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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Peterfield Trent (1862–1939)

By Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850)

HONORÉ DE BALZAC, by common consent the greatest of French novelists and to many of his admirers the greatest of all writers of prose fiction, was born at Tours, May 16th, 1799. Neither his family nor his place of birth counts for much in his artistic development; but his sister Laure, afterwards Madame Surville,—to whom we owe a charming sketch of her brother and many of his most delightful letters,—made him her hero through life, and gave him a sympathy that was better than any merely literary environment. He was a sensitive child, little comprehended by his parents or teachers, which probably accounts for the fact that few writers have so well described the feelings of children so situated [See ‘Le lys dans la vallée’ (The Lily in the Valley) and ‘Louis Lambert’]. He was not a good student, but undermined his health by desultory though enormous reading and by writing a precocious Treatise on the Will, which an irate master burned and the future novelist afterwards naïvely deplored. When brought home to recuperate, he turned from books to nature, and the effects of the beautiful landscape of Touraine upon his imagination are to be found throughout his writings, in passages of description worthy of a nature-worshiper like Senancour himself. About this time a vague desire for fame seems to have seized him,—a desire destined to grow into an almost morbid passion; and it was a kindly Providence that soon after (1814) led his family to quit the stagnant provinces for that nursery of ambition, Paris. Here he studied under new masters, heard lectures at the Sorbonne, read in the libraries, and finally, at the desire of his practical father, took a three years’ course in law.

He was now at the parting of the ways, and he chose the one nearest his heart. After much discussion, it was settled that he should not be obliged to return to the provinces with his family, or to enter upon the regular practice of law, but that he might try his luck as a writer on an allowance purposely fixed low enough to test his constancy and endurance. Two years was the period of probation allotted, during which time Balzac read still more widely and walked the streets studying the characters he met, all the while endeavoring to grind out verses for a tragedy on Cromwell. This, when completed, was promptly and justly damned by his family, and he was temporarily forced to retire from Paris. He did not give up his aspirations, however, and before long he was back in his attic, this time supporting himself by his pen. Novels, not tragedies, were what the public most wanted, so he labored indefatigably to supply their needs and his own necessities; not relinquishing, however, the hope that he might some day watch the performance of one of his own plays. His perseverance was destined to be rewarded, for he lived to write five dramas which fill a volume of his collected works; but only one, the posthumous comedy ‘Mercadet,’ was even fairly successful. Yet that Balzac had dramatic genius his matured novels abundantly prove.

The ten romances, however, that he wrote for cheap booksellers between 1822 and 1829 displayed so little genius of any sort that he was afterwards unwilling to cover their deficiencies with his great name. They have been collected as youthful works (‘Œuvres de jeunesse’), and are useful to a complete understanding of the evolution of their author’s genius; but they are rarely read even by his most devoted admirers. They served, however, to enable him to get through his long and heart-rending period of apprenticeship, and they taught him how to express himself; for this born novelist was not a born writer and had to labor painfully to acquire a style which only at rare moments quite fitted itself to the subject he had in hand.

Much more interesting than these early sensational romances were the letters he wrote to his sister Laure, in which he grew eloquent over his ambition and gave himself needed practice in describing the characters with whom he came in contact. But he had not the means to wait quietly and ripen, so he embarked in a publishing business which brought him into debt. Then, to make up his losses, he became partner in a printing enterprise which failed in 1827, leaving him still more embarrassed financially, but endowed with a fund of experience which he turned to rich account as a novelist. Henceforth the sordid world of debt, bankruptcy, usury, and speculation had no mystery for him, and he laid it bare in novel after novel, utilizing also the knowledge he had gained of the law, and even pressing into service the technicalities of the printing office [See ‘Illusions perdues’ (Lost Illusions)]. But now at the age of twenty-eight he had over 100,000 francs to pay, and had written nothing better than some cheap stories; the task of wiping out his debts by his writings seemed therefore a more hopeless one than Scott’s. Nothing daunted, however, he set to work, and the year that followed his second failure in business saw the composition of the first novel he was willing to acknowledge, ‘Les Chouans.’ This romance of Brittany in 1799 deserved the praise it received from press and public, in spite of its badly jointed plot and overdrawn characters. It still appeals to many readers, and is important to the ‘Comédie humaine’ as being the only novel of the “Military Scenes.” The ‘Physiology of Marriage’ followed quickly (1829–30), and despite a certain pruriency of imagination, displayed considerable powers of analysis, powers destined shortly to distinguish a story which ranks high among its author’s works, ‘La Maison du chat-qui-pelote’ (1830). This delightful novelette, the queer title of which is nearly equivalent to ‘At the Sign of the Cat and the Racket,’ showed in its treatment of the heroine’s unhappy passion the intuition and penetration of the born psychologist, and in its admirable description of bourgeois life the pictorial genius of the genuine realist. In other words the youthful romancer was merged once for all in the matured novelist. The years of waiting and observation had done their work, and along the streets of Paris now walked the most profound analyst of human character that had scrutinized society since the days when William Shakespeare, fresh from Stratford, trod the streets and lanes of Elizabethan London.

The year 1830 marks the beginning not merely of Balzac’s success as the greatest of modern realists, but also of his marvelous literary activity. Novel after novel is begun before its predecessor is finished; short stories of almost perfect workmanship are completed; sketches are dashed off that will one day find their appropriate place in larger compositions, as yet existing only in the brain of the master. Nor is it merely a question of individual works: novels and stories are to form different series,—‘Scenes from Private Life,’ ‘Philosophical Novels and Tales,’—which are themselves destined to merge into ‘Studies of Manners in the Nineteenth Century,’ and finally into the ‘Comédie humaine’ itself. Yet it was more than a swarm of stories that was buzzing in his head; it was a swarm of individuals often more truly alive to him than the friends with whom he loved to converse about them. And just because he knew these people of his brain, just because he entered into the least details of their daily lives, Balzac was destined to become much more than a mere philosopher or student of society; to wit, a creator of characters, endowed with that “absolute dramatic vision” which distinguishes Homer and Shakespeare and Chaucer. But because he was also something of a philosopher and student of sociology, he conceived the stupendous idea of linking these characters with one another and with their several environments, in order that he might make himself not merely the historian but also the creator of an entire society. In other words, conservative though he was, Balzac had the audacity to range himself by the side of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and to espouse the cause of evolution even in its infancy. The great ideas of the mutability of species and of the influence of environment and heredity were, he thought, as applicable to sociology as to zoölogy, and as applicable to fiction as to either. So he meditated the ‘Comédie humaine’ for several years before he announced it in 1842, and from being almost the rival of Saint-Hilaire he became almost the anticipator of Darwin.

