The first man who has completely understood Balzac is Rodin, and it has taken Rodin ten years to realise his own conception.1 France has refused the statue in which a novelist is represented as a dreamer, to whom Paris is not so much Paris as Patmos: ‘the most Parisian of our novelists,’ Frenchmen assure you. It is more than a hundred years since Balzac was born: a hundred years is a long time in which to be misunderstood with admiration.

In choosing the name of the Human Comedy for a series of novels in which as he says, there is at once ‘the history and the criticism of society, the analysis of its evils, and the discussion of its principles,’ Balzac proposed to do for the modern world what Dante, in his Divine Comedy, had done for the world of the Middle Ages. Condemned to write in prose, and finding his opportunity in that restriction, he created for himself a form which is perhaps the nearest equivalent for the epic or the poetic drama, and the only form in which, at all events, the epic is now possible. The world of Dante was materially simple compared with the world of the nineteenth century; the ‘visible world’ had not yet begun to ‘exist,’ in its tyrannical modern sense;2 the complications of the soul interested only the Schoolmen, and were a part of theology; poetry could still represent an age and yet be poetry. But today poetry can no longer represent more than the soul of things; it had taken refuge from the terrible improvements of civilisation in a divine seclusion, where it sings, disregarding the many voices of the street. Prose comes offering its infinite capacity for detail; and it is by the infinity of its detail that the novel, as Balzac created it, has become the modern epic.

There had been great novels, indeed, before Balzac, but no great novelist; and the novels themselves are scarcely what we should today call by that name. The interminable Astrée and its companions form a link between the fabliaux and the novel,3 and from them developed the characteristic eighteenth-century conte, in narrative, letters, or dialogue, as we see it in Marivaux, Laclos, Crébillon fils.4 Crébillon’s longer works, including Le Sopha, with their conventional paraphernalia of Eastern fable, are extremely tedious; but in two short pieces, La Nuit et le Moment and Le Hasard du Coin du Feu, he created a model of witty, naughty, deplorably natural comedy, which to this day is one of the most characteristic French forms of fiction. Properly, however, it is a form of the drama rather than of the novel. Laclos, in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a masterpiece which scandalised the society that adored Crébillon, because its naked human truth left no room for sentimental excuses, comes much nearer to prefiguring the novel (as Stendhal, for instance, is afterward to conceive it), but still preserves the awkward traditional form of letters. Marivaux had indeed already seemed to suggest the novel of analysis, but in a style which has christened a whole manner of writing that precisely which is least suited to the writing of fiction. Voltaire’s contes, La Religieuse of Diderot, are tracts or satires in which the story is only an excuse for the purpose. Rousseau, too, has his purpose, even in La Nouvelle Héloïse, but it is a humanising purpose; and with that book the novel of passion comes into existence, and along with it the descriptive novel.5 Yet with Rousseau this result is an accident of genius; we cannot call him a novelist; and we find him abandoning the form he has found, for another, more closely personal, which suits him better. Restif de la Bretonne, who followed Rousseau at a distance, not altogether wisely, developed the form of half-imaginary autobiography in Monsieur Nicolas, a book of which the most significant part may be compared with Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris.6 Morbid and even mawkish as it is, it has a certain uneasy, unwholesome humanity in its confessions, which may seem to have set a fashion only too scrupulously followed by modern French novelists. Meanwhile, the Abbé Prévost’s one great story, Manon Lescaut, had brought for once a purely objective study, of an incomparable simplicity, into the midst of these analyses of difficult souls;7 and then we return to the confession, in the works of others not novelists: Benjamin Constant, Mme. De Staël, Chateaubriand, in Adolphe, Corinne, René.8 At once we are in the Romantic movement, a movement which begins lyrically among poets, and at first with a curious disregard of the more human part of humanity.

