The great event of the year 1843 was Balzac’s visit in the summer to Saint Petersburg, where Madame Hanska had been staying since the preceding autumn. He had hoped to go there in the January, commissioned to exploit an important invention for cheaper shipbuilding, in which his brother-in-law, Monsieur Surville, was concerned. Like each of his previous schemes for quickly becoming rich, this invention turned out to be a soap-bubble, bursting as soon as trial was made of it. What was left intact, however, was his determination to go to the banks of the Neva; and, throughout the spring, successive letters announced preparations for departure. The real motive of his journey was to try to persuade his lady-love to fix the date of their marriage. Her period of mourning was over, and no objection could be made now on the ground of propriety. Such sentimental arguments as Madame Hanska might still put forward, he trusted to be able to overcome by his presence.
In order that she might be the more anxious to see him, he talked again of abandoning literature, and sailing for America. This time the West Indies were his El Dorado. He did not say how the shy millions were to be coaxed into his purse there, unless he wished her to understand he intended to export spices, since he added: “If I had been a grocer for the last ten years, I should have become a millionaire.” Forsooth, these details were mere bluff. His inmost thought was that Eve would prevent his going across the Atlantic now, as Madame de Berny had prevented him — so he said — in 1829. Moreover, there was Balthazar’s prediction that he was to be happy with her for long years. The fortune-teller’s sanctum he attended more frequently than church. Going one day to the house of a magnetizer, a Monsieur Dupotet, living in the Rue du Bac, he gave his hand to a hypnotized woman, who placed it on her stomach and immediately loosed it again with a scared look: “What is that head?” she cried. “It is a world; it frightens me.” “She had not looked at my heart,” commented Balzac proudly. “She has been dazzled by the head. Yet since I was born, my life has been dominated by my heart — a secret which I conceal with care.” All this he related quite seriously to Eve. Probably, Madame de Girardin, who accompanied him on this pilgrimage, could have told Madame Hanska more.
Writing on his birthday, he inserted the prayer he had offered up to his patron-saint for the accomplishment of his desires, its burden indicating how near he believed himself to the longed-for goal: “O great Saint Honore, thou to whom is dedicated a street in Paris at once so beautiful and so ugly, ordain that the ship may not blow up; ordain that I may be no more a bachelor, by decree of the Mayor or the Counsul of France; for thou knowest that I have been spiritually married for nigh on eleven years. These last fifteen years, I have lived a martyr’s life. God sent me an angel in 1833. May this angel never quit me again till death! I have lived by my writing. Let me live a little by love! Take care of her rather than of me; for I would fain give her all, even my portion in heaven; and especially let us soon be happy. Ave, Eva.”
The love fervour of this prayer was a dominant note throughout the twelvemonth; we notice after the visit that the familiar thou prevails over the colder you; and the letters, both in number and length, very largely exceed those he had written up to the end of 1842. Funnily, he expresses admiration of himself for this work of supererogation, informing Eve, on one occasion, that the sixteen leaves he had recently sent her were worth sixteen hundred francs, even two thousand, counting extra leaves enclosed to Mademoiselle Henriette Borel, the governess, for whom he was negotiating an entrance into a nunnery. Love-letters estimated at five francs a page!!!
Let us grant that the epistles at present contained more gossip than ever, so that the recipient of them had her share of amusement. She was wonderfully well kept up in Paris happenings in society, including the stage and art galleries. She learnt that Madame d’Agoult — Daniel Stern19 — had become Emile de Girardin’s mistress, on losing Liszt, who had fallen into the toils of the Princess de Belgiojoso, the latter lady achieving her conquest after luring in succession Lord Normanby from his wife, Mignet from Madame Aubernon, and Alfred de Musset from George Sand. Going to see Victor Hugo’s Burgraves, he reported that it was nothing to speak of as history, altogether poor as invention, but nevertheless poetic, with a poetry that carried away the spectator. It was Titian painting on a mud wall. He chiefly remarked the absence of feeling, which, in Victor Hugo, was more and more noticeable. The author of the Burgraves lacked the true. As he did not publish these opinions, he was able to go on dining with the poet and to praise the beauty of his fourteen-year-old daughter. On George Sand’s Consuelo he pronounced a severer judgment still, calling it the emptiest, most improbable, most childish thing conceivable — boredom in sixteen parts. And yet he had conceived certain improbable plots himself.
19 Her literary pseudonym
Like Charles Lamb, who left his office earlier in the afternoon to make up for arriving late in the morning, he counterbalanced these heavy-handed slatings of his friends by extolling his own performance past and present. Being engaged in revising the Chouans for a fresh edition, he was struck by qualities in it that he had hitherto held too lightly. It was all Scott and all Fenimore Cooper, he said, with a fire and wit, into the bargain, that neither of these writers ever possessed. The passion in it was sublime! Its landscapes and scenes of war were depicted with a perfection and happiness that surprised him. As a piece of self-praise there is probably nothing surpassing this in the annals of literature. In a competition, Balzac’s blasts of vanity would beat the Archangel Michael’s last trump for loudness.
