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Honoré de Balzac

Honoré de BalzacBorn: 20-May-1799 [1]
Birthplace: Tours, France
Died: 18-Aug-1850
Location of death: Paris, France
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Novelist

Nationality: France
Executive summary: Comédie Humaine

French novelist, born at Tours on the 20th of May 1799. His father, Bernard François, never called himself de Balzac and Honoré only assumed the particle after 1830. But the father had equally little right to the name of Balzac at all, for his birth-certificate was discovered at the end of the 19th century. The true name was Balssa, and this in various forms ("Balsa", "Balsas") has been traced for more than a century before the novelist's birth as that of a family of day-laborers or very small peasant proprietors in the parish of Canezac, department of the Tarn. It is probable that the novelist himself was not aware of this, and his father appears to have practiced some mystification as to his own professional career. In and after the Revolution, however, he actually attained positions of some importance in the commissariat and hospital departments of the army, and he married in 1797 Anne Charlotte Laure Sallambier, who was a beauty, an heiress, and a woman of considerable faculty. She survived her son; the father died in 1829. There were two sisters (the elder, Laure, afterwards Madame Surville, was her brother's favorite and later his biographer), and a younger brother, Henri, of whom we hear little and that little not very favorable.

Honoré was put out to nurse until he was four years old, and in 1806, when he was seven, was sent to the collège (grammar school) of Vendôme, where he remained until April 1813 as a strict boarder without any holidays. From this he passed as a day-boy to the collège of Tours. His father's official work was transferred to Paris the year after, and Balzac came under the teaching of a royalist private schoolmaster, M. Lepitre, and others. He left school altogether in 1816, being then between seventeen and eighteen. His experiences at Vendôme served as base for much of Louis Lambert, and he seems to have been frequently in disgrace. Later, his teachers appear to have found him remarkable neither for good nor for evil. He was indeed never a scholar; but he must have read a good deal, and as he certainly had no time for it later, much of this reading must have been done early.

The profession which Balzac's father chose for him was the law; and he not only passed through the schools thereof, and duly obtained his licence, but had three years practical experience in the offices of a notary and a solicitor (avoué), for the latter of whom, M. Guillonnet-Merville, he seems to have had a sincere respect. But though no man of letters has ever had, in some ways, such a fancy for business, no man of business could ever come out of such a born man of letters. And when in 1820 (the licence having been obtained and M. Balzac, senior, having had some losses) the father wished the son to become a practicing lawyer in one or another branch, Honoré revolted. His family had left Paris, and they tried to starve him into submission by establishing him in a garret with a very small allowance. Here he began to write tragedies, corresponded (in letters which have fortunately been preserved) with his sister Laure, and, most important of all, attempted something in prose fiction. The tragedy Cromwell was actually completed and read to friends if not to others; nay more, the manuscript exists in the hands of M. Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, the great authority on Balzac's life and bibliography; hut it has never been published. The novels, Cocqsigrue and Stella, proved abortions, but were only the first of many attempts at his true way until he found it. Drama he never abandoned; but for him it was always an error.

