“Balzac: sa Vie et ses Oevres” (by Madame L. Surville, 1857).
During the last thirty years, novels have played a most characteristically important part in French literature. They have, indeed, acquired a sort of special character, which is as much associated with the words “French novel” as various qualities of a very different kind are associated with such expressions as “Scotch metaphysics" or “German theology.” To this so and somewhat questionable class of productions, Balzac was, we believe, the most prolific, as he was assuredly the most remarkable contributor. Between 1827 and 1848, he wrote, as Madame Surville tells us, 97 tales of various lengths, filling no less than 10,816 pages of the small one-franc volumes in which they have been lately republished at Paris, and which contain about as much matter as those of Mr. Murray's Travellers' Library. We should on every account be glad to know something of s. life of such a man; and though it is not yet satisfactorily written, we are occasionally favoured with instalments of the materials from which it will, we may hope, be ultimately produced. One of these, by M. Léon Gozlan, called Balzac en Pantoufles, we referred to about a year ago. We have now before us a production of somewhat the same size by the great novelist's surviving sister, Madame Surville. It is less amusing than M. Gozlan's book, but it throws, we think, more light on Balzac's character. He was the son of an army contractor at Tours —a person of a most original disposition—and of a lady who, though deeply attached to her son, showed her fondness by introducing a somewhat unusual degree of severity into all their relations. It is greatly to Balzac's honour that he seems through life to have felt that high degree of affection for his relations generally, and, especially for his parents, which eminently belongs to the French national character. There was nothing very remarkable about his youth. He studied law from eighteen to twenty-one, at which age, greatly to his parents' disgust, he refused a very advantageous offer of a partnership with a notaire, and declared his wish to become a littérateur by profession. His father, with a very natural reluctance, allowed him two years to faire ses preuves de talent; and his mother, who thought that un peu de misère would perhaps cure him of his fancy, lodged him in a scantily-furnished garret, with an allowance on which he could just manage to live. Here he set to work of malice prepense to become an author, and with infinite labour, composed a tragedy, called Cromwell, which all his friends agreed in damning. He was accordingly recalled to his father's house, and lived there in an uncomfortable and anomalous position during the next six or seven years. During this time he wrote a number of tales which he never avowed, and to which, in obedience to his express wishes, his sister only alludes without naming them. At about the age of twenty-eight or twenty-nine, he turned from literature to speculation, and entered into several undertakings connected with printing, the capital being supplied by his parents. They appear, however, to have been not very successful, and he extricated himself from the business with the loss of all his money, a large debt —most of which was owing to his mother—and a considerable amount of experience in pecuniary matters. It is a most significant fact, that the first of his successful novels, Les Chouans, was written under the pressure of these difficulties. In this we have an additional proof of the most important truth that can be impressed on authors—namely, that even a man of genius can write nothing worth reading which has any relation to human affairs, unless he is in some way or other really connected with the serious every-day business of life. If Balzac had accepted the offer made to him in early life, he would have seen a vast deal of the world whilst still young enough to appreciate and to describe it, and might have written his novels afterwards at his ease, without being constantly under the obligation —as for many years he was—of throwing off three or four novels a year, in order to place himself in a position either to take up his acceptances or to get them renewed. In this, as in most of the affairs of his life, he showed the weakness which ran through the whole of his character. He was, as Madame Surville says in so many words, excessively vain, and he showed it by the extraordinary appetite for fame with which he was always devoured. Être célèbre et être aimé, he wrote in very early life, were the only two things he cared for.
