Honoré De Balzac (1799-1850), French novelist, was born at Tours on the 20th of May 1799. His father, Bernard François, never called himself de Balzac and Honoré only assumed the particle after 1830. But the father had equally little right to the name of Balzac at all, for his birth-certificate has been recently discovered. The true name was "Balssa," and this in various forms ("Balsa," "Balsas") has been traced for more than a century before the novelist's birth as that of a family of day-labourers or very small peasant proprietors in the parish of Canezac, department of the Tarn. It is probable that the novelist himself was not aware of this, and his father appears to have practised some mystification as to his own professional career. In and after the Revolution, however, he actually attained positions of some importance in the commissariat and hospital departments of the army, and he married in 1797 Anne Charlotte Laure Sallambier, who was a beauty, an heiress, and a woman of considerable faculty.
She survived her son; the father died in 1829. There were two sisters (the elder, Laure, afterwards Madame Surville, was her brother's favourite and later his biographer), and a younger brother, Henri, of whom we hear little and that little not very favourable.
Honoré was put out to nurse till he was four years old, and in 1806, when he was seven, was sent to the collège (grammar school) of Vendôme, where he remained till April 1813 as a strict boarder without any holidays. From this he passed as a day-boy to the collège of Tours. His father's official work was transferred to Paris the year after, and Balzac came under the teaching of a royalist private schoolmaster, M. Lepitre, and others. He left school altogether in 1816, being then between seventeen and eighteen. His experiences at Vendôme served as base for much of Louis Lambert, and he seems to have been frequently in disgrace. Later, his teachers appear to have found him remarkable neither for good nor for evil. He was indeed never a scholar; but he must have read a good deal, and as he certainly had no time for it later, much of this reading must have been done early.
The profession which Balzac's father chose for him was the law; and he not only passed through the schools thereof, and duly obtained his licence, but had three years' practical experience in the offices of a notary and a solicitor (avoué), for the latter of whom, M. Guillonnet-Merville, he seems to have had a sincere respect. But though no man of letters has ever had, in some ways, such a fancy for business, no man of business could ever come out of such a born man of letters. And when in 1820 (the licence having been obtained and M. Balzac, senior, having had some losses) the father wished the son to become a practising lawyer in one or another branch, Honoré revolted. His family had left Paris, and they tried to starve him into submission by establishing him in a garret with a very small allowance. Here he began to write tragedies, corresponded (in letters which have fortunately been preserved) with his sister Laure, and, most important of all, attempted something in prose fiction. The tragedy Cromwell was actually completed and read to friends if not to others; nay more, the manuscript exists in the hands of M. Spoelberch de Lovenjoul, the great authority on Balzac's life and bibliography; but it has never been published.
The novels, Cocqsigrue and Stella, proved abortions, but were only the first of many attempts at his true way until he found it. Drama he never abandoned; but for him it was always an error.
The garret-period from 1820 to 1822 was succeeded by another of equal length at home, but before it had finished (1821) he found his way into print with the first of the singular productions which (and that not entirely or finally) have taken a sort of outside place in his works under the title of oeuvres de jeunesse. The incunabula of Balzac were Les Deux Hector, ou Les Deux Families bretonnes, and Charles Pointel, ou Mon Cousin de la main gauche. They were followed next year by six others: - L'Héritière de Birague; Jean Louis, ou La Fille trouvée; Clotilde de Lusignan, ou Le Beau Juif; Le Centenaire, ou Les Deux Beringheld; Le Vicaire des Ardennes; Le Tartare, ou Le Retour de l'exilé. And these were again followed up in 1823 by three more: La Dernière Fée, ou La Nouvelle Lampe merveilleuse; Michel et Christine et la suite; L'Anonyme, ou Ni père ni mère. In 1824 came Annette et le criminel, a continuation of the Vicaire; in 1825, Wann-Chlore, which afterwards took the less extravagant title of Jane la pâle. These novels, which filled some two score volumes originally, were published under divers pseudonyms ("Lord R'hoone," an anagram of "Honoré," "Horace de Saint Aubin," etc.), and in actual collaboration with two or three other writers.
But though there is not yet in them anything more than the faintest dawn of the true Balzac, though no one of them is good as a whole, and very few parts deserve that word except with much qualification, they deserve far more study than they have usually received, and it is difficult to apprehend the true Balzac until they have been studied. They ceased for a time, not because of the author's conviction of their badness (though he entertained no serious delusions on this subject), nor because they failed of a certain success in actual money return, but because he had taken to the earliest, the most prolonged, and the most disastrous of his dabblings in business - this time as a publisher to some extent and still more as a printer and type-founder. Not very much was known about his experiences in this way (except their general failure, and the result in hampering him with a load of debt directly for some ten years and indirectly for the whole of his life) till in 1903 MM. Hanotaux and Vicaire published the results of their inquiries into the actual accounts of the concern.