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Women in the Life of Balzac By Juanita Helm Floyd Characters: 24720

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

In the delightful city of Tours, the childhood of Honore de Balzac was spent in the midst of his family. This consisted of an original and most congenial old father, a nervous, business-like mother, two younger sisters, Laure and Laurentia, and a younger brother, Henri. His maternal grandmother, Madame Sallambier, joined the family after the death of her husband.

At about the age of eight, Honore was sent to a semi-military /college/. Here, after six years of confinement, he lost his health, not on account of any work assigned to him by his teachers, for he was regarded as being far from a brilliant student, but because of the abnormal amount of reading which he did on the outside. When he was brought home for recuperation, his old grandmother alternately irritated him with her "nervous attacks" and delighted him with her numerous ways of showing her affection. At this time he wandered about in the fresh air of the province of Touraine, and learned to love its beautiful scenery, which he has immortalized in various novels.

After he had spent a year of this rustic life, his family moved to

Paris in the fall of 1814. There he continued his studies with M.

Lepitre, whose Royalist principles doubtless influenced him. He

attended lectures at the Sorbonne also, strolling meanwhile about the

Latin Quarter, and in 1816 was placed in the law office of M. de

Guillonnet-Merville, a friend of the family, and an ardent Royalist.

After eighteen months in this office, he spent more than a year in the

office of a notary, M. Passez, who was also a family friend.

It was probably during this period of residence in Paris that he first met Madame de Berny, she who was later to wield so great an influence over him and who held first place in his heart until their separation in 1832. Probably at this same period, too, he met Zulma Tourangin, a schoolmate of his sister Laure, and who, as Madame Carraud, was to become his life-long friend. Of all the friendships that Balzac was destined to form with women, this with Madame Carraud was one of the purest, longest and most beautiful.

Having attained his majority and finished his legal studies, Balzac was requested by his father to enter the office of M. Passez and become a business man, but the life was so distasteful to him that he objected and asked permission to spend his time as best he might in developing his literary ability, a request which, in spite of the opposition of the family, was finally granted for a term of two years. He was accordingly allowed to establish himself in a small attic at No. 9 rue Lesdiguieres, while his family moved to Villeparisis.

His father's weakness in thus giving in to his son was most irritating to Balzac's mother, who was endowed with the business faculties so frequently met with among French women. She was convinced that a little experience would soon cause her son to change his mind. But he, on his part, ignored his hardships. He began to dream of a life of fame. In his garret, too, he began to develop that longing for luxury which was to increase with the years, and which was to cost him so much. At this time, he took frequent walks through the cemetery of Pere-Lachaise around the graves of Moliere, La Fontaine and Racine. He would occasionally visit a friend with whom he could converse, but he usually preferred a sympathetic listener, to whom he could pour out his plans and his innermost longings. Otherwise his life was as solitary as it was cloistered. He confined himself to his room for days at a time, working fiercely at the manuscript of the play, /Cromwell/, which he felt to be a masterpiece.

This work he finished and took to his home for approval in April, 1820. What must have been his disappointment when, certain of success, he not only found his play disapproved but was advised to devote his time and talents to anything except literature! But his courage was not daunted thus. Remarking that /tragedies/ appeared not to be in his line, he was ready to return to his garret to attempt another kind of literature, and would have done so, had not his mother, seeing that he would certainly injure his health, interposed; and although only fifteen months of the allotted two years had expired, insisted that he remain at home, and later sent him to Touraine for a much needed rest.

During his stay at home, he was to suffer another disappointment. His sister Laure, to whom he had confided all his secrets and longings, was married to M. Surville in May, 1830, and moved to Bayeux. He was thus deprived of her congenial companionship. The separation is fortunate for posterity, however, since the letters he wrote to her reveal much of the family life, both pleasant and otherwise, together with a great deal concerning his own desires and struggles. Thus early in life, he realized that his was a very "original" family, and regretted not being able to put the whole group into novels. His correspondence gives a very good description of their various eccentricities, and he has later immortalized some of these by portraying them in certain of his characters.

