Frederick Lawton

Part 1 out of 6

Prepared by Dagny, and John Bickers,


By Frederick Lawton


In remembrance of many pleasant and instructive hours
spent in his society, to the sculptor


whose statue of Balzac, with its fine, synthetic portraiture,
first tempted the author to write this book.



Excusing himself for not undertaking to write a life of Balzac,
Monsieur Brunetiere, in his study of the novelist published
shortly before his death, refused somewhat disdainfully to admit
that acquaintance with a celebrated man's biography has
necessarily any value. "What do we know of the life of
Shakespeare?" he says, "and of the circumstances in which /Hamlet/
or /Othello/ was produced? If these circumstances were better
known to us, is it to be believed and will it be seriously
asserted that our admiration for one or the other play would be
augmented?" In penning this quirk, the eminent critic would seem
to have wilfully overlooked the fact that a writer's life may have
much or may have little to do with his works. In the case of
Shakespeare it was comparatively little--and yet we should be glad
to learn more of this little. In the case of Balzac it was much.
His novels are literally his life; and his life is quite as full
as his books of all that makes the good novel at once profitable
and agreeable to read. It is not too much to affirm that any one
who is acquainted with what is known to-day of the strangely
chequered career of the author of the /Comedie Humaine/ is in a
better position to understand and appreciate the different parts
which constitute it. Moreover, the steady rise of Balzac's
reputation, during the last fifty years, has been in some degree
owing to the various patient investigators who have gathered
information about him whom Taine pronounced to be, with
Shakespeare and Saint-Simon, the greatest storehouse of documents
we possess concerning human nature.

The following chapters are an attempt to put this information into
sequence and shape, and to insert such notice of the novels as
their relative importance requires. The author wishes here to
thank certain French publishers who have facilitated his task by
placing books for reference at his disposal, Messrs. Calmann-Levy,
Armand Colin, and Hetzel, in particular, and also the Curator of
the /Musee Balzac/, Monsieur de Royaumont who has rendered him
service on several occasions.




The condition of French society in the early half of the nineteenth
century--the period covered by Balzac's novels--may be compared to
that of a people endeavouring to recover themselves after an
earthquake. Everything had been overthrown, or at least loosened from
its base--religion, laws, customs, traditions, castes. Nothing had
withstood the shock. When the upheaval finally ceased, there were
timid attempts to find out what had been spared and was susceptible of
being raised from the ruins. Gradually the process of selection went
on, portions of the ancient system of things being joined to the
larger modern creation. The two did not work in very well together,
however, and the edifice was far from stable.

During the Consulate and First Empire, the Emperor's will, so sternly
imposed, retarded any movement of natural reconstruction. Outside the
military organization, things were stiff and starched and solemn. High
and low were situated in circumstances that were different and
strange. The new soldier aristocracy reeked of the camp and battle-
field; the washer-woman, become a duchess, was ill at ease in the
Imperial drawing-room; while those who had thriven and amassed wealth
rapidly in trade were equally uncomfortable amidst the vulgar luxury
with which they surrounded themselves. Even the common people, whether
of capital or province, for whose benefit the Revolution had been
made, were silent and afraid. Of the ladies' /salons/--once numerous
and remarkable for their wit, good taste, and conversation--two or
three only subsisted, those of Mesdames de Beaumont, Recamier and de
Stael; and, since the last was regarded by Napoleon with an unfriendly
eye, its guests must have felt constrained.

At reunions, eating rather than talking was fashionable, and the
eating lacked its intimacy and privacy of the past. The lighter side
of life was seen more in restaurants, theatres, and fetes. It was
modish to dine at Frascati's, to drink ices at the Pavillon de
Hanovre, to go and admire the actors Talma, Picard, and Lemercier,
whose stage performance was better than many of the pieces they
interpreted. Fireworks could be enjoyed at the Tivoli Gardens; the
great concerts were the rage for a while, as also the practice for a
hostess to carry off her visitors after dinner for a promenade in the
Bois de Boulogne.

Literature was obstinately classical. After the daring flights of the
previous century, writers contented themselves with marking time.
Chenedolle, whose verse Madame de Stael said to be as lofty as
Lebanon, and whose fame is lilliputian to-day, was, with Ducis, the
representative of their advance-guard. In painting, with Fragonard,
Greuze and Gros, there was a greater stir of genius, yet without
anything corresponding in the sister art.

On the contrary, in the practical aspects of life there was large
activity, though Paris almost alone profited by it. Napoleon's
reconstruction in the provinces was administrative chiefly. A complete
programme was first started on in the capital, which the Emperor
wished to exalt into the premier city of Europe. Gas-lighting,
sewerage, paving and road improvements, quays, and bridges were his
gifts to the city, whose general appearance, however, remained much
the same. The Palais-Royal served still as a principal rendezvous. The
busy streets were the Rues Saint-Denis and Saint-Honore on the right
bank, the Rue Saint-Jacques on the left; and the most important shops
were to be found in the Rue de la Loi, at present the Rue de

The fall of the Empire was less a restoration of the Monarchy than the
definite disaggregation of the ancient aristocracy, which had been
centralized round the court since the days of Richelieu. The Court of
Louis XVIII. was no more like that of Louis XVI. than it was like the
noisy one of Napoleon. Receiving only a few personal friends, the King
allowed his drawing-rooms to remain deserted by the nobles that had
returned from exile; and the two or three who were regular visitors
were compelled to rub elbows with certain parvenus, magistrates,
financiers, generals of the Empire whom it would not have been prudent
to eliminate.

In this initial stage of society-decentralization, the diminished band
of the Boulevard Saint-Germain--descendants of the eighteenth-century
dukes and marquises--tried to close up their ranks and to
differentiate themselves from the plutocracy of the Chaussee d'Antin,
who copied their manners, with an added magnificence of display which
those they imitated could not afford. In the one camp the antique
bronzes, gildings, and carvings of a bygone art were retained with
pious veneration; in the other, pictures, carpets, Jacob chairs and
sofas, mirrors, and time-pieces, and the gold and silver plate were
all in lavish style, indicative of their owner's ampler means. One
feature of the pre-Revolution era was revived in the feminine
/salons/, which regained most, if not the whole, of their pristine
renown. The Hotel de la Rochefoucauld of Madame Ancelot became a
second Hotel de Rambouillet, where the classical Parseval-Grandmaison,
who spent twenty years over his poem /Philippe-Auguste/, held
armistice with the young champion of the Romantic school, Victor Hugo.
The Princess de Vaudemont received her guests in Paris during the
winter, and at Suresnes during the summer; and her friend the Duchess
de Duras' /causeries/ were frequented by such men as Cuvier, Humboldt,
Talleyrand, Mole, de Villele, Chateaubriand, and Villemain. Other
circles existed in the houses of the Dukes Pasquier and de Broglie,
the countess Merlin, and Madame de Mirbel.

With the re-establishment of peace, literary and toilet pre-
occupations began to assert their claims. The /Ourika/ of the Duchess
de Duras took Paris by storm. Her heroine, the young Senegal negress,
gave her name to dresses, hats, and bonnets. Everything was /Ourika/.
The prettiest Parisian woman yearned to be black, and regretted not
having been born in darkest Africa. Anglomania in men's clothes
prevailed throughout the reign of Louis XVIII., yet mixed with other
modes. "Behold an up-to-date dandy," says a writer of the epoch; "all
extremes meet in him. You shall see him Prussian by the stomach,
Russian by his waist, English in his coat-tails and collar, Cossack by
the sack that serves him as trousers, and by his fur. Add to these
things Bolivar hats and spurs, and the moustaches of a counter-
skipper, and you have the most singular harlequin to be met with on
the face of the globe."

Among the masses there were changes just as striking. For the moment
militarism had disappeared, to the people's unfeigned content, and the
Garde Nationale, composed of pot-bellied tradesmen, alone recalled the
bright uniforms of the Empire. To make up for the soldier excitements
of the /Petit Caporal/, attractions of all kinds tempted the citizen
to enjoy himself after his day's toil was finished--menagerie,
mountebanks, Franconi circus, Robertson the conjurer in the Jardin des
Capucines. At the other end of the city, in the Boulevard du Temple,
were Belle Madeleine, the seller of Nanterre cakes, famous throughout
Europe, the face contortionist Valsuani, Miette in his egg-dance,
Curtius' waxworks. By each street corner were charlatans of one or
another sort exchanging jests with the passers-by. It was the period
when the Prudhomme type was created, so common in all the skits and
caricatures of the day. One of the greatest pleasures of the citizen
under the Restoration was to mock at the English. Revenge for Waterloo
was found in written and spoken satires. Huge was the success of
Sewrin's and Dumersan's /Anglaises pour rire/, with Brunet and Potier
travestied as /grandes dames/, dancing a jig so vigorously that they
lost their skirts. The same species of /revanche/ was indulged in when
Lady Morgan, the novelist, came to France, seeking material for a
popular book describing French customs. Henri Beyle (Stendhal) hoaxed
her by acting as her cicerone and filling her note-books with absurd
information, which she accepted in good faith and carried off as fact.
On Sundays the most respectable families used to resort to the
/guinguettes/, or /bastringues/, of the suburbs. Belleville had its
celebrated Desnoyers establishment. At the Maine gate Mother Sagnet's
was the meeting-place of budding artists and grisettes. At La
Villette, Mother Radig, a former canteen woman, long enjoyed
popularity among her patrons of both sexes. All these scenes are
depicted in certain of Victor Ducange's novels, written between 1815
and 1830, as also in the pencil sketches of the two artists Pigal and

The political society of the Restoration was characterized by a good
deal of cynicism. Those who were affected by the change of /regime/,
partisans and functionaries of the Empire, hastened in many cases to
trim their sails to the turn of the tide. However, there was a
relative liberty of the press which permitted the honest expression of
party opinion, and polemics were keen. At the Sorbonne, Guizot,
Cousin, and Villemain were the orators of the day. Frayssinous
lectured at Saint-Sulpice, and de Lamennais, attacking young
Liberalism, denounced its tenets in an essay which de Maistre called a
heaving of the earth under a leaden sky.

The country's material prosperity at the time was considerable, and
reacted upon literature of every kind by furnishing a more leisured
public. In 1816 Emile Deschamps preluded to the after-triumphs of the
Romantic School with his play the /Tour de faveur/, the latter being
followed in 1820 by Lebrun's /Marie Stuart/. Alfred de Vigny was
preparing his /Eloa/; Nodier was delighting everybody by his talents
as a philologian, novelist, poet, and chemist. Beranger was continuing
his songs, and paying for his boldness with imprisonment. The King
himself was a protector of letters, arts, and sciences. One of his
first tasks was to reorganize the "Institut Royal," making it into
four Academies. He founded the Geographical and Asiatic Societies,
encouraged the introduction of steam navigation and traction into
France, and patronized men of genius wherever he met with them.

Yet the nation's fidelity to the White Flag was not very deep-rooted.
Grateful though the population had been for the return of peace and
prosperity, a lurking reminiscence of Napoleonic splendours combined
with the bourgeois' Voltairian scepticism to rouse a widespread
hostility to Government and Church, as soon as the spirit of the
latter ventured to manifest again its inveterate intolerance.
Beranger's songs, Paul-Louis Courier's pamphlets, and the articles of
the /Constitutionnel/ fanned the re-awakened sentiments of revolt; and
Charles the Tenth's ministers, less wisely restrained than those of
Louis XVIII., and blind to the significance of the first barricades of
1827, provoked the catastrophe of 1830. This second revolution
inaugurated the reign of a bourgeois king. Louis-Philippe was hardly
more than a delegate of the bourgeois class, who now reaped the full
benefits of the great Revolution and entered into possession of its
spoils. During Jacobin dictature and Napoleonic sway, the bourgeoisie
had played a waiting role. At present they came to the front, proudly
conscious of their merits; and an entire literature was destined to be
devoted to them, an entire art to depict or satirize their manners.
Scribe, Stendhal, Merimee, Henry Monnier, Daumier, and Gavarni were
some of the men whose work illustrated the bourgeois /regime/, either
prior to or contemporaneous with the work of Balzac.