But this idea of evolution was itself due to the evolution of his genius, to which many various elements contributed: his friendships and enmities with contemporary authors, his intimacies with women of refinement and fashion, his business struggles with creditors and publishers, his frequent journeys to the provinces and foreign countries; and finally his grandiose schemes to surround himself with luxury and the paraphernalia of power, not so much for his own sake as for the sake of her whose least smile was a delight and an inspiration. About each of these topics an interesting chapter might be written, but here a few words must suffice.

After his position as an author was more or less assured, Balzac’s relations with the leaders of his craft—such as Victor Hugo, Théophile Gautier, and George Sand—were on the whole cordial. He had trouble with Sainte-Beuve, however, and often felt that his brother-writers begrudged his success. His constant attacks on contemporary journalists, and his egotistic and erratic manners naturally prejudiced the critics, so that even the marvelous romance entitled ‘La Peau de chagrin’ (The Magic Skin: 1831),—a work of superb genius,—speedily followed as it was by ‘Eugénie Grandet’ and ‘Le Père Goriot,’ did not win him cordial recognition. One or two of his friendships, however, gave him a knowledge of higher social circles than he was by birth entitled to, a fact which should be remembered in face of the charge that he did not know high life, although it is of course true that a writer like Balzac, possessing the intuition of genius, need not frequent salons or live in hovels in order to describe them with absolute verisimilitude.

With regard to Balzac’s debts, the fact should be noted that he might have paid them off more easily and speedily had he been more prudent. He cut into the profits of his books by the costly changes he was always making in his proof-sheets,—changes which the artist felt to be necessary, but against which the publishers naturally protested. In reality he wrote his books on his proof-sheets, for he would cut and hack the original version and make new insertions until he drove his printers wild. Indeed, composition never became easy to him, although under a sudden inspiration he could sometimes dash off page after page while other men slept. He had, too, his affectations; he must even have a special and peculiar garb in which to write. All these eccentricities and his outside distractions and ambitions, as well as his noble and pathetic love affair, entered into the warp and woof of his work with effects that can easily be detected by the careful student, who should remember, however, that the master’s foibles and peculiarities never for one moment set him outside the small circle of the men of supreme genius. He belongs to them by virtue of his tremendous grasp of life in its totality, his superhuman force of execution and the inevitableness of his art at its best.

The decade from 1830 to 1840 is the most prolific period of Balzac’s genius in the creation of individual works; that from 1840 to 1850 is his great period of philosophical co-ordination and arrangement. In the first he hewed out materials for his house; in the second he put them together. This statement is of course relatively true only, for we owe to the second decade three of his greatest masterpieces: ‘Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes,’ and ‘La Cousine Bette’ and ‘Le Cousin Pons,’ collectively known as ‘Les Parents pauvres’ (Poor Relations). And what a period of masterful literary activity the first decade presents! For the year 1830 alone the Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul gives seventy-one entries, many of slight importance, but some familiar to every student of modern literature, such as ‘El Verdugo,’ ‘La Maison du chat-qui-pelote,’ ‘Gobseck,’ ‘Adieu,’ ‘Une Passion dans le désert’ (A Passion in the Desert), ‘Un Épisode sous la Terreur’ (An Episode of the Terror). For 1831 there are seventy-six entries, among them such masterpieces as ‘Le Réquisitionnaire’ (The Conscript), ‘Les Proscrits’ (The Outlaws), ‘La Peau de chagrin,’ and ‘Jésus-Christ en Flandre.’ In 1832 the number of entries falls to thirty-six, but among them are ‘Le Colonel Chabert,’ ‘Le Curé de Tours’ (The Priest of Tours), ‘La Grande Bretèche,’ ‘Louis Lambert,’ and ‘Les Marana.’ After this year there are fewer short stories. In 1833 we have ‘Le Médecin de campagne’ (The Country Doctor), and ‘Eugénie Grandet,’ with parts of the ‘Histoire des treize’ (Story of the Thirteen), and of the ‘Contes drolatiques’ (Droll Tales). The next year gives us ‘La Recherche de l’absolu’ (Search for the Absolute) and ‘Le Père Goriot’ (Old Goriot) and during the next six there were no less than a dozen masterpieces. Such a decade of accomplishment is little short of miraculous, and the work was done under stress of anxieties that would have crushed any normal man.

But anxieties and labors were lightened by a friendship which was an inspiration long before it ripened into love, and were rendered bearable both by Balzac’s confidence in himself and by his ever nearer view of the goal he had set himself. The task before him was as stupendous as that which Comte had undertaken, and required not merely the planning and writing of new works but the utilization of all that he had previously written. Untiring labor had to be devoted to this manipulation of old material, for practically the great output of the five years 1829–1834 was to be co-ordinated internally, story being brought into relation with story and character with character. This meant the creation and management of an immense number of personages, the careful investigation of the various localities which served for environments, and the profound study of complicated social and political problems. No wonder, then, that the second decade of his maturity shows a falling off in abundance, though not in intensity of creative power; and that the gradual breaking down of his health, under the strain of his ceaseless efforts and of his abnormal habits of life, made itself more and more felt in the years that followed the great preface which in 1842 set forth the splendid design of the ‘Comédie humaine.’

