Famous Affinities of History: The Romance of Devotion


I remember once, when editing an elaborate work on literature, that the publisher called me into his private office. After the door was closed, he spoke in tones of suppressed emotion.

"Why is it," said he, "that you have such a lack of proportion? In the selection you have made I find that only two pages are given to George P. Morris, while you haven't given E. P. Roe any space at all! Yet, look here—you've blocked out fifty pages for Balzac, who was nothing but an immoral Frenchman!"

I adjusted this difficulty, somehow or other—I do not just remember how—and began to think that, after all, this publisher's view of things was probably that of the English and American public. It is strange that so many biographies and so many appreciations of the greatest novelist who ever lived should still have left him, in the eyes of the reading public, little more than "an immoral Frenchman."

"In Balzac," said Taine, "there was a money-broker, an archeologist, an architect, an upholsterer, a tailor, an old-clothes dealer, a journeyman apprentice, a physician, and a notary." Balzac was also a mystic, a supernaturalist, and, above all, a consummate artist. No one who is all these things in high measure, and who has raised himself by his genius above his countrymen, deserves the censure of my former publisher.

Still less is Balzac to be dismissed as "immoral," for his life was one of singular self-sacrifice in spite of much temptation. His face was strongly sensual, his look and bearing denoted almost savage power; he led a free life in a country which allowed much freedom; and yet his story is almost mystic in its fineness of thought, and in its detachment, which was often that of another world.

Balzac was born in 1799, at Tours, with all the traits of the people of his native province—fond of eating and drinking, and with plenty of humor. His father was fairly well off. Of four children, our Balzac was the eldest. The third was his sister Laure, who throughout his life was the most intimate friend he had, and to whom we owe his rescue from much scandalous and untrue gossip. From her we learn that their father was a combination of Montaigne, Rabelais, and "Uncle Toby."

Young Balzac went to a clerical school at seven, and stayed there for seven years. Then he was brought home, apparently much prostrated, although the good fathers could find nothing physically amiss with him, and nothing in his studies to account for his agitation. No one ever did discover just what was the matter, for he seemed well enough in the next few years, basking on the riverside, watching the activities of his native town, and thoroughly studying the rustic types that he was afterward to make familiar to the world. In fact, in Louis Lambert he has set before us a picture of his own boyish life, very much as Dickens did of his in David Copperfield.

For some reason, when these years were over, the boy began to have what is so often known as "a call"—a sort of instinct that he was to attain renown. Unfortunately it happened that about this time (1814) he and his parents removed to Paris, which was his home by choice, until his death in 1850. He studied here under famous teachers, and gave three years to the pursuit of law, of which he was very fond as literary material, though he refused to practise.

This was the more grievous, since a great part of the family property had been lost. The Balzacs were afflicted by actual poverty, and Honore endeavored, with his pen, to beat the wolf back from the door. He earned a little money with pamphlets and occasional stories, but his thirst for fame was far from satisfied. He was sure that he was called to literature, and yet he was not sure that he had the power to succeed. In one of his letters to his sister, he wrote:

I am young and hungry, and there is nothing on my plate. Oh, Laure, Laure, my two boundless desires, my only ones—to be famous, and to be loved—they ever be satisfied?

For the next ten years he was learning his trade, and the artistic use of the fiction writer's tools. What is more to the point, is the fact that he began to dream of a series of great novels, which should give a true and panoramic picture of the whole of human life. This was the first intimation of his "Human Comedy," which was so daringly undertaken and so nearly completed in his after years. In his early days of obscurity, he said to his readers:

Note well the characters that I introduce, since you will have to follow their fortunes through thirty novels that are to come.

Here we see how little he had been daunted by ill success, and how his prodigious imagination had not been overcome by sorrow and evil fortune. Meantime, writing almost savagely, and with a feeling combined of ambition and despair, he had begun, very slowly indeed, to create a public. These ten years, however, had loaded him with debts; and his struggle to keep himself afloat only plunged him deeper in the mire. His thirty unsigned novels began to pay him a few hundred francs, not in cash, but in promissory notes; so that he had to go still deeper into debt.

