Balzac, by Frederick Lawton

Chapter V

Letters to “The Stranger,” 1831, 1832

One has little doubt in deciding that, of the two spurs which goaded Balzac’s labours, his desire for wealth acted more persistently and energetically than his desire for glory. In his conversations, in his correspondence, money was the eternal theme; in his novels it is almost always the hinge on which the interest, whether of character, plot, or passion, depends. Money was his obsession, day and night; and, in his dormant visions, it must have loomed largely.

Henry Monnier, the caricaturist, used to relate that, meeting him once on the Boulevard, the novelist tapped him on the shoulder and said:

“I have a sublime idea. In a month I shall have gained five hundred thousand francs.”

“The deuce, you will,” replied Monnier; “let’s hear how.”

“Listen, then,” returned his interlocutor. “I will rent a shop on the Boulevard des Italiens. All Paris is bound to pass by. That’s so, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Well, what next?”

“Next, I will establish a store for colonial produce; and, over the window, I will have printed, in letters of gold: ‘Honore de Balzac, Grocer.’ This will create a scandal; everybody will want to see me serving the customers, with the classical counter-skipper’s smock on. I shall gain my five hundred thousand francs; it’s certain. Just follow my argument. Every day these many people pass along the Boulevard, and will not fail to enter the shop. Suppose that each person spends only a sou, since half of it will be profit to me I shall gain so much a day; consequently, so much a week; so much a month.”

And thereupon, the novelist, launched into transcendental calculations, soaring with his enthusiasm into the clouds.

It was the same Henry Monnier who, meeting him another time on the Place de la Bourse, and having had to listen to another of such mirific demonstrations about a scheme from which both were to derive millions, answered drily:

“Then lend me five francs on strength of the affair.”

Noticing this sort of monomania, in an article which he wrote in the short-lived Diogenes, during the month of August 1856, Amedee Roland said of Balzac:

“His ambition was to vie in luxury with Alexandre Dumas and Lamartine, who, before the Revolution of 1848, were the most prodigal and extravagant authors in the five continents. For anything like a chance of finding his elusive millions, he would have gone to China. Indeed, on one occasion, he took it into his head he would start, together with his friend, Laurent Jan, and go to see the great Mogul, maintaining that the latter would give him tons of gold in exchange for a ring he possessed, which came, so he asserted, right down from Mahomet. It was three o’clock in the morning when he knocked at Laurent Jan’s door to inform his sleeping friend of his project; and the latter had the greatest difficulty in dissuading him from setting off forthwith in a post-chaise for India, of course, at the expense of the monarch in question.”

In justice, however, to Balzac, it should be stated that not a few of his suggestions were sensible enough, and contained ideas which, if properly put into execution, could have yielded profitable results. As a matter of fact, some were subsequently exploited by people who listened to them, or heard of them. A scheme of his for making paper by an improved process, which he tried to realize in 1833, and which he induced his mother, his sister’s husband, and other friends to support with their capital, anticipated the employment of esparto grass and wood, which since has been adopted successfully by others and has yielded large fortunes to them. The scheme was perhaps premature in Balzac’s day, not to speak of his small business capacity, which was in an inverse ration to his inventiveness.

From one of his conceptions, at least, there issued an important benefit to the entire literary profession. Already, in the previous century, Beaumarchais had attempted to establish a society of authors, whose aim should be to protect the rights of men of letters. His efforts then met with no response. Balzac revived the proposal, and coupled with it others tending to improve the material and style of printing of books. He had to contend with the hostility of certain publishers and the indifference of many authors. But his endeavours were ultimately understood and appreciated; and, not long afterwards, in 1838, the Societe des Gens de Lettres was founded.

In connection with this campaign, which he waged for a while alone, there was also his elaboration of the arrangement, first accepted by Charpentier, which consisted in fixing the percentage of the author’s royalty on the octavo, three-franc-fifty volume at one-tenth of the published price. One of his discussions with Charpentier on the subject was overheard in the Café of the Palais Royal by Jules Sandeau’s cousin, who happened to be playing a game of billiards there. After the departure of Balzac and the publisher, the cousin remarked that a paper had been forgotten; and, on reading it through, with his partner in the game, saw a crowd of figures that were so many hieroglyphics to them. When the paper was restored to the novelist by Jules Sandeau, who lived in the same set of flats as Balzac, it transpired that the figures were the calculation of the sum that the writer might obtain on the decimal basis, if a hundred thousand copies of any one of his works were sold.