This preface, one of the most important documents in literary history, must be carefully studied by all who would comprehend Balzac in his entirety. It cannot be too often repeated that Balzac’s scientific and historical aspirations are important only in so far as they caused him to take a great step forward in the development of his art. The nearer the artist comes to reproducing for us life in its totality, the higher the rank we assign him among his fellows. Tried by this canon, Balzac is supreme. His interweaving of characters and events through a series of volumes gives a verisimilitude to his work unrivaled in prose fiction, and paralleled only in the work of the world-poets. In other words, his use of co-ordination upon a vast scale makes up for his lack of delicacy and sureness of touch, as compared with what Shakespeare and Homer and Chaucer have taught us to look for. Hence he is with them even if not of them.

This great claim can be made for the Balzac of the ‘Comédie humaine’ only; it could not be made for the Balzac of any one masterpiece like ‘Le Père Goriot,’ or even for the Balzac of all the masterpieces taken in lump and without co-ordination. Balzac by co-ordination has in spite of his limitations given us a world, just as Shakespeare and Homer have done; and so Taine was profoundly right when he put him in the same category with the greatest of all writers. When, however, he added St. Simon to Shakespeare, and proclaimed that with them Balzac was the greatest storehouse of documents that we have on human nature, he was guilty not merely of confounding genres of art, but also of laying stress on the philosophic rather than on the artistic side of fiction. Balzac does make himself a great storehouse of documents on human nature, but he also does something far more important, he sets before us a world of living men and women.

To have brought this world into existence, to have given it order in the midst of complexity, and that in spite of the fact that death overtook him before he could complete his work, would have been sufficient to occupy a decade of any other man’s life; but he, though harassed with illness and with hopes of love and ambition deferred, was strong enough to do more. The year 1840 saw the appearance of ‘Pierrette,’ and the establishment of the ill-fated ‘Revue parisienne.’ The following year saw ‘Ursule Mirouet,’ and until 1848 the stream of great works is practically unbroken. The ‘Splendeurs et misères’ and the ‘Parents pauvres’ have been named already, but to these must be added ‘Un Ménage de garçon’ (A Bachelor’s Housekeeping), ‘Modeste Mignon,’ and ‘Les Paysans’ (The Peasants). The three following years added nothing to his work and closed his life, but they brought him his crowning happiness. On March 14th, 1850, he was married to Mme. Hanska, at Berditchef; on August 18th, 1850, he died at Paris.

Madame Evelina de Hanska came into Balzac’s life about 1833, just after he had shaken off the unfortunate influence of the Duchesse de Castries. The young Polish countess was much impressed, we are told, by reading the ‘Scènes de la vie privée’ (Scenes of Private Life), and was somewhat perplexed and worried by Balzac’s apparent change of method in ‘La Peau de chagrin.’ She wrote to him over the signature “L’Étrangère” (A Foreigner), and he answered in a series of letters recently published in the Revue de Paris. Not long after the opening of this correspondence the two met, and a firm friendship was cemented between them. The lady was about thirty, and married to a Russian gentleman of large fortune, to whom she had given an only daughter. She was in the habit of traveling about Europe to carry on this daughter’s education, and Balzac made it his pleasure and duty to see her whenever he could, sometimes journeying as far as Vienna. In the interim he would write her letters which possess great charm and importance to the student of his life. The husband made no objection to the intimacy, trusting both to his wife and to Balzac; but for some time before the death of the aged nobleman, Balzac seems to have distrusted himself and to have held slightly aloof from the woman whom he was destined finally to love with all the fervor of his nature. Madame Hanska became free in the winter of 1842–3, and the next summer Balzac visited St. Petersburg to see her. His love soon became an absorbing passion, but consideration for her daughter’s future withheld the lady’s consent to a betrothal till 1846. It was a period of weary waiting, in which our sympathies are all on one side; for if ever a man deserved to be happy in a woman’s love, it was Balzac. His happiness came, but almost too late to be enjoyed. His last two years, which he spent in Poland with Madame de Hanska, were oppressed by illness, and he returned to his beloved Paris only to die. The struggle of thirty years was over, and although his immense genius was not yet fully recognized, his greatest contemporary, Victor Hugo, was magnanimous enough to exclaim on hearing that he was dying, “Europe is on the point of losing a great mind.” Balzac’s disciples feel that Europe really lost its greatest writer since Shakespeare.

In the definitive edition of Balzac’s writings in twenty-four volumes, seventeen are occupied by the various divisions of the ‘Comédie humaine.’ The plays take up one volume; and the correspondence, not including of course the letters to “L’Étrangère,” another; the ‘Contes drolatiques’ make still another; and finally we have four volumes filled with sketches, tales, reviews, and historical and political articles left uncollected by their author.

The ‘Contes’ are thirty in number, divided into “dixains,” each with its appropriate prologue and epilogue. They purport to have been collected in the abbeys of Touraine, and set forth by the Sieur de Balzac for the delight of Pantagruelists and none others. Not merely the spirit but the very language of Rabelais is caught with remarkable verve and fidelity, so that from the point of view of style Balzac has never done better work. A book which holds by Rabelais on the one hand and by the Queen of Navarre on the other is not likely, however, to appeal to that part of the English and American reading public that expurgates its Chaucer, and blushes at the mention of Fielding and Smollett. Such readers will do well to avoid the ‘Contes drolatiques’; although, like ‘Don Juan,’ they contain a great deal of what was best in their author, of his frank, ebullient, sensuous nature, lighted up here at least by a genuine if scarcely delicate humor. Of direct suggestion of vice Balzac was, naturally, as incapable as he was of smug puritanism; but it must be confessed that as a raconteur his proper audience, now that the monastic orders have passed away, would be a group of middle-aged club-men.