Horace Vernet, he asserted, would never be a great painter. He was a colourist; he knew how to design and compose, had technical skill, and, now and again, found sentiment, but did not understand how to combine these talents in his pictures. He was clever, but had no genius. His alter ego was Delaroche, to whom he gave his daughter in marriage. Of the other painters, Boulanger, Delacroix, Ingres, Decamps, Jules Dupre were his favourites — true artists, he deemed them. At the Salon he saw hardly anything to please him besides a canvas by Meissonier and Cogniet’s Tintoretto painting his Dead Daughter. He would have liked to see Boulanger’s Death of Messalina, but the Salon Committee had refused it.
In music his preferences were as eclectic as in pictures. Liszt, whom he thought ridiculous as a man, he considered superb as a musician — the Paganini of the piano, yet inferior to Chopin, since he had not the genius of composition. And, in singing, Rubini was his idol — Rubini who triumphed in the role of Othello, giving the suspicion air in a manner no one could equal. It intoxicated him to hear this tenor with Tamburini, Lablache, and Madame Grisi; while Nourrit’s song, Ce Rameau qui donne la Puissance et l’Immortalite in Robert le Diable made his flesh creep. It yielded a glimpse of life with all its dreams satisfied.
Originally intending to start for St. Petersburg early in June, Balzac was not able to leave Paris until a month later. As usual, filthy lucre had to do with his tarrying. In spite of a loan of 11,500 francs from lawyer Gavault — his guardian, the novelist called him — who for the privilege of the great man’s friendship had been endeavouring during the two years past to introduce a little order into his affairs, he had not available cash enough for a trip so far, and stayed on, hoping to finish his David Sechard, which was running as a serial in the Etat, and his Esther,20 appearing similarly in the Parisien. June he spent at Lagny, where his manuscripts were being printed, in order to correct the proofs and get his money. But the Etat ceased issue while he was there; and the Parisien, being in parlous condition, refused likewise to pay up, so that he had to go off with a thinner-lined pocket than he had expected. Otherwise, he was in a fitting state of grace to meet his fair tyrant, whose envelope lectures had brought him into fear of her and at least outward obedience.
20 Part of the Lost Illusions.
The torrents of coffee by the aid of which he had forced his last pen-work through, had been reduced to minimum doses; the occasional mustard foot-baths that cured his cerebral inflammations were replaced by entire ablutions every other day; he liked hot baths well enough; but, in the spells of composition, they were often indefinitely adjourned, so that this season of purification had its raison d’etre. And now, with his gaze turned to the east, he wondered how long he was going to remain there. His reply to a person who asked him to pledge himself for some novels on his return reads much as though he were counting on an offer to fix his residence in the empire of the czars. “I don’t know whether I shall come back,” he said. “France bores me. I am infatuated with Russia. I am in love with absolute power. I am going to see if it is as fine as I believe it to be. De Maistre stayed a long time at St. Petersburg. Perhaps I shall stay also.” This he naturally repeated to Madame Hanska. Not that it was new to her. A similar hint had been given in January, when he capped his declaration, “I abhor the English; I execrate the Austrians; the Italians are nothing,” with “I would sooner be a Russian than any other subject.” The comic side of this fury is that Madame Hanska was a Pole, her late husband too; and neither she nor her family were reconciled to the Russian yoke. To make his renunciation more complete, he humbly spoke his dread she might turn from him with the “get away” said to a dog. No! She had no intention of dismissing him. His outpourings of devotion caressed her woman’s pride, even if she did not accept them as gospel truth. And however tedious she found his vamping song of sixpence, his sittings in the parlour counting out his mirage-money, she put up with them in consideration of her privilege.
Sailing from Havre in the Devonshire, an English boat, Balzac arrived at St. Petersburg towards the end of July. He lodged in a private house not far from Eve’s Koutaizoff mansion; but passed the three months of his sojourn almost entirely in her society. It was the first opportunity he had had of getting to know her intimately, their previous meetings being surrounded with too many restrictions to allow of familiar intercourse. No detailed record has come down to us of these days of tete-a-tete existence. All we learn from subsequent allusions is that, together with a good deal of billing and cooing, more sustained on the novelist’s side, there were some lovers’ tiffs, followed by reconciliations. Apparently the friction was mainly caused by Eve’s evasiveness on the subject of their marriage.
It would seem as though there were an attack on her aloofness in the long criticism he sent her from his lodgings on Madame d’Arnim’s Bellina, a French translation of which had been published not long before he left Paris. After some general remarks on the circumstance of a girl’s fancying herself in love with a great man living at a distance, he waxed wroth over what he styled Bellina’s head-love, and over head-love in general. To this monster, Merimee, in his Double Mistake, had given a thrust but a thrust that made it bleed only. The cleverer Madame d’Arnim had poisoned it with opium. “In order for the literary expression of love to become a work of art and to be sublime,” he continued, “the love that depicts should itself be complete; it should occur in its triple form, head, heart, and body; should be a love at once sensual and divine, manifested with wit and poetry. Who says love says suffering; suffering from separation; suffering from disagreement. Love in itself is a sublime and pathetic drama. When happy, it is silent. Now, the cause of the tedium of Madame d’Arnim’s book,” he added, “is easily discoverable by a soul that loves. Goethe did not love Bellina. Put a big stone in Goethe’s place — the Sphinx no power has ever been able to wrest from its desert sand — and Bellina’s letters are understandable. Unlike Pygmalion’s fable, the more Bellina writes, the more petrified Goethe becomes, the more glacial his letters. True, if Bellina had perceived that her sheets were falling upon granite, and if she had abandoned herself to rage or despair, she would have composed a poem. But, as she did not love Goethe, as Goethe was a pretext for her letters, she went on with her girl’s journal; and we have read some (not intended for print) much more charming, not in units, but in tens.”
