After his return to Paris, Balzac threw himself into a frightful orgy of work. It would seem as though his one desire was to forget the coquette who had so cruelly punished him for loving her, and as though he felt the need of atoning to himself for the hours that she had taken him from his work. His physician, Dr. Nacquart, feared that he would break down, and prescribed a month’s rest, during which time he was neither to read nor write, but lead a purely vegetative life. Yet, in spite of this injunction, he found himself unable to stop working, for he was urged on by his genius, and hounded by the terrible necessity of meeting maturing notes, as well as by his own luxurious tastes which must be satisfied at any cost. He had the most extravagant hopes of big returns from The Country Doctor; and in this belief his friends encouraged him. Emile de Girardin and Auguste Borget estimated that the book would sell to the extent of four hundred thousand copies. It was proposed to bring out a one-franc edition which was expected to circulate broadcast, like prayer-books. Balzac made his own calculations — for he was eternally making calculations — and, relying confidently upon their accuracy, allowed himself to purchase carpets, bric-a-brac, a Limoges dinner set, a silver service and jewellery, all for the adornment of the small den in the Rue Cassini. He ordered chandeliers; he stopped short of nothing save a silver chafing-dish. He piled debts upon debts: but what difference did it make, for success was before him, within reach of his hand, and he would have no trouble at all to pay!
Alas, none of the actualities of life would ever break down his robust confidence nor his golden dreams! Even before The Country Doctor was published he found himself involved in a law suit with his publisher, and after its appearance the public press criticised it sharply. “Everyone has his knife out for me,” he wrote to Mme. Hanska, “a situation which saddened and angered Lord Byron only makes me laugh. I mean to govern the intellectual world of Europe, and with two more years of patience and toil I shall trample on the heads of all those who now wish to tie my hands and retard my flight! Persecution and injustice have given me a brazen courage.”
After each of his disillusions he had arisen again stronger than before; and at this juncture a new element had entered into his life which gave him an augmented energy and courage. This element was the one secret romance of his life, which gave rise to a host of anecdotes and legends. In the month of February, 1832, his publisher, Gosselin, forwarded a letter to him, signed L’Etrangere, “A Foreign Lady,” which caught his attention by the nobility of the thoughts expressed in it. This first letter was followed by several others, and in one of them, dated November 7th, the “Foreign Lady” requested him to let her know of its safe arrival: “A line from you, published in La Quotidienne, will assure me that you have received my letter, and that I may write to you without fear. Sign it, A L’E. H. de B. (‘To the Foreign Lady from H. de B.’).” The line requested appeared in La Quotidienne, in its issue of December 9th, and thus began a long and almost daily correspondence which was destined to last for seventeen years.
Mme. Hanska, whom the great novelist married in 1850.
The “Foreign Lady” was a Polish woman of noble birth, Mme. Hanska, who before her marriage was Countesse Eveline Rzewuska, who lived at her chateau of Wierzchownia, in Volhynia, with her husband, who possessed vast estates, and her daughter, Anna, who was still a child. Mme. Hanska had read the Scenes from Private Life, and she had been filled with enthusiasm for the author’s talent and with a great hope of being able to exert an influence over his mind and to direct his ideas.
The mysterious nature of this strange correspondence pleased Balzac: he was able, in the course of it, to give free rein to his imagination, and at the same time to picture her to himself as a type of woman such as he had longed for through many years, endowing her with a beauty which represented all the virtues. His first letters, although dignified and reserved, nevertheless revealed the fact that he was seeking for some woman in whom he could confide, and very soon he began to pour out his heart freely. It is in this collection of letters, which extend from January, 1833, down to 1847, that we must search for the true details of his life, rather than in any of those collections of doubtful anecdotes, which show it only in the distorted form of caricature, and only too often have no foundation of truth. Nevertheless it is necessary to read them with a certain amount of critical reservation, for he often shows himself in them in a false light, which probably seemed necessary to him, in order to carry out the diplomatic course which he had undertaken, and which terminated in his marriage.