Two of the novelist’s most important books appeared in 1833, his Country Doctor and Eugenie Grandet. The former he disposed of to a new publisher, Mame, who was to print it, at first, unsigned, his old publisher Gosselin having pre-emption rights, that had not been redeemed. Referring to it in a letter to Mame, towards the end of 1832, he said: “I have long been desirous of the popular glory which consists in selling numerous thousands of a small volume like Atala, Paul and Virginia, the Vicar of Wakefield, Manon Lescaut, etc. The book should go into all hands, those of the child, the girl, the old man, and even the devotee. Then once, when the book is known, it will have a large sale, like the Meditations of Lamartine, for instance, sixty thousand copies. My book is conceived in this spirit; it is something which the porter and the grand lady can both read. I have taken the Gospel and the Catechism, two books that sell well, and so I have made mine. I have laid the scene in a village, and the whole of the story will be readable, which is rare with me.” How high his hopes of its quality and saleableness were (the two things were oddly mixed up in his mind), he imparted to Zulma Carraud. “The Country Doctor has cost me ten times more labour than Louis Lambert,” he informed her. “There is not a sentence or an idea in it that has not been revised, re-read, corrected again and again. It’s terrible. But when one wishes to attain the simple beauty of the Gospel, surpass the Vicar of Wakefield and put the Imitation of Jesus Christ into action, one must spare no effort. Emile de Girardin and our good Borget (his co-tenant at the time) wager the sale will be four hundred thousand copies. Emile intends to bring out a franc edition, so that it may be sold like a Prayer Book.”

What with his writing for the Revue de Paris, to which he was contributing Ferragus, and the pains he gave himself with the Country Doctor, he was unable to deliver the latter work to Mame at the date stipulated, and the publisher brought a lawsuit against him, the first of a series of legal disputes he was destined to wage with publishing firms and magazine editors during his agitated life.

Notwithstanding the advertisement produced him by the lawsuit, the Country Doctor fell flat in the market. Most of the newspapers spoke contemptuously of it. One reason given was its loose construction, there being no plot, and the two love stories being thrust in towards the end to explain the doctor’s altruism and the vicarious paternity of the Commandant Genestas.

This officer, who is stationed not far from the village close to the Grande-Chartreuse, pays a few days’ visit to a Doctor Benassis there, under pretext of consulting him professionally. While on the visit he is initiated into the transformation that has been wrought by the doctor in the habits of the people and their homes and surroundings — a regeneration accomplished quietly and gradually, vanquishing hostility and lethargy and converting the peasant’s distrust into love. The placing of the Commandant’s adopted child under the doctor’s care, and Benassis’ death, which occurs shortly after, form rather a lame conclusion to the love stories, which are mysteriously withheld to tempt the reader to go on with his perusal. For all its dogmatism in religion and politics, its long arguments in defence of the author’s favourite opinions, and its defective construction, the novel, if one can call it a novel, is one of Balzac’s best creations. The pictures of country scenes are presented with close fidelity to nature and also with real artistic arrangement. There are, moreover, delineations of rustic character that are truer to life than many of the more celebrated ones in the rest of the novelist’s fiction; and, in the episode entitled the Napoleon of the people — the narration of an old soldier of the First Empire — there is a topical realism that makes one regret the never-achieved Battle. Add to these excellences the writer’s having put into his work, for the nonce, a sincere aspiration towards the idea; and, despite flaws, the whole can be pronounced admirable.

It was just about the time the Country Doctor was published that he began to dwell upon the advantages he might secure by connecting the characters in his novels and forming them into a representative society. Excited by the perspective this plan offered if all its possibilities were realized, he hurried to his sister’s house in the Faubourg Poissonniere.

“Salute me,” he exclaimed joyfully: “I’m on the point of becoming a genius!”

And he commenced to explain his thought, which seemed to him so vast and pregnant with consequence as to inspire him with awe.

“How fine it will be if I can manage the thing,” he continued, striding up and down the drawing-room, too restless to stay in one place. “I shan’t mind now being treated as a mere teller of tales, and can go on hewing the stones of my edifice, enjoying, beforehand, the amazement of my short-sighted critics, when they contemplate the structure complete.”

At length, Honore sat down and more tranquilly discussed the fortunes of the individuals already born from his brain, or, as yet in process of birth. He judged them and determined their fate.

“Such a one,” he said, “is a rascal, and will never do any good. Such another is industrious, and a good fellow; he will get rich, and his character will make him happy. These have been guilty of many peccadilloes; but they are so intelligent and have such a thorough knowledge of their fellows that they are sure to raise themselves to the highest ranks of society.”

“Peccadilloes!” replied his sister. “You are indulgent.”

