Women in the Life of Balzac/Chapter II/Part IV
|←Chapter II/Part III|| Women in the Life of Balzac by
Chapter II/Part IV: Madame Carraud, Madame Nivet
|Chapter III/Part I→|
"You are my public, you and a few other chosen souls, whom I wish
to please; but yourself especially, whom I am proud to know, you
whom I have never seen or listened to without gaining some
benefit, you who have the courage to aid me in tearing up the evil
weeds from my field, you who encourage me to perfect myself, you
who resemble so much that angel to whom I owe everything; in
short, you who are so good towards my ill-doings. I alone know how
quickly I turn to you. I have recourse to your encouragements,
when some arrow has wounded me; it is the wood-pigeon regaining
its nest. I bear you an affection which resembles no other, and
which can have no rival, because it is alone of its kind. It is so
bright and pleasant near you! From afar, I can tell you, without
fear of being put to silence, all I think about your mind, about
your life. No one can wish more earnestly that the road be smooth
for you. I should like to send you all the flowers you love, as I
often send above your head the most ardent prayers for your
Balzac's friendship with Madame Zulma Carraud was not only of the purest and most beautiful nature, but it lasted longer than his friendship with any other woman, terminating only with his death. It was even more constant than that with his sister Laure, which was broken at times. Though Madame Surville states that it began in 1826, the following passage shows an earlier date: "I embrace you, and press you to a heart devoted to you. A friendship as true and tender now in 1838 as in 1819. Nineteen years!" The first letter to her in either edition of his correspondence, however, is dated 1826.
Madame Carraud, as Zulma Tourangin, attended the same convent as Balzac's sister Laure. Her husband was a distinguished officer in the artillery and a man of learning, but absolutely lacking in ambition, preferring to direct the instruction of Saint-Cyr rather than to risk the chances of advancement presented in active service. He became inspector of the gunpowder manufactory at Angouleme, and later retired to his home at Frapesle, near Issoudun. Though an excellent husband, his inactivity was a great annoyance to his wife. According to several Balzacian writers, Madame Carraud became the type of the femme incomprise for Balzac, but the present writer is inclined to agree with M. Serval when he calls this judgment astonishing, since she was a woman who adored her husband and sons, was an author of some moral books for children, and nothing in her suggested either vagueness of soul or melancholy. Madame Carraud herself gives a glimpse of her married life in saying to Balzac that she and her husband are not sympathetic in everything, that being of different temperaments things appear differently to them, but that she knows happiness, and her life is not empty.
Often when sick, discouraged, overworked or pursued by his creditors, Balzac sought refuge in her home, and with a pure and disinterested maternal affection, she calmed him and inspired him with courage to continue the battle of life. It was indeed the maternal element that he needed and longed for, and Madame Carraud seems to have been a rare mother who really understood her child. He confided in her not only his financial worries, but also his love affairs, his aspirations in life, and his ideas of woman:
"I care more for the esteem of a few persons, amongst whom you are
one of the first, both in friendship and in high intellect—one of
the noblest souls I have ever known,—than I care for the esteem
of the masses, for whom I have, in truth, a profound contempt.
There are some vocations that must be obeyed, and something drags
me irresistibly towards glory and power. It is not a happy life.
There is in me a worship of woman, and a need of loving, which has
never been completely satisfied. Despairing of ever being loved
and understood as I desire, by the woman I have dreamt of (never
having met her, except under one form—that of the heart), I have
thrown myself into the tempestuous region of political passions
and into the stormy and parching atmosphere of literary glory.
. . . If ever I should find a wife and a fortune, I could resign
myself very easily to domestic happiness; but where are these
things to be found? Where is the family which would have faith in
a literary fortune? It would drive me mad to owe my fortune to a
woman, unless I loved her, or to owe it to flatteries; I am
obliged, therefore, to remain isolated. In the midst of this
desert, be assured that friendships such as yours, and the
assurance of finding a shelter in a loving heart, are the best
consolations I can have. . . . To dedicate myself to the happiness
of a woman is my constant dream, but I do not believe marriage and
love can exist in poverty. . . . I work too hard and I am too much
worried with other things to be able to pay attention to those
sorrows which sleep and make their nest in the heart. It may be
that I shall come to the end of my life, without having realized
the hopes I entertained from them. . . . As regards my soul, I am
profoundly sad. My work alone keeps me alive. Will there never be
a woman for me in this world? My fits of despondency and bodily
weariness come upon me more frequently, and weigh upon me more
heavily; to sink under this crushing load of fruitless labor,
without having near me the gentle caressing presence of woman, for
whom I have worked so much!"
