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Balzac and Le Père Goriot

Non-Fiction > Ten Novels and Their Authors >


Of all the great novelists that have enriched with their works the spiritual treasures of the world, Balzac is to my mind the greatest. He is the only one to whom I would without hesitation ascribe genius. Genius is a word that is very loosely used nowadays. It is ascribed to persons to whom a more sober judgment would be satisfied to allow talent. Genius and talent are very different things. Many people have talent; it is not rare: genius is. Talent is adroit and dexterous; it can be cultivated: genius is innate, and too often strangely allied to grave defects. But what is genius? The Oxford Dictionary tells us that it is a ‘native intellectual power of an exalted type, such as is attributed to those who are esteemed greater in any department of art, speculation or practice; (an) instinctive and extraordinary capacity for imaginative creation, original thought, invention, or discovery’. Well, instinctive and extraordinary capacity for imaginative creation is precisely what Balzac had. He was not a realist, as Stendhal in part was, and as Flaubert was in Madame Bovary, but a romantic; and he saw life not as it really was, but coloured, often garishly, by the predispositions he shared with his contemporaries.

There are writers who have achieved fame on the strength of one or two books; sometimes because, from the mass they have written, only a fragment has proved of enduring value – such is l’Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut; sometimes because their inspiration, growing out of a special experience, or owing to a peculiarity of temper, only served for a production of little bulk. They say their say once for all and, if they write again, repeat themselves or write what is negligible. Balzac’s fertility was prodigious. Of course he was uneven. In such a volume of work as he produced, it was impossible for him always to be at his best. Literary critics are apt to look askance at fertility. I think they are wrong. Matthew Arnold, indeed, looked upon it as a characteristic of genius. He said of Wordsworth that what struck him with admiration, what established in his own opinion the poet’s superiority, was the great and ample body of powerful work which remained to him, even after all his inferior work had been cleared away. He goes on to say: ‘If it were a comparison of single pieces, or of three or four pieces, by each poet, I do not say that Wordsworth would stand decisively above Gray, or Burns, or Coleridge or Keats…. It is in his ampler body of powerful work that I find his superiority.’ Balzac never wrote a novel with the epic grandeur of War and Peace, one with the sombre, thrilling power of The Brothers Karamazov, nor one with the charm and distinction of Pride and Prejudice: his greatness lies not in a single work, but in the formidable mass of his production.

Balzac’s field was the whole life of his time, and his range was as extensive as the frontiers of his country. His knowledge of men, however come by, was rare, though in some directions less exact than in others; and he described the middle class of society, doctors, lawyers, clerks and journalists, shopkeepers, village priests, more convincingly than either the world of fashion, the world of city workers, or of the tillers of the soil. Like all novelists, he wrote of the wicked more successfully than of the good. His invention was stupendous; his power of creation extraordinary. He was like a force of nature, a tumultuous river overflowing its banks and sweeping everything before it, or a hurricane blustering its wild way across quiet country places and through the streets of populous cities.

As a painter of society, his distinctive gift was not only to envisage men in their relations to one another – all novelists, except the writers of adventure-stories pure and simple, do that – but also, and especially, in their relations to the world they live in. Most novelists take a group of persons, sometimes no more than two or three, and treat them as though they lived under a glass case. This often produces an effect of intensity, but at the same time, unfortunately, one of artificiality. People not only live their own lives, they live also in the lives of others: in their own, they play leading parts; in those of others, parts that are sometimes important, but often trivial. You go to the barber’s to get your hair cut; it means nothing to you, but because of some casual remark of yours it may be a turning-point in the barber’s life. By realising all that this implies, Balzac was able to give a vivid and exciting impression of the multifariousness of life, its confusions and cross-purposes, and of the remoteness of the causes that result in significant effects. I believe he was the first novelist to dwell on the paramount importance of economics in everybody’s life. He would not have thought it enough to say that money is the root of all evil; he thought the desire for money, the appetite for money, was the mainspring of human action.

One must ever bear in mind that Balzac was a romantic. Romanticism, as we know, was a reaction from classicism, but to-day it is more convenient to contrast it with realism. The realist is a determinist, and he aims in his narratives at a logical verisimilitude. His observation is naturalistic. The romantic finds the life of every day humdrum and platitudinous, and he seeks to escape from the real world to a world of the imagination. He pursues strangeness and adventure; he wishes to surprise, and if he can only do so at the expense of probability he does not care. The characters he invents are intense and extreme. Their appetites are unfettered. They despise self-control, which they look upon as the dull virtue of the bourgeois. They approve with their whole being that saying of Pascal’s: Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaî point. Their admiration goes to him who is prepared to sacrifice everything and hesitates at nothing to achieve wealth and power. This attitude towards life exactly suited Balzac’s exuberant temper; it is hardly too much to say that if romanticism had not existed, he would have invented it. His observation was minute and precise, but he used it as a basis for the fabrications of his fantastic imagination. The idea that every man has a ruling passion suited his instinct. It is one that has always attracted the writers of fiction, for it enables them to give a dramatic force to the creatures of their invention; these stand out vividly, and the reader, from whom nothing is demanded but to know that they are misers or lechers, harpies or saints, understands them without effort. We of to-day, largely through the works of the novelists who have sought to interest us in the psychology of their characters, no longer believe that men are all of a piece. We know that they are made up of contradictory and seemingly irreconcilable elements; it is just these discordances in them that intrigue us and, because we know them in ourselves, excite our sympathy. Balzac’s greatest characters are formed on the model of those older writers who drew every man in his humour. Their ruling passion has absorbed them to the exclusion of all else. They are propensities personified; but they are presented with such wonderful power, solidity and distinctness that, even though you may not quite believe in them, you can never forget them.


