If Balzac’s intimates, careful of his future, had besought him to jot down in a diary the detailed doings of his every-day life, with a confession of his thoughts, feelings, and opinions, in fine an unmasking of himself, he would surely have urged the material impossibility of his fulfilling such a task, over and above the labours of Hercules to which his ambition and his necessities bound him. And yet he performed the miracle unsolicited.
From the day when he quitted Neufchatel to the day when he arrived at Wierzchownia, on his crowning visit in 1848, he never ceased chronicling, in a virtually uninterrupted series of letters to Madame Hanska, closely following each other during most of this long period, a faithful account of his existence — exception made for its love episodes — which, having fortunately been preserved, constitutes an almost complete autobiography of his mature years. When the end of the correspondence shall have been given to the public, three volumes, at least, will have been taken up with the record — a record which taxed his time and strength, indeed overtaxed them, causing him to encroach unduly on his already too short hours of sleep. The motive must have been a powerful one that could induce him to make so large a sacrifice. Whether it was love alone, as he protested again and again, or love mixed with gratified pride, or both joined to the hope of enjoying the vast fortune that loomed through the mists of the far-off Ukraine, the phenomenon remains the same. Certainly some great force was behind the pen that untiringly wrote in every vein and mood these astonishing Letters to the Stranger.
In those up to the year 1834 that were, properly speaking, private, the tone rises to a pitch of lover-passion that could hardly fail to alarm, even whilst they flattered the one to whom his devotion was addressed. Although Balzac’s brief sojourns in Madame Hanska’s vicinity had resulted in no breach of the marriage law, there was too much implied in his assumption of their betrothal to please the husband, if any of these lover’s oaths should fall under his notice. And this was what just did happen before many months had gone by. In consequence of some accident which is not explained, the Count had cognizance of two epistles that reached his wife while both were staying at Vienna; and, for some time, it seemed as though the intercourse would be definitely severed. A humble apology was sent to the Count, the letters being passed off as a joke; and the interpretation was, fortunately for Balzac, accepted. Madame Hanska was offended as well as her husband, or, at any rate, she affected to be. It appears some negligence had been committed by the novelist in forwarding the incriminating epistles. However, being cleared in her husband’s eyes, she yielded her forgiveness.
Balzac’s policy, after this mishap, was to keep on the best terms possible with Monsieur Hanski, who, to use the Frenchman’s English expression, suffered from chronic blue devils. After leaving his new friends at Geneva, the novelist procured the Count an autograph letter from Rossini, this great composer being a favourite at Wierzchownia. To his new lady-love he sent an effusion of his own in verse, having small poetic merit, but pretty sentiment.
During the Geneva intercourse, he did his best to familiarize Eve with all the names and characters of the people he knew, since his interests were to be hers, or, at any rate, so he flattered himself. She learnt to distinguish the people who were for him from those who were against him. Of these latter there were a goodly number, some made enemies by his own fault, through over-susceptibility or unconscious arrogance. Both causes were responsible for the quarrel occurring about this time between him and Emile de Girardin, which was never entirely healed, in spite of the persevering efforts of Emile’s wife, better known as Madame Delphine Gay. “I have bidden good-bye to the Gays’ molehill,” he informed Madame Hanska. It was pretty much the same with his estrangement from the Duke de Fitz-James, which, however, was followed by a speedy reconciliation, for the Duke was offering, a few months later, to support him again in a political election. The unsatisfactory state of his health, and some family troubles, decided him to defer his candidature to the end of the decade, by which date he hoped to have written two works — The Tragedy of Philippe II.and The History of the Succession of the Marquis of Carrabas — which should implant his conception of absolute monarchic power so strongly in the minds of his fellow-citizens that they would be glad to send him to Parliament as their representative. Other political articles and pamphlets of his, he asserted, would enable him by 1839 to dominate European questions.