In 1827 he was toiling on his first successful novel, and indeed one of the best historic novels in French literature—The Chouans. He speaks of his labor as "done with a tired brain and an anxious mind," and of the eight or ten business letters that he had to write each day before he could begin his literary work.

"Postage and an omnibus are extravagances that I cannot allow myself," he writes. "I stay at home so as not to wear out my clothes. Is that clear to you?"

At the end of the next year, though he was already popular as a novelist, and much sought out by people of distinction, he was at the very climax of his poverty. He had written thirty-five books, and was in debt to the amount of a hundred and twenty-four thousand francs. He was saved from bankruptcy only by the aid of Mme. de Berny, a woman of high character, and one whose moral influence was very strong with Balzac until her early death.

The relation between these two has a sweetness and a purity which are seldom found. Mme. de Berny gave Balzac money as she would have given it to a son, and thereby she saved a great soul for literature. But there was no sickly sentiment between them, and Balzac regarded her with a noble love which he has expressed in the character of Mme. Firmiani.

It was immediately after she had lightened his burdens that the real Balzac comes before us in certain stories which have no equal, and which are among the most famous that he ever wrote. What could be more wonderful than his El Verdugo, which gives us a brief horror while compelling our admiration? What, outside of Balzac himself, could be more terrible than Gobseck, a frightful study of avarice, containing a deathbed scene which surpasses in dreadfulness almost anything in literature? Add to these A Passion in the Desert, The Girl with the Golden Eyes, The Droll Stories, The Red Inn, and The Magic Skin, and you have a cluster of masterpieces not to be surpassed.

In the year 1829, when he was just beginning to attain a slight success, Balzac received a long letter written in a woman's hand. As he read it, there came to him something very like an inspiration, so full of understanding were the written words, so full of appreciation and of sympathy with the best that he had done. This anonymous note pointed out here and there such defects as are apt to become chronic with a young author. Balzac was greatly stirred by its keen and sympathetic criticism. No one before had read his soul so clearly. No one—not even his devoted sister, Laure de Surville—had judged his work so wisely, had come so closely to his deepest feeling.

He read the letter over and over, and presently another came, full of critical appreciation, and of wholesome, tonic, frank, friendly words of cheer. It was very largely the effect of these letters that roused Balzac's full powers and made him sure of winning the two great objects of his first ambition—love and fame—the ideals of the chivalrous, romantic Frenchman from Caesar's time down to the present day.

Other letters followed, and after a while their authorship was made known to Balzac. He learned that they had been written by a young Polish lady, Mme. Evelina Hanska, the wife of a Polish count, whose health was feeble, and who spent much time in Switzerland because the climate there agreed with him.

He met her first at Neuchatel, and found her all that he had imagined. It is said that she had no sooner raised her face, and looked him fully in the eyes, than she fell fainting to the floor, overcome by her emotion. Balzac himself was deeply moved. From that day until their final meeting he wrote to her daily.

The woman who had become his second soul was not beautiful. Nevertheless, her face was intensely spiritual, and there was a mystic quality about it which made a strong appeal to Balzac's innermost nature. Those who saw him in Paris knocking about the streets at night with his boon companions, hobnobbing with the elder Dumas, or rejecting the frank advances of George Sand, would never have dreamed of this mysticism.

Balzac was heavy and broad of figure. His face was suggestive only of what was sensuous and sensual. At the same time, those few who looked into his heart and mind found there many a sign of the fine inner strain which purified the grosser elements of his nature. He who wrote the roaring Rabelaisian Contes Drolatiques was likewise the author of Seraphita.

This mysticism showed itself in many things that Balzac did. One little incident will perhaps be sufficiently characteristic of many others. He had a belief that names had a sort of esoteric appropriateness. So, in selecting them for his novels, he gathered them with infinite pains from many sources, and then weighed them anxiously in the balance. A writer on the subject of names and their significance has given the following account of this trait:

The great novelist once spent an entire day tramping about in the remotest quarters of Paris in search of a fitting name for a character just conceived by him. Every sign-board, every door-plate, every affiche upon the walls, was scrutinized. Thousands of names were considered and rejected, and it was only after his companion, utterly worn out by fatigue, had flatly refused to drag his weary limbs through more than one additional street, that Balzac suddenly saw upon a sign the name "Marcas," and gave a shout of joy at having finally secured what he was seeking.

