A thought entered my heart, such as God sends to make us willing to bear our griefs. I resolved to instruct and raise this corner of the earth, as a teacher brings up a child. Do not call it benevolence; my motive was the need I felt to distract my mind. I wanted to spend the remainder of my days in some arduous enterprise.
The changes to be introduced into this region, which Nature has made so rich and man made so poor, would occupy my whole life; they attracted me by the very difficulty of bringing them about. I wished to be a friend to the poor, expecting nothing in return. I allowed myself no illusions, either as to the character of the country people or the obstacles which hinder those who attempt to ameliorate both men and things. I made no idyls about my poor; I took them for what they were.
--Balzac in The Country Doctor
Balzac was born in the year Seventeen Hundred Ninety-nine. The father of Balzac, by a not unusual coincidence, also bore the name of Balzac. And yet there was only one Balzac. This happy father was an officer in the commissary department of Napoleon's army, and so never had an opportunity to win the bauble reputation at the cannon's mouth, nor show his quality in the imminent deadly breach. He died through an earnest but futile effort, filled with the fear of failure, to so regulate his physical life that repair would exactly equal waste, and thus live on earth forever.
The mother of our great man was a beauty and an heiress. Her husband was twenty-five years her senior. She ever regarded herself as one robbed of her birthright, and landed at high tide upon a barren and desert domestic isle. Honore, her first child, was born before she was twenty. Napoleon was at that time playing skittles with all Europe, and the woman whom Fate robbed of her romance worshiped at the shrine of the Corsican, because every good woman has to worship something or somebody. She saw Napoleon on several occasions, and once he kissed his hand to her when she stood in a balcony and he was riding through the street. And there their intimacy ended, a fact much regretted in print by her gifted son years afterward.
Six years of Balzac's life, from his sixth to his thirteenth year, were spent in a monastery school, a place where fond parents were relieved by holy men of their parental responsibilities, for a consideration.
Not once in the six years' time was the boy allowed to go home or to visit his parents. Once a year, at Easter, his mother came to see him and expressed regret at the backward state of his mind.
Balzac's education was gotten in spite of his teachers, and by setting at naught the minute and painstaking plans of his mother. This mother lived her life a partial invalid, whimsical, querulous, religious overmuch, always fearing a fatal collapse; in this disappointed, for she finally died peacefully of old age, going to bed and forgetting to waken. She was long to survive her son, and realize his greatness only after he was gone, getting the facts from the daily papers, which seems to prove that the newspaper does have a mission.
Possibly the admiration of Balzac's mother for the little Corporal had its purpose in God's great economy. In any event her son had some of the Corsican's characteristics.
In the big brain of Balzac there was room for many emotions. The man had sympathy plus, and an imagination that could live every life, feel every pang of pain, know every throb of joy, die every death. In stature he was short, stout, square of shoulder and deep of chest. He had a columnar neck and carried his head with the poise of a man born to command.
The scholar's stoop and the abiding melancholy of the supposed man of genius were conspicuous by their absence. His smile was infectious, and he was always ready to romp and play. "He has never grown up: he is just a child," once said his mother in sad complaint, after her son had well passed his fortieth milestone.
The leading traits in the life of Balzac were his ability to abandon himself to the task in hand, his infinite good-nature, his capacity for frolic and fun, and his passion to be famous and to be loved.
Napoleon never took things very seriously. It will be remembered that even at Saint Helena, when in the mood, he played jokes on his guards, and never forgot his good old habit of stopping the affairs of State to pinch the ears of any pretty miss, be she princess or chambermaid, who traveled without an escort.
Upon a statuette of Napoleon, Balzac in his youth once wrote this: "What he began with the sword I will finish with the pen."
Only once did Balzac see Napoleon, probably at that last review at the Carrousel, and he describes the scene thus in one of his novels: "At last, at last! there he was, surrounded with so much love, enthusiasm, devotion, prayer--for whom the sun had driven every cloud from the sky. He sat motionless on his horse, six feet in advance of the dazzling escort that followed him. An old grenadier cried: 'My God, yes, it was always so--under fire at Wagram--among the dead in the Moskowa he was quiet as a lamb, yes, that is he!' Napoleon rode that little white mare, so gentle and under such perfect control. Let others ride plunging chargers and waste their energy and the strength of their mount in pirouettes for the admiration of the bystanders--Napoleon and his little white horse were always quiet when all around there was confusion. And the hand that ruled the Empire stroked the mane of the little white mare, so docile that a girl of ten would have been at home on her back. That is he--under fire at Wagram, with shells bursting all around--he strokes the mane of his quiet horse--that is he!"