The eighteen years of the July Monarchy, which were those of Balzac's
mature activity, contrasted sharply with those that immediately
preceded. In spite of perceptible social progress, the constant war of
political parties, in which the throne itself was attacked, alarmed
lovers of order, and engendered feelings of pessimism. The power of
journalism waxed great. Fighting with the pen was carried to a point
of skill previously unattained. Grouped round the /Debats/--the
ministerial organ--were Silvestre de Sacy, Saint-Marc Girardin, and
Jules Janin as leaders, and John Lemoinne, Philarete Chasles, Barbey
d'Aurevilly in the rank and file. Elsewhere Emile de Girardin's
/Presse/ strove to oust the /Constitutionnel/ and /Siecle/, opposition
papers, from public favour, and to establish a Conservative Liberalism
that should receive the support of moderate minds. Doctrines many,
political and social, were propounded in these eighteen years of
compromise. Legitimists, Bonapartists, and Republicans were all three
in opposition to the Government, each with a programme to tempt the
petty burgess. Saint-Simonism too was abroad with its utopian ideals,
attracting some of the loftier minds, but less appreciated by the
masses than the teachings of other semi-secret societies having aims
more material.

Corresponding to the character of the /regime/ was the practical
nature of the public works executed--the railway system with its
transformation of trade, the fortification of the capital, the
commencement of popular education, and the renovation of decayed or
incompleted edifices. Unfortunately, the rapidity of the development
and the rush of speculation prevented any co-ordinating method in the
effort, so that the epoch was poor in its architectural achievement
compared with what had been produced in the past. Even other branches
of art were greatest in satire. Daumier's /Robert Macaire/ sketches
and the /Mayeux/ of Travies had large material supplied them in the
various types of citizen, greedy of pleasure and gold. The /mot/:
"Enrichissez-vous," attributed to Guizot, was the axiom of the time,
accepted as the /nec plus ultra/ by the vast majority of people. It
invaded all circles with its lowering expedience; and he who was to
depict its effects most puissantly did not escape its thrall.

* * * * *

When Balzac began to write, no French novelist had a reputation as
such that might be considered great. Up to the epoch of the
Restoration, the novel had been declared to be an inferior species of
literature, and no author had dreamed of basing his claims to fame on
fiction. Lesage had been and was still appreciated rather on the
ground of his satire; and the Abbe Prevost, his slightly younger
contemporary, received but little credit in his lifetime for the
/Manon Lescaut/ that posterity was to prize. Throughout the eighteenth
century, he was chiefly regarded as a literary hack who had translated
Richardson's /Pamela/ and done things of a similar kind to earn his
livelihood. Rousseau too was esteemed less for his /Nouvelle Heloise/
than for his political disquisitions. No novelist since 1635 had ever
been elected to the French Academy on account of his stories. Jules
Sandeau was the first to break the tradition by his entrance among the
Immortals in 1859, to be followed in 1862 by Octave Feuillet.

Lesage was the writer who introduced into France with his /Gil Blas/
what has been called the personal novel--in other words, that story of
adventures of which the narrator is the hero, the aim of the story
being to illustrate first and foremost the vicissitudes of life in
general and those of a single person in particular. The subsequent
introduction of letters into the personal novel, which allowed more
than one character to assume the narrator's role, brought about a
change which those who initiated it scarcely anticipated. Together
with the larger interest, due to there being several narrators, came a
tendency to introspection and analysis, diminishing the prominence of
the facts and enhancing the effect produced by these facts on the
thoughts and feelings of the characters. It was this development of
the personal novel at the commencement of the nineteenth century,
exhibited in Chateaubriand's /Rene/, Madame de Stael's /Corinne/,
Benjamin Constant's /Adolphe/, George Sand's /Indiana/, and Sainte-
Beuve's /Volupte/, which contributed so much to create and establish
the Romantic School of fiction with its egoistic lyricism.

The historical novel, which more commonly is looked upon as having
been the principal agent in the change, gave, in sooth, only what
modern fiction of every kind could no longer do without, namely, local
colour. The so-styled historical novels of Madame de la Fayette--
/Zayde/ and the /Princesse de Cleves/--in the seventeenth century, and
those of Madame de Tencin and Madame de Fontaines in the eighteenth,
were simply historic themes whereon the authors embroidered the
inventions of their imaginations, without the slightest attention to
accuracy or attempt at differentiating the men and minds of one age
from those of another; nor was it till the days of Walter Scott that
such care for local colour and truth of delineation was manifested by
writers who essayed to put life into the bones of the past.

Even Lesage, so exact in his description of all that is exterior,
lacked this literary truthfulness. His Spain is a land of fancy; his
Spaniards are not Spanish; /Gil Blas/, albeit he comes from
Santillana, is a Frenchman. Marivaux was wiser in placing his /Vie de
Marianne/ and his /Paysan parvenu/ in France. His people, though
modelled on stage pattern, are of his own times and country; and, in
so far as they reveal themselves, have resemblances to the characters
of Richardson.

To the Abbe Barthelemy, Voltaire, and Rousseau the novel was a
convenient medium for the expression of certain ideas rather than a
representation of life. The first strove to popularize a knowledge of
Greek antiquity, the second to combat doctrines that he deemed
fallacious, the third to reform society. However, Rousseau brought
nature into his /Nouvelle Heloise/, and, by his accessories of pathos
and philosophy, prepared the way for a bolder and completer treatment
of life in fiction. Different from these was Restif de la Bretonne,
who applied Rousseau's theories with less worthy aims in his /Paysan
perverti/ and /Monsieur Nicolas, ou Le Coeur humain devoile/. If
mention is made of him here, it is because he was a pioneer in the
path of realism, which Balzac was to explore more thoroughly, and
because the latter undoubtedly caught some of his grosser manner.

The novelists and dramatists whom Balzac made earliest acquaintance
with were probably those whose works were appearing and attracting
notice during his school-days--Pigault-Lebrun, Ducray-Duminil, and
that Guilbert de Pixerecourt who for a third of the nineteenth century
was worshipped as the Corneille of melodrama. These men were favourite
authors of the nascent democracy; and, in an age when reprints of
older writers were much rarer than to-day, would be far more likely to
appeal to a boy's taste than seventeenth- and eighteenth-century
authors. At an after-period only, when he had definitely entered upon
his maturer literary career, was he to take up the latter and use
them, together with Rabelais, La Bruyere, Moliere, and Diderot, as his
best, if not his constant, sources of inspiration. In the stories of
the first of the three above-mentioned modern writers, the reader
usually meets with some child of poor parentage, who, after most
extraordinary and comic experiences, marries the child of a nobleman.
In those of the second, the hero or heroine struggles with powerful
enemies, is aided by powerful friends, and moves in an atmosphere of
blood and mystery until vice is chastized and virtue finally rewarded.
The two writers, however, differ more in their talent than in their
methods, the first having an amount of originality which is almost
entirely wanting to the second. With both, indeed, the main object is
to impress and astonish, and the finer touches of Lesage and Prevost
are seldom visible in either's work. As for Pixerecourt, whose fame
lasted until the Romantic drama of the older Dumas, Alfred de Vigny,
and Victor Hugo eclipsed it, he wrote over a hundred plays, each of
which was performed some five hundred times, while two at least ran
for more than a thousand nights.

If it was natural that Balzac should familiarize himself in his
adolescence with such writers of his own countrymen as every one
discussed and very many praised, it was natural also he should extend
his perusals to the translated works of contemporary novelists on the
further side of the Channel, the more so as the reciprocal literary
influence of the two countries was exceedingly strong at the time,
stronger probably than to-day when attention is solicited on so many
sides. To the novels of Monk Lewis, Maturin, Anne Radcliffe, and other
exponents of the School of Terror, as likewise to the novels of
Godwin, the chief of the School of Theory, he went for instruction in
the profession that he was wishing to adopt. Mrs. Radcliffe's stories
he thought admirable; those of Lewis he cited as hardly being equalled
by Stendhal's /Chartreuse de Parme/; and Maturin--oddly as it strikes
us now--he not only styled the most original modern author that the
United Kingdom could boast of, but assigned him a place, beside
Moliere and Goethe, as one of the greatest geniuses of Europe. And
these eulogiums were not the immature judgements of youth, but the
convictions of his riper age. As will be seen later, the influence
remained with him. In all he wrote there enters some of the material,
native and foreign, out of which Romanticism was made.

To the true masters of English fiction his indebtedness was equally
large, exception made perhaps for Fielding and Smollett; and one
American author should be included in the acknowledgment. Goldsmith,
Sterne, Walter Scott, and Fenimore Cooper were his delight. The first
and last of Richardson's productions he read only when his own talent
was formed. /Pamela/ and /Sir Charles Grandison/ he chanced upon in a
library at Ajaccio; and, after running them through, pronounced them
to be horribly stupid and boring. But /Clarissa Harlowe/, on the
contrary, he highly esteemed. Already in 1821 he had studied it; and,
when composing his /Pierrette/, towards the end of the thirties, he
spoke of it as a magnificent poem, in a passage which brands the
procedure of certain hypocrites, their oratorical precautions, and
their involved conversations, wherein the mind obscures the light it
throws and honeyed speech dilutes the venom of intentions. The phrase,
says Monsieur Le Breton, in his well-reasoned book on Balzac, is that
of a man who was conversant with the patient analysis, the
conscientious and minute realism of this great painter of English
life. In Monsieur Le Breton's opinion, Balzac's long-windedness is, in
a measure, due to Richardson, who reacted upon him by his defects no
less than by his excellencies.

Throughout Balzac's correspondence, as throughout his novels, there
are numerous remarks which are so many confessions of the hints he
received in the course of his English readings. In one passage he
exclaims: "The villager is an admirable nature. When he is stupid, he
is just the animal; but, when he has good points, they are exquisite.
Unfortunately, no one observes him. It needed a lucky hazard for
Goldsmith to create his /Vicar of Wakefield/." Elsewhere he says:
"Generally, in fiction, an author succeeds only by the number of his
characters and the variety of his situations; and there are few
examples of novels having but two or three /dramatis personae/
depending on a single situation. Of such a kind, /Caleb Williams/, the
celebrated Godwin's masterpiece, is in our time the only work known,
and its interest is prodigious."

Sterne, even more than Scott, was Balzac's favourite model. Allusions
to him abound in the /Comedie Humaine/. /Tristram Shandy/ the novelist
appears to have had at his fingers' ends. Not a few of Sterne's traits
were also his own--the satirical humour, in which, however, the humour
was less perfect than the satire, the microscopic eye for all the
exterior details of life especially in people's faces and gestures and
dress; and both had identical notions concerning the analogy between a
man's name and his temperament and fate.

Scott and Cooper being Balzac's elder contemporaries, it happened that
their books were given to the French public in translation by one or
the other of the novelist's earlier publishers, Mame and Gosselin. His
taste for their fiction was no mere passing fancy. It was as
pronounced as ever in 1840, at which date, writing in the /Revue
Parisienne/, he declared that Cooper was the only writer of stories
worthy to be placed by the side of Walter Scott, and that his hero
Leather-stocking was sublime. "I don't know," said he, "if the fiction
of Walter Scott furnishes a creation as grandiose as that of this hero
of the savannas and forests. Cooper's descriptions are the school at
which all literary landscapists should study: all the secrets of art
are there. But Cooper is inferior to Walter Scott in his comic and
minor characters, and in the construction of his plots. One is the
historian of nature, the other of humanity." The article winds up with
further praise of Scott, whom its author evidently regarded as his

The part played by these models in Balzac's literary training was to
afford him a clearer perception of the essential worth of the Romantic
movement. Together with its extravagancies and lyricism, Romantic
literature deliberately put into practice some important principles
which certain forerunners of the eighteenth century had already
unconsciously illustrated or timidly taught. It imposed Diderot's
doctrine that there was beauty in all natural character. And its chief
apostle, Hugo, with the examples of Ariosto, Cervantes, Rabelais and
Shakespeare to back him, proved that what was in nature was or should
be also in art, yet without, for that, seeking to free art from law
and the necessity for choice.

