Sometimes, notwithstanding his affected indifference, Balzac was provoked by the pleasantries, the fleerings and floutings of satirists and caricaturists, who, finding so many weak points in his armour — so much that was ridiculous in his exaggerations, might be excused for choosing him as a quarry for their wit, if not for the wit’s grossness. In 1839, the Gazette des Ecoles inserted in one of its numbers a lithograph exhibiting the novelist in the debtors’ prison at Clichy, clad in his monk’s gown, and sitting at a table on which there were bottles of wine and a champagne glass. In his left hand he grasped a pipe that he was smoking, and his right arm was round a young woman’s waist. Beneath the lithograph was the inscription: “The Reverend Father Dom Seraphitus, Mysticus Goriot, of the Regular Order of Clichy Friars, taken in by all those he has himself taken in, receives amidst his forced solitude the consolations of Sancta Seraphita (Scenes of the Hidden Life, sequel to those of Private Life).
The last sentence being open to the interpretation that the subject of the caricature was a dishonest man, a complaint was lodged with the Procureur-General against the proprietor of the paper, and was supported by the newly-constituted Men of Letters Society.
This Society, of which Balzac may be considered almost the founder, came into existence during his journey to Italy in the preceding year. On his return, he at once became a member; and, for a while, took a prominent part in all its deliberations, being elected on the committee, as also Victor Hugo, with whom thenceforward his relations were, at least outwardly, most cordial. In the first lawsuit engaged by the Society against the Memorial de Rouen for the purpose of defending the principle of literary property, he pleaded with all the force of his talent, and composed a Literary Code and some Notes on Literary Ownership containing not a few excellent suggestions. His, too, was the initiative for the drawing up of a petition to the King, with a view to the establishment of literary prizes to be bestowed on well-deserving authors every ten years. The King, or rather his advisers, rewarded this zeal but ill. At one of the committee meetings Balzac was prevented from attending by a three days’ confinement in a dirty lock-up at Sevres, the cause being the old one which had partly driven him from Paris — his unwillingness to go, as he humorously put it, into the vineyards of his village, and, dressed in uniform, to see that truants from Paris were not eating the grapes.
His rural retreat, indeed, was scarcely the safe asylum he had fondly hoped it would be. Allusion has already been made to one defect — that of the walls which, unlike those of Jericho, did not wait for the trumpeters’ blast before they fell down. They had an incurable preference for tumbling down of themselves. Constructed on a subsoil of sandy nature, their foundations yielded at every spell of rain. In vain, architect after architect was applied to, and one mode or another was recommended of relaying and buttressing. At the next downpour, the servant would disturb his master with the news: “The walls have toppled over again, sir, into the neighbours’ gardens.” And the neighbours’ gardens were planted with all kinds of edible vegetables, which were crushed and pounded out of shape and succulence, so that the owner of Les Jardies had claims for damage continually sent in, until, in sheer despair, pledging his credit more deeply, he purchased the land beyond, content, at length, that his walls should be able to carry on their freaks in his own demesne, without let or hindrance or objection from any one. It is said that the land on which Les Jardies stood was so much on the incline that Frederick Lemaitre, who once ventured over there, was compelled to take a couple of stones and place them at each step under his feet in order to approach the house. This was, no doubt, one of the actor’s jokes. It is probable that, in selecting the site, Balzac had in his thought the facility the place would afford for reconnoitering when any one came to his doors. The domestics were directed to keep a sharp look-out; and, as soon as a figure was seen approaching that appeared to be a creditor or of the State functionary tribe, the blinds of the abode were lowered, the dog Turk was dungeoned, and every trace of there being inhabitants vanished. After ringing uselessly, the unwelcome visitor generally retreated under the impression that the place was deserted. Then, when the last echo of his steps had died away in the distance, the blinds were drawn up again, Turk, barking with joy, was released from his captivity, and, like the castle of the Sleeping Beauty, Les Jardies re-awoke to its normal activity. How ever the tiers of planted beds perched one above the other — a modern example of the hanging gardens of Babylon — were made to resist the solicitations of the walls was a puzzle to Balzac’s familiars. As for trees, only one, a walnut, managed, by dint of perpetual acrobatism, to conserve a stable equilibrium.