We do not pretend to have read the whole of his novels, but the specimens with which we are acquainted leave upon our minds no doubt that, in the school to which he belonged, Balzac was, in some respects, by far the greatest master that France has produced. The principal heads under which novels may be classified are comedies and romances. By comedies, we mean books which aim at painting life as it is, and by romances, those which depend for their interest upon the incidents which they describe, and in which the characters introduced are subordinate to the events and scenery. Mr. Thackeray's writings, for example, would all fall into the first class, whilst we should place Fenimore Cooper's in the second. Here and there a man of extraordinary power combines both kinds of excellence, and of this rare combination Defoe and Scott are the most remarkable instances in our own country, and Balzac and Charles de Bernard in modern France. In the two great English writers whom we have named, the romantic element was the strongest. Robinson Crusoe is admirable as a character, but the name recalls the island rather than the man; and in Waverley, the march of events, and the strange society into which we are introduced, throw into the shade in some degree the wonderful skill employed in drawing the Baron and Fergus McIvor. In the French writers, on the other hand, the comic element prevails, though the romantic element, especially in Balzac, is occasionally most powerfully developed, and there can hardly be a more interesting study of its kind than the effect produced by the union of the two. In Balzac's principal works, as our readers are doubtless aware, the stories and personages are all more or less connected; and his own theory about them was that they presented a vast and accurate picture of contemporary French life. Their merits are no doubt to be judged of by the degree in which they approach this ideal. It would of course be presumptuous for a foreigner to pronounce upon the accuracy of the picture; but the most ordinary observer may affirm some things respecting it with no fear of being mistaken. It has, we think, greater merits, in some respects, than almost any other prose fiction whatever. Looking merely at the extent and variety of the scenes and characters which it represents, we know of no series of works which can be compared to it. It contains portraits from every rank and from almost all the more important classes of French society, in Paris or the provinces. The power with which some of the characters are described is extraordinary, and the more so because their peculiarities are displayed without any of that minute dissection of motives which is so fashionable in this country, and yet without the melodramatic starts and fantastic tricks of expression which some of our most popular writers employ to cheat their readers into the impression that the animated puppets which crowd their canvas have real life and individuality. Nothing can be better worth attention in this way than the personages introduced into the Scènes de la Vie Célibataire. The coarse cunning, reckless selfishness, and craft of Philippe Bridau; and the gay, careless honesty and somewhat improvident generosity and sensibility of his brother, the artist, are characters which even a foreigner can perceive to be exquisitely French and exquisitely true to nature; whilst the stolid stagnancy of the bourgeois society of Limoges, and the moody inactivity of the retired officers of the Grande Armée —bold, quick-tempered, and punctilious, but most characteristically incapable of extricating themselves from the vegetative life upon which the return of the Bourbons has thrown them back —fill up the outward and visible framework of French society with personages so curiously natural and appropriate that it is impossible not to believe in their truth.
The variety and life of Balzac's characters do not, we think, constitute their principal claim to attention. This is to be found in the impression which they produce—and which other facts abundantly confirm—of the extraordinary good faith with which they are drawn. M. Gozlan tells us, and Madame Surville confirms his statement, that Balzac conceived his various personages so vividly that they were to him exactly like real living men and women. He used to talk about them, and arrange the incidents of their careers, with precisely the same seriousness and fervour as he would have shown if he had been discussing the plans of real people. “Savez-vous,” said he one day to his sister, “qui Felix de Vandenesse épouse? Une demoiselle de Grandville. C'est un excellent mariage qu'il fait là, les Grandville sont riches malgré ce que Mademoiselle de Bellefeuille a coûté à cette famille.” One of the characters in Ursule Mirouet, a certain Captain de Jordy, excited the curiosity of Balzac's friends. M. de Jordy is represented as living at Nemours, weighed down by some secret grief, and Madame Surville was anxious to know the cause of it. “I did not know M. de Jordy before he came to Nemours,” was her brother's answer. Another proof of the strange vitality with which he endowed his characters was his practice of naming them, not out of his own head, but after any names over a shop which seemed to him to suit them a priori. “Matifat! Cardot! quels delicieux noms me disait-il. J'ai trouvé Matifat rue de la Perle au Marais. Je vois déjà mon Matifat! II aura une face palotte de chat, un petit embonpoint, car Matifat n'aura rien de grandiose comme tu peux le croire.” It is impossible not to see the same strange sort of sympathy between the name and the description which Sydney Smith, with general applause and consent, affirmed to exist between a bishop of the Church of England and the name of Simon.
This good faith and profound sense of reality shows itself also in the way in which Balzac treats serious subjects. He believed so fully in all that he wrote, that he threw his characters into the business of life with as much vehemence and interest as he can possibly have employed in negotiating his bills. He counts up their resources in francs and centimes. He gives the most minute details of their speculations and of their views of art or politics, according to the positions in life which they fill. We have writers in our own country who turn novels into political pamphlets—generally to the great injury both of the story and of the politics, for they almost always fall into the mistake of railing ab extra at the management of affairs which they do not understand. Balzac was by no means open to this charge. He was anything but a mere destructive in politics. He seems to have studied with considerable depth and acuteness, and with a genuine wish to understand their working, many of the institutions amongst which he found himself placed. How deep his knowledge of law, of administration, and of commerce, really went, an Englishman can only conjecture, but it is quite clear that he was at any rate free from that vulgar and presumptuous contempt for common opinions upon these subjects which so strongly characterizes a certain class of English novelists.