This spectacle of a vaster field to exploit, this possibility of
artistically representing the common, familiar things of the world in
their real significance, seized on the youthful mind of him who was to
create the /Comedie Humaine/. It formed the connecting link between
him and his epoch, and in most directions it limited the horizon of
his life.



For all his aristocratic name, Honore de Balzac was not of noble
birth. The nobiliary particule he did not add to his signature until
the year 1830. In his birth certificate we read: "To-day, the 2nd of
Prairial, Year VII. (21st of May 1799) of the French Republic, a male
child was presented to me, Pierre-Jacques Duvivier, the undersigned
Registrar, by the citizen Bernard-Francois Balzac, householder,
dwelling in this commune, Rue de l'Armee de l'Italie, Chardonnet
section, Number 25; who declared to me that the said child was called
Honore Balzac, born yesterday at eleven o'clock in the morning at
witness's residence, that the child is his son and that of the
citizen, Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, his wife, they having been
married in the commune of Paris, eighth arrondissement, Seine
Department, on the 11th of Pluviose, Year V."

The commune referred to in the birth certificate was Tours. There in
the street now rechristened and renumbered and called the Rue
Nationale, a commemorative plate at No. 29 bears the following
inscription: "Honore de Balzac was born in this house on the 1st of
Prairial, Year VII. (20th of May 1799); he died in Paris on the
28th[*] of August 1850."

[*] The registered date of Balzac's death was the 18th of August. The
date on the commemorative plate is wrong. See also in a subsequent
chapter, M. de Lovenjoul's remark on the subject.

This former capital of Touraine, which the novelist says disparagingly
in the /Cure of Tours/ was in his time one of the least literary
places in France, has had, at any rate, an honourable past. It was one
of the sixty-four towns of Gaul that, under Vercingetorix, opposed the
conquest of Caesar; and to it, in 1870, the French Government retired
when the Germans marched on the capital. Its ancient industry in silk
stuffs, established by Louis XI. in the fifteenth century, raised its
population to eighty thousand. By revoking the Edict of Nantes, King
"Sun" chased away three thousand of the wealthy, manufacturing
families, who migrated to Holland; and Tours lost, with a quarter of
its inhabitants, its weaving supremacy, which fell into the hands of
Lyons. Situated on the Loire, in a rich but flat district, its
surroundings are less interesting than its own architectural
possessions, including a cathedral of mingled Gothic and later styles,
a bit of the Norman-English Henry the Second's castle, and its three
bridges. The fine central one, of fifteen arches and a quarter of a
mile long, is a prolongation of the Rue Nationale, and has near it
statues of Rabelais and Descartes.

Balzac's father, who at the time of Honore's birth was fifty-three
years of age, was not a native of Tours. He came from Nougayrie, a
small hamlet close to Canezac in the Tarn Department and province of
Languedoc. He was, therefore, a man of the south. On the registers he
was inscribed as a son of Bernard-Thomas Balssa, /laboureur/, or
peasant farmer; but he subsequently changed his name to Balzac. Recent
investigations have disclosed the fact that--whether by his own
initiative or that of his son--he was the first to employ the "de"
before the family name, prefixing it in the announcements made of the
marriage of his second daughter Laurence.

Although of humble origin, the elder Balzac acquired both education
and position. He embraced the legal profession, and was said by his
son to have acted as secretary to the Grand Council under Louis XV.,
by his daughter Laure to have been advocate to the Council under Louis
XVI. There is no documentary proof that he held either of these
offices; but he figured in the Royal almanacs of 1793 as a lawyer, and
would seem to have served the Republican Government, although his
children subsequently asserted that he had always been an unswerving
Royalist. The family tradition was that he had become suspect to
Robespierre through his efforts to save several unfortunates from the
guillotine, and would himself have perished had not a friend succeeded
in getting him sent on a mission to the frontier to organize the
commissariat department there. Thenceforward attached to the War
Office, he returned to Paris, and in 1797 married Laure Sallambier,
the daughter of one of his hierarchic chiefs, she being thirty-two
years his junior. The next year he went to Tours as administrator of
the General Hospice, and remained there for seventeen years.

The father of the novelist was a man out of the common. A contemporary
of his, Le Poitevin Saint-Alme, relates that he united in himself the
Roman, the Gaul, and the Goth, and possessed the attributes of these
three races--boldness, patience, and health. He avowed himself a
disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, considering a return to nature to
be the main condition of happiness. He shunned doctors, advocated
exercise, long walks, woollen garments for every season, and a more
scientific propagation of his species. His daughter--afterwards Madame
Surville--says of him in the short biography she wrote of her brother:
"My father often railed at mankind, whom he accused of unceasingly
contributing to their own misfortune. He could never meet an ill-
formed fellow-creature without fulminating against parents and
governments, who were less careful to improve the human race than that
of animals."

In addition to his notions on hygiene, he interested himself in the
problems of sociology, anticipating Fourier and Saint-Simon, and
writing numerous pamphlets on philanthropic and scientific questions.
Large traces of his influence are found in his son's books. His hobby
was health cultivation. Every man, he said, ought to strive for an
equilibrium of the vital forces. In his own case there was an extra
reason for his aiming at longevity. Being still unmarried at the age
of forty-five, he had sunk most of his fortune in life annuities, one
of which was a tontine; and, after his marriage, he encouraged his
family to hope for his surviving all the competitors of his series,
and thus being able to bequeath them a huge capital. This hope was not
realized. His death occurred in 1829, when he was eighty-three, and
the twelve thousand francs income accruing from his annuities

His memory was extraordinary. At seventy, happening to meet a friend
of his childhood, whom he had not seen since he was fourteen, he
unhesitatingly began speaking to him in the Provencal tongue, which he
had ceased using for half a century. Equally great was his
benevolence. On one occasion, hearing that his friend General de
Pommereul was in monetary difficulties, he called at the General's
house, and, finding only Madame de Pommereul, said to her, as he
placed two heavy bags on the table: "I am told you are short of cash.
These ten thousand crowns will be more useful to you than to me. I
don't know what to do with them. You can give me them back when you
have recovered what has been stolen from you." Having uttered these
few brusk words, he turned and hurried away. Later we shall meet with
a younger General de Pommereul, to whom the novelist dedicated his
/Melmoth Reconciled/, adding, "In remembrance of the constant
friendship that united our fathers and subsists between the sons."

When young, the novelist's father must have been endowed with great
physical strength. He used to relate that, during the time he was a
clerk to a Procureur, he was requested one day to cut up a partridge
at his master's table. With the first dig of the knife, he not only
severed the partridge but the dish also, and drove his weapon into the
wood of the table. Detail worth noticing, this feat procured him the
respect of the Procureur's wife. The portrait sketched of him by his
daughter Laure represents him, between sixty and seventy, as a fine
old man, still vigorous, with courteous manners, speaking little and
rarely of himself (in this very different from Honore), indulgent
towards the young, whose society he was fond of, allowing to all the
same liberty that he claimed for himself, upright and sound in
judgment notwithstanding his eccentricities, of equable humour, and so
mild in character that he made every one around him happy. Delighting
in conversation, now grave, now curious, now prophetic, he was always
eagerly listened to by his elder son, whose indebtedness to him cannot
be doubted.

Balzac's mother, who was married at eighteen, was a Parisian by birth.
Her father was Director of the Paris Hospitals. At the Hotel-Dieu
there is a Sallambier ward which perpetuates his memory. A small,
active woman of nervous temperament, irritable and inclined to worry
about trifles, she yet had abundant practical sense--a quality less
developed in her husband. Her daughter tells us she was beautiful,
that she had remarkable vivacity of mind, much firmness and decision,
and boundless devotion to her family. Her affection, however, was
expressed rather by action than in speech. She had great imagination,
adds Madame Surville; and, says the novelist, "this imagination, which
she has bequeathed me, bandies her ever from north to south and from
south to north." Exceedingly pious, with a bias to mysticism, she
possessed a library of books bearing on such doctrines, which were
read by her son and afterwards utilized by him in his fiction.

Honore was the second child of his parents. The first dying in infancy
through the poorness of Madame Balzac's milk, he was sent to a house
on the outskirts of the town and suckled by a foster-mother. His
sister Laure, a year younger than himself, was submitted to the same
treatment, and the two children remained away from home until they
were four and three years old respectively. From her remembrance of
him, when both were toddling mites, his sister speaks of him as a
charming little boy, whose merry humour, shapely, smiling mouth, large
brown eyes, at once bright and soft, high forehead and rich black hair
caused him to be noticed a great deal in their daily outings.

In 1804 came the first important event of his life, a visit to Paris
to see his maternal grandparents. It was a wonderful change from his
home surroundings in Tours, where a certain severity prevailed. Here
he was spoiled to his heart's content; and his happiness was rendered
complete by Mouche, the big watch-dog, with whom he was on the best of
terms. One evening a magic-lantern exhibition was given in the
grandson's honour. Noticing that Mouche was not among the spectators,
he rose from his seat with an authoritative: "Wait." Then, going out,
he shortly after came back, dragging in his canine friend, to whom he
said: "Sit down there, Mouche, and look; it will cost you nothing.
Granddad will pay for you!" A few months later his grandfather died,
and the widow went to live with the Balzacs at Tours. This death made
a deep impression on the child's mind, and for a while dwelt so
constantly in his memory that, on one occasion, when Laure was being
scolded by her mother for an offence which the culprit aggravated by a
fit of involuntary tittering, he approached his sister and whispered
in her ear, with a view to restoring her gravity: "Think of
grandpapa's death."

Distinguished in these juvenile years more by kindness than
cleverness, he nevertheless manifested a certain inventiveness in
improvizing baby comedies which had more appreciative audiences than
some of his maturer stage productions. On the contrary, his conception
of music and his own musical execution had no admirers beyond himself.
For hours he would scrape the chords of a small, red violin, drawing
from them most excruciating sounds, himself lost in ecstasy, and most
amazed when he was begged to cease his concert, which was somewhat
calculated to give his friend Mouche the colic.

The boy's initial steps in the path of learning were taken under the
care of a nursery governess, Mademoiselle Delahaye, whom he quitted to
attend the principal day-school in the town, known as the Leguay
Institution. When he was eight he entered the College school at
Vendome, a quiet spot in Touraine, with something of the aspect of a
university town. On the registers of the school may be read the
following inscription: "No. 460, Honore Balzac, aged eight years and
five months. Has had small-pox; without infirmities; sanguine
temperament; easily excited and subject to feverishness. Entered the
College on June 22nd 1807; left on the 22nd of August 1813."

An old seventeenth-century foundation of the Oratorians, the school
possessed at this period a renown almost equal to that of Oxford and
Cambridge. In his /Louis Lambert/, Balzac gives us a description of
the place. "The College," he says, "is situated in the middle of the
town and on the little river Loir, which flows hard by the main
school-buildings. It stands in a spacious enclosure carefully walled
in, and comprises all the various establishments necessary in an
institution of this kind--a chapel, a theatre, an infirmary, a bakery,
gardens, watercourses. The College, being the most celebrated centre
of education in France, is recruited from several provinces and even
from our colonies, so that the distance at which families live does
not permit of parents' seeing their children. As a rule, pupils do not
spend the long holidays at home, and remain at the College
continuously until their studies are terminated." As a matter of fact,
Balzac passed his six years there without once returning to Tours,
being entirely cut off from his family, save for such rare visits as
were suffered from its members.

The school life was semi-monastic, with a discipline of iron. "The
leathern ferule played its terrible role with honour" among Minions,
Smalls, Mediums, and Greats. There were, however, certain mitigations
--long walks in the woods, cards, and amateur theatricals during
vacation; gardening and pigeon-fancying; stilt-walking, sliding and
clog-dancing; and, withal, the joys of a chapman's stall set up in the
enclosure itself.