Balzac worked contemporaneously with the Romantic movement, but he worked outside it, and its influence upon him is felt only in an occasional pseudo-romanticism, like the episode of the pirate in La Femme de Trente Ans. His vision of humanity was essentially a poetic vision, but he was a poet whose dreams were facts. Knowing that, as Mme. Necker has said, ‘the novel should be the better world,’ he knew also that ‘the novel would be nothing if, in that august lie, it were not true in details.’9 And in the Human Comedy he proposed to himself to do for society more than Buffon had done for the animal world.10

‘There is but one animal,’ he declares, in his Avant-Propos, with a confidence which Darwin has not yet come to justify. But ‘there exists, there will always exist, social species, as there are zoological species.’ ‘Thus the work to be done will have a triple form: men, women, and things; that is to say, human beings and the material representation which they give to their thought; in short, man and life.’ And, studying after nature, ‘French society will be the historian, I shall need to be no more than the secretary.’ Thus will be written ‘the history forgotten by so many historians, the history of manners.’ But that is not all, for ‘passion is the whole of humanity.’ ‘In realizing clearly the drift of the composition, it will be seen that I assign to facts, constant, daily, open, or secret, to the acts of individual life, to their causes and principles, as much importance as historians had formerly attached to the events of the public life of nations.’ ‘Facts gathered together and painted as they are, with passion for element,’ is one of his definitions of the task he has undertaken. And in a letter to Mme. de Hanska, he summarises every detail of his scheme.

The Études des Moeurs will represent social effects, without a single situation of life, or physiognomy, or a character of man or woman, or a manner of life, or a profession, or a social zone, or a district of France, or anything pertaining to childhood, old age, or maturity, politics, justice, or war, having been forgotten.

That laid down, the history of the human heart traced link by link, the history of society made in all its details, we have the base. …

Then, the second stage is the Études philosophiques, for after the effects come the causes. In the Études des Moeurs I shall have painted the sentiments and their action, life and the fashion of life. In the Études philosophiques I shall say why the sentiments, on what the life.…

Then, after the effects and the causes, come the Études analytiques, to which the Physiologie du mariage belongs, for, after the effects and the causes, one should seek the principles. …

After having done the poetry, the demonstration, of a whole system, I shall do the science in the Essai sur les forces humaines. And, on the bases of this palace I shall have traced the immense arabesque of the Cent Contes drolatiques!

Quite all that, as we know, was not carried out; but there, in its intention, is the plan; and after twenty years’ work the main part of it, certainly, was carried out. Stated with this precise detail, it has something of a scientific air, as of a too deliberate attempt upon the sources of life by one of those systematic French minds which are so much more logical than facts. But there is one little phrase to be noted: ‘La passion est toute l’humanité.’* All Balzac is in that phrase.

Another French novelist, following, as he thought, the example of the Human Comedy, has endeavoured to build up a history of his own time with even greater minuteness. But Les Rougeon-Macquart is no more than system; Zola has never understood that detail without life is the wardrobe without the man. Trying to outdo Balzac on his own ground, he has made the fatal mistake of taking him only on his systematic side, which in Balzac is subordinate to a great creative intellect, an incessant, burning thought about men and women, a passionate human curiosity for which even his own system has no limits. ‘The misfortunes of the Birotteaus, the priest and the perfumer,’ he says, in his Avant-Propos, taking an example at random, ‘are, for me, those of humanity.’ To Balzac manners are but the vestment of life; it is life that he seeks; and life, to him (it is his own word) is but the vestment of thought. Thought is at the root of all his work, a whole system of thought, in which philosophy is but another form of poetry; and it is from this root of idea that the Human Comedy springs.