“They can’t change, my dear. They are fathomers of abysses; but they will be able to guide others. The wisest persons are not always the best pilots. It’s not my fault. I haven’t invented human nature. I observe it, in past and present; and I try to depict it as it is. Impostures in this kind persuade no one.”

To the members of his family he announced news from his world of fiction just as if he were speaking of actual events.

“Do you know who Felix de Vandenesse is marrying?” he asked. “A Mademoiselle de Grandville. The match is an excellent one. The Grandvilles are rich, in spite of what Mademoiselle de Belleville has cost the family.”

If, now and again, he was begged to save some wild young man or unhappy woman among his creations, the answer was:

“Don’t bother me. Truth above all. Those people have no backbone. What happens to them is inevitable. So much the worse for them.”

This absorption in the domain of fancy was so complete at times as to cause him to confuse it with the outside world. It is related that Jules Sandeau, returning once from a journey, spoke to him of his sister’s illness. Balzac listened to him abstractedly for a while, and then interrupted him: “All that, my friend, is very well,” he said to the astonished Jules, “but let us come back to reality; let us speak of Eugenie Grandet.”

It was the second great book of 1833; and, on the whole, exhibits the novelist at his best. Eulogiums came from friends and enemies alike. The critics were unanimous, too unanimous, indeed, for the author, who detected in their chorus of praise a reiterated condemnation of much of his previous production. At last, it even annoyed him to hear his name invariably mentioned in connection with this single novel. “Those who call me the father of Eugenie Grandet seek to belittle me,” he cried. “I grant it is a masterpiece, but a small one. They forbear to cite the great ones.”

His ill-humor was, of course, of later growth. While Eugenie Grandet was being written, between July and November of 1833, Balzac was quite content to estimate it at its higher value. During the period of its composition, he had fallen, perhaps for the first time in his life, sincerely in love with the woman he ultimately married; and it is appropriate to notice here the synchronism of the event with his high-water mark in fiction. As he confessed to Zulma Carraud, love was his life, his essence; he wrote best when under its influence. There were, be it granted, other contributory causes to make this rapidly written story what we find it to be. The place, the date, the people, the incidents were all close to his own life. Saumur and Tours are neighbouring towns; and ’tis affirmed that the original of the goodman Grandet, a certain Jean Niveleau, had a daughter, whom he refused to give in marriage to Honore. Maybe tradition has embroidered a little on the facts, but there would seem to be much in the narration that belongs to the writer’s personal experience. His sister found fault with his attributing so many millions to the miser. “But, stupid, the thing is true,” he replied. “Do you want me to improve on truth? If you only knew what it is to knead ideas, and to give them form and colour, you wouldn’t be so quick to criticize.”

As is usual, when the interest is chiefly characterization, Balzac does not give us a complicated plot. We have in Grandet a self-made man, who has amassed riches by trade and speculation, and lives with his wife and daughter in a gloomy old house, with only one servant as miserly as the master. Eugenie’s hand is sought by several suitors, and in particular by the son of the banker des Grassins and the son of the notary Cruchot, these two families waging a diplomatic warfare on behalf of their respective candidates. Into this midst suddenly comes the fashionable nephew Charles Grandet, whose father has, unknown to him, just committed suicide to escape bankruptcy. Eugenie falls in love with her cousin, and he, apparently, with her; but the old man, unsoftened by his brother’s death, using it even as a further means of speculation, gets rid of the unfortunate lover by gingerly helping him to go abroad. Years pass, and Eugenie’s mother dies, while she herself withers, under the miser’s avaricious tyranny. At length, old Grandet pays his debt to nature, and Eugenie is left with the millions. Until now she had waited for the wandering lover’s return; but he, engaging in the slave-trade, has lost all the generous impulses of his youth, and comes back only to deny his early affection and marry the ill-favoured daughter of a Marquis. Eugenie takes a noble revenge for this desertion by paying her dead uncle’s debts, which Charles had repudiated, and she marries the notary’s son, who leaves her a widow soon after.

Everything in the tale is absolutely natural, extraordinary in its naturalness; and the reactions of its various persons upon each other are traced with fine perception. There is not much of the outward expression of love — in this Balzac did not excel — but there is a good deal of its hidden tragedy. Moreover, the miser’s ruling passion is exhibited in traits that suggest still more than they openly display; and all the action and circumstance are in the subdued tone proper to provincial existence. The introductory words prepare the reader’s mind for what follows:—

“In certain country towns there are houses whose aspect inspires a melancholy equal to that evoked by the gloomiest cloisters, the most monotonous moorland, or the saddest ruins. . . . Perhaps, in these houses there are at once the silence of the cloister, the barrenness of the moorland, and the bones of ruins. Life and movement are so tranquil in them that a stranger might believe them uninhabited if he did not suddenly see the pale, cold gaze of a motionless person whose half-monastic face leans over the casement at the noise of an unknown step. . . . ”

And the shadow persists even in the love-scene.