From 1833 onward he was destined to lead a double life, the one before the eyes of the world, with its gesticulations, its eccentricities, its harlequinades, that left the lookers-on gaping with amazement; and the other his secret life, which he revealed only to Mme. Hanska, day by day — his slave-like toil, his burden of debts which no amount of effort seemed to lighten, his prodigious hopes, and from time to time his desperate weariness.
After the publication of The Country Doctor the confused plan of his vast work took more definite form, the scattered parts began to fit together, and he foresaw the immense monument in which he was destined to embody an entire social epoch.
“The day when he was first inspired with this idea was a wonderful day for him,” Mme. Surville has recorded. “He set forth from the Rue Cassini, where he had taken up his residence after leaving the Rue de Tournon, and hurried to the Faubourg Poissoniere, where I was then living.
“‘Salute me,’ he cried out joyously, ‘for I am on the high road to become a genius!’
“He then proceeded to unfold his plan to us, although it still rather frightened him. In spite of the vastness of his brain, time alone would enable him to work out such a plan in detail!
“‘How splendid it will be if I succeed!’ he said as he strode up and down the parlour; he was too excited to remain in one place and joy radiated from all his features. ‘From now on they are welcome to call me Balzac the tale-smith! I shall go on tranquilly squaring my stones and enjoying in advance the amazement of all those purblind critics when they finally discover the great structure that I am building!’”
What vital force there was in all the characters of Balzac’s novels, and how well entitled he was to boast that he was running in competition with the whole social structure! He had not yet formulated his conception of the Human Comedy, but he was on the road to it when he planned to rearrange the volumes already published with others that he had in preparation, in a series of scenes in which the representative types of the different social classes should develop. This was the first rough draft of his later great collected editions. In order to carry out his plan, he had to break with his former publishers, pay back advance royalties, and defend law-suits. His collective edition took the general title of Studies of the Manners and Customs of the Nineteenth Century, and was divided into Scenes of Private Life, Scenes of Provincial Life, and Scenes of Parisian Life. He gave the rights of publication of this collective edition first to Madame the Widow Bechet and later to Edmond Werclet, in consideration of the sum of twenty-seven thousand francs. This was the most advantageous contract that he had made up to this time, and he hoped that it would free him from all his debts, with the exception of what he owed his mother. In addition to his previously published volumes, he included in this edition the following new works: Eugenie Grandet, The Illustrious Gaudissart, The Maranas, Ferragus, The Duchess of Langeais, The Girl with the Golden Eyes, The Search for the Absolute, The Marriage Contract, The Old Maid, and the first part of Lost Illusions. But he did not include either The Chouans or his philosophic works.
Twenty-seven thousand francs was an enormous sum, without parallel save that paid to Chateaubriand for his collected works; but in Balzac’s case the payment was made in the form of notes for long periods, and he was left without ready money. In the midst of all his other labours he had to rack his brain in order to find some way of cashing these notes. “Finding that I had nothing to hope for from the bankers,” he wrote to Mme. Hanska, “I remembered that I owed three hundred francs to my doctor, so I called upon him in order to settle my account with one of my bits of negotiable paper, and he gave me change amounting to seven hundred francs, minus the discount. From there I made my way to my landlord, an old grain dealer in the Halle, and paid my rent with another of my notes, which he accepted, giving me back another seven hundred francs, minus the exchange; from him I went to my tailor, who, without demur, took over another of my thousand franc notes, entered it in his ledger, and paid me the whole thousand francs!
“Seeing that I was in for a run of luck, I took a cab and drove to the home of a friend, who is a millionaire twice over, a friend of twenty years standing. As it happened, he had just returned from Berlin. I found him in, and at once he hurried to his desk, gave me two thousand francs, and relieved me of two more of the Widow Bechet’s notes, without even looking at them. Ha! ha! — I returned to my rooms and summoned my vendor of wood and my grocer, in order to settle my accounts, and, in place of a five hundred franc bank note, slipped each of them one of the widow’s five hundred franc promissory notes! By four o’clock I was free once more and ready to meet the next day’s obligations. My mind is at ease for a month to come. I can seat myself once more in the fragile swing of my dreams and let my imagination keep me swinging. Ecco, Signora!