If you had met Balzac in his early thirties, when he was already successful, this is the man you would have seen: a short, stumpy fellow, rather stout, with powerful shoulders and a massive chest, so that he would not have struck you as small, with a neck like a bull’s, its whiteness contrasting with the redness of his face; and thick, smiling lips, noticeably red. His teeth were bad and discoloured. His nose was square, with wide nostrils, and when David d’Angers did a bust of him, he said: ‘Take care of my nose! My nose is a world!’ His brow was noble; his hair dense and black, swept back on his skull like a lion’s name. His brown eyes, flecked with gold, had a life, a light, a magnetism, that were quite thrilling; they obscured the fact that his features were irregular and vulgar. His expression was jovial, frank, kindly and good-natured. Lamartine said of him: ‘His goodness was not a goodness of indifference or insouciance, it was an effectionate, charming, intelligent goodness, which inspired gratitude and defied you not to love him.’ His vitality was abounding, so that you felt it exhilarating merely to be in his company. If you had given his hands a glance, you would have been struck by their beauty. They were small, white and fleshy, and the nails were rosy. He was very proud of them; and, indeed, they would have become a bishop. Had you run across him in the day-time you would have found him in a shabby old coat, his trousers muddy, his shoes uncleaned, and in a shocking old hat. But in the evening, at a party, he was grand in a blue coat with gold buttons, black trousers, a white waistcoat, black silk openwork socks, patent leather shoes, fine linen and yellow gloves. His clothes never fitted him, and Lamartine adds that he looked like a schoolboy who has grown so much in the year that he’s bursting out of them.

Balzac’s contemporaries are agreed that at this time he was ingenuous, childish, kindly and genial. George Sand wrote that he was sincere to the point of modesty, boastful to the point of braggadocio, confident, expansive, very good and quite crazy, drunk on water, intemperate in work and sober in other passions, equally matter-of-fact and romantic, credulous and sceptical, puzzling and contrary. He was not a good talker. He was not quick in the uptake, and he had no gift of repartee; his conversation was neither allusive nor ironical; but as a monologuist his verve was irresistible. He roared with laughter at what he was going to say, and everybody laughed with him. They laughed to listen to him, and they laughed to look at him; André Billy says that the phrase, ‘he burst out laughing’, might have been invented for him.

The best life of Balzac has been written by André Billy, and it is from his admirable book that I have gained the information which I now propose to impart to the reader. The novelist’s real name was Balssa, and his ancestors were farm-labourers and weavers; but his father, who started life as clerk to an attorney, having after the Revolution come up in the world changed his name to Balzac. At the age of fifty-one he married the daughter of a draper who had made a fortune by government contracts, and Honoré, the eldest of his four children, was born in 1799 at Tours, where his father was administrator of the hospital. He had presumably got the job because Madame Balzac’s father, the ex-draper, had somehow become director-general of the Paris hospitals. Honoré appears to have been idle and troublesome at school. At the end of 1814 his father was put in charge of the catering to a division of the army in Paris and moved there with his family. It was decided that Honoré should become an attorney and, after passing the necessary examinations, he entered the office of a certain Maître Guyonnet. How he got on there is pretty well indicated by a note sent him one morning by the head clerk: ‘Monsieur Balzac is requested not to come to the office to-day, as there is a lot of work.’ In 1819 his father was retired on a pension and decided to live in the country. He settled down at Villeparisis, a village on the road to Meaux. Honoré stayed in Paris, since it had been decided that a friend of the family, a lawyer, should hand over his business to him when, after a few years of practice, he was competent to deal with it.

But Honoré rebelled. He wanted to be a writer. He insisted on being a writer. There were violent family scenes; but at last, notwithstanding the continuous opposition of his mother, a severe and practical woman whom he never liked, his father yielded so far as to give him a chance. It was arranged that he should have two years to see what he could do. He installed himself in an attic at sixty francs a year, and furnished it with a table, two chairs, a bed, a wardrobe and an empty bottle to serve as a candlestick. He was twenty. Free.

The first thing he did was to write a tragedy; and when his sister was about to be married and he went home, he took his play with him. He read it to the assembled family and two of their friends. All agreed that it was worthless. It was then sent to a professor, whose verdict was that the author should do whatever else he liked, but not write. Balzac, angry and discouraged, went back to Paris. He decided that, since he could not be a tragic poet, he would be a novelist, and he wrote two or three novels inspired by those of Walter Scott, Anne Radcliffe and Maturin. But his parents had come to the conclusion that the experiment had failed, and they ordered him to come back to Villeparisis by the first stage-coach. Presently a friend, a hack writer whose acquaintance Balzac had made in the Latin Quarter, came to see him and suggested that they should write a novel in collaboration. So began a long series of potboilers which he wrote sometimes alone, sometimes in collaboration, under various pseudonyms. No one knows how many books he turned out between 1821 and 1825. Some authorities claim as many as fifty. I don’t know that anyone has read them in quantity except George Saintsbury, and he acknowledges that it required an effort. They were for the most part historical, for then Walter Scott was at the height of his fame and they were designed to cash in on his great vogue. They were very bad, but they had their use in teaching Balzac the value of swift action to hold the reader’s attention, and the value of dealing with the subjects that people regard as of primary importance – love, wealth, honour and life. It may be that they taught him, too, what his own proclivities must also have suggested to him, that to be read the author must concern himself with passion. Passion may be base, trivial or unnatural, but, if violent enough, is not without some trace of grandeur.

