. They were neither seen to come nor go. On a sudden, they studded the infinite with their presence, just as the stars shine in the indiscernible ether.”

The fundamental error of Seraphita is its hybridity, not to speak of its pretentious psychology. It is neither flesh nor fowl; and, exception made for some fine passages, more at the beginning than in the rest of the book, it jars and irks, and amazes, but does not captivate or persuade.

It had a great success when it came out in book form. People were inquisitive to know the end of the story, which the Revue de Paris had not given; and their eagerness had been further whetted by a cleverly graduated series of puffs put into the newspapers. In the first day of sale, the whole edition was cleared out of Werdet’s warehouse, a thing that had never happened before with any of the same author’s works. Balzac, who had been duly informed of the good news, hastened to the office, and led the publisher off proudly to dine with him at Very’s, and to finish up the evening at the Porte-Saint-Martin Theatre, with ices afterwards at Tortoni’s. The whole affair was carried out in grand style. The novelist had on his war-paint, and was accompanied by a lady, young, pretty, whose name is not revealed to us. Werdet’s vis-à-vis was Madame Louise Lemercier, a benevolent blue-stocking of that day, who was a Providence to needy men of letters. When dinner was over, Balzac’s elegant equipage, with its mighty coachman and its diminutive groom, yclept Millet-seed, who unfortunately died soon after in the hospital, conveyed them to the play, in which Frederick Lemaitre and Serres held chief roles. Balzac was the hero of the evening. His jewelled stick, and his pretty companion monopolized the attention of the spectators, who somewhat neglected the amusement offered by the Auberge des Adrets on the stage. At the conclusion of the piece, the four passed out of the theatre through a double line of people eager to pay the homage that notoriety can always command.

In the year 1835 the novelist’s restlessness and inability to remain long in one spot were evinced in a very marked manner. Only by repeated changes of scene was he able to carry on his work at all. After wearing himself out in a fruitless attempt to complete Seraphita in April, he fled to Madame Carraud’s at Frapesle. In October he was at La Boulonniere, where he put the last touches to Pea-Blossom, better known as the Marriage Contract, which came out before the end of December. His fits of depression alternated with spurts of cheerfulness nearly every week, according as he had some loss or gain to register; here, a fire at the printer’s, where some of his Contes Drolatiques were burned; there, the sale of an article to the Conservateur for three thousand francs. In September the barometer rose, and he exclaimed joyfully in a letter to Laure:

“The Reviews are at my feet and pay me more for my sheets. He! He!

“The reading public have changed their opinion about the Country Doctor, so that Werdet is certain of selling his editions directly. Ha! Ha!

“In short, I can meet my liabilities in November and December. Ho! Ho!”

This tone changed in October. To his sister now he lamented:

“I am drinking the cup to the dregs. In vain I work fourteen hours a day. I cannot suffice.”

He had held practically the same language to Werdet in May,10 when he announced to him his intention of starting for Austria, where Madame Hanska was staying. His brain, he said, was empty; his imagination dried up; cup after cup of coffee produced no effect, nor yet baths — these last being the supreme remedy.

10 In Werdet’s account this journey is placed between September and November; but the Letters to the Stranger prove that the date he gives is incorrect.

Werdet did his best to thwart the trip; but Balzac would not be gainsaid. He affirmed he should return with rejuvenated faculties, after seeing his carissima; and ultimately he persuaded his publisher to advance him two thousand francs for his travelling expenses. Profuse in his gratitude, he wrote from his hotel in Vienna — the Hotel de la Poire, situated in the Langstrasse — that, in the society of the cherished one, he had regained his imagination and verve. Werdet, he continued, was his Archibald Constable (vide Walter Scott); their fortunes were thenceforward indissoluble; and the day was approaching when they would meet in their carriages in the Bois de Boulogne and turn their detractors green with envy. This flattery was the jam enveloping the information that he had drawn on his publisher for another fifteen hundred francs; there was also a promise made that he would come back with his pockets full of manuscripts. Instead of the manuscripts, he brought back some Viennese curiosities. He had done no work while with Madame Hanska, but he had seen Munich, and had enjoyed himself immensely, being idolized by the aristocracy of the Austrian capital. “And what an aristocracy!” he remarked to Werdet; “quite different from ours, my dear fellow; quite another world. There the nobility are a real nobility. They are all old families, not an adulterated nobility like in France.”