“My dear, faithful wife-to-be, did I not owe you this faithful picture of your future home life in Paris? Yes, but here are five thousand francs squandered, out of the twenty-seven thousand, and before setting out for Geneva I still have ten thousand to pay: three thousand to my mother, one thousand to my sister, and six thousand in judgments and costs. —‘Good gracious, my dear man, where will you raise all that?’— Out of my ink-well!” (Letter dated October 31, 1833.)
The tone of the correspondence had become more tender and confidential, mirroring back an intimate picture of a laborious existence, laden with anxieties — and the reason is that Balzac now knew his “Foreign Lady,” for he had met her at Neufchatel, whence he returned overflowing with enthusiasm. From the date of the very first letters he had received his imagination had taken fire, and he had responded with an answering ardour to this woman who had so ingenuously laid bare her heart to him. It was a romantic adventure upon which he set forth rejoicing. He had sent to the fair unknown a lock of his hair, which he had allowed to remain for some time uncut, in order to send one as long as possible; he had presented her with a perfumed casket, destined to be the mysterious receptacle of his letters; a friend had drawn a sketch of his apartment in the Rue Cassini, so that she might see what a pleasant little den the toiler had; and lastly he inserted in a copy of The Country Doctor an aquarelle, in which he was portrayed in the somewhat exaggerated guise of his own Doctor Bernassis. This was a sacrifice to which he consented for love’s sake, because he had always refused to let anyone, even Gerard, paint his portrait, insisting “that he was not handsome enough to be worth preserving in oil.”
But letter-writing and delicate attentions in the form of gifts were far from satisfying him. He wanted to see her, to talk with her, to put into speech shades of feeling so delicate that the written word was powerless to reproduce them. And presently chance aided and abetted him. Mme. Hanska left Wierzchnownia for a summer vacation in Switzerland, and Balzac, on the trail of one of those business opportunities for which he was ever on the watch, was obliged to go to Besancon at precisely the same season. His mission related to the manufacture of a special kind of paper, to be made exclusively for his works, and which he imagined would speedily make his fortune. Since she was to be at Neufchatel and he at Besancon, how could they resist the pleasure of a first meeting? Permission was asked to call, and permission was granted; and Balzac, impatient and intoxicated with hope, left Paris, September 22d, arrived at Neufchatel on the 25th, and for five days enjoyed profound happiness, tender and unalloyed. They met, and the sentiments born of their correspondence, far from being destroyed by this meeting, were on the contrary exalted into trembling avowals, transports and protestations of eternal love. Balzac returned to Paris radiant with his new-found joy. He wrote as follows to his sister Laure, the habitual recipient of his confidences:
“I found down yonder all that is needed to flatter the thousand vanities of that animal known as man, of which species the poet still remains the vainest variety. But why do I use the word vanity? No, that has nothing to do with it. I am happy, very happy in thought, and so far all for the best and in all honour . . .
“I say nothing to you of her colossal wealth; of what consequence is that, beside a perfection of beauty which I can compare to no one except the Princess of Bellejoyeuse, only infinitely better?”
Mme. Hanska was profoundly religious and a practical Catholic; and from this time onward she exerted an influence over the trend of Balzac’s thoughts. Indeed, he brought back from their first interviews the germ idea of his mystical story, Seraphita. The project of the special paper having failed to materialise at Besancon, he tried to carry it out through the mediation of Mme. Carraud, but with no better success.
The Country Doctor proved a source of nothing but disappointments to Balzac, who received an adverse decision from the courts, in the lawsuit bought by Mame, because he had failed to furnish copy at the stipulated dates, and found himself facing a judgment of three thousand francs damages, besides another thousand francs for corrections made at his expense. The cost of the latter was, for that matter, always charged to him by his publishers in all his contracts, because his method of work raised this item to an unreasonable sum. For one of his short stories, Pierette, Balzac demanded no less than seventeen successive revised proofs. And his corrections, his additions and his suppressions formed such an inextricable tangle that the typesetters refused to work more than an hour at a time over his copy.