The garret-period from 1820 to 1822 was succeeded by another of equal length at home, but before it had finished (1821) he found his way into print with the first of the singular productions which (and that not entirely or finally) have taken a sort of outside place in his works under the title of Oeuvres de jeunesse. The incunabula of Balzac were Les Deux Hector, ou Les Deux Families bretonnes, and Charles Pointel, ou mon Cousin de la main gauche. They were followed next year by six others: L'Héritière de Birague; Jean Louis, ou La Fille trouvée; Clotilde de Lusignan, ou Le Beau Juif; Le Centenaire, ou Les Deux Beringheld; Le Vicaire des Ardennes; Le Tartare, ou Le Retour de l'exilé. And these were again followed up in 1823 by three more: La Dernière Fie, ou La Nouvelle Lampe merveilleuse; Michel et Christine et la suite; L'Anonyme, ou Ni père ni mère. In 1824 came Annette et le criminel, a continuation of the Vicaire; in 1825, Wann-Chlore, which afterwards took the less extravagant title of Jane la pâle. These novels, which filled some two score volumes originally, were published under divers pseudonyms ("Lord R'hoone", an anagram of "Honoré", "Horace de Saint Aubin", etc.), and in actual collaboration with two or three other writers. But though there is not yet in them anything more than the faintest dawn of the true Balzac, though no one of them is good as a whole, and very few parts deserve that word except with much qualification, they deserve far more study than they have usually received, and it is difficult to apprehend the true Balzac until they have been studied. They ceased for a time, not because of the author's conviction of their badness (though he entertained no serious delusions on this subject), nor because they failed of a certain success in actual money return, but because he had taken to the earliest, the most prolonged, and the most disastrous of his dabblings in business -- this time as a publisher to some extent and still more as a printer and type-founder. Not very much was known about his experiences in this way (except their general failure, and the result in hampering him with a load of debt directly for some ten years and indirectly for the whole of his life) until in 1903 MM. Hanotaux and Vicaire published the results of their inquiries into the actual accounts of the concern. There seems to have been no reason why it should not have succeeded, and there has been claimed for it first, that it provided Balzac with a great amount of actual detail which he utilized directly in the novels, and secondly, that it gave him at whatever cost a still more valuable experience of practical life -- the experience which has so often been wanting to men of letters. Anyhow, from 1825 to 1828, the future author of the Comédie humaine was a publisher, printer and type-founder; and in the last year he had to abscond, or something like it, under pressure of debts which were never fully settled until 1838, and then by a further obligation of ninety thousand francs, chiefly furnished by his mother and never repaid to her.

It was Balzac's habit throughout his life to relieve the double pressure of debt and of work by frequent excursions into the country and abroad. On this occasion he fled to Brittany with an introduction to a M. and Mme. de Pommereul, who received him hospitably in their château near Fougères. Here he obtained some of the direct material, and most of the scenery and atmosphere, for what he himself recognized as his first serious attempt in novel-writing, Les Chouans, or, as it was at first called, Le Dernier Chouan. This book (obviously written in direct following of Sir Walter Scott, of whom Balzac was a lifelong admirer) has been very variously judged -- those who lay most stress on his realism thinking little of it, while those who maintain that he was always a romantic "with a difference" place it higher. It has at any rate brilliant coloring, some very vivid scenes, and almost more passion as well as "curtain" at its ending than any other of his books. Though not without a touch of melodrama it differs utterly from the confused and tedious imitations of Mrs. Raddiffe, M.G. Lewis and C.R. Maturin which fill most of the Oeuvres de jeunesse. At the same time Balzac was engaged on a very different work, the analytic-satirical sketches which compose the Physiologie du mariage, and which illustrate his other and non-romantic side, again with some crudity, but again also with a vast advance on his earlier productions. Both were published in the year 1829, from which his real literary career unquestionably starts. It had exactly twenty-one years to run.