/Louis Lambert/ is a slice of autobiography, attempting also a
portrait of the novelist, psychologically as well as outwardly, while
he was at Vendome. Although the author speaks of himself as distinct
from his hero, they make up one and the same individual. Of himself he
says: "I had a passion for books. My father, being desirous I should
enter the Ecole Polytechnique, paid for me to take private lessons in
mathematics. But my coach, being the librarian of the college, let me
borrow books, without much troubling about what I chose, from the
library, where during playtime he gave me my tuition. Either he was
very little qualified to teach, or he must have been pre-occupied with
some undertaking of his own; for he was only too willing I should read
in the hours he ought to have devoted to me, himself working at
something else. Thus, by virtue of a tacit agreement between us, I did
not complain of learning nothing, and he kept secret my book-
borrowing. This precocious passion led me to neglect my studies and
instead to compose poems, which indeed were of no high promise, if
judged by the following verse: 'O Inca! O roi infortune,' commencing
an epopee on the Incas. The line became only too celebrated among my
companions, and I was derisively nicknamed the poet. Mockery, however,
did not cure me, and I continued my efforts in spite of the apologue
of the Principal, Monsieur Mareschal, who one day related to me the
misfortunes of a linnet that tried to fly before being fully fledged.
He wished, no doubt, to turn me from my inveterate habit. As I
continued to read, I was continually punished, and grew to be the
least active, most idle, most contemplative pupil of the Smalls."

And now for the /alter ego/. "Louis Lambert was slender and thin, not
more than four feet and a half in height, but his weather-beaten face,
his sun-browned hands seemed to indicate a muscular vigour which he
had not in a normal state. So, two months after his entering the
college, when his school life had robbed him of his well-nigh
vegetable colour, we remarked that he became pale and white like a
woman. His head was unusually big; his hair, beautifully black and
naturally curly, lent an ineffable charm to his forehead, the size of
which struck us as extraordinary, though, as may be imagined, we
little recked of phrenology. The beauty of this prophetic forehead
resided chiefly in the extremely pure cut of the two brows, under
which shone his dark eyes--brows that appeared to be carved in
alabaster. Their lines had the somewhat rare luck to be perfectly
parallel in joining each other at the beginning of the features. These
latter were irregular enough, but the irregularity disappeared when
one saw his eyes, whose gaze possessed an astonishing variety of
expression. Sometimes clear and terribly penetrating, sometimes
angelically mild, this gaze grew dull and colourless, so to speak, in
his contemplative moments. His eye then resembled a pane of glass no
longer illuminated by the sun. The same was true of his strength,
which was purely nervous, and also of his voice. Both were equally
mobile and variable. The latter was alternately sweet and harmonious,
and then at times painful, incorrect, and rugged. As for his ordinary
strength, he was incapable of supporting the fatigue of any games
whatever. He seemed obviously feeble and almost infirm; but once,
during his first year at school, one of our bullies having jeered at
this extreme delicacy that rendered him unfit for the rough games
practised in the playground, Lambert with his two hands gripped the
end of one of our tables containing twelve desks in two rows; then,
stiffening himself against the master's chair and holding the table
with his feet placed on the bottom cross-bar, he said: 'Let any ten of
you try to move it.' I was there and witnessed this singular display
of strength. It was impossible to drag the table from him. He appeared
at certain moments to have the gift of summoning unusual powers, or of
concentrating his whole force on a given point."

That /Louis Lambert/ is an attempted revelation of Balzac's adolescent
mind we have both Madame Surville's and Champfleury's additional
testimony to prove. Discounting the exaggerations, due either to
literary morbidity of the kind that produced Chateaubriand's /Rene/
and Sainte-Beuve's /Joseph Delorme/, or to the natural vanity of which
the novelist had so large a share, there yet remains a considerable
substratum of truth in this record of twin, boyish existence, which
affords a valuable secondary help towards understanding its author's

The major punishment inflicted at Vendome was imprisonment in the
dormitory. Referring to himself and his double, Balzac says: "We were
freer in prison than anywhere. There we could talk for days together
in the silence of the room, where each pupil had a cubicle six feet
square, whose partitions were provided with bars across the top, and
whose grated iron door was locked every evening and unlocked every
morning under the surveillance of a Father, who assisted at our going
to bed and getting up. The creak of the doors, turned with singular
celerity by the dormitory porters, was one of the peculiarities of the
school. In these alcoves we were sometimes shut up for months on end.
The scholars thus caged fell under the stern eye of the Prefect, who
came regularly, and even irregularly, to see whether we were talking
instead of working at our tasks. But nutshells on the stairs or the
fineness of our hearing nearly always warned us of his arrival, so
that we were able to indulge safely in our favourite studies."

One of the confinements was inflicted on Honore for his faulty Latin
and impertinence. "Caius Gracchus was a noble heart," he translated
with a free paraphrase of /vir nobilis/. "What would Madame de Stael
say, if she happened to learn you had thus misconstrued the sense?"
asked the master. (Madame de Stael was supposed to be Louis Lambert's
patroness.) "She would say you are a stupid," muttered Honore. "Mister
poet, you will go to prison for a week," retorted the master, who had
overheard the comment.

Among the long walks enjoyed by the pupils on Thursdays, when there
were no lessons, was one to the famous castle of Rochambeau. In 1812,
Balzac paid his first and impatiently anticipated visit to this spot.
"When we arrived on the hill," he says, "whence the castle was
visible, perched on its flank, and the winding valley with the
glittering river threading its way through a meadow artistically laid
out by Nature, Louis Lambert said to me: 'Why, I saw this last night
in a dream.' He recognized the clump of trees under which we were, the
arrangement of the foliage, the colour of the water, the turrets of
the castle, in fine, all the details of the place. . . . I relate this
event," he continues, "first because each man can find in his
existence some phenomenon of sleeping or waking analogous to it; and
next, because it is true and gives an idea of Lambert's prodigious
intelligence. In fact, he deduced from the occurrence an entire
system, possessing himself, like Cuvier, in another order of things,
of a fragment of life to reconstruct a whole creation." And Lambert is
made to develop a theory of the astral body and astral locomotion. The
younger self announces also: "I shall be celebrated--an alchemist of

With such notions in his head at this early age, it was not surprising
he should have begun, while in his tender teens, a metaphysical
composition entitled /Treatise of the Will/. After working for six
months on it, a day of misfortune arrived. The pieces of paper on
which it had been written were hidden away from all eyes in a locked
box, which gradually assumed the weird attraction of a Blue Beard's
secret chamber to his mocking class-companions, so that at length
their inquisitiveness drove them to essay capturing the said box by
violence. Amidst the noise caused by the child-author's desperate
defence of his treasure, Father Hagoult suddenly appeared; and, being
apprized of what was inside the box, insisted on its being opened. The
papers were at once confiscated, and were never given back. Their loss
caused the boy a serious shock, which, combining with debility of
longer standing, brought on a malady that necessitated his leaving the
school. The Principal himself advised the removal. In 1813, between
Easter and prize distribution, he wrote to Madame Balzac asking her to
come immediately and fetch her son away. The lad, he explained, was
prostrated by a kind of coma, which alarmed his teachers all the more
as they were at a loss to account for it. To them Honore was simply an
idler. It did not occur to them that his condition was owing to
cerebral fatigue. Thin and sickly-looking at present, he had the air
of a somnambulist, asleep with his eyes open, oblivious of the
questions put to him, and unable to answer when asked: "What are you
thinking of? Where are you?" His return home produced a painful
impression. "So this is how the college authorities remit to us the
nice children we entrust to them," exclaimed his grandmother. And it
must be confessed that the good Fathers, engrossed by the training of
their charges' souls, paid but little attention to the bodies.

In the rooms where the pupils worked, the exhalations by which the air
was constantly vitiated mingled with the smells left by the debris of
lunches and teas and by other accumulated dirt. There were also
cupboards and closets where each pupil used to keep his private booty
--pigeons killed on fete days or dishes pilfered from the refectory.
Swept only once a day, the place was always filthy, and was further
rendered disagreeable by odours coming from the wash-house, dressing-
room, pantries, etc. All this with the mud brought in from the outside
playgrounds made the atmosphere insupportable. Moreover, the pupils'
petty ailments and pains were almost entirely unheeded. In winter
chaps and chilblains were Honore's unceasing lot. His woman's
complexion, and especially the skin of his ears and lips, cracked
under the least cold; his soft white hands reddened and swelled.
Constant colds harassed him; and, until he was inured to the Vendome
regimen, pain was his daily portion.

A lively recollection of what he went through in these school-days
persisted during his maturer years. Writing in 1844 to Monsieur
Fontemoing, one of his few boy-companions that he maintained relations
with, he said: "When David is ready to inaugurate his statue of Jean
Bart in Dieppe, I shall perhaps be there to enjoy the spectacle; and
then we will spend one or two days recalling to mind the cages, wooden
breeches and other Vendomoiseries."

His memory was probably less faithful in 1832, when striving to
reproduce the tenour of the lost /Treatise of the Will/. At thirteen
he could scarcely have had such definite notions of intuition and
other operations of the mind; and there must be a fairly long
antedating of reflection in attributing to Louis Lambert, even with
the latter's two years seniority, thoughts like the following:--

"Often amid calm and silence, when our inner faculties are lulled and
we indulge in sweet repose, and darkness hovers round us, and we fall
into a contemplation of other things, straight an idea darts forth,
flashes through the infinite space created by our brain, and then,
like a will-o'-the-wisp, vanishes never to return--an ephemeral
apparition like that of such children as yield boundless joy and grief
to bereaved parents; a species of still-born flower in the fields of
thought. At times also the idea, instead of forcibly gushing and dying
without consistence, dawns and poises in the fathomless limbo of the
organs that give it birth; it tires us by its long parturition; then
it develops and grows, is fertile, rich, and productive in the visible
grace of youth and with all the qualities of longevity; it sustains
the most inquiring glances, invites them, and never wearies them. Now
and again ideas are generated in swarms, one evolves another; they
interlace and entice, they abound and are dalliant; now and again,
they arise pale and looming, and perish through want of strength or
nourishment--the quickening substance is insufficient. And, last of
all, on certain days they plunge into the abysses, lighting up their
depths; they terrify us, and leave us in a soul despair. Our ideas
have their complete system; they are a kingdom of nature, a sort of
efflorescence of which a madman perhaps might give an iconography.
Yes, all attests the existence of these delightful creations I may
compare to flowers. Indeed, their production is no more surprising
than that of perfumes and colour in the plant."

Still, without being a Pascal, Balzac in the first half of his teens,
was evidently not an ordinary child. There was a ferment of thought,
as he said, reacting on itself and seeking to surprise the secrets of
its own being. Fostered by the moral isolation in which he lived
during these six years, his self-analysis grew unwholesome, there
being little or nothing on the physical side to counterbalance it.
Fortunately, the return to saner surroundings occurred before the evil
was irremediable. Running wild for a few months in the open air, he
recovered his natural vivacity and cheerfulness. Every day he went for
a long ramble through one or another of the landscapes of Touraine,
and on his way home enjoyed the magnificent sunsets lighting up the
steeples of his native town and glinting on the river covered with
craft, both large and small. To check his reveries, Madame Balzac
forced him to amuse his two sisters Laure and Laurence and to fly the
kite of his little brother Henry,[*] who had been born while he was at

[*] The name is spelt in the English way.

On Sundays and fete days he regularly accompanied his mother to the
Cathedral of saint-Gatien, where he must have been an observant
spectator if not consistently a devout listener. He prayed by fits and
starts; and in the intervals studied closely and with an eye for
effect the appearance of priestly persons and functions, with altar
and stained-glass window in the background, and gathered materials for
his Abbes Birotteau, Bonnet, and others. The period was one of
compensation and adjustment. What he had been striving to assimilate
had now the leisure to arrange itself in his brain, which was no
longer overheated.