Most of the fiction published by Balzac in 1839 — A Provincial Great Man in Paris, the Secrets of the Princess de Cadignan, and the Village Cure — was written with great verve, and may be classed in the list of his important work. The second of the three just mentioned, which is the shortest, gives us the story of a woman who, after losing her fourteenth lover, succeeds in getting a fifteenth, d’Arthez, to believe her virtuous and a sort of saint maligned by envy. There is cleverness and to spare in the way the wiles of this sly jade are related, and falsehood shown as a fine art in the service of passional love. Balzac was thoroughly at home in treating such a theme. Both d’Arthez and the Princess are prominent characters in certain others of his books. The former appears in the Provincial Great Man in Paris, which the author calls an audacious and frightfully exact painting of the inner morals of the French capital.
It formed a sequel to a previously published short novel, the Two Poets, and made part of a still larger series united under the title Lost Illusions, the entire work being completed in the Forties with Splendour and Wretchedness of Courtezans, this last portion having also more than one section. The first two volumes of the Lost Illusions narrate the early experiences of Lucien de Rubempre, a young poet of Angouleme, whose family, with some claims to gentility, has fallen into narrow circumstances, the widowed mother being obliged to earn money as a midwife, and the daughter as a laundry-woman. The latter’s marriage with David Sechard, a printer, alters the situation of the family for the better; and Lucien is enabled to occupy himself in the printing-house, while pursuing his poetical efforts. Though his literary talent, for the time being, has no value in cash, it procures him the friendship of Madame de Bargeton, a grand dame of Angouleme; or, more properly speaking, it is the pretext and justification; for Lucien really owes the lady’s favour to his Apollo-like beauty. Subsequently the poet, desirous of shining in Paris, quits his native place with a sum of money scraped together by his sister and brother-in-law, and goes to the capital, accompanied by Madame de Bargeton. His liaison there with the lady is but of short duration. In compensation, however, he becomes acquainted with a new literary world, into which he enters with his meagre stock of poems, plus a novel; and, after a number of adventures, turns journalist, a metamorphosis that supplies the author with an opportunity to rage furiously against all those of that ilk. The rest of the first part of the Lost Illusions is taken up with the amours of Lucien and an actress named Coralie, who gives the poet her heart and person, yet he sharing the second with the rich Camuzot. Coralie really loves Lucien, even though playing afresh the role of Manon to his des Grieux; but Lucien, less constant in affection, and finding how difficult it is to secure wealth and position, abases his pen to vile uses, and would gladly abandon his mistress for a profitable marriage. At length a duel, in which he is dangerously wounded, lays him on a sick-bed, and Coralie, who has sacrificed her situation on the stage to her love for him, and is herself ill, rises to nurse him back to health, and dies under the strain.
The further history of Lucien de Rubempre belongs to the Splendour and Wretchedness of Courtezans. Both the beginning and the middle and the end exhibit the strong and the weak points of the novelist. The defects were dwelt upon in the Revue de Paris, soon after the book’s first part came out, in probably the longest critical article devoted to any single one of Balzac’s writings. By the irony of events, Jules Janin, who was the author of it, praised, some dozen years later, where now he cursed. There was exaggeration in his panegyric, pronounced in 1850 under the impulse dictating generosity to the memory of a dead foe; and there was exaggeration also in his polemic indited under the smart of Balzac’s gibes against the press. However, the closing words of the article, save for the tone, can hardly be gainsaid: “Never,” asserted Janin, “has Monsieur de Balzac’s talent been more diffuse, never has his invention been more languishing, never has his style been more incorrect, even if we include the days when the illustrious novelist had nothing to fear from serious criticism, days when he was too unknown to be noticed by the small newspapers, days when Monsieur Honore de Balzac was as yet only Monsieur Horace de Saint-Aubin.”15