While thus engaged, Balzac lived at home. There he made the acquaintance of a neighbour, a Madame de Berny, the daughter of a German musician who had been in the service of Marie Antoinette and of one of her maids. She was forty-five. Her husband was sick and querulous; she had had, however, six children by him, besides one by a lover. She became Balzac’s friend, then his mistress, and remained devoted to him till her death fourteen years later. It was a curious relation. He loved her as a lover, but he transferred to her, besides, the love he had never felt for his mother. She was not only a mistress, but a confidant, whose advice, encouragement and disinterested affection were always his for the asking. The affair gave rise to scandal in the village, and Madame Balzac, as was natural, highly disapproved of her son’s entanglement with a woman old enough to be his mother. His books, moreover, brought in little money, and she was concerned about his future. An acquaintance suggested that he should go into business, and the idea seems to have appealed to him. Madame de Berny put up forty-five thousand francs, and with a couple of partners he became a publisher, a printer and a type-founder. He was a poor business man and wildly extravagant. He charged up to the firm his personal expenditure with jewellers, tailors, bootmakers, and even laundresses. At the end of three years the firm went into liquidation, and his mother had to provide fifty thousand francs in order to pay his creditors.

Since money played so large a part in Balzac’s existence, it is worth while to consider what these sums really amounted to. Fifty thousand francs was two thousand pounds, but two thousand pounds then was worth far, far more than it is worth now. It is difficult to say how much. Perhaps the best way is to state what at that time could be done on a certain number of francs. The Rastignacs were gentry. The family, consisting of six persons, lived in the provinces, thriftily, but according to their station with decency, on three thousand francs a year. When they sent their eldest son, Eugène, to Paris to study law, he took a room in the pension of Madame Vauquer and paid forty-five francs a month for board and lodging. Several young men had rooms out, but came in for their meals, since the house had a reputation for good food, and for this they paid thirty francs a month. Board and lodging to-day in an establishment of the same class as Madame Vauquer’s would cost at least thirty-five thousand francs a month. The fifty thousand francs that Balzac’s mother paid to save him from bankruptcy would be equivalent now to a very considerable sum.

The experience, though disastrous, provided him with a good deal of special information and a knowledge of business which were useful to him in the novels he afterwards wrote.

After the crash, Balzac went to stay with friends in Brittany, and there found the material for a novel, Les Chouans, which was his first serious work, and the first which he signed with his own name. He was thirty. From then on, he wrote with frenzied industry till his death twenty-one years later. The number of his works is astounding. Every year produced one or two long novels, and a dozen novelettes and short stories. Besides this, he wrote a number of plays, some of which were never accepted, and, of those that were, all, with one exception, lamentably failed. At least once, for a short period, he conducted a newspaper, most of which he wrote himself. When at work, he led a chaste and regular life. He went to bed soon after his evening meal, and was awakened by his servant at one. He got up, put on his white robe, immaculate, for he claimed that to write one should be clad in garments without spot or stain; and then by candle-light, fortifying himself with cup after cup of black coffee, wrote with a quill from a raven’s wing. He stopped writing at seven, took a bath (in principle) and lay down. Between eight and nine his publisher came to bring him proofs, or get a piece of manuscript from him; then he set to work again till noon, when he ate boiled eggs, drank water and had more coffee; he worked till six, when he had his light dinner, which he washed down with a little Vouvray. Sometimes a friend or two would drop in, but after a little conversation, he went to bed. Though when alone he was thus abstemious, in company he ate voraciously. One of Balzac’s publishers declares that at one meal he saw him devour a hundred oysters, twelve cutlets, a duck, a brace of partridges, a sole, a number of sweets and a dozen pears. It is not surprising that in time he became very fat and his belly enormous. Gavarni says that he ate like a hog. His table manners were certainly inelegant: that he used a knife to eat with, in preference to a fork, does not offend me – I have no doubt that Louis XIV did, too; but I recoil at Balzac’s habit of blowing his nose in his napkin.

He was a great note-taker. Wherever he went he had his notebook with him, and when he happened upon something that might be useful to him, hit upon an idea of his own or was taken with someone else’s, he jotted it down. When possible, he visited the scene of his stories, and sometimes drove long distances to see a street or a house that he wished to describe. He chose the names of his characters with care, for he had a notion that the name should correspond with the personality and appearance of the individual who bore it. It is generally conceded that he wrote badly. George Saintsbury thought this was owing to the fact that for ten years he had written, post-haste, a mass of novels just to make a bare living. That does not convince me. Balzac was a vulgar man (but was not his vulgarity an integral part of his genius?) and his prose was vulgar. It was prolix, portentous and too often incorrect. Emile Faguet, a critic, in his time, of importance, has given in his book on Balzac a whole chapter to the faults of taste, style, syntax and language of which the author was guilty; and, indeed, some of them are so gross that it needs no profound knowledge of French to perceive them. Balzac had no feeling for the elegance of his native tongue. It can never have occurred to him that prose may have a comeliness and a grace as delightful in its different way as verse. But for all that, when his exuberant volubility did not run away with him, he could give succinct and pithy expression to the apophthegms and maxims that are scattered about his novels. Neither in their matter nor in their manner would they have dishonoured La Rochefoucauld.