The ‘Comédie humaine’ is divided into three main sections: first and most important, the ‘Études de mœurs’ (Studies of Manners), second the ‘Études philosophiques’ (Philosophic Studies), and finally the ‘Études analytiques’ (Analytic Studies). These divisions, as M. Barrière points out in his ‘L’Œuvre de H. de Balzac’ (The Work of Balzac), were intended to bear to one another the relations that moral science, psychology, and metaphysics do to one another with regard to the life of man, whether as an individual or as a member of society. No single division was left complete at the author’s death; but enough was finished and put together to give us the sense of moving in a living, breathing world, no matter where we make our entry. This, as we have insisted, is the real secret of his greatness. To think, for example, that the importance of ‘Séraphita’ lies in the fact that it gives Balzac’s view of Swedenborgianism, or that the importance of ‘Louis Lambert’ lies in its author’s queer theories about the human will, is entirely to misapprehend his true position in the world of literature. His mysticism, his psychology, his theories of economics, his reactionary devotion to monarchy, and his idealization of the Church of Rome, may or may not appeal to us, and have certainly nothing that is eternal or inevitable about them; but in his knowledge of the human mind and heart he is as inevitable and eternal as any writer has ever been, save only Shakespeare and Homer.

The ‘Études de mœurs’ were systematically divided by their author into ‘Scenes of Private Life,’ ‘Scenes of Provincial Life,’ ‘Scenes of Country Life,’ ‘Scenes of Parisian Life,’ ‘Scenes of Political Life,’ and ‘Scenes of Military Life,’—the last three divisions representing more or less exceptional phases of existence. The group relating to Paris is by far the most important and powerful, but the provincial stories show almost as fine workmanship, and furnish not a few of the well-known masterpieces. Less interesting, though still important, are the ‘Scenes of Private Life,’ which consist of twenty-four novels, novelettes, and tales, under the following titles: ‘Béatrix,’ ‘Albert Savarus,’ ‘La Fausse maîtresse’ (The False Mistress), ‘Le Message’ (The Message), ‘La Grande Bretèche,’ ‘Étude de femme’ (Study of Woman), ‘Autre étude de femme’ (Another Story of Woman), ‘Madame Firmiani,’ ‘Modeste Mignon,’ ‘Un Début dans la vie’ (An Entrance upon Life), ‘Pierre Grassou,’ ‘Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées’ (Recollections of a Young Couple), ‘La Maison du chat-qui-pelote,’ ‘Le Bal de Sceaux’ (The Ball of Sceaux), ‘Le Contrat de mariage’ (The Marriage Contract), ‘La Vendetta,’ ‘La Paix du ménage’ (Household Peace), ‘Une Double famille’ (A Double Family), ‘Une Fille d’Éve’ (A Daughter of Eve), ‘Honorine,’ ‘La Femme abandonnée’ (The Abandoned Wife), ‘La Grenadière,’ ‘La Femme de trente ans’ (The Woman of Thirty).

Of all these stories, hardly one shows genuine greatness except the powerful tragic tale ‘La Grande Bretèche,’ which was subsequently incorporated in ‘Autre étude de femme.’ This story of a jealous husband’s walling up his wife’s lover in a closet of her chamber is as dramatic a piece of writing as Balzac ever did, and is almost if not quite as perfect a short story as any that has since been written in France. ‘La Maison du chat-qui-pelote’ has been mentioned already on account of its importance in the evolution of Balzac’s realism, but while a delightful novelette, it is hardly great, its charm coming rather from its descriptions of bourgeois life than from the working out of its central theme, the infelicity of a young wife married to an unfaithful artist. ‘Modeste Mignon’ is interesting, and more romantic than Balzac’s later works were wont to be; but while it may be safely recommended to the average novel-reader, few admirers of its author would wish to have it taken as a sample of their master. ‘Béatrix’ is a powerful story in its delineation of the weakness of the young Breton nobleman, Calyste du Guénic. It derives a factitious interest from the fact that George Sand is depicted in ‘Camille Maupin,’ the nom de plume of Mlle. des Touches, and perhaps Balzac himself in Claude Vignon, the critic. Less factitious is the interest derived from Balzac’s admirable delineation of a doting mother and aunt, and from his realistic handling of one of the cleverest of his ladies of light reputation, Madame Schontz; his studies of such characters of the demi-monde—especially of the wonderful Esther of the ‘Splendeurs et misères’—serving plainly, by the way, as a point of departure for Dumas fils. Yet ‘Béatrix’ is an able rather than a truly great book, for it neither elevates nor delights us. In fact, all the stories in this series are interesting rather than truly great; but all display Balzac’s remarkable analytic powers. Love, false or true, is of course their main theme; wrought out to a happy issue in ‘La Bourse,’ a charming tale, or to a death of despair in ‘La Grenadière.’ The childless young married woman is contrasted with her more fortunate friend surrounded by little ones (‘Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées’), the heartless coquette flirts once too often (‘Le Bal de Sceaux’), the eligible young man is taken in by a scheming mother (‘Le Contrat du mariage’), the deserted husband labors to win back his wife (‘Honorine’), the tempted wife learns at last the real nature of her peril (‘Une Fille d’Éve’); in short, lovers and mistresses, husbands and wives, make us participants of all the joys and sorrows that form a miniature world within the four walls of every house.

The ‘Scenes of Provincial Life’ number only ten stories, but nearly all of them are masterpieces. They are ‘Eugénie Grandet,’ ‘Le Lys dans la vallée,’ ‘Ursule Mirouet,’ ‘Pierrette,’ ‘Le Curé de Tours,’ ‘La Rabouilleuse,’ ‘La Vielle fille’ (The Old Maid), ‘Le Cabinet des antiques’ (The Cabinet of Antiques), ‘L’Illustre Gaudissart’ (The Illustrious Gaudissart), and ‘La Muse du département’ (The Departmental Muse). Of these ‘Eugénie Grandet’ is of course easily first in interest, pathos, and power. The character of old Grandet, the miserly father, is presented to us with Shakespearean vividness, although Eugénie herself has less than the Shakespearean charm. Any lesser artist would have made the tyrant himself and his yielding wife and daughters seem caricatures rather than living people. It is only the Shakespeares and Balzacs who are able to make their Shylocks and Iagos, their Grandets and Philippe Brideaus, monsters and human beings at one and the same time. It is only the greater artists, too, who can bring out all the pathos inherent in the subjection of two gentle women to a tyrant in their own household. But it is Balzac the inimitable alone who can portray fully the life of the provinces, its banality, its meanness, its watchful selfishness, and yet save us through the perfection of his art from the degradation which results from contact with low and sordid life. The reader who rises unaffected from a perusal of ‘Eugénie Grandet’ would be unmoved by the grief of Priam in the tent of Achilles, or of Othello in the death-chamber of Desdemona.