And right here may be a good place to quote that other tribute to the Corsican, by a man who was best qualified to give it--the Iron Duke Wellington: "It is very true that I have said that I considered Napoleon's presence in the field equal to forty thousand men in the balance."
* * * * * * *
As Balzac emerged out of boyhood into man's estate he seemed to have just one woman friend, and this was his grandmother. He didn't seem to care for much more. With her he played cards, and she used to allow him to win small sums of money. With this money he bought books--always books.
He had great physical strength, but was beautifully awkward. The only time he ever attempted to dance he slipped and fell, to the great amusement of the company. He fled without asking the dancing-master to refund his tuition.
He was morbidly afraid of young women, and as fear and hate are one, he hated women, "because they had no ideas," he said. His head was stuffed with facts, and his one amusement was attending the free lectures at the Sorbonne. Here he immersed himself with data about every conceivable subject, made infinite notebooks, and sought vainly for some one with whom he could talk it all over.
In the absence of a wise companion with whom he could converse, he undertook the education of his brother Henry, who was not exactly a prodigy and could not get along at school. Great people are teachers through necessity, for it is only in explaining the matter to another that we make it clear to ourselves. Not finding enough to do in teaching his brother, Balzac advertised to tutor boys who were backward in their studies.
His first response came from Madame De Berney, who had a boy whom the teachers could not control.
That is the way: we buy our tickets to one place and Fate puts us off at another! "Put me off at Buffalo," we say, and in the morning we find ourselves on the platform at Rochester.
Madame De Berney was the mother of nine, and she was just twenty-two years older than Balzac. The son she wished to have tutored was weak in body and not strong in mind. He was in his twentieth year, within a year of the same age as Balzac.
Balzac made a companion of the youth, treating him as an equal; and by his bubbling good-nature and eager, hungry desire to know, inspired his pupil with somewhat of his own enthusiasm.
And in winning the pupil, of course he caught the sympathetic interest of the mother. No love-affair had ever come to Balzac--women had no minds: all they could do was to dance!
Madame De Berney was old enough to put Balzac at his ease. She it was who discovered him--no De Berney, no Balzac. And on this point the historians and critics are all agreed.
Madame De Berney was a gentle, intelligent, sympathetic and pathetic figure. She was no idle woman, warm on the eternal quest. She was a home-body intent on caring for her household.
Her husband was many years her senior, and at the time Balzac appeared upon the scene, De Berney, had he been consistent, would have passed off; but he did not, for paralytics are like threatened people--good life-insurance risks.
A woman of forty-two is not old--bless my soul! I'll leave it to any woman of that age.
And Balzac at twenty was as old as he was at forty-two: a little more so perhaps, for as the years passed he grew less dogmatic and confident. At twenty we are likely to have full faith in our own infallibility.
Madame De Berney was the daughter of a musician in the court of Marie Antoinette. In fact, the queen had stood as her godmother and she had grown up surrounded by material luxury and a mental wilderness, for be it known that members of royal households, like the families of millionaires, are likely to be densely ignorant, being hedged in, shielded, sheltered and protected from the actual world that educates and evolves.
Madame De Berney had been married at the age of sixteen by the busy matchmakers, and her life was one of plain marital serfdom. Her material wants were supplied, but economic freedom had not been hers, for she was supposed to account to her husband for every sou. Marriage is often actual slavery, and it was such for Madame De Berney, until De Berney got on pretty good terms with locomotor ataxia and placed his foot on one spot when he meant to put it on another.
Portraits of Madame De Berney show her to be tall, slender, winsome, with sloping shoulders, beautiful neck, and black, melancholy curls drooping over her temples, making one think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In the presence of such a woman, one would naturally lower his voice. Half-mourning was to her most becoming. Madame De Berney was receptive and sympathetic and had gotten a goodly insight into literature. She had positive likes and dislikes in an art way. There were a few books she had read and reread until they had become a part of her being. At forty-two a woman is either a drudge, a fool or a saint. Intellect shines out and glows then if it ever does. From forty to sixty should be a woman's mental harvest-time. Youth and youth's ambitions and desires are in abeyance. If Fate has been kind she has been disillusioned, and if Destiny has used her for a doormat, no matter.