Continually worried by his irritable mother, feeling himself forced to make money by writing lest he be compelled to enter a lawyer's office, he produced in five years, with different collaborators, a vast number of works written under various pseudonyms. He tutored his younger and much petted brother Henri, but found his pleasures outside of the family circle. It was arranged that he should give lessons to one of the sons of M. and Mme. de Berny, and thus he had an opportunity of seeing much of Madame de Berny, whose patience under suffering and sympathetic nature deeply impressed him. On her side, she took an interest in him and devoted much time in helping and indeed "creating" him. Unhappy in her married life, she must have found the companionship of Balzac most interesting, and realizing that the young man had a great future, she acted as a severe critic in correcting his manuscripts, and cheered him in his hours of depression. Her mother having been one of the Queen's ladies in waiting, the Royalist principles previously instilled in the mind of the young author were reinforced by this charming woman, as well as by her mother, who could entertain him indefinitely with her exciting stories of imprisonment and hairbreadth escapes.

After a few years of life at Villeparisis, Balzac removed to Paris. He had met an old friend, M. d'Assonvillez, whom he told of the conflict between his family and himself over his occupation, and this gentleman advised him to seek a business that would make him independent, even offering to provide the necessary funds. Balzac took the advice, and with visions of becoming extremely rich, launched into a publishing career, proposing to bring out one-volume editions of various authors' complete works, commencing with La Fontaine and Moliere. As he did not have the necessary capital for advertising, however, his venture resulted in a loss. His friend then persuaded him to invest in a printing-press, and in August, 1826, he made another beginning. He did not lack courage; but though he later manipulated such wonderful business schemes in his novels he proved to be utterly incapable himself in practical life.

A second time he was doomed to failure, but with his indomitable will he resolved that inasmuch as he had met with such financial disasters through the press, he would recover his fortunes in the same way, and set himself to writing with even greater determination than ever. Now it was that Madame de Berny showed her true devotion by coming to his aid in his financial troubles as well as in his literary ones; she loaned him 45,000 francs, saw to it that the recently purchased type- foundry became the property of her family, and, with the help of Madame Surville, persuaded Madame de Balzac to save her son from the disgrace of bankruptcy by lending him 37,000 francs. Thus, after less than two years of experience, he found himself burdened with a debt which like a black cloud was to hang over him during his entire life. Other friends also came to his rescue. But if Balzac did not have business capacity, his experience in dealing with the financial world, of which he had become a victim, furnished him with material of which he made abundant use later in his works.

In September, 1828, after this business was temporarily out of the way, Balzac went to Brittany to spend a few weeks with some old family friends, the Pommereuls. There he roved over the beautiful country and collected material for /Les Chouans/, the first novel which he signed with his own name. Notwithstanding the fact that before he had reached his thirtieth year, he was staggering under a debt amounting to about 100,000 francs, Balzac with his never-failing hope in the future and his ever-increasing belief in his destiny, cast aside his depression, and fought continually to attain the greatness which was never fully recognized until long after his death.

He had entered on what was indeed a period of struggle. Establishing himself in Paris in the rue de Tournon, and later in the rue de Cassini, he battled with poverty, lacking both food and clothing; but his courage never wavered. Drinking black coffee to keep himself awake, he wrote eighteen hours a day, and when exhausted would run away to the country to relax and visit with his friends. The Baron de Pommereul was only one of a rather numerous group. He frequently visited Madame Carraud at her hospitable home at Frapesle, and M. de Margonne in his chateau at Sache on the Indre. Often he would spend many weeks at a time with the latter, where he made himself perfectly at home, was treated as one of the family, and worked or rested just as he wished. Leading the hermit's life by preference, he needed the quietude of the country atmosphere in order to recover from the great strain to which he subjected himself when the fit of authorship was upon him. Thus it happened that several of his works were written in the homes of various friends.