The Vienna visit, which cost him, in total, some five thousand francs — a foolish expense in his involved circumstances — was the cause of his silver plate having to be pawned while he was away, in order that certain payments of interest that he owed might be made at the end of the month. Since he was always plunging into fresh extravagance of one kind or another, his liabilities had a fatal tendency to grow; and at present even more than before, since he was puffed up by the lionizing he had enjoyed abroad. It was hardly to be expected that a man should study economy who saw himself already appointed to the Secretaryship for Foreign Affairs. “This is the only department which would suit me,” he said to Werdet. “I have now my free entry to the house of the Count d’Appony, Ambassador of Austria, and to that of Rothschild, Consul of the same Power. What glory for you, Master Werdet, to have been my publisher. I will make your fortune then.”

His display and luxury manifested themselves in greater sumptuousness of furniture, more servants in livery, a box at the Opera for himself, and another at the Italiens. And the two secretaries must not be forgotten — one was not sufficient — the Count de Belloy and the Count de Grammont. Sandeau was not grand enough for the post. The reason given by Balzac to Madame Hanska was Jules’ idleness, nonchalance, and sentimentality. As a matter of fact, Sandeau did not care to play always second fiddle, and to write tragedies or comedies for which Balzac wished to get all the credit. Moreover, he was not a Legitimist. The novelist had tried to convert him to his own doctrine of autocratic government and had signally failed. These sprigs of nobility he felt himself more in sympathy with.

About this time his epistles to “The Stranger” were full of himself and his Herculean labours, and Madame Hanska hinted pretty plainly that the quantity of the latter did not necessarily imply their quality. Such expression of opinion notwithstanding, he boasted of conceiving, composing, and printing the Atheist’s Mass, a short novel, it is true, in one night only. His portrait by Louis Boulanger, which was painted during the year of 1835, had been ordered rather with a view to advertizing him at the ensuing Salon, although he asserted it was because he wanted to correct a false impression given of him by Danton’s caricature in the earlier months of the year. The likeness produced by Boulanger he esteemed a good one, rendering his Coligny, Peter the Great persistence, which, together with an intrepid faith in the future, he said was the basis of his character. The future hovered as a perpetual mirage in all his introspections, sometimes with tints of dawn, at other times half-threatening. “I am the Wandering Jew of thought,” was his cry to Eve from the Hotel des Haricots, “always up and walking without repose, without the joys of the heart, without anything besides what is yielded me by a remembrance at once rich and poor, without anything that I can snatch from the future. I hold out my hand to it. It casts me not a mite, but a smile which means to say: to-morrow.”

When he embarked on the hazardous venture of starting a newspaper of his own, the motive was chiefly a desire to exercise a larger political influence. Yet he had additional incentives. The Reviews to which he had contributed in the past had yielded him almost as much annoyance as profit; and, since the two most important ones, the Revue des Deux Mondes and the Revue de Paris, both under the same editorship, were closed against him, he believed he needed an organ in which to defend himself from the rising virulence of hostile criticism. A press campaign in his favour could be better and more cheaply waged in a paper under his entire control. His plan was not to create a journal, but to revive one. In 1835 the Chronique de Paris, formerly called the Globe, was on its last legs, albeit it had been ably edited by William Duckett; and the proprietor, Bethune the publisher, was only too glad to listen to Balzac’s overtures. By dint of puffing the new enterprise, a company was formed with a nominal capital of a hundred thousand francs; Duckett was paid out in bills drawn on the receipts to accrue, since the novelist had no ready money of his own; and a start was made under the new management. The staff was a strong one. Jules Sandeau was dramatic critic; Emile Regnault supplied the light literature; Gustave Planche was art critic; Alphonse Karr wrote satirical articles; Theophile Gautier, Charles de Bernard, and Raymond Brucker contributed fiction; and Balzac, together with his functions of chief editor, gave the leading article.