15 A nom de guerre of Balzac in his apprenticeship days.
The preceding remarks might be applied in substance to the Village Cure, which is one of the most incoherent of the novelist’s productions. “I have no time to finish the book; just the part that concerns the Cure will be wanting,” he explained to a correspondent. A good deal else was lacking when it was published, the whole resembling a patchwork of odds and ends of the crudest and least harmonious design. Its central figure is Veronique, the wife of a Limoges banker named Grasselin, and greatly her senior, to whom she has been married by her parents before she has had the time to know anything of love and its behests. Led by her goodness of heart to patronize a youth in her husband’s employ, she falls in love with him, as he with her, and, through weakness, becomes his mistress. A murder, of which the young Tascheron is accused, and, as the issue proves, quite justly, interrupts this culpable idyll; and the assassin is condemned and executed, without revealing the secret of his liaison, and without Madame Grasselin’s interfering to save him, otherwise than vaguely, through the Cure of the district. None the less, she is aware that the act has been committed indirectly through the young man’s love for her. Smitten with remorse, after the execution, she quits Limoges, and, removing into the country, endeavours there by a life of charity and devotion to religion to redeem her lapse from her wifely duty. Then, finally, she dies in presence of the Archbishop, of Bianchon the great doctor, and of the Procureur-General and other witnesses, whom she has sent for to listen to her confession of moral complicity, the death scene being narrated with much theatrical emphasis. On to this melodramatic subject, wilfully rendered obscure, and really incomprehensible, the novelist did his best to tack various illustrations of Catholic repentance. He intended the book to be the glorification of Catholicism, the refutation of Protestantism, the embodiment of virtues private and social in people who bowed themselves to his ideal of faith; the story he used simply as a thread to connect these things together. Consequently, the action is intermittent, being checked by irrelevant episodes, and by long tirades on agriculture, sociology, and on other theories set forth by the writer with much zeal but also with much acrimony. Catholicism is asserted to be the only Church which has shown humanity its way of safety; Tascheron’s sister, who returns from America, is made to relate that in a certain place where Catholic influence prevailed, the Protestants were very soon chased away. To this religion of such charming mansuetude whenever it has the upper hand, a Protestant engineer named Gerard is converted by puerile arguments which in any other domain than the theological would seem to be the divagations of a lunatic; and the Cure Bonnet proclaims the necessity of passive obedience by the masses to the Church’s rule in matters civil as well as ecclesiastic. To add spice to this farrago of absurdity, Balzac spits out his hatred of the English, albeit he is compelled to acknowledge their common sense. As he confessed to the Marquis de Custine, it was his delight to abuse England, and its inhabitants, whether men or women.
From what we know of his relations with Madame Visconti, we may, however, suppose that his prejudice against the perfide Albion was not very deep-rooted. Indeed in his sentiments, as in his conduct, consistency was conspicuous by its absence. We find this would-be Legitimist, absolutist, ultra-orthodox worshipper of every old-time privilege and doctrine, yet continually saying and doing things that savour more of the democratic than the aristocratic. Towards the disintegration of monarchic attachments, his fiction contributed at least as much as that of George Sand; and even his comic resistance to the compulsory service required of him in the National Guard showed how little he was inclined to accept for himself those doctrines of authority which he would fain impose on others.
Such incongruity between his theory and practice may have struck the members of the Academie Francaise, who manifested their disapproval of his candidature so unmistakably in 1839 that he withdrew in favour of Victor Hugo. This forced concession perhaps tinged the portrait he sketched of Hugo for Madame Hanska about the same time. “Victor Hugo,” he said, “is an exceedingly witty man; he has as much wit as poetry in him. His conversation is most delightful, with some resemblance to that of Humboldt, but superior and allowing more dialogue. He is full of bourgeois ideas. He execrates Racine, and treats him as a sorry sort of man. On this point he is quite mad. His wife he has thrown over for J——; and gives for such conduct reasons of signal meanness (she bore him too many children; notice that J—— has borne him none). In fine, there is more good than bad in him. Although the good traits are an outcome of pride, and although in everything he is a deeply calculating man, he is amiable on the whole, and, besides, is a great poet. Much of his force, value, and quality he has lost by the life he leads, having overdone his devotion to Venus.”
