It happened that Honore’s enlistment in the army of litterateurs coincided with considerable changes in his parents’ circumstances. His father had just been retired on a pension and had recently lost money in two investments. As there were a couple of daughters to be provided for, the family, for the sake of economy, quitted Paris and went to live at Villeparisis, six leagues distant from the capital, where a modest country-house had been bought. Honore, by dint of insistence, obtained permission to remain in Paris, where he would be freer to work and could more easily get into relations with publishers; and a meagrely furnished attic-study was rented for him at No. 9 Rue Lesdiguieres, a street near the Arsenal, still bearing the same name. A small monthly allowance was made him, just enough to keep him from starving; and an old woman, Mother Comin — the Iris-messenger, he facetiously called her — who had been in the family’s service and was staying on in the city, undertook to pay him occasional visits and to report should he be in difficulties.
The novelty of his semi-independence caused him at first to look with cheerful eye on his narrow surroundings. To his sister he wrote in April 1819:—
“Here are some details about my way of living. I have taken a servant.
“A servant! What can you be thinking of!
“Yes; a servant. His name is as funny as that of Dr. Nacquart’s domestic. The Doctor’s is Tranquil; mine is Myself. He is a bad acquisition! . . . Myself is idle, clumsy, and improvident. When his master is hungry and thirsty, he has sometimes neither bread nor water to give him; he does not know how to protect himself against the wind, which blows through the door and window like Tulou through his flute, but less agreeably. As soon as I am awake, I ring for Myself, and he makes my bed. He sets to sweeping, and is not very deft in the exercise.
“Just look at the cobweb where that big fly is buzzing loud enough to deafen me, and at those bits of fluff under the bed, and at that dust on the windows blinding me.
“Why, sir, I don’t see anything.
“Tut, tut! hold your tongue, impudence!
“And he does, singing while he sweeps and sweeping while he sings, laughs in talking and talks in laughing. He has arranged my linen in the cupboard by the chimney, after papering the receptacle white; and, with a three-penny blue paper and bordering, he has made a screen. The room he has painted from the book-case to the fireplace. On the whole, he is a good fellow.”
In the introduction to Facino Cane, which Balzac wrote some fifteen years later, there is a return of memory to this sojourn in the Lesdiguieres garret. “I lived frugally,” he says; “I had accepted all the conditions of monastic life, so needful to the worker. When it was fine, the utmost I did was to go for a stroll on the Boulevard Bourdon. One hobby alone enticed me from my studious habits, and even that was study. I used to observe the manners of the Faubourg, its inhabitants, and their characters. Dressed as plainly as the workmen, indifferent to decorum, I aroused no mistrust, and could mix with them and watch their bargaining and quarrelling with each other as they went home from their toil. My faculty of observation had become intuitive; it penetrated the soul without neglecting the body, or rather it so well grasped exterior details that at once it pierced beyond. It gave me the power of living the life of the individual in whom it was exercised, enabling me to put myself in his skin, just at the dervish of the Arabian Nights entered the body and soul of those over whom he pronounced certain words.”
The would-be man of letters pushed his hobby even to dogging people to their homes, and to registering in note-book or brain their conversations — records of joys, sorrows, and interests.
“I could realize their existence,” he affirms; “I felt their rags on my back. I walked with my feet in their worn-out shoes; it was the dreaming of a man awake. . . . To quit my own habits and become another by the intoxication of my moral faculties at will, such was my diversion. To what do I owe this gift? Is it second sight? Is it one of those possessions of the mind that lead to madness? I have never sought out the causes of this gift. I have it and use it — that is all I can say.”
Honore’s ‘prentice attempts at producing a masterpiece oscillated between the novel and the drama. Two stories, entitled respectively Coquecigrue (an imaginary animal) and Stella, were abandoned before they were begun. A comic opera had the same fate. The Two Philosophers, a farce in which a couple of sham sages mocked at the world and quarrelled with each other, while secretly coveting the good things they affected to despise, appears to have been worked at, but uselessly. Next a tragedy, tackled with greater resolution, was composed and entirely finished. Curiously, the subject of it, Cromwell, was the same as that chosen by Victor Hugo, a few years later, to achieve the overthrow of classicism and the substitution of Romanticism in its stead.