Though Balzac and his mother were never congenial, he became very lonely after she left him in 1832. In the autumn of that year he had a break with the Duchesse de Castries, so he began the new year by summing up his trials and pouring forth his longings to Madame Carraud as he could do to no other woman, not even to his Dilecta. In response to this despondent epistle, she showed her broad sympathetic friendship by writing him a beautiful and comforting letter, in which she regretted not being able to live in Paris with him, so as to see him daily and give him the desired affection.
Not only through the hospitality of her home, but by sending various gifts, she ministered to Balzac's needs or caprices. To make his study more attractive, she indulged his craving for elegance and grace by surprising him with the present of a carpet and a lovely tea service. In thanking her for her thoughtfulness, he informed her that she had inspired some of the pages in the Medicin de Campagne.
Besides being so intimate a friend of Madame Carraud, the novelist was also a friend of M. Carraud, whom he called "Commandant Piston," and discussed his business plans with him before going to Corsica and Sardinia to investigate the silver mines. M. Carraud had a fine scientific mind; he approved of Balzac's scheme, and thought of going with him; his wife was astonished on hearing this, since he never left the house even to look after his own estate. However, his natural habit asserted itself and he gave up the project.
Madame Carraud was much interested in politics, and many of Balzac's political ideas are set forth in his letters to her when he was a candidate for the post of deputy. She reproached him for a mobility of ideas, an inconstancy of resolution, and feared that the influence of the Duchesse de Castries had not been good for him. To this last accusation, he replied that she was unjust, and that he would never be sold to a party for a woman.
Another tie which united Balzac to Madame Carraud was her sympathy for his devotion to Madame de Berny, of whom she was not jealous. Both women were devoted to him, and were friendly towards each other, so much so that in December, 1833, she invited Balzac to bring Madame de Berny with him to spend several days in her home at Frapesle. This he especially appreciated, since neither his mother nor his sister approved of his relations with his Dilecta.
Madame Carraud occupied in Balzac's life a position rather between that of Madame de Berny and that of a sister. Indeed, he often referred to her as a sister, and she was generous minded enough to ask him not to write to her when she learned how unpleasant his mother and sister were in regard to his writing to his friends.
Seeing his devotion to her, one can understand why he begged her to spare him neither counsels, scoldings nor reproaches, for all were received kindly from her. One can perceive also the sincerity of the following expressions of friendship:
"You are right, friendship is not found ready made. Thus every day
mine for you increases; it has its root both in the past and in
the present. . . . Though I do not write often, believe that my
friendship does not sleep; the farther we advance in life,
precious ties like our friendship only grow the closer. . . . I
shall never let a year pass without coming to inhabit my room at
Frapesle. I am sorry for all your annoyances; I should like to
know you are already at home, and believe me, I am not averse to
an agricultural life, and even if you were in any sort of hell, I
would go there to join you. . . . Dear friend, let me at least
tell you now, in the fulness of my heart, that during this long
and painful road four noble beings have faithfully held out their
hands to me, encouraged me, loved me, and had compassion on me;
and you are one of them, who have in my heart an inalienable
privilege and priority over all other affections; every hour of my
life upon which I look back is filled with precious memories of
you. . . . You will always have the right to command me, and all
that is in me is yours. When I have dreams of happiness, you
always take part in them; and to be considered worthy of your
esteem is to me a far higher prize than all the vanities the world
can bestow. No, you can give me no amount of affection which I do
not desire to return to you a thousand-fold. . . . There are a few
persons whose approval I desire, and yours is one of those I hold
Among those to whom Balzac could look for criticism, Madame Carraud had the high intelligence necessary for such a role; he felt that never was so wonderful an intellect as hers so entirely stifled, and that she would die in her corner unknown. (Perhaps this estimate of her caused various writers to think that Madame Carraud was Balzac's model for the femme incomprise.) Balzac not only had her serve him as a critic, but in 1836 he requested her to send him at once the names of various streets in Angouleme, and wished the "Commandant" to make him a rough plan of the place. This data he wanted for Les deux Poetes, the first part of Les Illusions perdues.