Calling Hugo a great poet meant little in Balzac’s mouth. Of poetry he made but small account, probably because he succeeded so ill in it himself. When poets appear in his stories, they are rarely estimable characters. For Lucien de Rubempre he has only little sympathy. The three specimens of Lucien’s verse given in the novel he procured from his acquaintances. The sonnet to Marguerite was composed by Madame de Girardin; the one to Camellia, by Lassailly, and that to Tulipe, by Theophile Gautier.
A movement of disinterested generosity displayed by him in the same year was his fight, in conjunction with the artist Gavarni, on behalf of Sebastien Benoit Peytel. Peytel was a notary living at Belley, who, on the 20th of August 1839, was condemned to death by the Ain Assizes on a charge of murdering his wife and man-servant. Balzac had known him some time before in Paris, when both were on the staff of the theatrical journal Le Voleur. The Court of Cassation was appealed to in vain and the sentence was carried out at Bourg on the 28th of October. As long as there seemed the slightest chance of preventing the execution, Balzac continued his efforts to save the notary, though blamed by his family and friends for his interference, which they set down as quixotic. Presumably Peytel had committed the crime in a fit of jealous passion, to punish his wife’s adultery. A curious drawing by Balzac exists in the first volume of his general correspondence, in which Gavarni is represented mocking the headsman; and, accompanying the design, is an autograph letter to Dutacq, managing director of the Siecle, referring to an article on the question published by the novelist in that paper.
The time and money he gave to this lost cause were all the more meritorious as his own concerns demanded greater attention than ever. A new departure had occurred in journalism. The appearance of certain cheaper newspapers necessitated a change in the roman feuilleton; and the Presse and Siecle, which had inaugurated the reform, and to both of which Balzac contributed fiction, laid down the principle that they would print only short tales complete in three or four numbers. This was hard on the novelist. For him to compress a story within artificial limits determined by an editor was a task even more difficult than to write a play.
It must have been the desire to escape from such servitude which induced him to launch into another adventure with a journal of his own. The Revue Parisienne, which he founded in July 1840, was not a newspaper but a magazine, intended to supply the public, at a reasonable price, with tales, novels, poetry, and articles of criticism both literary and political, and to give the same public for their money more than three times as much matter as they would get in other reviews. The success of Alphonse Karr’s monthly Guepes, which was reported to be selling extraordinarily, encouraged him to believe that his own fame, wider spread in 1839 than in 1836, and greater, would suffice to assure a similar result. Author and editor combined, he made the three numbers of his review, which were all he was able to bring out, at any rate the equal of the older established monthlies. In the three appeared his Z. Marcas, and A Prince of Bohemia, the former a resuscitation of the Louis Lambert species of hero transformed into a politician. The Russian Letters, likewise political, furnish a very exact and comprehensive sketch of the general state of mind in Europe at the commencement of the Forties. One article of criticism praised to the skies Stendhal’s Chartreuse de Parme published in the previous year. A letter he had addressed to Stendhal in April 1839 was more moderate in its tone, though eulogistic with its well-turned compliment: “I make a fresco, and you have made Italian statues.” He blamed the writer in his letter for situating the plot of the Chartreuse in Parma. “Neither state or town,” he told him, “should have been named. It should have been left to the imagination to discover the Prince of Modena and his minister. Hoffman never failed to obey this law without exception in the rules of the novel. If everything be left undefined as regards reality, then everything becomes real.” In short, notwithstanding parts that were too long drawn out, he found the whole a fine piece of work; and, if a modern Machiavelli were to write a novel, it would be, he said, the Chartreuse de Parme.
Between the judicious language employed in the letter and the article of the Revue Parisienne, the difference was so enormous that Beyle himself remarked: “This astonishing notice, such as never one writer had from another, I read, let me own it, amid bursts of laughter. Whenever I came to fresh flights of eulogy — and I met with them in every paragraph — I could not help thinking how my friends would look when they saw them.” “The reason for this augmented enthusiasm must be sought,” says Sainte-Beuve, “in the fact that Stendhal lent or gave Balzac a sum of five thousand francs in the interval, and thus received back a service of amour propre for the service rendered in cash. Since the proof of this gift or loan was found in Beyle’s papers, at his death, Sainte-Beuve’s explanation seems well grounded; and yet, for Balzac’s credit, one could have wished his praise more spontaneous.”
