Honore de Balzac, His Life and Writings/Chapter IX
- NO PARTICULAR DATE
- Balzac's portrait as described by Gautier—His character—Belief in magnetism and somnambulism—His attempts to become deputy—His political and religious views.
In the Salon of 1837 appeared a portrait of Balzac by Boulanger, of which Theophile Gautier gave the following description in La Presse: "M. de Balzac is not precisely beautiful. His features are irregular; he is fat and short. Here is a summary which does not seem to lend itself to a painting, but this is only the reverse of the medal. The life and ardour reflected in the whole face give it a special beauty.
"In this portrait, M. de Balzac, enveloped in the large folds of a monk's habit, sits with his arms crossed, in a calm and strong attitude; the neck is uncovered, the look firm and direct; the light, shining from above, illumines the satin-like smoothness of the upper parts of the forehead, and throws a bright light on the bumps of imagination and humour, which are strongly developed in M. de Balzac; the black hair, also lit up, shining and radiant, comes from the temples in bright waves, and gives singular light to the top of the head; the eyes steeped in a golden penumbra with tawny eyeballs, on a moist and blue crystalline lens like that of a child, send out a glance of astonishing acuteness; the nose, divided into abrupt polished flat places, breathes strongly and passionately, through large red nostrils; the mouth, large and voluptuous, particularly in the lower lip, smiles with a rabelaisian smile under the shade of a moustache much lighter in colour than the hair; and the chin, slightly raised, is attached to the throat by a fold of flesh, ample and strong, which resembles the dewlap of a young bull. The throat itself is of athletic and rare strength, the plump full cheeks are touched with the vermilion of nervous health, and all the flesh tints are resplendent with the most joyful and reassuring brilliancy.
"In this monk's and soldier's head there is a mixture of reflection and of good-humour, of resolution and of high spirits, which is infinitely rare; the thinker and good liver melt into each other with quaint harmony. Put a cuirass on this large breast, and you will have one of those fat German foot-soldiers so jovially painted by Terburg. With the monks' habit, it is Jean des Entommeurs; nevertheless, do not forget that the eyes throw, through all this embonpoint and good-humour, the yellow look of a lion to counteract this Flemish familiarity. Such a man would be equal to excesses of the table, of pleasure, and of work. We are no longer astonished at the immense quantity of volumes published by him in so short a time. This prodigious labour has left no trace of fatigue on the strong cheeks dappled with red, and on the large white forehead. The enormous work which would have crushed six ordinary authors under its weight is hardly the third of the monument he wishes to raise."
The original of this portrait was sent to Madame Hanska at Wierzchownia; but a sketch of it belongs to M. Alexandre Dumas the younger, and has often been engraved. From this, it seems as though Theophile Gautier must have read his knowledge of Balzac's character as a whole into his interpretation of the picture. To the ordinary observer, Boulanger's portrait represents Balzac as the thinker, worker, and fighter, stern and strenuous; not the delightful comrade who inspired joy and merriment, and the recollection of whom made Heine smile on his death-bed. The wonderful eyes which had not their equal, and which asked questions like a doctor or a priest, are brilliantly portrayed. Balzac himself allows this, though he complains to Madame Hanska that they have more of the psychological expression of the worker than of the loving soul of the individual—a fact for which we may be grateful to Boulanger. Balzac is much delighted, however, with Boulanger's portrayal of the insistence and intrepid faith in the future, a la Coligny or a la Peter the Great, which are at the base of his character; and he goes on to give an attractive, though rather picturesque account of his career and past misfortunes, which is evidently intended to counteract any misgivings Madame Hanska may feel at his sternness as depicted in the portrait.
"Boulanger has seen the writer only, not the tenderness of the idiot who will always be deceived, not the softness towards other people's troubles which cause all my misfortunes to come from my holding out my hand to weak people who are falling into disaster. In 1827 I help a working printer, and therefore in 1829 find myself crushed by fifty thousand francs of debt, and thrown without bread into a gutter. In 1833, when my pen appears to be likely to bring in enough to pay off my obligations, I attach myself to Werdet. I wish to make him my only publisher, and in my desire to bring him prosperity, I sign engagements, and in 1837 find myself owing a hundred and fifty thousand francs, and liable on this account to be put under arrest, so that I am obliged to hide. During this time I make myself the Don Quixote of the poor. I hope to give courage to Sandeau, and I lose through him four to five thousand francs, which would have saved other people." It would be interesting to hear what Barbier and Werdet would have said, if they had been allowed to read this letter; but on Browning's principle, that a man should show one side to the world, and the other to the woman he loves, no doubt Balzac's account of past events was quite justifiable.