/Les Chouans/ and other novels met with success. Balzac's reputation now gradually rose, so that by 1831 he was attracting much favorable attention. Among the younger literary set who sought his acquaintance was George Sand with whom he formed a true friendship which lasted throughout his life. Now, too, though he was not betrayed into neglecting his work for society, he accepted invitations, won by his growing reputation, to some of the most noted salons of the day, among them the Empire salon of Madame Sophie Gay, where he met many of the literary and artistic people of his time, including Delphine, the daughter of Madame Gay, who, as Madame de Girardin, was to become one of his intimate friends. Here he met Madame Hamelin and the Duchess d'Abrantes, who was destined to play an important role in his life, and also the tender and impassioned poetess, Madame Desbordes-Valmore. The beautiful Madame Recamier invited him to her salon, too, and had him read to her guests, and he was also a frequent visitor in the salon of the Russian Princess Bagration, where he was fond of telling stories. Besides the salons, he was invited to numerous houses, dining particularly often with the Baron de Trumilly, who took a great interest in his work.

As his fame increased, letters arrived from various part of Europe. Some of these were anonymous, and many were from women. Several of the latter were answered, and early in 1832 Balzac learned that one of his unknown correspondents was the beautiful Marquise de Castries (later the Duchess de Castries). Throwing aside her incognito, she invited him to call, and he, anxious to mingle with the exclusive society of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, gladly accepted and promptly became enraptured with her alluring charm. It was doubtless owing to the influence of her relative, the Duc de Fitz-James, that he became active in politics at this time.

In the course of this same year (1832) there came to him an anonymous letter of great significance, dated from the distant Ukraine, and signed /l'Etrangere/. Though not at that time giving him the slightest presentiment of the outcome, this letter was destined eventually to change the entire life of the novelist. A notice in

the /Quotidienne/ acknowledging the receipt of it brought about a correspondence which in the course of events revealed to the author that the stranger's real name was Madame Hanska.

Love affairs, however, were far from being the only things that occupied Balzac. He was continually besieged by creditors; the clouds of his indebtedness were ever ready to burst over his head. Meanwhile, his mother became more and more displeased with him, and impatient at his constant calls upon her for the performance of all manner of services. She now urged him to make a rich marriage and thus put an end to his troubles and hers. But such was not Balzac's inclination, and he rightly considered himself the most deeply concerned in the matter.

All the while he was prodigiously productive, but the profits from his works were exceedingly small. This fact was due to his method of composition, according to which some of his works were revised a dozen times or more, and also to the Belgian piracies, from which all popular French authors suffered. In addition to this, his extravagant tastes developed from year to year, and thus prevented him from materially reducing his debts.

Unlike most Frenchmen, Balzac was particularly fond of travel in foreign countries, and when allured by the charms of a beautiful woman, he forgot his financial obligations and allowed nothing to prevent his responding to the call of the siren. Thus he was enticed by the Marquise de Castries to go to Aix and from there to Geneva in 1832, and one year later he rushed to Neufchatel to meet Madame Hanska, with whom he became so enamored that a few months afterwards he spent several weeks with her at this same fatal city of Geneva where the Marquise had all but broken his heart. In the spring of 1835 he followed a similar desire, this time going as far as the beautiful city of the blue Danube.

The charms of his sirens were not enough, however, to keep so indefatigable a writer from his work. He permitted himself to enjoy social diversions for only a few hours daily and some of his most delightful novels were written during these visits, where it seemed that the very shadow of feminine presence gave him inspiration. It should be added, too, that in the limited time given to society during these journeys, he not only worshipped at the shrine of his particular enchantress of the moment, but managed to meet many other women of social prominence.