Werdet has a great deal to say about his idol’s over-weening exaction of homage, leading him to be himself guilty of acts of rudeness towards others, thus alienating their sympathies. The publisher relates one scene that he witnessed at the offices of William Duckett, proprietor of the Dictionary of Conversation and Reading. The office door was suddenly opened and Balzac stalked in with his hat on his head. “Is Duckett in?” he curtly asked, addressing in common the chief editor, his sub, and an attendant. There was a conspiracy of silence. Evidently, this was not the novelist’s first visit, and his style was known. Again the question was put in the same language and manner, and again no one replied. Advancing now a step, and speaking to the chief editor, he repeated his question for a third time. Monglave, who was an irritable gentleman, being accosted personally, answered briefly: “Put your question to the sub-editor.” There was a wheel-about, and another peremptory inquiry, to which the sub, imitating his chief, replied with “Ask the attendant.” At present boiling with rage, Balzac turned to the porter and thundered: “Is Duckett in?” “Monsieur Balzac,” returned the attendant, “these gentlemen have forbidden me to tell you.” Threatening to report the affair to Duckett, the novelist withdrew, pursued by the mocking laughter of the chief editor and the sub; but, on second thoughts, he deemed it more prudent to let the matter drop.
Another example of this peculiar assumption of superiority occurred not long after at a dinner given by Werdet in honour of a young author, Jules Bergounioux, whose novels were being much read. Among the guests were Gustave Planche, Jules Sandeau, and Balzac. During the meal the conversation, after many assaults of wit and mirth, fell on the necessity of defending writers against the piracy and mutilation of their books in foreign countries, more especially in Belgium. All expressed their opinion energetically, young Bergounioux like the rest, he happening to class himself with his fellows in the words — we men of letters. At the conclusion of his little speech, Balzac uttered a guffaw: “You, sir, a man of letters! What pretension! What presumption! You! compare yourself to us! Really, sir, you forget that you have the honour to be sitting here with the marshals of modern literature.”
This exhibition and others similar were natural to the man. He could not help them. It was impossible for him not to be continually proclaiming his own greatness. “Don’t tax me with littleness,” he said in one of his letters to Delphine Gay, in which he justified his breaking with her husband. “I think myself too great to be offended by any one.”
The domestic troubles alluded to above, which were worrying Balzac in 1834, had partly to do with his brother Henry, a sort of ne’er-do-well, who had been out to the Indies and had returned with an undesirable wife, and prospects — or rather the lack of them — that made him a burden to the other members of the family. Madame Balzac, too, was unwell at Chantilly; and her illnesses always affected Honore, who, at such moments, reproached himself for not being able to do more on her behalf. Not that his year’s budget was a poor one. The seventy thousand francs at which he estimated his probable earnings for the twelvemonth were not on this occasion so very much beyond the truth, if his author’s percentages were included. Werdet — the illustrious Werdet, who, he said, somewhat resembled the Illustrious Gaudissart — bought an edition of his philosophic novels for fifteen thousand francs; and, besides two principal books to be mentioned further on, both of which appeared before the close of the year, there were parts of Seraphita and The Cabinet of Antiques which the Revue de Paris was publishing as serials. His notorious quarrel and lawsuit with this Review was yet to come. But there was storm in the air even now. Seraphita, the subject inspired by Madame Hanska and dedicated to her, was but little to the taste of Buloz the editor; and he declared to Balzac, who was making him wait for copy, that it was hardly worth while taking so long and making so much fuss over a novel which neither the public nor he, the editor, could understand. Happily the dear Werdet was at hand to arrange the difficulty. Though in the same case as Buloz, and failing altogether to comprehend the subject or its treatment, he took over Seraphita in 1835 and published it.
Next to politics, as a means of gaining name and fame more quickly, Balzac esteemed play-writing. The esteem was purely commercial. In his heart of hearts he rather despised this species of composition, entertaining the notion that it was something to be done quickly, if at all, and utilizable to please the groundlings. Yet, because he saw that there was money in it, he turned his hand to it, time after time, and, for long, had to abandon it as constantly. In 1834 he formed a partnership with Jules Sandeau and Emmanuel Arago, with the idea of risking less in case of failure. In addition to the tragedy already spoken of, he tried two others — The Courtiers and Don Philip and Don Charles, the latter modelled on Schiller’s Don Carlos. The Grande Mademoiselle was a comic history of Lauzun; and his Prudhomme, Bigamist, was a farce, in which a dummy placed in a bed seemed to him capable, with a night’s working on it, of bringing down the house. Vaguely he felt, and vaguely he confessed to his sister, what he had seen and confessed thirteen years earlier, that the drama was not his forte. But, anchored in the conviction that he ought finally to succeed in everything he undertook, he returned to the attempt with magnificent pluck and perseverance.
