The condition of French society in the early half of the nineteenth century—the period covered by Balzac's novels—may be compared to that of a people endeavouring to recover themselves after an earthquake. Everything had been overthrown, or at least loosened from its base—religion, laws, customs, traditions, castes. Nothing had withstood the shock. When the upheaval finally ceased, there were timid attempts to find out what had been spared and was susceptible of being raised from the ruins. Gradually the process of selection went on, portions of the ancient system of things being joined to the larger modern creation. The two did not work in very well together, however, and the edifice was far from stable.
During the Consulate and First Empire, the Emperor's will, so sternly imposed, retarded any movement of natural reconstruction. Outside the military organization, things were stiff and starched and solemn. High and low were situated in circumstances that were different and strange. The new soldier aristocracy reeked of the camp and battle-field; the washer-woman, become a duchess, was ill at ease in the Imperial drawing-room; while those who had thriven and amassed wealth rapidly in trade were equally uncomfortable amidst the vulgar luxury with which they surrounded themselves. Even the common people, whether of capital or province, for whose benefit the Revolution had been made, were silent and afraid. Of the ladies' salons—once numerous and remarkable for their wit, good taste, and conversation—two or three only subsisted, those of Mesdames de Beaumont, Recamier and de Stael; and, since the last was regarded by Napoleon with an unfriendly eye, its guests must have felt constrained.
At reunions, eating rather than talking was fashionable, and the eating lacked its intimacy and privacy of the past. The lighter side of life was seen more in restaurants, theatres, and fetes. It was modish to dine at Frascati's, to drink ices at the Pavillon de Hanovre, to go and admire the actors Talma, Picard, and Lemercier, whose stage performance was better than many of the pieces they interpreted. Fireworks could be enjoyed at the Tivoli Gardens; the great concerts were the rage for a while, as also the practice for a hostess to carry off her visitors after dinner for a promenade in the Bois de Boulogne.
Literature was obstinately classical. After the daring flights of the previous century, writers contented themselves with marking time. Chenedolle, whose verse Madame de Stael said to be as lofty as Lebanon, and whose fame is lilliputian to-day, was, with Ducis, the representative of their advance-guard. In painting, with Fragonard, Greuze and Gros, there was a greater stir of genius, yet without anything corresponding in the sister art.
On the contrary, in the practical aspects of life there was large activity, though Paris almost alone profited by it. Napoleon's reconstruction in the provinces was administrative chiefly. A complete programme was first started on in the capital, which the Emperor wished to exalt into the premier city of Europe. Gas-lighting, sewerage, paving and road improvements, quays, and bridges were his gifts to the city, whose general appearance, however, remained much the same. The Palais-Royal served still as a principal rendezvous. The busy streets were the Rues Saint-Denis and Saint-Honore on the right bank, the Rue Saint-Jacques on the left; and the most important shops were to be found in the Rue de la Loi, at present the Rue de Richelieu.
The fall of the Empire was less a restoration of the Monarchy than the definite disaggregation of the ancient aristocracy, which had been centralized round the court since the days of Richelieu. The Court of Louis XVIII. was no more like that of Louis XVI. than it was like the noisy one of Napoleon. Receiving only a few personal friends, the King allowed his drawing-rooms to remain deserted by the nobles that had returned from exile; and the two or three who were regular visitors were compelled to rub elbows with certain parvenus, magistrates, financiers, generals of the Empire whom it would not have been prudent to eliminate.
In this initial stage of society-decentralization, the diminished band of the Boulevard Saint-Germain—descendants of the eighteenth-century dukes and marquises—tried to close up their ranks and to differentiate themselves from the plutocracy of the Chaussee d'Antin, who copied their manners, with an added magnificence of display which those they imitated could not afford. In the one camp the antique bronzes, gildings, and carvings of a bygone art were retained with pious veneration; in the other, pictures, carpets, Jacob chairs and sofas, mirrors, and time-pieces, and the gold and silver plate were all in lavish style, indicative of their owner's ampler means. One feature of the pre-Revolution era was revived in the feminine salons, which regained most, if not the whole, of their pristine renown. The Hotel de la Rochefoucauld of Madame Ancelot became a second Hotel de Rambouillet, where the classical Parseval-Grandmaison, who spent twenty years over his poem Philippe-Auguste, held armistice with the young champion of the Romantic school, Victor Hugo. The Princess de Vaudemont received her guests in Paris during the winter, and at Suresnes during the summer; and her friend the Duchess de Duras' causeries were frequented by such men as Cuvier, Humboldt, Talleyrand, Mole, de Villele, Chateaubriand, and Villemain. Other circles existed in the houses of the Dukes Pasquier and de Broglie, the countess Merlin, and Madame de Mirbel.