The history of these twenty-one years, though (in consequence mainly of the diligence and luck as a collector of the above-named M. de Lovenjoul) the materials for it are large and constantly accumulating, has never been arranged in a really standard biography, and there seems to be an increasing habit of concentrating the attention on parts of it. It divides itself under three heads mainly, the history of Balzac's business affairs, that of his loves and friendships and that of his actual work. The first has some small resemblance to Scott's similar experiences, though in Balzac's case there was no great crash but a lifelong pressure; on the other hand, his debts were brought upon him by a long course not so much of extravagance in actual expenditure (though there was something of this) as of financial irregularities of almost every description -- anticipations of earnings, costly methods of production (he practically wrote his novels on a succession of printed revises), speculations, travel, and lastly the collection of curiosities. As regards the second, although his fashion of life made him by turns a hermit and a vagrant, he was on good terms with most of the famous men of letters of his day from Victor Hugo downwards, and seems never to have quarrelled with any man, except with some of his editors and publishers, by his own fault. Balzac was indeed, in no belittling sense of the word, one of the most good-natured of men of genius. But his friendships with the other sex are of much more importance, and not in the least matters of mere gossip. His sister Laure, as has been said, and a school-friend of hers, Mme. Zulma Carraud, played important and not questionable parts as his correspondents. But at least three ladies, all of a rank higher than his own, figure as his "Egerias" to such an extent that it is hardly extravagant to say that Baizac would not have been Balzac without them. These are Madame de Berny, a lady connected with the court of the ancien régime, much older than himself and the mother of nine children, to whom he was introduced in 1821, who became to him La dilecta, who was the original of Mme. de Mortsauf in Le Lys dans la vallée, and who seems to have exercised an excellent influence on him in matters of taste until her death in 1836; the marquise de Castries, who took him up for a time and dropped him, and who has been supposed to have been his model for his less impeccable ladies of fashion; and lastly, the Polish-Russian countess Evelina Hanska, who after addressing, as l'Étrangère, a letter to him as early as 1832, became his idol, rarely seen but constantly corresponded with, for the last eighteen years, and his wife for the last few months of his life. Some of his letters to her have long been known, but the bulk of them constituted the greatest recent addition to our knowledge of him as given in the two volumes of Lettres à l'Étrangère. Of hers we have practically none and it is exceedingly hard to form any clear idea of her, but his devotion is absolutely beyond question.

Business, friendship and love, however, much more other things, were in Balzac's case always connected with and on the whole quite secondary to work. He would even sometimes resist the commands by which at long intervals Mme. Hanska would summon him to see her, and abstract the greater part of his actual visits to her in order to serve this still more absorbing mistress. He had, as we have seen, worked pretty hard, even before 1829, and his work had partly taken forms not yet mentioned -- political pamphlets and miscellaneous articles which are now accessible in the Édition définitive of his works, and hardly one of which is irrelevant to a just conception of him. Nor did he by any means abandon these by-works after 1829; indeed, he at one time started and almost entirely wrote, a periodical called the Revue parisienne. He wrote some dramas and planned many more, though the few which reached the stage left it again promptly. Baizac's dramas, as they appear in his works, consist of Vautrin, Les Ressources de Quinola, Paméla Giraud (arranged for the stage by others), La Marâtre and Mercadet le faiseur, the last of which has, since his death, been not unsuccessful. But on the whole he did devote himself to his true vocation, with a furious energy beside which even Scott's, except in his sadder and later days, becomes leisurely. Balzac generally wrote (dining early and lightly, and sleeping for some hours immediately after dinner) from midnight until any hour in the following day -- stretches of sixteen hours being not unknown, and the process being often continued for days and weeks. Besides his habit of correcting a small printed original into a long novel on the proofs, he was always altering and re-shaping his work, even before, in 1842, he carried out the idea of building it all into one huge structure -- the Comédie humaine with its subdivisions of Scènes de La vie parisienne, Études philosophiques, etc. Much pains have been spent upon this title and Balzac's intentions in selecting it. But the "Human Comedy", as a description for mere studies of life as his, will explain itself at once or else can never be explained.