The cessation of the Revue Parisienne forced its founder again to enter the ranks of paid contributors to the daily press, and to comply with its exigencies. Yet not entirely. His qualities and his defects alike led him frequently to break from restraint and to follow his own bent, maugre the complaints of readers, maugre editors’ entreaties; and, even in the final phase of his production, there were some masterpieces supporting comparison with those of his best period.
At the end of the Thirties, he was again, like Bruce’s spider, renewing his efforts to climb on to the stage. He had three pieces in hand, La Gina, Richard the Sponge-Heart, and his School for Husbands and Wives, already mentioned. The last he had now managed to carry through to its conclusion; and, in February 1839 there seemed to be some prospect of his getting it played. Pereme, an influential acquaintance of his in the theatrical world, had persuaded the Renaissance theatre to accept it on approval, but was less fortunate with regard to the fifteen thousand francs which Balzac had asked for on account. The roles were discussed and partially distributed. Henry Monnier and Frederick Lemaitre were to be chief actors on the men’s side, Mesdames Theodore and Albert on the women’s. On the 25th of the month, the author presented himself with his manuscript before the reading committee; and, to his intense annoyance and dismay, was compelled to put it back into his pocket. Either the committee feared the expense which the representation would have entailed, or else the elder Dumas, who was one of their most successful suppliers of dramas, and had recently fallen out with them, must have made up the quarrel just before Balzac’s comedy was read. Whatever the reason was, the rejection of the piece grievously affected the novelist, who, besides losing a great deal of valuable time, had spent money to no purpose in having his comedy printed.
It must be acknowledged that, in dramatic composition, whatever Balzac had so far done by himself was done grudgingly, and, when possible, shifted on to other shoulders. Gozlan relates that Lassailly, who went to Les Jardies and lived there for some little time as a paid secretary, would be rung up at night, when his employer usually worked — rung up not once nor twice, but several times, to hear himself asked whether, in his waking or his dreaming, he had hatched any good plan; and poor Lassailly would have sorrowfully to avow that his brain had conceived nothing of any importance in the way of drama.
How Harel, the managing director of the Porte-Saint-Martin, was brought to give in the same twelve-month to the rejected of the Renaissance a firm promise that anything he liked to do for that theatre should be acted is an impenetrable mystery. But then Harel himself was an oddity, and he may have felt bowels of compassion for a confrere so original. The story goes that once he tried to borrow thirty thousand francs from King Louis-Philippe. “Ah! Monsieur Harel,” replied the monarch, smiling, “I was thinking of applying to you for a similar sum.”
The subject that, after much cogitation, Balzac chose for Harel’s stage was Vautrin — the Vautrin of Pere Goriot and the Lost Illusions — back at his old trade of acting Providence to a presumably fatherless and friendless young man, whose fortunes he sought to advance by means similar to those that had brought Lucien de Rubempre (we are anticipating a little) to so miserable an end. In the concluding act of the play, the young man discovers that he has a family, and a father who is a noble; and he marries the girl he loves. But Vautrin is arrested, and, although he has been the instrument of his protege’s happiness, he is led off to prison once more. The theme, as treated, was a somewhat hackneyed one, and was further spoiled by ill-managed contrasts of the serious and comic, of which in any form the French stage was not tolerant. Objection has been made on the same score to the School for Husbands and Wives at the Theatre Francais, where it had been offered after its rejection by the Renaissance.
Balzac himself had no great opinion of his dramatic arrangement of Vautrin. He had done wrong, he said, to put a romantic character on the stage. After the play was finished, he re-wrote nearly the whole of it; and, from what Theophile Gautier relates about the way in which it was primitively composed, we can well believe that the revision was necessary. When the treaty with Harel was signed, Balzac installed himself in the small apartment which he rented at his tailor’s, No. 104 Rue de Richelieu, and sent for Gautier. “I am going to read to Harel to-morrow,” he announced, “a grand five-act drama.” “Ah!” replied Gautier; “so I suppose you want us to hear it and to give you our opinion.” “The play is not yet written,” answered Balzac coolly. “You shall do one act; Ourliac, a second; Laurent Jan, a third; de Belloy, a fourth; and I, the fifth. There are not so many lines in one act. With all of us working together, we shall be able to complete it by to-morrow.” Objections were timidly put forward as to the hotch-potch that was likely to result from so improvized a method of work; but the hasty playwright overruled them all. It need hardly be said that the five acts were not ready on the morrow, nor for some time after. In fact, Laurent Jan was the only collaborator who gave any considerable help. To him, in acknowledgment, Balzac dedicated the piece, which was performed on the 14th of March 1840.