Balzac was not a writer who knew what he wanted to say from the start. He began with a rough draft, which he re-wrote and corrected so drastically that the manuscript which he finally sent to the printers was almost impossible to decipher. The proof was returned to him, and this he treated as if it were but an outline of the projected work. He not only added words, he added sentences, not only sentences but paragraphs, and not only paragraphs but chapters. When his proofs were once more set up, with all the alterations and corrections he had made, and a fair set delivered to him, he went to work on them again and made more changes. Only after this would he consent to publication, and then only on condition that in a future edition he should be allowed to make further revisions. The expense of all this was great, and resulted in constant quarrels with his publishers.

The story of Balzac’s relations with editors is long, dull and sordid, and I will deal with it very shortly. He was unscrupulous. He would get an advance on a book and guarantee to deliver it at a certain date; and then, tempted by an offer of quick money, would stop working on it to give another editor or publisher a novel or a story he had written with haste. Actions were brought against him for breach of contract, and the costs and damages he had to pay greatly increased his already heavy debts. For no sooner did success come to him, bringing him contracts for books he was engaged to write (and sometimes never did), than he moved into a spacious apartment, which he furnished at great cost, and bought a cabriolet and a pair of horses. He engaged a groom, a cook and a manservant, bought clothes for himself and a livery for his groom, and quantities of plate that he decorated with a coat of arms which did not belong to him. It was that of an ancient family, by name Balzac d’Entragues, and he assumed it when he added the de, the particule, to his own name to make believe that he was of noble birth. To pay for all this splendour, he borrowed from his sister, his friends, his publishers, and signed bills that he kept on renewing. His debts increased, but he continued to buy – jewellery, porcelain, cabinets, pieces of buhl, pictures, statues; he had his books bound gorgeously in morocco, and one of his many canes was studded with turquoises. For one dinner he gave, he had his dining-room refurnished and the decoration entirely changed. At intervals, when his creditors were more than usually pressing, many of these possessions were pawned; now and then the brokers came in, seized his furniture, and sold it by public auction. Nothing could cure him. To the end of his life, he went on buying with senseless extravagance. He was a shameless borrower, but so great was the admiration his genius excited that he seldom exhausted the generosity of his friends. Women are not as a rule willing lenders, but Balzac apparently found them easy. He was completely lacking in delicacy, and there is no sign that he had qualms about taking money from them.

It will be remembered that his mother had cut into her fortune to save him from bankruptcy; the dowries of her two daughters had further reduced her means, and at last the only property she had left was a house she owned in Paris. The time came when she found herself so desperately in need that she wrote a letter to her son, which André Billy quoted in the first edition of his Vie de Balzac, and which I shall translate: ‘The last letter I had from you was in November 1834. In it you agreed to give me, from April 1st, 1835, two hundred francs every quarter to help me with my rent and my maid. You understand that I could not live as fitted my poverty; you had made your name too conspicuous and your luxury too obvious for the difference in our situations not to be shocking. Such a promise as you made me was for you, I think, an acknowledged debt. It is now April 1837, which means that you owe me for two years. Of these 1600 francs, you gave me last December 500 francs, as though they were a charity churlishly bestowed. Honoré, for two years my life has been a constant nightmare. You weren’t able to help me, I don’t doubt it, but the result is that the sums I’ve borrowed on my house have diminished its value and now I can raise no more, and everything I have of value is in pawn; and that I’ve at last come to the moment when I have to say to you: “Bread, my son,” For several weeks I’ve been eating what was given me by my good son-in-law, but, Honoré, it can’t go on like that: it seems that you have the means to make long and costly journeys of all sorts, costly in money and in reputation – for yours will be cruelly compromised when you come back because of the contracts you have failed to keep – when I think of all this my heart breaks! My son, as you’ve been able to afford … mistresses, mounted canes, rings, silver, furniture, your mother may also without indiscretion ask you to carry out your promise. She has waited to do so till the last moment, but it has come …’

To this letter he replied: ‘I think you’d better come to Paris and have an hour’s talk with me.’

His biographer says that since genius has its rights, the conduct of Balzac should not be judged by ordinary standards. That is a matter of opinion. I think it better to admit that he was selfish, unscrupulous and dishonest. The best excuse one can make for his financial shiftiness is that with his buoyant, optimistic temper he was always firmly convinced that he was going to make vast sums out of his writings (for the time he made a great deal) and fabulous amounts out of the speculations which one after another tempted his ardent imagination. But, whenever he actually engaged in one, the result was to leave him still more heavily in debt. He could never have been the writer he was if he had been sober, practical and thrifty. He was a show-off; he adored luxury, and he could not help spending money. He worked like a dog to fulfil his obligations, but, unfortunately, before ever he paid off his more pressing debts he had contracted new ones. There is one curious fact worth mentioning. It was only under the pressure of debt that he could bring himself to write. Then he would work till he was pale and worn out, and in these circumstances he wrote some of his best novels; but when by some miracle he was not in harrowing straits, when the brokers left him in peace, when editors and publishers were not bringing actions, his invention seemed to fail him and he could not bring himself to put pen to paper. He claimed to the end of his life that it was his mother who had ruined him; that was a shocking thing to say; for, it was he who had ruined her.


