Honore de Balzac ( 1799 – 1850)
Honoré de Balzac was born into a family which through its industry and efforts aspired to achieve respectability. His father, born Bernard-François Balssa, was one of eleven children from an artisan family in Tarn, who set off for Paris to make his fortune and by 1776 he had become Secretary to the King’s Council and a Freemason . He also changed his name to the more noble sounding “Balzac. Ingeniously he survived the revolution and the reign of terror and prospered as a lawyer.
Balzac’s mother, Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, came from a family of haberdashers in Paris. Her family’s wealth was a considerable factor in the betrothal and this was not a love match. she was eighteen at the time of the wedding in 1797 and François Balzac fifty.
Their first child died young and Honore was born on 20th May 1799 , his sisters Laure and Laurence in 1800 and 1802, and his younger brother Henry-François in 1807.
As an infant Balzac was sent to a wet-nurse and the following year he was joined by his sister Laure. They spent four years away from home though when they returned, they were kept at a clear distance from their parents. At age ten Balzac was sent to a grammar school in Vendôme, where he studied for seven years, suffering from the meanness of his father and lack of concern of his mother. Balzac had difficulty adapting to the rote style of learning at the school. As a result, he was frequently sent to a punishment cell and under this stress he often fell ill. All his schooldays though he devoured books of every kind. In 1814 the Balzac family moved to Paris, and Honoré was sent to private tutors and schools for the next two and a half years. This was an unhappy time in his life.
In 1816 Balzac entered the Sorbonne, where he studied under three famous professors who encouraged him to think independently. Once his studies were completed, Balzac was persuaded by his father to follow him into the Law and for three years he trained and worked at the office of Victor Passez, a family friend who, in 1819 , offered to make Balzac his successor. But Honore had had enough of the Law and he announced his intention to become a writer – which was seriously opposed by his parents. Eventually, they allowed him a meagre allowance , only enough to live in a poorly furnished Paris garret, while they moved to a house outside Paris.
Honore had lifelong admiration for the Catholic Church and supported the monarchy. When the July Revolution overthrew Charles X in 1830, Balzac declared himself a Legitimist, supporting King Charles’ Royal House of Bourbon, but not without qualifications. He felt that the new July Monarchy claimed widespread popular support, but he felt it was disorganized , unprincipled and led to a society dedicated to money.
Balzac’s first writing projects all ended in failure, but In 1821 he was convinced by a friend to write short stories for various publishers. Balzac quickly turned to longer works, and by 1826 he had written nine novels, all published under pseudonyms and often produced in collaboration with other writers. These books were potboiler novels, designed to sell quickly and titillate the audience, but Balzac had discovered what would be his oeuvre.
As a budding author, he used his father’s surname ‘Balzac’, but added the aristocratic-sounding prenom ‘de’, to help him fit into respected society, a choice he based on skill rather than by right.
During the late 1820s Balzac dabbled in several business ventures. His first enterprise in publishing failed miserably, though Balzac had better luck publishing the Memoirs of the Duchess of Abrantès, with whom he also had a love affair.
Balzac borrowed more money from his family and friends and tried to build a printing then a typefounder business, but his inexperience and lack of capital caused them all to fail.
1831 saw the success of ‘La Peau de chagrin’ followed in 1833 by ‘Eugénie Grandet’, his first best selling novel . He later revealed that he had fathered his only child, Marie-Caroline Du Fresnay, born in 1834 , with his married lover, Maria Du Fresnay, who had been his source of inspiration for ‘Eugénie Grandet’.
With this sucesss , in 1832 Balzac conceived the idea for an enormous series of books that would paint a panoramic portrait of all aspects of French post revolutionary society . Originally called Etudes des Mœurs , literally ‘Studies of manners’, or ‘The Ways of the World ‘ the series of novels eventually became known as La Comédie Humaine, and he included all the fiction that he had published in his lifetime under his own name, over twenty novels. This mammoth writing task was to be Balzac’s life work and his most notable achievement.
‘Le Père Goriot’ (Old Father Goriot)) was his next success in 1835, but in 1836 Balzac took on editing two periodicals both of which failed . These experiences fed into his two-volume novel’ Illusions perdues’ (Lost Illusions) . A steam of novels with divers locations and characters, often interlinked, poured from his pen over the next seven years as he became famous as an author.
Balzac’s work habits were legendary. Using a quill pen ,Balzac could write very rapidly. He preferred to eat a light meal in the late afternoon, then sleep until midnight. He then rose and wrote for many hours, fuelled by innumerable cups of black coffee. He would often work for fifteen hours or more at a stretch and claimed to have once worked for 48 hours with only three hours of rest in the middle.
Balzac revised obsessively, sometimes covering printer’s proofs with changes and additions to be reset during the publication of a book, causing significant expense both for himself and the publisher. Quite often, the finished product was different from the original text, although some of his books never reached completion.
In 1832 Balzac began a fifteen-year correspondence wth “the object of his sweetest dreams”, Ewelina Hańska who was married for convenience of inheritance to a nobleman twenty years her senior. In Balzac, Ewelina found a kindred spirit for her emotional and social desires, with the added benefit of feeling a connection to the glamorous capital of France. After her husband died in 1841 , Balzac visited Countess Hańska in St. Petersburg in 1843 and won her heart . After many trials of Russian court protocol, they were eventually permitted to marry when he was 50 years old . After moving to Paris a few months later, the couple only had 5 months together before Balzac died of exhaustion in August 1850.
Balzac’s writing is exemplary of ‘naturalism’ —a more pessimistic and analytical form of realism, which seeks to explain human behaviour as intrinsically linked with the environment.
Balzac always sought to present his characters as real people, neither fully good nor fully evil, but completely human. The characters are always very distinctive and depict a particular range of social types, the noble soldier, a scoundrel, a miser, the proud workman, the fearless spy, the alluring mistress. His use of two male characters, one successful and the other an eventual failure, who move in and out of some of the Comédie’s books, strengthens his real historic, life representation. Descriptions of the city, countryside and building interiors are essential to Balzac’s realism, often serving to paint a naturalistic backdrop before which the characters’ lives follow a particular course. Balzac studied these places in depth, travelling to remote locations and comparing notes that he had made on previous visits, but the influence of Paris society, with the darker essence of human nature and the corrupting influence of middle and high societies, permeates La Comédie novels, country manners deferring to the artificial class and money obsessed capital.