Of its constituents, however, some account must be given, and this can be best done through an exact and complete list of the whole work by years, with such abbreviated notes on the chief constituents as may lead up to a general critical summary. Of the two capital works of 1829, we have spoken. 1830, the epoch year, saw part (it was not fully published until the next) of La Peau de chagrin, one of the crudest, but according to some estimates, one of the greatest of the works, full of romantic extravagance and surplusage, but with an engrossing central idea -- the Nemesis of accomplished desire -- powerfully worked out; La Maison du chat qui pelote, a triumph of observation and nature, together with a crowd of things less in bulk but sometimes of the first excellence -- El Verdugo, Étude de femme, La Paix du ménage, La Bal de sceaux, La Vendetta, Gobseck, Une Double Famille, Les Deux Rêves, Adieu, L'Élixir de longue vie, Sarrazine, Une Passion dans le désert and Un Épisode sous La Terreur. In 1831, La Peau de chagrin appeared complete, accompanied by Le Réquisitionnaire, Les Proscrits, Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu (a masterpiece fortunately not unrecognized), Jésus Christ en Flandre and Maître Cornélius. 1832 gave Madame Firmiani, Le Message, Le Colonel Chabert and Le Curé de Tours (two stories of contrasted but extraordinary excellence), La Bourse, La Femme abandonnée, Louis Lambert (autobiographical and philosophic), La Grenadi&egave;re and Les Marana (a great favorite with the author). In 1833 appeared Ferragus, chef des dévorants, the first part of L'Histoire des treize (a collection in the more extravagant romantic manner, very popular at the time, and since a favorite with some, but few, good judges), Le Médecin de campagne (another pet of the author's, and a kind of intended document of his ability to support the cause of virtue, but, despite certain great things, especially a wonderful popular "legend of Napoleon", a little heavy as a whole), the universally admitted masterpiece of Eugénie Grandet, and L'Illustre Gaudissart (very amusing). 1833 also saw the beginning of a remarkable and never finished work -- out of his usual scope but exceedingly powerful in parts -- the Contes drolatiques, a series of tales of Old France in Old (or at least Rabelaisian) French, which were to have been a hundred in number but never got beyond the third batch of ten. They often borrow the licence of their 15th and 16th century models; but in La Succube and others there is undoubted genius and not a little art. 1834 continued the Treize with La Duchesse de Langeais and added La Recherche de l'absolu (one of Balzac's great studies of monomania, and thought by some to be the greatest, though others prefer La Chef d'oeuvre inconnu), La Femme de trente ans (the chief example of the author's caprice for re-handling, and very differently judged as a whole), with yet another of the acknowledged triumphs, Le Père Goriot. On the whole, this year's work, though not the author's largest, is perhaps his most unique. Next year (1835) followed Melmoth réconcilié (a tribute to the great influence which Maturin exercised, not over Balzac only, at this time in France), Un Drame au bord de la mer, the brilliant, if questionable, conclusion of Les Treize, La Fille aux yeux d'or, Le Contrat de mariage and Séraphita. This last, a Swedenborgian rhapsody of great beauty in parts, has divided critics almost more than anything else of its writer's, some seeing in it (with excuse) nothing but the short description given above in three words, the others (with justice) reckoning it his greatest triumph of style and his nearest attempt to reach poetry through prose. 1836 furnished La Masse de l'athée, Interdiction, Facino Cane, Le Lys dans La vallée (already referred to and of a somewhat sickly sweetness), L'Enfant maudit, La Vieille Fille and Le Secret des Ruggieri (connected with the earlier Les deux Rêves under the general title, Sur Catherine de Médicis, and said to have been turned out by Balzac in a single night, which is hardly possible). In 1837 were published Les Deux Poètes, destined to form part of Illusious perdues, Les Employés, Gambara and another capital work, Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau, where Balzac's own unlucky experiences in trade are made thoroughly matter of art. 1838 was less fruitful, contributing only Le Cabinet des antiques, which had made an earlier partial appearance, La Maison Nucingen and Une Fille d'Éve. But 1839 made amends with the second part of Illusions perdues, Un Grand Homme de province à Paris (one of Balzac's minor diploma-pieces), Le Curé de village (a very considerable thing), and two smaller stories, Les Secrets de la princesse de Cadignan and Massimilla Doni. Pierrette, Z. Marcas, Un Prince de la Bohème and Pierre Grassou followed in 1840, and in 1841 Une Ténébreuse Affaire (one of his most remarkable workings-up of the minor facts of actual history), Le Martyr Calviniste (the conclusion of Sur Catherine de Médicis), Ursule Mirouet (an admirable story), La Fausse Maîtresse and Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées, on which again there have been very different opinions. 1842 supplied Albert Savarus (autobiographical largely), Un Début dans la vie, the very variously named and often rehandled Rabouilleuse (which, since Hippolyte Taine's exaltation of it, has often been taken as a Balzacian quintessence), and Autre étude de femme, yet another rehandling of earlier work. In 1843 came the introduction of the completed Sur Cathérine de Médicis, Honorine and La Muse du département (almost as often reconstructed as La Femme de trente ans), with Comment aiment les jeunes filles (a similar rehandling intended to start the collected Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes), and a further installment of Illusions perdues, Les Souffrances d'un inventeur. Three out of the next four years were astonishingly fruitful. 1844 gave Modeste Mignon (a book with a place to itself, and said to be founded on a story actually written by Madame Hanska), Gaudissart II, A combien l'amour revient aux vieillards (a second part of the Splendeurs), Béatrix (one of the most powerful if not of the most agreeable), and the first and very promising part of Les Paysans. Only Un Homme d'affaires came out in 1845, but this was made up in 1846 by Les Comédiens sans le savoir (sketched earlier), another part of the Splendeurs, Où mènent les mauvais chemins, the first part of Les Parents pauvres, La Cousine Bette (sometimes considered the topmost achievement of Balzac's genius), and the final form of a work first issued fifteen years earlier and often retouched, Petites misères de la vie conjugale. 1847 was even richer, with Le Cousin Pons (the second part of Les Parents pauvres, and again a masterpiece), the conclusion of the Splendeurs, La Dernière Incarnation de Vautrin, L'Envers de Histoire contemporaine (which had been on and off the stocks for five years), and the unfinished Député d'Arcis. This was the last scene of the comedy that appeared in the life of its author. The conclusion of the Député d'Arcis, published in 1853, and those of Les Paysans and Les Petits Bourgeois which appeared, the first in this year, the second wholly in 1855, are believed or known to be by Balzac's friend, Charles Rabou (1803-1871).