The two books into which Balzac has put his deepest thought, the two books which he himself cared for the most, are Séraphita and Louis Lambert. Of Louis Lambert he said: ‘I write it for myself and a few others’; of Séraphita: ‘My life is in it.’ ‘One could write Goriot any day,’ he adds; ‘Séraphita only once in a lifetime.’ I have never been able to feel that Séraphita is altogether a success. It lacks the breadth of life; it is glacial. True, he aimed at producing very much such an effect; and it is, indeed, full of a strange, glittering beauty, the beauty of its own snows. But I find in it at the same time something a little factitious, a sort of romanesque, not altogether unlike the sentimental romanesque of Novalis;11 it has not done the impossible, in humanising abstract speculation, in fusing mysticism and the novel. But for the student of Balzac it has extraordinary interest; for it is at once the base and the summit of the Human Comedy. In a letter to Mme. de Hanska, written in 1837, four years after Séraphita had been begun, he writes: ‘I am not orthodox, and I do not believe in the Roman Church. Swedenborgianism, which is but a repetition, in the Christian sense, of ancient ideas, is my religion, with this addition: that I believe in the incomprehensibility of God.’ Séraphita is a prose poem in which the most abstract part of that mystical system, which Swedenborg perhaps materialised too crudely, is presented in a white light, under a single, superhuman image. In Louis Lambert the same fundamental conceptions are worked out in the study of a perfectly human intellect, ‘an intelligent gulf,’ as he truly calls it; a sober and concise history of ideas in their devouring action upon a feeble physical nature. In these two books we see directly, and not through the coloured veil of human life, the mind in the abstract of a thinker whose power over humanity was the power of abstract thought. They show this novelist, who has invented the description of society, by whom the visible world has been more powerfully felt than by any other novelist, striving to penetrate the correspondences which exist between the human and the celestial existence. He would pursue the soul to its last resting-place before it takes flight from the body; further, on its disembodied flight; he would find out God, as he comes nearer and nearer to finding out the secret of life. And realising, as he does so profoundly, that there is but one substance, but one ever-changing principle of life, ‘one vegetable, one animal, but a continual intercourse,’ the world is alive with meaning for him, a more intimate meaning than it has for others. ‘The least flower is a thought, a life which corresponds to some lineaments of the great whole, of which he has the constant intuition.’ And so, in his concerns with the world, he will find spirit everywhere; nothing for him will be inert matter, everything will have its particle of the universal life. One of those divine spies, for whom the world has no secrets, he will be neither pessimist nor optimist; he will accept the world as a man accepts the woman whom he loves, as much for her defects as for her virtues. Loving the world for its own sake, he will find it always beautiful, equally beautiful in all its parts. Now let us look at the programme which he traced for the Human Comedy, let us realise it in the light of this philosophy, and we are at the beginning of a conception of what the Human Comedy really is.


This visionary, then, who had apprehended for himself an idea of God, set himself to interpret human life more elaborately than any one else. He has been praised for his patient observation; people have thought they praised him in calling him a realist; it has been discussed how far his imitation of life was the literal truth of the photograph. But to Balzac the word realism was an insult. Writing his novels at the rate of eighteen hours a day, in a feverish solitude, he never had the time to observe patiently. It is humanity seen in a mirror, the humanity which comes to the great dreamers, the great poets, humanity as Shakespeare saw it. And so in him, as in all the great artists, there is something more than nature, a divine excess. This something more than nature should be the aim of the artist, not merely the accident which happens to him against his will. We require of him a world like our own, but a world infinitely more vigorous, interesting, profound; more beautiful with that kind of beauty which nature finds of itself for art. It is the quality of great creative art to give us so much life that we are almost overpowered by it, as by an air almost too vigorous to breathe: the exuberance of creation which makes the Sibyl of Michelangelo something more than human, which makes Lear something more than human, in one kind or another of divinity.

Balzac’s novels are full of strange problems and great passions. He turned aside from nothing which presented itself in nature; and his mind was always turbulent with the magnificent contrasts and caprices of fate. A devouring passion of thought burned on all the situations by which humanity expresses itself, in its flight from the horror of immobility. To say that the situations which he chose are often romantic is but to say that he followed the soul and the senses faithfully on their strangest errands. Our probable novelists of today are afraid of whatever emotion might be misinterpreted in a gentleman. Believing, as we do now, in nerves and a fatalistic heredity, we have left but little room for the dignity and disturbance of violent emotion. To Balzac, humanity had not changed since the days when Oedipus was blinded and Philoctetes cried in the cave; and equally great miseries were still possible to mortals, though they were French and of the nineteenth century.

