In 1843 came the introduction of the completed Sur Cathérine de Médicis, Honorine and La Muse du département (almost as often reconstructed as La Femme de trente ans), with Comment aiment les jeunes filles (a similar rehandling intended to start the collected Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes), and a further instalment of Illusions perdues, Les Souffrances d'un inventeur. Three out of the next four years were astonishingly fruitful. 1844 gave Modeste Mignon (a book with a place to itself, and said to be founded on a story actually written by Madame Hanska), Gaudissart II., A combien l'amour revient aux vieillards (a second part of the Splendeurs), Béatrix (one of the most powerful if not of the most agreeable), and the first and very promising part of Les Paysans. Only Un Homme d'affaires came out in 1845, but this was made up in 1846 by Les Comédiens sans le savoir (sketched earlier), another part of the Splendeurs, Où mènent les mauvais chemins, the first part of Les Parents pauvres, La Cousine Bette (sometimes considered the topmost achievement of Balzac's genius), and the final form of a work first issued fifteen years earlier and often retouched, Petites misères de la vie conjugale. 1847 was even richer, with Le Cousin Pons (the second part of Les Parents pauvres, and again a masterpiece), the conclusion of the Splendeurs, La Dernière Incarnation de Vautrin, L'Envers de l'histoire contemporaine (which had been on and off the stocks for five years), and the unfinished Député d'Arcis. This was the last scene of the comedy that appeared in the life of its author.

The conclusion of the Député d'Arcis, published in 1853, and those of Les Paysans and Les Petits Bourgeois which appeared, the first in this year, the second wholly in 1855, are believed or known to be by Balzac's friend, Charles Rabou (1803-1871).

This immense and varied total stands to its author in a somewhat different relation from that of any other work to any other writer. It has been well said that the whole of Balzac's production was always in his head together; and this is the main justification for his syllabus of it as the "Comedy." Some part never came out of his head into print; we have numerous titles of work (sometimes spoken of in his letters as more or less finished) of which no trace remains, or only fragmentary MS. sketches. One apparently considerable book, La Bataille, which was to be devoted to the battle of Essling, and for which he actually visited the ground, is frequently referred to as in progress from the time of his early letters to Madame Hanska onwards; but it has never been found. Another result of this relation was the constant altering, re-shaping, re-connecting of the different parts. That if Balzac had lived as long as Hugo, and had preserved his faculties as well, he could never have finished the Comédie, is of course obvious: the life of Methuselah, with the powers of Shakespeare, would not suffice for that. But that he never would - even if by some impossibility he could - is almost equally certain.

Whether there is any mark of decline in his latest work has been disputed, but there could hardly have been farther advance, and the character of the whole, not easy to define, is much less hard to comprehend, if prejudice be kept out of the way. That character was put early, but finally, by Victor Hugo in his funeral discourse on Balzac, whose work he declared, with unusual terseness, among other phrases of more or less gorgeous rhetoric, to be "observation and imagination." It may be doubted whether all the volumes written on Balzac (a reasoned catalogue of the best of which will be found below) have ever said more than these three words, or have ever said it more truly if the due stress be laid upon the "and." On the other side, most of the mistakes about him have arisen from laying undue stress on one of the two qualities, or from considering them separately rather than as inextricably mixed and blended. It is this blending which gives him his unique position. He is an observer of the most exact, the most minute, the most elaborate; but he suffuses this observation with so strange and constant an imaginative quality that he is, to some careful and experienced critics, never quite "real" - or almost always something more than real.

He seems accustomed to create in a fashion which is not so much of the actual world as of some other, possible but not actual - no matter whether he deals with money or with love, with Paris or with the provinces, with old times or with new. A further puzzle has arisen from the fact that though Balzac has virtuous characters, he sees humanity on the whole "in black": and that, whether he actually prefers the delineation of vice, misfortune, failure, or not, he produces as a rule in his readers the sensation familiarly described as "uncomfortable." His morality has been fiercely attacked and valiantly defended, but it is absolutely certain that he wrote with no immoral intention, and with no indifference to morality. In the same way there has been much discussion of his style, which seldom achieves beauty, and sometimes falls short of correctness, but which still more seldom lacks force and adequacy to his own purpose. On the whole, to write with the shorthand necessary here, it is idle to claim for Balzac an absolute supremacy in the novel, while it may be questioned whether any single book of his, or any scene of a book, or even any single character or situation, is among the very greatest books, scenes, characters, situations in literature.

But no novelist has created on the same scale, with the same range; none has such a cosmos of his own, pervaded with such a sense of the originality and power of its creator.

Balzac's life during these twenty years of strenuous production has, as regards the production itself, been already outlined, but its outward events, its distractions or avocations - apart from that almost weekly process of "raising the wind," of settling old debts by contracting new ones, which seems to have taken up no small part of it - must now be shortly dealt with. Besides constant visits to the Margonne family at Sache in Touraine, and to the Carrauds at Frapesle in Berry, he travelled frequently in France. He went in 1833 to Neuchatel for his first meeting with Madame Hanska, to Geneva later for his second, and to Vienna in 1835 for his third. He took at least two flights to Italy, in more or less curious circumstances. In 1838, he went on a journey to Sardinia to make his fortune by melting the silver out of the slag-heaps of Roman mines - a project, it seems, actually feasible and actually accomplished, but in which he was anticipated. The year before, tired of Paris apartments, he had bought ground at Ville d'Avray, and there constructed, certainly at great, though perhaps exaggerated expense, his villa of Les Jardies, which figures largely in the Balzacian legend.

His rash and complicated literary engagements, and (it must be added) his disregard of them when the whim took him, brought him into frequent legal difficulties, the most serious of which was a law-suit with the Revue de Paris in 1836. In 1831, and again in 1834, he had thought of standing for election as Deputy, and in the latter year he actually did so both at Cambrai and Angoulême; but it is not certain that he received any votes. He also more than once took steps to become a candidate for the Academy, but retired on several occasions before the voting, and when at last, in 1849, he actually stood, he only obtained two votes.

As early as the Genevan meeting of 1833, Madame Hanska had formally promised to marry Balzac in the case of her husband's death, and this occurred at the end of 1841. She would not, however, allow him even to visit her till the next year had expired, and then, though he travelled to St Petersburg and the engagement was renewed after a fashion, its fulfilment was indefinitely postponed. For some years Balzac met his beloved at Baden, Wiesbaden, Brussels, Paris, Rome and elsewhere. Only in September 1847 was he invited on the definite footing of her future husband to her estate of Wierzschovnia in the Ukraine; and even then the visit, interrupted by one excursion to Paris and back, was prolonged for more than two years before (on the 14th of March 1850) the wedding actually took place. But Balzac's own Peau de chagrin was now reduced to its last morsel. His health, weakened by his enormous labours, had been ruined by the Russian cold and his journeyings across Europe. The pair reached the house at Paris in the rue Fortunée, which Balzac had bought for his wife and filled with his collections, at the end of May. On Sunday, the 17th of August, Victor Hugo found Balzac dying, attended by his mother, but not by his wife.

He actually died at half-past eleven that night and was buried on the 20th, the pall-bearers being Hugo himself, Dumas, Sainte-Beuve (an enemy, but in this case a generous one) and the statesman Baroche, in Père La Chaise, where Hugo delivered the speech cited above.