Like his family and some of his most intimate friends, she too interested herself in his future happiness, but when she wrote to him about marriage, he was furious for a long time. Concerning this question, Balzac informs her that a woman of thirty, possessing three or four hundred thousand francs, who would take a fancy to him, would find him willing to marry her, provided she were gentle, sweet-tempered and good-looking, although enormous sacrifices would be imposed on him by this course. Several months later, he writes her that if she can find a young girl twenty-two years of age, worth two hundred thousand francs or even one hundred thousand, she must think of him, provided the dowry can be applied to his business.
If the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul is correct in his statement, Balzac showed Madame Carraud the first letter from l'Etrangere, in spite of his usual extreme prudence and absolute silence in such matters. She answered it, so another explanation of Balzac's various handwritings might be given. At least, Madame Carraud's seal was used.
In later years, Madame Carraud met with financial reverses. The following letter, which is the last to her on record, shows not only what she had been to Balzac in his life struggle, but his deep appreciation and gratitude:
"We are such old friends, you must not hear from any one else the
news of the happy ending of this grand and beautiful soul-drama
which has been going on for sixteen years. Three days ago I
married the only woman I have ever loved, whom I love more than
ever, and whom I shall love to my life's end. I believe this is
the reward God has kept in store for me through so many years of
neither a happy youth nor a blooming spring; I shall have the most
brilliant summer and the sweetest of all autumns. Perhaps, from
this point of view, my most happy marriage will seem to you like a
personal consolation, showing as it does that Providence keeps
treasures in store to bestow on those who endure to the end. . . .
Your letter has gained for you the sincerest of friends in the
person of my wife, from whom I have had no secrets for a long time
past, and she has known you by all the instances of your greatness
of soul, which I have told her, also by my gratitude for your
treasures of hospitality toward me. I have described you so well,
and your letter has so completed your portrait, that now you are
felt to be a very old friend. Also, with the same impulse, with
one voice, and with one and the same feeling in our hearts, we
offer you a pleasant little room in our house in Paris, in order
that you may come there absolutely as if it were your own house.
And what shall I say to you? You are the only creature to whom we
could make this offer, and you must accept it or you would deserve
to be unfortunate, for you must remember that I used to go to your
house, with the sacred unscrupulousness of friendship, when you
were in prosperity, and when I was struggling against all the
winds of heaven, and overtaken by the high tides of the equinox,
drowned in debts. I have it now in my power to make the sweet and
tender reprisals of gratitude . . . You will have some days'
happiness every three months: come more frequently if you will;
but you are to come, that is settled. I did this in the old times.
At St. Cyr, at Angouleme, at Frapesle, I renewed my life for the
struggle; there I drew fresh strength, there I learned to see all
that was wanting in myself; there I obtained that for which I was
thirsty. You will learn for yourself all that you have
unconsciously been to me, to me a toiler who was misunderstood,
overwhelmed for so long under misery, both physical and moral. Ah!
I do not forget your motherly goodness, your divine sympathy for
those who suffer. . . . Well, then as soon as you wish to come to
Paris, you will come without even letting us know. You will come
to the Rue Fortunee exactly as to your own house, absolutely as I
used to go to Frapesle. I claim this as my right. I recall to your
mind what you said to me at Angouleme, when broken down after
writing Louis Lambert, ill, and as you know, fearing lest I
should go mad. I spoke of the neglect to which these unhappy ones
are abandoned. 'If you were to go mad, I would take care of you.'