His colleague for the nonce, Sandeau, he considered to be a protege of his; and used him a while as a kind of secretary. In this year especially he showed much solicitude about him. There was nothing to excite his jealousy in the author of Sacs et Parchemins, who was not elected to the Academy until nearly the end of the decade in which Balzac died. On the contrary, his pity was aroused by Sandeau’s precarious position and by the recent separation between Madame Dudevant and this first of her lovers, who did his best to commit suicide by swallowing a dose of acetate of morphia. Luckily the dose was so large that Sandeau’s stomach refused to digest it. George Sand herself Balzac admired but did not care for at this time. He would talk to her amiably when he met her at the Opera; but, if she invited him to dinner, he invented an excuse, if possible, for not going. “Don’t speak to me,” he would say, “of this writer of the neuter gender. Nature ought to have given her more breeches and less style.”
His opinion, however, did not prevent him, in 1842, from accepting her help. An article had come out in her Revue Independante, without her knowledge, attacking him violently. She wrote to apologize; and Balzac called on her, to explain, as he informed Madame Hanska, how injustice serves the cause of talent. She told him then that she should like to write a thorough study of him and his books; and he made as though he would dissuade her, saying that she would only get herself in bad odour with his critics. Still she persisted, and he accordingly asked her to compose a preface for an ensuing publication of his whole works, the preface to be a defence of him against those who were his enemies. Whether this notice was written before the novelist’s death is uncertain. At any rate, it was not printed until 1875, when it appeared in her volume Autour de la Table.
It was difficult for Balzac to be fair towards those men of letters among his contemporaries who excelled in his own domain; yet his judgment, when unwarped, was fine, keen, and, in many instances, endowed with prophetic sight. For instance, in placing Alfred de Musset as a poet above Victor Hugo or Lamartine, he daringly contradicted the opinions of his own day, and anticipated a criticism which is at present becoming respectable if not fashionable. On the other hand, his estimate of Volupte, Sainte-Beuve’s just then published novel, which he was soon to imitate and recreate in his Lily in the Valley, was manifestly prejudiced. He called it a book badly written in most of its parts, weak, loosely constructed, diffuse, in which there were some good things, in short a puritanical book, the chief character of it, Madame Couaen not being woman enough. His opinion, which he imparted to Madame Hanska, he apparently took no trouble to conceal, for Sainte-Beuve was evidently aware of it when he treated Balzac very sharply in an article of this same year of 1834. From that date, the celebrated lecturer looked with coldness and disfavour on the novelist, and even in his final pronouncement of the Causeries du Lundi, shortly after Balzac’s death, he meted out but faint praise.
Something has been said in a previous chapter of the novelist’s belief in certain occult powers of the mind, with which the newly discovered action of magnetism seemed to him to be connected. At first, his ideas on the subject were a good deal mixed. When, in 1832, a terrible epidemic of cholera was spreading its ravages, he wrote to Doctor Chapelain, suggesting that somnambulism — he would have called it hypnotism to-day — should be employed to seek out the causes of the malady, and a test applied to prove whether its virtues were real or chimerical. In 1834, he had come to pin his faith to the healing powers of magnetism. “When you or Monsieur Hanski or Anna are ill,” he wrote to Eve, “let me know. Don’t laugh at me. At Issoudun, facts recently demonstrated to me that I possess very large magnetic potency, and that, either through a somnambulist” (he meant a hypnotist) “or through myself, I can cure persons dear to me.” To all his friends he reiterated the same advice — magnetic treatment, which he declared his mother capable of exercising as well as himself. Madame Balzac’s initiation into the science was due to the Prince of Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingfurst, Bishop of Sardica, who, in his several visits to Paris between 1821 and 1829, wrought wonderful cures by the simple imposition of hands. As the lady used to suffer from a swelling in the bowels whenever she ate raw fruit, the Bishop, hearing of it, came one day to see her, and applied his method, which cured her. Balzac, being a witness of the miracle, became an ardent investigator in this new branch — or rather old branch revived — of therapeutics. Thenceforward, his predilection for theories of the occult went hand in hand with his equally strong taste for the analytic observation of visible phenomena; and not infrequently he indulged in their simultaneous literary expression. The composing of Seraphita was carried on at the same time as his Search for the Absolute and Pere Goriot.