In the rest of the criticism, Balzac swirls round his guns and directs his fire on Goethe’s replies to Bellina. The latter’s epistles were accompanied with presents of braces and slippers and flannel waistcoats, which were much more appreciated by the poet than her theories on music. Not so did he, Balzac, treat his Lina, his Louloup — such was the inference suggested. Every one of her, i.e. Eve’s sayings was treasured up, after being duly pondered upon. Such adulation must have been delicious to Madame Hanska; and yet she sent her sighing swain back into his loneliness, with his bonds riveted tighter, his promises to break with all rivals more solemn, and a disappointment, over his deferred hopes, that brought on an illness after his return.
The journey back was made by land through Riga, Taurogen, and Berlin. In the Prussian capital, Von Humboldt came to see him with a message from the King and Queen; and Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was seen on the stage, without pleasure being derived from it. To its poesy the novelist was little open. Instead of pushing on straight to France, he bent his course southwards to Dresden, where he visited the Pinakothek. The Saxon town pleased him more than Berlin, both by its structural picturesqueness and surroundings. The palace, begun by Augustus, he esteemed the most curious masterpiece of rococo architecture. The Gallery he thought over-rated; but he none the less admired Correggio’s Night, his Magdalene and two Virgins, as also Raphael’s Virgins, and the Dutch pictures. His highest enthusiasm was aroused by the theatre, decorated by the three French artists Desplechin, Sechan, and Dieterle. He reached Passy on the 3rd of November, having crowded into the preceding week visits to Maintz, Cologne, Aix-la-Chapelle, and several places in Belgium.
The form assumed by his malady was arachnitis, an inflammation of the network of nerves enveloping the brain. For the time being, Nacquart, his doctor, conjured it away, as he had done in the case of other seizures from which the patient had suffered. He had known Balzac since boyhood and was well acquainted with his constitution. Unfortunately he could not change the novelist’s abnormal manner of living and working. And the mischief was in them.
Balzac’s three months’ absence from Paris had caused profane tongues to wag considerably. Notwithstanding his reticence concerning Countess Hanska, a legend had gathered round about their relations to each other. More than one paper reported that he had been off on an expedition, wife, and fortune-hunting — which was true; and one daily, at least, spoke of his having been engaged by the Czar as a kind of court litterateur. The Presse especially annoyed him by copying from the Independance Belge a story of his having been surprised by the Belgian police dining in an hotel with an Italian forger, whose grand behaviour and abundance of false bank-notes had completely captivated him. The forger was certainly arrested in the hotel where he had put up, but the dinner and the chumming were inventions; at any rate, Balzac affirmed they were, uttering furious anathemas against the scorpion Girardin, who had allowed so illustrious a name to be taken in vain.
On the 26th of September, during the St. Petersburg visit, his third finished theatrical piece, Pamela Giraud, was produced at the Gaite Theatre. Differing essentially from his previous efforts, this play is an ordinary melodramatic comedy. Pamela, like Richardson’s heroine, is an honest girl, who, occupied in the humble trade of flower-selling, loves a young man, Jules Rousseau, that she believes to belong to her own modest rank, whereas, in reality, he is the son of a big financier. Involved in a Bonapartist conspiracy, which has just been discovered, Jules comes one night to her room and tries to persuade her to fly with him. She refuses; and, while he is with her, the police enter and arrest him. To save him she consents, though opposed by her parents, to say in Court that her lover had spent the night of the conspiracy with her; and Jules is acquitted through this false confession of her being his mistress. Once the happy result obtained, Jules and his family forget her. The lawyer, however, smitten by her beauty and virtue, proposes to marry her, and is about to carry his intention into effect when, remarking that she is pining for the ungrateful Jules, he contrives to bring him to Pamela’s feet again, and the marriage is celebrated.
Pamela Giraud was written in 1838, but no theatre had been willing to stage it in its original form. Ultimately two professional playwrights, Bayard and Jaime, who had already dramatized, the one, Eugenie Grandet and the Search for the Absolute, the other, Pere Goriot, pruned the over-plentifulness of its matter and strengthened the relief of various parts; and, in the amended guise, it was performed. Balzac resented the modifications, which explains his equanimity on hearing, as he travelled homewards, that the piece had fallen flat. He considered that, presented as he wrote it, the chances of success would have been greater. He was wrong, and those critics as well who attributed the failure to enmities arising out of a recent publication of his, entitled the Monography of the Press. Neither of the two chief dramatis personae was capable of properly interesting a theatrical audience. The character of Jules is contemptible from beginning to end, and that of Pamela ceases to attract after the trial. The conclusion of this play, as that of Vautrin, is an anticlimax and leaves an unsatisfactory impression.
