For all his aristocratic name, Honore de Balzac was not of noble birth. The nobiliary particule he did not add to his signature until the year 1830. In his birth certificate we read: “To-day, the 2nd of Prairial, Year VII. (21st of May 1799) of the French Republic, a male child was presented to me, Pierre-Jacques Duvivier, the undersigned Registrar, by the citizen Bernard-Francois Balzac, householder, dwelling in this commune, Rue de l’Armee de l’Italie, Chardonnet section, Number 25; who declared to me that the said child was called Honore Balzac, born yesterday at eleven o’clock in the morning at witness’s residence, that the child is his son and that of the citizen, Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, his wife, they having been married in the commune of Paris, eighth arrondissement, Seine Department, on the 11th of Pluviose, Year V.”
The commune referred to in the birth certificate was Tours. There in the street now rechristened and renumbered and called the Rue Nationale, a commemorative plate at No. 29 bears the following inscription: “Honore de Balzac was born in this house on the 1st of Prairial, Year VII. (20th of May 1799); he died in Paris on the 28th1 of August 1850.”
1 The registered date of Balzac’s death was the 18th of August. The date on the commemorative plate is wrong. See also in a subsequent chapter, M. de Lovenjoul’s remark on the subject.
This former capital of Touraine, which the novelist says disparagingly in the Cure of Tours was in his time one of the least literary places in France, has had, at any rate, an honourable past. It was one of the sixty-four towns of Gaul that, under Vercingetorix, opposed the conquest of Caesar; and to it, in 1870, the French Government retired when the Germans marched on the capital. Its ancient industry in silk stuffs, established by Louis XI. in the fifteenth century, raised its population to eighty thousand. By revoking the Edict of Nantes, King “Sun” chased away three thousand of the wealthy, manufacturing families, who migrated to Holland; and Tours lost, with a quarter of its inhabitants, its weaving supremacy, which fell into the hands of Lyons. Situated on the Loire, in a rich but flat district, its surroundings are less interesting than its own architectural possessions, including a cathedral of mingled Gothic and later styles, a bit of the Norman-English Henry the Second’s castle, and its three bridges. The fine central one, of fifteen arches and a quarter of a mile long, is a prolongation of the Rue Nationale, and has near it statues of Rabelais and Descartes.
Balzac’s father, who at the time of Honore’s birth was fifty-three years of age, was not a native of Tours. He came from Nougayrie, a small hamlet close to Canezac in the Tarn Department and province of Languedoc. He was, therefore, a man of the south. On the registers he was inscribed as a son of Bernard-Thomas Balssa, laboureur, or peasant farmer; but he subsequently changed his name to Balzac. Recent investigations have disclosed the fact that — whether by his own initiative or that of his son — he was the first to employ the “de” before the family name, prefixing it in the announcements made of the marriage of his second daughter Laurence.
Although of humble origin, the elder Balzac acquired both education and position. He embraced the legal profession, and was said by his son to have acted as secretary to the Grand Council under Louis XV., by his daughter Laure to have been advocate to the Council under Louis XVI. There is no documentary proof that he held either of these offices; but he figured in the Royal almanacs of 1793 as a lawyer, and would seem to have served the Republican Government, although his children subsequently asserted that he had always been an unswerving Royalist. The family tradition was that he had become suspect to Robespierre through his efforts to save several unfortunates from the guillotine, and would himself have perished had not a friend succeeded in getting him sent on a mission to the frontier to organize the commissariat department there. Thenceforward attached to the War Office, he returned to Paris, and in 1797 married Laure Sallambier, the daughter of one of his hierarchic chiefs, she being thirty-two years his junior. The next year he went to Tours as administrator of the General Hospice, and remained there for seventeen years.
The father of the novelist was a man out of the common. A contemporary of his, Le Poitevin Saint-Alme, relates that he united in himself the Roman, the Gaul, and the Goth, and possessed the attributes of these three races — boldness, patience, and health. He avowed himself a disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, considering a return to nature to be the main condition of happiness. He shunned doctors, advocated exercise, long walks, woollen garments for every season, and a more scientific propagation of his species. His daughter — afterwards Madame Surville — says of him in the short biography she wrote of her brother: “My father often railed at mankind, whom he accused of unceasingly contributing to their own misfortune. He could never meet an ill-formed fellow-creature without fulminating against parents and governments, who were less careful to improve the human race than that of animals.”