‘Le Lys dans la vallée’ has been pronounced by an able French critic to be the worst novel he knows; but as a study of more or less ethereal and slightly morbid love it is characterized by remarkable power. Its heroine, Madame Mortsauf, tied to a nearly insane husband and pursued by a sentimental lover, undergoes tortures of conscience through an agonizing sense of half-failure in her duty. Balzac himself used to cite her when he was charged with not being able to draw a pure woman; but he has created nobler types. The other stories of the group are also decidedly more interesting. The distress of the abbé Birotteau over his landlady’s treatment, and the intrigues of the abbé Troubert (‘Le Curé de Tours’) absorb us as completely as the career of Cæsar himself in Mommsen’s famous chapter. The woes of the little orphan subjected to the tyranny of her selfish aunt and uncle (‘Pierrette’), the struggles of the rapacious heirs for the Mirouet fortune (‘Ursule Mirouet’), a story which gives us one of Balzac’s purest women, treats interestingly of mesmerism (and may be read without fear by the young), the siege of Mlle. Cormon’s mature affections by her two adroit suitors (‘Une Vielle fille’), the intrigues against the peace of the d’Esgrignons and the sublime devotion to their interests of the notary Chesnel (‘Le Cabinet des antiques’), and finally the ignoble passions that fought themselves out around the senile Jean Jacques Rouget, under the direction of the diabolical ex-soldier Philippe Brideau (‘La Rabouilleuse,’ sometimes entitled ‘Un Ménage de Garçon’), form the absorbing central themes of a group of novels—or rather stories, for few of them attain considerable length—unrivaled in the annals of realistic fiction.

The ‘Scenes of Country Life,’ comprising ‘Les Paysans,’ ‘Le Médecin de campagne,’ and ‘Le Curé de village’ (The Village Priest), take high rank among their author’s works. Where Balzac might have been crudely naturalistic, he has preferred to be either realistic as in the first named admirable novel, or idealistic as in the two latter. Hence he has created characters like the country physician, Doctor Benassis, almost as great a boon to the world of readers as that philanthropist himself was to the little village of his adoption. If Madame Graslin of ‘Le Curé de village’ fails to reach the height of Benassis, her career has at least a sensational interest which his lacked; and the country curate, the good abbé Bonnet, surely makes up for her lack on the ideal side. This story, by the way, is important for the light it throws on the workings of the Roman Church among the common people; and the description of Madame Graslin’s death is one of Balzac’s most effective pieces of writing.

We are now brought to the ‘Parisian Scenes,’ and with the exception of ‘Eugénie Grandet,’ to the best-known masterpieces. There are twenty titles; but as two of these are collective in character, the number of novels and stories amounts to twenty-four, as follows:—‘Le Père Goriot,’ ‘Illusions perdues,’ ‘Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes,’ ‘Les Secrets de la princesse de Cadignan’ (The Secrets of the Princess of Cadignan), ‘Histoire des treize’ [containing ‘Ferragus,’ ‘La Duchesse de Langeais,’ and ‘La Fille aux yeux d’or’ (The Girl with the Golden Eyes)], ‘Sarrasine,’ ‘Le Colonel Chabert,’ ‘L’Interdiction’ (The Interdiction), ‘Les Parents pauvres’ (Poor Relations, including ‘La Cousine Bette’ and ‘Le Cousin Pons’), ‘La Messe de l’athée’ (The Atheist’s Mass), ‘Facino Cane,’ ‘Gobseck,’ ‘La Maison Nucingen,’ ‘Un Prince de la Bohème’ (A Prince of Bohemia), ‘Esquisse d’homme d’affaires’ (Sketch of a Business man), ‘Gaudissart II.,’ ‘Les Comédiens sans le savoir’ (The Unconscious Humorists), ‘Les Employés’ (The Employees), ‘Histoire de César Birotteau,’ and ‘Les Petits bourgeois’ (Little Bourgeois). Of these twenty-four titles six belong to novels, five of which are of great power, nine to novelettes and short stories too admirable to be passed over without notice, eight to novelettes and stories of interest and value which need not, however, detain us, and one, ‘Les Petits bourgeois,’ to a novel of much promise unfortunately left incomplete. ‘Les Secrets de la princesse de Cadignan’ is remarkable chiefly as a study of the blind passion that often overtakes a man of letters. Daniel d’Arthez, the author, a fine character and a favorite with Balzac, succumbs to the wiles of the Princess of Cadignan (formerly the dashing and fascinating Duchesse de Maufrigneuse) and is happy in his subjection. The ‘Histoire des treize’ contains three novelettes, linked together through the fact that in each a band of thirteen young men, sworn to assist one another in conquering society, play an important part. This volume is the most frankly sensational of Balzac’s works. ‘La Duchesse de Langeais,’ however, is more than sensational: it gives perhaps Balzac’s best description of the Faubourg St. Germain and one of his ablest analyses of feminine character, while in the description of General Montriveau’s recognition of the Duchess in the Spanish convent the novelist’s dramatic power is seen at its highest. ‘La Fille aux yeux d’or,’ which concludes the volume devoted to the mysterious brotherhood, may be considered, with ‘Sarrasine,’ one of the dark closets of the great building known as the ‘Comédie humaine.’ Both stories deal with unnatural passions, and the first is one of Balzac’s most effective compositions. For sheer voluptuousness of style there is little in literature to parallel the description of the boudoir of the uncanny heroine. Very different from these stories is ‘Le Colonel Chabert,’ the record of the misfortunes of one of Napoleon’s heroic soldiers, who after untold hardships returns to France to find his wife married a second time and determined to deny his existence. The law is invoked, but the treachery of the wife induces the noble old man to put an end to the proceedings, after which he sinks into an indigent and pathetic senility. Balzac has never drawn a more heart-moving figure, nor has he ever sounded more thoroughly the depths of human selfishness. But the description of the battle of Eylau and of Chabert’s sufferings in retreat would alone suffice to make the story memorable. ‘L’Interdiction’ is the proper pendant to the history of this unfortunate soldier. In it another husband, the Marquis d’Espard, suffers from the selfishness of his wife, one of the worst characters in the range of Balzac’s fiction. That she may keep him from alienating his property to discharge a moral obligation she endeavors to prove him insane. The legal complications which ensue bring forward one of Balzac’s great figures, the judge of instruction, Popinot; but to appreciate him the reader must go to the marvelous book itself. ‘Gobseck’ is a study of a Parisian usurer, almost worthy of a place beside the description of old Grandet; while ‘Les Employés’ is a realistic study of bureaucratic life, which, besides showing a wonderful familiarity with the details of a world of which Balzac had little personal experience, contains several admirably drawn characters and a sufficient amount of incident. But it is time to leave these sketches and novels in miniature, and to pass by the less important ‘Scenes’ of this fascinating Parisian life, in order to consider in some detail the five novels of consummate power.