Knowing what a number of enemies he had among the Parisian journalists and critics, whom he had satirized with increased causticity in his latest fiction, the author endeavoured to pack the theatre with his friends, but there was a large leakage in the sale of tickets; and, on the eventful evening, the seats were occupied by a majority of persons hostile to him. He must have had an inkling of this; for, when sending a ticket to Lamartine, he said to him: “You will see a memorable failure. I have done wrong, I believe, to appeal to the public. Morituri te salutant Caesar.” The first portion of the performance was received, on the whole, favourably, though there was no enthusiasm; but, when Frederick Lemaitre, who was entrusted with the role of Vautrin, came on to the stage, in the fourth act, dressed as a Mexican general, and wearing his forelock of hair in a way that appeared to imitate a like peculiarity in the King, there was an outcry among the audience; and Louis-Philippe’s son, who was present, was informed by complaisant courtiers that the travesty was intended as an insult to his father. The next day, Harel was advertized that the authorities forbade any other presentation of the piece; and, on the 16th, the Press, following the Government’s lead, were practically unanimous in anathematizing the unhappy dramatist, the Debats being particularly acrimonious, and asserting that Vautrin was a thoroughly immoral play.
Balzac’s friends, Victor Hugo included, did what they could to get the interdiction raised; but the Minister was inflexible. All that he would consent to was an indemnity of five thousand francs offered through Cave, the Under-Secretary for Fine Arts. This, Balzac indignantly refused. One might have expected such continued ill-luck to prostrate its victim, at least momentarily. Gozlan went out to Les Jardies for the purpose of cheering the hermit up. He found him calm and collected. “You see that strip of land bordering the garden over there?” the latter said, looking out of the window. “Yes.” “I am about to establish there a dairy, with an installation of the best kind, the cows of which will bring me in three thousand francs a year.” Gozlan stared. “And you see the other strip down yonder farther than the wall?” “Yes.” “Well, I intend to plant that with rare vegetables of the sort that used to be supplied to the King’s table. That will bring me in another three thousand francs a year.” Gozlan waited for what would come next. “And you see the plot right facing the southern sun?” “Yes.” “Ah! there I shall plant a vineyard, which will furnish exquisite grapes that I can sell for wine-making in quantities sufficient to bring me in twelve thousand francs a year. This means a revenue of eighteen thousand francs annually. And then, the walnut-tree you see there — I can utilize it to the tune of two thousand francs a year.” “How?” “Ah! that is my secret. So we get a total of twenty thousand francs a year, which I shall gain by the refusal of my Vautrin.”
This was brave talk on the part of the obstacle-breaker, as he loved to call himself. ’Twas also the bravest temper he could assume in face of the outside world. To Madame Hanska he revealed more the cankering disappointment, just as he had a twelvemonth previously, after the mishap of the School for Husbands and Wives. He had fresh thoughts of leaving France, which being, for the nonce, a bear-garden, he said, he detested, and of going away to America, perhaps to Brazil, where he should soon grow rich. He even told her she might next hear from him at Havre or Marseilles, just as he was on the point of embarking for the other side of the Atlantic. He had been reading Fenimore Cooper again; and the descriptions given by this painter of Nature always aroused his roaming instincts. He envied especially Cooper’s power and skill in reproducing the details of a landscape. Once, in a pastry-cook’s shop that he had entered with Gozlan to devour a plate of macaroni, he brandished a book of Cooper’s, which he had been carrying under his arm, while he recounted his fruitless efforts to get experts in botany to tell him how to describe the differences between certain grasses that he wanted to distinguish appropriately in his fiction. An English girl who had served him in the shop listened open-mouthed to the great man, whose name had been uttered by Gozlan; and, when the moment came for settling, marked her appreciation of what she had heard and seen by charging him nothing for the macaroni. Balzac, not to be outdone in generosity, made her a gift of his copy of Cooper, expressing his regret that he had not one of his own novels with him that he might have offered her instead.