The silly woman is one who has always had her own way, and is intent on conquest as Chronos appropriates her charms and gives bulk for beauty.
The drudge is only a drudge, and her compensation lies in the fact that she seldom knows it.
Madame De Berney had been disillusioned, and intellectual desire was glowing with a steady, mellow light. She wanted to know and to be. And shooting through space comes Balzac, a vagrant comet, and their orbits being the same, their masses unite and continue in one course, bowled by the Infinite.
The leading impulse in the life of Balzac was to express: to tell the things he knew and the things he imagined. To express was the one gratification which made life worth living. And so he told Madame De Berney's son, and then Madame came into the class and he told her. We talk to the sympathetic and receptive: to those who are masters of the fine art of listening.
Soon the lessons were too advanced for the son to follow, and so Balzac told it all to Madame. She listened, smiled indulgently, sighed. They walked in the park and along country lanes and byways; the young tutor talked and talked, and laughed and laughed.
Balzac's brain was teeming with ideas, a mass and jumble of thoughts, ideas, plans and emotions. "Write it out," said Madame--in partial self-defense, no doubt. "Write it out!"
And so Balzac began to write poetry, plays, essays, stories. And everything he wrote he read to her. As soon as he had written something he hastened to hunt up "La Dilecta," as he called her.
Their minds fused in an idea--they blended in thought. He loved her, not knowing when he began or how. His tumultuous nature poured itself out to her, all without reason.
She became a need to him. He wrote her letters in the morning and at night. They dined together, walked, talked, rowed and read.
She ransacked libraries for him. She sold his product to publishers. They collaborated in writing, but he had the physical strength that she had not, so he usually fished the story out of the ink-bottle and presented it to her.
He began to be sought after. Fame appeared on the horizon. Critics rose and thundered. Balzac defied all rules, walked over the grammar, defiled the well of classic French. He invented phrases, paraphrased greatness, coined words. He worked the slide, glide, the ellipse--any way to express the thought. He forged a strange and wondrous style--a language made up of all the slang of the street, combined with the terminologies of the laboratory, law, medicine and science. He was an ignoramus.
But still the public read what he wrote and clamored for more, because the man expressed humanity--he knew men and women.
Balzac was the first writer to discover that every human life is intensely interesting; not merely the heroic and the romantic.
Every life is a struggle; and the fact that the battles are usually bloodless, and the romance a dream, makes it no less real.
Balzac proved that the extraordinary and sensational were not necessary to literature. And just as the dewdrop on the petal is a divine manifestation, and every blade of grass is a miracle, and the three speckled eggs in an English sparrow's nest constitute an immaculate conception, so every human life, with its hopes, aspirations, dream, defeats and successes, is a drama, joyous with comedy, rich in melodrama and also dark and somber as can be woven from the warp and woof of mystery and death.
Balzac wrote a dozen books or more a year. Of course he quarreled with Barabbas, and lawsuits followed, where both sides were right and both sides were wrong. Balzac hadn't the time to look after business details. He would sign away his birthright for a month's peace, forgetful of the day of reckoning. He supported his mother and brothers and sisters, loaned money to everybody, borrowed from La Dilecta when the bailiffs got too pressing, and all the time turned out copy religiously. He practised the eight-hour-a-day clause, but worked in double shifts, from two A.M. to ten A.M., and then from noon until eight o'clock at night. Then for a month he would relax and devote himself to La Dilecta. She was his one friend, his confidante, his comrade, his mother, his sweetheart.
No woman was ever loved more devotedly, but the passionate intensity of the man's nature must have been a sore tax at times on her time and strength. A younger woman could not have known his needs, nor ministered to him mentally. He was absorbed in his work and in his love, and these were to him one.
He had won renown, for had he not called down on his head the attacks of the envious? His manuscripts were in demand.
Balzac was thirty years of age; Madame De Berney was fifty-two. The sun for him had not reached noon, but for her the shadows were lengthening toward the East. She decided that she must win--he should never forsake her!
He had not tired of her, nor she of him. But she knew that when he was forty she would be sixty: he at the height of his power and she an old woman. They could never grow old together and go down the hill of life hand in hand.
So Madame De Berney with splendid heroism took the initiative. She told Balzac what was in her mind, all the time trying to be playful, as we always do when tragedy is tugging at our hearts. Soon she would be a drag upon him, and before that day came it was better they should separate. He declined to listen, swore she could not break the bond; and the scene from being playful became furious. Then it settled down, calmed, and closed as lovers' quarrels usually do and should.