With the re-establishment of peace, literary and toilet pre-occupations began to assert their claims. The Ourika of the Duchess de Duras took Paris by storm. Her heroine, the young Senegal negress, gave her name to dresses, hats, and bonnets. Everything was Ourika. The prettiest Parisian woman yearned to be black, and regretted not having been born in darkest Africa. Anglomania in men's clothes prevailed throughout the reign of Louis XVIII., yet mixed with other modes. "Behold an up-to-date dandy," says a writer of the epoch; "all extremes meet in him. You shall see him Prussian by the stomach, Russian by his waist, English in his coat-tails and collar, Cossack by the sack that serves him as trousers, and by his fur. Add to these things Bolivar hats and spurs, and the moustaches of a counter-skipper, and you have the most singular harlequin to be met with on the face of the globe."
Among the masses there were changes just as striking. For the moment militarism had disappeared, to the people's unfeigned content, and the Garde Nationale, composed of pot-bellied tradesmen, alone recalled the bright uniforms of the Empire. To make up for the soldier excitements of the Petit Caporal, attractions of all kinds tempted the citizen to enjoy himself after his day's toil was finished—menagerie, mountebanks, Franconi circus, Robertson the conjurer in the Jardin des Capucines. At the other end of the city, in the Boulevard du Temple, were Belle Madeleine, the seller of Nanterre cakes, famous throughout Europe, the face contortionist Valsuani, Miette in his egg-dance, Curtius' waxworks. By each street corner were charlatans of one or another sort exchanging jests with the passers-by. It was the period when the Prudhomme type was created, so common in all the skits and caricatures of the day. One of the greatest pleasures of the citizen under the Restoration was to mock at the English. Revenge for Waterloo was found in written and spoken satires. Huge was the success of Sewrin's and Dumersan's Anglaises pour rire, with Brunet and Potier travestied as grandes dames, dancing a jig so vigorously that they lost their skirts. The same species of revanche was indulged in when Lady Morgan, the novelist, came to France, seeking material for a popular book describing French customs. Henri Beyle (Stendhal) hoaxed her by acting as her cicerone and filling her note-books with absurd information, which she accepted in good faith and carried off as fact. On Sundays the most respectable families used to resort to the guinguettes, or bastringues, of the suburbs. Belleville had its celebrated Desnoyers establishment. At the Maine gate Mother Sagnet's was the meeting-place of budding artists and grisettes. At La Villette, Mother Radig, a former canteen woman, long enjoyed popularity among her patrons of both sexes. All these scenes are depicted in certain of Victor Ducange's novels, written between 1815 and 1830, as also in the pencil sketches of the two artists Pigal and Marlet.
The political society of the Restoration was characterized by a good deal of cynicism. Those who were affected by the change of regime, partisans and functionaries of the Empire, hastened in many cases to trim their sails to the turn of the tide. However, there was a relative liberty of the press which permitted the honest expression of party opinion, and polemics were keen. At the Sorbonne, Guizot, Cousin, and Villemain were the orators of the day. Frayssinous lectured at Saint-Sulpice, and de Lamennais, attacking young Liberalism, denounced its tenets in an essay which de Maistre called a heaving of the earth under a leaden sky.
The country's material prosperity at the time was considerable, and reacted upon literature of every kind by furnishing a more leisured public. In 1816 Emile Deschamps preluded to the after-triumphs of the Romantic School with his play the Tour de faveur, the latter being followed in 1820 by Lebrun's Marie Stuart. Alfred de Vigny was preparing his Eloa; Nodier was delighting everybody by his talents as a philologian, novelist, poet, and chemist. Beranger was continuing his songs, and paying for his boldness with imprisonment. The King himself was a protector of letters, arts, and sciences. One of his first tasks was to reorganize the "Institut Royal," making it into four Academies. He founded the Geographical and Asiatic Societies, encouraged the introduction of steam navigation and traction into France, and patronized men of genius wherever he met with them.