And thus he creates, like the poets, a humanity more logical than average life; more typical, more sub-divided among the passions, and having in its veins an energy almost more than human. He realised, as the Greeks did, that human life is made up of elemental passions and necessity; but he was the first to realise that in the modern world the pseudonym of necessity is money. Money and the passions rule the world of his Human Comedy.

And, at the root of the passions, determining their action, he saw ‘those nervous fluids, or that unknown substance which, in default of another term, we must call the will.’ No word returns oftener to his pen. For him the problem is invariable. Man has a given quantity of energy; each man a different quantity: how will he spend it? A novel is the determination in action of that problem. And he is equally interested in every form of energy, in every egoism, so long as it is fiercely itself. This pre-occupation with the force, rather than with any of its manifestations, gives him his singular impartiality, his absolute lack of prejudice; for it gives him the advantage of an abstract point of view, the unchanging fulcrum for a lever which turns in every direction; and as nothing once set vividly in motion by any form of human activity is without interest for him, he makes every point of his vast chronicle of human affairs equally interesting to his readers.

Baudelaire has observed profoundly that every character in the Human Comedy has something of Balzac, has genius.12 To himself, his own genius was entirely expressed in that word ‘will.’ It recurs constantly in his letters. ‘Men of will are rare!’ he cries. And, at the time when he had turned night into day for his labour: ‘I rise every night with a keener will than that of yesterday.’ ‘Nothing wearies me,’ he says, ‘neither waiting nor happiness.’ He exhausts the printers, whose fingers can hardly keep pace with his brain; they call him, he reports proudly, ‘a man-slayer.’ And he tries to express himself: ‘I have always had in me something, I know not what, which made me do differently from others; and, with me, fidelity is perhaps no more than pride. Having only myself to rely upon, I have had to strengthen, to build up that self.’ There is a scene in La Cousine Bette which gives precisely Balzac’s own sentiment of the supreme value of energy. The Baron Hulot, ruined on every side, and by his own fault, goes to Josépha, a mistress who had cast him off in the time of his prosperity, and asks her to lodge him for a few days in a garret. She laughs, pities, and then questions him.

The cry is Balzac’s, and it is a characteristic part of his genius to have given it that ironical force by uttering it through the mouth of a Josépha. The joy of the human organism at its highest point of activity: that is what interests him supremely. How passionate, how moving he becomes whenever he has to speak of a real passion, a mania, whether of a lover for his mistress, of a philosopher for his idea, of a miser for his gold, of a Jew dealer for masterpieces! His style clarifies, his words become flesh and blood; he is the lyric poet. And for him every idealism is equal: the gourmandise of Pons is not less serious, nor less sympathetic, not less perfectly realised, than the search of Claës after the Absolute. ‘The great and terrible clamour of egoism’ is the voice to which he is always attentive: ‘those eloquent faces, proclaiming a soul abandoned to an idea as to a remorse,’ are the faces with whose history he concerns himself. He drags to light the hidden joys of the amateur, and with especial delight those that are hidden deepest, under the most deceptive coverings. He deifies them for their energy, he fashions the world of his Human Comedy in their service, as the real world exists, all but passive, to be the pasture of these supreme egoists.


In all that he writes of life, Balzac seeks the soul, but it is the soul as nervous fluid, the executive soul, not the contemplative soul, that, with rare exceptions, he seeks. He would surprise the motive force of life: that is his recherche de l’Absolu; he figures it to himself as almost a substance, and he is the alchemist on its track. ‘Can man by thinking find out God?’ Or life, he would have added; and he would have answered the question with at least a Perhaps.

