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Balzac   By:

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In remembrance of many pleasant and instructive hours spent in his society, to the sculptor


whose statue of Balzac, with its fine, synthetic portraiture, first tempted the author to write this book.



Excusing himself for not undertaking to write a life of Balzac, Monsieur Brunetiere, in his study of the novelist published shortly before his death, refused somewhat disdainfully to admit that acquaintance with a celebrated man's biography has necessarily any value. "What do we know of the life of Shakespeare?" he says, "and of the circumstances in which Hamlet or Othello was produced? If these circumstances were better known to us, is it to be believed and will it be seriously asserted that our admiration for one or the other play would be augmented?" In penning this quirk, the eminent critic would seem to have wilfully overlooked the fact that a writer's life may have much or may have little to do with his works. In the case of Shakespeare it was comparatively little and yet we should be glad to learn more of this little. In the case of Balzac it was much. His novels are literally his life; and his life is quite as full as his books of all that makes the good novel at once profitable and agreeable to read. It is not too much to affirm that any one who is acquainted with what is known to day of the strangely chequered career of the author of the Comedie Humaine is in a better position to understand and appreciate the different parts which constitute it. Moreover, the steady rise of Balzac's reputation, during the last fifty years, has been in some degree owing to the various patient investigators who have gathered information about him whom Taine pronounced to be, with Shakespeare and Saint Simon, the greatest storehouse of documents we possess concerning human nature.

The following chapters are an attempt to put this information into sequence and shape, and to insert such notice of the novels as their relative importance requires. The author wishes here to thank certain French publishers who have facilitated his task by placing books for reference at his disposal, Messrs. Calmann Levy, Armand Colin, and Hetzel, in particular, and also the Curator of the Musee Balzac , Monsieur de Royaumont who has rendered him service on several occasions.




The condition of French society in the early half of the nineteenth century the period covered by Balzac's novels may be compared to that of a people endeavouring to recover themselves after an earthquake. Everything had been overthrown, or at least loosened from its base religion, laws, customs, traditions, castes. Nothing had withstood the shock. When the upheaval finally ceased, there were timid attempts to find out what had been spared and was susceptible of being raised from the ruins. Gradually the process of selection went on, portions of the ancient system of things being joined to the larger modern creation. The two did not work in very well together, however, and the edifice was far from stable.

During the Consulate and First Empire, the Emperor's will, so sternly imposed, retarded any movement of natural reconstruction. Outside the military organization, things were stiff and starched and solemn. High and low were situated in circumstances that were different and strange. The new soldier aristocracy reeked of the camp and battle field; the washer woman, become a duchess, was ill at ease in the Imperial drawing room; while those who had thriven and amassed wealth rapidly in trade were equally uncomfortable amidst the vulgar luxury with which they surrounded themselves... Continue reading book >>

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