In addition to his notions on hygiene, he interested himself in the problems of sociology, anticipating Fourier and Saint-Simon, and writing numerous pamphlets on philanthropic and scientific questions. Large traces of his influence are found in his son’s books. His hobby was health cultivation. Every man, he said, ought to strive for an equilibrium of the vital forces. In his own case there was an extra reason for his aiming at longevity. Being still unmarried at the age of forty-five, he had sunk most of his fortune in life annuities, one of which was a tontine; and, after his marriage, he encouraged his family to hope for his surviving all the competitors of his series, and thus being able to bequeath them a huge capital. This hope was not realized. His death occurred in 1829, when he was eighty-three, and the twelve thousand francs income accruing from his annuities disappeared.
His memory was extraordinary. At seventy, happening to meet a friend of his childhood, whom he had not seen since he was fourteen, he unhesitatingly began speaking to him in the Provencal tongue, which he had ceased using for half a century. Equally great was his benevolence. On one occasion, hearing that his friend General de Pommereul was in monetary difficulties, he called at the General’s house, and, finding only Madame de Pommereul, said to her, as he placed two heavy bags on the table: “I am told you are short of cash. These ten thousand crowns will be more useful to you than to me. I don’t know what to do with them. You can give me them back when you have recovered what has been stolen from you.” Having uttered these few brusk words, he turned and hurried away. Later we shall meet with a younger General de Pommereul, to whom the novelist dedicated his Melmoth Reconciled, adding, “In remembrance of the constant friendship that united our fathers and subsists between the sons.”
When young, the novelist’s father must have been endowed with great physical strength. He used to relate that, during the time he was a clerk to a Procureur, he was requested one day to cut up a partridge at his master’s table. With the first dig of the knife, he not only severed the partridge but the dish also, and drove his weapon into the wood of the table. Detail worth noticing, this feat procured him the respect of the Procureur’s wife. The portrait sketched of him by his daughter Laure represents him, between sixty and seventy, as a fine old man, still vigorous, with courteous manners, speaking little and rarely of himself (in this very different from Honore), indulgent towards the young, whose society he was fond of, allowing to all the same liberty that he claimed for himself, upright and sound in judgment notwithstanding his eccentricities, of equable humour, and so mild in character that he made every one around him happy. Delighting in conversation, now grave, now curious, now prophetic, he was always eagerly listened to by his elder son, whose indebtedness to him cannot be doubted.
Balzac’s mother, who was married at eighteen, was a Parisian by birth. Her father was Director of the Paris Hospitals. At the Hotel-Dieu there is a Sallambier ward which perpetuates his memory. A small, active woman of nervous temperament, irritable and inclined to worry about trifles, she yet had abundant practical sense — a quality less developed in her husband. Her daughter tells us she was beautiful, that she had remarkable vivacity of mind, much firmness and decision, and boundless devotion to her family. Her affection, however, was expressed rather by action than in speech. She had great imagination, adds Madame Surville; and, says the novelist, “this imagination, which she has bequeathed me, bandies her ever from north to south and from south to north.” Exceedingly pious, with a bias to mysticism, she possessed a library of books bearing on such doctrines, which were read by her son and afterwards utilized by him in his fiction.
Honore was the second child of his parents. The first dying in infancy through the poorness of Madame Balzac’s milk, he was sent to a house on the outskirts of the town and suckled by a foster-mother. His sister Laure, a year younger than himself, was submitted to the same treatment, and the two children remained away from home until they were four and three years old respectively. From her remembrance of him, when both were toddling mites, his sister speaks of him as a charming little boy, whose merry humour, shapely, smiling mouth, large brown eyes, at once bright and soft, high forehead and rich black hair caused him to be noticed a great deal in their daily outings.
