Balzac at Thirty

Like Dickens, Balzac contained his age, and again like Dickens he had an immediate sense of his public. When later on he was criticized for potboiling he said hotly that an artist who has no private means and who is not supported by some sinecure in his government has to pay attention to popular taste and the demands of editors. The young Balzac first reached a large public with a very hot boiler. There was a passing craze for revaluations—what were called physiologies; and in 1829, Balzac dashed off a Physiologie du mariage—“by a Bachelor.” He was thirty. The book was not only wittily topical; it drew on something central and quite serious in Balzac’s nature. The cynical bachelor did really think that marriage ought to be made more agreeable among the rising middle classes. The book made him notorious if not famous, and established him in the minds of a large number of women readers. They might be angry, they might be admiring, they wrote hundreds of arguing, confessional, or ecstatic letters to the writer who was so much on their side and who had the gift of intimacy. For the rest of his life women were his chief correspondents.

For if there was one thing the “celestial” Balzac family knew all about it was domestic love. Not the cold campaigns of seduction in Les Liaisons dangereuses; not the crystalizing of the varieties of the passion which Stendhal had examined in De l’amour only a few years before, for Balzac lacked that psychological fineness; but love in the married state, love in the household. Indeed he might have quoted Sterne:

Love, you see, is not so much a Sentiment as a Situation, into which a man enters, as my brother Toby would do, in a corps—no matter whether he loves the service or no—being once in it, he acts as he did….

He had listened to his father’s “utterances” drawn from Tristram Shandy and Rabelais, as the father sat at home with a restless wife who had presented him with another man’s child. He had seen one sister die early in a marriage that had become wretched. His first two mistresses, Mme de Berny and the Duchesse d’Abrantès, were married women, both older than his mother and more than twenty years older than himself—so that at this time he could be said to be a young man with three mothers, all on the worst of terms with one another. He had listened to the unhappy life stories of the tender Mme de Berny, who had been brought up as a girl at the court of Versailles; and in the company of the Duchesse heard confidences of the somewhat businesslike attitude to love at Napoleon’s court. The Duchesse had even been the mistress of Metternich. One can hear these voices mixed with his in the Physiologie.

Balzac had the journalist’s talent for having it all ways. Blatantly imitating Stendhal, he spiced his confection with anecdotes and aphorisms,…

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