Balzac’s literary success brought him, as success does, many new friends; and his immense vitality, his radiant good humour, his charm, made him a welcome guest in all but the most exclusive salons. One great lady to be attracted by his celebrity was the Marquise de Castries, the daughter of the Duc de Maillé and niece of the Duc de Fitz-James, a direct descendant of James the Second. She wrote to him under an assumed name, he answered, and she wrote again disclosing her identity. He called upon her; he pleased, and presently he went to see her every day. She was pale, blonde, flower-like. He fell in love with her; but though she allowed him to kiss her aristocratic hands, she resisted his further advances. He scented himself, he put on new yellow gloves every day: it availed him nothing. He grew impatient and irritable, and began to suspect that she was playing with him. The fact is plain that she wanted an admirer and not a lover. It was doubtless flattering to have a clever young man, already famous, at her feet, but she had no intention of becoming his mistress. The crisis came at Geneva, where, with her uncle, Fitz-James, as a chaperon, she and Balzac were staying on their way to Italy. No one knows exactly what happened. Balzac and the Marquise went for an excursion, and he returned in tears. It may be supposed that he made summary demands on her, which she rejected in a manner that deeply mortified him. Pained and angry, feeling himself abominably used, he went back to Paris. But be was not a novelist for nothing; every experience, even the most humiliating, was grist to his mill; and Madame de Castries was to serve in future as a model for the heartless flirt of high rank.

While still laying fruitless siege to her, Balzac had received a fan-letter from Odessa signed L’Étrangère. A second, similarly signed, arrived after the break. He put an advertisement in the only French paper allowed to enter Russia: ‘M. de B has received the communication sent to him; he has only this day been able by this paper to acknowledge it and regrets that he does not know where to send his reply.’ The writer was Eveline Hanska, a Polish lady of noble birth and great wealth. She was thirty-two, and married, but her husband was in the fifties. She had had five children by him, but only one, a girl, was living. She saw Balzac’s advertisement, and so arranged that she might receive his letters if he wrote to her in care of a bookseller at Odessa. A correspondence ensued.

Thus began what Balzac was wont to call the great passion of his life.

The letters soon grew intimate. In the high-flown manner of the time, Balzac so laid bare his heart as to arouse the lady’s pity and sympathy. She was romantic, and bored with the monotony of life in the great château in the Ukraine in the middle of fifty thousand acres of dull country. She admired the author, she was interested in the man. When they had been exchanging letters for a couple of years, Madame Hanska, with her elderly husband, who was in poor health, her daughter, a governess and a retinue of servants, went to Neufchâtel in Switzerland; and there, on her invitation, Balzac went too. There is a pleasant, but too fanciful, account of how they met. Balzac was walking in the public gardens when he saw a lady seated on a bench reading a book. She dropped her handkerchief, and on politely picking it up he noticed that the book was one of his. He spoke. It was the woman he had come to see. She was then a handsome creature, of somewhat opulent charms; her eyes were fine, though with ever so slight a cast, her hair was beautiful and her mouth ravishing. She may have been a trifle taken aback at the first sight of this short, fat, red-faced man, like a butcher to look at, who had written her such lyrical and passionate letters; but if she was, the brilliance of his gold-flecked eyes, his exuberant vitality, his animation, the rare goodness of his heart, made her forget the shock, and in the five days he spent at Neufchâtel he became her lover. He was obliged to return to Paris, and they parted with the arrangement that they should meet again early in the winter at Geneva. He arrived for Christmas and passed six weeks there, during which, in the intervals of making love to Madame Hanska, he wrote La Duchesse de Langeais, in which he revenged himself on Madame de Castries for the affront she had made him suffer. He left Geneva with Madame Hanska’s promise to marry him when her spouse, whose health had not improved, left her a widow. Soon after getting back to Paris, however, Balzac met the Countess Guidoboni-Visconti and was immediately fascinated by her. She was an Englishwoman, an ash-blonde, and, notwithstanding her nationality, voluptuous; and notoriously unfaithful to her easygoing Italian husband. It was not long before she became Balzac’s mistress. But the romantics of those days conducted their love affairs in a blaze of publicity, and soon Eveline Hanska, then living in Vienna, heard what had happened. She wrote Balzac a letter full of bitter reproaches, and announced that she was about to return to the Ukraine. It was an appalling blow. He had been counting on marrying her on the death of her ailing lord, an event which he persuaded himself could not be long delayed, and being put in possession of her vast fortune. He borrowed two thousand francs and hurried off to Vienna to make his peace. He travelled as the Marquis de Balzac, with his bogus coat of arms on the luggage, and a valet; this added to the expense of the journey since, as a man of title, it was beneath his dignity to haggle with hotel-keepers and he had to give tips suitable to the rank he had assumed. He arrived penniless. Fortunately, Eveline was generous; but she did not forbear to heap more reproaches on him, and he had to lie his head off to allay her suspicions. Three weeks later she left for the Ukraine, and they did not meet again for eight years.

Balzac went back to Paris and resumed his relations with the Countess Guidoboni. For her sake, he indulged in extravagance greater than ever. He was arrested for debt, and she paid the sum necessary to save him from going to prison. Thenceforward, from time to time she came to his rescue when his financial situation was desperate. In 1836 to his real grief Madame de Berny, his first mistress, died; and he said of her that she was the only woman he had ever loved: others have said that she was the only woman who had ever loved him. In the same year the blonde Countess informed him that she was with child by him. When it was born, her husband, a tolerant man, remarked: ‘Well, I knew Madame wanted a dark child. So she’s got what she wanted.’ Of his other affairs, I will mention only one, with a widow called Hélène de Valette, because it began, as had those with Madame de Castries and Eveline Hanska, with a fan-letter. It is odd that three of his five chief love affairs should have so started. It may be that that is why they were unsatisfactory. When a woman is attracted to a man by his fame, she is too much concerned with the credit she may get through the connection with him to be capable of that blessed something of disinterestedness that genuine love evokes. She is a thwarted exhibitionist who snatches at a chance to gratify her instinct. The affair with Hélène de Valette lasted four or five years. Oddly enough, Balzac broke off his relations with her because he discovered that she was not so highly connected as she had led him to believe. He had borrowed a large sum from her, and after his death she tried, seemingly in vain, to get it back from his widow.