In 1804 came the first important event of his life, a visit to Paris to see his maternal grandparents. It was a wonderful change from his home surroundings in Tours, where a certain severity prevailed. Here he was spoiled to his heart’s content; and his happiness was rendered complete by Mouche, the big watch-dog, with whom he was on the best of terms. One evening a magic-lantern exhibition was given in the grandson’s honour. Noticing that Mouche was not among the spectators, he rose from his seat with an authoritative: “Wait.” Then, going out, he shortly after came back, dragging in his canine friend, to whom he said: “Sit down there, Mouche, and look; it will cost you nothing. Granddad will pay for you!” A few months later his grandfather died, and the widow went to live with the Balzacs at Tours. This death made a deep impression on the child’s mind, and for a while dwelt so constantly in his memory that, on one occasion, when Laure was being scolded by her mother for an offence which the culprit aggravated by a fit of involuntary tittering, he approached his sister and whispered in her ear, with a view to restoring her gravity: “Think of grandpapa’s death.”
Distinguished in these juvenile years more by kindness than cleverness, he nevertheless manifested a certain inventiveness in improvizing baby comedies which had more appreciative audiences than some of his maturer stage productions. On the contrary, his conception of music and his own musical execution had no admirers beyond himself. For hours he would scrape the chords of a small, red violin, drawing from them most excruciating sounds, himself lost in ecstasy, and most amazed when he was begged to cease his concert, which was somewhat calculated to give his friend Mouche the colic.
The boy’s initial steps in the path of learning were taken under the care of a nursery governess, Mademoiselle Delahaye, whom he quitted to attend the principal day-school in the town, known as the Leguay Institution. When he was eight he entered the College school at Vendome, a quiet spot in Touraine, with something of the aspect of a university town. On the registers of the school may be read the following inscription: “No. 460, Honore Balzac, aged eight years and five months. Has had small-pox; without infirmities; sanguine temperament; easily excited and subject to feverishness. Entered the College on June 22nd 1807; left on the 22nd of August 1813.”
An old seventeenth-century foundation of the Oratorians, the school possessed at this period a renown almost equal to that of Oxford and Cambridge. In his Louis Lambert, Balzac gives us a description of the place. “The College,” he says, “is situated in the middle of the town and on the little river Loir, which flows hard by the main school-buildings. It stands in a spacious enclosure carefully walled in, and comprises all the various establishments necessary in an institution of this kind — a chapel, a theatre, an infirmary, a bakery, gardens, watercourses. The College, being the most celebrated centre of education in France, is recruited from several provinces and even from our colonies, so that the distance at which families live does not permit of parents’ seeing their children. As a rule, pupils do not spend the long holidays at home, and remain at the College continuously until their studies are terminated.” As a matter of fact, Balzac passed his six years there without once returning to Tours, being entirely cut off from his family, save for such rare visits as were suffered from its members.
The school life was semi-monastic, with a discipline of iron. “The leathern ferule played its terrible role with honour” among Minions, Smalls, Mediums, and Greats. There were, however, certain mitigations — long walks in the woods, cards, and amateur theatricals during vacation; gardening and pigeon-fancying; stilt-walking, sliding and clog-dancing; and, withal, the joys of a chapman’s stall set up in the enclosure itself.
Louis Lambert is a slice of autobiography, attempting also a portrait of the novelist, psychologically as well as outwardly, while he was at Vendome. Although the author speaks of himself as distinct from his hero, they make up one and the same individual. Of himself he says: “I had a passion for books. My father, being desirous I should enter the Ecole Polytechnique, paid for me to take private lessons in mathematics. But my coach, being the librarian of the college, let me borrow books, without much troubling about what I chose, from the library, where during playtime he gave me my tuition. Either he was very little qualified to teach, or he must have been pre-occupied with some undertaking of his own; for he was only too willing I should read in the hours he ought to have devoted to me, himself working at something else. Thus, by virtue of a tacit agreement between us, I did not complain of learning nothing, and he kept secret my book-borrowing. This precocious passion led me to neglect my studies and instead to compose poems, which indeed were of no high promise, if judged by the following verse: ‘O Inca! O roi infortune,’ commencing an epopee on the Incas. The line became only too celebrated among my companions, and I was derisively nicknamed the poet. Mockery, however, did not cure me, and I continued my efforts in spite of the apologue of the Principal, Monsieur Mareschal, who one day related to me the misfortunes of a linnet that tried to fly before being fully fledged. He wished, no doubt, to turn me from my inveterate habit. As I continued to read, I was continually punished, and grew to be the least active, most idle, most contemplative pupil of the Smalls.”
