Not merely was Balzac a great writer; he was also the possessor of a gigantic personality. He was an utterly abnormal man; his genius exaggerated his manhood, and he was addicted to the wildest of extravagances the most reckless of excesses. For this on, therefore, he can be compared, among litterateurs, most aptly to Lord Byron. Unlike Byron, however, Balzac was unpardon-ably mercenary.
Avarice was the most vicious trait in his character. He placed a monetary value upon everything; his relations, especially his mother, he drained of money without scruple, and even at the climax of his romance he wrote and told his inamorata that his recent letters to her were worth 1,6oo francs: 2,000 francs, including the sheets he had enclosed for Mademoiselle Borel, a governess whom he was arranging to place in a nunnery.
A more conceited man than Balzac, moreover, never lived. His vanity knew no bounds; while still a child he was convinced in his own mind of his capabilities. For many years, however, he stood upon the stage, hidden and unnoticed among the chorus; but at last the limelight was thrown upon him, and then the world saw him as for a Long while he had seen himself.
Again, Balzac soon grew dissatisfied with the fortune of his birth. His parents were comparatively well-to-do and eminently provicial provincial bourgeois, but this was not good enough for the son. Accordingly, and apparently without justification, he claimed relationship with the D'etrague family; and then, on finding in a fifth cen-tury document that a concession of land bad been made by a De Balzac, immediately assumed the de " as a prefix to his own name. Thus disguised as Honore d'etragues de Balzac he was able to deceive himself into believing that he really was a person of great importance and noble ancestry,and he deceived himself more successfully than he deceived his friends.
His childhood and early struggles call for but little mention here. 'i'll. ever, are years of intense and absorbing biographical interest, for Balzac, like Byron. made life fantastic.
His parents afforded him a liberal education, but Balzac took but little trouble to avail himself of it.
Human nature was his chosen study; to write was his sole ambition. And, while still a child, he selected the journalistic world his Utopia, His parents tried to turn him from his purpose, but in vain.
In 1819, therefore, seeing that he was obdurate, they took an attic for him in the Rue Lesdiguieres,and allowed him to go to
Paris.Two years of struuggle, they thought, would serve to dispel his illusions and convince him of his folly more effectively than could argument.
In this, however,they were mi although bis initial efforts ended in failure, and in that Which is more but. 1 than failure,
Letters from "The Stranger"
Conscious of the power which lay latent in him, Balzac worked industriously to develop it. The quality of his writings improved rapidly, and in 1829, on the publication of the " Physiologie de Manage," suddenly he became famous. "From the day of its appearance," declared Werdet, "literature counted another master, and France another Moliere." Success followed success. "Scenes de la Vie Privee" and "Peau de Chagrin" both appeared before 1832; and the latter, the immortal story of the wild ass's skin, was perhaps the greatest triumph of his life.
Balzac was now the man of the hour. The chorus of praise was universal; he was overwhelmed with flattery, inundated with praise. It is surprising, therefore, except to the fatalist, that one short, anonymous letter which he received at this time should have impressed him deeply. He received many such letters, and many of them must have been more worthy of notice than that in question, for, although it has not been preserved, it appears to have been remarkable neither in style nor for its sentiments. But, none the less, this letter touched some subtle chord in Balzac's heart. Some mystery surrounded the person of the writer. This, instinct told him. The letter, which was signed "L'etrangere," bore the postmark Odessa. More than this Balzac could not discover; in spite of his endeavours, he failed to unmask the stranger's incognito. This served only to stimulate his interest, and he allowed it to run riot; in his mind he created delightful and romantic pictures of himself and his mysterious admirer.
Seven months later he received another letter in the same handwriting. On this occasion the tone was less constrained, and clinging to the letter was an element of pathos which stirred the passion in his soul from its very depths.
"You, no doubt," "L'etrangere" wrote, "love and are loved; the union of angels must be your lot. Your souls must have unknown felicities. The Stranger loves you both, and desires to be your friend. She likewise knows how to love, but that is all. . . . Ah, you understand me."
This was soon followed by a third letter: "A word from you in the" Quotidienne," it said, " will give me the assurance that you have received my letter, and that I can write to you without uneasiness. Sign it 'a. l'e------'. H. deb."
Balzac now was delighted, and despatched his reply immediately. On December 9 it appeared duly in the " agony column " of the " Quotidienne." " M. de B. has received the letter; only to-day has he been enabled to acknowledge it by this paper; he regrets he does not know where to address his reply. A. l'e-------. H. de B."
In the following spring (1833), L'etrangere made herself known to Balzac; she was, she declared, the Countess Evelina Hanska, the wife of a Polish nobleman living at Wierzchowna, in the Ukraine. She gave him to understand, moreover, that she was young and beautiful, and, although immensely rich, not happy with her husband.