The drama was written in verse, a form of literary composition foreign to Balzac’s talent. Even during the months he laboured at his task, he confessed to Laure, ‘midst his sallies of joking, that what he was writing teemed with defective lines. He polished and repolished, however, hoping to overcome these drawbacks, upheld by his invincible self-confidence. The piece, as sketched out in his correspondence, made large alterations in English history. Its interest hinged chiefly on the dilemma created in Cromwell’s mind by his two sons falling into the hands of a small Royalist force, and by Charles’s ordering them to be given up without conditions to their father, although the King was a prisoner. Posed in the third act, the dilemma was solved in the fourth by Cromwell’s decision to condemn the King, notwithstanding his generosity. At the close of the play, the Queen escaped from England, crying aloud for vengeance, which she intended to seek in all quarters. France would combat the English, would defeat and crush them in the end.
“I mean my tragedy to be the breviary of peoples and kings,” he proudly informed his sister. “It is impossible for you not to find the plan superb. How the interest grows from scene to scene! The incident of Cromwell’s sons is most happily invented. Charles’s magnanimity in restoring to Cromwell his sons is finer than that of Augustus pardoning Cinna.” In blowing his own trumpet Balzac was early an adept.
To stimulate his imagination and reflection, he transferred his daily walk from the Jardin des Plantes to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. “There I make,” he explained, “studies of grief useful for my Cromwell. Real grief is so hard to depict; it requires so much simplicity.” His garret had still its charm. “The time I spend in it will be sweet to look back upon,” he said. “To live as I like, to work in my own way, to go to sleep conjuring up the future, which I imagine beautiful, to have Rousseau’s Julie as a sweetheart, La Fontaine and Moliere as friends, Racine as a master, and Pere Lachaise as a promenade ground! Ah! if it could only last for ever!” His dreaming led him on to wider anticipations even than those of literary glory. “If I am to be a grand fellow (which, it’s true, we don’t yet know), I may add to my fame as a great author that of being a great citizen. This is a tempting ambition also.”
At the end of April 1820, he went to Villeparisis with his completed tragedy. Counting on a triumph, he had requested that some acquaintances should be invited to the house to hear it read aloud. Among those present was the gentleman who had advised his turning clerk in the Civil Service. The reading commenced, and, as it progressed, the youthful author noticed that his audience first showed signs of being bored, then of being bewildered, and lastly of being frankly dissatisfied and hostile. Laure was dumbfounded. The candid gentleman broke out into uncompromising, scathing condemnation; and those who were most indulgent were obliged to pronounce that the famous tragedy was a failure. Honore defended his production with energy; and, to settle the dispute, his father proposed it should be submitted to an old professor of the Ecole Polytechnique, whom he knew, and who should act as umpire. This course was adopted; and the Professor, after careful examination of the manuscript, opined that Honore would act wisely in preferring any other career to literature.
The verdict was received with more calmness than might have been expected. Instead of twisting his own neck, as he had hinted he might, if unsuccessful, the young author quietly remarked that tragedies were not his forte and that he intended to devote himself to novels.
As the price of their assent to his continuance in writing, Honore’s parents stipulated that he should quit his garret and come home. The return was all the more advisable as Laure was about to be married to a Monsieur Surville, who was a civil engineer, and a gap was thus created in the home circle, which his presence could prevent from being so much felt.4 His health besides had suffered during his fifteen months of self-imposed privations. In after-life he complained much to some of his friends — Auguste Fessart and Madame Hanska amongst others — of his parents’ or rather his mother’s hardness to him while he was in the Lesdiguieres Street lodgings, and asserted that, if more liberality had then been displayed, most of his subsequent misfortunes would have been avoided. This is by no means certain. His troubles and burdens would seem to have been caused far more by mistakes of judgment and improvidence than by any stress of circumstance.
4 Laurence, the younger sister, was married in 1821, twelve months after her sister. Her husband was Monsieur de Montzaigle. She died before the close of the decade.