Boulanger's picture gave Balzac a great deal of trouble, as well as delighted yet anxious speculation about Madame Hanska's opinion of it, when it arrived in Wierzchownia. This was naturally an important matter, his meetings with her being so rare that, except his letters, the picture would generally be her only reminder of him; and for this reason it was most necessary that it should show him at his best. It was therefore very trying that Boulanger should have exaggerated the character of his quiet strength, and made him look like a bully and a soldier; and we can enter thoroughly into his feelings, and sympathise heartily with his uneasiness, because Boulanger has not quite caught the fineness of contour under the fatness of the face. Undoubtedly, the picture does not give the idea of a person of extreme refinement, or distinction of appearance. Nevertheless, judging from stories told by his contemporaries, and also from some of the books written by the great novelist, it seems likely that Boulanger's powerful and strongly coloured portrait, though only redeemed from coarseness by the intense concentration of expression and the intellectual light in the wonderful eyes, was strikingly true to nature, and caught one very real aspect of the man. Perhaps, however, it was not the one calculated to work most strongly on the feelings of his absent lady-love; who, no doubt, poor Balzac hoped, would often make her way to the spot in the picture gallery where his picture hung in its quaint frame of black velvet, and would refresh herself with the sight of her absent friend. When her miniature by Daffinger was sent him, he was stupefied all day with joy; and he always carried it about with him, considering it an amulet which brought him good fortune.
He believed in talismans, and had pretty fanciful ideas about being present to his friends in the sudden flicker of the fire, or the brightening of a candle-flame. Balzac, the Seer, the believer in animal magnetism, in somnambulism, in telepathy, the weaver of strange fancies and impossible daydreams—Balzac with philosophical theories on the function of thought, and faith in the mystical creed of Swedenborg—in short, the Balzac of "Louis Lambert" and "Seraphita," is not, however, depicted by Boulanger: he can only be found in M. Rodin's wonderful statue. There the great voyant, who, in the beautiful vision entitled "L'Assomption," saw man and woman perfected and brought to their highest development, stands in rapt contemplation and concentration, his head slightly raised, as if listening for the voice of inspiration, or hearing murmurs of mysteries still unfathomed.
Somnambulism, in particular, occupied much of Balzac's attention. He wrote in 1832 to a doctor, M. Chapelain, who evidently shared his interest in the subject, to ask why medical men had not made use of it to discover the cause of cholera; and on another occasion, after an accident to his leg, he sent M. Chapelain, from Aix, two pieces of flannel which he had worn, and wanted to know from them what caused the mischief, and why the doctors at their last consultation advised a blister. Unluckily, we hear no more of this matter, and never have the satisfaction of learning how much the learned doctor deduced from the fragments submitted to his inspection. Time after time Balzac mentions in his correspondence that he has consulted somnambulists when he has been anxious about the health of the Hanski family; and it is curious that a few months before he received the letter from Madame Hanska, telling of her husband's death, he had visited a sorcerer, who by means of cards, told him many extraordinary things about his past career, and said that in six weeks he would receive news which would change his whole life.
The portrait was still destined to cause Balzac much anxiety. After the close of the Salon, the painter had promised to take a copy of it for Madame de Balzac, who, "between ourselves," Balzac remarked to Madame Hanska, would not care much about it, and certainly would not know the difference between the replica and the original, in which the soul of the model was searched for, examined and depicted, and which was, of course, to belong to the beloved friend.
However, there were still many delays. Boulanger showed "horrible ingratitude," and did not appreciate sufficiently the honour done him by his illustrious sitter in allowing his portrait to be taken. He refused at first to begin the copy; but this difficulty was at last arranged, and the original was carefully packed in a wooden crate, instead of going in a roll as Balzac had at first intended. Still there were innumerable stoppages, and doubt where the precious canvas was located; till the impatient Balzac was only deterred from his intention of starting a lawsuit against the authorities, by a fear of bringing the noble name of Hanski into notoriety. It is sad that the last time we hear of this precious picture in Balzac's lifetime was when he went to Wierzchownia, in 1849; and then it had been relegated to a library which few people visited, and he describes it with his usual energy, as the most hideous daub it is possible to see—quite black, from the faulty mixing of the colours; a canvas of which, for the sake of France, he is thoroughly ashamed.