As soon as his health was considered sufficiently strong, he began
attending classes at the institution of a Monsieur Chretien, and
supplemented them by private lessons received at home. His conviction
that he would become a famous man was as strong as ever, and his na´ve
assertion of it was frequent enough to provoke great teasing in the
domestic circle. Far from being irritated, he laughed with those that
laughed at him, his sisters saying: "Hail to the great Balzac!" On the
part of his elders the bantering was intended to damp his exalted
notions, which they regarded as ill-founded, judging him, as his
Vendome professors, by the smallness of his Latin and Greek. His
mother in particular had no faith in his prophecies nor yet in his
occasional utterances of deeper things than his years warranted: "You
certainly don't know what you are talking about," was her habitual
snub. And, when Honore, not daring to argue further, took refuge in
his sly, not to say supercilious, smile, she taxed him with
overweeningness--an accusation that had some truth in it. She might
well be excused for her scepticism, for the youth had also large
ignorance in some of the commoner things of life, and, moreover,
allowed himself to be taken in easily. Laure seems to have traded a
good deal on his credulity for the sake of fun. One day she gave him a
so-called cactus seedling, supposed to have come from the land of
Judaea. Honore preserved it preciously in a pot for a fortnight, only
to discover at length that this plant was a vulgar pumpkin.

At the end of 1814, Monsieur Balzac came to reside in Paris, being
placed at the head of the Commissariat of the First Military Division;
and Honore's education was continued in the capital, for a while at
the establishment of a Monsieur Lepitre, Rue Saint-Louis, and then at
another kept by Messieurs Sganzer and Beuzelin, Rue de Thorigny, both
being situated in the Marais Quarter, near his father's house. So far
as the subjects of the curriculum were concerned, he was still a
mediocre pupil. However, literature began to attract his attention and
efforts, and one composition of his for an examination--the speech of
Brutus's wife after the condemnation of her sons--treasured up by his
sister Laure, is mentioned by her as exhibiting some of the energy and
realistic presentment in which he was ultimately to excel.

When he was seventeen, his father, seeing that there was no chance of
his getting into the Ecole Polytechnique, decided to put him into the
legal profession; and, for the purpose of preliminary training,
induced a solicitor friend, Guillonnet de Merville,[*] to take him
into his office in the place of a clerk--no other than Eugene Scribe,
the future dramatist--who had just quitted law for literature. During
the eighteen months passed here, Balzac went to lectures at the
Sorbonne University, and was coached by private tutors. Among the
College professors he heard were Villemain, Guizot, and Cousin. These
great teachers converted his passion for reading into more serious
habits of study; and, in order to profit more by their lessons, he
often spent his leisure hours in the libraries of the city and sought
out old books of value in the cases of the dealers along the Quays.

[*] /An Episode under the Terror/ was dedicated to him.

The pocket-money required for such purchases was principally supplied
by his grandmother, who permitted him to win from her at whist or
boston in the evenings he remained at home. A friend of his
grandmother's that lived in a neighbouring flat was likewise very kind
to him. She was an old maiden lady who had been acquainted with
Beaumarchais, and delighted to chat with her protege about the author
of the /Mariage de Figaro/. Though now a young man, Honore was not
tall; five feet two was his exact height. Retaining his childish love
of laughter and fun of every kind, he showed at present greater
facility in learning, with a faculty of memory that was prodigious.
Having to go with his sisters to balls, he took lessons in dancing;
but, happening to meet with an unlucky fall, and resenting the smiles
and giggling his accident called forth among the girls, he renounced
attempts at tripping on the light, fantastic toe, and devoted
subsequent visits to the task of jotting down notes.

A second period of eighteen months in the office of a notary, Maitre
Passez, completed his law apprenticeship. In the first pages of
/Colonel Chabert/ the novelist gives us a sketch of the interior where
he acquired his knowledge of chicane. Our nostrils are familiarized
with its stove-heated atmosphere, our eyes with the yellow-billed
walls, the dirty floor, the greasy furniture, the bundles of papers,
the chimney-piece covered with bottles and glasses and bits of bread
and cheese; and our ears are assailed by the quips and jokes and puns
of the clerks and office-boys who were his companions for a time. He
lingers over his reminiscences, which, though pleasant from their
connection with his lost youth, had none the less to do with men and
things that settled the foundation of his maturer pessimism. An
article of his in 1839, entitled the /Notary/, says:--

"After five years passed in a notary's office, it is hard for a young
man to conserve his candour. He has seen the hideous origins of all
fortunes, the disputes of heirs over corpses not yet cold, the human
heart in conflict with the Code. . . . A lawyer's office is a
confessional where the various passions come to empty out their bag of
bad ideas and to consult about their cases of conscience while seeking
means of execution."

While we have no conclusive evidence on the point, it is yet probable
that, at least for a while, Balzac had, during these years of legal
training, serious thoughts of adopting law as his career. Otherwise he
would scarcely have troubled to gain such an extensive acquaintance
with everything appertaining to its theory and practice--knowledge
which he afterwards utilized in several of his books, notably in
/Cesar Birotteau/ and the /Marriage Contract/. However, in 1819, he
had definitely made up his mind to follow Scribe's example. At this
date his father informed him that an opportunity offered itself for
him to become a junior partner in a solicitor's practice, which might
be ultimately purchased with money advanced him and the dowry that an
advantageous marriage would bring. When the newly-fledged Bachelor of
Laws declared that it was impossible for him to accept the proposal,
and that he had determined to become a man of letters, trusting to his
pen for a living, the elder Balzac's astonishment was unbounded. If
any echoes of his son's recent cogitations and conversations on the
subject had come to the father's ears, they had been deemed so much
empty talk; and the friends who were consulted in the dilemma had
nothing more encouraging to say. One of them pronounced that Honore
was worth nothing better than to make a scrivener of or a clerk in
some Government department. The poor fellow had a good handwriting--
this, indeed, deteriorated later. Through his parents' influence, it
was thought he might ultimately attain a moderate competency. Perhaps
Laure, the favourite sister and early confidante of the novelist, may
have used persuasion at this juncture with her father and mother. At
any rate, as the issue of a great deal of lively discussion, the
parents agreed to let Honore make a two years' experiment as a free
lance in the ranks of the book-writing tribe. By the end of that time,
they no doubt imagined he would be glad enough to re-enact the parable
of the prodigal son and start in some safer trade.



It happened that Honore's enlistment in the army of /litterateurs/
coincided with considerable changes in his parents' circumstances. His
father had just been retired on a pension and had recently lost money
in two investments. As there were a couple of daughters to be provided
for, the family, for the sake of economy, quitted Paris and went to
live at Villeparisis, six leagues distant from the capital, where a
modest country-house had been bought. Honore, by dint of insistence,
obtained permission to remain in Paris, where he would be freer to
work and could more easily get into relations with publishers; and a
meagrely furnished attic-study was rented for him at No. 9 Rue
Lesdiguieres, a street near the Arsenal, still bearing the same name.
A small monthly allowance was made him, just enough to keep him from
starving; and an old woman, Mother Comin--the Iris-messenger, he
facetiously called her--who had been in the family's service and was
staying on in the city, undertook to pay him occasional visits and to
report should he be in difficulties.

The novelty of his semi-independence caused him at first to look with
cheerful eye on his narrow surroundings. To his sister he wrote in
April 1819:--

"Here are some details about my way of living. I have taken a servant.

"A servant! What can you be thinking of!

"Yes; a servant. His name is as funny as that of Dr. Nacquart's
domestic. The Doctor's is Tranquil; mine is Myself. He is a bad
acquisition! . . . Myself is idle, clumsy, and improvident. When his
master is hungry and thirsty, he has sometimes neither bread nor water
to give him; he does not know how to protect himself against the wind,
which blows through the door and window like Tulou through his flute,
but less agreeably. As soon as I am awake, I ring for Myself, and he
makes my bed. He sets to sweeping, and is not very deft in the


"Yes, Sir.

"Just look at the cobweb where that big fly is buzzing loud enough to
deafen me, and at those bits of fluff under the bed, and at that dust
on the windows blinding me.

"Why, sir, I don't see anything.

"Tut, tut! hold your tongue, impudence!

"And he does, singing while he sweeps and sweeping while he sings,
laughs in talking and talks in laughing. He has arranged my linen in
the cupboard by the chimney, after papering the receptacle white; and,
with a three-penny blue paper and bordering, he has made a screen. The
room he has painted from the book-case to the fireplace. On the whole,
he is a good fellow."

In the introduction to /Facino Cane/, which Balzac wrote some fifteen
years later, there is a return of memory to this sojourn in the
Lesdiguieres garret. "I lived frugally," he says; "I had accepted all
the conditions of monastic life, so needful to the worker. When it was
fine, the utmost I did was to go for a stroll on the Boulevard
Bourdon. One hobby alone enticed me from my studious habits, and even
that was study. I used to observe the manners of the Faubourg, its
inhabitants, and their characters. Dressed as plainly as the workmen,
indifferent to decorum, I aroused no mistrust, and could mix with them
and watch their bargaining and quarrelling with each other as they
went home from their toil. My faculty of observation had become
intuitive; it penetrated the soul without neglecting the body, or
rather it so well grasped exterior details that at once it pierced
beyond. It gave me the power of living the life of the individual in
whom it was exercised, enabling me to put myself in his skin, just at
the dervish of the /Arabian Nights/ entered the body and soul of those
over whom he pronounced certain words."

The would-be man of letters pushed his hobby even to dogging people to
their homes, and to registering in note-book or brain their
conversations--records of joys, sorrows, and interests.

"I could realize their existence," he affirms; "I felt their rags on
my back. I walked with my feet in their worn-out shoes; it was the
dreaming of a man awake. . . . To quit my own habits and become
another by the intoxication of my moral faculties at will, such was my
diversion. To what do I owe this gift? Is it second sight? Is it one
of those possessions of the mind that lead to madness? I have never
sought out the causes of this gift. I have it and use it--that is all
I can say."

Honore's 'prentice attempts at producing a masterpiece oscillated
between the novel and the drama. Two stories, entitled respectively
/Coquecigrue/ (an imaginary animal) and /Stella/, were abandoned
before they were begun. A comic opera had the same fate. The /Two
Philosophers/, a farce in which a couple of sham sages mocked at the
world and quarrelled with each other, while secretly coveting the good
things they affected to despise, appears to have been worked at, but
uselessly. Next a tragedy, tackled with greater resolution, was
composed and entirely finished. Curiously, the subject of it,
/Cromwell/, was the same as that chosen by Victor Hugo, a few years
later, to achieve the overthrow of classicism and the substitution of
Romanticism in its stead.

The drama was written in verse, a form of literary composition foreign
to Balzac's talent. Even during the months he laboured at his task, he
confessed to Laure, 'midst his sallies of joking, that what he was
writing teemed with defective lines. He polished and repolished,
however, hoping to overcome these drawbacks, upheld by his invincible
self-confidence. The piece, as sketched out in his correspondence,
made large alterations in English history. Its interest hinged chiefly
on the dilemma created in Cromwell's mind by his two sons falling into
the hands of a small Royalist force, and by Charles's ordering them to
be given up without conditions to their father, although the King was
a prisoner. Posed in the third act, the dilemma was solved in the
fourth by Cromwell's decision to condemn the King, notwithstanding his
generosity. At the close of the play, the Queen escaped from England,
crying aloud for vengeance, which she intended to seek in all
quarters. France would combat the English, would defeat and crush them
in the end.

"I mean my tragedy to be the breviary of peoples and kings," he
proudly informed his sister. "It is impossible for you not to find the
plan superb. How the interest grows from scene to scene! The incident
of Cromwell's sons is most happily invented. Charles's magnanimity in
restoring to Cromwell his sons is finer than that of Augustus
pardoning Cinna." In blowing his own trumpet Balzac was early an

To stimulate his imagination and reflection, he transferred his daily
walk from the Jardin des Plantes to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. "There
I make," he explained, "studies of grief useful for my /Cromwell/.
Real grief is so hard to depict; it requires so much simplicity." His
garret had still its charm. "The time I spend in it will be sweet to
look back upon," he said. "To live as I like, to work in my own way,
to go to sleep conjuring up the future, which I imagine beautiful, to
have Rousseau's Julie as a sweetheart, La Fontaine and Moliere as
friends, Racine as a master, and Pere Lachaise as a promenade ground!
Ah! if it could only last for ever!" His dreaming led him on to wider
anticipations even than those of literary glory. "If I am to be a
grand fellow (which, it's true, we don't yet know), I may add to my
fame as a great author that of being a great citizen. This is a
tempting ambition also."