In its reorganized form, the Review came out Sundays and Thursdays and once a week Saturdays. The collaborators met at Werdet’s house to discuss and compare notes. Generally, they brought with them more conversation than copy, and Balzac would begin to scold.

“How can I make up to-morrow’s issue,” he asked, “if each of you arrives empty-handed?”

“Oh! being a great man and a genius,” was the reply, “you have merely to say: ‘Let there be a Chronicle,’ and there will be a Chronicle.”

“But you know that I reserve to myself nothing except the article on foreign policy.”

“Yes, we all know,” answered Karr, punning on the French word etrangere, “that your policy is strange.”

(Not finishing the word etrangere, he said only etrange.)

Ere,” shouted Balzac, adding the termination.

Ere,” Alphonse yelled back. “You reserve to yourself a policy which is foreign to all governments present and past and future. And, as you scold me, Mr. Editor, is your own article ready?”

“No, but it is here”— tapping his forehead —“I have only to write it. In an hour it will be done.”

“With the corrections?” queried Karr slily.

“Yes, with the corrections.”

“Ah! well, prove that to us; and we’ll all go on dry bread and water until a statue is raised to you. I am hungry.”

Although Balzac’s colleagues had a real respect and admiration for his talent, they chaffed him unmercifully for his vanity. One Saturday, Alphonse Karr, as a joke, crowned him with flowers; and Balzac, in all good faith, complacently accepted the honour. Around him, the laughter broke out fast and furious; and, at length, he joined in with volleys that shook the room, while his face waxed purple beneath his explosions. In his Guepes, Alphonse Karr subsequently recalled this improvized coronation of the novelist.

Edited and composed in such desultory fashion, the Chronicle’s prosperity was short-lived, in spite of the lustre it temporarily acquired from Balzac’s name, and the publication in it of some of his fiction. Before long its financial position was so bad that the chief editor, as a forlorn hope, tried to induce a young Russian nobleman, who was an eager reader of his books, to enter the concern with a large amount of fresh capital. To bait him, a magnificent dinner was given in the Rue Cassini flat, amidst a display of all its tenant’s gold and silver plate, liberated from the pawnbroker’s for the occasion by a timely advance of two thousand francs from Werdet. The feast was an entire success, and an appointment was fixed for the next day at the Russian’s hotel. Alas! when the envoy went, he received, sandwiched in the guest’s thanks for the royal entertainment of the preceding evening, an announcement of the said guest’s immediate departure for Russia and the intimation that, as the nobleman was not returning to Paris for some time, it would be impossible for him to accept the offer of a sleeping-partnership in the Review. Three months later the Chronicle was resold to Bethune for a small sum; and the publisher disposed of it to a third person, who, however, did not succeed in keeping it alive. Balzac’s loss by his experiment was about twenty thousand francs.

And this loss was not the only disagreeable part of the business. There were the bills signed to Duckett. They being protested in 1837, Duckett sued the novelist and obtained judgment against him. At this moment, Balzac, tracked by his creditors, had taken temporary refuge with some friends, the Count Visconti and his English wife, who lived in the Champs Elysees. Here he remained incognito. One day a man, wearing the uniform of a transport company, called at the mansion and informed the servant that he had brought six thousand francs for Monsieur de Balzac. Suiting the action to his words, he dumped down on to the floor a heavy bag that chinked as it struck the hall tiles. “Monsieur de Balzac does not live here,” was the servant’s reply. “Then is the master of the house in?” asked the man. “No, but the mistress is.” “Then tell her I have six thousand francs for Monsieur de Balzac.” The servant vanished and soon the lady of the mansion appeared and offered to sign the receipt herself. To this the man demurred. He must either see Monsieur de Balzac or must take the money away again. There was a hurried confabulation between hostess and guest, the upshot of which was that Balzac, falling into the snare, came to the man, thinking that some generous friend had sent him the money; and he was immediately served with an arrest-warrant for debt. “I am caught,” he cried; “but I will pillory Duckett for this. He shall go down to posterity with infamy attached to his name.” To get the novelist out of the mess, Madame Visconti paid the debt for which the warrant had been made out; and thus spared him, for the nonce, a sojourn in the debtors’ prison at Clichy.