For the next five years he remained with his father and mother, excepting the occasional visits paid to Touraine, L’Isle-Adam, or Bayeux, at which last place his sister Laure was settled for a while. In a letter to her there he banteringly spoke of his desire to enter the matrimonial state: “Look me out some widow who is a rich heiress,” he said; “you know what I require. Praise me up to her — twenty-two years of age, amiable, polite, with eyes of life and fire, the best husband Heaven has ever made. I will give you fifty per cent on the dowry and pin-money.” He alluded to his mother’s worrying disposition and susceptibility: “We are oddities, forsooth, in our blessed family. What a pity I cannot put us into novels.” This he was to do later.
Beforehand there was his Romantic cycle to be run through, in more than forty volumes, if Laure’s statement could be believed. What she meant no doubt was sections of volumes or else tales; and even the composition of forty tales in five years would be a considerable performance. True, there were partnerships with Le Poitevin de l’Egreville,5 Horace Raisson, Etienne Arago. And the material turned out was of the coarsest kind, generally second-hand, a hash-up of stories already published, imitations of Monk Lewis, Maturin, Mrs. Radcliffe, and French writers of the same school, with a little shuffling of characters and incidents. The preface to the novel that opened the series — The Heiress of Birague — speaks of an old trunk bequeathed by an uncle and filled with manuscripts, which the author had merely to edit. And the apology had more truth in it than he meant it to convey.
5 Son of Le Poitevin Saint-Alme.
Balzac was quite aware of the small merit of this hack-work. To Laure he confessed: “My novel is finished. I will send it to you on condition of your not lending it or boasting of it as a masterpiece.” He could appreciate better achievement, and spoke of Kenilworth as the finest thing in the world. His excuse was that he had no time to reflect upon what he wrote. He must write every day to gain the independence that he sought; and had none but this ignoble way, as he said, of securing it.
Moreover, there was still the dreaded possibility of his having to embrace another profession than literature. The notary was dead and the business had been taken over by some one else, so that this danger no longer threatened him; but the candid friend was inquiring about a second sinecure. “What a terrible man!” exclaimed Honore.
He indulged in a fit of premature discouragement, seeking for some one or something to cast a little brightness over what he deemed his dull existence. “I have none of the flowers of life,” he lamented; “and yet I am in the season when they bloom! What is the good of fortune and joys when youth is past? Of what use the actor’s garments if one does not play the role? The old man is one who has dined and looks at others eating. I am young and my plate is empty, and I am hungry, Laure. Will ever my two only, immense desires — to be celebrated and to be loved — be satisfied?” They were, but at a cost that was dearly paid.
However great Balzac’s potential genius, it was too little developed, too little exercised at this period for him to produce anything of real, permanent worth. The fiction in which he was destined to excel, the only fiction he was peculiarly fitted to write, demanded maturity of experience that he could hardly acquire before another decade had passed over his head. Yet the stories he reeled off had a certain market value. The Heiress of Birague was sold for eight hundred francs, Jean-Louis, or the Foundling Girl, for thirteen hundred; and a higher price still was obtained (whether the money was actually received is uncertain) for the Handsome Jew, afterwards republished under a fresh title, The Israelite.
Contemporary critics declined to acknowledge that, in these books and their congeners,6 there were some traces of a master-hand. To-day the traces are perceptible, because criticism has a better opportunity of discovering them. Here and there, and especially in Argow, the Pirate, is to be noticed a beginning of the realism that was afterwards the novelist’s excellence. The theme, that of a brigand purified by love, is, as Monsieur le Breton remarks in his study of Balzac, a romantic one in the manner of Byron, and has things in common with Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian, Victor Hugo’s Bug-Jargal, and Pixerecourt’s Belveder. There is an atmosphere of imagination in it, the action is quick, and the characters are strongly though distortedly drawn. Moreover, a breath of healthy sentiment runs through the story, which is not always the case in the later and more celebrated novels. Balzac must have learnt much and acquired much that was useful to him during this puddling of his ore in the furnace of his early efforts; and, if in his maturer age he retained certain defects of the Romantic school, it was because a lurking sympathy with them in his nature prevented his shaking himself free of them, when he reformed his manner.
6 Other youthful productions were The Centenarian, The Last Fairy, Don Gigadas, The Excommunicated Man, Wann-Chlore, or Jane the Pale, The Curate of the Ardennes, and Argow, the Pirate.