And now for the alter ego. “Louis Lambert was slender and thin, not more than four feet and a half in height, but his weather-beaten face, his sun-browned hands seemed to indicate a muscular vigour which he had not in a normal state. So, two months after his entering the college, when his school life had robbed him of his well-nigh vegetable colour, we remarked that he became pale and white like a woman. His head was unusually big; his hair, beautifully black and naturally curly, lent an ineffable charm to his forehead, the size of which struck us as extraordinary, though, as may be imagined, we little recked of phrenology. The beauty of this prophetic forehead resided chiefly in the extremely pure cut of the two brows, under which shone his dark eyes — brows that appeared to be carved in alabaster. Their lines had the somewhat rare luck to be perfectly parallel in joining each other at the beginning of the features. These latter were irregular enough, but the irregularity disappeared when one saw his eyes, whose gaze possessed an astonishing variety of expression. Sometimes clear and terribly penetrating, sometimes angelically mild, this gaze grew dull and colourless, so to speak, in his contemplative moments. His eye then resembled a pane of glass no longer illuminated by the sun. The same was true of his strength, which was purely nervous, and also of his voice. Both were equally mobile and variable. The latter was alternately sweet and harmonious, and then at times painful, incorrect, and rugged. As for his ordinary strength, he was incapable of supporting the fatigue of any games whatever. He seemed obviously feeble and almost infirm; but once, during his first year at school, one of our bullies having jeered at this extreme delicacy that rendered him unfit for the rough games practised in the playground, Lambert with his two hands gripped the end of one of our tables containing twelve desks in two rows; then, stiffening himself against the master’s chair and holding the table with his feet placed on the bottom cross-bar, he said: ‘Let any ten of you try to move it.’ I was there and witnessed this singular display of strength. It was impossible to drag the table from him. He appeared at certain moments to have the gift of summoning unusual powers, or of concentrating his whole force on a given point.”
That Louis Lambert is an attempted revelation of Balzac’s adolescent mind we have both Madame Surville’s and Champfleury’s additional testimony to prove. Discounting the exaggerations, due either to literary morbidity of the kind that produced Chateaubriand’s Rene and Sainte-Beuve’s Joseph Delorme, or to the natural vanity of which the novelist had so large a share, there yet remains a considerable substratum of truth in this record of twin, boyish existence, which affords a valuable secondary help towards understanding its author’s character.
The major punishment inflicted at Vendome was imprisonment in the dormitory. Referring to himself and his double, Balzac says: “We were freer in prison than anywhere. There we could talk for days together in the silence of the room, where each pupil had a cubicle six feet square, whose partitions were provided with bars across the top, and whose grated iron door was locked every evening and unlocked every morning under the surveillance of a Father, who assisted at our going to bed and getting up. The creak of the doors, turned with singular celerity by the dormitory porters, was one of the peculiarities of the school. In these alcoves we were sometimes shut up for months on end. The scholars thus caged fell under the stern eye of the Prefect, who came regularly, and even irregularly, to see whether we were talking instead of working at our tasks. But nutshells on the stairs or the fineness of our hearing nearly always warned us of his arrival, so that we were able to indulge safely in our favourite studies.”
One of the confinements was inflicted on Honore for his faulty Latin and impertinence. “Caius Gracchus was a noble heart,” he translated with a free paraphrase of vir nobilis. “What would Madame de Stael say, if she happened to learn you had thus misconstrued the sense?” asked the master. (Madame de Stael was supposed to be Louis Lambert’s patroness.) “She would say you are a stupid,” muttered Honore. “Mister poet, you will go to prison for a week,” retorted the master, who had overheard the comment.