The key, as we believe, to this and to most of the other peculiarities of his style, is to be found in the fact that Balzac had a far higher conception of the objects and nature of his art than is usual in this country. He felt that novels were something more than mere toys, to be kept down to the level of the most childish minds and the most babyish ignorance of life. He was well aware that they are works of art, to be constructed according to rules of their own, and to be valued for their inherent perfection, and not for any collateral purpose to which they might be made subservient; and this feeling naturally led him to deal far more fairly with the institutions under which he lived, and to study them in a much more generous and honest spirit than it is possible for any man to evince who devotes hundreds of pages to attacks on a misconceived and possibly non-existent abuse. He had an artist's aversion to the caricature and extravagance which are so conspicuous in many of our own novelists when they write upon the real business of life.
It must be admitted that the same temper of mind lies at the root of the most serious faults with which he is justly chargeable: Balzac has been repeatedly denounced as an immoral writer; and there can be no doubt that in some degree the charge is well founded, though, as we think, in a degree very much lower than that in which it is usually put forward. As we have already observed, he is especially remarkable for combining excellence in the comic and in the romantic departments of fiction—using the word “comic” as denoting all that relates to the observation of every-day human life, not only, or principally, in its ludicrous, but also in its gloomy and appalling aspects. So long as he is merely an observer and faithful depicter of what passes around him, we think that he is entitled to the full weight of the defence which, as his sister tells us, he made when charged with immorality. “J'écris pour les hommes, non pour les jeunes filles.” A novel in England is in some respects like a sermon. It is addressed to an audience so very large and so very mixed, that a large proportion of the most important social and moral subjects must of necessity be tabooed. No London clergyman could preach to an ordinary congregation a sermon on the Seventh Commandment; yet no one can doubt that if the proper hearers could be collected separately—and the materials would not be wanting—one of the most impressive and most important discourses which human lips could deliver might be founded on it. If Mr. Thackeray writes a novel, he is forced by the prevailing tone of writing, and especially by the fact that he will have many female readers, to leave untouched one large province of life; but in France the temper of the people is different, and we cannot blame a novelist for availing himself of the opportunity of showing how hideous vice is. But it is not merely as an observer that Balzac depicts vice. It furnishes most of the machinery to which the romantic parts of his novels owe their interest. In this way he constantly creates monsters, and needlessly dwells upon disgusting subjects for the sake of producing a dramatic effect, and sometimes, we fear, to gratify the pruriency of his readers. Nothing can excuse the author of such a story as La Fille aux Yeux d'Or. It is altogether corrupt, abominable, and loathsome, nor can a single word be said in defence of it. It is not less true that the creation of such characters as Rastignac, De Marsay, and Delphine de Nucingen was a very grave offence against morals. They are base, wicked, and hateful to a degree which no words can describe, whilst we also feel that they are not, and cannot have been, true to nature. Utter baseness and great intellectual power do not go together in real life, and should not be allied in novels. These characters are not gathered from general observation—they are at most the imitation of hideous exceptions. The same observation applies in some degree to the accumulation of horror upon horror which marks some of his most remarkable stories. Wickedness is not so dramatic as Balzac would have us believe; and needlessly to invest it with such a shape is in effect to give it a sort of sombre magnificence to which it is not entitled.
Whilst we admit that in the particulars which we have specified Balzac's writings are immoral, we maintain that these are by no means their commonest or most prominent features. Many of his books—and many of those which treat of vice—appear to us to be moral reading for those to whom they were addressed. The Scènes de la Vie Célibataire, La Cousine Bette, Le Cousin Pons, are not very fit reading for boys or women (though we ought to remember that the adventures of Clarissa Harlowe were prescribed to our grandmothers from the pulpit), but a man must be corrupt indeed before they could injure him. Many of the characters are no doubt as wicked as men and women can well be in this world, but we do not remember to have seen anywhere more impressive illustrations of the hideousness of vice.
We may conclude our observations on Balzac by pointing out one circumstance about him which has not been properly understood. We mean his relation to religion. In some parts of his books, expressions and speculations may be found apparently so subversive of all definite religious belief that Protestant readers might be inclined to look upon the great respect and apparent affection with which he always refers to Catholicism and to the priesthood as merely hypocritical. We cannot join in that opinion. He seems to us to illustrate very strongly a state of mind by no means uncommon amongst highly educated members of that church. He looks upon reason and faith as fundamentally distinct, and radically opposed to each other; so that a man may see his way, intellectually speaking, to opinions quite irreconcileable with any form of Christianity, and yet may have such a distrust of his own reason, and such a reliance upon the great external system before his eyes, that he may be a devout Catholic. Dr. Minoret, for example, in the novel of Ursule Mirouet, passes at once from materialistic atheism to Catholicism. It does not occur to him to argue the details. This principle is one of wide application, and very necessary to any right understanding of French literature.
Saturday Review, December 19, 1857.