First of these in date of composition, and in popular estimation at least among English readers, comes, ‘Le Père Goriot.’ It is certainly trite to call the book a French “Lear,” but the expression emphasizes the supreme artistic power that could treat the motif of one of Shakespeare’s plays in a manner that never forces a disadvantageous comparison with the great tragedy. The retired vermicelli-maker is not as grand a figure as the doting King of Britain, but he is as real. The French daughters, Anastasie, Countess de Restaud, and Delphine, Baroness de Nucingen, are not such types of savage wickedness as Regan and Goneril, but they fit the nineteenth century as well as the British princesses did their more barbarous day. Yet there is no Cordelia in ‘Le Père Goriot,’ for the pale Victorine Taillefer cannot fill the place of that noblest of daughters. This is but to say that Balzac’s bourgeois tragedy lacks that element of the noble that every great poetic tragedy must have. The self-immolation of old Goriot to the cold-hearted ambitions of his daughters is not noble, but his parental passion touches the infinite, and so proves the essential kinship of his creator with the creator of Lear. This touch of the infinite, as in ‘Eugénie Grandet,’ lifts the book up from the level of a merely masterly study of characters or a merely powerful novel to that of the supreme masterpieces of human genius. The marvelously lifelike description of the vulgar Parisian boarding-house, the fascinating delineation of the character of that king of convicts, Vautrin, and the fine analysis of the ambitions of Rastignac (who comes nearer perhaps to being the hero of the ‘Comédie humaine’ than any other of its characters, and is here presented to us at the threshold of his successful career) remain in the memory of every reader, but would never alone have sufficed to make Balzac’s name worthy of immortality. The infinite quality of Goriot’s passion would, however, have conferred this honor on his creator had he never written another book.

‘Illusions perdues’ and ‘Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes’ might almost be regarded as one novel in seven parts. More than any other of his works they show the sun of Balzac’s genius at its meridian. Nowhere else does he give us plots so absorbing, nowhere else does he bring us so completely in contact with the world his imagination has peopled. The first novel devotes two of its parts to the provinces and one to Paris. The provincial stories center around two brothers-in-law, David Séchard and Lucien de Rubempré, types of the practical and the artistic intellect respectively. David, after struggling for fame and fortune, succumbs and finds his recompense in the love of his wife Eve, Lucien’s sister, one of Balzac’s noble women. Lucien, on the other hand, after some provincial successes as a poet, tries the great world of Paris, yields to its temptations, fails ignominiously, and attempts suicide, but is rescued by the great Vautrin, who has escaped from prison and is about to renew his war on society disguised as a Spanish priest. Vautrin has conceived the idea that as he can take no part in society, he will have a representative in it and taste its pleasures through him. Lucien accepts this disgraceful position and plunges once more into the vortex, supported by the strong arm of the king of the convicts. His career and that of his patron form the subject of the four parts of the ‘Splendeurs et misères,’ and are too complicated to be described here. Suffice it to say that probably nowhere else in fiction are the novel of character and the novel of incident so splendidly combined; and certainly nowhere else in the range of his work does Balzac so fully display all his master qualities. That the story is sensational cannot be denied, but it is at least worthy of being called the Iliad of Crime. Nemesis waits upon both Lucien and Vautrin, and upon the poor courtesan Esther whom they entrap in their toils, and when the two former are at last in custody, Lucien commits suicide. Vautrin baffles his acute judge in a wonderful interview; but with his cherished hope cut short by Lucien’s death, finally gives up the struggle. Here the novel might have ended; yet Balzac adds a fourth part, in order to complete the career of Vautrin. The famous convict is transformed into a government spy, and engages to use his immense power against his former comrades and in defense of the society he has hitherto warred upon. The artistic propriety of this transformation may be questioned, but not the power and interest of the novel of which it is the finishing touch.

Many readers would put the companion novels ‘La Cousine Bette’ and ‘Le Cousin Pons’ at the head of Balzac’s works. They have not the infinite pathos of ‘Le Père Goriot,’ or the superb construction of the first three parts of the ‘Splendeurs et misères,’ but for sheer strength the former at least is unsurpassed in fiction. Never before or since have the effects of vice in dragging down a man below the level of the lowest brute been so portrayed as in Baron Hulot; never before or since has female depravity been so illustrated as in the diabolical career of Valérie Marneffe, probably the worst woman in fiction. As for Cousine Bette herself, and her power to breed mischief and crime, it suffices to say that she is worthy of a place beside the two chief characters.