“Charles said to Eugenie, drawing her to the old bench, where they sat down under the walnut trees: ‘In five days, Eugenie, we must bid each other adieu, for ever perhaps; but, at least, for a long while. My stock and ten thousand francs sent me by two of my friends are a very small beginning. I cannot think of my return for several years. My dear cousin, don’t place my life and yours in the balance. I may perish. Perhaps you may make a rich marriage.’—‘You love me,’ she said. —‘Oh yes, dearly,’ he replied, with a depth of accent revealing a corresponding depth of sentiment. —‘I will wait, Charles. Heavens! my father is at his window,’ she said, pushing away her cousin, who was approaching to kiss her. She escaped beneath the archway; Charles followed her there. On seeing him, she withdrew to the foot of the staircase and opened the self-closing door; then hardly knowing where she was going, Eugenie found herself near Nanon’s den, in the darkest part of the passage. There, Charles, who had accompanied her, took her hand, drew her to his heart, seized her round the waist, and pressed her to himself. Eugenie no longer protested. She received and gave the purest, sweetest, but also the entirest of all kisses.”

The foregoing and others, equally well drawn, are figures in the background. Standing out in front of them, and in lurid relief, is the central figure of the miser, represented with the same mobility of temperament noticeable in George Eliot’s creations — a thing exceptional in Balzac’s work. Grandet, as long as his wife lives is reclaimable — just reclaimable. Subsequently, he is an automaton responsive only to the sight and touch of his gold.

The dedication of Eugenie Grandet is to Maria; and Maria, portrayed under the features and character of the heroine, was, we learn, an agreeable girl, of middle-class origins, who, in the year of 1833, attached herself to Balzac and bore him a child.

This liaison was running its ephemeral course just at the time when accident made him acquainted with his future wife. On the 28th of February 1832, his publisher Gosselin handed him a letter with a foreign postmark. His correspondent, a lady, who had read, she said, and admired his Scenes of Private Life, reproached him with losing, in the Shagreen Skin, the delicacy of sentiment contained in these earlier novels, and begged him to forsake his ironic, sceptical manner and revert to the higher manifestations of his talent. There was no signature to this communication; and the writer, who subscribed herself “The Stranger,” begged him to abstain from any attempt to discover who she was, as there were paramount reasons why she should remain anonymous. Balzac’s curiosity was keenly aroused by so much mystery, and he tried, but in vain, to get hold of some clue that might conduct him to the retreat of the incognita. After a lapse of seven months, a second epistle arrived, more romantic in tone than the first; and containing, among obscure allusions to the lady’s surroundings and personality, the following declaration: “You no doubt love and are loved; the union of angels must be your lot. Your souls must have unknown felicities. The Stranger loves you both, and desires to be your friend. . . . She likewise knows how to love, but that is all. . . . Ah! you understand me.”

A third letter followed this one shortly afterwards, asking the novelist to acknowledge its receipt in the Quotidienne journal, which he did, expressing in the advertisement his regret at not being able to address a direct reply. At last, in the spring of 1833, the fair correspondent made herself known. She was a Countess Evelina Hanska, wife of a Polish nobleman living at Wierzchownia in the Ukraine. She further allowed it to be understood that she was young, handsome, immensely rich, and not over happy with her husband. This information sufficed to set Balzac’s imagination agog. At once, he enshrined the dame in the temple of his ideal, poured out his heart to her, and told her of his struggles and ambitions, meanwhile fashioning a realm of the future in which he and she were to be the two reigning monarchs.

Madame Hanska was also a Pole. She belonged to the noble Rzewuska stock and was born in the castle of Pohrebyszcze between 1804 and 1806. Owing to family reverses, her parents, who had several other children to provide for, were glad to meet with a husband for her in the Count Hanski, who was twenty-five years her senior. The marriage took place between 1818 and 1822, and four children, three boys and a girl, were its issue; but, the boys all dying in infancy, the young mother was left with her little daughter Anna to bring up, and with the desires of a rich, cultured woman, who did not find in her home-circle the wherewithal to satisfy them.