As his fame spread, his extravagance increased; with his famous cane, he was seen frequently at the opera, at one time sharing a box with the beautiful Olympe. But his business relations with his publisher, Madame Bechet, which seemed to be promising at first, ended unhappily, and the rapidly declining health of his /Dilecta/, Madame de Berny, not to mention the failure of another publisher Werdet, which there is not space here to recount, cast a gloom from time to time over his optimistic spirit. He now became the proprietor of the /Chronique de Paris/, but aside from the literary friendships involved, notably that of Theophile Gautier, he derived nothing but additional worries from an undertaking he was unfitted to carry out. An even greater anxiety was the famous lawsuit with Buloz, which was finally decided in his favor, but which proved a costly victory, since it left him physically exhausted.

In order to recuperate, he sought refuge in the home of M. de Margonne, and travelled afterwards with Madame Marbouty to Italy, where he spent several pleasant weeks looking after some legal business for his friends, M. and Mme. Visconti. It was on his return from this journey that he learned of the death of Madame de Berny.

During this period of general depression, Balzac devoted a certain amount of attention to another correspondent, Louise, whom he never met but whose letters cheered him, especially during his imprisonment for refusing to serve in the Garde Nationale. In the same year (1836), he was drawn by the charming Madame de Valette to Guerande, where he secured his descriptive material for /Beatrix/.

In the spring of 1837, he went to Italy for the second time, hoping to recuperate, and wishing to see the bust of Madame Hanska which had been made by Bartolini. He visited several cities, and in Milan he was received in the salon of Madame Maffei, where he met some of the best known people of the day. He had now thought of another scheme by means of which he might become very rich,-always a favorite dream of his. He believed that much silver might be extracted from lead turned out of the mines as refuse, and was indiscreet enough to confide his ideas to a crafty merchant whom he met at Genoa. A year later, when Balzac went to Sardinia to investigate the possibility of the development of his plans, he found that his ideas had been appropriated by this acquaintance. On his return from this trip to Corsica and Sardinia, on which he had endured much physical suffering, and had spent much money to no financial avail, he stopped again at Milan to look after the interests of the Viscontis. In the Salon of the same year (1837), the famous portrait by Boulanger was displayed. About the same time, together with Theophile Gautier, Leon Gozlan, Jules Sandeau and others, he organized an association called the /Cheval Rouge/ for mutual advertisement.

Balzac now bought a piece of land at Ville d'Avray (Sevres), and had a house built, /Les Jardies/, which afforded much amusement to the Parisians. He went there to reside in 1838 while the walls were still damp. Here he formed another scheme for becoming rich, this time in the belief that he would be successful in raising pineapples at his new home. /Les Jardies/ was a three-story house. The principal stairway was on the outside, because an exterior staircase would not interfere with the symmetrical arrangement of the interior. The garden walls, not long after completion, fell down as they had no foundations, and Balzac sadly exclaimed over their giving way! After a brief residence here of about two years, he fled from his creditors and concealed his identity under the name of his housekeeper, Madame de Brugnolle, in a mysterious little house, No. 19, rue Basse, Passy.

Aside from his novels, which were appearing at a most rapid rate, Balzac wrote many plays, but they all met with failure for various reasons. Other literary activities, such as his brief directorship of the /Revue Parisienne/, numerous articles and short stories, and his cooperation in the /Societe des Gens-de-Lettres/, which was organized to protect the rights of authors and publishers, occupied much of his precious time; in addition, he had his unremitting financial struggles.

This "child-man," however, with his imagination, optimism, belief in magnetism and clairvoyance, and great steadfastness of character, kept on hoping. Not discouraged by his ever unsuccessful schemes for becoming a millionaire, he conceived the project of digging for hidden treasures, and later thought of making a fortune by transporting to France oaks grown in distant Russia.

In the spring of 1842 Balzac's novels were collected for the first time under the name of the /Comedie humaine/. This was shortly after one of the most important events of his life had occurred, when on January 5 he received a letter from Madame Hanska telling of the death of her husband the previous November. Balzac wished to leave for Russia immediately, but Madame Hanska's permission was not forthcoming, and it was not until July of 1843 that Balzac arrived at St. Petersburg to visit his "Polar Star."