At the end of April 1820, he went to Villeparisis with his completed
tragedy. Counting on a triumph, he had requested that some
acquaintances should be invited to the house to hear it read aloud.
Among those present was the gentleman who had advised his turning
clerk in the Civil Service. The reading commenced, and, as it
progressed, the youthful author noticed that his audience first showed
signs of being bored, then of being bewildered, and lastly of being
frankly dissatisfied and hostile. Laure was dumbfounded. The candid
gentleman broke out into uncompromising, scathing condemnation; and
those who were most indulgent were obliged to pronounce that the
famous tragedy was a failure. Honore defended his production with
energy; and, to settle the dispute, his father proposed it should be
submitted to an old professor of the Ecole Polytechnique, whom he
knew, and who should act as umpire. This course was adopted; and the
Professor, after careful examination of the manuscript, opined that
Honore would act wisely in preferring any other career to literature.

The verdict was received with more calmness than might have been
expected. Instead of twisting his own neck, as he had hinted he might,
if unsuccessful, the young author quietly remarked that tragedies were
not his forte and that he intended to devote himself to novels.

As the price of their assent to his continuance in writing, Honore's
parents stipulated that he should quit his garret and come home. The
return was all the more advisable as Laure was about to be married to
a Monsieur Surville, who was a civil engineer, and a gap was thus
created in the home circle, which his presence could prevent from
being so much felt.[*] His health besides had suffered during his
fifteen months of self-imposed privations. In after-life he complained
much to some of his friends--Auguste Fessart and Madame Hanska amongst
others--of his parents' or rather his mother's hardness to him while
he was in the Lesdiguieres Street lodgings, and asserted that, if more
liberality had then been displayed, most of his subsequent misfortunes
would have been avoided. This is by no means certain. His troubles and
burdens would seem to have been caused far more by mistakes of
judgment and improvidence than by any stress of circumstance.

[*] Laurence, the younger sister, was married in 1821, twelve months
after her sister. Her husband was Monsieur de Montzaigle. She died
before the close of the decade.

For the next five years he remained with his father and mother,
excepting the occasional visits paid to Touraine, L'Isle-Adam, or
Bayeux, at which last place his sister Laure was settled for a while.
In a letter to her there he banteringly spoke of his desire to enter
the matrimonial state: "Look me out some widow who is a rich heiress,"
he said; "you know what I require. Praise me up to her--twenty-two
years of age, amiable, polite, with eyes of life and fire, the best
husband Heaven has ever made. I will give you fifty per cent on the
dowry and pin-money." He alluded to his mother's worrying disposition
and susceptibility: "We are oddities, forsooth, in our blessed family.
What a pity I cannot put us into novels." This he was to do later.

Beforehand there was his Romantic cycle to be run through, in more
than forty volumes, if Laure's statement could be believed. What she
meant no doubt was sections of volumes or else tales; and even the
composition of forty tales in five years would be a considerable
performance. True, there were partnerships with Le Poitevin de
l'Egreville,[*] Horace Raisson, Etienne Arago. And the material turned
out was of the coarsest kind, generally second-hand, a hash-up of
stories already published, imitations of Monk Lewis, Maturin, Mrs.
Radcliffe, and French writers of the same school, with a little
shuffling of characters and incidents. The preface to the novel that
opened the series--/The Heiress of Birague/--speaks of an old trunk
bequeathed by an uncle and filled with manuscripts, which the author
had merely to edit. And the apology had more truth in it than he meant
it to convey.

[*] Son of Le Poitevin Saint-Alme.

Balzac was quite aware of the small merit of this hack-work. To Laure
he confessed: "My novel is finished. I will send it to you on
condition of your not lending it or boasting of it as a masterpiece."
He could appreciate better achievement, and spoke of /Kenilworth/ as
the finest thing in the world. His excuse was that he had no time to
reflect upon what he wrote. He must write every day to gain the
independence that he sought; and had none but this ignoble way, as he
said, of securing it.

Moreover, there was still the dreaded possibility of his having to
embrace another profession than literature. The notary was dead and
the business had been taken over by some one else, so that this danger
no longer threatened him; but the candid friend was inquiring about a
second sinecure. "What a terrible man!" exclaimed Honore.

He indulged in a fit of premature discouragement, seeking for some one
or something to cast a little brightness over what he deemed his dull
existence. "I have none of the flowers of life," he lamented; "and yet
I am in the season when they bloom! What is the good of fortune and
joys when youth is past? Of what use the actor's garments if one does
not play the role? The old man is one who has dined and looks at
others eating. I am young and my plate is empty, and I am hungry,
Laure. Will ever my two only, immense desires--to be celebrated and to
be loved--be satisfied?" They were, but at a cost that was dearly

However great Balzac's potential genius, it was too little developed,
too little exercised at this period for him to produce anything of
real, permanent worth. The fiction in which he was destined to excel,
the only fiction he was peculiarly fitted to write, demanded maturity
of experience that he could hardly acquire before another decade had
passed over his head. Yet the stories he reeled off had a certain
market value. /The Heiress of Birague/ was sold for eight hundred
francs, /Jean-Louis/, or the /Foundling Girl/, for thirteen hundred;
and a higher price still was obtained (whether the money was actually
received is uncertain) for the /Handsome Jew/, afterwards republished
under a fresh title, /The Israelite/.

Contemporary critics declined to acknowledge that, in these books and
their congeners,[*] there were some traces of a master-hand. To-day
the traces are perceptible, because criticism has a better opportunity
of discovering them. Here and there, and especially in /Argow, the
Pirate/, is to be noticed a beginning of the realism that was
afterwards the novelist's excellence. The theme, that of a brigand
purified by love, is, as Monsieur le Breton remarks in his study of
Balzac, a romantic one in the manner of Byron, and has things in
common with Walter Scott's /Heart of Midlothian/, Victor Hugo's /Bug-
Jargal/, and Pixerecourt's /Belveder/. There is an atmosphere of
imagination in it, the action is quick, and the characters are
strongly though distortedly drawn. Moreover, a breath of healthy
sentiment runs through the story, which is not always the case in the
later and more celebrated novels. Balzac must have learnt much and
acquired much that was useful to him during this puddling of his ore
in the furnace of his early efforts; and, if in his maturer age he
retained certain defects of the Romantic school, it was because a
lurking sympathy with them in his nature prevented his shaking himself
free of them, when he reformed his manner.

[*] Other youthful productions were The Centenarian, The Last Fairy,
Don Gigadas, The Excommunicated Man, Wann-Chlore, or Jane the
Pale, The Curate of the Ardennes, and Argow, the Pirate.

The style of his letters at this same period was admirable, sparkling
with wit and with a humour that unfortunately grew rarer, bitterer,
and even coarser often, in his later career. Some of his rapidly
sketched pictures were incidents of home life. This one represents his
mother's fidgety disposition:--

"Louise, give me a glass of water."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Ah, my poor Louise, I'm in a bad way; I am indeed!"

"Nonsense, Ma'am!"

"It's worse than other years."

"Lud! . . . Ma'am!"

"My head is splitting. . . . . Oh, Louise! The shutters are slamming;
it's enough to break all the panes in the drawing-room."

Already, with the faculty of exaggeration which characterised him all
his life, he anticipated gaining within the next twelvemonth no less
than twenty thousand francs; forgetting the small result of his
/Cromwell/, he spoke of having a lot of theatrical pieces in hand,
plus an historical novel, /Odette de Champdivers/, and another dealing
with the fortunes of the R'hoone family. R'hoone was an anagram of his
own name Honore. Lord R'hoone was one of his pseudonyms. And "Lord
R'hoone," he told Laure, "will soon be the rage, the most amiable,
fertile author; and ladies will regard him as the apple of their eye.
Then the little Honore will arrive in a coach with head held up, proud
look, and fob well garnished. At his approach, amidst flattering
murmurs from the admiring crowd, people will say: 'He is Madame
Surville's brother.' Then men, women, and children, and unborn babes
will leap as the hills. . . . And I shall be the ladies' man, in view
of which event I am saving up my money. Since yesterday I have given
up dowagers, and intend to fall back on thirty-year-old widows. Send
all you can find to Lord R'hoone, Paris. This address will suffice. He
is known at the city gates. N.B.--Send them, carriage paid, free of
cracks and soldering. Let them be rich and amiable; as for beauty, it
is not a /sine qua non/. Varnish wears off, but the underneath
earthenware remains."

Through all these displays of fireworks one fact stands out, that
Balzac was in too great a hurry to reap fame and wealth--wealth
especially. It was his hurry that inspired his constant complaint:
"Ah! if only I had enough bread and cheese, I would soon make my mark
and write books to last." This was not altogether true nor just to his
parents. He had his bread and cheese and a home to eat it in, which
authors have not always enjoyed who have gained immortality by their
unaided pen. Although his family were anxious to see him independent,
they did not oblige him to depend upon what he earned. Nothing at the
moment prevented him from striving to produce something of good
quality and spending the time necessary over it. He saw the better,
but followed the worse.

"My ideas," he wrote to Laure, "are changing so much that my execution
will soon change also. . . . In a short time there will be the same
difference between the me of to-day and the me of to-morrow as exists
between the young man of twenty and the man of thirty! I am
reflecting; my ideas are ripening. I recognize that Nature has treated
me favourably in giving me my heart and my head. Believe in me, dear
sister, for I need some one to believe in me. I do not despair of
doing something one day. I see at present that /Cromwell/ had not even
the merit of being an embryon. As for my novels, they are not up to

How could they be when he supplied them, so to speak, machine-made!
"Citizen Pollet" button-holed him in August 1822 and induced him to
sign an agreement binding him to deliver a couple of these stories by
the 1st of October. Six hundred francs were paid cash down, and the
rest in deferred bills. The second of the couple was the /Curate of
the Ardennes/, which Laure helped him to write.

It surprises at first sight to read that the demand for this cheap
fiction was so great in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
The explanation is that, during the last years of the Empire, the
article had scarcely been in the market at all, so that, in the
Restoration period, which was one of peace and leisure, there was
quite a rush for it. On the whole, Balzac did not manage to hit the
public fancy with his work in this line. The further he went with it
the less he liked it, and such bits of better stuff as he introduced
in lieu of the blood and mystery rather lessened than increased the
saleableness of his books. For the printing of the /Last Fairy/ he had
to pay, himself; and he was obliged to own, after five years' catering
for popular taste, he was no nearer emerging from obscurity than he
had been at the commencement. It was discouraging and humiliating; he
had started with such confidence and boasting. Now those who had
spoken against his literary vocation seemed to be justified, and those
who had been most inclined to believe in him were sceptical.

However, there was still one woman who kept her faith in his capacity
for soaring above the common pitch. She it was who, understanding him
better than his own family, became a second mother to him. Attracted
by him, in spite of his weaknesses of conceit, loudness, and
vulgarity, she polished his behaviour, guided his perceptions,
corrected his pretentiousness, influencing him through the sincerity
and strength of her affection.

Twenty-two years his senior, she was the daughter of a German harpist
named Henner, in favour at the Court of Louis XVI., whom Marie-
Antoinette had married to Mademoiselle Quelpee-Laborde, one of her own
ladies-in-waiting. Both King and Queen stood as god-parents to the
Henners' little girl, who, when grown up, was married to a Monsieur de
Berny, of ancient, noble lineage, and bore him nine children. The date
at which Balzac made her acquaintance has been variously stated.
Basing themselves upon his /Love-story at School/, some writers have
supposed he knew her when he was a boy, but there is no evidence to
confirm this hypothesis. The first definite mention of her and her
family occurs in a gossipy letter he wrote to Laure in 1822 from
Villeparisis, where the de Berny family were settled: "I may tell
you," he says, "that Mademoiselle de B. has narrowly escaped being
broken into three pieces in a fall; that Mademoiselle E. is not so
stupid as we imagined; that she has a talent for serious painting and
even for caricature; that she is a musician to the tips of her toes;
that Monsieur C. continues to swear; that Madame de B(erny) has become
a bran, wheat, and fodder merchant, perceiving after forty years'
reflection that money is everything."