Of her own charms she had spoken truly. Daffinger’s miniature of her, painted when she was thirty, represents her as abundantly endowed by nature; and Gigoux’ pastel of 1852, which is less faithful and shows her considerably older, still gives substantially the portrait that Barbey d’Aurevilly sketched of her after Balzac’s death: “She was of imposing and noble beauty, somewhat massive,” says this writer. “But she knew how to maintain, despite her embonpoint, a very great charm, which was enhanced by her delightful foreign accent. She had splendid shoulders, the finest arms in the world, and a complexion of radiant brilliancy. Her soft black eyes, her full red lips, her framing mass of curled hair, her finely chiselled forehead, and the sinuous grace of her gait gave her an air of abandon and dignity together, a haughty yet sensuous expression which was very captivating.”

Fascinated by Balzac’s masterly delineation of her sex, and longing to learn more about the man who had appealed to her so powerfully, she contrived a journey to Switzerland in 1833, in which her husband and child accompanied her. Switzerland was a land easier for a noble Russian subject to obtain permission to visit. Neufchatel was the place of sojourn chosen, since there was the home of Anna’s Swiss governess, Mademoiselle Henriette Borel, who had played an intermediary’s role in the beginning of the adventure.

As soon as he had news of the party’s arrival, Balzac posted off, concealing from every one the reason for his sudden departure. It had been agreed that the meeting should be on the chief promenade; and there, on a bench, with one of the novelist’s books on her lap, Madame Hanska sat with her husband, when he came up and accosted her. One account states that the Countess having, in her excitement, allowed a scarf to drop and hide the book, he passed her by more than once, not daring to speak till she took up the scarf. The same account adds that the lady, remarking the little, stout man staring at her, prayed he might not be the one she was expecting. But no written confession of the Countess’s exists to prove that such a thought damped her enthusiasm.

Balzac’s impression was recorded in a letter to his sister. “I am happy, very happy,” he wrote. “She is twenty-seven, possesses most beautiful black hair, the smooth and deliciously fine skin of brunettes, a lovely little hand, is naive and imprudent to the point of embracing me before every one. I say nothing about her colossal wealth. What is it in comparison with beauty. I am intoxicated with love.” The one drawback to the meeting was Monsieur Hanski. “Alas!” adds the writer, “he did not quit us during five days for a single second. He went from his wife’s skirt to my waistcoat. And Neufchatel is a small town, where a woman, an illustrious foreigner, cannot take a step without being seen. Constraint doesn’t suit me.”

Evidently, during the Neufchatel intercourse, some sort of understanding must have been reached, based on the rather unkind anticipation of the Count Hanski’s death. At that time, the gentleman’s health was precarious. He survived, however until 1841, meanwhile more or less cognizant of his wife’s attachment and offering no opposition. He even deemed himself honoured by Balzac’s friendship. How rapid the progress of the novelist’s passion was for the new idol may be judged by the letter he despatched to Geneva, two or three months later, in December, whilst he was correcting the proofs of Eugenie Grandet. “I think I shall be at Geneva on the 13th,” he wrote. “The desire to see you makes me invent things that ordinarily don’t come into my head. I correct more quickly. It’s not only courage you give me to support the difficulties of life; you give me also talent, at any rate, facility. . . . My Eve, my darling, my kind, divine Eve! What a grief it is to me not to have been able to tell you every evening all that I have done, said, and thought.”

The visit to Geneva was paid, and lasted six weeks, the novelist quitting Switzerland only on the 8th of February 1834. From this date onward, a regular correspondence was kept up between them, compensating for their seeing each other rarely. The project of marriage, more tenaciously pursued by Balzac than by his Eve, was yet no hindrance to his fleeting fancies for other women. These interim amours have a good deal preoccupied his various biographers, partly because of the undoubted use he made of them in his novels, and partly also because of the trouble he gave himself to establish among circles outside his own immediate entourage the legend of his being a sort of Sir Galahad, leading a perfectly chaste life and caring only for his literary labours. Says Theophile Gautier:—

“He used to preach to us a strange literary hygiene. We ought to shut ourselves up for two or three years, drink water, eat soaked lupines like Protogenes, go to bed at six o’clock in the evening, and work till morning . . . and especially to live in the most absolute chastity. He insisted much on this last recommendation, very rigorous for a young man of twenty-four or twenty-five years of age. According to him, real chastity developed the powers of the mind to the highest degree, and gave to those that practised it unknown faculties. We timidly objected that the greatest geniuses had indulged in the love passion, and we quoted illustrious names. Balzac shook his head and replied: ‘They would have done much more but for the women.’ The only concession he would make us, regretfully, was to see the loved one for half-an-hour a year. Love letters he allowed. They formed a writer’s style.”

George Sand speaks much to the same effect in her reminiscences. She believed in the legend.

