Honore De Balzac And Evelina Hanska
I remember once, when editing an elaborate work on literature, that the
publisher called me into his private office. After the door was closed,
he spoke in tones of suppressed emotion.
"Why is it," said he, "that you have such a lack of proportion? In the
selection you have made I find that only two pages are given to George
P. Morris, while you haven't given E. P. Roe any space at all! Yet, look
here--you've blocked out fifty pages for Balzac, who was nothing but an
I adjusted this difficulty, somehow or other--I do not just remember
how--and began to think that, after all, this publisher's view of things
was probably that of the English and American public. It is strange that
so many biographies and so many appreciations of the greatest novelist
who ever lived should still have left him, in the eyes of the reading
public, little more than "an immoral Frenchman."
"In Balzac," said Taine, "there was a money-broker, an archeologist, an
architect, an upholsterer, a tailor, an old-clothes dealer, a journeyman
apprentice, a physician, and a notary." Balzac was also a mystic, a
supernaturalist, and, above all, a consummate artist. No one who is all
these things in high measure, and who has raised himself by his genius
above his countrymen, deserves the censure of my former publisher.
Still less is Balzac to be dismissed as "immoral," for his life was one
of singular self-sacrifice in spite of much temptation. His face was
strongly sensual, his look and bearing denoted almost savage power; he
led a free life in a country which allowed much freedom; and yet
his story is almost mystic in its fineness of thought, and in its
detachment, which was often that of another world.
Balzac was born in 1799, at Tours, with all the traits of the people
of his native province--fond of eating and drinking, and with plenty of
humor. His father was fairly well off. Of four children, our Balzac was
the eldest. The third was his sister Laure, who throughout his life was
the most intimate friend he had, and to whom we owe his rescue from much
scandalous and untrue gossip. From her we learn that their father was a
combination of Montaigne, Rabelais, and "Uncle Toby."
Young Balzac went to a clerical school at seven, and stayed there for
seven years. Then he was brought home, apparently much prostrated,
although the good fathers could find nothing physically amiss with him,
and nothing in his studies to account for his agitation. No one ever did
discover just what was the matter, for he seemed well enough in the
next few years, basking on the riverside, watching the activities of
his native town, and thoroughly studying the rustic types that he was
afterward to make familiar to the world. In fact, in Louis Lambert he
has set before us a picture of his own boyish life, very much as Dickens
did of his in David Copperfield.
For some reason, when these years were over, the boy began to have what
is so often known as "a call"--a sort of instinct that he was to attain
renown. Unfortunately it happened that about this time (1814) he and his
parents removed to Paris, which was his home by choice, until his death
in 1850. He studied here under famous teachers, and gave three years
to the pursuit of law, of which he was very fond as literary material,
though he refused to practise.
This was the more grievous, since a great part of the family property
had been lost. The Balzacs were afflicted by actual poverty, and Honore
endeavored, with his pen, to beat the wolf back from the door. He earned
a little money with pamphlets and occasional stories, but his thirst
for fame was far from satisfied. He was sure that he was called to
literature, and yet he was not sure that he had the power to succeed. In
one of his letters to his sister, he wrote:
I am young and hungry, and there is nothing on my plate. Oh, Laure,
Laure, my two boundless desires, my only ones--to be famous, and to be
loved--they ever be satisfied?
For the next ten years he was learning his trade, and the artistic use
of the fiction writer's tools. What is more to the point, is the fact
that he began to dream of a series of great novels, which should give
a true and panoramic picture of the whole of human life. This was the
first intimation of his "Human Comedy," which was so daringly undertaken
and so nearly completed in his after years. In his early days of
obscurity, he said to his readers:
Note well the characters that I introduce, since you will have to follow
their fortunes through thirty novels that are to come.
Here we see how little he had been daunted by ill success, and how his
prodigious imagination had not been overcome by sorrow and evil fortune.
Meantime, writing almost savagely, and with a feeling combined of
ambition and despair, he had begun, very slowly indeed, to create a
public. These ten years, however, had loaded him with debts; and his
struggle to keep himself afloat only plunged him deeper in the mire.