The subject came up again the next week and with a like result. Finally Madame De Berney resorted to heroic treatment. She locked herself in her rooms, and gave orders to the butler that Monsieur Balzac should not be allowed to enter the house, and that to him she was not at home.
"You shall not see me grow old and totter, my body wither and fail, my mind decline. We part now and part forever, our friendship sacred, unsullied, and at its height. Good-by, Balzac, and good-by forever!"
Balzac was dumb with rage, then tears came to his relief, and he cried as a child cries for its mother. The first paroxysm passed, anger took the place of grief: he found time to realize that perhaps there were other women besides La Dilecta--possibly there were other Dilectas. She had struck a blow at his pride--the only blow, in fact, he ever received.
Among Balzac's various correspondents--for successful men always get letters from sympathetic unknowns--was one Madame Hanska, in far-off Poland. From her letters she seemed intelligent, witty, sympathetic. He would turn to her in his distress, to Madame Hanska--where was that last letter from her? And did he not have her picture somewhere: let us see, let us see!
And as for Madame De Berney: when she gave liberty to Balzac it was at the expense of her own life. "If I could only forget, if I could only forget!" she said. And so she lingered on for four years, and then sank into that forgetfulness which men call death.
* * * * * * *
Balzac wrote of her as "Madame Hanska," and to her husband he referred as "Monsieur Hanski," a distinction that was made by the author as inference that Monsieur Hanska was encroaching on some one else's domain, with designs on the pickle-jar of another.
The Hanskas belonged to the Russian nobility and lived on an immense estate in Ukraine, surrounded only by illiterate peasants. It was another beautiful case of mismating: a man of forty who had gone the pace marrying a girl of seventeen to educate her and reform himself.
Madame Hanska must have been a beauty in her youth--dark, dashing, positive, saucy. She had enough will so that she never became a drudge nor did she languish and fade. She was twenty-eight years old when she first appeared in the field of our vision--twenty-eight, and becomingly stout.
She had literary ambitions and had time to exercise them. Accidentally, a volume of Balzac's "Scenes From a Private Life" had fallen in her way. She glanced at it, and read a little here and there; then she read it through. Balzac's consummate ease and indifference of style caught her. She wanted to write just like Balzac. She was not exactly a writer--she only had literary eczema. She sat down and wrote Balzac a letter, sharply criticizing him for his satirical views of women.
It is a somewhat curious fact that when strangers write to authors, about nine times out of ten it is to find fault. The person who is thoroughly pleased does not take the trouble to say so, but the offended one sits himself down and takes pen in hand. However, this is not wholly uncomplimentary, since it proves at least two things: that the author is being read, and that he is making an impression. Said old Doctor Johnson to the aspiring poet, "Sir, I'll praise your book, but damn me if I'll read it."
Unread books are constantly being praised, but the book that is warmly denounced is making an impression.
Madame Hanska in her far-off solitude had read "Scenes From a Private Life," paragraph by paragraph, and in certain places had seen her soul laid bare. Very naively, in her letter to Balzac, in her criticism she acknowledged the fact that the author had touched an exposed nerve, and this helped to take the sting out of her condemnation. She signed herself "The Stranger," but gave an address where to reply.
Balzac wrote the stranger a slapdash of a letter, as he was always doing, and forgot the incident.
Long letters came from Madame; they were glanced at, but never read. But Madame Hanska, living in exile, had opened up a new vein of ore for herself. She was in communication with a powerful, creative intellect. She sent to a Paris bookseller an order for everything written by Balzac. She read, reread, marked and interlined. Balzac seemed to be writing for her. She kept a daily journal of her thoughts and jottings and this she sent to Balzac.
He neglected to acknowledge the parcel, and she wrote begging he would insert a personal in a certain Paris paper, to which she was a subscriber, so she would know that he was alive and well.
He complied with the unusual request, and it seemed to both of them as if they were getting acquainted. To the woman, especially, it was a half-forbidden joy: a clandestine correspondence with a single gentleman! It had all the sweet, divine flavor of a sin. So she probably repeated the joy by confessing it to the priest, for the lady was a good Catholic. Next she sent Balzac her miniature, and even this he did not acknowledge, being too busy, or too indifferent, or both.