“Moderate in every other respect,” she says, “he had the purest of morals, having always dreaded wildness as the enemy of talent; and he nearly always cherished women solely in his heart and in his head, even in his youth. He pursued chastity on principle; and his relations with the fair sex were those merely of curiosity. When he found a curiosity equal to his own, he exploited this mine with the cynicism of a father-confessor. But, when he met with health of mind and body, he was as happy as a child to speak of real love and to rise into the lofty regions of sentiment.”

Unfortunately for the preceding testimony, a flat contradiction is given to it not only by the recorded facts of the novelist’s life, but by his sister, who knew better than George Sand and Gautier that Balzac’s profession of sublimer sentiments did not exclude a more mundane feeling and practice. Commenting on George Sand’s generous panegyric of her brother, she adds: “It is an error to speak of his extreme moderation. He does not deserve this praise. Outside of his work, which was first and foremost, he loved and tasted all the pleasures of this world. I think he would have been the most conceited of all men, if he had not been the most discreet. Confident in himself, he never committed the least indiscretion in his relations with others, and kept their secrets, though unable to keep his own.”

The Viscount Spoelberch de Lovenjoul is still more explicit in his short book on Balzac and Madame Hanska, entitled Roman d’Amour. Speaking of the novelist’s various liaisons and love escapades, which were covered up with such solicitude from the eyes of the world, he remarks that Balzac, while vaunting himself, in argument, of having remained chaste for a number of years, owned to his sister that the truth was quite different. The novelist did his utmost, continues Monsieur de Lovenjoul, to foster the tradition of his hermit-like conduct; and to all the jealous women with whom he entertained friendly relations he asserted that his morals were as spotless as those of a cenobite. Ever and everywhere he abused the credulity of those who flattered themselves they were his only love.

Madame de Berny was not among the credulous ones, nor yet so resigned as the simple bourgeoise Maria, who, to quote Balzac’s own words, “fell like a flower from heaven, exacted neither correspondence nor attentions, and said: ‘Love me a year and I will love you all my life.’” Though forced to accept the transformation of her relations with her young lover into a purely platonic friendship, she made occasional protests against being supplanted by younger rivals — the imperious Madame de Castries among the number. The birth and growth of his affection for Madame Hanska she appears to have felt and resented to a greater degree than his previous infidelities to her. Not even its maintenance, for the time being, on the plane of pure sentiment, dispelled her jealous thoughts. Being apprized of Balzac’s dedication of a portion of the Woman of Thirty Years Old to his Eve, she insisted on his expunging the offending name, while the sheets were in the press. Whether her fretting over his transferred allegiance hastened her end it is impossible to say with any certainty; yet one cannot help being struck by the fact that the serious phase of the malady that killed her almost coincided with the beginning of their separation.

Madame Hanska, although she started with a supposition of his loving another, became exacting also, in proportion as her admirer’s professions of loyalty conferred the right upon her. Rumours reached her now and again, and sometimes precise information, of her place being usurped by another. And, later, as will be again mentioned, a breach occurred between them which was nearly final. By his various mistresses, Balzac had four children, including Maria’s little daughter, two of whom survived him.

All this notwithstanding, it would be a mistake to assume that he was a deliberate woman-hunter, and wasted his energies in licentiousness. His immense industry and productiveness are enough to prove that such lapses were more the natural outcome of his having so constant a bevy of lady worshippers about him, and occurred as opportunity offered only. On the other hand, it must be admitted that woman’s counsels, woman’s encouragements, woman’s caresses and help were very necessary to him; and he drew largely on the capacities, material and moral, of the Marthas and Maries that crossed his orbit, attracting him or themselves attracted.

The twelvemonth which was marked by the achievement of his most perfect novel also brought him into regular business relations with Werdet, destined to be one of his biographers, who now became his chief publisher and remained so during several years. Incorrect in many details which lay outside his own ken, and which he had gleaned from hearsay or books hastily written, Werdet’s own book, a familiar portrait of Balzac, is nevertheless a valuable document. If the author was unable to fathom the whole of the genius and character of the man he described, he yet sincerely appreciated them; and not even the soreness he could not help feeling when ultimately thrown aside, destroyed his deep-rooted worship of him whom he regarded as one of the highest glories of French literature.