His thirty unsigned novels began to pay him a few hundred francs, not
in cash, but in promissory notes; so that he had to go still deeper into
In 1827 he was toiling on his first successful novel, and indeed one of
the best historic novels in French literature--The Chouans. He speaks of
his labor as "done with a tired brain and an anxious mind," and of the
eight or ten business letters that he had to write each day before he
could begin his literary work.
"Postage and an omnibus are extravagances that I cannot allow myself,"
he writes. "I stay at home so as not to wear out my clothes. Is that
clear to you?"
At the end of the next year, though he was already popular as a
novelist, and much sought out by people of distinction, he was at the
very climax of his poverty. He had written thirty-five books, and was in
debt to the amount of a hundred and twenty-four thousand francs. He was
saved from bankruptcy only by the aid of Mme. de Berny, a woman of high
character, and one whose moral influence was very strong with Balzac
until her early death.
The relation between these two has a sweetness and a purity which are
seldom found. Mme. de Berny gave Balzac money as she would have given it
to a son, and thereby she saved a great soul for literature. But there
was no sickly sentiment between them, and Balzac regarded her with a
noble love which he has expressed in the character of Mme. Firmiani.
It was immediately after she had lightened his burdens that the real
Balzac comes before us in certain stories which have no equal, and
which are among the most famous that he ever wrote. What could be more
wonderful than his El Verdugo, which gives us a brief horror while
compelling our admiration? What, outside of Balzac himself, could be
more terrible than Gobseck, a frightful study of avarice, containing
a deathbed scene which surpasses in dreadfulness almost anything in
literature? Add to these A Passion in the Desert, The Girl with the
Golden Eyes, The Droll Stories, The Red Inn, and The Magic Skin, and you
have a cluster of masterpieces not to be surpassed.
In the year 1829, when he was just beginning to attain a slight success,
Balzac received a long letter written in a woman's hand. As he read
it, there came to him something very like an inspiration, so full of
understanding were the written words, so full of appreciation and of
sympathy with the best that he had done. This anonymous note pointed out
here and there such defects as are apt to become chronic with a
young author. Balzac was greatly stirred by its keen and sympathetic
criticism. No one before had read his soul so clearly. No one--not even
his devoted sister, Laure de Surville--had judged his work so wisely,
had come so closely to his deepest feeling.
He read the letter over and over, and presently another came, full of
critical appreciation, and of wholesome, tonic, frank, friendly words
of cheer. It was very largely the effect of these letters that roused
Balzac's full powers and made him sure of winning the two great objects
of his first ambition--love and fame--the ideals of the chivalrous,
romantic Frenchman from Caesar's time down to the present day.
Other letters followed, and after a while their authorship was made
known to Balzac. He learned that they had been written by a young Polish
lady, Mme. Evelina Hanska, the wife of a Polish count, whose health was
feeble, and who spent much time in Switzerland because the climate there
agreed with him.
He met her first at Neuchatel, and found her all that he had imagined.
It is said that she had no sooner raised her face, and looked him
fully in the eyes, than she fell fainting to the floor, overcome by
her emotion. Balzac himself was deeply moved. From that day until their
final meeting he wrote to her daily.
The woman who had become his second soul was not beautiful.
Nevertheless, her face was intensely spiritual, and there was a mystic
quality about it which made a strong appeal to Balzac's innermost
nature. Those who saw him in Paris knocking about the streets at night
with his boon companions, hobnobbing with the elder Dumas, or rejecting
the frank advances of George Sand, would never have dreamed of this
Balzac was heavy and broad of figure. His face was suggestive only of
what was sensuous and sensual. At the same time, those few who looked
into his heart and mind found there many a sign of the fine inner strain
which purified the grosser elements of his nature. He who wrote the
roaring Rabelaisian Contes Drolatiques was likewise the author of
This mysticism showed itself in many things that Balzac did. One little
incident will perhaps be sufficiently characteristic of many others. He
had a belief that names had a sort of esoteric appropriateness. So, in
selecting them for his novels, he gathered them with infinite pains from
many sources, and then weighed them anxiously in the balance. A writer
on the subject of names and their significance has given the following
account of this trait:
The great novelist once spent an entire day tramping about in the
remotest quarters of Paris in search of a fitting name for a character
just conceived by him. Every sign-board, every door-plate, every affiche
upon the walls, was scrutinized. Thousands of names were considered
and rejected, and it was only after his companion, utterly worn out by
fatigue, had flatly refused to drag his weary limbs through more than
one additional street, that Balzac suddenly saw upon a sign the name
"Marcas," and gave a shout of joy at having finally secured what he was
Marcas it was, from that moment; and Balzac gradually evolved a
Christian name for him. First he considered what initial was most
appropriate; and then, having decided upon Z, he went on to expand this
into Zepherin, explaining minutely just why the whole name Zepherin
Marcas, was the only possible one for the character in the novel.