And of this visionary, this abstract thinker, it must be said that his thought translates itself always into terms of life. Pose before him a purely mental problem, and he will resolve it by a scene in which the problem literally works itself out. It is the quality proper to the novelist, but no novelist ever employed this quality with such persistent activity, and at the same time subordinated action so constantly to the idea. With him action has always a mental basis, is never suffered to intrude for its own sake. He prefers that an episode should seem in itself tedious rather than it should have an illogical interest.

It may be, for he is a Frenchman, that his episodes are sometimes too logical. There are moments when he becomes unreal because he wishes to be too systematic, that is to be real by measure. He would never have understood the method of Tolstoy, a very stealthy method of surprising life. To Tolstoy life is always the cunning enemy whom one must lull asleep, or noose by an unexpected lasso. He brings in little detail after little detail, seeming to insist on the insignificance of each, in order that it may pass almost unobserved, and be realised only after it has passed. It is his way of disarming the suspiciousness of life.

But Balzac will make no circuit, aims at an open and an unconditional triumph over nature. Thus, when he triumphs, he triumphs signally; and action, in his books, is perpetually crystallising into some phrase, like the single lines of Dante, or some brief scene, in which a whole entanglement comes sharply and suddenly to a luminous point. I will give no instance, for I should have to quote from every volume. I wish rather to remind myself that there are times when the last fine shade of a situation seems to have escaped. Even then, the failure is often more apparent than real, a slight bungling in the machinery of illusion. Look through the phrase, and you will find the truth there, perfectly explicit on the other side of it.

For it cannot be denied, Balzac’s style, as style, is imperfect. It has life, and it has an idea, and it has variety; there are moments when it attains a rare and perfectly individual beauty; as when, in Le Cousin Pons, we read of

But I am far less sure that a student of Balzac would recognise him in this sentence than that he would recognise the writer of this other: Des larmes de pudeur qui roulèrent entre les beaux cils de Madame Hulot, arrêtèrent net le garde national.§ It is in such passages that the failure in style is equivalent to a failure in psychology. That his style should lack symmetry, subordination, the formal virtues of form is, in my eyes, a less serious fault. I have often considered whether, in the novel, perfect form is a good, or even a possible thing, if the novel is to be what Balzac made it, history added to poetry. A novelist with style will not look at life with an entirely naked vision. He sees through coloured glasses. Human life and human manners are too various, too moving, to be brought into the fixity of a quite formal order. There will come a moment, constantly, when style must suffer, or the closeness and clearness of narration must be sacrificed, some minute exception of action or psychology must lose its natural place, or its full emphasis. Balzac, with his rapid and accumulating mind, without the patience of selection, and without the desire to select where selection means leaving out something good in itself, if not good in its place, never hesitates, and his parenthesis comes in. And often it is into these parentheses that he puts the profoundest part of his thought.

Yet, ready as Balzac is to neglect the story for the philosophy, whenever it seems to him necessary to do so, he would never have admitted that a form of the novel is possible in which the story shall be no more than an excuse for the philosophy. That was because he was a great creator, and not merely a philosophical thinker; because he dealt in flesh and blood, and knew that the passions in action can teach more to the philosopher, and can justify the artist more fully, than all the unacting intellect in the world. He knew that though life without thought was no more than the portion of a dog, yet thoughtful life was more than lifeless thought, and the dramatist more than the commentator. And I cannot help feeling assured that the latest novelists without a story, whatever other merits they certainly have, are lacking in the power to create characters, to express a philosophy in action; and that the form which they have found, however valuable it may be, is the result of this failure, and not either a great refusal or a new vision.