Meanwhile, he continued to correspond with Eveline Hanska. His early letters left no doubt about the nature of their relations, and two of them, which Eveline had left carelessly in a book, were read by her husband. Balzac, apprised of this embarrassing occurrence, wrote to M. Hanski and told him that they were merely a joke; Eveline had taunted him with the fact that he could not write a love letter, and he had written those two to show how well he could. The explanation was thin, but M. Hanski apparently accepted it. After that, Balzac’s letters were sufficiently discreet, and it was only indirectly, expecting her to read between the lines, that he was able to assure Eveline that he loved her as passionately as ever and longed for the day when they could be united for the rest of their lives. The suggestion is plausible that during an absence of eight years, in which time, besides passing flutters, he had had two serious affairs, one with the Countess Guidoboni, the other with Hélène de Valette, his love for Eveline Hanska was somewhat less ardent than he pretended. Balzac was a novelist, and it is natural enough that, when he sat down to write a letter to her, he should have thrown himself into his character of the love-lorn swain as easily as when, wanting to give an example of Lucien de Rubempré’s literary gift, he threw himself into the character of a brilliant young journalist and wrote an admirable article. I have little doubt that when he wrote a love letter to Eveline he felt exactly what he eloquently said. She had promised to marry him on her husband’s death, and his future security depended on her keeping her word; no one can blame him if in his letters he forced the note a little. For eight interminable years Monsieur Hanski had enjoyed moderate health. He died suddenly. The moment Balzac had been so long awaiting arrived, and at last his dream was to come true. At last he was going to be rich. At last he was to be free of his petty bourgeois debts.

But the letter in which Eveline told him of her husband’s death was followed by another, in which she told him that she would not marry him. She could not forgive him his infidelities, his extravagance, his debts. He was reduced to despair. She had told him in Vienna that she did not expect him to be physically faithful so long as she had his heart. Well, that she had always had. He was outraged by her injustice. He came to the conclusion that he could only win her back by seeing her, and so, after a good deal of correspondence, notwithstanding her marked reluctance, he made the journey to St. Petersburg, where she then was to settle her husband’s affairs. His calculations proved correct; both were fat and middle-aged; he was forty-three and she was forty-two; but it looked as though, such was his charm, such his vitality and the power of his genius, when with him she could refuse him nothing. They became lovers again, and again she promised to marry him. It was seven years before she kept her word. Why she hesitated so long has puzzled the biographers, but surely the reasons are not far to seek. She was a great lady, proud of her noble lineage, as proud as Prince Andrew in War and Peace was of his, and it is likely enough that she saw a great difference between being the mistress of a celebrated author and the wife of a vulgar upstart. Her family did all they could to persuade her not to contract such an unsuitable alliance. She had a marriageable daughter, whom it was her duty to settle in accordance with her rank and circumstances; Balzac was a notorious spendthrift; she may well have feared that he would play ducks and drakes with her fortune. He was always wanting money from her. He did not dip into her purse, he plunged both hands into it. She was rich, and herself extravagant, but it is very different to fling your money about for your own pleasure and to have someone else fling it about for his.

The strange thing is not that Eveline Hanska waited so long to marry Balzac, but that she married him at all. They saw one another from time to time, and as a result of one of these meetings she became pregnant. Balzac was enchanted. He thought he had won her at last and begged her to marry him at once; but she, unwilling to have her hand forced, wrote to tell him that after her confinement she intended to go back to the Ukraine to economise and would marry him later. The child was born dead. This was in 1845 or 1846. She married Balzac in 1850. He had spent the winter in the Ukraine, and the ceremony took place there. Why did she at last consent? She didn’t want to marry him. She never had. She was a devout woman and at one time had seriously thought of entering a convent: perhaps her confessor urged her to regularise her unconventional situation. During the winter Balzac’s prolonged and arduous labour, his abuse of strong coffee, had at length shattered his vigorous constitution, and his health failed. Heart and lungs were affected. It was evident that he had not long to live. Perhaps Eveline was moved to pity for a dying man, who, notwithstanding his infidelities, had loved her so long. Her brother Adam Rzewuski wrote to beg her not to marry Balzac, and her reply is quoted by Pierre Descaves in Les Cent Jours de M. de Balzac: ‘No, no, no … I owe something to the man who has suffered so much by me and for me, whose inspiration and whose joy I have been. He is ill; his days are numbered! … He has been betrayed so often; I shall remain faithful to him, in spite of everything and notwithstanding everything, faithful to the ideal that he has made of me, and if, as the doctors say, he must soon die, let it be at least with his hand in mine, and with the image of me in his heart, and may his last glance be fixed on me, on the woman he has loved so much, and who has loved him so sincerely and so truly.’ The letter is moving, and I don’t see why we should doubt its sincerity.

She was no longer a rich woman. She had dispossessed herself of her vast possessions in favour of her daughter and retained only an annuity. If Balzac was disappointed, he did not show it. The couple went to Paris, where, on Eveline’s money, he had bought and expensively furnished a large house.