The sketch of the portrait is not disfigured; and the engravings of it give an interesting view of Balzac's personality. With due deference to the great psychologist, we cannot think the painter was wrong in imparting a slightly truculent expression to the face. Balzac was essentially a fighter: he started life with a struggle against his family, against the opinion of his friends, and, harder than all, against his own impotence to give expression to his genius; and, in the course of his career he made countless enemies, and finished by enrolling among their ranks most of the literary men of the day. This alienation was to a great extent caused by his inveterate habit of boasting, of applying the adjectives "sublime" and "magnificent" to his own works: an idiosyncracy which was naturally annoying to his brother authors. It was deprecated even by his devoted and admiring friends; though they knew that, as George Sand says, it was only caused by the naivete of an artist, to whom his work was all-important.
His personal charm was so great, that Werdet, his enemy, says that in his presence those who loved him, forgot any real or fancied complaint against him, and only remembered the affection they felt for him. Nevertheless, in the course of his life of fighting, his ever-pressing anxieties and the strain of his work, coupled with his belief in the importance and sacredness of his destiny, made him something of an egotist. Therefore, in spite of his real goodness of heart, he would sometimes shoulder his way through the world, oblivious of the unfortunate people who had come to grief owing to their connection with him, and careless of the lesser, though very real troubles of harassed and exasperated editors, when his promised copy was not forthcoming.
Like Napoleon, to whom, amidst the gibes of his contemporaries, he likened himself, he wanted everything; and those with this aspiration must necessarily be heedless of their neighbours' smaller ambitions. "Without genius, I am undone!" he cried in despair; but when it was proved beyond dispute that this gift of debatable beneficence was his, he was still unsatisfied.
What, after all, was the use of genius except as a stepping-stone to the solid good things of the earth? Where lay the advantage of superiority to ordinary men, if it could not be employed as a lever with which to raise oneself? Reasoning thus, his extraordinary versatility, his power of assimilation, and his varied interests, made his ambitions many and diverse. The man who could enter with the masterly familiarity of an expert into affairs of Church, State, Society, and Finance, who would talk of medicine like a doctor, or of science like a savant, naturally aspired to excellence in many directions.
At times, as we have already seen, strange fancies filled his brain: dreams, for instance, of occupying the highest posts in the land, or of gaining fabulous sums of money by some wildly impossible scheme, such as visiting the Great Mogul with a magical ring, or obtaining rubies and emeralds from a rich Dutchman. The two apparently incompatible sides to Balzac's character are difficult to reconcile. On some occasions he appears as the keen business man, who studies facts in their logical sequence, and has the power of drawing up legal documents with no necessary point omitted. The masterly Code which he composed for the use of the "Societe des Gens-de-Lettres" is an example of this faculty. At other times we are astonished to find that the great writer is a credulous believer in impossibilities, and a follower of strange superstitions. A similar paradox may be found in his books, where, side by side with a truth and occasional brutality which makes him in some respects the forerunner of the realists, we find a wealth of imagination and insistence on the power of the higher emotions, which are completely alien to the school of Flaubert and Zola.
Perhaps in his own dictum, that genius is never quite sane, gives a partial explanation of many of his fantastic schemes. The question of money was his great preoccupation and anxiety, and possibly his pecuniary difficulties, and the strain of the heavy chain of debt he dragged after him, constantly adding to its weight by some fresh extravagance, had affected his mind on this one point. Marriage with poverty he could not conceive; and, as he was intensely affectionate, he longed for a home and womanly companionship. "Is there no woman in the world for me?" he cried despairingly; but in this, as in everything else, he required so much, that it was difficult to find any one who would, in his eyes, be worthy to become Madame Honore de Balzac. His wife must be no ordinary woman; in addition to birth and wealth, she must possess youth, beauty, and high intellectual gifts; and one great difficulty was, that the lady endowed with this combination of excellencies would naturally require some winning, and Balzac had no time to woo. However, it was absolutely necessary that his married life should be one of luxury and magnificence, beautiful surroundings being indispensable to his scheme of existence, "Il faut," he said, "que l'artiste mene une vie splendide." Therefore, till the right lady was found, Balzac toiled unceasingly; and when in Madame Hanska the personification of his ideal at last appeared, he redoubled his efforts, till overwork, and his longing for her, caused the decay of his physical powers, and his strength for labour diminished.