Among the long walks enjoyed by the pupils on Thursdays, when there were no lessons, was one to the famous castle of Rochambeau. In 1812, Balzac paid his first and impatiently anticipated visit to this spot. “When we arrived on the hill,” he says, “whence the castle was visible, perched on its flank, and the winding valley with the glittering river threading its way through a meadow artistically laid out by Nature, Louis Lambert said to me: ‘Why, I saw this last night in a dream.’ He recognized the clump of trees under which we were, the arrangement of the foliage, the colour of the water, the turrets of the castle, in fine, all the details of the place. . . . I relate this event,” he continues, “first because each man can find in his existence some phenomenon of sleeping or waking analogous to it; and next, because it is true and gives an idea of Lambert’s prodigious intelligence. In fact, he deduced from the occurrence an entire system, possessing himself, like Cuvier, in another order of things, of a fragment of life to reconstruct a whole creation.” And Lambert is made to develop a theory of the astral body and astral locomotion. The younger self announces also: “I shall be celebrated — an alchemist of thought.”
With such notions in his head at this early age, it was not surprising he should have begun, while in his tender teens, a metaphysical composition entitled Treatise of the Will. After working for six months on it, a day of misfortune arrived. The pieces of paper on which it had been written were hidden away from all eyes in a locked box, which gradually assumed the weird attraction of a Blue Beard’s secret chamber to his mocking class-companions, so that at length their inquisitiveness drove them to essay capturing the said box by violence. Amidst the noise caused by the child-author’s desperate defence of his treasure, Father Hagoult suddenly appeared; and, being apprized of what was inside the box, insisted on its being opened. The papers were at once confiscated, and were never given back. Their loss caused the boy a serious shock, which, combining with debility of longer standing, brought on a malady that necessitated his leaving the school. The Principal himself advised the removal. In 1813, between Easter and prize distribution, he wrote to Madame Balzac asking her to come immediately and fetch her son away. The lad, he explained, was prostrated by a kind of coma, which alarmed his teachers all the more as they were at a loss to account for it. To them Honore was simply an idler. It did not occur to them that his condition was owing to cerebral fatigue. Thin and sickly-looking at present, he had the air of a somnambulist, asleep with his eyes open, oblivious of the questions put to him, and unable to answer when asked: “What are you thinking of? Where are you?” His return home produced a painful impression. “So this is how the college authorities remit to us the nice children we entrust to them,” exclaimed his grandmother. And it must be confessed that the good Fathers, engrossed by the training of their charges’ souls, paid but little attention to the bodies.
In the rooms where the pupils worked, the exhalations by which the air was constantly vitiated mingled with the smells left by the debris of lunches and teas and by other accumulated dirt. There were also cupboards and closets where each pupil used to keep his private booty — pigeons killed on fete days or dishes pilfered from the refectory. Swept only once a day, the place was always filthy, and was further rendered disagreeable by odours coming from the wash-house, dressing-room, pantries, etc. All this with the mud brought in from the outside playgrounds made the atmosphere insupportable. Moreover, the pupils’ petty ailments and pains were almost entirely unheeded. In winter chaps and chilblains were Honore’s unceasing lot. His woman’s complexion, and especially the skin of his ears and lips, cracked under the least cold; his soft white hands reddened and swelled. Constant colds harassed him; and, until he was inured to the Vendome regimen, pain was his daily portion.
A lively recollection of what he went through in these school-days persisted during his maturer years. Writing in 1844 to Monsieur Fontemoing, one of his few boy-companions that he maintained relations with, he said: “When David is ready to inaugurate his statue of Jean Bart in Dieppe, I shall perhaps be there to enjoy the spectacle; and then we will spend one or two days recalling to mind the cages, wooden breeches and other Vendomoiseries.”