Why did Balzac write his Monography of the Parisian Press? Not altogether from a pure motive, one must own. There is too much gall in his language, too much satire in the thought. He was sufficiently acquainted with the inner ring of journalistic life to be able to say truly what were its blemishes; and, without doubt, at the time when he composed the chief of his novels, these had a prejudicial effect on literature as on other phases of activity. But his pamphlet, besides its indiscriminate condemnations, erred in adopting a style which rendered the turning of the tables only too easy. And Jules Janin, whom he had already indisposed by sketching a seeming portrait of him in the Provincial Great Man in Paris, came down heavily on the daring satirist in the Debats of the 20th of February 1843. The retort, so he informed Madame Hanska, made him laugh immoderately. Perhaps; but the laugh must have been somewhat forced — what the French call “yellow.”
In the Monography, men of letters, baptized by the novelist gendelettres — one of the few words coined by Balzac which have become naturalized — may be divided into several categories. First, there are the publicistes, occupied in scratching the pimples of the body politic. From these pimples they extract a book which is a mystification. Not far removed from the publicistes are the chief managing editors and proprietors general, big wigs who sometimes become prefects, receivers general, or theatrical directors. The type of this class is glory’s porter, speculation’s trumpeter, the electorate’s Bonneau. He is set in motion by a ballet-dancer, a cantatrice, an actress; in short, he is a brigand-captain, with other brigands under him. And of the latter:— There are the Premiers Paris, alias, first tenors. In writing Premiers Paris, it is impossible for a man to avoid mental warp and rapid deterioration. In such writing, style would be a misfortune. One must know how to speak jesuitically; and, in order to advance, one must be clever in getting one’s ideas to walk on crutches. Those who engage in the trade confess themselves corrupt; like diplomatists, they have as a pension the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles Lettres, a few librarianships, even archiveships.
Next to the Premiers Paris come the Faits Paris; then the Camarillists, other banditti commissioned to distort Parliamentary speeches; then the newspaper Politicians, who have not two ideas in their heads. If appointed under-officials, they would be unable to administer the sweeping of the streets. Consequently, the more incapable a man is, the better he is qualified to become the Grand Lama of a newspaper. Indeed, nothing is more explicable than politics. It is a game at ninepins.
In addition to its Politicians, the newspaper has its Attaches. The Attaches of the Republican party are watched very closely. One day two Republicans meet, and the first says to the second: “You have sold yourself; people find you are getting fatter.” Whence it follows that any paper knowing its trade will have only exceedingly thin Attaches; otherwise your Attache will be a mere detached Attache, that is to say, a sort of paid spy, who is mostly a professor of rhetoric or philosophy. He will dine at all tables, with mission to attack political leaders; he runs in and out of newspaper offices, like a dog seeking his master; and, when he has bitten sharply, he becomes the professor of a fantastic science, the private secretary of some cabinet, or else consul-general.
Afterwards come the gendelettre pamphleteers. According to the author of the Monography, the pamphlet is the brochure masterpiece; and he himself is its most illustrious exponent. The Abbe de Lamennais does not know how to speak to the proletariat. He is not Spartacus enough, not Marat enough, not Calvin enough; he does not understand how to storm the positions of the ignoble bourgeoisie at present in power.
Following on are the gendelettre-vulgarisateurs, who have invented Germany. The type of this class is appointed professor in the College de France. He marches at the head of the Nothingologues; he is the almighty king of the Sorbonne. Such people are the skin parasites of France. The Nothingologue is ordinarily monobible;21 and, as the bourgeoisie are essentially lacking in intelligence, they are infatuated with him. The Monobible becomes a director of canals, railways, the defender of negroes, or else the advocate of slavery; in a word, the Nothingologue is an important man, quite as the convinced gendelettre, who reserves to himself the Council of State, and as the sceptic gendelettre, who becomes Master of Requests or Governor of the Marquisas Isles.
21 In Balzac’s use of the word: A man who has written only one book and boasts of it always.
Replying to this diatribe, with its medley of shrewdness and exaggeration, Janin pointed out that it insulted Quinet, professor at the College de France; Sainte-Beuve, the poet, novelist, and critic, the historian of Port-Royal; Philarete Chasles, professor of Foreign Literature; Loeve Weimars, Consul at Bagdad; not to speak of Planche, Berlioz, Michel and Chevalier; and that it came amiss from a man who had lived and still lived on newspapers; who himself had been the chief managing editor, tenor, Jack-of-all-trades, canard-seller, camarillist, politician, premier-Paris, fait-Paris, detache-attache, pamphleteer, translator, critic, euphuist, bravo, incense-bearer, guerillero, angler, humbug, and even, what was more serious, the banker of a paper of which he was the only, unique, and perpetual gendelettre, and which, so admirably written, cleverly conducted, and signed with so great a name, did not live six months.