The novel as Balzac conceived it has created the modern novel, but no modern novelist has followed, for none has been able to follow, Balzac on his own lines. Even those who have tried to follow him most closely have, sooner or later, branched off in one direction or another, most in the direction indicated by Stendhal. Stendhal has written one book which is a masterpiece, unique in its kind, Le Rouge et le Noir; a second, which is full of admirable things, Le Chartreuse de Parme; a book of profound criticism, Racine et Shakspeare; and a cold and penetrating study of the physiology of love, De l’Amour, by the side of which Balzac’s Physiologie du Mariage is a mere jeu d’esprit. He discovered for himself, and for others after him, a method of unemotional, minute, slightly ironical analysis, which has fascinated modern minds, partly because it has seemed to dispense with those difficulties of creation, of creation in the block, which the triumphs of Balzac have only accentuated. Goriot, Valérie Marneffe, Pons, Grandet, Madame de Mortsauf even, are called up before us after the same manner as Othello or Don Quixote; their actions express them so significantly that they seem to be independent of their creator; Balzac stakes all upon each creation, and leaves us no choice but to accept or reject each as a whole, precisely as we should a human being. We do not know all the secrets of their consciousness, any more than we know all the secrets of the consciousness of our friends. But we have only to say ‘Valérie!’ and the woman is before us. Stendhal, on the contrary, undresses Julien’s soul in public with a deliberate and fascinating effrontery. There is not a vein of which he does not trace the course, not a wrinkle to which he does not point, not a nerve which he does not touch to the quick. We know everything that passed through his mind, to result probably in some significant inaction. And at the end of the book we know as much about that particular intelligence as the anatomist knows about the body which he has dissected. But meanwhile the life has gone out of the body; and have we, after all, captured a living soul?

I should be the last to say that Julien Sorel is not a creation, but he is not a creation after the order of Balzac; it is a difference of a kind; and if we look carefully at Frédéric Moreau, and Madame Gervaisais, and the Abbé Mouret, we shall see that these also, profoundly different as Flaubert and Goncourt and Zola are from Stendhal, are yet more profoundly, more radically, different from the creations of Balzac. Balzac takes a primary passion, puts it into a human body, and set it to work itself out in visible action. But since Stendhal, novelists have persuaded themselves that the primary passions are a little common, or noisy, or a little heavy to handle, and they have concerned themselves with passions tempered by reflection, and the sensations of elaborate brains. It was Stendhal who substituted the brain for the heart, as the battle-place of the novel; not the brain as Balzac conceived it, a motive-force of action, the mainspring of passion, the force by which a nature directs its accumulated energy; but a sterile sort of brain, set at a great distance from the heart, whose rhythm is too faint to disturb it. We have been intellectualising upon Stendhal ever since, until the persons of the modern novel have come to resemble those diaphanous jelly-fish, with balloon-like heads and the merest tufts of bodies, which float up and down in the Aquarium at Naples.

Thus, coming closer, as it seems, to what is called reality, in this banishment of great emotions, and this attention upon the sensations, modern analytic novelists are really getting further and further from that life which is the one certain thing in the world. Balzac employs all his detail to call up a tangible world about his men and women, not, perhaps, understanding the full power of detail as psychology, as Flaubert is to understand it; but, after all, his detail is only the background of the picture; and there, stepping out of the canvas, as the sombre people of Velazquez step out of their canvases at the Prado,13 is the living figure, looking into your eyes with eyes that respond to you like a mirror.

The novels of Balzac are full of electric fluid. To take up one of them is to feel the shock of life, as one feels it on touching certain magnetic hands. To turn over volume after volume is like wandering through the streets of a great city, at that hour of the night when human activity is at its full. There is a particular kind of excitement inherent in the very aspect of a modern city, of London or Paris; in the mere sensation of being in its midst, in the sight of those active and fatigued faces which pass so rapidly; of those long and endless streets, full of houses, each of which is like the body of a multiform soul, looking out through the eyes of many windows. There is something intoxicating in the lights, the movement of shadows under the lights, the vast and billowy sound of that shadowy movement. And there is something more than this mere unconscious action upon the nerves. Every step in a great city is a step into an unknown world. A new future is possible at every street corner. I never know, when I go out into one of those crowded streets, but that the whole course of my life may be changed before I return to the house I have quitted.