It was about this time that Madame De Berney plunged a stiletto into his pride. And the gaze of Balzac turned towards Poland, and he began to write letters to the imprisoned chatelaine, pouring out his soul to her. His heart was full of sorrow. To ease the pain he traveled for six months through Southern France and Italy, but care rode on the crupper.
He was trying to forget. Occasionally, he met beautiful women and endeavored to become interested in them, and in several instances nearly succeeded.
Madame Hanska's letters now were becoming more and more intimate. She described her domestic affairs, and told of her hopes, ideals and plans.
Balzac had his pockets full of these letters, and once in an incautious moment showed them to Madame Carraud, a worthy woman to whom he was paying transient court. Madame Carraud wrote an ardent love-letter to Madame Hanska, breathing the most intense passion, and signed Balzac's name to the missive. It was a very feminine practical joke. Balzac was told about it--after the letter was mailed. He was at first furious, and then faint with fear.
Madame Hanska was delighted with the letter, yet mystified to think that Balzac should use a secretary in writing a love-letter. And Balzac wrote back that he had written the letter with his left hand, and that was doubtless the reason it seemed a different penmanship. At one stage of their evolution, lovers are often great liars, but at this time Balzac was only playing at love. He could not forget Madame De Berney, dying there alone in her locked room.
Upon every great love are stamped the words, "Not Transferable." Gradually, however, Balzac succeeded in making a partial transfer, or a transfer belief, of his affections. He wrote to Madame Hanska: "I tremble as I write you: will this be only a new bitterness? Will the skies for me ever again grow bright? I love you, my Unknown, and this strange thing is the natural effect of an empty and unhappy life, only filled with ideas."
The man had two immense desires--to be famous and to be loved. Madame Hanska had intellect, literary appreciation, imagination, and a great capacity for affection. She came into Balzac's life at the psychological moment, and he reached out and clung to her as a drowning man clings to a spar. And to the end of his life, let it be said, never did Balzac waver in his love and allegiance.
* * * * * * *
In the Spring of Eighteen Hundred Thirty-three, the Hanskas arranged for a visit to Switzerland, with Neufchatel as the special place in view. To travel at that time was a great undertaking--especially if you were rich. It is a great disadvantage to be rich: jewels, furniture, servants, horses--they own you, all: to take them or to leave them--which?
Madame Hanska wrote to Balzac saying the trip was under discussion.
That it was being seriously considered.
It had been decided upon.
Necessarily postponed two weeks to prepare to get ready to go.
The start would take place at a certain day and hour.
In the meantime Balzac had decided on a trip also, and the objective point was Neufchatel.
Balzac had to explain it all to somebody--it was just like a play! So he wrote to his sister. Monsieur Hanska was being utilized for a divine purpose, just as Destiny makes use of folks and treats them as chessmen upon the board of Time.
Madame Hanska was exquisitely beautiful, superbly witty, divinely wise and enormously rich: Balzac said so. In their letters they had already sworn eternal fealty; now they were to see each other face to face. All this Balzac wrote to his sister, just like a sophomore.
The Madame had purchased millinery; Balzac banked on his brain and his books.
The Hanskas arrived on the scene of the encounter first; this was stipulated. The Madame was to have a full week of preparation.
Balzac came one day ahead of time--a curious thing for him to do, as he used to explain away his failing by saying he was born a day late and never caught up. At the hotel where it was arranged he should locate was a letter saying he should meet his fate on the Twenty-sixth of September, two days later, between one and four in the afternoon, on the Promenade du Faubourg. Being a married woman she could not just say what hour she could get away. She would have with her a maid, and in her hand would be one of Balzac's novels. They were to meet quite casually, just as if they had always known each other--childhood acquaintances. They would shake hands and then discuss the Balzacian novel: the maid would be dismissed; and the next day Balzac would call at their villa to pay his respects to her husband.
But how to kill time for two days! Balzac was in a fever of unrest. That afternoon he strolled along the Faubourg looking at every passing face, intent on finding a beautiful woman with a Balzac novel in her hand.
Balzac had not demanded anatomical specifications--he had just assumed that "The Stranger" must be quite like Madame De Berney, only twenty years younger, and twenty times more beautiful. La Dilecta was tall and graceful: it was possible that Madame Hanska was scarcely as tall, or that is to say, being more round and better developed, she would not appear so tall.
The encounter was not scheduled for two days yet to come, but Balzac was looking over the ground hoping to get the sun to his back. When lo! here was a lady with a Balzac novel in her hand, and the book held at an angle of sixty-two degrees.