Both of these two novels were finished and published in 1834. In the Search for the Absolute, we have Balthazar Claes, a man of wealth and leisure, living in the ancient town of Douai, and married to a wife who adores him and who has borne him children. Claes’ hobby is scientific research; his aim, the discovery of the origin of things which he believes can be given him by his crucible. In his family mansion, of antique Flemish style, which is admirably described by the novelist at great length, he pursues his tireless experiments; and, with less justification than Bernard Palissy, encroaches by degrees on the capital of his fortune, which melts away in his furnace and alembics. During the first period of his essays, his wife tries to have confidence in his final success, herself studies all sorts of learned treatises, in order to be able to converse with him suitably and to encourage him in his work; but, at last, unable to delude her own mind any longer, she weeps with her children over the approaching destruction of their home, and the grief wears her out and kills her. Luckily the daughter, Marguerite, is made of sterner stuff than her mother. And, with her brother, she toils to pay her father’s debts and to keep the home together. At the end, Claes himself dies, still absorbed in his chimera, and his last words are an endeavour to formulate the marvellous revelation which his disordered brain persuades him he has now received.
“‘Eureka!’ he cried with a shrill voice, and fell back on his bed with a thud. In passing away, he uttered a frightful groan, and his convulsed eyes, until the doctors closed them, spoke his regret not to have been able to bequeath to science the key of a mystery whose veil had been tardily torn aside under the gaunt fingers of Death.”
The Search for the Absolute may be classed with Eugenie Grandet in the category of the novelist’s best creations. Though Claes is, as much as Grandet, and perhaps more, an abnormal being, his sacrifice of every duty of life to the pursuit of the irrealizable is common enough in humanity. By reason of the novelist’s intense delineation, his figure shows out in monstrous proportions; but these are skilfully relieved by the happier fates of the children. The lengthy descriptions of the opening chapter he defended against his sister Laure’s strictures, asserting that they had ramifications with the subject which escaped her. His presentment, too, of Marguerite he said was not forced, as she thought. Marguerite was a Flemish woman, and Flemish women followed one idea out and, with phlegm, went unswervingly towards their goal. The labour the book had cost him he owned to Madame Hanska. Two members of the Academy of Sciences taught him chemistry, so that he might be exact in his representation of Claes’ experiments; and he read Berzelius into the bargain. Moreover, he had revised and modified the proofs of the novel no fewer than a dozen times.
As Werdet tells, the real work of composition, with Balzac, hardly commenced until he had a set of galley proofs. What he sent first to the printer, scribbled with his crow’s-quill, was a mere sketch; and the sketch itself was a sort of Chinese puzzle, largely composed of scratched-out and interpolated sentences; passages and chapters being moved about in a curious chasse-croise, which the type-setters deciphered and arranged as they best could. Margins and inter-columnal spaces they found covered with interpolations; a long trailing line indicated the way here and the way there to the destination of the inserted passages. A cobweb was regular in comparison to the task which the printers had to tackle in the hope of finding beginning, middle, and end. In the various presses where his books were set up, the employees would never work longer than an hour on end at his manuscript. And the indemnity he had to pay for corrections reached sometimes the figure of forty francs per sixteen pages. Numerous were the difficulties caused on this score with publishers, editors, and printers. Balzac justified himself by quoting the examples of Chateaubriand, Ingres, and Meyerbeer in their various arts. To Buloz, of the Revue de Paris, who expostulated, he impatiently replied: “I will give up fifty francs per sheet to have my hands free. So say no more about the matter.” It is true that Buloz paid him 250 francs per sheet for his contributions.
Indeed, the novelist’s own method of work was a reversal of the natural alternation of regular periods of activity and repose. He not only, as he told all his correspondents with wearisome iteration, burned the midnight oil, but would keep up these eighteen or twenty hours’ daily labour for weeks altogether, until some novel that he was engaged on was finished. During these spells of composing he would see no one, read no letters, but write on and on, eating sparingly, sipping his coffee, and refreshing his jaded anatomy by taking a bath, in which he would lie for a whole hour, plunged in meditation. After his voluntary seclusions, he suddenly reappeared in his usual haunts, active and feverish as ever, note-book ready to hand, in which he jotted down his thoughts, discoveries, and observations for future use. On its pages were primitively outlined the features of most of the women of his fiction.