The failure of the work on which he had counted so much and the loss of his lawsuit did not discourage him. To borrow his own phrase, he “buried himself in the most frightful labours.” Between the end of 1833 and 1834 he produced Eugenie Grandet, The Illustrious Gaudissart, The Girl with the Golden Eyes, and The Search for the Absolute. The paper which he used for writing was a large octavo in form, with a parchment finish. His manuscripts often bore curious annotations and drawings. On the cover of that of Eugenie Grandet he had drawn a ground plan of old Grandet’s house, and had compiled a list of names, from which he chose those of the characters in the story. Balzac attached an extreme importance to proper names, and he did not decide which to give to his heroes until after long meditation, for he believed that names were significant, even to the extent of influencing their destinies. The manuscript of The Search for the Absolute bears witness to his constant preoccupation about money. He had inscribed on it the following account:
Total for June 7,505 francs. Total for July 1,500 francs. Floating debt 3,700 francs.
And melancholically he wrote below it, “Deficit, 1,705!” His writing was small, compressed, irregular and often far from easy to read; when he suppressed a passage, he used a form of pothook erasure which rendered the condemned phrase absolutely illegible.
In 1834, Honore de Balzac, while still keeping his apartment in the Rue Cassini, transferred his residence to Chaillot, No. 13, Rue des Bastailles (now the Avenue d’Iena), in a house situated on the site of the hotel of Prince Roland Bonaparte. This was his bachelor quarters, where he received his letters, under the name of Madame the Widow Durand. He had by no means abandoned his projects of luxurious surroundings, and in The Girl with the Golden Eyes he has given a description of his own parlour, which shows that he had in a measure already realised his desires:
“One-half of the boudoir,” he wrote, “described an easy and graceful semicircle, while the opposite side was perfectly square, and in the centre glistened a mantelpiece of white marble and gold. The entrance was through a side door, hidden by a rich portiere of tapestry, and facing a window. Within the horseshoe curve was a genuine Turkish divan, that is to say, a mattress resting directly upon the floor, a mattress as large as a bed, a divan fifty feet in circumference and covered with white cashmere, relieved by tufts of black and poppy-red silk arranged in a diamond pattern. The headboard of this immense bed rose several inches above the numerous cushions which still further enriched it by the good taste of their harmonious tints. The walls of this boudoir were covered with red cloth, overlaid with India muslin fluted like a Corinthian column, the flutings being alternately hollowed and rounded, and finished at top and bottom with a band of poppy-red cloth embroidered with black arabesques. Seen through the muslin, the poppy-red turned to rose colour, the colour emblematic of love; and the same effect was repeated in the window curtains, which were also of India muslin lined with rose-coloured taffeta and ornamented with fringes of mixed black and poppy-red. Six vermilion sconces, each containing two candles, were fixed at even intervals to the wall, for the purpose of lighting the divan. The ceiling, from the centre of which hung a chandelier of dull vermilion, was a dazzling white, and the cornice was gilded. The carpet resembled an Oriental shawl, exhibiting the patterns and recalling the poetry of Persia, the land where it had been woven by the hands of slaves. The furniture was all upholstered in white cashmere, emphasised by trimmings of the same combination of black and poppy-red. The clock, the candle-sticks, all the ornaments, were of white marble and gold. The only table in the room had a cashmere covering. Graceful jardinieres contained roses of all species having blossoms of red or white.”
Theophile Gautier has borne witness to the accuracy of this description; but as though wishing to show him the double aspect of his life, Balzac, after willingly exhibiting in detail all the luxury of his boudoir, led him to a corner recess, necessitated by the rounded form of one side of the room; and there, hidden behind the ostentatious decoration, there was nothing but a narrow iron cot, a table and a chair; this was where he worked.
Balzac disliked being disturbed while working; and, for the double reason of avoiding unwelcome visitors and throwing his creditors off the scent, he had invented a whole series of pass-words, which it was necessary to know before one could penetrate to his apartment. A visitor, let into the secret, would say to the porter, “The season for plums has arrived,” thanks to which he acquired the right to enter the house. But this was only the first degree of initiation. A servant would next come forward and ask, “What does Monsieur wish?” and one had to be able to answer, “I have brought some Brussels lace.” This constituted the second degree and resulted in permission to ascend the stairs. Then, with the door of the sanctuary just ajar, the visitor could not hope to see it swing fully open before him until he had made the assertion that “Mme. Durand was in good health!” Whenever Balzac suspected that his pass-words had been betrayed, he invented a new set, which he communicated only to those few chosen spirits whom he cared to receive. And this method of protecting himself caused him, when with his friends, to indulge in great outbursts of his vast, resounding laughter.