No account of this macaroni feast figures in his almost daily letters at this time despatched to Madame Hanska. To her, if he mentioned his diet, its meagreness was emphasized rather. Being in one of his chronic hard-up crises, he excused himself for the intervals that had occurred between some of his previous epistles on the ground of having no ready money for the postage — the rates for Russia, it is true, were high; and he spoke of buying a bit of dry bread on the boulevards, or of intending to beg from Rothschild; then flourished his big debt at the end, quoting fantastic sums, variable as the barometer, which would oblige him sooner or later, notwithstanding his constant devotion to the Countess, whom he loved more than he loved God, to barter himself away to some agreeable young woman who should be willing to bestow her person upon him, plus a couple of hundred thousand francs. Once or twice there was really a question of his making a match through the good offices of his mother, of whom he none the less said fretfully that she did not think much about him. But, on each occasion, the negotiations fell through — why we do not learn. Such information, maybe, he reserved for the various dames in Paris whose houses he still frequented. Madame de Girardin had managed to get him back; and some sort of relations had been re-established between him and her husband, mostly business, since Monsieur de Girardin continued to be editor of the Presse.
One day, Gozlan met him in the Champs Elysees, just as he had left Delphine’s salon. He looked chilly and anxious. The chill he attributed to the unheated drawing-room that he had quitted; but it was due mostly to his condition of mind, then much exercised by something of prime importance to him, the finding of a name for a story which he had written but could not christen, in spite of protracted meditation. It was a man’s name he wanted — a name unusual, striking, suggestive of the extraordinary nature of the person he had created. “Why not try the names you see in the street?” said Gozlan incautiously. “The very thing,” answered Balzac, whose face grew radiant. “Come along with me. We will seek together.” Realizing too late into what an adventure he had allowed himself to be entangled, Gozlan tried in vain to escape. Protests were of no use. Balzac dragged him off; and, with noses in the air and absorbed gaze, the two men promenaded along the Rue Saint-Honore and a number of other streets, knocking up against the people they met and provoking a good deal of profane language from these latter, who regarded them as a couple of imbeciles. At length, Gozlan, like Columbus’ sailors, having more than enough of the tramp, refused to play follow-my-leader any longer; and only after a long palaver was he dragged up one last narrow street dubbed variously the Rue du Bouloi, du Coq Heron, and de la Jussienne throughout its course. Here, suddenly, Balzac stopped dead, and pointed to the word Marcas, inscribed over a door. “That’s what I’ve been looking for,” he cried. “It exactly suits my man. The person that owns the name ought to be some one out of the common — an artist, a worker in gold, or something of the kind.” Inquiry proved that the real Marcas was a modest tailor. However, his name was selected, and the initial Z was tacked on to it for the book, Z being by the novelist’s interpretation a letter of mystic import.
Another rather longer tale than this, belonging to the year 1840, was Pierrette, which the author dedicated to Madame Hanska’s daughter Anna, characterizing it as a pearl “sweated through suffering,” and telling her that there was nothing in it improper — he used the English word. The story is a painful one, and is scarcely suitable for a young girl’s perusal, the heroine, a simple Breton maid, being the victim of an avaricious Provins family, the Rogrons, who under cover of the law, inflict on her such terrible ill-treatment that she ultimately dies from it. Pierrette first appeared as a serial in the Siecle. In the final edition of the novelist’s works it is classed under the Celibates; and, apropos of this heading, may be mentioned the fact that Balzac reproved celibacy as a state injurious to society, and held the opinion, dear to the hearts of certain Parliamentarians of to-day, that the unmarried should be taxed for the benefit of those having large families.