Marcas it was, from that moment; and Balzac gradually evolved a Christian name for him. First he considered what initial was most appropriate; and then, having decided upon Z, he went on to expand this into Zepherin, explaining minutely just why the whole name Zepherin Marcas, was the only possible one for the character in the novel.

In many ways Balzac and Evelina Hanska were mated by nature. Whether they were fully mated the facts of their lives must demonstrate. For the present, the novelist plunged into a whirl of literary labor, toiling as few ever toiled—constructing several novels at the same time, visiting all the haunts of the French capital, so that he might observe and understand every type of human being, and then hurling himself like a giant at his work.

He had a curious practise of reading proofs. These would come to him in enormous sheets, printed on special paper, and with wide margins for his corrections. An immense table stood in the midst of his study, and upon the top he would spread out the proofs as if they were vast maps. Then, removing most of his outer garments, he would lie, face down, upon the proof-sheets, with a gigantic pencil, such as Bismarck subsequently used to wield. Thus disposed, he would go over the proofs.

Hardly anything that he had written seemed to suit him when he saw it in print. He changed and kept changing, obliterating what he disliked, writing in new sentences, revising others, and adding whole pages in the margins, until perhaps he had practically made a new book. This process was repeated several times; and how expensive it was may be judged from the fact that his bill for "author's proof corrections" was sometimes more than the publishers had agreed to pay him for the completed volume.

Sometimes, again, he would begin writing in the afternoon, and continue until dawn. Then, weary, aching in every bone, and with throbbing head, he would rise and turn to fall upon his couch after his eighteen hours of steady toil. But the memory of Evelina Hanska always came to him; and with half-numbed fingers he would seize his pen, and forget his weariness in the pleasure of writing to the dark-eyed woman who drew him to her like a magnet.

These are very curious letters that Balzac wrote to Mme. Hanska. He literally told her everything about himself. Not only were there long passages instinct with tenderness, and with his love for her; but he also gave her the most minute account of everything that occurred, and that might interest her. Thus he detailed at length his mode of living, the clothes he wore, the people whom he met, his trouble with his creditors, the accounts of his income and outgo. One might think that this was egotism on his part; but it was more than that. It was a strong belief that everything which concerned him must concern her; and he begged her in turn to write as freely and as fully.

Mme. Hanska was not the only woman who became his friend and comrade, and to whom he often wrote. He made many acquaintances in the fashionable world through the good offices of the Duchesse de Castries. By her favor, he studied with his microscopic gaze the beau monde of Louis Philippe's rather unimpressive court.

In a dozen books he scourged the court of the citizen king—its pretensions, its commonness, and its assemblage of nouveaux riches. Yet in it he found many friends—Victor Hugo, the Girardins—and among them women who were of the world. George Sand he knew very well, and she made ardent love to him; but he laughed her off very much as the elder Dumas did.

Then there was the pretty, dainty Mme. Carraud, who read and revised his manuscripts, and who perhaps took a more intimate interest in him than did the other ladies whom he came to know so well. Besides Mme. Hanska, he had another correspondent who signed herself "Louise," but who never let him know her name, though she wrote him many piquant, sunny letters, which he so sadly needed.

For though Honore de Balzac was now one of the most famous writers of his time, his home was still a den of suffering. His debts kept pressing on him, loading him down, and almost quenching hope. He acted toward his creditors like a man of honor, and his physical strength was still that of a giant. To Mme. Carraud he once wrote the half pathetic, half humorous plaint:

Poor pen! It must be diamond, not because one would wish to wear it, but because it has had so much use!

And again:

Here I am, owing a hundred thousand francs. And I am forty!

Balzac and Mme. Hanska met many times after that first eventful episode at Neuchatel. It was at this time that he gave utterance to the poignant cry:

Love for me is life, and to-day I feel it more than ever!