Yet the nation's fidelity to the White Flag was not very deep-rooted. Grateful though the population had been for the return of peace and prosperity, a lurking reminiscence of Napoleonic splendours combined with the bourgeois' Voltairian scepticism to rouse a widespread hostility to Government and Church, as soon as the spirit of the latter ventured to manifest again its inveterate intolerance. Beranger's songs, Paul-Louis Courier's pamphlets, and the articles of the Constitutionnel fanned the re-awakened sentiments of revolt; and Charles the Tenth's ministers, less wisely restrained than those of Louis XVIII., and blind to the significance of the first barricades of 1827, provoked the catastrophe of 1830. This second revolution inaugurated the reign of a bourgeois king. Louis-Philippe was hardly more than a delegate of the bourgeois class, who now reaped the full benefits of the great Revolution and entered into possession of its spoils. During Jacobin dictature and Napoleonic sway, the bourgeoisie had played a waiting role. At present they came to the front, proudly conscious of their merits; and an entire literature was destined to be devoted to them, an entire art to depict or satirize their manners. Scribe, Stendhal, Merimee, Henry Monnier, Daumier, and Gavarni were some of the men whose work illustrated the bourgeois regime, either prior to or contemporaneous with the work of Balzac.
The eighteen years of the July Monarchy, which were those of Balzac's mature activity, contrasted sharply with those that immediately preceded. In spite of perceptible social progress, the constant war of political parties, in which the throne itself was attacked, alarmed lovers of order, and engendered feelings of pessimism. The power of journalism waxed great. Fighting with the pen was carried to a point of skill previously unattained. Grouped round the Debats—the ministerial organ—were Silvestre de Sacy, Saint-Marc Girardin, and Jules Janin as leaders, and John Lemoinne, Philarete Chasles, Barbey d'Aurevilly in the rank and file. Elsewhere Emile de Girardin's Presse strove to oust the Constitutionnel and Siecle, opposition papers, from public favour, and to establish a Conservative Liberalism that should receive the support of moderate minds. Doctrines many, political and social, were propounded in these eighteen years of compromise. Legitimists, Bonapartists, and Republicans were all three in opposition to the Government, each with a programme to tempt the petty burgess. Saint-Simonism too was abroad with its utopian ideals, attracting some of the loftier minds, but less appreciated by the masses than the teachings of other semi-secret societies having aims more material.
Corresponding to the character of the regime was the practical nature of the public works executed—the railway system with its transformation of trade, the fortification of the capital, the commencement of popular education, and the renovation of decayed or incompleted edifices. Unfortunately, the rapidity of the development and the rush of speculation prevented any co-ordinating method in the effort, so that the epoch was poor in its architectural achievement compared with what had been produced in the past. Even other branches of art were greatest in satire. Daumier's Robert Macaire sketches and the Mayeux of Travies had large material supplied them in the various types of citizen, greedy of pleasure and gold. The mot: "Enrichissez-vous," attributed to Guizot, was the axiom of the time, accepted as the nec plus ultra by the vast majority of people. It invaded all circles with its lowering expedience; and he who was to depict its effects most puissantly did not escape its thrall.
When Balzac began to write, no French novelist had a reputation as such that might be considered great. Up to the epoch of the Restoration, the novel had been declared to be an inferior species of literature, and no author had dreamed of basing his claims to fame on fiction. Lesage had been and was still appreciated rather on the ground of his satire; and the Abbe Prevost, his slightly younger contemporary, received but little credit in his lifetime for the Manon Lescaut that posterity was to prize. Throughout the eighteenth century, he was chiefly regarded as a literary hack who had translated Richardson's Pamela and done things of a similar kind to earn his livelihood. Rousseau too was esteemed less for his Nouvelle Heloise than for his political disquisitions. No novelist since 1635 had ever been elected to the French Academy on account of his stories. Jules Sandeau was the first to break the tradition by his entrance among the Immortals in 1859, to be followed in 1862 by Octave Feuillet.