The style of his letters at this same period was admirable, sparkling with wit and with a humour that unfortunately grew rarer, bitterer, and even coarser often, in his later career. Some of his rapidly sketched pictures were incidents of home life. This one represents his mother’s fidgety disposition:—
“Louise, give me a glass of water.”
“Ah, my poor Louise, I’m in a bad way; I am indeed!”
“It’s worse than other years.”
“Lud! . . . Ma’am!”
“My head is splitting. . . . . Oh, Louise! The shutters are slamming; it’s enough to break all the panes in the drawing-room.”
Already, with the faculty of exaggeration which characterised him all his life, he anticipated gaining within the next twelvemonth no less than twenty thousand francs; forgetting the small result of his Cromwell, he spoke of having a lot of theatrical pieces in hand, plus an historical novel, Odette de Champdivers, and another dealing with the fortunes of the R’hoone family. R’hoone was an anagram of his own name Honore. Lord R’hoone was one of his pseudonyms. And “Lord R’hoone,” he told Laure, “will soon be the rage, the most amiable, fertile author; and ladies will regard him as the apple of their eye. Then the little Honore will arrive in a coach with head held up, proud look, and fob well garnished. At his approach, amidst flattering murmurs from the admiring crowd, people will say: ‘He is Madame Surville’s brother.’ Then men, women, and children, and unborn babes will leap as the hills. . . . And I shall be the ladies’ man, in view of which event I am saving up my money. Since yesterday I have given up dowagers, and intend to fall back on thirty-year-old widows. Send all you can find to Lord R’hoone, Paris. This address will suffice. He is known at the city gates. N.B. — Send them, carriage paid, free of cracks and soldering. Let them be rich and amiable; as for beauty, it is not a sine qua non. Varnish wears off, but the underneath earthenware remains.”
Through all these displays of fireworks one fact stands out, that Balzac was in too great a hurry to reap fame and wealth — wealth especially. It was his hurry that inspired his constant complaint: “Ah! if only I had enough bread and cheese, I would soon make my mark and write books to last.” This was not altogether true nor just to his parents. He had his bread and cheese and a home to eat it in, which authors have not always enjoyed who have gained immortality by their unaided pen. Although his family were anxious to see him independent, they did not oblige him to depend upon what he earned. Nothing at the moment prevented him from striving to produce something of good quality and spending the time necessary over it. He saw the better, but followed the worse.
“My ideas,” he wrote to Laure, “are changing so much that my execution will soon change also. . . . In a short time there will be the same difference between the me of to-day and the me of to-morrow as exists between the young man of twenty and the man of thirty! I am reflecting; my ideas are ripening. I recognize that Nature has treated me favourably in giving me my heart and my head. Believe in me, dear sister, for I need some one to believe in me. I do not despair of doing something one day. I see at present that Cromwell had not even the merit of being an embryon. As for my novels, they are not up to much.”
How could they be when he supplied them, so to speak, machine-made! “Citizen Pollet” button-holed him in August 1822 and induced him to sign an agreement binding him to deliver a couple of these stories by the 1st of October. Six hundred francs were paid cash down, and the rest in deferred bills. The second of the couple was the Curate of the Ardennes, which Laure helped him to write.
It surprises at first sight to read that the demand for this cheap fiction was so great in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The explanation is that, during the last years of the Empire, the article had scarcely been in the market at all, so that, in the Restoration period, which was one of peace and leisure, there was quite a rush for it. On the whole, Balzac did not manage to hit the public fancy with his work in this line. The further he went with it the less he liked it, and such bits of better stuff as he introduced in lieu of the blood and mystery rather lessened than increased the saleableness of his books. For the printing of the Last Fairy he had to pay, himself; and he was obliged to own, after five years’ catering for popular taste, he was no nearer emerging from obscurity than he had been at the commencement. It was discouraging and humiliating; he had started with such confidence and boasting. Now those who had spoken against his literary vocation seemed to be justified, and those who had been most inclined to believe in him were sceptical.
However, there was still one woman who kept her faith in his capacity for soaring above the common pitch. She it was who, understanding him better than his own family, became a second mother to him. Attracted by him, in spite of his weaknesses of conceit, loudness, and vulgarity, she polished his behaviour, guided his perceptions, corrected his pretentiousness, influencing him through the sincerity and strength of her affection.