Werdet, when he was introduced to the writer of the Physiology of Marriage, had already tried his luck at publishing, but had been compelled to abandon the master’s position and to enter as an employee into the house of a Madame Bechet, who was engaged in the same line of business. Having read and liked some of Balzac’s earlier works, he persuaded the firm to entrust him with the task of negotiating a purchase of the exclusive rights of the novelist’s Studies of Manners and Morals in the Nineteenth Century. The negotiation was carried through in 1832, and a sum of thirty-six thousand francs was paid to Balzac. This was the writer’s real beginning of money-making. Twelve months after, Werdet resolved to start once more on his own account. He had only a few thousand francs capital. His idea was to risk them in buying one of Balzac’s books; and then, if successful, gradually to acquire a publishing monopoly in the great man’s productions. Distrusting his own powers of persuasion, he enlisted the good offices of Barbier, the late partner of the Rue des Marais printing-house, who was a persona grata with the novelist. Together, they went to the Rue Cassini; and Barbier set forth Werdet’s desire.

“Very good,” replied the great man. “But you are aware, Monsieur, that those who now publish my works require large capital, since I often need considerable advances.”

Proudly, young Werdet brought out his six notes of five hundred francs each, and spread them on the table.

“There is all my fortune,” he said. “You can have it for any book you please to write for me.”

At the sight of them Balzac burst out laughing.

“How can you imagine, Monsieur, that I— I— de Balzac! who sold my Studies of Manners and Morals not long ago to Madame Bechet for thirty-six thousand francs — I, whose collaboration to the Revue de Paris is ordinarily remunerated by Buloz at five hundred francs per sheet, should forget myself to the point of handing you a novel from my pen for a thousand crowns? You cannot have reflected on your offer, Monsieur; and I should be entitled to look upon your step as unbecoming in the highest degree, were it not that your frankness in a measure justifies you.”

Barbier tried to plead for his friend, and mentioned that, in consideration of Werdet’s share in the transaction with Madame Bechet, a second edition of the Country Doctor might be granted him for the three thousand francs. But Balzac, retorting that whatever service had been rendered was not to himself but by himself, dismissed his visitors with the words:

“We have spent an hour, gentlemen, in useless talk. You have made me lose two hundred francs. For me, time is money. I must work. Good-day.”

They left, and Barbier, to comfort his friend, prophesied that, in spite of this reception, Balzac would enter into pourparlers with him, and that Werdet had only to wait, and news would be received from the Rue Cassini shortly. He was not mistaken. Three days elapsed and then Werdet had the following note sent him:—

“SIR— You called upon me the other day when my head was preoccupied with some writing that I wanted to finish, and I consequently did not very well comprehend what was your drift. To-day, my head is freer. Do me the pleasure to call on me at four o’clock, and we can talk the matter over.”

Werdet waited nearly a week before he paid the requested visit. In quite another tone, the novelist discussed the proposed scheme, promised to use his influence on the young publisher’s behalf, and gave him the Country Doctor for the price offered.

Thenceforward, a familiar guest in the dwelling of the Rue Cassini, Werdet described it in detail, when composing his Portrait Intime. It was part of a two-storied pavilion (as the French call a moderate-sized house) standing to the left in a courtyard and garden, with another similar building on the right. From the ground-floor a flight of steps led up to a glass-covered gallery joining the two buildings and serving as an antechamber to each. Its sides were hung in white and blue-striped glazed calico; and a long, blue-upholstered divan, a blue and brown carpet, and some fine china vases filled with flowers, adorned it. From the gallery the visitor proceeded into a pretty drawing-room, fifteen feet square, lighted on the east by a small casement that looked over the yard of a neighbouring house. Opposite the drawing-room door was a black marble mantelpiece.

The salon gave access to the bedroom and the dining-room, the latter being connected with the kitchen underneath by a narrow staircase. A secret door in the salon opened into the bathroom with its walls of white stucco, its bath of white marble, and its red, opaque window-panes diffusing a rose-coloured tint through the air. Two easy-chairs in red morocco stood near the bath.

The bedroom, having two windows, one towards the south and the observatory, the other overlooking a garden of flowers and trees, was very bright and cheery. The furniture, with its shades of white, pink, and gold, was rich and handsome. A secret door existed also in this chamber, hidden behind muslin hangings; it led down the same narrow staircase already mentioned to the kitchen, and thence out into the yard. Nanon, Balzac’s cook, less discreet than Auguste, the valet-de-chambre, had tales to tell Werdet about certain lady visitors who arrived by means of this private staircase into the daintily arranged bedroom.

The study, of oblong shape, about eighteen feet by twelve, had likewise two windows affording a view only over the yard of the next house, which, being lofty, made the room dark, even in the sunniest weather. Here the furniture was simple, the principal piece being an exceedingly fine ebony bookcase, with mirrored panels. It contained a large collection of rare books, all bound in red morocco and set off with the escutcheon of the d’Entragues family. Among them were nearly all the authors who had written on mysticism, occult science, and religion. Opposite the bookcase, between the windows, was a carved ebony cabinet filled with red morocco box-cases, and on the top of the cabinet stood a plaster statuette representing Napoleon I. Across the sword-sheath was stuck a tiny paper with these words written by the novelist: “What he could not achieve with the sword I will accomplish with the pen. Honore de Balzac.”