Lesage was the writer who introduced into France with his Gil Blas what has been called the personal novel—in other words, that story of adventures of which the narrator is the hero, the aim of the story being to illustrate first and foremost the vicissitudes of life in general and those of a single person in particular. The subsequent introduction of letters into the personal novel, which allowed more than one character to assume the narrator's role, brought about a change which those who initiated it scarcely anticipated. Together with the larger interest, due to there being several narrators, came a tendency to introspection and analysis, diminishing the prominence of the facts and enhancing the effect produced by these facts on the thoughts and feelings of the characters. It was this development of the personal novel at the commencement of the nineteenth century, exhibited in Chateaubriand's Rene, Madame de Stael's Corinne, Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, George Sand's Indiana, and Sainte-Beuve's Volupte, which contributed so much to create and establish the Romantic School of fiction with its egoistic lyricism.
The historical novel, which more commonly is looked upon as having been the principal agent in the change, gave, in sooth, only what modern fiction of every kind could no longer do without, namely, local colour. The so-styled historical novels of Madame de la Fayette —Zayde and the Princesse de Cleves—in the seventeenth century, and those of Madame de Tencin and Madame de Fontaines in the eighteenth, were simply historic themes whereon the authors embroidered the inventions of their imaginations, without the slightest attention to accuracy or attempt at differentiating the men and minds of one age from those of another; nor was it till the days of Walter Scott that such care for local colour and truth of delineation was manifested by writers who essayed to put life into the bones of the past.
Even Lesage, so exact in his description of all that is exterior, lacked this literary truthfulness. His Spain is a land of fancy; his Spaniards are not Spanish; Gil Blas, albeit he comes from Santillana, is a Frenchman. Marivaux was wiser in placing his Vie de Marianne and his Paysan parvenu in France. His people, though modelled on stage pattern, are of his own times and country; and, in so far as they reveal themselves, have resemblances to the characters of Richardson.
To the Abbe Barthelemy, Voltaire, and Rousseau the novel was a convenient medium for the expression of certain ideas rather than a representation of life. The first strove to popularize a knowledge of Greek antiquity, the second to combat doctrines that he deemed fallacious, the third to reform society. However, Rousseau brought nature into his Nouvelle Heloise, and, by his accessories of pathos and philosophy, prepared the way for a bolder and completer treatment of life in fiction. Different from these was Restif de la Bretonne, who applied Rousseau's theories with less worthy aims in his Paysan perverti and Monsieur Nicolas, ou Le Coeur humain devoile. If mention is made of him here, it is because he was a pioneer in the path of realism, which Balzac was to explore more thoroughly, and because the latter undoubtedly caught some of his grosser manner.
The novelists and dramatists whom Balzac made earliest acquaintance with were probably those whose works were appearing and attracting notice during his school-days—Pigault-Lebrun, Ducray-Duminil, and that Guilbert de Pixerecourt who for a third of the nineteenth century was worshipped as the Corneille of melodrama. These men were favourite authors of the nascent democracy; and, in an age when reprints of older writers were much rarer than to-day, would be far more likely to appeal to a boy's taste than seventeenth- and eighteenth-century authors. At an after-period only, when he had definitely entered upon his maturer literary career, was he to take up the latter and use them, together with Rabelais, La Bruyere, Moliere, and Diderot, as his best, if not his constant, sources of inspiration. In the stories of the first of the three above-mentioned modern writers, the reader usually meets with some child of poor parentage, who, after most extraordinary and comic experiences, marries the child of a nobleman. In those of the second, the hero or heroine struggles with powerful enemies, is aided by powerful friends, and moves in an atmosphere of blood and mystery until vice is chastized and virtue finally rewarded. The two writers, however, differ more in their talent than in their methods, the first having an amount of originality which is almost entirely wanting to the second. With both, indeed, the main object is to impress and astonish, and the finer touches of Lesage and Prevost are seldom visible in either's work. As for Pixerecourt, whose fame lasted until the Romantic drama of the older Dumas, Alfred de Vigny, and Victor Hugo eclipsed it, he wrote over a hundred plays, each of which was performed some five hundred times, while two at least ran for more than a thousand nights.
If it was natural that Balzac should familiarize himself in his adolescence with such writers of his own countrymen as every one discussed and very many praised, it was natural also he should extend his perusals to the translated works of contemporary novelists on the further side of the Channel, the more so as the reciprocal literary influence of the two countries was exceedingly strong at the time, stronger probably than to-day when attention is solicited on so many sides. To the novels of Monk Lewis, Maturin, Anne Radcliffe, and other exponents of the School of Terror, as likewise to the novels of Godwin, the chief of the School of Theory, he went for instruction in the profession that he was wishing to adopt. Mrs. Radcliffe's stories he thought admirable; those of Lewis he cited as hardly being equalled by Stendhal's Chartreuse de Parme; and Maturin—oddly as it strikes us now—he not only styled the most original modern author that the United Kingdom could boast of, but assigned him a place, beside Moliere and Goethe, as one of the greatest geniuses of Europe. And these eulogiums were not the immature judgements of youth, but the convictions of his riper age. As will be seen later, the influence remained with him. In all he wrote there enters some of the material, native and foreign, out of which Romanticism was made.