Balzac gasped for breath as the woman came forward and held out her hand. She wasn't handsome, but she certainly was pretty, even though her nose was retrousse, which is French for pug. Her hair was raven-black, her eyes sparkling, her lips red and her complexion fresh and bright.
But ye gods! she was short, damnably short, and in ten years she would be fat, damnably fat!
Balzac's own personal appearance never troubled him, save on the matter of height--or, rather, the lack of it. His one manifestation of vanity was that he wore high heels.
Balzac had concealed from the stranger his lack of height: it made no difference to Madame De Berney. Why should it to the Hanska--it was none of her affair, anyway, Mon Dieu! And now he felt as Ananias did when he kept back part of the price.
Madame was evidently disappointed. Balzac was very careless in attire, his shirt open at the collar, and on the back of his head was a student's cap. He wasn't a gentleman! Madame was laying the whip to her imagination, trying to be at ease, her red lips dry and her eyes growing bloodshot.
The servant was dismissed--it was like throwing over sand ballast from a balloon. Things grew less tense.
They looked at each other and laughed. "Let's make the best of it," said Balzac. Then they kissed there under the trees and he held her hands. They understood each other. They laughed together, and all disappointment was dissipated in the laugh. They understood each other.
Balzac wrote home to his sister that night about the meeting, and described the promenade as "a waddle Du Faubourg--a duck and a goose out for the air." He insisted, however, that Madame was very pretty, very wise and very rich.
The next day Balzac called at the villa and met Monsieur Hanska, and evidently won that gentleman's good-will at once. Balzac made him laugh, exorcising his megrims. Then Balzac played cards with him and obligingly lost. Hanska insisted that the great author should come back to dinner. Balzac agreed with him absolutely in politics, and as token of their friendship Monsieur Hanska presented Monsieur Balzac a gigantic inkstand.
Things were moving along smoothly, when two letters dispatched to Madame by Balzac were placed in the hands of Monsieur Hanska by a servant who evidently lacked the psychic instinct. An hour later, Balzac appeared in person, and when frigidly shown the letters explained that it was all a joke--that the letters were literature, to be used in a book, and were sent to Madame for her inspection, delectation and divertisement.
The very extravagance of the missives saved the day. Monsieur Hanska could not possibly believe that any one could love his wife in this intense fashion--he never had. People only get love-crazy in books.
Everybody laughed, and Monsieur Hanska ordered the waiter to bring in bottles of the juice of the grape, and all went as merry as a marriage-bell.
Five days of paradise, and the Hanskas went one way and Balzac went another. He was up before daylight the morning they were to go, pacing the Faubourg in the hope of catching just one more look at the object of his passion. But his quest was in vain--he took the diligence back to Paris, and duly arrived, tired and sore in body, but with a heart for work. Madame Hanska understood him--was that not enough?
* * * * * * *
After that first meeting in Switzerland, every event in Balzac's life had Madame Hanska in mind. The feminine intellect was an absolute necessity to him. After a hard day's work, he eased down to earth by writing to "The Stranger" a letter, playful, pathetic, philosophical: just an outpouring of the heart of a tired man--letters like those Swift wrote to Stella. He called it "resting my head in your lap."
It is quite possible that there is a little picturesque exaggeration in these letters, and that Balzac was not quite so lonely all the time as he was when he wrote to her. He compares her with the women he meets, always to her advantage, of course, and in his letters he constantly uses extracts from her letters, with phrases and peculiar words which she had discovered for him. For instance, in one place he calls a publisher a "rosbif ambulant," which phrase Madame Hanska had applied to a certain Englishman she once met in Saint Petersburg.
The letters of Madame Hanska to Balzac were given to the flames by his own hand a few years before his death, "being too sacred for the world"; but his letters to her have been preserved and published, except such parts as were too intimate for the public to appreciate properly.
The "Droll Stories" were written and published just before Balzac met Madame Hanska. He was much troubled as to what she would think of them, and tried for a time to keep the book out of her hands. Finally, however, he decided on a grandstand play. He had one of the books sumptuously bound, and this volume he inscribed to Monsieur Hanska and sent it with a message to the effect that it was a book for men only, and it was written merely as a study of certain phases of human nature, and to show the progress of the French language.