One of these prolonged claustrations, in October 1834 — the day was Sunday — he interrupted by a call, most unexpected, on Werdet. His face was sallow and gaunt with vigil. He had been stopped in the description of a spot, he explained, by the uncertainty of his recollections, and must go into the city in order to refresh them. So he invited Werdet to accompany him in playing truant for the day. The morning was spent in the slums, where he gathered the information required; and the afternoon they whiled away in listening to a concert at the Conservatoire. Here he was welcomed by the fashionables of both sexes, notwithstanding his shabby costume, which he had donned in view of his morning’s occupation. On quitting the concert room, he carried Werdet off to dine with him at Very’s, the most expensive and aristocratic restaurant in Paris. The place was full of guests; and those who were in proximity to the table where the two newcomers sat down were astounded to see the following menu ordered and practically consumed by one man, since Werdet, being on diet, took only a soup and a little chicken: A hundred oysters; twelve chops; a young duck; a pair of roast partridges; a sole; hors d’oeuvre; sweets; fruit (more than a dozen pears being swallowed); choice wines; coffee; liqueurs. Never since Rabelais’ or perhaps Louis XIV.‘s time, had such a Gargantuan appetite been witnessed. Balzac was recouping himself for his fasting.
When the repast, lengthened out by a flow of humorous conversation, was at length terminated, the nineteenth-century Johnson asked his Boswell if he had any available cash, as he himself had none. Werdet confessing only to forty francs, the novelist borrowed a five-franc piece from him and thundered out his request for the bill. To the waiter who presented it he handed the coin, at the same time returning the bill with a few words scribbled at the foot. “Tell the cashier,” he cried, “that I am Monsieur Honore de Balzac.” And he stalked out with Werdet, whilst all the diners present stared admiringly after the great man.
But the evening was not yet finished. In the garden of the Palais-Royal, then more frequented by society than to-day, they met Jules Sandeau and Emile Regnault. And, as they were near a gambling-saloon, Balzac, who had an infallible system for breaking the bank, proposed to Jules that he should go and try his luck. A twenty-franc piece was wheedled out of Werdet for the experiment, which proved a fiasco. Next, the novelist, to convince his companions of the accuracy of his theory, which he further detailed, went and borrowed forty francs from his heraldic engraver, and sent Sandeau and Regnault into the saloon again. Alas! fate was once more unkind. They returned minus their money. To console themselves, they went to the Funambules Theatre, to see Debureau act in the Boeuf Enrage, and Balzac laughed so loud that he and his party had to leave the theatre. On the morrow Werdet was called upon to pay the restaurant-keeper sixty-two francs, and to reimburse the engraver the forty francs loan, which sums, together with what he had himself advanced, ran Balzac’s debit for the day up to one hundred and twenty-seven francs.
In Pere Goriot, the publication of which came close at the heels of the Search for the Absolute, Balzac traces the gradual impoverishment of a fond father by his two daughters, married, the one to a nobleman, the other to a banker, and whose husbands, when they have received the marriage dowry, give their father-in-law, who is a plebeian, the cold shoulder, and forbid their wives to see him unless in secret. Goriot’s daughters, losing in their grand surroundings the little filial affection they ever had, exploit the old man’s worship of them shamelessly. If they visit him in the boarding-house to which he has retired, after selling his home to endow them more richly, it is solely to get from him for their pleasures the portion of his wealth he has retained for his own wants. And he never refuses them, but sells and sells, until, at last, he is reduced to lodge in the garret of the boarding-house and eat almost the refuse of the table. Around this tragic central figure are grouped the commensals of the Vauquer pension, Rastignac, the young law-student, with shallow purse and aristocratic connections; Bianchon, the future great-gun in medicine, at present walking the hospitals and attending lectures and practising dissections; Victorine Taillefer, the rejected daughter of a guilty millionaire; Mademoiselle Michonneau, the soured spinster, who ferrets out the identity of her fellow-boarder Vautrin, and betrays to justice this cynical outlaw installed so quietly, and, to all appearance, safely, in the pension, where Madame Vauquer, the traipsing widow, lords it serenely, attentive only to her profits.