Within a very few years, Janin was to bury the hatchet of polemics beside Balzac’s grave, and, forgetting the soreness generated in him by the Monography of the Press to constitute himself the dead author’s apologist.
Besides his continuation of Lucien de Rubempre’s story in the Splendour and Wretchedness of Courtezans, Balzac published, in the year 1843, two complete novels, viz. Honorine, and The Muse of the County, and a portion of an historical study on Catherine de Medici. This last work, to which the Calvinist Martyr belongs, was undertaken with the idea of composing, as he said, a retrospective history of France treated clairvoyantly, and, as the fragment shows, with his peculiar bias towards despotism. In the experiment made with Catherine de Medici, he started out thinking to justify and rehabilitate her memory. Instead, he found himself obliged to exhibit her committing the worst actions imaginable; and, his conclusions not concording with his premises, he abandoned further incursions into the past. History is a dangerous ground for a doctrinaire to investigate.
The former of the two novels is mainly psychological. The wife of a Count Octave, having quitted her husband for another, has repented of her fault and separated from her lover, but, through shamefastness, will not return to her husband. She seeks to gain a livelihood by flower-making; and her husband, who still loves her and is full of forgiveness, helps her secretly to obtain orders. At length, by the good offices of a secretary and the latter’s uncle, a priest, he pleads with his wife more efficaciously, and induces her to return to him, yet without her pardoning herself; and she dies in giving birth to a child, dies because she wishes, rather from wounded pride, it would appear, than on account of her husband, to whose affection she is strangely insensible. The heroine is not particularly interesting with her morbidness and hysterical posing; she probably stands for one of Balzac’s principles, and his principles are the most tedious thing about him.
With the Muse of the County, which the author declared to be Constant’s Adolphe treated realistically, we are back in the truer Balzacian manner. Dinah de la Baudraye — a Sancerre Catherine de Vivonne — married to an apology for a man, is human flesh and blood; and her love for the journalist Etienne Lousteau is natural, though culpable. Indeed, her subsequent devotion to this shallow egotist is not without greatness. Here the novelist, as much by his wit as by his denouement, gives perhaps the best practical condemnation of adultery.
“Bah!” says the little de la Baudraye, “do you call it vengeance, because the Duke of Bracciano will kill his wife for putting him into a cage and showing herself to him in her lover’s arms. Our tribunals and society are much more cruel.”
“In what?” asked Lousteau.
“In letting the woman live with a slender allowance. Every one turns away from her. She has neither dress nor consideration, two things which are everything to a woman.”
“But she has happiness,” replied Madame de la Baudraye grandly.
“No!” replied the husband, lighting his candle to go to bed; “for she has a lover.”
Dinah’s punishment is of this kind. Persuaded at length to go back to the house of her husband, who had been made a peer of France and accepts Lousteau’s children with her, she lives to see her former lover and father of her children sink so low that she must despise him, while still occasionally tempted to yield to his caresses.
When Alexandre Dumas, the younger, was received into the French Academy in 1875, the Count d’Haussonville, who welcomed him, asserted that the elder Dumas, like Balzac, Beranger, de Lamennais and others, had preferred to remain an outsider. In the case of Balzac, the Count was mistaken. The so-called preference was Hobson’s choice. He stayed outside only because he could not get in. Between 1839 and 1849, he made several attempts to secure the promise of a number of votes sufficient to elect him. Having stood aside at the earlier date in favour of Victor Hugo, who was admitted in 1841, he thought he might count on a reciprocal service from the poet. And, on Bonald’s death in the same year, he asked him, during the visit to Les Jardies, to use his influence with his colleagues in the Academy. “Hugo promised but little,” says Gozlan; and Balzac had to wait for a better opportunity. This happened at the end of 1843, when Campenon died, and a vacancy occurred which he might reasonably claim to fill. Encouraged at present by Hugo and Charles Nodier, he began the round of visits required by Academy etiquette; but soon discovered that the members whose votes he solicited did not consider him rich enough. He therefore withdrew from the list of candidates, writing to Nodier that, if he could not succeed in entering the Academy while in honourable poverty, he would never present himself at the moment when prosperity should have bestowed her favours on him.
And, so far as personal solicitation was concerned, he never did. Though not abandoning his desire of belonging to the Forty, and esteeming rightly that the value of his work entitled him to a place among them, he felt after this rebuff that, if a fresh proposal were made, it should come from the other side. He might have done more to provoke it had not Madame Hanska been against his taking any further action in the matter, however indirect. Maybe she realized better than he did the uselessness of his candidature. The enemies he had in the Academy and its entourage were too powerful for his claims to be considered. Many years afterwards, Victor Hugo related that the novelist put himself forward for the vacancy left by Ballanche’s death at the end of 1847, and apropos added the following anecdote.