Balzac’s lawsuit with the Revue de Paris, the details of which are given in the Viscount de Lovenjoul’s Last Chapter of the History of Balzac’s Works, was brought about by the novelist’s quarrel, in 1835, with Buloz, the editor, because the latter, while the Lily in the Valley was being printed, communicated proofs of it to the Revue Francaise of Saint Petersburg. Balzac at once severed his connection with the Revue de Paris, and took away his novel, on the ground that the editor was not justified in selling it abroad without his — the author’s — permission, and especially was not justified in communicating premature proofs, which, owing to his practice of modifying the text while correcting it, could in no way represent his finished work. After an attempt made by mutual friends to settle the matter amicably, Buloz entered an action against Balzac to compel him to continue the publication of the Lily in the Valley in the Revue de Paris. Three parts had been given. It was the end which the Review demanded, and ten thousand francs damages for the delay. The case was heard in May 1836, after months of bitter controversy, in which both sides had their ardent supporters. The most was made by the plaintiff’s barrister of Balzac’s previous disputes with other editors, who had had to complain of his tardiness in completing articles or stories. A letter was also put in, signed by Alexandre Dumas, Eugene Sue, Frederic Soulie, and others, stating that it was usual for authors to allow the communication of their productions to the Revue Francaise of Saint Petersburg, with a view to combating Belgian and German piracies. And Jules Janin, who during the Thirties was a zealous opponent of Balzac, cast his weight of evidence in favour of the Review. The Seraphita episode was dragged in, too, with testimony to show that, even after Werdet had bought the right to publish the novel in book form, Balzac again negotiated for its continuation as a serial in the Review, and had, moreover, supplied some other chapters, yet without coming to the end. In fact, the suit was a complicated one to decide. Ultimately, the Court gave its verdict against Balzac on the chief point at issue. He lost the conclusion of the Lily in the Valley, and recovered only a small sum of money that had been advanced to the novelist for copy not supplied, and besides had to pay all the expenses of his action.

What galled Balzac particularly during the speeches of the plaintiff’s barrister, was to hear the style of his novel pulled to pieces in language of mingled sarcasm and clever criticism that delighted the audience and the papers. After the termination of the affair, he thoroughly overhauled the parts of the book which had been so severely handled, made large alterations, and, since fun had also been poked at his pretensions to noble ancestry, he prefixed a curious introduction to the edition that Werdet was about to publish. In the course of it he declared: “If some persons, deceived by caricatures, false portraits, penny-a-liners, and lies, credit me with a colossal fortune, palaces, and above all, with frequent favours from women . . . I here declare to them that I am a poor artist, absorbed in art, working at a long history of society, which will be either good or bad, but at which I work by necessity, without shame, just as Rossini has made operas or Du Ryer translations and volumes; that I live very much alone, that I have a few firm friends; that my name is on my birth-certificate, etc., just as that of Monsieur de Fitz-James is on his; that, if it is of old Gaulish stock, this is not my fault; but that de Balzac is my patronymic, an advantage which many aristocratic families have not who called themselves Odet before they were called Chatillon, Duplessis, and who are, none the less, great families.”

To the foregoing he joined a long account of his birth and his presumed title to ancient lineage, and inserted into the bargain a panegyric of Werdet as a man of activity, intelligence, and probity, with whom his relations would be unbroken, since by this same declaration he constituted him henceforward his sole publisher. That was in July 1836. Scarcely six months after, when Werdet was threatened with a bankruptcy which was likely to involve him — a repetition in minor degree of Scott’s entanglement with Constable — he veered completely round, called Werdet a rotten plank, an empty head, an obstinate mule, and other names more expressive than polite, affirmed that he had always considered him a bit of a fool, and dropped all further connection with him. Werdet, it is true, was no business genius, but he was really attached to Balzac, and had yielded to the great man’s importunities as long as his purse would support the strain.