Literature, a rich marriage, a successful play, or a political career, were all incidentally to make his fortune; though it must be said, in justice, that this motive, though it entwines itself with everything in Balzac's life, was not his only, or even his principal incentive to action.
In his desire to become a deputy, for instance, the longing to serve his country and to have a voice in her Councils, which he would use boldly, conscientiously, without fear or favour, to further her true interests, was ever present with him. As early as 1819, he had begun to take the keenest interest in the elections, telling M. Dablin, from whom he wanted a visit, that he dreamed of nothing but him and the deputies, and begging him for a complete list of those chosen in each department, with a short notice of his opinion on each.
By the law of election of 1830, any Frenchman who was thirty years of age, and contributed 500 francs a year directly, in taxes, was eligible as a deputy. When the law was made Balzac was thirty-one, and paid the requisite amount; he therefore determined, in spite of his enormous output of literary work at this time, to add the career of a deputy to his labours; and in April, 1831, he wrote to ask for the assistance of the General Baron de Pommereul, with whom he had been staying at Fougeres, collecting material for "Les Chouans," while at the same time he worked up the country politically. His manifesto, at this period, is found in the "Enquete sur la Politique des Deux Ministeres," in which he calls the Government a "monarchie tempere par les emeutes," objects to the "juste milieu" observed by the Ministers; and while bringing forward, with apparent impartiality, the advantages of the two courses of peace and war, very evidently longs for France to take the battlefield again, to obtain what he considers her natural frontier, that of the Rhine. He also enters con amore into the details of raising a Napoleonic army, and of establishing the system of the Landwehr in France. A very remarkable passage in this manifesto is that on the Press; by which, he says, the Government is terrorised. With extraordinary penetration, he advises that the strength of journalism shall be broken by the sacrifice of the three or four millions gained by the "timbre," and the liberation of the newspapers, which are stronger than the seven ministers—for they upset the Government, and cannot be themselves suppressed—there will be a hundred, and the number will neutralise their power, so that they will become of no account politically.
Balzac had no chance at Fougeres, where a rich proprietor of the neighbourhood was chosen as deputy, and no doubt M. de Pommereul advised him not to proceed further in the matter. However, with his usual tenacity, he wrote in September to M. Henri Berthoud, manager of the Gazette de Cambrai, who wanted to collaborate with the Revue de Paris, promising to further his wishes by all the means in his power, if M. Berthoud would, on his part, support his candidature at Cambrai. At the same time, he determined to try Angouleme, where he sometimes went to stay with a relation, M. Grand-Besancon, and had met a M. Berges, chief of the Government preparatory school, who was much struck by his talent, and promised to help him. In June, 1831, he wrote to Madame Carraud, who took much interest in his political aspirations, and sent her three copies of the Manifesto for distribution. He told her that he was working day and night to become deputy, was going out into society for this purpose; and was so overwhelmed with business, that he had not touched "La Peau de Chagrin" since he was last at Saint-Cyr.
He was evidently full of hope; but in spite of the powerful support of the Revue de Paris, the Temps, the Debats, and the Voleur, the steady-going electors had no mind to be represented by a penniless young author, who was chiefly known to the general public as the writer of the "Physiologie du Mariage," a book distinctly not adapted for family reading. Therefore, in this, as in many other hopes of his life, Balzac was doomed to disappointment; though the readers of novels may be grateful to the unkind fate which caused him to turn with renewed ardour to the neglected "Peau de Chagrin." He cherished a slight resentment against Angouleme, as he showed in "Illusions Perdues," where the aristocracy of that town are rather unkindly treated; but he was not discouraged in his political ambitions, and in 1832 he joined with M. Laurentie, the Duc de Noailles, the Duc de Fitz-James (nephew to the Princesse de Chimay, who acted as proxy for Marie Antoinette at Madame de Berny's christening) and others, to found a Legitimist journal, the Renovateur. In this appeared an article against the proposed destruction of the monument to the Duc de Berry, in which Balzac indignantly asks: "Why do you not finish the monument, and raise an altar where the priests may pray God to pardon the assassin?"
Having thus shown his principles clearly, he turned his attention in 1832 to Chinon, which was close to Tours, where he and his family had lived for so long, and to Sache, where he was a constant visitor. There, if anywhere, he seemed likely to succeed; and the Quotidienne, the paper which afterwards supported him during his lawsuit against the Revue de Paris, had promised its voice in his favour. Again cruel Fate dogged his footsteps, as in May he tumbled out of his tilbury, and his head came violently into contact with what he calls the "heroic pavements of July"; the accident being a sad result of his childish delight in driving at a tremendous pace in the Bois, which is rebuked by his sage adviser, Madame Carraud. Certainly carriages, horses, and a stable, seemed hardly prudent acquisitions for a man in debt; but Balzac always defended his pet extravagances with the specious reasoning that nothing succeeds like success; and that most of his literary friends did not become rich because they lived in garrets, and were on that account trampled on by haughty publishers and editors. He writes to Madame de Girardin on this occasion: "Only think, that I who am so handsome have been cruelly disfigured for several days, and it has seemed curious to be uglier than I really am." As a further and more serious result, he was laid up in bed, and had to undergo a severe regimen of bleeding, during the time that he should have been at Sache, working hard about his election; and when he did arrive there, in June, he recognised that he was too late for success. However, another dissolution, which after all did not take place, was expected in September, and Balzac looked forward to making a determined attempt then. This hope being frustrated, it was not till 1834 that he again came forward as a candidate: this time for Villefranche, where, curiously enough, another M. de Balzac was nominated, and when M. de Hanski wrote to congratulate Balzac, the latter was obliged to explain the mistake. On this occasion he had purposed to present himself as champion of the Bourbon Royal Family, especially of the Duchesse de Berry, for whom he had an immense admiration, while she read his books with much delight during her captivity in the Castle of Blaye. He wrote to M. de Hanski that he considered the exile of Madame and the Comte de Chambord the great blot on France in the nineteenth century, as the French Revolution had been her shame in the eighteenth.
This was Balzac's last serious attempt to stand for Parliament during the Monarchy of July, though he often talked in his letters to Madame Hanska of his political aspirations, looked forward to becoming a deputy in 1839, and hoped till then to dominate European opinion—rather a large ambition—by a political publication. In his letters he is continually on the point of beginning his career as a statesman; and in 1835 his views are even more inflated than usual. He will absorb the Revue des Deux Mondes and the Revue de Paris, is in treaty to obtain one newspaper, and will start two others himself, so that his power will be irresistible. "Le temps presse, les evenements se compliquent," he cries impatiently. He is still strangled by want of money—a hundred thousand francs is the modest sum he requires; but he will write a play in the name of his secretary, and the spectre of debt will be laid for ever.
However, in the stress of work, which made his own life like the crowded canvas of one of his own novels, these brilliant schemes came to nothing, and Balzac was never in the proud position of a deputy. He gives his views clearly in a letter to Madame Carraud in 1830. "France ought to be a constitutional monarchy, to have a hereditary royal family, a house of peers of extraordinary strength, which will represent property, etc., with all possible guarantees for heredity, and privileges of which the nature must be discussed; then a second assembly, elective, representing all the interests of the intermediary mass, which separates those of high social position from the classes who are generally termed the people."
"The purport of the laws, and their spirit, should be designed to enlighten the masses as much as possible—those who have nothing, the workmen, the common people, etc., in order that as many as possible should arrive at the intermediary state; but the people should, at the same time, be kept under a most powerful yoke, so that its individuals may find light, help, and protection, and that no idea, no statute, no transaction, may make them turbulent.
"The greatest possible liberty should be allowed to the leisured classes, for they possess something to keep, they have everything to lose, they can never be dissolute.
"As much power as possible should be granted to the Government. Thus the Government, the rich people, and the bourgeoisie have interest in keeping the lowest class happy, and in increasing the number of the middle class, which is the true strength of the state.
"If rich people, the hereditary possessors of fortune in the highest Chamber, are corrupt in their manners, and start abuses, these are inseparable from the existence of all society; they must be accepted, to balance the advantages given."
This extract is taken from a letter which is, Balzac tells his correspondent, strictly private; but, with his usual independence and fearlessness, he did not hesitate to enunciate his opinions in public, and invariably refused to stoop to compromise or to disguise. Consequently, we cannot wonder that he never attained his ambition; particularly as he lacked the aid of money, and had no support, except the politically doubtful one of a literary reputation. His penetration and power of prescience were remarkable, and it is startling to find that he foretells the fall of the Monarchy of July, and the Revolution of 1848. "I do not think," he says, "that in ten years from now the actual form of government will subsist—August, 1830, has forgotten the part played by youth and intelligence. Youth compressed will burst like the boiler of a steam engine." In "Les Paysans," one of his most wonderful novels, he gives a vivid picture of the constant struggle going on under the surface between the peasants and the bourgeoisie, and shows that the triumph of the former class must be the inevitable result.
His was essentially a loyal, reverential nature, with the soldierly respect for constituted authority which is often the characteristic of strong natures; and he was absolutely unswerving in his principles—the courage and tenacity which distinguished him through life, never deserting him in political emergencies. He was patriotic and high-minded; absolutely immovable in all that concerned his duty. On one occasion, when it was proposed at a public meeting that the Legitimists should follow the example of their political opponents and should stoop to evil doings, he refused decidedly, saying: "The cause of the life of man is superhuman. It is God who judges; His judgment does not hinge on our passions." In his eyes, Religion and the Monarchy were twin sisters, and he speaks sadly in "Le Medecin de Campagne" of the downfall of both these powers. "With the monarchy we have lost honour, with our unfruitful attempts at government, patriotism; and with our fathers' religion, Christian virtue. These principles now only exist partially, instead of inspiring the masses, for these ideas never perish altogether. At present, to support society we have nothing but selfishness." Elsewhere, he laments the atheistic government, and the increase of incredulity; and longs for Christian institutions, and a strong hierarchy, united to a religious society.
Balzac was not orthodox. There is no doubt, from a letter to Madame Hanska, that the Swedenborgian creed he enunciates in "Seraphita" is to a great extent his own; but he believed in God, in the immortality of the soul, and considered natural religion, of which, in his eyes, the Bourbons were the depositors, absolutely essential to the well-being of a State. He had a great respect for the priesthood, and has left many a charming and sympathetic picture of the parish cure, such as l'Abbe Janvier in "Le Medecin de Campagne," who acts hand in hand with the good doctor Benassis, as an enlightened benefactor to the poor; or l'Abbe Bonnet, the hero of "Le Cure du Village," whose face had "the impress of faith, an impress giving the stamp of the human greatness which approaches most nearly to divine greatness, and of which the undefinable expression beautifies the most ordinary features." In "Les Paysans" we have another fine portrait, L'Abbe Brossette, who is doing his work nobly among debased and cunning peasants. "To serve was his motto, to serve the Church and the Monarchy at the most menaced points; to serve in the last rank, like a soldier who feels destined sooner or later to rise to generalship, by his desire to do well, and by his courage."
There is a beautiful touch in that terrible book "La Cousine Bette," where the infamous Madame Marneffe is dying of a loathsome and infectious disease, so that even Bette, who feels for her the "strongest sentiment known, the affection of a woman for a woman, had not the heroic constancy of the Church," and could not enter the room. Religion alone, in the guise of a Sister of Mercy, watched over her.
- See the chapter entitled "Un Portrait" in "Autour de Honore de Balzac," by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.
- One of the characters in Rabelais.
- "Lettres a l'Etrangere."
- "Correspondance," vol. i. p. 147.
- "Lettres a l'Etrangere."
- Another political pamphlet, entitled "Du Gouvernement Moderne," written by Balzac at Aix in 1832, has lately been published in the North American Review. The original is in the collection of the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.
- "Correspondance," vol. i. p. 118.
- "Correspondance," vol. i. p. 147.
- "Lettres a l'Etrangere."
- "Correspondance," vol. i. p. 108.
- "Revue Parisienne," p. 26
- "Balzac et ses Oeuvres," by Lamartine de Prat.
- "Le Medecin de Campagne."