“I was driving,” he said, “down the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, when in front of the Church I perceived Monsieur de Balzac, who beckoned to me to stop. I was going to get out of the carriage, but he prevented me, and said: ‘I was just coming to see you. You know I am on the list for the Academy.’ ‘Really!’ ‘Yes. What do you think of my chances?’ ‘You are too late, I fear. You will get only my vote.’ ‘It is your vote especially I want.’ ‘Are you quite in earnest?’ ‘Quite.’ Balzac quitted me. The election was virtually decided. For political motives. The candidature of Monsieur Vatout had a majority of supporters. I tried to canvass for Balzac, but met with no success. It vexed me to think that a man of Balzac’s calibre should have only one vote, and I reflected that if I could obtain a second one, I might create some change of opinion. How was I to gain it? On the election day I was sitting beside the excellent Pongerville, one of the best of men. I asked him point blank, ‘For whom are you voting?’ ‘For Vatout, as you know.’ ‘I know it so little that I ask you to vote for Balzac.’ ‘Impossible!’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because my bulletin is ready. See.’ ‘Oh! that makes no matter.’ And on two bits of paper I wrote in my best hand: ‘Balzac.’ ‘Well!’ quoth Pongerville; ‘well! you will see.’ The apparitor who was collecting the votes approached us. I handed him one of the bulletins I had prepared. Pongerville, in his turn, stretched out his hand to put Vatout’s name in the urn; but, with a friendly tap on his fingers, I caused his paper to flutter to the floor. He looked, appeared irresolute for a moment; and, as I presented him with the second bulletin, on which Balzac’s name was inscribed, he smiled, took it, and gave it with good grace. And that is how Honore de Balzac had two votes in his favour at the Academy.”
This story is inexact chronologically. Balzac was not a candidate in 1847-48, when Monsieur Vatout was chosen, but at two later elections, those of the 11th and 18th of January 1849. In each of these he obtained two votes; and since the second election was to fill the chair of Monsieur Vatout, who died after occupying it during a twelvemonth, it would seem that Victor Hugo, deceived by his memory, confused the two events. As for the conversation with Balzac, it probably refers to the candidature which the novelist did begin in 1844; and either Hugo’s age in 1877, when he told the story, or his capacity for embellishing was responsible for the interview being tacked on to the election incident of 1849.
The Pongerville mentioned by Hugo was the same in whose album, in 1844, Balzac wrote a couple of complimentary verses. He happened to come across the album at his sister’s, and, after inserting his poetry, took the book to Pongerville’s house without finding him at home. He had certainly reckoned, at the close of the preceding year, on having this Academician’s vote, as well as Dupaty’s, Hugo’s, and Nodier’s. Pongerville may have deemed his own tardy support a sufficient reward for the verses.
Although Balzac’s monetary embarrassments were fated to persist as long as he lived, the causes being so much in the man, their burden was somewhat less felt in and from the year 1844. This better state of things was proved by his looking round for a more commodious residence. The Passy cottage, picturesque as it was, accorded but ill with his designs of marrying so grand a dame; and even for his work was not very suitable, being close to the flats of the Rue Basse, where families lived with children that disturbed his meditations. He would have liked to free Les Jardies from its mortgage and keep the place as a summer resort, while renting a snug mansion in the city during the winter; but the two abodes were hardly within his means, unless Eve would loosen her purse-strings. “I will not sell it,” he informed her, referring to his “Folly”; “it was built with my blood and brains. I will stick to it — if I cannot dispose of it advantageously,” he finished up with, inconsequently. And still she made no sign; or, rather she proffered no cash. Business advice she gave in plenty. About each of the Paris houses suggested she had some objections to make, so that, after fixing successively on a residence belonging to Madame Delannoy (one of his creditor friends) in the Rue Neuve-des Mathurins, on the old mansion opposite his Passy abode once possessed by the Princesse de Lamballe, on the property in the Rue Ponthieu, and on a plot of land in the Allee des Veuves where he thought they could build, the end of the year arrived without any definite solution being reached. The two “louloups,” as he called himself and Eve, filled their correspondence with calculations and figures, the Paris “louloup” expressing his conviction that figures were the foundation of their happiness.
If he did not die too soon, she might consider she would marry a million in giving him her hand, he said. Slily, he now and again quoted his worth in the estimation of a rival feminine authority. For example, Madame de Girardin was about to write an article on the great conversationalists of the day, and had mentioned that she held him to be one of the most charming. However, when he raised his rate of exchange in this way, he was always prudent enough to follow up with concessions. His intimacy with the Englishwoman, Madame Visconti, who was Eve’s bugbear, he broke off completely — at least he swore he had done so and offered to send his beloved tyrant the cold letter in which his whilom friend and benefactress bade him good-bye. To let Eve see it would not be gallant on his part, he confessed; but what could he deny her, if she persisted. He was her Paris agent, even her Paris errand-boy, at one time negotiating the entrance of the governess, Mademoiselle Borel, into the Saint-Thomas-de-Velleneuve nunnery; at another, purchasing gloves, millinery, and other articles of dress. Yet she never considered him submissive enough, notwithstanding his pretty flattery.