In many ways Balzac and Evelina Hanska were mated by nature. Whether
they were fully mated the facts of their lives must demonstrate. For the
present, the novelist plunged into a whirl of literary labor, toiling as
few ever toiled--constructing several novels at the same time, visiting
all the haunts of the French capital, so that he might observe and
understand every type of human being, and then hurling himself like a
giant at his work.
He had a curious practise of reading proofs. These would come to him in
enormous sheets, printed on special paper, and with wide margins for his
corrections. An immense table stood in the midst of his study, and upon
the top he would spread out the proofs as if they were vast maps. Then,
removing most of his outer garments, he would lie, face down, upon the
proof-sheets, with a gigantic pencil, such as Bismarck subsequently used
to wield. Thus disposed, he would go over the proofs.
Hardly anything that he had written seemed to suit him when he saw it
in print. He changed and kept changing, obliterating what he disliked,
writing in new sentences, revising others, and adding whole pages in the
margins, until perhaps he had practically made a new book. This process
was repeated several times; and how expensive it was may be judged from
the fact that his bill for "author's proof corrections" was sometimes
more than the publishers had agreed to pay him for the completed volume.
Sometimes, again, he would begin writing in the afternoon, and continue
until dawn. Then, weary, aching in every bone, and with throbbing head,
he would rise and turn to fall upon his couch after his eighteen hours
of steady toil. But the memory of Evelina Hanska always came to him;
and with half-numbed fingers he would seize his pen, and forget his
weariness in the pleasure of writing to the dark-eyed woman who drew him
to her like a magnet.
These are very curious letters that Balzac wrote to Mme. Hanska. He
literally told her everything about himself. Not only were there long
passages instinct with tenderness, and with his love for her; but he
also gave her the most minute account of everything that occurred, and
that might interest her. Thus he detailed at length his mode of living,
the clothes he wore, the people whom he met, his trouble with his
creditors, the accounts of his income and outgo. One might think that
this was egotism on his part; but it was more than that. It was a strong
belief that everything which concerned him must concern her; and he
begged her in turn to write as freely and as fully.
Mme. Hanska was not the only woman who became his friend and comrade,
and to whom he often wrote. He made many acquaintances in the
fashionable world through the good offices of the Duchesse de Castries.
By her favor, he studied with his microscopic gaze the beau monde of
Louis Philippe's rather unimpressive court.
In a dozen books he scourged the court of the citizen king--its
pretensions, its commonness, and its assemblage of nouveaux riches. Yet
in it he found many friends--Victor Hugo, the Girardins--and among them
women who were of the world. George Sand he knew very well, and she made
ardent love to him; but he laughed her off very much as the elder Dumas
Then there was the pretty, dainty Mme. Carraud, who read and revised his
manuscripts, and who perhaps took a more intimate interest in him than
did the other ladies whom he came to know so well. Besides Mme. Hanska,
he had another correspondent who signed herself "Louise," but who never
let him know her name, though she wrote him many piquant, sunny letters,
which he so sadly needed.
For though Honore de Balzac was now one of the most famous writers of
his time, his home was still a den of suffering. His debts kept pressing
on him, loading him down, and almost quenching hope. He acted toward his
creditors like a man of honor, and his physical strength was still
that of a giant. To Mme. Carraud he once wrote the half pathetic, half
Poor pen! It must be diamond, not because one would wish to wear it, but
because it has had so much use!
Here I am, owing a hundred thousand francs. And I am forty!
Balzac and Mme. Hanska met many times after that first eventful episode
at Neuchatel. It was at this time that he gave utterance to the poignant
Love for me is life, and to-day I feel it more than ever!