This immense and varied total stands to its author in a somewhat different relation from that of any other work to any other writer. It has been well said that the whole of Balzac's production was always in his head together; and this is the main justification for his syllabus of it as the "Comedy." Some part never came out of his head into print; we have numerous titles of work (sometimes spoken of in his letters as more or less finished) of which no trace remains, or only fragmentary manuscript sketches. One apparently considerable book, La Bataille, which was to be devoted to the battle of Essling, and for which he actually visited the ground, is frequently referred to as in progress from the time of his early letters to Madame Hanska onwards; but it has never been found. Another result of this relation was the constant altering, re-shaping, re-connecting of the different parts. That if Balzac had lived as long as Hugo, and had preserved his faculties as well, he could never have finished the Comédie, is of course obvious: the life of Methuselah, with the powers of Shakespeare, would not suffice for that. But that he never would -- even if by some impossibility he could -- is almost equally certain. Whether there is any mark of decline in his latest work has been disputed, but there could hardly have been farther advance, and the character of the whole, not easy to define, is much less hard to comprehend, if prejudice be kept out of the way. That character was put early, but finally, by Victor Hugo in his funeral discourse on Balzac, whose work he declared, with unusual terseness, among other phrases of more or less gorgeous rhetoric, to be "observation and imagination." It may be doubted whether all the volumes written on Balzac have ever said more than these three words, or have ever said it more truly if the due stress be laid upon the "and." On the other side, most of the mistakes about him have arisen from laying undue stress on one of the two qualities, or from considering them separately rather than as inextricably mixed and blended. It is this blending which gives him his unique position. He is an observer of the most exact, the most minute, the most elaborate; but he suffuses this observation with so strange and constant an imaginative quality that he is, to some careful and experienced critics, never quite "real" -- or almost always something more than real. He seems accustomed to create in a fashion which is not so much of the actual world as of some other, possible but not actual -- no matter whether he deals with money or with love, with Paris or with the provinces, with old times or with new. A further puzzle has arisen from the fact that though Balzac has virtuous characters, he sees humanity on the whole "in black": and that, whether he actually prefers the delineation of vice, misfortune, failure, or not, he produces as a rule in his readers the sensation familiarly described as "uncomfortable." His morality has been fiercely attacked and valiantly defended, but it is absolutely certain that he wrote with no immoral intention, and with no indifference to morality. In the same way there has been much discussion of his style, which seldom achieves beauty, and sometimes falls short of correctness, but which still more seldom lacks force and adequacy to his own purpose. On the whole, to write with the shorthand necessary here, it is idle to claim for Balzac an absolute supremacy in the novel, while it may be questioned whether any single book of his, or any scene of a book, or even any single character or situation, is among the very greatest books, scenes, characters, situations in literature. But no novelist has created on the same scale, with the same range; none has such a cosmos of his own, pervaded with such a sense of the originality and power of its creator.