“Why shouldn’t you have a poet?” he asked, thinking of himself, “as other people have a dog, a monkey, a parrot — the more so as I have in me something of these three creatures: I always repeat the same phrase, I imitate society, I am faithful.” And again in a burst of lyricism, he exclaimed: “Adieu, loved friend, to whom I belong like the sound to the bell, the dog to his master, the artist to his ideal, prayer to God, pleasure to cause, colour to the painter, life to the sun. Love me, for I need your affection, so vivifying, so coloured, so agreeable, so celestial, so ideally good, of such sweet dominance, and so constantly vibrating.” With comparisons of this sort he was lavish. “I am like Monsieur de Talleyrand,” he told her in another letter. “Either I show a stolid, tin face and do not speak a word, or else I chatter like a magpie.” Adopting the expression first invented by Guizot, he characterized their mutual relations as an entente cordiale, impatient, none the less, for the realization of his fancy, which was to see his idol enter a tabernacle prepared to receive her on the return from a delightful honeymoon. Meanwhile, he was amassing furniture and bric-a-brac, just as the bird bits of straw; and he implored her not to scold him. In the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin, he had ferreted out two Dresden vases, which he bought, resolving to deprive himself for a time of his grapes at forty sous a pound, in order to retrieve the money.
The retrieval indeed was not easy, since his passion for collecting curios led him far, and he generally succumbed to the temptation of something ancient and rare. In the previous autumn he had bought, for thirteen hundred and fifty francs, a secretaire and commode in ebony, with inlaid pearl, that had apparently been manufactured at Florence in the seventeenth century; these objets d’art he estimated at values ranging up to forty or fifty thousand francs. A description of them appeared in the press, and rich amateurs inquired whether he were willing to sell; but, either because he asked too much or really did not want to part with them, they were kept, as also his Christ by Bouchardon or Girardon, which he obtained for two hundred francs and valued at several thousands. If he had no cash for his purchases — and this frequently happened — he placed one of his already acquired treasures (possibly unpaid for, too) in the establishment of his “respectable relative,” as he styled the pawnbroker, and thus secured the coveted object.
In his intercourse with his own family, Madame Hanska was a continuously troubling factor. The prospect of his alliance with this foreign aristocrat had less charm for Madame Balzac and Laure than for Honore. They probably perceived the chimera he was pursuing, and could not be expected to show enthusiasm. This attitude on their side and a certain hauteur on his, partly caused by offended dignity, widened the breach between him and them. “I have now no family,” he told “The Stranger,” “and am glad that the coldness should be established before I am completely happy; for later the reason of it would have been attributed to you, or to what would have been termed my uppishness. The isolation, which you wish, will be likewise my dearest desire. My sister,” he proceeded, “has suppressed for ever the literary question betwixt us, with her blue-stocking whims. I cannot talk to her of my affairs, nor yet of my mother’s. She asserts that her husband is a greater man than I am.” Madame de Berny, he added, had foreseen his mother’s and sister’s transformation when she told him he was a flower that had sprung up on a dunghill! If Madame de Berny told him this, it was no doubt in a fit of anger against them for endeavouring to sever the liaison, an endeavour they were perfectly justified in. These portions of Balzac’s confidences, which reflect upon his character seriously, and besmirch him more than those against whom they were spoken, cannot be overlooked in a biography. They have to be included in our judgment of him, and, in a measure, concern the tragic close of his love romance.
We are fonder of him in the expansive moods when his naïve wonder at his own performances carries him into self-panegyric, which, not infrequently, we can endorse, though with some discount. Thus, for instance, the Bourgeois of Paris he declared to be one of those masterpieces that leave everything else behind. “It is grand, it is terrifying in verve, in philosophy, in novelty, in painting, in style.” And yet there was Eugene Sue selling the Wandering Jew to a newspaper for a hundred thousand francs, while the Philosophy of Conjugal Life, a publication of his own in Hetzel’s Diable a Paris, fetched only eight hundred; and the Peasants was paid for only at the rate of sixty centimes a line. His Modeste Mignon which appeared in the Debats, sold rather dearer, six thousand francs being given, and for the Bourgeois, nine thousand. The explanation of Sue’s getting more than he he imagined to be because Sue lived in grander style than himself with flunkeys to open the door and overawe the publishers who flocked to the successful writer, whereas he, living in a cottage, had to cool his heels in an office ante-chamber, and was exploited on account of his neediness. There was some truth in what he said; but he did not sufficiently realize that Sue wrote, for the market, exciting tales that everybody rushed to read. His own books were, of course, most of them infinitely superior; but they appealed to a much smaller public. All the same, he was loth to resign himself to the depreciation Sue’s bargains effected in his own. Feverishly he strove to demonstrate by his painfully gained successes that they were masterpieces, as he said, by the side of Sue’s chimney-fronts, and as far above them as Raphael was above Dubufe. Moliere, Lesage, Voltaire, Walter Scott — these were the only names he acknowledged as rivals to his own. Sue was nothing but a spangled and satined Paul de Kock.
We can grant him that, in fiction, his proper manner was as far in advance of his epoch as, in politics, his doctrine was behind it. George Sand was a medium in both, although she dwelt always a little too much in the clouds. At a dinner with her towards the end of January, the antagonism of their principles manifested itself over his recent visit to Russia.
“If you were to see the Czar,” Balzac said to her, “you would fall in love with him and jump from your bousingotism22 to autocracy.”