Of course, a book written for men only is bound to be read by every woman who can place her pretty hands upon it. And so the "Droll Stories" were carefully read by Madame, and the explanation accepted that they were merely a study in antique French, and illustrated one chapter in "The Human Comedy." As for Monsieur Hanska, he, being not quite so scientific as his gifted wife, read the stories for a different reason, and enjoyed them so much that they served him as a mine from which he lifted his original stuff.
The conception of "The Human Comedy," or a series of books that would run the entire gamut of human experience and picture every possible phase of human emotion, was the idea of Madame Hanska. In the year Eighteen Hundred Thirty-two she had written him: "No writer who has ever lived has possessed so wide a sympathy as you. Some picture courts and kings; others reveal to us beggars, peasants and those who struggle for bread; still others give charming views of children; while all men and women in love write love-stories; but you know every possible condition that can come to a human soul, and so you seem the only person who ever has written or could write the complete 'Human Comedy' in which every type of man, woman or child who ever lived shall have his part."
No wonder Balzac loved Madame Hanska--what writer would not love a woman who could place him on such a pedestal! Every writer has moments when he doubts his power, and so this assurance from Some One seems a necessity to one who is to do a great and sustained work. Balzac, he of the child-mind, needed the constant assurance that he was going forward in the right direction.
Balzac seized upon the phrase, "The Human Comedy," just as he seized upon anything which he could weave into the fabric he was constructing. And so finally came his formal announcement that he was to write the entire life of man, and picture every possible aspect of humanity, in a hundred books to be known as "La Comedie Humaine." It was a conception as great and daring as the plan of Pliny to write out all human knowledge, or the ambition of Newton as shown in the "Principia," or the works of Baron von Humboldt as revealed in the "Cosmos," or the idea of Herbert Spencer as bodied forth in the "Synthetic Philosophy."
* * * * * * *
All the time Balzac was looking forward to when he and Madame Hanska would next meet, or back to the meeting that had just taken place. Each year, for a few short, sweet days, they met in Switzerland or at some appointed place in Italy or France. Sometimes Monsieur Hanska was there and sometimes not. That worthy gentleman always seemed to feel a certain gratification in the thought that his wife was so attractive to the great author of the "Droll Stories," the only Balzac book he had really ever read.
That he did not even guess their true relation is very probable; he knew that his wife was something of a writer, and he was satisfied when he was told that she was helping Balzac in his literary undertakings. That he was not compelled to read the joint production, and pass judgment on it, gave him so much pleasure that he never followed up the clue.
On January Fifth, Eighteen Hundred Forty-two, Balzac received from Madame Hanska an envelope lined with ominous black: a mourning-envelope. He seized it with joy--placed it to his lips and then pressed it to his heart. Monsieur Hanska was dead--dead--very dead--he had vacated the preserve--gone--flown--departed, dead!
Balzac sat down and wrote a sham letter of condolence to the bereaved widow, and asked permission to go at once and console her. Had it been De Berney he would have gone, but with Madame Hanska he had first to obtain permission.
So he waited for her reply.
Her answer was strangely cold: Madame was in sore distress--children sick, peasants dissatisfied, business complications and so forth.
Balzac had always supposed that Monsieur Hanska was the one impediment that stood in the way of the full, complete and divine mating. Probably Madame thought so, too, until the time arrived, and then she discovered that she had gotten used to having her lover at a distance. She was thus able to manage him. But to live with him all the time--ye gods, was it possible!
The Madame had so long managed her marital craft in storm and stress, holding the bark steadily in the eye of the wind, that now the calm had come she did not know what to do, and Balzac in his gay-painted galley could not even paddle alongside.
She begged for time to settle her affairs. In three months they met in Switzerland. Madame was in deep mourning, and Balzac, not to be outdone, had an absurdly large and very black band on his hat. With Madame was her daughter, a fine young woman of twenty, whom the mother always now kept close to her, for prudential reasons. The daughter must have been pretty good quality, for she called Balzac, "My Fat Papa," and Balzac threatens Madame that he will run away with the daughter if the marriage is not arranged, and quickly too.
But Madame will not wed--not yet--she is afraid that marriage will dissolve her beautiful dream. In the meantime, she advances Balzac a large amount of money, several hundred thousand francs, to show her sincerity, and the money Balzac is to use in furnishing a house in Paris, where they will live as soon as they are married.
Balzac buys a snug little house and furnishes it with costly carved furniture, bronzes, rugs and old masters.
He waits patiently, or not, according to his mood, amid his beautiful treasures. And still Madame would not relinquish the sweet joys of widowhood.