Of these subsidiary characters, two, Vautrin and Rastignac, furnish a second interest in the story parallel to that of Goriot and his daughters, and constituting a foil. Under the influence of Paris surroundings and experience, Rastignac passes from his naïve illusions to a state of worldly wisdom, which he reaches all the more speedily as Vautrin is at his elbow, commenting with Mephistophelian shrewdness on his fellow-men and the society they form. Himself a man of education, who has sunk from high to low and is branded with the convict’s mark, Vautrin is yet capable of affection of a certain kind; but, in the mind and heart of the youth he would fain advantage, he is capable only of inculcating the law of tooth and claw. “A rapid fortune is the problem that fifty thousand young men are at present trying to solve who find themselves in your position,” he says to Rastignac. “You are a single one among this number. Judge of the efforts you have to make and of the desperateness of the struggle. You must devour each other like spiders in a pot, seeing there are not fifty thousand good places. Do you know how one gets on here? By the brilliance of genius or the adroitness of corruption one must enter the mass of men like a cannon-ball, or slip into it like the plague. Honesty is of no use.” Having a tempter about him of Vautrin’s calibre, strong, undauntable, as humorous as Dickens’ Jingle, but infinitely more unscrupulous and dangerous, Rastignac is gained over, in spite of his first repulsion. The nursing and burying of Pere Goriot are his last acts of charity accorded to the claims of his higher nature, and even these are sullied by his relations with one of Goriot’s daughters. Standing on the cemetery heights, and looking down towards the Seine and the Vendome column, he flings a defiance to the society spread beneath him, the society he despises but still wishes to conquer.
In this novel many social grades are gathered together, and the reciprocal actions of their representative members are rendered with effective contrast and a good deal of dramatic quickness. The chief theme, though so painful, is developed with less strain and monotony than in some other of the novelist’s works by reason of a larger application, conscious or unconscious, of Shakespeare’s practice of intermingling the humorous with the tragic. Even the comic is not entirely absent, Madame Vauquer especially supplying interludes. The novelist himself chuckled as he put into her mouth a mispronunciation of the word tilleul,9 and explained to Madame Hanska, whose foreign accent in speaking French suggested it, that he chose the fat landlady so that Eve should not be jealous.
9 English linden, or lime-tree.
Balzac’s too great absorption in his writing forced him more than once in this year to go into the country and recuperate his health. During the earlier months he spent a short time with the Carrauds at Frapesle, which was a favourite sojourn of his, and, later on, at Sache, a pleasant retreat in his native Touraine. His iron constitution was not able always to resist the demands continually made upon it; and his abuse of coffee only aggravated the evil. To Laure he acknowledged, while at Sache, that this beverage refused to excite his brain for any time longer than a fortnight; and even the fortnight was paid for by horrible cramps in the stomach, followed by fits of depression, which he suffered when suddenly deprived of his beloved drink. In his Treatise of Modern Stimulants he describes its peculiar operation upon himself. “This coffee,” he says, “falls into your stomach, and straightway there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army on the battlefield, and the battle takes place. Things remembered arrive full gallop, ensign to the wind. The light cavalry of comparisons deliver a magnificent, deploying charge; the artillery of logic hurry up with their train and ammunition; the shafts of wit start up like sharp-shooters. Similes arise; the paper is covered with ink; for the struggle commences and is concluded with torrents of black water, just as a battle with powder.”
When he tells us how Doctor Minoret, Ursule Mirouet’s guardian, used to regale his friends with a cup of Moka mixed with Bourbon coffee, and roasted Martinique, which the Doctor insisted on personally preparing in a silver coffee-pot, it is his own custom that he is detailing. His Bourbon he bought only in the Rue Mont Blanc (now the Chaussee d’Antin), the Martinique, in the Rue des Vieilles Audriettes, the Moka at a grocer’s in the Rue de l’Universite. It was half a day’s journey to fetch them.