22 A word used to characterise the dress and manners of the Romanticists, who were fond of Robespierre waistcoats, long hair, and other peculiarities intended to distinguish them from ordinary mortals.
Madame Dudevant waxed angry. It was not kind in a man who had resisted her blandishments to make merry over her foibles.
The Russians, he gravely told her, were extremely amiable, easy to get on with, exceedingly literary, since everything was done on paper, and Russia was the only country in which people knew how to obey.
The mention of obedience in a people irritated the hostess; but on her seething he poured a drop of cold water by asking jestingly:
“Would you, in a great danger, wish your servants to deliberate about what you had ordered them to do?”
The Sandist-Philosophico-Republico-Communico-Pierre-Lerouxico-Geranico-Deisto train (the epithets are Balzac’s) stopped dead at the question. Then Marliani, one of the guests, remarked that argument was impossible with poets. Balzac bowed, and added:
“You hear what he says?”
“You are a dreadful satirist,” retorted George Sand. “Go on with your Comedie Humaine.”
It was not necessary to give the recommendation. He was for ever going on; and the further he went, the further his horizons receded. The embracing lines were rather indiscriminate. He came to think himself capable of reducing every domain to his scale. Men’s ambitions, however, are part of their motive power; and, had his been less sweeping, the qualities of his work might have diminished with the defects. “Four men,” he cried in one of his vauntings, “have had an immense life, Napoleon, Cuvier, O’Connell, and — I mean to be the fourth! The first lived with the life of Europe; he inoculated himself with armies! The second espoused the globe! The third incarnated in himself a people! As for me! I shall have borne a whole society in my head! It is just as well to live thus as every evening to say, ‘Spades, hearts, trumps;’ or to wonder why Madame such a one has done such and such a thing.”
Modeste Mignon, which was published in 1844 with the extra attraction of some of Auber’s music in it is one of Balzac’s brighter and lighter books, and reproduces part of his own last love-story more objectively treated than in Albert Savarus. Its plot was suggested to him by a short tale which Madame Hanska composed, intending to submit it for his approval, but which she threw in the fire, afterwards sending him, in one of her epistles, an outline of what she had done. Since he utilized her invention, he paid her back by selecting as his point of departure the adventure of a well-educated girl of literary tastes, who, through reading the verses of the celebrated Canalis, at once a poet and a statesman, fell in love with him and expressed her (literary) admiration in a letter, though she had never seen him. There were other such cases in the first half of the nineteenth century besides that of the Polish Countess and the author of Eugenie Grandet. Disdaining to reply to a correspondent who did not appear to be a person with whom he could take liberties, Canalis delegated the task to his friend and secretary, La Briere, who answered under cover of the great man’s name and ultimately found out and, incognito, beheld the lady. She was beautiful and he lost his heart to her. When later the subterfuge was discovered, Canalis, interested now, wanted to marry the lady, she being presumably rich. Through pique, Modeste, for a while, listened to his suit and smiled on him, albeit, in verity, she was touched by La Briere’s sincere affection. The circumstances leading to the unmasking of Canalis’ selfish character and to Modeste’s marriage with La Briere are handled in a less Balzacian way than the introductory chapters, which, however, are more than usually tortuous. But the whole story is pleasing; and, in the discursive paragraphs, there is less dogmatism and a more delicate sense of contrasts than the novelist is wont to exhibit when astride a hobby-horse. The following passage has an aroma of Shelley’s Defence of Poetry in it, which merits our attention. The divine in man says:
“In order to live, thou shalt bend thyself towards earth; in order to think thou shalt raise thyself heavenwards. We want the life of the soul as much as that of the body; whence there are two utilities. Thus it is certain that a book will not serve as foot-gear; an epic, from the utilitarian point of view, is not worth an economical soup from the kitchen of a Benevolent Society; and a self-acting boiler, rising a couple of inches on itself, procures calico a few pence a yard cheaper; but this machine and the improvements of industry do not breathe life into a nation, and will not tell the future that it has existed; whereas Egyptian art, Mexican art, Grecian art, Roman art, with their masterpieces accused of uselessness, have attested the existence of these peoples in the vast expanse of time, there where huge intermediary nations, destitute of great men, have disappeared without leaving their visiting cards on the globe. All works of genius are the epitome of a civilization, and presuppose an immense utility. Forsooth, a pair of boots will not outvie a stage-play in your eyes, and you will not prefer a windmill to the Church of Saint Ouen. So, a people is animated with the same sentiment as a man; and man’s favourite idea is to survive himself mentally as he reproduces himself physically. The survival of a people is the work of its men of genius.”
Beatrix, the other completed novel of the year, is a drawn-out, ill-composed work, which is not redeemed sufficiently by its minute description of Breton manners and its portrait of George Sand in Felicite des Touches. Six years separated the publication of the first part of the book from that of the conclusion, and, in the interval, the unity of plan suffered. Balzac devoted a good deal of labour to its execution. In all the conjugal ruses employed by Sabine de Grandlieu to detach Calyste, her husband, from Beatrix, he displays his peculiar talent, but the ultimate effect is poor.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05