The Lily in the Valley was published by Werdet in the week after the lawsuit was finished, and was well received by the public. Its success, however, was more considerable abroad than in France. The author complained of the smallness of the numbers sold in France compared with those of foreign editions; but Werdet’s figures indicate a very fair sale, and are larger than those given by Balzac, who in this instance at least was not so accurate as his publisher.

The novel deals with the struggle in the heart of a Madame de Mortsauf, torn between her affection for Felix de Vandenesse and her determination to remain outwardly faithful in conduct towards her husband. With his invariable enthusiasm for subjects that pleased him in his own work, Balzac believed and affirmed that this secret combat waged in a valley of the Indre was as important as the most famous military battle ever fought. Possibly the amount of early personal biography in the book — yet a good deal romanced — led him to this conviction. Possibly, too, the richness with which he adorned its style helped to foster the opinion he held, which critics have not ratified. Not even Lamartine, his eulogist, found much to say in favour of the story. To the first part alone he gave his approval, likening it to the Song of Solomon. The rest he thought vulgar, and hinted that the heroine degenerates into a sort of hermaphrodite character. Brunetiere’s estimate, given in a parenthesis, is not much more favourable. And Taine, when dipping into the book for examples of Balzac’s style, neutralizes his praise of one portion by his depreciation of another.

Apart from the question of the novel’s style, which is turgid because the lyric note intrudes, the most legitimate objection to the book is the sentimentalism which pervades it throughout, and palls on the reader before he reaches the conclusion. Like Richardson in his Pamela, but far to a greater extent than Richardson, Balzac has placed the struggle on the physical plane. Madame de Mortsauf permits de Vandenesse to make love to her, to caress her, and she accords him everything with the single exception of that which would confer on her husband the right to divorce her. The interest of the book therefore is largely a material one. The moral issue is thrown into the background. And de Vandenesse, moreover, is not a person that inspires us with respect or even pity. He consoles himself with Lady Dudley, while swearing high allegiance to his Henriette.

In sooth, the swain’s position resembled the novelist’s own. Honore was also inditing oaths of fidelity to his “dear star,” his “earth-angel” in far-away Russia, while worshipping at shrines more accessible. Lady Dudley may well have been, for all his denial, the Countess Visconti, of whom Madame Hanska was jealous and on good grounds, or else the Duchess de Castries, to whom he said that, in writing the book, he had caught himself shedding tears. His reminiscences of Madame de Berny aided him in composing the figure of the heroine, whose death-bed scene was soon to become sober reality. Madame de Berny died in July, having had a last pleasure in perusing the story that immortalized her affection for the novelist. Balzac had been intending to pay her a farewell visit; but he was then in the midst of embarrassments of all kinds, and the journey was postponed until it was too late.

At this moment, the affair of the Chronique was being liquidated; and then Madame Bechet, his late publisher, was dunning him for some arrears of copy that he owed her. His brother Henry, too, going from bad to worse, was in a position that necessitated Madame de Balzac’s giving up the remnants of her capital; and, to crown all, a son of Laurence, the dead sister, quitting an unhappy home, was living as a vagabond on the streets of Paris, whence he had to be rescued. Since, to these worries and griefs, there was added certain disquieting news from Eve, whose aunt, from reading some of his books, supposed him to be a gambler and debauchee and was trying to turn her niece against him, it was not astonishing that he should have been completely unnerved. While at Sache, where he had come to stay with some friends, the de Margonnes, in order to terminate the work he was obliged to do for Madame Bechet, he had an attack of apoplexy; and, on recovering from it, was glad to seize an opportunity offered him of a journey to Italy to escape for a while from the scene of his toiling and moiling and to have a radical change. His good genius on this occasion was the Count Visconti, who, having some legal business of a litigious nature to settle at Turin and not being able to attend to it personally, asked him to go instead. On this trip he was accompanied by Madame Marbouty, a woman of letters, better known under her pseudonym, Claire Brunne, whose acquaintance he had made some years back at Angouleme. Madame Marbouty’s exterior had much in common with that of George Sand, and the resemblance between the two women gave rise to the report that it was the authoress of Indiana who accompanied Balzac to Italy at this date.