In like manner he wrote, on leaving her, that famous epigram:

It is only the last love of a woman that can satisfy the first love of a man.

In 1842 Mme. Hanska's husband died. Balzac naturally expected that an immediate marriage with the countess would take place; but the woman who had loved him mystically for twelve years, and with a touch of the physical for nine, suddenly draws back. She will not promise anything. She talks of delays, owing to the legal arrangements for her children. She seems almost a prude. An American critic has contrasted her attitude with his:

Every one knows how utterly and absolutely Balzac devoted to this one woman all his genius, his aspiration, the thought of his every moment; how every day, after he had labored like a slave for eighteen hours, he would take his pen and pour out to her the most intimate details of his daily life; how at her call he would leave everything and rush across the continent to Poland or to Italy, being radiantly happy if he could but see her face and be for a few days by her side. The very thought of meeting her thrilled him to the very depths of his nature, and made him, for weeks and even months beforehand, restless, uneasy, and agitated, with an almost painful happiness.

It is the most startling proof of his immense vitality, both physical and mental, that so tremendous an emotional strain could be endured by him for years without exhausting his fecundity or blighting his creativeness.

With Balzac, however, it was the period of his most brilliant work; and this was true in spite of the anguish of long separations, and the complaints excited by what appears to be caprice or boldness or a faint indifference. Even in Balzac one notices toward the last a certain sense of strain underlying what he wrote, a certain lack of elasticity and facility, if of nothing more; yet on the whole it is likely that without this friendship Balzac would have been less great than he actually became, as it is certain that had it been broken off he would have ceased to write or to care for anything whatever in the world.

And yet, when they were free to marry, Mme. Hanska shrank away. Not until 1846, four years after her husband's death, did she finally give her promise to the eager Balzac. Then, in the overflow of his happiness, his creative genius blazed up into a most wonderful flame; but he soon discovered that the promise was not to be at once fulfilled. The shock impaired that marvelous vitality which had carried him through debt, and want, and endless labor.

It was at this moment, by the irony of fate, that his country hailed him as one of the greatest of its men of genius. A golden stream poured into his lap. His debts were not all extinguished, but his income was so large that they burdened him no longer.

But his one long dream was the only thing for which he cared; and though in an exoteric sense this dream came true, its truth was but a mockery. Evelina Hanska summoned him to Poland, and Balzac went to her at once. There was another long delay, and for more than a year he lived as a guest in the countess's mansion at Wierzchownia; but finally, in March, 1850, the two were married. A few weeks later they came back to France together, and occupied the little country house, Les Jardies, in which, some decades later, occurred Gambetta's mysterious death.

What is the secret of this strange love, which in the woman seems to be not precisely love, but something else? Balzac was always eager for her presence. She, on the other hand, seems to have been mentally more at ease when he was absent. Perhaps the explanation, if we may venture upon one, is based upon a well-known physiological fact.

Love in its completeness is made up of two great elements—first, the element that is wholly spiritual, that is capable of sympathy, and tenderness, and deep emotion. The other element is the physical, the source of passion, of creative energy, and of the truly virile qualities, whether it be in man or woman. Now, let either of these elements be lacking, and love itself cannot fully and utterly exist. The spiritual nature in one may find its mate in the spiritual nature of another; and the physical nature of one may find its mate in the physical nature of another. But into unions such as these, love does not enter in its completeness. If there is any element lacking in either of those who think that they can mate, their mating will be a sad and pitiful failure.

It is evident enough that Mme. Hanska was almost wholly spiritual, and her long years of waiting had made her understand the difference between Balzac and herself. Therefore, she shrank from his proximity, and from his physical contact, and it was perhaps better for them both that their union was so quickly broken off by death; for the great novelist died of heart disease only five months after the marriage.

If we wish to understand the mystery of Balzac's life—or, more truly, the mystery of the life of the woman whom he married—take up and read once more the pages of Seraphita, one of his poorest novels and yet a singularly illuminating story, shedding light upon a secret of the soul.

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