I adjusted this difficulty, somehow or other—I do not just remember how—and began to think that, after all, this publisher’s view of things was probably that of the English and American public. It is strange that so many biographies and so many appreciations of the greatest novelist who ever lived should still have left him, in the eyes of the reading public, little more than “an immoral Frenchman.”
“In Balzac,” said Taine, “there was a money-broker, an archeologist, an architect, an upholsterer, a tailor, an old-clothes dealer, a journeyman apprentice, a physician, and a notary.” Balzac was also a mystic, a supernaturalist, and, above all, a consummate artist. No one who is all these things in high measure, and who has raised himself by his genius above his countrymen, deserves the censure of my former publisher.
Still less is Balzac to be dismissed as “immoral,” for his life was one of singular self-sacrifice in spite of much temptation. His face was strongly sensual, his look and bearing denoted almost savage power; he led a free life in a country which allowed much freedom; and yet his story is almost mystic in its fineness of thought, and in its detachment, which was often that of another world.
Balzac was born in 1799, at Tours, with all the traits of the people of his native province—fond of eating and drinking, and with plenty of humor. His father was fairly well off. Of four children, our Balzac was the eldest. The third was his sister Laure, who throughout his life was the most intimate friend he had, and to whom we owe his rescue from much scandalous and untrue gossip. From her we learn that their father was a combination of Montaigne, Rabelais, and “Uncle Toby.”
Young Balzac went to a clerical school at seven, and stayed there for seven years. Then he was brought home, apparently much prostrated, although the good fathers could find nothing physically amiss with him, and nothing in his studies to account for his agitation. No one ever did discover just what was the matter, for he seemed well enough in the next few years, basking on the riverside, watching the activities of his native town, and thoroughly studying the rustic types that he was afterward to make familiar to the world. In fact, in Louis Lambert he has set before us a picture of his own boyish life, very much as Dickens did of his in David Copperfield.
For some reason, when these years were over, the boy began to have what is so often known as “a call”—a sort of instinct that he was to attain renown. Unfortunately it happened that about this time (1814) he and his parents removed to Paris, which was his home by choice, until his death in 1850. He studied here under famous teachers, and gave three years to the pursuit of law, of which he was very fond as literary material, though he refused to practise.
This was the more grievous, since a great part of the family property had been lost. The Balzacs were afflicted by actual poverty, and Honore endeavored, with his pen, to beat the wolf back from the door. He earned a little money with pamphlets and occasional stories, but his thirst for fame was far from satisfied. He was sure that he was called to literature, and yet he was not sure that he had the power to succeed. In one of his letters to his sister, he wrote: