Honore de Balzac, His Life and Writings/Preface
Books about Balzac would fill a fair-sized library. Criticisms on his novels abound, and his contemporaries have provided us with several amusing volumes dealing in a humorous spirit with his eccentricities, and conveying the impression that the author of "La Cousine Bette" and "Le Pere Goriot" was nothing more than an amiable buffoon.
Nevertheless, by some strange anomaly, there exists no Life of him derived from original sources, incorporating the information available since the appearance of the volume called "Lettres a l'Etrangere." This book, which is the source of much of our present knowledge of Balzac, is a collection of letters written by him from 1833 to 1844 to Madame Hanska, the Polish lady who afterwards became his wife. The letters are exact copies of the originals, having been made by the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, to whom the autographs belong.
It seems curious that no one should yet have made use of this mine of biographical detail. In English we have a Memoir by Miss Wormeley, written at a time when little as known about the great novelist, and a Life by Mr. Frederick Wedmore in the "Great Writers" Series; but this, like Miss Wormeley's Memoir, appeared before the "Lettres a l'Etrangere" were published. Moreover, it is a very small book, and the space in it devoted to Balzac as a man is further curtailed by several chapters devoted to criticism of his work. The introduction to the excellent translation of Balzac's novels undertaken by Mr. Saintsbury, contains a short account of his life, but this only fills a few pages and does not enter into much detail. Besides these, an admirable essay on Balzac has appeared in "Main Currents of Nineteenth-century Literature," by Mr. George Brandes; the scope of this, however, is mainly criticism of his merits as a writer, not description of his personality and doings.
Even in the French language, there is no trustworthy or satisfactory Life of Balzac—a fact on which numerous critical writers make many comments, though they apparently hesitate to throw themselves into the breach and to undertake one. Madame Surville's charming Memoir only professes to treat of Balzac's early life, and even within these limits she intentionally conceals as much as she reveals. M. Edmond Bire, in his interesting book, presents Balzac in different aspects, as Royalist, playwriter, admirer of Napoleon, and so on; but M. Bire gives no connected account of his life, while MM. Hanotaux and Vicaire deal solely with Balzac's two years as printer and publisher. The Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul is the one man who could give a detailed and minutely correct Life of Balzac, as he has proved by the stores of biographical knowledge contained in his works the "Roman d'Amour," "Autour de Honore de Balzac," "La Genese d'un Roman de Balzac, 'Les Paysans,'" and above all, "L'Histoire des Oeuvres de Balzac," which has become a classic. The English or American reader would hardly be able to appreciate these fascinating books, however, unless he were first equipped with the knowledge of Balzac which would be provided by a concise Life.
In these circumstances, helped and encouraged by Dr. Emil Reich, whose extremely interesting lectures I had attended with much enjoyment, and who very kindly gave me lists of books, and assisted me with advice, I engaged in the task of writing this book. It is not intended to add to the mass of criticism of Balzac's novels, being merely an attempt to portray the man as he was, and to sketch correctly a career which has been said to be more thrilling than a large proportion of novels.
I must apologise for occasional blank spaces, for when Balzac is with Madame Hanska, and his letters to her cease, as a general rule all our information ceases also; and the intending biographer can only glean from scanty allusions in the letters written afterwards, what happened at Rome, Naples, Dresden, or any of the other towns, to which Balzac travelled in hot haste to meet his divinity.
The book has been compiled as far as possible from original sources; as the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul—whose collection of documents relating to Balzac, Gautier, and George Sand is unique, while his comprehensive knowledge of Balzac is the result of many years of study—has most kindly allowed me to avail myself of his library at Brussels. There, arranged methodically, according to some wonderful system which enables the Vicomte to find at once any document his visitor may ask for, are hundreds of Balzac's autograph writings, many of them unpublished and of great interest. There, too, are portraits and busts of the celebrated novelist, letters from his numerous admirers, and the proofs of nearly all his novels—those sheets covered with a network of writing, which were the despair of the printers. The collection is most remarkable, even when we remember the large sums of money, and the patience and ability, which have for many years been focussed on its formation. It will one day be deposited in the museum at Chantilly, near Paris, where it will be at the disposal of those who wish to study its contents.
The Vicomte has kindly devoted much time to answering my questions, and has shown me documents and autograph letters, the exact words of which have been the subject of discussion and dispute, so that I have been able myself to verify the fact that the copies made by M. de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul are taken exactly from the originals. He has warned me to be particularly careful about my authorities, as many of Balzac's letters—printed as though copied from autographs—are incorrectly dated, and have been much altered.
He has further added to his kindness by giving me several illustrations, and by having this book translated to him, in order to correct it carefully by the information to which he alone has access. I gladly take this opportunity of acknowledging how deeply I am indebted to him.
I cannot consider these words of introduction complete without again expressing my sense of what I owe to Dr. Reich, to whom the initial idea of this book is due, and without whose energetic impetus it would never have been written. He has found time, in the midst of a very busy life, to read through, and to make many valuable suggestions, and I am most grateful for all he has done to help me.
I must finish by thanking Mr. Curtis Brown most heartily for the trouble he has taken on my behalf, for the useful hints he has given me, and for the patience with which he has elucidated the difficulties of an inexperienced writer.
- MARY F. SANDARS.