It is lamentable to have to relate that after all this eager waiting, when at last Balzac’s hopes were realised, the marriage was not a success. They had lived together for months at a time in the Ukraine, and one would have thought that they must have come to know one another so well, with all their difficulties of character, that they would have fallen easily enough into the intimacy of married life. It is possible that mannerisms and tricks which Eveline had regarded with indulgence in a lover irritated her in a husband. For years Balzac had been in the position of a suppliant: it may be that when safely married he became dictatorial and high-handed. Eveline was haughty, exacting and quick-tempered. She had made great sacrifices to marry him, and she resented the fact that he did not seem properly grateful. She had always said that she would not marry him till all his debts were paid, and he had assured her that this was done; but, on arriving in Paris, she found that the house was mortgaged and that he still owed large sums. She had been accustomed to be mistress of a large house, with a score of house-serfs at her beck and call; she was unused to French servants, and she resented the interference of Balzac’s family in the management of her household. She did not like them. She found them second-rate and pretentious. The quarrels between husband and wife were so bitter and so open that all their friends became aware of them.

Balzac had arrived in Paris ill. He grew worse. He took to his bed. One complication followed another, and on the 17th August, 1850, he died.

Eveline Hanska, like Kate Dickens and the Countess Tolstoy, has had a bad press with posterity. She survived Balzac for thirty-two years. At some sacrifice she paid his debts, and gave his mother till her death the three thousand francs a year which Balzac had promised her but never paid. She arranged for a re-issue of his complete works. In connection with this, a young man, Champfleury by name, came to see her within a few months after her husband’s death; and when, being very much of a lady’s man, he made advances to her there and then, she did not resist. The affair lasted three months. He was succeeded by a painter called Jean Gigoux; and the connection, which one may presume from its length grew platonic, lasted till her own death at the age of eighty-two. Posterity would have preferred her to remain chaste and inconsolable for the rest of her long life.


George Sand rightly said that each of Balzac’s books was in fact a page of one great book, which would be imperfect if he had omitted that page. In 1833 he conceived the idea of combining the whole of his production into one whole under the name of La Comédie Humaine. When it occurred to him, he ran to see his sister: ‘Salute me,’ he cried, ‘because I’m quite plainly (tout simplement) on the way to become a genius.’ He described as follows what he had in mind: ‘The social world of France would be the historian, I should be merely the secretary. In setting forth an inventory of vices and virtues, in assembling the principal facts of the passions, in painting characters, in choosing the principal incidents of the social world, in composing types by combining the traits of several homogeneous characters, perhaps I could manage to write the history forgotten by so many historians, the history of manners and customs,’ It was an ambitious scheme. He did not live to carry it to completion. It is evident that some of the pages in the vast work he left, though perhaps necessary, are less interesting than others. In a production of such bulk, that was inevitable. But in almost all Balzac’s novels there are two or three characters which, because they are obsessed by a simple, primitive passion, stand out with extraordinary force. It was in the depiction of just such characters that his strength lay; when he had to deal with a character of any complexity, he was less happy. In almost all his novels there are scenes of great power, and in several an absorbing story.

If I were asked by someone who had never read Balzac to recommend the novel which best represented him, which gave the reader pretty well all the author had to give, I should without hesitation advise him to read Le Père Goriot. The story it tells is continuously interesting. In some of his novels, Balzac interrupts his narrative to discourse on all sorts of irrelevant matters, or to give you long accounts of people in whom you cannot take the faintest interest; but from these defects Le Père Goriot is free. He lets his characters explain themselves by their words and actions as objectively as it was in his nature to do. The novel is extremely well constructed; and the two threads, the old man’s self-sacrificing love for his ungrateful daughters, and the ambitious Rastignac’s first steps in the crowded, corrupt Paris of his day, are ingeniously interwoven. It illustrates the principles which in La Comédie Humaine Balzac was concerned to bring to light: ‘Man is neither good nor bad, he is born with instincts and aptitudes; the world (la société), far from corrupting him, as Rousseau pretended, perfects him, makes him better; but self-interest then enormously develops his evil propensities.’

So far as I know, it was in Le Père Goriot that Balzac first conceived the notion of bringing the same characters into novel after novel. The difficulty of this is that you must create characters who interest you so much that you want to know what happens to them. Balzac here triumphantly succeeds and, speaking for myself, I read with added enjoyment the novels in which I learn what has become of certain persons, Rastignac for instance, whose future I am eager to know about. Balzac himself was profoundly interested in them. He had at one time as his secretary a man of letters called Jules Sandeau, who is chiefly known in literary history as one of George Sand’s many lovers: he had gone home because his sister was dying; she died, and he buried her; and on his return Balzac, having offered his condolences and asked after Sandeau’s family, said, so the story goes: ‘Come, that’s enough of that, let’s get back to serious things. Let’s talk of Eugénie Grandet.’ The device which Balzac adopted (and which, incidentally, Sainte-Beuve in a moment of petulance roundly condemned) is useful because it is an economy of invention; but I cannot believe that Balzac, with his marvellous fertility, resorted to it on that account. I think he felt that it added reality to his narrative, for in the ordinary course of events we have repeated contacts with a fair proportion of the same people; but more than that, I think his main object was to knit his whole work together in a comprehensive unity. His aim, as he said himself, was not to depict a group, a set, a class or even a society, but a period and a civilisation. He suffered from the delusion, not uncommon to his countrymen, that France, whatever disasters had befallen it, was the centre of the universe; but perhaps it was just on that account that he had the self-assurance to create a world, multicoloured, various and profuse, and the power to give it the convincing throb of life.