His memory was probably less faithful in 1832, when striving to reproduce the tenour of the lost Treatise of the Will. At thirteen he could scarcely have had such definite notions of intuition and other operations of the mind; and there must be a fairly long antedating of reflection in attributing to Louis Lambert, even with the latter’s two years seniority, thoughts like the following:—
“Often amid calm and silence, when our inner faculties are lulled and we indulge in sweet repose, and darkness hovers round us, and we fall into a contemplation of other things, straight an idea darts forth, flashes through the infinite space created by our brain, and then, like a will-o’-the-wisp, vanishes never to return — an ephemeral apparition like that of such children as yield boundless joy and grief to bereaved parents; a species of still-born flower in the fields of thought. At times also the idea, instead of forcibly gushing and dying without consistence, dawns and poises in the fathomless limbo of the organs that give it birth; it tires us by its long parturition; then it develops and grows, is fertile, rich, and productive in the visible grace of youth and with all the qualities of longevity; it sustains the most inquiring glances, invites them, and never wearies them. Now and again ideas are generated in swarms, one evolves another; they interlace and entice, they abound and are dalliant; now and again, they arise pale and looming, and perish through want of strength or nourishment — the quickening substance is insufficient. And, last of all, on certain days they plunge into the abysses, lighting up their depths; they terrify us, and leave us in a soul despair. Our ideas have their complete system; they are a kingdom of nature, a sort of efflorescence of which a madman perhaps might give an iconography. Yes, all attests the existence of these delightful creations I may compare to flowers. Indeed, their production is no more surprising than that of perfumes and colour in the plant.”
Still, without being a Pascal, Balzac in the first half of his teens, was evidently not an ordinary child. There was a ferment of thought, as he said, reacting on itself and seeking to surprise the secrets of its own being. Fostered by the moral isolation in which he lived during these six years, his self-analysis grew unwholesome, there being little or nothing on the physical side to counterbalance it. Fortunately, the return to saner surroundings occurred before the evil was irremediable. Running wild for a few months in the open air, he recovered his natural vivacity and cheerfulness. Every day he went for a long ramble through one or another of the landscapes of Touraine, and on his way home enjoyed the magnificent sunsets lighting up the steeples of his native town and glinting on the river covered with craft, both large and small. To check his reveries, Madame Balzac forced him to amuse his two sisters Laure and Laurence and to fly the kite of his little brother Henry,2 who had been born while he was at Vendome.
2 The name is spelt in the English way.
On Sundays and fete days he regularly accompanied his mother to the Cathedral of saint-Gatien, where he must have been an observant spectator if not consistently a devout listener. He prayed by fits and starts; and in the intervals studied closely and with an eye for effect the appearance of priestly persons and functions, with altar and stained-glass window in the background, and gathered materials for his Abbes Birotteau, Bonnet, and others. The period was one of compensation and adjustment. What he had been striving to assimilate had now the leisure to arrange itself in his brain, which was no longer overheated.
As soon as his health was considered sufficiently strong, he began attending classes at the institution of a Monsieur Chretien, and supplemented them by private lessons received at home. His conviction that he would become a famous man was as strong as ever, and his naïve assertion of it was frequent enough to provoke great teasing in the domestic circle. Far from being irritated, he laughed with those that laughed at him, his sisters saying: “Hail to the great Balzac!” On the part of his elders the bantering was intended to damp his exalted notions, which they regarded as ill-founded, judging him, as his Vendome professors, by the smallness of his Latin and Greek. His mother in particular had no faith in his prophecies nor yet in his occasional utterances of deeper things than his years warranted: “You certainly don’t know what you are talking about,” was her habitual snub. And, when Honore, not daring to argue further, took refuge in his sly, not to say supercilious, smile, she taxed him with overweeningness — an accusation that had some truth in it. She might well be excused for her scepticism, for the youth had also large ignorance in some of the commoner things of life, and, moreover, allowed himself to be taken in easily. Laure seems to have traded a good deal on his credulity for the sake of fun. One day she gave him a so-called cactus seedling, supposed to have come from the land of Judaea. Honore preserved it preciously in a pot for a fortnight, only to discover at length that this plant was a vulgar pumpkin.
At the end of 1814, Monsieur Balzac came to reside in Paris, being placed at the head of the Commissariat of the First Military Division; and Honore’s education was continued in the capital, for a while at the establishment of a Monsieur Lepitre, Rue Saint-Louis, and then at another kept by Messieurs Sganzer and Beuzelin, Rue de Thorigny, both being situated in the Marais Quarter, near his father’s house. So far as the subjects of the curriculum were concerned, he was still a mediocre pupil. However, literature began to attract his attention and efforts, and one composition of his for an examination — the speech of Brutus’s wife after the condemnation of her sons — treasured up by his sister Laure, is mentioned by her as exhibiting some of the energy and realistic presentment in which he was ultimately to excel.