Twenty-two years his senior, she was the daughter of a German harpist named Henner, in favour at the Court of Louis XVI., whom Marie-Antoinette had married to Mademoiselle Quelpee-Laborde, one of her own ladies-in-waiting. Both King and Queen stood as god-parents to the Henners’ little girl, who, when grown up, was married to a Monsieur de Berny, of ancient, noble lineage, and bore him nine children. The date at which Balzac made her acquaintance has been variously stated. Basing themselves upon his Love-story at School, some writers have supposed he knew her when he was a boy, but there is no evidence to confirm this hypothesis. The first definite mention of her and her family occurs in a gossipy letter he wrote to Laure in 1822 from Villeparisis, where the de Berny family were settled: “I may tell you,” he says, “that Mademoiselle de B. has narrowly escaped being broken into three pieces in a fall; that Mademoiselle E. is not so stupid as we imagined; that she has a talent for serious painting and even for caricature; that she is a musician to the tips of her toes; that Monsieur C. continues to swear; that Madame de B(erny) has become a bran, wheat, and fodder merchant, perceiving after forty years’ reflection that money is everything.”
At this date, the relationship between him and Madame de Berny was one of ordinary friendship, yet with indications of warmer feelings on either side that his parents noticed and disapproved. With a view to discouraging the intimacy, they induced him to pay visits that took him from home for some time; but the object they aimed at was not attained. The intimacy ripened. Madame de Berny was his only confidante. His few male friends were too old or too young for his unbosomings. There was the Abbe de Villers whom he stayed with at Nogent, and there was Theodore Dablin, the retired ironmonger, whom he used to call his “cher petit pere.” Besides these two elders, there was the young de Berny, who was considerably his junior. But to none of them could he talk unreservedly of his ambitions literary and political. For a man between twenty and thirty years of age, whose mind is seething with evolving thought, there is no more sympathetic and appreciative adviser than a woman some years his senior. Madame de Berny listened to his expression of Imperialistic opinions tinged with Liberalism, as she listened to his confession of hopes and disappointments; and, in turn, talked with persuasive accents of those pre-Revolution days which she had known as a child. She was able also to draw the curtain aside and show him something of the history of the revolution itself and of the Terror, during which she and her parents’ family had been imprisoned. It was his first mingling with the grandeurs that were his delight. Through her narration, he was able to enter the old Court society and watch the intrigues of the personages who had been famous in it. Madame de Berny’s mother was still living, and added her own reminiscences to those of her daughter. Later, by their agency he was introduced to some of the aristocratic partisans of the fallen dynasty — the Duke de Fitz-James and the Duchess de Castries. Under Madame de Berny’s education, his Imperialism was transformed into Legitimism.
How a matron of her age should have allowed the friendship of the commencement to develop into a liaison is one of those problems of sexual psychology easier to describe in Balzac’s own language than to explain rationally. We know that she was not happy with her husband, and can surmise that she entered upon the role she played without clearly foreseeing its dangers. No doubt, her desire to form this genius in the rough carried her away from her moorings, which, indeed, had never been very strong, since she had already once before in her married life had a lover. Besides there was her temperament, sensual and sentimental; and with it the tradition of the eighteenth-century morals, indulgent to illicit amours.
Most likely, the second phase of her relations with Balzac coincided with his temporary abandonment of authorship for business. It was in 1825 that he resolved to embark on publishing,7 partly urged by the mute reproaches of his parents and partly allured by the prospect of rapidly growing rich. He had likewise some intention of bringing out his own books, both those previously written and those in preparation. Of these latter there were a goodly number sketched out in a sort of note-book or album, which his sister Laure called his garde-manger or pantry. It was full of jottings anent people, places, and things that he had come across in the preceding lustrum.
7 The initiator of this project was not Balzac, although his early biographers, Madame Surville included, gave him the credit for it.