On the mantelpiece decorated with a mirror, there was an alarum in unpolished bronze, together with two vases in brown porcelain. And on either side of the mirror hung all sorts of woman’s trifles; here, a crumpled glove, there a small satin shoe; and, further, a little rusty iron key. Questioned as to the significance of this last article, the owner called it his talisman. There was also a diminutive framed picture exhibiting beneath the glass a fragment of brown silk, with an arrow-pierced heart embroidered on it, and the English words: An Unknown Friend. In front of a modest writing-table covered with green baize was a large Voltaire arm-chair upholstered in red morocco; and about the room were a few other ebony chairs covered in brown cloth.

Within his sanctum Balzac worked clad in a white Dominican gown with hood, the summer material being dimity and cashmere; he was shod with embroidered slippers, and his waist was girt with a rich Venetian-gold chain, on which were suspended a paper-knife, a pair of scissors, and a gold penknife, all of them beautifully carved. Whatever the season, thick window-curtains shut out the rays of light that might have penetrated into the study, which was illuminated only by two moderate-sized candelabra of unpolished bronze, each holding a couple of continually burning candles.

The installation of these various household necessaries and luxuries was progressive and was associated closely with the heyday period of his celebrity. It was during 1833 that the metamorphosis was mainly effected, for Werdet relates that, in the month of November, he found Balzac, one afternoon, superintending the laying down of some rich Aubusson carpets in his house. Money must have been plentiful just then. Learning accidentally on this occasion that his publisher had no carpet in his drawing-room, the novelist surprised him the same evening by sending some men with one that he had bought for him. This present Werdet suitably acknowledged a short time after; and, throughout the period of their intimacy, there were a good few compliments of the kind exchanged, which appear to have cost the man of business dearer than the man of letters.

To tell the truth, Balzac had a knack of presuming that something he intended doing was already done. One notorious example was the white horse he asserted, in presence of a number of guests assembled in Madame de Girardin’s drawing-room, had been given by him to Jules Sandeau. The animal in question, he said, he had bought from a well-known dealer; the celebrated trainer Baucher had tested it and declared it to be the most perfect animal ever ridden. For nearly half-an-hour the speaker expatiated on the points of this wonderful steed, and thoroughly convinced his audience of the gift having been already bestowed. A few evenings later, Jules Sandeau met Balzac at the same house, and the subject was of course reverted to by their mutual friends. As the novelist asked him whether he liked the horse, Jules, not to be outvied, answered with an enumeration of its qualities. But he never saw the animal for all that.

Another instance equally amusing was furnished at a dinner given in honour of Balzac by Henri de Latouche, who had not then broken with him. At dessert, the host sketched the plan of a novel he intended to write, and Balzac, who had been drinking champagne, warmly applauded; “The thing,” he said, “is capital. Even summarily related, it is charming. What will it be when the talent, style, and wit of the author have enhanced it!” Next evening, at Madame de Girardin’s, he reproduced, with his native fire and power of description, the narration he had heard the night before — reproduced it as his own — persuaded it was his own. Every one was enthusiastic, and complimented him. But the matter was bruited abroad. Latouche recognized in Balzac’s proposed new novel the creation he had himself unfolded; and wrote a sharp protest which, for once, forced its recipient to distinguish fact from fiction, and what was his share, what another’s, in the output of ideas. Yet he might be excused for some of his frequent fits of forgetfulness, since he sowed his own conceptions and discoveries broadcast, and often encountered them again in the possession of lesser minds who had utilized them before he could put them into execution.

In the year of 1833, the novelist’s correspondence alludes to several books which, like others previously spoken of, were never published, and probably never written. Among these are The Privilege, The History of a Fortunate Idea, and the Catholic Priest. Meanwhile, he did add considerably to his Droll Tales, the first series of which appeared in the same twelve months as Eugenie Grandet. These stories — in the style of Boccaccio, and of some of Chaucer’s writing — broad, racy, and somewhat licentious, albeit containing nothing radically obscene, were meant to illustrate the history of the French language and French manners from olden to modern days. Only part of the project was realized. They are told with wit and humour that are nowhere present to the same degree in the rest of the novelist’s work, and in their colouring, as Taine justly remarks, recall Jordaens’ painting with its vivid carnation tints. At this time the author was occupied with Bertha Repentant and the Succubus, which, however, were published only three years subsequently.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51