In spite of envy and conspiracies, Balzac’s reputation was now established; he had become one of those writers who are widely discussed and whose sayings and doings are a current topic of conversation. At the same time, he was the prey of the low-class journals, which attacked him maliciously. At this period, Balzac was passing through a second attack of dandyism. He was once again to be seen at the Opera, at the Bouffes and at the fashionable salons. He sported a monstrous walking stick, the handle of which was set with turquoises; he showed himself in the box occupied by an ultra-fashionable set known as the “Tigers,” wearing a blue coat, adorned with golden buttons, “buttons,” he said, “wrought by the hand of a fairy”; and he had a “divine lorgnette,” which had been made for him by the optician of the Observatory. He began to be laughed at; and, gossip taking a hand, his glorious luxury was attributed to the generosity of an elderly Englishwoman, Lady Anelsy, whose lucky favourite he was supposed to be. His walking stick especially — a stick that, in his estimation, was worthy of Louis XIV— excited curiosity. It was ridiculed, decried and admired. Mme. de Girardin wrote a novel around it, Monsieur de Balzac’s Walking Stick, in which she attributed to it the power of rendering invisible whoever held it in his left hand.
He had a carriage adorned with his monogram, surmounted by the arms of the d’Entragues; he frequented the salons of the Rothschilds, and of Mme. Appony, the wife of the Austrian ambassador; he gave magnificent dinners to Latour-Mezeray, to Sandeau, to Nodier, to Malitourne and to Rossini, who declared that he had “never seen, eaten or drunken anything better, even at the tables of kings.”
Then, suddenly, Balzac returned to the fierce heat of production; he abandoned his friends and acquaintances, and became invisible for months at a time, buried in his hiding-place at Chaillot, or else taking refuge at the home of M. de Margonne at Sache, or of Mme. Carraud at Frapesle. And when he reappeared, it was with his hands laden with masterpieces, his eye more commanding and his brow held high with noble pride. With a speed of production that no one has ever equalled he turned forth, one after another, his great novels, Old Goriot, The Lily in the Valley, Seraphita, The Atheist’s Mass, The Interdiction, The Cabinet of Antiques, Facino Cane, and he revised, corrected and remodelled a part of his earlier works into the Philosophic Studies which he brought out through Werdet, and his Studies of Manners, published by Mme. Bechet. His plan had grown still larger, the formidable creation with which his brain was teeming was taking organic shape, and he now perceived the architecture of his vast monument. He expounded it to Mme. Hanska, with justifiable pride:
“I believe that by 1838 the three divisions of this gigantic work will be, if not completed, at least superposed, so that it will be possible to judge the mass of the structure.
“The Studies of Manners are intended to represent all social effects so completely that no situation in life, no physiognomy, no character of man or woman, no manner of living, no profession, no social zone, no section of France, nor anything whatever relating to childhood, maturity or old age, to politics, justice or war, shall be forgotten.
“This being determined, the history of the human heart traced thread by thread, and the history of society recorded in all its parts, we have the foundation. There will be no imaginary incidents in it; it will consist solely of what is happening everywhere.
“Then comes the second story of my structure, the Philosophic Studies, for after the effects we shall examine the causes. In the Studies of Manners I shall already have painted for you the play of the emotions and the movement of life. In the Philosophic Studies I shall expound the why of the emotions and the wherefore of life; what is the range and what are the conditions outside of which neither society nor man can exist; and, after having surveyed society in order to describe it, I shall survey it again in order to judge it. Accordingly the Studies of Manners contain typical individuals, while the Philosophic Studies contain individualised types. Thus on all sides I shall have created life: for the type by individualising it, and for the individual by converting him into a type. I shall endow the fragment with thought, and I shall have endowed thought with individual life.