To the true masters of English fiction his indebtedness was equally large, exception made perhaps for Fielding and Smollett; and one American author should be included in the acknowledgment. Goldsmith, Sterne, Walter Scott, and Fenimore Cooper were his delight. The first and last of Richardson's productions he read only when his own talent was formed. Pamela and Sir Charles Grandison he chanced upon in a library at Ajaccio; and, after running them through, pronounced them to be horribly stupid and boring. But Clarissa Harlowe, on the contrary, he highly esteemed. Already in 1821 he had studied it; and, when composing his Pierrette, towards the end of the thirties, he spoke of it as a magnificent poem, in a passage which brands the procedure of certain hypocrites, their oratorical precautions, and their involved conversations, wherein the mind obscures the light it throws and honeyed speech dilutes the venom of intentions. The phrase, says Monsieur Le Breton, in his well-reasoned book on Balzac, is that of a man who was conversant with the patient analysis, the conscientious and minute realism of this great painter of English life. In Monsieur Le Breton's opinion, Balzac's long-windedness is, in a measure, due to Richardson, who reacted upon him by his defects no less than by his excellencies.
Throughout Balzac's correspondence, as throughout his novels, there are numerous remarks which are so many confessions of the hints he received in the course of his English readings. In one passage he exclaims: "The villager is an admirable nature. When he is stupid, he is just the animal; but, when he has good points, they are exquisite. Unfortunately, no one observes him. It needed a lucky hazard for Goldsmith to create his Vicar of Wakefield." Elsewhere he says: "Generally, in fiction, an author succeeds only by the number of his characters and the variety of his situations; and there are few examples of novels having but two or three dramatis personae depending on a single situation. Of such a kind, Caleb Williams, the celebrated Godwin's masterpiece, is in our time the only work known, and its interest is prodigious."
Sterne, even more than Scott, was Balzac's favourite model. Allusions to him abound in the Comedie Humaine. Tristram Shandy the novelist appears to have had at his fingers' ends. Not a few of Sterne's traits were also his own—the satirical humour, in which, however, the humour was less perfect than the satire, the microscopic eye for all the exterior details of life especially in people's faces and gestures and dress; and both had identical notions concerning the analogy between a man's name and his temperament and fate.
Scott and Cooper being Balzac's elder contemporaries, it happened that their books were given to the French public in translation by one or the other of the novelist's earlier publishers, Mame and Gosselin. His taste for their fiction was no mere passing fancy. It was as pronounced as ever in 1840, at which date, writing in the Revue Parisienne, he declared that Cooper was the only writer of stories worthy to be placed by the side of Walter Scott, and that his hero Leather-stocking was sublime. "I don't know," said he, "if the fiction of Walter Scott furnishes a creation as grandiose as that of this hero of the savannas and forests. Cooper's descriptions are the school at which all literary landscapists should study: all the secrets of art are there. But Cooper is inferior to Walter Scott in his comic and minor characters, and in the construction of his plots. One is the historian of nature, the other of humanity." The article winds up with further praise of Scott, whom its author evidently regarded as his master.
The part played by these models in Balzac's literary training was to afford him a clearer perception of the essential worth of the Romantic movement. Together with its extravagancies and lyricism, Romantic literature deliberately put into practice some important principles which certain forerunners of the eighteenth century had already unconsciously illustrated or timidly taught. It imposed Diderot's doctrine that there was beauty in all natural character. And its chief apostle, Hugo, with the examples of Ariosto, Cervantes, Rabelais and Shakespeare to back him, proved that what was in nature was or should be also in art, yet without, for that, seeking to free art from law and the necessity for choice.
This spectacle of a vaster field to exploit, this possibility of artistically representing the common, familiar things of the world in their real significance, seized on the youthful mind of him who was to create the Comedie Humaine. It formed the connecting link between him and his epoch, and in most directions it limited the horizon of his life.