The journey back to Paris was effected through Switzerland, which enabled him to see Geneva again, though under less agreeable auspices than those of 1833. His prospects on returning to France were no better than when he left. Indeed, they were worse, for Werdet’s bad circumstances forced him to pledge himself in several quarters in order to raise some ready money for his immediate wants; and, being pledged, he was bound to produce at high pressure. His Old Maid, which he sold to the Presse for eight thousand francs, was written in three nights, Facino Cane, in one night, and the Secret of the Ruggieri, in one night also. Rossini, happening to meet him during this spell of drudgery, condoled with him and remarked that he himself had gone through the mill.

“But when I did it,” he added, “I was dead after a fortnight, and it took me another fifteen days to revive.”

“Well!” replied Balzac, “I have only the coffin in view as a rest; yet work is a fine shroud.”

Casting round for a means to free himself from a position that had grown intolerable, he was induced to lend himself to a scheme suggested by Chateaubriand’s example. Chateaubriand, having fallen into financial straits, sold his pen to a syndicate, in return for an annual stipend. Balzac did something of the same kind. Victor Bohain, who played an intermediary role in the affair, discovered Chateaubriand’s capitalist; and a company was formed which paid the novelist fifty thousand francs down to relieve his most pressing needs; and further engaged to allow him fifteen hundred francs a month for the first year, three thousand francs a month for the second year, and, afterwards, four thousand francs a month up to the fifteenth year, when the agreement was to come to an end. In return for these sums, Balzac promised to furnish a fixed number of volumes per year, half profits in which were to be his, after all publishing expenses were paid. The arrangement was signed on the 19th of November 1836; and this date, in so far as the general quality of his writing is concerned, marks a beginning of decadence. Thenceforward his fiction, published mostly in political dailies first of all — the Presse, the Constitutionnel, the Siecle, the Debats, the Messager — had to be composed hurriedly and without the corrections which were the sine qua non of Balzac’s excellence; and consequently it contained many imperfections inherent in such kinds of literary work. There was irony in the situation. Hitherto, he had despised the daily press and the journalists that supplied it with matter, chiefly, it must be confessed, because of the slatings he had received through these organs of information; and he had revenged himself for the attacks by pillorying the journalistic profession in his novels. Lousteau, Finot, Blondet, and other members of the press appear in his pages as unprincipled men, only too willing to sell themselves to the highest bidder. Of course, such retaliation carried with it injustice; and men of high principle, like Jules Janin, resented this prejudiced condemnation of a class for no better reason than its having black sheep, which existed in every circle, trade and profession. Now, Janin had an easy task in convicting of inconsistency an accuser who, since it suited his purpose, was fain to belong to the press brotherhood. The real derogation, however, was not in Balzac’s turning feuilletoniste, but in his slipping into the manner and his adopting the artifices that he blamed so unsparingly in Eugene Sue and Alexandre Dumas. Not to speak of his falling off in accurate observation, he inserted more and more padding in his fiction; the aridly didactic encroached upon the artist’s creation; and, to make the arid portions go down with his readers, he spiced them with exciting episodes and all the stage tricks common in the serial story. To tell the truth, he had never quite shaken off his juvenile manner of the Heiress of Birague, which reasserted itself so much the more easily as his essentially vulgar temperament was ready to crop out on the slightest encouragement afforded to it. During his best period he had a mentor at his elbow in Charles Lemesle, who always read what he wrote before it went to the printer; and Balzac, though vain, was too intelligent not to avail himself of this friend’s pruning. Under the new regime the revising was impossible, and, as a result, that difficult perfection which he had so perseveringly sought was destined to be attained but rarely in the rest of his achievement.

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