Of course, the agricultural projects entertained for a moment after the interdiction of Vautrin soon faded from Balzac’s mind, which was still harping on the necessity of his conquering the suffrages of the public in his character of dramatist. He now set himself to write a play called Mercadet or the Faiseur,16 the latter word implying by its meaning the tragi-comedy of a penniless financier — the novelist’s own experience was there to guide him — who invents a thousand and one stratagems for keeping his creditors at bay, and for creating the illusion of a wealth which he had not; who deceives himself as well as others; who is neither entirely a rogue nor entirely honest; but who, after all, reaches relative tranquillity and competency more through accident than purpose. The piece was not performed in its author’s life-time; but friends were acquainted with it already in 1840, when Gautier and the rest of the inner circle were summoned to Les Jardies to hear the hermit read it, differing considerably then from the arrangement that was ultimately played. Balzac read it well, with all the inflections peculiar to each character and suitable to every change of circumstance. He had in him, says Gautier, the stuff of a great actor, possessing a full, sonorous, metallic voice of rich, powerful timbre, and kept his audience under the spell from the beginning to the end of the recitation. If Vedel and Desmousseaux, the administrators of the Comedie Francais heard him interpret his own pieces, they might be excused for having, as he asserted they had, a high opinion of his dramatic talent.
16 English, Jobber.
The greatest honour done to Les Jardies during the hermit’s residence there was a visit of Victor Hugo, who came to talk over the affairs of the Men of Letters Society. During lunch, the conversation naturally turned on literature, and the host waxed bitter against the stupidity of kings that neglected letters, and against Louis-Philippe in particular, who had recently put a stop to the evening gatherings — chimney-gatherings they were called — held by the Duke of Orleans for the purpose of honouring the arts. In the afternoon the guests were shown round the domain, and expected to admire its beauties. Hugo was extremely sober in his praises until they came to the famous walnut-tree. Encouraged by the notice accorded to his favourite, the master of Les Jardies repeated to Hugo what he had already affirmed to Gozlan, to wit, that the tree was worth fifteen hundred francs to him (to Gozlan he had said two thousand). “In walnuts, I suppose?” retorted the chief guest quizzingly. “No,” replied Balzac, chuckling, “not in walnuts.” And he proceeded to explain that, by an old custom, the inhabitants of the neighbourhood had been accustomed to make the shadow of the walnut-tree a “temple of all the gods,” and that he had only to exploit the offerings, in the same way as a guano island is exploited to-day, for the fifteen hundred francs to be added to his revenues.
A few months later, in December, Les Jardies, with its walnut-tree and other advantages, was abandoned in hasty flight; and the hermit took refuge in the Passy quarter of Paris. On the house and property a distraint had been levied for moneys due which had not been paid. In total, his desire to abide under his own vine and under his own fig-tree had cost him a sum that he estimated between one hundred thousand and one hundred and twenty thousand francs. Deduction made for his Falstaffian speech, the amount was probably about eighty thousand. This might have been gradually saved and the interest meantime given regularly, if he had been willing to live well within his income. With his system of spending not only what he earned but hoped to earn each year, perpetual insolvency was inevitable.
At Les Jardies he had small creditors as well as great, fear of whom haunted him to the extent of curtailing his walks abroad. Leon Gozlan relates that, going over to Ville d’Avray early one morning, he found Balzac taking a constitutional round the asphalt of his house. “Come and have a stroll in the woods,” said the visitor. “I am afraid,” answered Balzac. “Of what or whom?” “Of the keeper.” Not understanding why the novelist, who would not explain, should be in dread of this humble functionary, and imagining that much study and labour had made his friend a little mad, Gozlan took no denial, and, button-holing Balzac, lugged him off into the leafy avenues. And there, sure enough, after a while, they saw the bugbear, who, as soon as he perceived the two pedestrians, bore down on them with plodding but vigorous step. The shorter of the two turned pale, but tried to put on an air of dignified indifference. Soon the official ran in under their lee, passed alongside with slackened pace, and clarioned into the novelist’s ear: “Monsieur de Balzac, this is beginning to get musical.” The owner of Les Jardies quailed in his shoes. He owed the man thirty francs.
Last updated Wednesday, July 15, 2015 at 16:28