When he was seventeen, his father, seeing that there was no chance of his getting into the Ecole Polytechnique, decided to put him into the legal profession; and, for the purpose of preliminary training, induced a solicitor friend, Guillonnet de Merville,3 to take him into his office in the place of a clerk — no other than Eugene Scribe, the future dramatist — who had just quitted law for literature. During the eighteen months passed here, Balzac went to lectures at the Sorbonne University, and was coached by private tutors. Among the College professors he heard were Villemain, Guizot, and Cousin. These great teachers converted his passion for reading into more serious habits of study; and, in order to profit more by their lessons, he often spent his leisure hours in the libraries of the city and sought out old books of value in the cases of the dealers along the Quays.
3 An Episode under the Terror was dedicated to him.
The pocket-money required for such purchases was principally supplied by his grandmother, who permitted him to win from her at whist or boston in the evenings he remained at home. A friend of his grandmother’s that lived in a neighbouring flat was likewise very kind to him. She was an old maiden lady who had been acquainted with Beaumarchais, and delighted to chat with her protege about the author of the Mariage de Figaro. Though now a young man, Honore was not tall; five feet two was his exact height. Retaining his childish love of laughter and fun of every kind, he showed at present greater facility in learning, with a faculty of memory that was prodigious. Having to go with his sisters to balls, he took lessons in dancing; but, happening to meet with an unlucky fall, and resenting the smiles and giggling his accident called forth among the girls, he renounced attempts at tripping on the light, fantastic toe, and devoted subsequent visits to the task of jotting down notes.
A second period of eighteen months in the office of a notary, Maitre Passez, completed his law apprenticeship. In the first pages of Colonel Chabert the novelist gives us a sketch of the interior where he acquired his knowledge of chicane. Our nostrils are familiarized with its stove-heated atmosphere, our eyes with the yellow-billed walls, the dirty floor, the greasy furniture, the bundles of papers, the chimney-piece covered with bottles and glasses and bits of bread and cheese; and our ears are assailed by the quips and jokes and puns of the clerks and office-boys who were his companions for a time. He lingers over his reminiscences, which, though pleasant from their connection with his lost youth, had none the less to do with men and things that settled the foundation of his maturer pessimism. An article of his in 1839, entitled the Notary, says:—
“After five years passed in a notary’s office, it is hard for a young man to conserve his candour. He has seen the hideous origins of all fortunes, the disputes of heirs over corpses not yet cold, the human heart in conflict with the Code. . . . A lawyer’s office is a confessional where the various passions come to empty out their bag of bad ideas and to consult about their cases of conscience while seeking means of execution.”
While we have no conclusive evidence on the point, it is yet probable that, at least for a while, Balzac had, during these years of legal training, serious thoughts of adopting law as his career. Otherwise he would scarcely have troubled to gain such an extensive acquaintance with everything appertaining to its theory and practice — knowledge which he afterwards utilized in several of his books, notably in Cesar Birotteau and the Marriage Contract. However, in 1819, he had definitely made up his mind to follow Scribe’s example. At this date his father informed him that an opportunity offered itself for him to become a junior partner in a solicitor’s practice, which might be ultimately purchased with money advanced him and the dowry that an advantageous marriage would bring. When the newly-fledged Bachelor of Laws declared that it was impossible for him to accept the proposal, and that he had determined to become a man of letters, trusting to his pen for a living, the elder Balzac’s astonishment was unbounded. If any echoes of his son’s recent cogitations and conversations on the subject had come to the father’s ears, they had been deemed so much empty talk; and the friends who were consulted in the dilemma had nothing more encouraging to say. One of them pronounced that Honore was worth nothing better than to make a scrivener of or a clerk in some Government department. The poor fellow had a good handwriting — this, indeed, deteriorated later. Through his parents’ influence, it was thought he might ultimately attain a moderate competency. Perhaps Laure, the favourite sister and early confidante of the novelist, may have used persuasion at this juncture with her father and mother. At any rate, as the issue of a great deal of lively discussion, the parents agreed to let Honore make a two years’ experiment as a free lance in the ranks of the book-writing tribe. By the end of that time, they no doubt imagined he would be glad enough to re-enact the parable of the prodigal son and start in some safer trade.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05