“Then, after the effects and causes, will come the Analytic Studies, of which the Physiology of Marriage will form part: for after the effects and causes, the next thing to be sought is the principles. The manners are the performance, the causes are the stage setting and properties, and the principles are the author; but in proportion as my work circles higher and higher into the realms of thought, it narrows and condenses. If it requires twenty-four volumes for the Studies of Manners, it will not require more than fifteen for the Philosophic Studies, and it will not require more than nine for the Analytic Studies. In this way, man, society and humanity will have been described, judged and analysed, without repetition, resulting in a work which will stand as the Thousand and One Nights of the Occident.
“When the whole is completed, my edifice achieved, my pediment sculptured, my scaffolding cleared away, my final touches given, it will be proved that I was either right or wrong. But after having been a poet, after having demonstrated an entire social system, I shall revert to science in an Essay on the Human Powers. And around the base of my palatial structure, with boyish glee I shall trace the immense arabesque of my Hundred Droll Tales.”
Think of the courage that it needed not to recoil before this superhuman task, planned with such amplitude and precision! Yet, aside from a few rare days of discouragement, Balzac did not feel that it was beyond his powers. After each brief period of weakening, his optimism always reappeared, and having indicated his goal, he concluded: “Some day when I have finished, we can have a good laugh. But today I must work.”
Accordingly he worked, not only “today,” but every day, in the midst of the material uncertainty created by his accumulated debts, his lawsuits, and his need of luxury; and his method of work was to retire at six o’clock in the evening, rise at two in the morning, and remain sometimes more than sixteen hours before his table, wrestling with his task.
Nevertheless he was able to escape in May, 1835, for a trip to Vienna to see Mme. Hanska, enjoy a fortnight of happiness, and return to Paris with his heart in holiday mood. His good humour never deserted him. He related how, lacking any knowledge of German, he devised a way of paying his postilion. At each relay he summoned him to the door of the carriage and, looking him fixedly in the eye, dropped kreutzers into his hands one by one, and when he saw the postilion smile he withdrew the last kreutzer, knowing that he had been amply paid!
Returning to Paris by the eleventh of June, Balzac found nothing but a new crop of sorrows and anxieties awaiting him, together with “three or four months of hard labour” in perspective. His publisher, Werdet, had not been able to meet his payments, and his sister Laure had been obliged to pawn all her brother’s silver at the Mont-de-Piete, in order to save the notes from being protested. On the other hand, his mother was seriously ill; it was feared the result would be either death or insanity, and his brother Henri had reached a state in which he was on the point of blowing out his brains. Family sorrows, money troubles, such was perpetually his fate! and accordingly he redoubled his courage. He had been working not more than sixteen hours consecutively, but now he worked for twenty-four at a stretch, and after five hours sleep began again this new schedule which practically meant an average of twenty-one and one-half working hours per day. He would be able to earn eight thousand francs, but in order to do so he must deliver within forty days the last chapters of Seraphita and the Young Brides to the Revue de Paris, the Lily in the Valley to the Revue des Deux Mondes, and an article for the Conservateur, all of which was equivalent to writing four hundred and forty-eight pages.
And still this did not satisfy him! His ambition pushed him once again towards his earlier political designs. He counted upon the support of the reviews for which he was writing, he planned to found two newspapers, and dreamed of creating a party composed of the intellectual element, of which he would naturally be the leader. It was in this spirit that, during the last months of 1835, he acquired the Chronique de Paris, of which he became the director. To this weekly periodical, which henceforth appeared twice a week, Balzac summoned a brilliant editorial staff — he always disdained to supervise any other than shining lights — including Gustave Planche, Nodier, Theophile Gautier, Charles de Bernard, while the illustrations were furnished by Gavarni and Daumier. Since he already aspired to a foreign ministry or ambassadorship, he reserved the department of foreign affairs for himself, and for more than a year he treated of European diplomacy with extraordinary penetration and accuracy. He made prodigious efforts to keep his review on its feet, but in spite of his activity and the talent of his collaborators, the Chronique exerted little or no influence, and remained very poor in subscribers.