Balzac's life during these twenty years of strenuous production has, as regards the production itself, been already outlined, but, its outward events, its distractions or avocations -- apart from that almost weekly process of "raising the wind", of settling old debts by contracting new ones, which seems to have taken up no small part of it -- must now be shortly dealt with. Besides constant visits to the Margonne family at Saché in Touraine, and to the Carrauds at Frapesle in Berry, he travelled frequently in France. He went in 1833 to Neuchâtel for his first meeting with Madame Hanska, to Geneva later for his second, and to Vienna in 1835 for his third. He took at least two flights to Italy, in more or less curious circumstances. In 1838, he went on a journey to Sardinia to make his fortune by melting the silver out of the slag-heaps of Roman mines -- a project, it seems, actually feasible and actually accomplished, but in which he was anticipated. The year before, tired of Paris apartments, he had bought ground at Ville d'Avray, and there constructed, certainly at great, though perhaps exaggerated expense, his villa of Les Jardies, which figures largely in the Balzacian legend. His rash and complicated literary engagements, and (it must be added) his disregard of them when the whim took him, brought him into frequent legal difficulties, the most serious of which was a lawsuit with the Revue de Paris in 1836. In 1831, and again in 1834, he had thought of standing for election as Deputy, and in the latter year he actually did so both at Cambrai and Angoulême; but it is not certain that he received any votes. He also more than once took steps to become a candidate for the Academy, but retired on several occasions before the voting, and when at last, in 1849, he actually stood, he only obtained two votes.

As early as the Genevan meeting of 1833, Madame Hanska had formally promised to marry Baizac in the case of her husband's death, and this occurred at the end of 1841. She would not, however, allow him even to visit her until the next year had expired, and then, though he travelled to St. Petersburg and the engagement was renewed after a fashion, its fulfilment was indefinitely postponed. For some years Balzac met his beloved at Baden, Wiesbaden, Brussels, Paris, Rome and elsewhere. Only in September 1847 was he invited on the definite footing of her future husband to her estate of Wierzschovnia in the Ukraine; and even then the visit, interrupted by one excursion to Paris and back, was prolonged for more than two years before (on the 14th of March 1850) the wedding actually took place. But Balzac's own Peau de chagrin was now reduced to its last morsel. His health, weakened by his enormous labors, had been ruined by the Russian cold and his journeyings across Europe. The pair reached the house at Paris in the rue Fortunée, which Balzac had bought for his wife and filled with his collections, at the end of May. On Sunday, the 17th of August, Victor Hugo found Balzac dying, attended by his mother, but not by his wife. He actually died at half-past eleven that night and was buried on the 20th, the pail-bearers being Hugo himself, Dumas, Sainte-Beuve (an enemy, but in this case a generous one) and the statesman Baroche, in Père La Chaise, where Hugo delivered the speech cited above.

[1] Some sources give May 16th.

Father: Bernard-François Balssa
Mother: Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier
Wife: Eveline Hanska (m. Mar-1850)

    Risk Factors: Depression

Author of books:
About Catherine de' Medici (1835, nonfiction)

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