In a year Madame Hanska arrives with her daughter. They are delighted with the house, and remain for a month, when pressing business in Poland calls them hence. Balzac accompanies them a hundred miles, and then goes back home to his "Human Comedy."
The years pass very much as they did when Monsieur Hanska was alive, only they miss that gentleman, having nobody now but the public to bamboozle, and the public having properly sized up the situation has become very apathetic--busy looking for morsels more highly spiced. Who in the world cares about what stout, middle-aged widows do, anyway!
* * * * * * *
Occasionally, in letters to Madame Hanska, Balzac referred to Madame De Berney. This seems to have caused Madame Hanska once to say, "Why do you so often refer to ancient history and tell me of that motherly body who once acted as your nurse, comparing me with her?"
To this Balzac replies: "I apologize for comparing you with Madame De Berney--she was what she was, and you are what you are. Great souls are always individual--Madame De Berney was a great and lofty spirit, and no one can ever take her place. I apologize for comparing you with her."
Madame De Berney led Balzac; Madame Hanska ruled him. Madame Hanska was one who alternately beckoned and pursued. Without her Balzac could not have gone on. She held him true to his literary course, and without her he must surely have fallen a victim of arrested energy. She demanded a daily accounting from the mill of his mind. She supplied both goad and greens.
And more than that she sapped his life-forces and robbed him of his red corpuscles; so that, before he was fifty, he was old, worn-out, undone, with an excess of lime in his bones.
Literary creation makes a terrific tax on vitality. Ideas do not flow until the pulse goes above eighty, and this means the rapid breaking down of tissue. The man who writes two hours daily, and writes well, can not do much else. He is like the racehorse--do not expect the record-breaker to pull a plow all day, and go fast heats in the evening. Balzac was the most tremendous worker in a literary way the world has ever seen. He doubtless made mistakes in his life's course, but the wonder is, that he did not make more. He was constantly absorbed in what Theophile Gautier has called "the Balzac Universe," looking after the characters he had created, seeing to it that they acted consistently, pulling the wires, supplying them conversation, dialogue, plot and counterplot, and amid all this bustle and confusion bringing out a perfect story. And still sanely to do the work of the workaday world was a miracle indeed! The man had the strength of Hercules, but even physical strength has its penalty--it seduces one to over-exertion. The midnight brain is a bad thing to cultivate, especially when reinforced with much coffee. Balzac was growing stout; physical exercise was difficult. Dark lines were growing under his eyes. In his letters to Madame Hanska he tells how he is taking treatment from the doctor, and that he suffers from asthma and aneurism of the heart.
His eyes are failing him so he can not see to write by lamplight.
Madame Hanska now becomes alarmed. She thinks she can win him back to life. She begs him to come to Poland at once, and they will be married.
Balzac at once begins the journey to the Hanska country home. The excitement and change of scene evidently benefited him. Great plans were being made for the future.
The wedding occurred on March Fourteenth, Eighteen Hundred Fifty.
Balzac was a sick man. The couple arrived back in Paris, with Balzac leaning heavily on his wife's arm. Chaos thundered in his ears; his brain reeled with vertigo; dazzling lights appeared in the darkness; and in the sunshine he saw only confused darkness.
Balzac died August Seventeenth, Eighteen Hundred Fifty, aged fifty-one, and Pere-la-Chaise tells the rest.
Said Victor Hugo:
The candle scarcely illumined the magnificent Pourbus, the magnificent Holbein, on the walls. The bust of marble was like the ghost of the man who was to die. I asked to see Monsieur De Balzac. We crossed a corridor and mounted a staircase crowded with vases, statues and enamels. Another corridor--I saw a door that was open. I heard a sinister noise--a rough and loud breathing. I was in Balzac's bedchamber. The bed was in the middle of the room: Balzac, supported on it, as best he might be, by pillows and cushions taken from the sofa. I saw his profile, which was like that of Napoleon. An old sick-nurse and a servant of the house stood on either side of the bed. I lifted the counterpane and took the hand of Balzac. The nurse said to me, "He will die about dawn."
His death has smitten Paris. Some months ago he came back into France. Feeling that he was dying, he wished to see again his native land--as on the eve of a long journey, one goes to one's mother to kiss her. Sometimes, in the presence of the dead--when the dead are illustrious--one feels, with especial distinctness, the heavenly destiny of that Intelligence which is called Man. It passes over the Earth to suffer and be purified.
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