At this date, the relationship between him and Madame de Berny was one
of ordinary friendship, yet with indications of warmer feelings on
either side that his parents noticed and disapproved. With a view to
discouraging the intimacy, they induced him to pay visits that took
him from home for some time; but the object they aimed at was not
attained. The intimacy ripened. Madame de Berny was his only
confidante. His few male friends were too old or too young for his
unbosomings. There was the Abbe de Villers whom he stayed with at
Nogent, and there was Theodore Dablin, the retired ironmonger, whom he
used to call his "cher petit pere/." Besides these two elders, there
was the young de Berny, who was considerably his junior. But to none
of them could he talk unreservedly of his ambitions literary and
political. For a man between twenty and thirty years of age, whose
mind is seething with evolving thought, there is no more sympathetic
and appreciative adviser than a woman some years his senior. Madame de
Berny listened to his expression of Imperialistic opinions tinged with
Liberalism, as she listened to his confession of hopes and
disappointments; and, in turn, talked with persuasive accents of those
pre-Revolution days which she had known as a child. She was able also
to draw the curtain aside and show him something of the history of the
revolution itself and of the Terror, during which she and her parents'
family had been imprisoned. It was his first mingling with the
grandeurs that were his delight. Through her narration, he was able to
enter the old Court society and watch the intrigues of the personages
who had been famous in it. Madame de Berny's mother was still living,
and added her own reminiscences to those of her daughter. Later, by
their agency he was introduced to some of the aristocratic partisans
of the fallen dynasty--the Duke de Fitz-James and the Duchess de
Castries. Under Madame de Berny's education, his Imperialism was
transformed into Legitimism.

How a matron of her age should have allowed the friendship of the
commencement to develop into a liaison is one of those problems of
sexual psychology easier to describe in Balzac's own language than to
explain rationally. We know that she was not happy with her husband,
and can surmise that she entered upon the role she played without
clearly foreseeing its dangers. No doubt, her desire to form this
genius in the rough carried her away from her moorings, which, indeed,
had never been very strong, since she had already once before in her
married life had a lover. Besides there was her temperament, sensual
and sentimental; and with it the tradition of the eighteenth-century
morals, indulgent to illicit amours.

Most likely, the second phase of her relations with Balzac coincided
with his temporary abandonment of authorship for business. It was in
1825 that he resolved to embark on publishing,[*] partly urged by the
mute reproaches of his parents and partly allured by the prospect of
rapidly growing rich. He had likewise some intention of bringing out
his own books, both those previously written and those in preparation.
Of these latter there were a goodly number sketched out in a sort of
note-book or album, which his sister Laure called his /garde-manger/
or pantry. It was full of jottings anent people, places, and things
that he had come across in the preceding lustrum.

[*] The initiator of this project was not Balzac, although his early
biographers, Madame Surville included, gave him the credit for it.

The idea of taking up business was mooted to him first by a Monsieur
d'Assonvillez, an acquaintance of Madame de Berny, whom he used to see
and talk with when staying, as he occasionally did, at the small
apartment rented by his father in Paris. Just then Urbain Canel, the
celebrated publisher of Romantic books, was thinking of putting on the
market compact editions of the old French classics, beginning with
Moliere and La Fontaine; and Balzac, either already knowing him or
being introduced to him by a mutual friend, was admitted to join in
the undertaking. The money necessary for the partnership was lent to
him by Monsieur d'Assonvillez, who, as a sharp business man, imposed
conditions on the loan which secured him from loss in case of failure.
The editions were to be library ones, illustrated by the artist
Deveria (who about this time painted Balzac's portrait), and were to
be published in parts. The price was high, twenty francs for each
work; and additional drawbacks were the smallness of the type and the
poorness of the engravings. No success attended the experiment; at the
end of a twelvemonth not a score of copies had been sold. By common
consent the firm, which had been increased to four partners, broke up
their association, and Balzac was left sole proprietor of the concern,
the assets of which consisted of a large quantity of wastepaper, and
the liabilities amounted to a respectable number of thousand francs.

Madame Surville attributes the fiasco to the professional jealousy of
competitors, who discouraged the public from buying; but the cause of
the discomfiture lay rather in the faulty manner in which the partners
carried out their plan. Monsieur d'Assonvillez being still an
interested adviser, Balzac now submitted to him a project for
retrieving his losses by adding a printing to his publishing business.
The stock and goodwill of a printer were to be bought, and a working
type-setter, named Barbier, was to be associated as a second principal
in the affair, on account of his practical experience. The project was
approved, and the elder Balzac was persuaded to come forward with a
capital of about thirty thousand francs, this sum being required to
pay out the retiring printer, Monsieur Laurens, and obtain the new
firm's patent. Madame de Berny had already lent Honore money to help
him in the publishing scheme. At present, she induced her husband to
intervene with the Government so that the printing licence might be
granted without delay.

The printing premises were situated at No. 17, Rue des Marais,
Faubourg Saint-Germain, to-day Rue Visconti, near the Quai Malaquais.
The street, which is a narrow one, subsists nearly the same as it was
a century ago. Older associations, indeed, are attached to it. At No.
19 died Jean Racine in 1699, and Adrienne Lecouvreur in 1730. No. 17
was a new construction when Balzac went to it, having probably been
built on the site where Nicolas Vauquelin des Yveteaux used to receive
the far-famed Ninon in his gardens. On the impost, where formerly
appeared the names Balzac and Barbier, now may be read "A. Herment,
successeur de Garnier." The place is still devoted to like uses.

In the /Lost Illusions/, whose part-sequel /David Sechard/ reproduces
Balzac's life as a printer, there is a description of the ground
floor: "a huge room, lighted on the street-side by an old stained-
glass window and on the inner yard-side by a casement." The passage in
Gothic style led to the office; and on the floor above were the living
rooms, one of which was hung with blue calico, was furnished with
taste, and was adorned with the owner's first novels, bound by
Thouvenin. In this "den," during the two years that he was engaged in
the printing trade, were received the daily visits of her he called
his /Dilecta/.

She could not give him the practical business qualities in which he
was utterly lacking and for which his wonderful intuitions of
commercial possibilities were no compensation; but she could smile at
his enthusiasms and sympathize with his disappointments, which had
their see-saw pretty regularly in the interval from the 1st of June
1826 to the 3rd of February 1828. A very fair trade was done; and, in
fact, some of the books he printed were important: Villemain's
/Miscellanies/, Merimee's /Jacquerie/, Madame Roland's /Memoirs/, not
to speak of his own small /Critical and Anecdotal Dictionary of Paris
Signboards/, published under a pseudonym, or rather anonymously, since
it was signed /Le Batteur de Pave/, the "Man in the Street." But the
senior partner, he who should have financed the concern with all the
more wariness as d'Assonvillez, the principal supplier of capital, had
a mortgage upon the whole estate, allowed himself to be paid for his
printing, more often than not, in bills for which no provision was
forthcoming and in securities that were rotten. One debt of twenty-
eight thousand francs was settled by the transfer of a lot of old
unsaleable literature, which would have been dear at a halfpenny a
volume. And then, when everything was in confusion--debtors
recalcitrant and creditors pressing--what must he do but launch on
another venture, buy the bankrupt stock of a type-founder, and start
manufacturing. A fresh partner, Laurent, was admitted into the firm in
December 1827, with a view to his exploiting the presumably auxiliary
branch; and a prospectus was issued vaunting a process of type-
founding, which Balzac was wrongly credited with having invented.
Within two months after this spurt, and while a fine album was in
preparation, which was to illustrate the firm's improved method,
Barbier withdrew from the partnership. His desertion would have at
once spelt disaster, if Madame de Berny had not boldly stepped into
the vacant place, with a power of attorney conferred on her by her
husband, and pledged her credit for nine thousand francs. During three
months longer, the tottering house continued to hold up; and then,
under the avalanche of writs and claims, it fell. A petition in
bankruptcy was filed in April, and the estate was placed in the hands
of an official receiver.

On reaching this crisis so big with consequences, Balzac had recourse
to his mother, who, though little disposed in the past to humour his
bent, consented now to every sacrifice in order to save his credit.
Her first step was to get her cousin Monsieur Sedillot to occupy
himself with the liquidation, she authorizing him at the same time to
make whatever arrangement he should judge best, and promising to
accept it. She was most anxious to spare her husband, at present
eighty-three years of age, the grief he must feel if informed of the
full extent of the disaster. Alas! notwithstanding her precautions,
the old man did learn the truth; and the shock hastened his end.
Within twelve months after the bankruptcy he met with a slight
accident, which, acting on his enfeebled constitution, was fatal to

Balzac's liabilities, at the moment of the failure, were one hundred
and thirteen thousand francs. The effect of the liquidation was to
reduce the number of creditors, so that his indebtedness was
restricted to members of his own family and to Madame de Berny. The
latter's claims were partly met by her son's taking over the business
with Laurent, the other partner. Being thus reconstituted, the firm
subsequently prospered. To-day it still carries on its affairs under
the control of a Monsieur Charles Tuleu, who succeeded Monsieur de
Berny. Madame Surville would have us believe that, if her parents had
only supported Honore more unreservedly at the commencement, he could
have realized a fortune; but all the facts of her brother's life go to
prove the contrary.

Referring, a decade later, to these dark days, which loaded him with a
burden of debt that he never shook off but increased by his natural
inability to balance receipts and expenditure, he spoke of Madame de
Berny's kindness, and declared that he had repaid the /Dilecta/ in
1836 the last six thousand francs he owed her, together with their
five per cent interest. As on many other occasions, Balzac imagined
something which had not been done, though he apparently believed what
he asserted. The following anecdote re-establishes the facts of the

Monsieur Arthur Rhone, a friend of the de Berny family, who used to
visit the son Alexander in the office of the Rue des Marais, often
admired on the mantelpiece a fine bust of Flora, modelled by Marin.
One day the printer said to him: "Do you know how much that bust cost
me? . . . Fifteen thousand francs. I got it from Balzac, who owed me a
great deal of money. Once when I was at his house in Passy, he
exclaimed: 'Since I can't pay you, take what you like from here to
reimburse yourself.'" This work of art, a Louis XVI. gilt-bronze time
piece, with its two candelabra, once also in Balzac's possession, was
part payment of the balance due to the de Berny family, and was
surrendered only in the forties.

The novelist, whose memory was so short in money matters, had a longer
recollection of his moral obligations. In the letter above referred
to, he confessed: "Without her (Madame de Berny) I should have died.
She often divined that I had not eaten for several days (here he was
probably piling on the agony). She provided for everything with
angelic kindness. Her devotion was absolute." It ended only with the
/Dilecta's/ life.

In the /Shagreen Skin/, which embodies some of Balzac's youthful
experiences, Raphael, the hero, was saved from committing suicide,
after ruining himself, by an accident which forms the thread of the
story. Possibly, during the bankruptcy proceedings, there may have
been a fit of despair which urged the insolvent printer to end his own
troubles in the Seine. If so, it was of short duration. A fortnight
after he had quitted the Rue des Marais, the letter he wrote to
General de Pommereul showed him planning out a fresh future.

"At last has happened," he said in it, "what many persons were able to
foresee, and what I myself feared in beginning and courageously
supporting an establishment the magnitude of which was colossal (!!!).
I have been precipitated, not without the previsions of my conscious
mind, from my modest prosperity. . . . For the last month I have been
engaged on an historical work of the highest interest; and I hope
that, in default of a talent altogether problematic with me, my sketch
of national customs will bring me luck. My first thought was for you;
and I resolved to write and ask you to shelter me for two or three
weeks. A camp-bed, a single mattress, a table, if only it is
quadrupedal and not rickety, a chair and a roof are all that I

The General replied: "Your room awaits you. Come quick." And he went.
It was his definite entrance into literature, and his resumption of
the search for wealth withal.



The historical novel that Balzac had set himself to write was the
/Chouans/, this name being given to the Vendee Royalists who, under
the leadership of the Chevalier de Nougarede, combated the Revolution
and Napoleon. The scene being laid in Brittany, it was natural that,
apart from health reasons, the author should wish to inspire his pen
by a visit to the places he intended to describe.