While he was still editing it he once more underwent the singular and vexatious experience of being imprisoned. Although a good citizen, he energetically refused to fulfill his duties in the national guard, which he deemed unbefitting the dignity of an artist and author. In March, 1835, he had already been detained for seven days in the Hotel Bazancourt; so in order to avoid a similar annoyance in the future he hired his apartment under another name than his own. But his sergeant-major, a dentist by profession and a man of resource, succeeded in capturing him and landing him safely in the “Hotel des Haricots.” (Popular nickname for the debtors’ prison. [Translator’s Note.]) He was locked up without a penny in his pocket, and in order to soften the rigours of his captivity must needs appeal for help to his publisher, Werdet. His hardships, however, proved to be tolerably mild when once he was supplied with money. In the prison he met Eugene Sue, who was detained for the same cause, and who carried the thing off in lordly fashion, having sumptuous repasts brought to him on his own silver service. Owing to this attitude there was a certain coldness at first between the two novelists, but before long they joined forces in order to enliven their days of imprisonment. Eugene Sue could draw, and he made a pen-and-ink sketch of a horse, a horseman and a stretch of seashore, which Balzac inscribed as follows: “Drawn in prison in the Hotel Bazancourt, where we were under punishment for not having mounted guard, in accordance with the decree of the grocers of Paris.”
A still harsher prison, that of Clichy, very nearly fell to Balzac’s lot, a few months later. His efforts to carry on the Chronique had been in vain, and he had been obliged to abandon it, toward the middle of 1837, with a fresh accumulation of debts. One of his creditors, William Duckett, pressed him so vigorously for a sum of ten thousand francs that Balzac was forced to go into hiding, and the process-servers were unable to discover him. A woman finally betrayed his retreat, and one morning the officers of the law presented themselves at the home of Mme. de Visconti, the lady who had given him asylum. Balzac was caught, but not taken, for the generous woman promptly paid the debt demanded of him.
Once again he had been saved, but now all his creditors were at his heels, and he was like a hare before them, never sure where he could lay his head. In order to satisfy them he added toil to toil, story to story, notwithstanding the sorrow caused him by the loss of Mme. de Berny, that early love who had protected his youth and sustained his courage, with an unwavering devotion, a heart of wife and mother in one. His troubles were now constant, and he was forced to carry on a famous litigation with Buloz, director of the Revue des Deux Mondes, who had forwarded to the Revue Etrangere of St. Petersburg uncorrected proofs of the Lily of the Valley. In defending himself he was defending the common rights of all authors.
Theophile Gautier, whom he had invited to collaborate on the Chronique de Paris at a time when the author of Mademoiselle de Maupin was but little known, has left some vivid recollections of Balzac at this period:
“It was,” he writes, “in that same boudoir (the luxurious chamber in the Rue des Batailles) that he gave us a splendid dinner, on which occasion he lighted with his own hands all the candles in the vermilion sconces as well as those in the chandelier and candlesticks. The guests were the Marquis de B— (de Belloy) and the artist L.B. (Louis Boulanger). Although quite sober and abstemious by habit, Balzac did not disdain on occasion the festive board and flowing bowl; he ate with a whole-hearted satisfaction that was appetising to see, and he drank in true Pantagruelian fashion. Four bottles of the white wine of Vouvray, one of the headiest wines known, in no way affected his strong brain, and produced no other result than to add a slightly keener sparkle to his gaiety.
“Characteristic touch! At this splendid feast, furnished by Chevot, there was no bread. But when one has all the superfluities, of what use are the necessities?”
Balzac, who ordinarily ate quite soberly, consumed an enormous quantity of fruit, pears, strawberries and grapes. He held that they were good for his health, and that they suited his temperament, overheated as it was by his abuse of coffee and his sleepless nights. Alcohol did not agree with him, and as to tobacco, he detested it to such a degree that he refused to employ servants who had the habit of smoking.
