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, and with satirical gambols, like his praise of the female headache:
O migraine, protectrice des amours, impôt conjugale, bouclier sur lequel viennent expirer tous les désirs maritaux…. Honte au médecin que te trouverait un préservatif.
That might have come from Molière. The book is genial, frank in its sexuality, and has a streak of the vulgar. Its conclusion is very moral: a plea for sincere love. The fact is that the roving bachelor liked even his loose women to be settled among their household goods. The hope for the married woman lies in the art of becoming the mistress-wife. La Physiologie du mariage owed its success to Balzac’s adroit perception of a change in women’s attitudes since the eighteenth century. In its defense of married women in their virtues, sufferings, or in their delinquencies, it caught a tide that was running for female emancipation which had become powerful.
For the Napoleonic wars had made love sudden and short, and marriages desperate and unstable; but now two impulses appeared in the mind of the “new” middle-class woman. In one she was tempted by a longing to revive the illicit intrigues of the aristocracy of the ancien regime; but, with inborn respectability, she required a moral veil to be cast over what went on under the system of the arranged marriage and the dowry. She required an appropriate hypocrisy: vice was eager to pay its tribute to virtue. (In La Cousine Bette, Balzac notes the change when Mme Marneffe, the new courtesan, puts on sentimental, religious, and moral airs, and always speaks of her “fall” as she skillfully bleeds her lovers.)
The second impulse was more elevated. It was directed to a mystical emancipation; concentrated in the Saint-Simonist movement and particularly in the figure of Enfantin, who held that “the definite moral law can only be revealed by Man and Woman, and that its application must be the result of their harmonious association.” Another cult, directed to the emancipation of women, was called Evadaisme—the word combines the names Adam and Eve. The status of women was raised, according to this doctrine, by putting Eve’s name first. The leader of this cult was called Le Mapah. He wrote innumerable pamphlets, one of which contains the verse quoted by Enid Starkie in her book on Petrus Borel:
Mary is no longer the Mother. She is the wife.
Jesus Christ is no longer the son. He is the husband.
The old world (confession) is coming to an end.
The new world (expansion) is about to begin.
The noisy man-woman who wore trousers, smoked cigars, and was popularly known as the lionne appeared in the imitations of George Sand and was a by-product of this new theology. If Balzac’s common sense leaves such speculations aside in the Physiologie he had his own quasi-scientific interest in androgynous beings.
In the meantime Balzac had found a public. He turned to writing feuilletons for the new reviews like La Revue de Paris, Le Charivari, which published Daumier’s drawings, and the gossipy Caricature. And in one series of stories, La Femme de trente ans, he strengthened his hold on his readers. He had shrewdly noted one more change in social wishes. The conventional notion was that after her marriage by the time she was twenty, a woman ceased to be interesting; yet at thirty she was still young. Women who had been forced into marriage and were isolated, betrayed, took lovers, and were abandoned, were forced to come to terms with circumstance: it is Mme de Berny’s story. The joke that went around Paris was that a clever new writer of light novelettes had extended the age of love for women by ten years.
The Balzac we know begins to appear. His hand as a writer of “black” romance is seen in the terrible drama of El Verdugo, in which a Spanish father tells his son to execute the whole family to save it from the dishonor of being executed by the French invaders. But after this Balzac abandons fashionable romance for the daily life he knows best. In the collection of stories he eventually assembled under the title of Scènes de la vie privée, there are stories of the sentiments: the wife deceived by her husband; the woman abandoned by her lover; the old age of a woman whom marriage has deceived and whose lover is in conflict with her daughter. And, more important and coherent, there is the portrait of Gobseck, the moneylender; the delightful study of a rebellious girl—from an incident in the early life of his sister Laure—in the Bal de Sceaux; Le Curé de Tours with its portrait of the innocent old Abbé who is destroyed by making an enemy of his landlady; and Colonel Chabert.
The last two are very fine short stories, and although Balzac came to despise the form in time, he showed an absolute mastery in it. He moved with discursive ease among stories that depended on exact observation of circumstance, moved on to the changes of feeling and behavior of men and women brought up under different dispensations: the old survivors of the ancien régime in their châteaux in Touraine; the people who had known the Revolution and the wars; and the people of the restored monarchy. Again and again we hear his explaining voice, with his sudden eager phrase “voici pourquoi—that is why” such and such an event emerged from the circumstances he has set out.
“That is why” is at the heart of his stories. His characters are items of social history, but warm and alive. He had, up till now, spent his time listening to everyone—above all listening to women, lawyers, returned soldiers. He had met many veterans at the house of his brother-in-law at St. Cyr, and there were thousands in Paris anyway. The story of Colonel Chabert comes from one of those encounters, and its content is worth examining for it already shows Balzac as more than a raconteur or conventional realist. The story opens with a minute but vivacious description of a lawyer’s office and its bumptious, slangy clerks—“puddle jumpers”—who are shooting pellets of bread at an old man dressed in a coachman’s coat passing in the street below. Balzac is a master of office slang.
The old man comes into the office and stands, monosyllabic, before the mocking clerks, who treat him as an idiot. His skin is transparent, he is a motionless, shabby, living corpse with the air of a tragic idiot.
“I am Colonel Chabert,” he says.
“Which Colonel Chabert?” the clerk says.
“The one who was killed at Eylau,” he replies.
We are at once in the middle of a terrifying story of how the Colonel has groped back to life from under the bodies of a mass grave on the battlefield and has managed after a year or two to crawl back to France. He is a man who is officially “dead” and therefore has no identity. He has come to the lawyers to establish that he is living and to trace his wife who has married again and, of course, has inherited his money. The struggle to recover an inheritance is a theme to which Balzac continually returned. Where Balzac shows his mastery is in setting the central part of the story in a lawyer’s office, for this establishes that the dead man’s return to life is really a return to a world dominated by greed; and it enables Balzac to make two reflections that bear not only on the surface of the tale, but on its moral theme.
Of the lawyer’s dirty office, with its clerks who jeer at the poor wretches who come to get justice or revenge there, he writes:
After the second-hand clothes shop, a lawyer’s office is the most horrifying of street markets our society has to offer. It is on a par with the gambling house, the courts, the lottery office and the brothel. What is the explanation? Because perhaps they place dramas of the human soul in a scene which is utterly indifferent to their hopes.
Copyright © 1973 by V. S. Pritchett.