‘Le Cousin Pons’ is a very different book; one which, though pathetic in the extreme, may be safely recommended to the youngest reader. The hero who gives his name to the story is an old musician who has worn out his welcome among his relations, but who becomes an object of interest to them when they learn that his collection of bric-a-brac is valuable and that he is about to die. The intrigues that circulate around this collection and the childlike German, Schmucke, to whom Pons has bequeathed it, are described as only the author of ‘Le Curé de Tours’ could have succeeded in doing; but the book contains also an almost perfect description of the ideal friendship existing between Pons and Schmucke. One remembers them longer than one does Frazier, the scoundrelly advocate who cheats poor Schmucke; a fact which should be cited against those who urge that Balzac is at home with his vicious characters only.

The last novel of this group, ‘César Birotteau,’ is the least powerful, though not perhaps the least popular. It is an excellent study of bourgeois life, and therefore fills an important place in the scheme of the ‘Comedy,’ describing as it does the spreading ambitions of a rich but stupid perfumer, and containing an admirable study of bankruptcy. It may be dismissed with the remark that around the innocent Cæsar surge most of the scoundrels that figure in the ‘Comédie humaine,’ and with the regret that it should have been completed while the far more powerful ‘Les Petits bourgeois’ was left unfinished.

We now come to the concluding parts of the ‘Études de mœurs,’ the ‘Scenes’ describing Political and Military Life. In the first group are five novels and stories: ‘L’Envers de l’histoire contemporaine’ (The Under Side of Contemporary History, a fine story, but rather social than political), ‘Une Ténébreuse affaire’ (A Shady Affair), ‘Un Épisode sous la Terreur,’ ‘Z. Marcas,’ and ‘Le Deputé d’Arcis’ (The Deputy of Arcis). Of these the ‘Episode’ is probably the most admirable, although ‘Z. Marcas’ has not a little strength. The ‘Deputé,’ like ‘Les Petits bourgeois,’ was continued by M. Charles Rabou and a considerable part of it is not Balzac’s; a fact which is to be regretted, since practically it is the only one of these stories that touches actual politics as the term is usually understood. The military scenes are only two in number, ‘Les Chouans’ and ‘Une Passion dans le désert.’ The former of these has been sufficiently described already; the latter is one of the best known of the short stories, but rather deserves a place beside ‘La Fille aux yeux d’or.’ Indeed, for Balzac’s best military scenes we must go to ‘Le Colonel Chabert’ or to ‘Adieu.’

We now pass to those subterranean chambers of the great structure we are exploring, the ‘Études philosophiques.’ They are twenty in number, four being novels, one a composite volume of tales, and the rest stories. The titles run as follows:—‘La Peau de chagrin,’ ‘L’Élixir de longue vie’ (The Elixir of Life), ‘Melmoth réconcilié,’ ‘Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu’ (The Anonymous Masterpiece), ‘Gambara,’ ‘Massimila Doni,’ ‘Le Réquisitionnaire,’ ‘Adieu,’ ‘El Verdugo,’ ‘Les Marana,’ ‘L’Auberge rouge’ (The Red Inn), ‘Un Drame au bord de la mer’ (A Seaside Drama), ‘L’Enfant maudit’ (A Child Accursed), ‘Maître Cornélius’ (Master Cornelius), ‘Sur Catherine de Médicis,’ ‘La Recherche de l’absolu,’ ‘Louis Lambert,’ ‘Séraphita,’ ‘Les Proscrits,’ and ‘Jésus-Christ en Flandre.’

Of the novels, ‘La Peau de chagrin’ is easily first. Its central theme is the world-old conflict between the infinite desires and the finite powers of man. The hero, Raphael, is hardly, as M. Barrière asserts, on a level with Hamlet, Faust, and Manfred, but the struggle of his infinite and his finite natures is almost as intensely interesting as the similar struggles in them. The introduction of the talisman, the wild ass’s skin that accomplishes all the wishes of its owner, but on condition that it is to shrink away in proportion to the intensity of those wishes, and that when it disappears the owner’s life is to end, gave to the story a weird interest not altogether, perhaps, in keeping with its realistic setting, and certainly forcing a disastrous comparison with the three great poems named. But when all allowances are made, one is forced to conclude that ‘La Peau de chagrin’ is a novel of extraordinary power and absorbing interest; and that its description of its hero’s dissipations in the libertine circles of Paris, and its portrayal of the sublime devotion of the heroine Pauline for her slowly perishing lover, are scarcely to be paralleled in literature. Far less powerful are the short stories on similar themes, entitled ‘L’Élixir de longue vie,’ and ‘Melmoth réconcilié’ (Melmoth Reconciled), which give us Balzac’s rehandling of the Don Juan of Molière and Byron, and the Melmoth of Maturin.

Below the ‘Peau de chagrin,’ but still among its author’s best novels, should be placed ‘La Recherche de l’absolu,’ which, as its title implies, describes the efforts of a chemist to “prove by chemical analysis the unity of composition of matter.” In the pursuit of his philosophic will-o’-the-wisp, Balthazar Claës loses his fortune and sacrifices his noble wife and children. His madness serves, however, to bring into relief the splendid qualities of these latter; and it is just here, in its human rather than in its philosophic bearings, that the story rises to real greatness. Marguerite Claës, the daughter, is a noble heroine; and if one wishes to see how Balzac’s characters and ideas suffer when treated by another though an able hand, one has but to read in conjunction with this novel the ‘Maître Guérin’ of the distinguished dramatist Émile Augier. A proper pendant to this history of a noble genius perverted is ‘La Confidence des Ruggieri,’ the second part of that remarkable composite ‘Sur Catherine de Médicis,’ a book which in spite of its mixture of history, fiction, and speculative politics is one of the most suggestive of Balzac’s minor productions.

