The life of Balzac 1799 - 1850

Honoré de Balzac was born in Tours.  His father was a self-made man of peasant stock who had received training as a lawyer. He had good positions under the monarchy of Louis the 16th and during the empire of Napoleon.
His mother was a rigid disciplinarian.  She was interested in the occult - for example the mystical philosophy of Swedenborg.  Her son shared these interests and followed her in adopting Lavater's theories on the association of a person's physiognomy with their character and destiny.

The historical background to Balzac's life.

Far-reaching changes occurred in his lifetime.
The Empire of Napoleon 1st.
Balzac grew up during the First Empire and wrote about this period in several of his works.  He admired Napoleon and his own ambition was to become the “Napoleon of the pen”.
However, two thirds of his novels are set in the period after Napoleon's downfall in 1815.  

The Restoration 1815-1830
This period gets particular emphasis from Balzac.  Some historians see this as a flat period – a time of anticlimax after the dramatic events of revolution and continental war that came before.  However the years of the Restoration were the formative years of Balzac’s life and he reflects the excitement and adventure that he experienced.

“Le Père Goriot” is set in this period.  We have the precise date for the start of this novel– “la fin du mois de novembre 1819”-  and the first incident that triggers the story took place a few days later, when Rastignac, having returned unobserved from Mme de Beauséant’s ball peeped through the keyhole of Goriot’s bedroom and saw some very mysterious activity.

Balzac's literary beginnings

His parents wanted him to become a lawyer and he began training in Paris for a career in the legal profession, just like Rastignac in the book and at the same date.   It was in 1819, that the young Balzac won from his parents a temporary respite from his legal studies in order to try his luck in his own chosen career as a writer.  He set to work with a fury, while living in a garret in Paris.

In 1820, he wrote a first play ' Cromwell’.  Its performance received very bad reviews from the critics, but Balzac was not put off from his great ambition..
From 1819-1825, Balzac made various experiments in fiction.  Working as a hack writer, he wrote stories in collaboration with other writers.  Sometimes he based his stories on the works of other authors in French and other languages

Balzac the businessman
At the same time, Balzac judged it necessary to build up a certain amount of wealth, to give him material security.  Unfortunately, the different ventures in commerce and industry that he entered into were unsuccessful.

1825 Balzac tried to become a publisher.
1826 He tried to establish himself as the printer
1827 -- He bought a type foundry.

Balzac's business affairs became hopelessly involved.  He worked very hard to make a success of them, sometimes working 15 to 18 hours a day.  He always believed in impractical schemes and always expected riches beyond belief. (NB In “Le Père Goriot” there is a lot of talk of making one’s fortune.)
Because of the failure of these ventures, Balzac narrowly avoided bankruptcy.  He was left with a debt of 60,000 francs to pay off.

Balzac's money problems were compounded by his taste for luxury.  He spent more than he could afford on clothes, furnishings, paintings, and objets d'art.  He had a passion for collecting.

When Balzac was in financial difficulties, he was helped by his mother and a succession of rich ladies.  One of these distinguished ladies was the Duchesse d'Abrantes, whom he met in 1825.  She was a widow of a marshal in Napoleon's armies and it was through her that Balzac gained entry into Paris high society.  (NB like Rastignac with Mme de Beauséant, Balzac had his patroness.)

Literary and social success 1829-1832
Having failed disastrously as a businessman, Balzac took up the pen again in 1829 in order to earn his keep and to pay off his creditors.  He planned a vast output of books.  For this he set himself a terrifying regime: fourteen hours work a day when he was writing while fired by the fever of creativity. He sustained himself by endless cups of coffee but inevitably dropped to a minimum of 9 hours a day, at times when, in a state of exhaustion, he came close to the point of break down.  His final achievement was incredible: in twenty years he produced 90 novels and novellas, thirty short stories and five plays.

In 1830, with the publication of "Physiologie du mariage" Balzac gained celebrity
He then started to frequent the best known salons in Paris.  Like his character, Rastignac, he tried to play the role of a dandy.  He added a "de" to his name, to give the impression of coming from an aristocratic family, although he had not the least claim to noble status.
In 1831, he wrote "La Peau de Chagrin”, a fantasy which aims to show how the quest for the satisfaction of one's desires dissipates the vital energies.