The idea of taking up business was mooted to him first by a Monsieur d’Assonvillez, an acquaintance of Madame de Berny, whom he used to see and talk with when staying, as he occasionally did, at the small apartment rented by his father in Paris. Just then Urbain Canel, the celebrated publisher of Romantic books, was thinking of putting on the market compact editions of the old French classics, beginning with Moliere and La Fontaine; and Balzac, either already knowing him or being introduced to him by a mutual friend, was admitted to join in the undertaking. The money necessary for the partnership was lent to him by Monsieur d’Assonvillez, who, as a sharp business man, imposed conditions on the loan which secured him from loss in case of failure. The editions were to be library ones, illustrated by the artist Deveria (who about this time painted Balzac’s portrait), and were to be published in parts. The price was high, twenty francs for each work; and additional drawbacks were the smallness of the type and the poorness of the engravings. No success attended the experiment; at the end of a twelvemonth not a score of copies had been sold. By common consent the firm, which had been increased to four partners, broke up their association, and Balzac was left sole proprietor of the concern, the assets of which consisted of a large quantity of wastepaper, and the liabilities amounted to a respectable number of thousand francs.
Madame Surville attributes the fiasco to the professional jealousy of competitors, who discouraged the public from buying; but the cause of the discomfiture lay rather in the faulty manner in which the partners carried out their plan. Monsieur d’Assonvillez being still an interested adviser, Balzac now submitted to him a project for retrieving his losses by adding a printing to his publishing business. The stock and goodwill of a printer were to be bought, and a working type-setter, named Barbier, was to be associated as a second principal in the affair, on account of his practical experience. The project was approved, and the elder Balzac was persuaded to come forward with a capital of about thirty thousand francs, this sum being required to pay out the retiring printer, Monsieur Laurens, and obtain the new firm’s patent. Madame de Berny had already lent Honore money to help him in the publishing scheme. At present, she induced her husband to intervene with the Government so that the printing licence might be granted without delay.
The printing premises were situated at No. 17, Rue des Marais, Faubourg Saint-Germain, to-day Rue Visconti, near the Quai Malaquais. The street, which is a narrow one, subsists nearly the same as it was a century ago. Older associations, indeed, are attached to it. At No. 19 died Jean Racine in 1699, and Adrienne Lecouvreur in 1730. No. 17 was a new construction when Balzac went to it, having probably been built on the site where Nicolas Vauquelin des Yveteaux used to receive the far-famed Ninon in his gardens. On the impost, where formerly appeared the names Balzac and Barbier, now may be read “A. Herment, successeur de Garnier.” The place is still devoted to like uses.
In the Lost Illusions, whose part-sequel David Sechard reproduces Balzac’s life as a printer, there is a description of the ground floor: “a huge room, lighted on the street-side by an old stained-glass window and on the inner yard-side by a casement.” The passage in Gothic style led to the office; and on the floor above were the living rooms, one of which was hung with blue calico, was furnished with taste, and was adorned with the owner’s first novels, bound by Thouvenin. In this “den,” during the two years that he was engaged in the printing trade, were received the daily visits of her he called his Dilecta.
She could not give him the practical business qualities in which he was utterly lacking and for which his wonderful intuitions of commercial possibilities were no compensation; but she could smile at his enthusiasms and sympathize with his disappointments, which had their see-saw pretty regularly in the interval from the 1st of June 1826 to the 3rd of February 1828. A very fair trade was done; and, in fact, some of the books he printed were important: Villemain’s Miscellanies, Merimee’s Jacquerie, Madame Roland’s Memoirs, not to speak of his own small Critical and Anecdotal Dictionary of Paris Signboards, published under a pseudonym, or rather anonymously, since it was signed Le Batteur de Pave, the “Man in the Street.” But the senior partner, he who should have financed the concern with all the more wariness as d’Assonvillez, the principal supplier of capital, had a mortgage upon the whole estate, allowed himself to be paid for his printing, more often than not, in bills for which no provision was forthcoming and in securities that were rotten. One debt of twenty-eight thousand francs was settled by the transfer of a lot of old unsaleable literature, which would have been dear at a halfpenny a volume. And then, when everything was in confusion — debtors recalcitrant and creditors pressing — what must he do but launch on another venture, buy the bankrupt stock of a type-founder, and start manufacturing. A fresh partner, Laurent, was admitted into the firm in December 1827, with a view to his exploiting the presumably auxiliary branch; and a prospectus was issued vaunting a process of type-founding, which Balzac was wrongly credited with having invented. Within two months after this spurt, and while a fine album was in preparation, which was to illustrate the firm’s improved method, Barbier withdrew from the partnership. His desertion would have at once spelt disaster, if Madame de Berny had not boldly stepped into the vacant place, with a power of attorney conferred on her by her husband, and pledged her credit for nine thousand francs. During three months longer, the tottering house continued to hold up; and then, under the avalanche of writs and claims, it fell. A petition in bankruptcy was filed in April, and the estate was placed in the hands of an official receiver.