In like manner he wrote, on leaving her, that famous epigram:
It is only the last love of a woman that can satisfy the first love of a
In 1842 Mme. Hanska's husband died. Balzac naturally expected that an
immediate marriage with the countess would take place; but the woman
who had loved him mystically for twelve years, and with a touch of the
physical for nine, suddenly draws back. She will not promise anything.
She talks of delays, owing to the legal arrangements for her children.
She seems almost a prude. An American critic has contrasted her attitude
Every one knows how utterly and absolutely Balzac devoted to this one
woman all his genius, his aspiration, the thought of his every moment;
how every day, after he had labored like a slave for eighteen hours, he
would take his pen and pour out to her the most intimate details of his
daily life; how at her call he would leave everything and rush across
the continent to Poland or to Italy, being radiantly happy if he could
but see her face and be for a few days by her side. The very thought of
meeting her thrilled him to the very depths of his nature, and made him,
for weeks and even months beforehand, restless, uneasy, and agitated,
with an almost painful happiness.
It is the most startling proof of his immense vitality, both physical
and mental, that so tremendous an emotional strain could be endured
by him for years without exhausting his fecundity or blighting his
With Balzac, however, it was the period of his most brilliant work;
and this was true in spite of the anguish of long separations, and the
complaints excited by what appears to be caprice or boldness or a faint
indifference. Even in Balzac one notices toward the last a certain sense
of strain underlying what he wrote, a certain lack of elasticity and
facility, if of nothing more; yet on the whole it is likely that without
this friendship Balzac would have been less great than he actually
became, as it is certain that had it been broken off he would have
ceased to write or to care for anything whatever in the world.
And yet, when they were free to marry, Mme. Hanska shrank away. Not
until 1846, four years after her husband's death, did she finally give
her promise to the eager Balzac. Then, in the overflow of his happiness,
his creative genius blazed up into a most wonderful flame; but he soon
discovered that the promise was not to be at once fulfilled. The shock
impaired that marvelous vitality which had carried him through debt, and
want, and endless labor.
It was at this moment, by the irony of fate, that his country hailed him
as one of the greatest of its men of genius. A golden stream poured
into his lap. His debts were not all extinguished, but his income was so
large that they burdened him no longer.
But his one long dream was the only thing for which he cared; and though
in an exoteric sense this dream came true, its truth was but a mockery.
Evelina Hanska summoned him to Poland, and Balzac went to her at once.
There was another long delay, and for more than a year he lived as a
guest in the countess's mansion at Wierzchownia; but finally, in March,
1850, the two were married. A few weeks later they came back to France
together, and occupied the little country house, Les Jardies, in which,
some decades later, occurred Gambetta's mysterious death.
What is the secret of this strange love, which in the woman seems to be
not precisely love, but something else? Balzac was always eager for her
presence. She, on the other hand, seems to have been mentally more at
ease when he was absent. Perhaps the explanation, if we may venture upon
one, is based upon a well-known physiological fact.
Love in its completeness is made up of two great elements--first, the
element that is wholly spiritual, that is capable of sympathy, and
tenderness, and deep emotion. The other element is the physical,
the source of passion, of creative energy, and of the truly virile
qualities, whether it be in man or woman. Now, let either of these
elements be lacking, and love itself cannot fully and utterly exist.
The spiritual nature in one may find its mate in the spiritual nature
of another; and the physical nature of one may find its mate in the
physical nature of another. But into unions such as these, love does not
enter in its completeness. If there is any element lacking in either
of those who think that they can mate, their mating will be a sad and
It is evident enough that Mme. Hanska was almost wholly spiritual, and
her long years of waiting had made her understand the difference between
Balzac and herself. Therefore, she shrank from his proximity, and from
his physical contact, and it was perhaps better for them both that their
union was so quickly broken off by death; for the great novelist died of
heart disease only five months after the marriage.
If we wish to understand the mystery of Balzac's life--or, more truly,
the mystery of the life of the woman whom he married--take up and read
once more the pages of Seraphita, one of his poorest novels and yet a
singularly illuminating story, shedding light upon a secret of the soul.
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