Balzac started his novels slowly. A common method with him was to begin with a detailed description of the scene of action. He took so much pleasure in these descriptions that he often tells you more than you need to know. He never learned the art of saying only what has to be said, and not saying what needn’t be said. Then he tells you what his characters look like, what their dispositions are, their origins, habits, ideas and defects; and only after this sets out to tell his story. His characters are seen through his own exuberant temperament and their reality is not quite that of real life; they are painted in primary colours, vivid and sometimes garish, and they are more exciting than ordinary people; but they live and breathe; and you believe in them, I think, because Balzac himself intensely believed in them, so intensely indeed that when he was dying he cried: ‘Send for Bianchon. Bianchon will save me.’ This was the clever, honest doctor who appears in many of the novels. He is one of the very few disinterested characters to be met with in La Comédie Humaine.

I believe Balzac to have been the first novelist to use a boarding-house as the setting for a story. It has been used many times since, for it is a convenient way of enabling the author to present together a variety of characters in sundry predicaments, but I don’t know that it has ever been used with such happy effect as in Le Père Goriot. We meet in this novel perhaps the most thrilling character that Balzac ever created – Vautrin. The type has been reproduced a thousand times, but never with such striking and picturesque force, nor with such convincing realism. Vautrin has a good brain, will-power and immense vitality. These were traits that appealed to Balzac, and, ruthless criminal though he was, he fascinated his author. It is worth the reader’s while to notice how skilfully, without giving away a secret he wanted to keep till the end of the book, he has managed to suggest that there is something sinister about the man. He is jovial, generous and good-natured; he has great physical strength, he is clever and self-possessed; you cannot but admire him, and sympathise with him, and yet he is strangely frightening. He obsesses you, as he did Rastignac, the ambitious, well-born young man who comes to Paris to make his way in the world; but you feel in the convict’s company the same uneasiness as Rastignac felt. Vautrin is a great creation.

His relations with Eugène de Rastignac are admirably presented. Vautrin sees into the young man’s heart and proceeds subtly to sap his moral sense: true, Eugène revolts when he learns to his horror that Vautrin has had a man killed to enable him to marry an heiress; but the seeds are sown.

Le Père Goriot ends with the old man’s death. Rastignac goes to his funeral and afterwards, remaining alone in the cemetery, surveys Paris lying below him along the two banks of the Seine. His eyes dwell on that part of the city in which reside the denizens of the great world he wishes to enter. ‘À nous deux maintenant,’ he cries. It may interest the reader who has not felt inclined to read all the novels in which Rastignac plays a part, more or less conspicuous, to know what came of Vautrin’s influence. Madame de Nucingen, old Goriot’s daughter and the wife of the rich banker, the Baron de Nucingen, having fallen in love with him, took and expensively furnished for him, an apartment, and provided him with money to live like a gentleman. Since her husband kept her short of cash, Balzac has not made clear how she managed to do this: perhaps he thought that when a woman in love needs money to support a lover she will somehow manage to get it. The Baron seems to have taken a tolerant view of the situation, and in 1826 made use of Rastignac in a financial transaction in which a number of the young man’s friends were ruined, but from which he, as his share of the swag, received from Nucingen four hundred thousand francs. On part of this he dowered his two sisters, so that they could make good marriages, and was left with twenty thousand francs a year: ‘The price of keeping a stable’, he told his friend Bianchon. Being thus no longer dependent on Madame de Nucingen, and realising that a liaison that lasts too long has all the drawbacks of marriage, without its advantages, he made up his mind to throw her over and become the lover of the Marquise d’Espard, not because he was in love with her, but because she was rich, a great lady and influential. ‘Perhaps some day I’ll marry her,’ he added. ‘She’ll put me in a position in which at length I shall be able to pay my debts.’ This was in 1828. It is uncertain whether Madame d’Espard succumbed to his blandishments, but if she did, the affair did not last long, and he continued to be the lover of Madame de Nucingen. In 1831 he thought of marrying an Alsatian girl, but drew back on discovering that her fortune was not so great as he had been led to believe. In 1832, through the influence of Henry de Marsay, a former lover of Madame de Nucingen, who, Louis Philippe being then King of France, was a Minister, Rastignac was made Under-Secretary of State. He was able, while holding this office, largely to increase his fortune. His relations with Madame de Nucingen apparently continued till 1835, when, perhaps by mutual agreement, they were broken off; and three years later he married her daughter Augusta. Since she was the only child of a very rich man, Rastignac did well for himself. In 1839 he was created a Count and again entered the Ministry. In 1845 he was made a peer of France and had an income of three hundred thousand francs a year (£12,000), which for the time was great wealth.

Balzac had a marked predilection for Rastignac. He endowed him with noble birth, good looks, charm, wit; and made him immensely attractive to women. Is it fanciful to suggest that he saw in Rastignac the man he would have given all but his fame to be? Balzac worshipped success. Perhaps Rastignac was a rascal, but he succeeded. True, his fortune was founded on the ruin of others, but they were fools to let themselves be taken in by him, and Balzac had little sympathy with fools. Lucien de Rubempré, another of Balzac’s adventurers, failed because he was weak; but Rastignac, because he had courage, determination and strength, succeeded. From the day when, at Père-Lachaise, he had flung his challenge in the face of Paris, he had let nothing stand in his way. He had resolved to conquer Paris; he conquered it. Balzac could not bring himself, I fancy, to regard Rastignac’s moral delinquencies with censure. And after all, he was a good sort: though ruthless and unscrupulous where his interests were concerned, he was to the end ever willing to do a service to the old friends of his poverty-stricken youth. From the beginning, his aim had been to live in splendour, to have a fine house with a host of servants, carriages and horses, a string of mistresses and a rich wife. He had achieved his aim: I don’t suppose it ever occurred to Balzac that it was a vulgar one.

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