I am writing these lines in Madrid, to which I have come suddenly, after a long quiet in Andalusia; and I feel already a new pulse in my blood, a keener consciousness of life, and a sharper human curiosity. Even in Seville I knew that I should see tomorrow, in the same streets, hardly changed since the Middle Ages, the same people that I had seen today. But here there are new possibilities, all the exciting accidents of the modern world, of a population always changing, of a city into which civilisation has brought all its unrest. And as I walk in these broad, windy streets and see these people, whom I hardly recognise for Spaniards, so awake and so hybrid are they, I have felt the sense of Balzac coming back into my veins. At Cordova he was unthinkable; at Cadiz I could realise only his large, universal outlines, vague as the murmur of the sea; here I feel him, he speaks the language I am talking, he sums up the life in whose midst I find myself.

For Balzac is the equivalent of great cities. He is bad reading for solitude, for he fills the minds with the nostalgia of cities. When a man speaks to me familiarly of Balzac I know already something of the man with whom I have to do. ‘The physiognomy of women does not begin before the age of thirty,’ he has said; and perhaps before that age no one can really understand Balzac. Few young people care for him, for there is nothing in him that appeals to the senses except through the intellect. Not many women care for him supremely, for it is part of his method to express sentiments through facts, and not facts through sentiments. But it is natural that he should be the favourite reading of men of the world, of those men of the world who have the distinction of their kind; for he supplies the key of the enigma which they are studying.


The life of Balzac was one long labour, in which time, money, and circumstances were all against him. In 1835 he writes: ‘I have lately spent twenty-six days in my study without leaving it. I took the air only at that window which dominates Paris, which I mean to dominate.’ And he exults in the labour: ‘If there is any glory in that, I alone could accomplish such a feat.’ He symbolises the course of his life in comparing it to the sea beating against a rock: ‘Today one flood, tomorrow another, bears me along with it. I am dashed against a rock, I recover myself and go on to another reef.’ ‘Sometimes it seems to me that my brain is on fire. I shall die in the trenches of the intellect.’

Balzac, like Scott, died under the weight of his debts;14 and it would seem, if one took him at his word, that the whole of the Human Comedy was written for money. In the modern world, as he himself realised more clearly than any one, money is more often a symbol than an entity, and it can be the symbol of every desire. For Balzac money was the key of his earthly paradise. It meant leisure to visit the woman whom he loved, and at the end it meant the possibility of marrying her.

There were only two women in Balzac’s life: one, a woman much older than himself, of whom he wrote, on her death, to the other: ‘She was a mother, a friend, a family, a companion, a counsel, she made the writer, she consoled the young man, she formed his taste, she wept like a sister, she laughed, she came every day, like a healing slumber, to put sorrow to sleep.’15 The other was Mme. de Hanska, whom he married in 1850, three months before his death. He had loved her for twenty years; she was married, and lived in Poland; it was only at rare intervals that he was able to see her, and then very briefly; but his letters to her, published since his death, are a simple, perfectly individual, daily record of a great passion. For twenty years he existed on a divine certainty without a future, and almost without a present. But we see the force of that sentiment passing into his work; Séraphita is its ecstasy, everywhere is its human shadow; it refines his strength, it gives him surprising intuitions, it gives him all that was wanting to his genius. Mme. de Hanska is the heroine of the Human Comedy, as Beatrice is the heroine of the Divine Comedy.