His hostess at Fougeres has left us a description of her guest: "He
was a little, burly man, clad in ill-fitting garments that increased
his bulk. His hands were magnificent. He wore a most ugly hat; but, as
soon as he took it off, one remarked nothing else besides his
head. . . . Beneath his ample forehead, on which seemed to shine the
reflection of a lamp, there were brown, gold-spangled eyes which
expressed their owner's meaning as clearly as his speech. He had a
big, square nose, and a huge mouth, which was perpetually smiling in
spite of his ugly teeth. He wore a moustache, and his long hair was
brushed back. At the time he came to us he was rather thin, and
appeared to be half-starved. He devoured his food, poor fellow! For
the rest, there was so much confidence, so much benevolence, so much
/naivete/, so much frankness in his demeanour, his gestures, his ways
of speaking and behaving that it was impossible to know him and not
love him. . . . His good humour was so exuberant as to be contagious.
Notwithstanding the misfortunes he had just passed through, he had not
been with us a quarter of an hour before he made the General and me
laugh till tears came into our eyes."

The /Chouans/, which his two or three months' sojourn at Fougeres
enabled him to get on with rapidly, was completed after his return to
Paris, and was published under his own name in 1829. Charles Vimont,
who accepted and brought it out, paid him no more than a thousand
francs. The book, although it was not badly written, and contained
plenty of incident, very fair characterization, of the minor
personages especially, and local colouring imitated from Walter Scott,
made no great impression. For the ordinary reader it differed too
little from the Romanticism with which he was familiar. Moreover, the
action savoured too much of the melodramatic; and the character of
Mademoiselle de Verneuil, and that of the Chouan chief, whom she had
promised to deliver up to the emissaries of Fouche, were too nebulous
to gain general sympathy, even with the heroine's tragic devotion.
There is, however, a fine sketch of Brittany and of its spirit of
revolt; the numerous figures of the background are vigorously
executed, and nearly all the episodes of the drama are skilfully
presented. A perusal of the /Chouans/ makes us regret that there was
hardly any return to this kind of composition in the author's after-

When embarking on his publishing enterprise, Balzac went to live in an
apartment of the Rue Tournon, No. 2[*] close to the Luxembourg. He
abandoned it for the Rue des Marais in 1826; and, this latter abode
being given up in 1828, he removed on his return from Brittany to No.
4, Rue Cassini, where he remained for some years. A friend of his,
Latouche--soon to become an enemy--helped him to liven up the walls of
his study with the famous blue calico that had adorned his room over
the printing office. Certain busybodies spread the report that he was
furnishing his new apartment extravagantly; and Laure, to whose ear
the tattle had come, ventured to allude to it in a letter reproaching
him with remissness in writing home and to her. The accusation of
extravagance, which later he really merited, was at this moment a
trifle previous, money being scarce and credit also. "Stamps and
omnibus fares are expenses I cannot afford," he assured his sister;
"and I abstain from going out in order to save my clothes."

[*] Some early biographers state that the novelist went to the Rue
Tournon after his bankruptcy. This is a mistake.

However, he was now on the point of scoring a literary success. In the
same year as his /Chouans/ appeared his /Physiology of Marriage/, a
book of satire and caricature having a distinct stamp of his maturer
manner. Werdet, for a number of years his publisher and friend,
relates in his /Portrait Intime/ that Balzac, while still in the
Lesdiguieres Street garret, had gone one day to Alphonse Levavasseur
and offered, in return for a royalty and a cash installment of two
hundred francs, to supply him with a book to be entitled: /Manual of
the Business Man, by a former Notary's Clerk/. It was agreed that the
manuscript should be handed in at the end of the month; and the two
hundred francs were paid down. In vain the publisher waited for his
Manual. Ultimately he hunted out his debtor; and the latter had to
confess that the long-promised manuscript had never been written. In
order to calm the creditor's indignation, Balzac read to him some
fragments of another book which he was really engaged upon. After
listening for a while, Levavasseur's countenance grew serene: "I will
pay you two thousand francs for this production when finished,
Monsieur," he said; "and we will cancel the old transaction. Come with
me. I will give you the first thousand francs now. The rest you shall
have as soon as I get the last corrected proofs." "Dear publisher,
your speech is golden," cried Balzac; "I accept." Nevertheless, the
proofs were not delivered until 1829. The book immediately became
popular. "From the day of its appearance," comments Werdet,
"literature counted another master and France another Moliere."

The verdict is exact only if the /Physiology/ is regarded in
conjunction with the novelist's after achievement in the domain of
realistic fiction. Alone it would not rank so high. Flippant, cynical,
immoral--these epithets, which were freely applied to it, all have
their justification when one looks at the work from any other
standpoint than that of its being a very amusing and clever exposition
of sex relations governed by interest and passion. Both facts and
philosophy are confined within an exceedingly narrow horizon, one in
which the writer was most thoroughly at home, which explains why they
bear the imprint of a mind already /blase/.

From a letter Balzac sent to Levavasseur, while finishing the last
pages of the manuscript, it appears that he commenced his task as a
jest and completed it with more serious purpose: "I intended to dash
off a pleasantry," he told him, "and you came one morning and asked me
to do in three months what Brillat-Savarin took ten years to do. I
haven't an idea which is not the /Physiology/. I dream of it, I am
absorbed by it."

The sale of the book was in a measure due to the sort of scandal it
provoked. Ladies especially bought the volume to find out for
themselves how far they had been maligned; and Levavasseur, who was
pleased with his profits, introduced Balzac to Emile de Girardin, then
chief editor of the /Mode/, to which paper he now began to contribute
light articles, not to speak of other journals, which were only too
glad to receive something from his pen. The extent to which the fair
sex read the /Physiology/ and were affected by it is illustrated by a
story that Werdet tells of a hoax perpetrated at Balzac's expense by a
number of his society friends, who had cause to complain of his
uppishness towards them, a treatment based not merely on the belief he
entertained in his literary superiority, but on his pretensions to
aristocratic descent. The story belongs more properly to the middle
thirties, when he had been using the prefix "de" before his name
already for some years, justifying himself on the ground that his
father claimed issue from an old family that had resisted the Auvergne
invasion and had begotten the d'Entragues stock. His father, moreover,
so he said, had discovered documents in the Charter House establishing
a concession of lands made by a de Balzac in the fifth century; and a
copy of the transaction had been registered by the Paris Parliament.

Between 1833 and 1836 one of the most celebrated Paris "sets" was that
of the Opera "lions," seven young aristocratic sparks composing it,
or, to be precise, six, together with the Chevalier d'Entragues de
Balzac, as his friends jokingly dubbed him--he being an elder. It was
the period of his first flush of prosperity, when he drove about in a
hired carriage resplendent with the d'Entragues coat of arms, which
cost him five hundred francs a month; had a majestic coachman in fine
livery and a Tom Thumb groom; sported himself in gorgeous garments and
strutted about in the Opera /foyer/, amidst the real or feigned
admiration of his fellows.

To revenge themselves for their mentor's superciliousness towards
them, the six other /lions/ induced a dancer at the Opera to play the
part of a supposed Duke's daughter smitten with the great man's
writings and person, a role she undertook the more willingly as, being
well acquainted with the former, she was anxious to prove to him that
he was not so perspicacious as he deemed himself. An Opera ball was
chosen for the adventure; and Balzac was duly baited and taken in tow
by the lady, whose mask only half concealed her beauty. Thus began a
flirtation, with subsequent clandestine meetings, allowing the fair
unknown to fool him to the top of her bent. The author wanted to
propose for her hand to the Duke her father; but, cleverly using her
knowledge of his books, the sly jade showed him that he would have no
chance of being accepted. At last she hinted she would like to visit
him in his author's sanctum; and the delighted novelist went to most
lavish expense in fitting up a boudoir to receive her. The visit was
presumably a secret one. Protected by a young man employed at the
Opera, to whom she was engaged, and who accompanied her in the
disguise of a negro, she went to the Rue des Batailles one evening and
graciously listened to the enraptured conversation of her victim till
towards midnight, when her mother, who was in the plot, came to fetch
her. The novelist's fury and humiliation were extreme on his learning
how neatly he had been tricked, and it was some time before he
ventured to reappear in his accustomed haunts. As narrated by Werdet,
the story is a good deal embellished, and some of the details that he
gives were probably invented; but the main outline he vouches to be

Among the editors of journals who sought Balzac's collaboration after
the publication of the /Physiology/ were Buloz of the /Revue de Paris/
and Victor Ratier of the /Silhouette/. To the latter of them, in 1831,
he wrote from La Grenadiere, where he had gone to recruit, a letter
revealing a curiously mixed state of mind in this dawning period of
fame. He would seem to have been under a presentiment of the long
years of struggle and incessant toil he was about to be involved in,
and to have felt a shrinking of his physical nature from them.

"Oh! if you knew what Touraine is like," he exclaimed. "Here one
forgets everything else. I forgive the inhabitants for being stupid.
They are so happy. Now, you know that people who enjoy much are
naturally stupid. Touraine admirably explains the lazzarone. I have
come to regard glory, the Chamber, politics, the future, literature,
as veritable poison-balls to kill wandering, homeless dogs, and I say
to myself: 'Virtue, happiness, life, are summed up in six hundred
francs income on the bank of the Loire. . . .' My house is situated
half-way up the hill, near a delightful river bordered with flowers,
whence I behold landscapes a thousand times more beautiful than all
those with which rascally travellers bore their readers. Touraine
appears to me like a /pate de foie gras/, in which one plunges up to
the chin; and its wine is delicious. Instead of intoxicating, it makes
you piggy and happy. . . . Just fancy, I have been on the most poetic
trip possible in France--from here to the heart of Brittany by water,
passing between the most ravishing scenery in the world. I felt my
thoughts go with the stream, which, near the sea, becomes immense. Oh,
to lead the life of a Mohican, to run about the rocks, to swim in the
sea, to breathe in the fresh air and sun! Oh, I have realized the
savage! Oh, I have excellently understood the corsair, the adventurer
--their lives of opposition; and I reflected: 'Life is courage, good
rifles, the art of steering in the open ocean, and the hatred of man--
of the Englishman, for example.' (Here Balzac is of his time.) Coming
back hither, the ex-corsair has turned dealer in ideas. Just imagine,
now, a man so vagabond beginning on an article entitled, /Treatise of
Fashionable Life/, and making an octavo volume of it, which the /Mode/
is going to print, and some publisher reprint. . . . Egad! At the
present moment literature is a vile trade. It leads to nothing, and I
itch to go a-wandering and risk my existence in some living
drama. . . . Since I have seen the real splendours of this spot, I
have grown very philosophic, and, putting my foot on an ant-hill, I
exclaim, like the immortal Bonaparte: 'That, or men, what is it all in
presence of Saturn or Venus, or the Pole Star?' And methinks that the
ocean, a brig, and an English vessel to engulf, is better than a
writing-desk, a pen, and the Rue Saint-Denis."

About the events of the 1830 Revolution the novelist was apparently
but little concerned. True, the change was one of dynasty only, not of
/regime/, albeit Louis-Philippe posed rather as a plebiscitary
monarch. Balzac's clericalism and royalism, which ultimately became so
crystallized, were at this date in a position of unstable equilibrium.
At one moment his criticisms have an air of condemning the monarchic
principle, at another they point to his being a pillar of the ancient
system of things. On this occasion he was twitted by Madame Zulma
Carraud, his sister's friend, with whom his relations grew more
intimate as his celebrity augmented; and he defended himself by a
confession of faith which forecast his endeavours--less persistent
than his desires--to add the statesman's laurels to those of the
/litterateur/. His doctrine, following the Machiavellian tradition,
was that the genius of government consists in operating the fusion of
men and things--a method which demonstrated Napoleon and Louis XVIII.
alike to be men of talent. Both of them restrained all the various
parties in France--the one by force, the other by ruse, because the
one rode horseback, the other in a carriage. . . . France, he


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