On his return home he became very ill, and from this time onward his robust constitution, which he had so abused by overwork and by the use of strong coffee, began to break under the continual strain and his illnesses became more and more frequent. His visit to his /Chatelaine/, however, had increased his longing to be constantly in her society, and he was ever planning to visit her. During her prolonged stay in Dresden in the winter and spring of 1845, he became so desperate that he could not longer do his accustomed work, and when the invitation to visit her eventually came, he forgot all in his haste to be at her side.

With Madame Hanska, her daughter Anna, and the Count George Mniszech, Anna's fiance, Balzac now traveled extensively in Europe. In July, after some preliminary journeys, Madame Hanska and Anna secretly accompanied him to Paris where they enjoyed the opportunity of visiting Anna's former governess, Lirette, who had entered a convent. In August, after visiting many cities with the two ladies, Balzac escorted them as far as Brussels. In September he left Paris again to join them at Baden, and in October, went to meet them at Chalons whence all four-Count Mniszech being now of the party-journeyed to Marseilles and by sea to Naples. After a few days at Naples, Balzac returned to Paris, ill, having spent much money and done little work.

Ever planning a home for his future bride, and buying objects of art with which to adorn it, Balzac with his numerous worries was physically and mentally in poor condition. In March, 1846, he left Paris to join Madame Hanska and her party at Rome for a month. He traveled with them to some extent during the summer, and a definite engagement of marriage was entered into at Strasbourg. In October he attended the marriage of Anna and the Count Mniszech at Wiesbaden, and Madame Hanska visited him secretly in Paris during the winter.

He was now in better spirits, and his health was somewhat improved, enabling him to do some of his best work, but he was being pressed to fulfil his literary obligations, and, as usual, harassed over his debts. In September he left for Wierzchownia, where he remained until the following February, continually hoping that his marriage would soon take place. But Mme. Hanska hesitated, and the failure of the Chemin de Fer du Nord added more financial embarrassments to his already large load. The Revolution of 1848 brought him into more trouble still, and his health was obviously becoming impaired. Yet he continued hopeful.

After spending the summer in his house of treasure in the rue Fortunee, he again left, in September, 1848, for Wierzchownia, this time determined to return with his shield or upon it. During his prolonged stay of eighteen months, while his distraught mother was looking after affairs in his new home, his health became so bad that he could not finish the work outlined during the summer. No sooner had he recovered from one malady than he was overtaken by another. Unable to work, distracted by bad news from his family, and being the witness of several financial failures incurred by Madame Hanska, Balzac naturally was supremely depressed. At this time, a touch of what may not uncharitably be termed snobbishness is seen in his letters to his family when he extols the unlimited virtues of his /Predilecta/ and the Countess Anna.

After seventeen long years of waiting, with hope constantly deferred, Balzac at last attained his goal when, on March 14, 1850, Madame Hanska became Madame Honore de Balzac. His joy over this great triumph was beyond all adequate description, but he was unable to depart for Paris with his bride until April. After a difficult journey, the couple arrived at Paris in May, but the condition of Balzac's health was hopeless and only a few more months were accorded him. With his usual optimism, he always thought that he would be spared to finish his great work, and when informed by his physician on August 17 that he would live but a few hours, he refused to believe it.

Unless he had been self-centered, Balzac could never have left behind him his enormous and prodigious work. In spite of certain unlovely phases of his private character and failure to fulfil his literary and financial obligations, he was a man of great personal charm. Though at various times he was under consideration for election to the French Academy, his name is not found numbered among the "forty immortals." But he was the greatest of French novelists, a great creator of characters, who by some competent critics has been ranked with Shakespeare, and he has left to posterity the incomparable, though unfinished /Comedie humaine/, which is in itself sufficient for his "immortality."

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