On reaching this crisis so big with consequences, Balzac had recourse to his mother, who, though little disposed in the past to humour his bent, consented now to every sacrifice in order to save his credit. Her first step was to get her cousin Monsieur Sedillot to occupy himself with the liquidation, she authorizing him at the same time to make whatever arrangement he should judge best, and promising to accept it. She was most anxious to spare her husband, at present eighty-three years of age, the grief he must feel if informed of the full extent of the disaster. Alas! notwithstanding her precautions, the old man did learn the truth; and the shock hastened his end. Within twelve months after the bankruptcy he met with a slight accident, which, acting on his enfeebled constitution, was fatal to him.
Balzac’s liabilities, at the moment of the failure, were one hundred and thirteen thousand francs. The effect of the liquidation was to reduce the number of creditors, so that his indebtedness was restricted to members of his own family and to Madame de Berny. The latter’s claims were partly met by her son’s taking over the business with Laurent, the other partner. Being thus reconstituted, the firm subsequently prospered. To-day it still carries on its affairs under the control of a Monsieur Charles Tuleu, who succeeded Monsieur de Berny. Madame Surville would have us believe that, if her parents had only supported Honore more unreservedly at the commencement, he could have realized a fortune; but all the facts of her brother’s life go to prove the contrary.
Referring, a decade later, to these dark days, which loaded him with a burden of debt that he never shook off but increased by his natural inability to balance receipts and expenditure, he spoke of Madame de Berny’s kindness, and declared that he had repaid the Dilecta in 1836 the last six thousand francs he owed her, together with their five per cent interest. As on many other occasions, Balzac imagined something which had not been done, though he apparently believed what he asserted. The following anecdote re-establishes the facts of the case.
Monsieur Arthur Rhone, a friend of the de Berny family, who used to visit the son Alexander in the office of the Rue des Marais, often admired on the mantelpiece a fine bust of Flora, modelled by Marin. One day the printer said to him: “Do you know how much that bust cost me? . . . Fifteen thousand francs. I got it from Balzac, who owed me a great deal of money. Once when I was at his house in Passy, he exclaimed: ‘Since I can’t pay you, take what you like from here to reimburse yourself.’” This work of art, a Louis XVI. gilt-bronze time piece, with its two candelabra, once also in Balzac’s possession, was part payment of the balance due to the de Berny family, and was surrendered only in the forties.
The novelist, whose memory was so short in money matters, had a longer recollection of his moral obligations. In the letter above referred to, he confessed: “Without her (Madame de Berny) I should have died. She often divined that I had not eaten for several days (here he was probably piling on the agony). She provided for everything with angelic kindness. Her devotion was absolute.” It ended only with the Dilecta’s life.
In the Shagreen Skin, which embodies some of Balzac’s youthful experiences, Raphael, the hero, was saved from committing suicide, after ruining himself, by an accident which forms the thread of the story. Possibly, during the bankruptcy proceedings, there may have been a fit of despair which urged the insolvent printer to end his own troubles in the Seine. If so, it was of short duration. A fortnight after he had quitted the Rue des Marais, the letter he wrote to General de Pommereul showed him planning out a fresh future.
“At last has happened,” he said in it, “what many persons were able to foresee, and what I myself feared in beginning and courageously supporting an establishment the magnitude of which was colossal (!!!). I have been precipitated, not without the previsions of my conscious mind, from my modest prosperity. . . . For the last month I have been engaged on an historical work of the highest interest; and I hope that, in default of a talent altogether problematic with me, my sketch of national customs will bring me luck. My first thought was for you; and I resolved to write and ask you to shelter me for two or three weeks. A camp-bed, a single mattress, a table, if only it is quadrupedal and not rickety, a chair and a roof are all that I require.”
The General replied: “Your room awaits you. Come quick.” And he went. It was his definite entrance into literature, and his resumption of the search for wealth withal.
Last updated Wednesday, July 15, 2015 at 16:28