In 1832, he had an affair with a noble lady, the Marquise de Castries, the story is veiled in mystery but it is known that Balzac was left deeply wounded by this episode.

In this same year, Balzac began his association with the Polish countess Mme Hanska.  From this time onwards, the driving ambition of his life was to put his affairs right and pay off his debts, so that he could be in a position to marry Mme Hanska.  For 13 years the two of them had a continuous exchange of letters.

The years 1832 – 1844

Balzac was now at the peak of his powers as a writer
From 1832 to1835, he wrote 20 works including some world-famous masterpieces
1832 -Louis Lambert ; Le Colonel Chabert, Le Curé de Tours.
1833 -Eugénie Grandet ;  Le Médecin de Campagne.  
1834- La Recherche de l'absolu.
1834-1835 - Le Père Goriot
1835-1836- Le Lys dans la Vallée. 
1837- César Birotteau. 
1841- Ursule Mirouet. 
1844 -Les Paysans; Modeste Mignon.

He also wrote short stories amusing and Rabelaisian - les Contes drolatiques (1832-1837)

It was in 1842 that Balzac chose a title to embrace the whole collection of his works – La Comédie Humaine

His demanding personal, social and public life
At the same time as producing this vast literary output, Balzac also lived a full social life.  Although he was devoting his future to Mme Hanska, he allowed himself, in the meantime, solace with several other women.
Balzac still attempted new business ventures.  These were typically imaginative and promised untold wealth, such as the plan to import 60,000 oak trees from Poland to France to provide sleepers for the railways.  This would make him one million two hundred thousand francs. But only in theory!
He also took part in political affairs.  He fought for the rights of authors.  He took up the cause to achieve the acquittal of a man wrongly convicted of murder. Later, however, he moved from a liberal stance in politics to a conservative standpoint, supporting the monarchy and the Catholic Church and advocating political and religious authority.

Balzac feels the strain 1842 onwards

By 1842, the frantic pace of his life had begun to affect his health.  He was forced to slow down and the ever pressing financial problems became more burdensome.
In 1845, he had travelled with Mme Hanska., but the situation of their relationship caused him continuing anxiety. Mme Hanska, who was beset by legal problems, continually postponed their marriage.
His pessimistic mood in his final years is perhaps betrayed by his final masterpieces.
Le Cousin Pons in1846 
La Cousine Bette in 1847
Although these books emphasise the importance of loyalty and self-sacrificing devotion, they also give the most sombre picture of human depravity.
After 1847 -- Balzac began no works that he was to complete.  The strain had become excessive.  
In 1849 he suffered a disappointment when he was refused entry into the French Academy.
On March the 14th 1850, Balzac, now rich and famous was able to marry Mme Hanska.
On August the 18th 1850, Balzac died.  It is said that on his deathbed, he asked for Dr Bianchon to be consulted, unaware that he existed only in the reality of “Le Père Goriot”

Although he had been previously rebuffed by the literary establishment, the fact that his genius was already recognised was made clear by the stature of the person who delivered his funeral oration - the great man of French literature, Victor Hugo.

Honoré de Balzac –the man

It is sometimes said, in criticism of the characters that Balzac created, that they are larger than life.  Balzac’s biography shows that such people do exist, as he himself was a prime example.  He was full of prodigious energy and a passion for life.  His genius lay in his powers of observation, which achieved a high level of detail and complexity.  It also lay in the boundless reaches of his imagination, which created a massive world of his own invention. 

Balzac believed that every person is the product of a certain time and a certain place. Following this deterministic approach, we can see Balzac as the product of the Romantic period.  Romantic writers were exhilarated by a new sense of freedom and felt that vast new world of the intellect was opened up for them. They were to be explorers of the stature of Columbus.   In 1834 Balzac wrote to Mme Hanska.:
Nous avons atteint à l’ère de l’intelligence.  Les rois matériels, la force brutale s’en vont.   ……… Il y aura des souverains dans le royaume universel de la pensée
Balzac, who admired Napoleon, had the ambition to be a Napoleon of the pen.

It is when we see Balzac in the context of the Romantic school of literature that we can understand his enormous presumption in trying to encompass in his works every aspect of the life in France of his day.  What is extraordinary is the quantity and quality of literary works that he created in the quest of this impossible goal.

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