Those words, your look, and your expression have never been
forgotten. All this is still living in me now, as in the month of
July 1832. It is in virtue of that word that I claim your promise
to-day, for I have almost gone mad with happiness. . . . When I
have been questioned here about my friendships you have been
named the first. I have described that fireside always burning,
which is called Zulma, and you have two sincere woman-friends
(which is an achievement), the Countess Mniszech and my wife."
His devotion is again seen in the beautiful words with which he dedicates to her in 1838 La Maison Nucingen:
"To Madame Zulma Carraud.
"To whom, madame, but to you should I inscribe this work, to you
whose lofty and candid intellect is a treasury to your friends, to
you who are to me not only an entire public, but the most
indulgent of sisters? Will you deign to accept it as a token of a
friendship of which I am proud? You, and some few souls as noble
as your own, will grasp my thought in reading la Maison Nucingen
appended to Cesar Birotteau. Is there not a whole social
contrast between the two stories?
While hiding from his creditors, Balzac took refuge with Madame Carraud at Issoudun, where he assumed the name of Madame Dubois to receive his mail. Here he met some people whose names he made immortal by describing them in his Menage de Garcon, called later La Rabouilleuse. The priest Badinot introduced him to La Cognette, the landlady to whom the vineyard peasant sold his wine. La Cognette, some of whose relatives are still living, plays a minor role in the Comedie humaine. Her real name was Madame Houssard; her husband, whom Balzac incorrectly called "Pere Cognet," kept a little cabaret in the rue du Bouriau. "Mere Cognette," who lost her husband about 1835, opened a little cafe at Issoudun during the first years of her widowhood. Balzac was an intermittent and impecunious client of hers; he would enter her shop, quaff a cup of coffee, execrable to the palate of a connoisseur like him, and "chat a bit" with the good old woman who probably unconsciously furnished him with curious material.
The coffee drunk, the chat over, Balzac would strike his pockets, and declaring they were empty, would exclaim: "Upon my word, Mere Cognette, I have forgotten my purse, but the next time I'll pay for this with the rest!" This habit gave "Mere Cognette" an extremely mediocre estimate of the novelist, and she retained a very bad impression of him. Upon learning that he had, as she expressed it, "put me in one of his books," she conceived a violent resentment which ended only with her death (1855). "The brigand," she exclaimed, "he would have done better to pay me what he owes me!"
Another poor old woman, playing a far more important role in Balzac's work, lived at Issoudun and was called "La Rabouilleuse." For a long time, she had been the servant and mistress of a physician in the town. This wretched creature had an end different to the one Balzac gave his Rabouilleuse, but just as miserable, for having grown old, sick, despoiled and without means, she did not have the patience to wait until death sought her, but ended her miserable existence by throwing herself into a well.
The doctor, it seems, at his death had left her a little home and some money, but his heirs had succeeded in robbing her of it entirely.—Perhaps this story is the origin of the contest of Dr. Rouget's heirs with his mistress.
This Rabouilleuse had a daughter who inherited her name, there being nothing else to inherit; she was a dish washer at the Hotel de la Cloche, where Balzac often dined while at Issoudun. Can it be that he saw her there and learned from her the story of her mother?
Balzac was acquainted also with Madame Carraud's sister, Madame Philippe Nivet. M. Nivet was an important merchant of Limoges, living in a pretty, historical home there. It was in this home that Balzac visited early in his literary career, going there partly in order to visit these friends, partly to see Limoges, and partly to examine the scene in which he was going to place one of his most beautiful novels, Le Cure de Village. While crossing a square under the conduct of the young M. Nivet, Balzac perceived at the corner of the rue de la Vieille-Poste and the rue de la Cite an old house, on the ground-floor of which was the shop of a dealer in old iron. With the clearness of vision peculiar to him, he decided that this would be a suitable setting for the work of fiction he had already outlined in his mind. It is here that are unfolded the first scenes of Le Cure de Village, while on one of the banks of the Vienne is committed the crime which forms the basis of the story.
- Balzac is not exaggerating about the free use he made of her home, for besides going there for rest, he worked there, and two of his works, La Grenadiere and La Femme abandonnee, were signed at Angouleme.