The Tigers or Lions, of the Loge Infernale at the Opera, have already been spoken of. It was in this year that Balzac, as belonging to the Club, gave a dinner to its members, the chief guest being Rossini. Nodier, Sandeau, Bohain, and the witty Lautour-Mezeray were also present. He doubtless wore on the occasion his coat of broadcloth blue, made by his tailor-friend Buisson, with its gold buttons engraved by Gosselin, his jeweller and goldsmith. On his waistcoat of white English pique twined and glittered the thousand links of the slender chain of Venice gold. Black trousers, with footstraps, showing his calves to advantage, patent-leather boots, and his wonderful stick, which inspired Madame Delphine Gay to write a book, completed the equipment.
This stick was certainly in existence in 1834, being mentioned in the correspondence with Madame Hanska during that year. Werdet, however, connects its origin with the novelist’s imprisonment, two years later, in the Hotel de Bazancourt, popularly known as the Hotel des Haricots, which was used for confining those citizens who did not comply with Louis-Philippe’s law enrolling them in the National Guard and ordering them to take their turn in night-patrol of the city. Balzac was incurably recalcitrant. Nothing would induce him to encase himself in the uniform and serve; and, whenever the soldiers came for him, he bribed them to let him alone. Finally, these bribes failed of their effect, and an arrest-warrant was issued against him. In his ordinary correspondence two experiences of his being in durance vile at the Hotel des Haricots are mentioned, one in March 1835, another in August 1836. The latter of these is differently dated in the Letters to the Stranger, the end of April being given, unless, indeed, there were two confinements close together, which is hardly probable. What is most likely is, that Werdet has confused two things, the story of the lock of hair, properly belonging to 1836, and the making of the stick, which belongs to 1834. Here is his narration:—
The publisher one day received a note requesting him to go at once to the prison and to take with him some money. He went with two hundred francs, and found Balzac, in his Dominican’s dress, installed in a small cell on the third story, busily engaged in arranging papers. Part of the money brought was utilized to order a succulent dinner, which Werdet stayed and shared in the smoky refectory below. Both prisoner and visitor were very merry until the door opened and Eugene Sue, the popular novelist, entered, himself also a victim of the conscription law. Invited to join in the meal, Sue declined, saying that his valet and his servant were shortly to bring him his dinner. This repulse damped Balzac’s spirits until the arrival of a third victim, the Count de Lostange, chief editor of the Quotidienne, who sat down willingly to table. Then Balzac forgot Sue’s rudeness, and the mirth was resumed. Notwithstanding the efforts of the novelist’s influential friends, the Count de Lobau, who was responsible for the arrest, showed himself inexorable, and a second day was spent in captivity, which Werdet came again towards evening to enliven. A whole pile of perfumed epistles sent by feminine sympathizers was lying on the table, and the publisher had to open them and read them aloud to his companion. When a third day’s confinement was decided on by the authorities, Werdet arranged to celebrate it by a dinner that should merit being put on record. He therefore secured the presence of some intimates of the novelist, among them being Gustave Planche and Alphonse Karr; and at 5 P.M., eight people were assembled in the cell, with Auguste, Balzac’s valet, to serve them. The restaurant-keeper Chevet’s menu of exquisite dishes was suitably moistened with excellent champagne sent by a Countess, and, when the feast was in full progress, Balzac took a scented parcel from among his presents and asked permission to open it. The authorization being granted, he undid the parcel, and disclosed a mass of long, fair, silky hair threaded into a gold ring that was set with an emerald. On the gift was an inscription in English: From an unknown friend. A great discussion ensued. One irreverent speaker opined that the thing was a hoax, and that the hair had come from a wig-maker’s; but his blasphemy was shouted down. Another proposed that Balzac should cut off his own long, flat locks (it was in 1834 that he began to let them grow) and should send them addressed to the Unknown Fair One. Poste Restante. But this suggestion, too, was not approved. The locks were proclaimed to be national property, and to be cut off only by the passing of a special law. Next, the ring was discussed; and here it was that Balzac, struck with a brilliant idea, announced his intention of ordering Gosselin, the goldsmith, to manufacture a marvellous hollow stick-knob in which a lock of the blond hair should be inserted, and all over the top of the knob were to be fixed diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, topazes, rubies, chosen out of the many he had had given him by his rich lady-enthusiasts. On the morrow, he was released, after spending, during the few days he had been locked up, five hundred and seventy francs in refreshment for himself and visitors.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51