Concerning ‘Séraphita’ and ‘Louis Lambert,’ the remaining novels of this series, certain noted mystics assert that they contain the essence of Balzac’s genius, and at least suggest the secret of the universe. Perhaps an ordinary critic may content himself with saying that both books are remarkable proofs of their author’s power, and that the former is notable for its marvelous descriptions of Norwegian scenery.

Of the lesser members of the philosophic group, nearly all are admirable in their kind and degree. ‘Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu’ and ‘Gambara’ treat of the pains of the artistic life and temperament. ‘Massimila Doni,’ like ‘Gambara,’ treats of music, but also gives a brilliant picture of Venetian life. ‘Le réquisitionnaire,’ perhaps the best of Balzac’s short stories, deals with the phenomenon of second sight, as ‘Adieu’ does with that of mental alienation caused by a sudden shock. ‘Les Marana’ is an absorbing study of the effects of heredity; ‘L’Auberge rouge’ is an analysis of remorse, as is also ‘Un Drame au bord de la mer’; while ‘L’Enfant maudit’ is an analysis of the effects of extreme sensibility, especially as manifested in the passion of poetic love. Finally, ‘Maître Cornélius’ is a study of avarice, in which is set a remarkable portrait of Louis XI.; ‘Les Proscrits’ is a masterly sketch of the exile of Dante at Paris; and ‘Jésus-Christ en Flandre’ is an exquisite allegory, the most delicate flower, perhaps, of Balzac’s genius.

It remains only to say a few words about the third division of the ‘Comédie humaine,’ viz., the ‘Études analytiques.’ Only two members of the series, the ‘Physiologie du mariage’ and the ‘Petites misères de la vie conjugale,’ were ever completed, and they are not great enough to make us regret the loss of the ‘Pathology of Social Life’ and the other unwritten volumes. For the two books we have are neither novels nor profound studies, neither great fiction nor great psychology. That they are worth reading for their suggestiveness with regard to such important subjects as marriage and conjugal life goes without saying, since they are Balzac’s; but that they add greatly to his reputation, not even his most ardent admirer would be hardy enough to affirm.

And now in conclusion, what can one say about this great writer that will not fall far short of his deserts? Plainly, nothing, yet a few points may be accentuated with profit. We should notice in the first place that Balzac has consciously tried almost every form of prose fiction, and has been nearly always splendidly successful. In analytic studies of high, middle, and low life he has not his superior. In the novel of intrigue and sensation he is easily a master, while he succeeds at least fairly in a form of fiction at just the opposite pole from this, to wit, the idyl (‘Le Lys dans la vallée’). In character sketches of extreme types, like ‘Gobseck,’ his supremacy has long been recognized, and he is almost as powerful when he enters the world of mysticism, whither so few of us can follow him. As a writer of novelettes he is unrivaled and some of his short stories are worthy to rank with the best that his followers have produced. In the extensive use of dialect he was a pioneer; in romance he has ‘La Peau de chagrin’ and ‘La Recherche de l’absolu’ to his credit; while some of the work in the tales connected with the name of Catherine de’ Medici shows what he could have done in historical fiction had he continued to follow Scott. And what is true of the form of his fiction is true of its elements. Tragedy, comedy, melodrama are all within his reach; he can call up tears and shudders, laughter and smiles at will. He knows the whole range of human emotions, and he dares to penetrate into the arcana of passions almost too terrible or loathsome for literature to touch.

In style, in the larger sense of the word, he is almost equally supreme. He is the father of modern realism and remains its greatest exponent. He retains always some of the good elements of romance,—that is to say, he sees the thing as it ought to be,—and he avoids the pitfalls of naturalism, being a painter and not a photographer. In other words, like all truly great writers he never forgets his ideals; but he is too impartial to his characters and has too fast a grip on life to fall into the unrealities of sentimentalism. It is true that he lacked the spontaneity that characterized his great forerunner, Shakespeare, and his great contemporary, George Sand; but this loss was made up by the inevitable and impersonal character of his work when once his genius was thoroughly aroused to action. His laborious method of describing by an accumulation of details postponed the play of his powers, which are at their height in the action of his characters; yet sooner or later the inert masses of his composition were fused into a burning whole. But if Balzac is primarily a dramatist in the creation and manipulation of his characters, he is also a supreme painter in his presentation of scenes. And what characters and what scenes has he not set before us! Over two thousand personages move through the ‘Comédie humaine,’ whose biographies MM. Cerfberr and Christophe have collected for us in their admirable ‘Répertoire de la comédie humaine,’ and whose chief types M. Paul Flat has described in the first series of his ‘Essais sur Balzac.’ Some of these personages are of course shadowy; but an amazingly large number live for us as truly as Shakespeare’s heroes and heroines do. Nor will any one who has trod the streets of Balzac’s Paris, or spent the summer with him at the château des Aigues (‘Les Paysans’), or in the beautiful valleys of Touraine, ever forget the master’s pictures.

Yet the Balzac who with intangible materials created living and breathing men and women and unfading scenes, has been accused of vitiating the French language and has been denied the possession of verbal style. On this point French critics must give the final verdict; but a foreigner may cite Taine’s defense of that style, and maintain that most of the liberties taken by Balzac with his native language were forced on him by the novel and far-reaching character of his work. Nor should it be forgotten that he was capable at times of almost perfect passages of description, and that he rarely confounded, as novelists are too apt to do, the provinces of poetry and prose.

But one might write a hundred essays on Balzac and not exhaust him. One might write a volume on his women, a volume to refute the charge that his bad men are better drawn than his good, a volume to discuss Mr. Henry James’s epigrammatic declaration that a five-franc piece may be fairly called the protagonist of the ‘Comédie humaine.’ In short one might go on defending and praising and even criticizing Balzac for a lifetime, and be little further advanced than when one began; for to criticize Balzac, is it not to criticize life itself?