His intellectual conceptions intermingled with the current events of life, and he drew no very clear demarcation between the characters and adventures which he created and the actualities of life. The History of the Thirteen and the exploits of the association of which Ferragus was chief gave Balzac the idea of forming a secret society, after the manner of the one he had conceived, the members of which were to afford one another aid and protection under all circumstances. This society he called the Red Horse, from the name of the restaurant where the charter members met. They were Theophile Gautier, Leon Gozlan, Alphonse Karr, Louis Desnoyers, Eugene Guinot, Altorache, Merle, and Granier de Cassagnac, all of whom swore the oath of fidelity and enthusiastically named Balzac Grand Master of the new order. The place of meeting was changed each week, in order not to attract the attention of the waiters who served the “Horses,”— cabalistic name of the conspirators — and their secret had to be carefully guarded, for it was nothing less than a project for distributing among the members of the Red Horse the chief offices of State, the ministries and ambassadorships, the highest positions in arts and letters, the Academie Francaise and the Institut. These secret reunions ceased after a few months, for there was no more corn in the crib — in other words, a majority of the “Horses” were unable to pay their dues.
Did these chimerical dreams serve to distract Balzac’s thoughts from the realities, or did he believe that he possessed some occult means of dominating society? Perhaps it was something of both. His material situation had become worse. Werdet succumbed under the weight of his publications, dragging down his favourite author in his ruin. Balzac had hours of heavy depression; he went for a rest to Mme. Carraud’s home at Frapesle, and after his return to Paris he wrote her in the following strain:
“I am horribly embarrassed for money. By tomorrow I may not have a care in the world, if the matters that I have in hand turn out well; but then again it is quite possible that I may perish. It is quite dramatic to be always hovering between life and death; it is the life of a corsair; but human endurance cannot keep it up forever.”
He sought for new publishers; then, having passed through the crisis of humility, he straightened up once more, his courage was born again, and he undertook a very mysterious journey the goal of which he revealed to no one, aside from Commander Carraud, whom he had let into his secret. He announced only that if he succeeded it would mean a fortune for him and all his family. Balzac borrowed five hundred francs and left Paris in March, 1836, arriving on the 20th in Marseilles, and on the 26th in Ajaccio, where, his incognito having been betrayed by a former fellow student, he was royally entertained by the younger generation; and on April 1st he set out for Sardinia in a small sloop propelled by oars. What was the object of this journey? During a stay in Genoa in 1837 a merchant of that city had told him that whole mountains of slag existed near the silver mines which the Romans had worked in Sardinia. This information had set Balzac’s spirit of deduction to working, and, assuming that the ancients were very ignorant in the art of reducing ores and had probably abandoned enormous quantities of silver in the slag, had asked his Genoese friend to send him some specimens to Paris.
Landing at Alghiero, he explored Sardinia, saw the mountains of slag and, returning to Genoa on the 22d, had the discomfiture of learning that his Genoese friend, instead of sending him the requested specimens, had adopted the idea himself and had obtained from the court of Turin the right to develop the project in conjunction with a firm in Marseilles which had assayed the ore. All Balzac’s hopes of making his fortune once more crumbled to pieces; yet he refused to succumb, but, at the same time he wrote the bad news to Laure, announced that he had hit upon something better! Such was his unconquerable optimism. He returned by way of Milan, where he remained several weeks, attending to some business matters for the Visconti family, and, far from his “phrase-shop,” he indulged in bitter reflections. At the age of thirty-nine his debts amounted to two hundred thousand francs, he had resorted to every means to clear himself, and, weary of so many useless efforts, he ceased to look forward to a day of liberation.
But he missed his routine of exhausting labour, he sighed for his table, his candles, his white paper; he wanted to get back to his feverish nights, his days of meditation, in his secluded and silent workroom where, better than anywhere else, all his heroic personages quivered into being, and he beheld all the various lives of his creation with a bitter, almost terrible joy. He returned to Paris during the first half of June, lamenting: “My head refuses to do any intellectual work; I feel that it is full of ideas, yet it is impossible to get them out; I am incapable of concentrating my thoughts, of compelling them to consider a subject from all its sides and then determine its development. I do not know when this imbecile condition will pass off, perhaps it is only that I am out of practice. When a workman has left his tools behind him for a time his hand becomes clumsy; it has, so to speak, undergone a divorce from them; he must needs begin again little by little to establish that fraternity due to habit and which binds the hand to the implement and the implement to the hand.” But his discouragement did not last long, for he soon had his implement in hand again, with a stronger grip on it than ever.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05