A great lover, to whom love, as well as every other passion and the whole visible world, was an idea, a flaming spiritual perception, Balzac enjoyed the vast happiness of the idealist. Contentedly, joyously, he sacrificed every petty enjoyment to the idea of love, the idea of fame, and to that need of the organism to exercise its forces, which is the only definition of genius. I do not know, among the lives of men of letters, a life better filled, or more appropriate. A young man who, for a short time, was his secretary, declared: ‘I would not live your life for the fame of Napoleon and of Byron combined!’ The Comte de Gramont did not realise, as the world in general does not realise, that, to the man of creative energy, creation is at once a necessity and a joy, and to the lover, hope in absence is the elixir of life. Balzac tasted more than all earthly pleasures as he sat there in his attic, creating the world over again, that he might lay it at the feet of a woman. Certainly to him there was no tedium in life, for there was no hour without its vivid employment, and no moment in which to perceive the most desolate of all certainties, that hope is in the past. His death was as fortunate as his life; he died at the height of his powers, at the height of his fame, at the moment of the fulfilment of his happiness, and perhaps of the too sudden relief of that delicate burden.



First published as ‘Balzac’, Fortnightly Review 65 (May 1899), pp. 745–47, then reprinted in Studies in Prose and Verse (1904) and added to The Symbolist Movement in Literature in 1919.


1. France’s foremost sculptor, Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), laboured for six years over his monument to Balzac, but its imposing mass and fluid forms were so far from the public’s taste that it was rejected when it was unveiled in 1897.

2. Symons may be alluding here to Gautier’s remark ‘I am a man for whom the visible world exists’, which he quotes directly in his essay on Paul Verlaine and in his essay on the Goncourts.

3. L’Astrée by Honoré d’Urfé (1567–1625) is a seventeenth-century historical pastoral novel, set in fifth-century Gaul, about love, infidelity and jealousy. The fabliaux were short comic narratives, a form which (as Symons indicates) preceded the development of the novel in France.

4. Pierre Marivaux (1688–1763), Choderlos de Laclos (1741–1803), and Claude-Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (1707–77) – known as Crébillon fils – were all eighteenth-century French novelists, using (as Symons points out) dialogue or epistolary forms for their works.

5. Denis Diderot (1713–84), Voltaire [François-Marie Arouet] (1694–1778), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), and Nicolas-Edmé Restif de la Bretonne (1734–1806) were eighteenth-century French writers and philosophers who turned to fictional forms in order to express some of their ideas. For example, written in 1760 but not published until 1780, Diderot’s La Religieuse [The Nun] dramatises the adverse conditions in religious houses and convents; Rousseau’s tale of frustrated love Julie, or La Nouvelle Héloise (1761) couches protest against social convention in the form of an epistolary novel.

6. Combining fiction and autobiography, Liber Amoris by the English literary critic and essayist William Hazlitt (1778–1830) tells the story of his failed marriage to Sarah Walker and her infidelity through dialogues and letters.

7. Antoine-François Prévost (1697–1763) is best known for Manon Lescaut (1731), a short novel describing the unhappy and initially unreciprocated passion of a young aristocrat for a serving girl, but in addition to writing novels, Prévost was also a translator, whose works include a version of Samuel Richardson’s ClarissaLettres Anglaises (1751).

8. Adolphe (1816), by the Swiss-French politician and novelist Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), describes the hero’s unhappy affair with an older married woman; René (1802) by François-René Chateaubriand (1768–1848) describes the lonely life of the title character and his self-imposed exile to avoid an incestuous passion for his sister Amélie; Corinne ou l’Italie (1807), by French novelist and thinker Germaine de Staël (1766–1817) recounts the doomed love of poetess Corinne for a Scottish lord. Elements of autobiography have been read into the melancholy presentation of all of these novels, which may explain why Symons labels them as ‘confessions’.

9. Suzanne Curchod (1737–94), known by her married name, Madame Necker, hosted a brilliant salon in Paris for writers and politicians. She was also the mother of Madame de Staël. Symons quotes remarks attributed to her by Balzac in his preface to the Comédie humaine.

10. An encyclopaedic and comprehensive Natural History by George-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon (1707–88), appeared in in thirty-six volumes between 1749 and 1804. He is also known for his ‘Discourse on Style’, an address given to the Académie française in 1753.

11. In addition to his fragmentary reflections upon aesthetics, the Romantic German philosopher Novalis [Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg] (1772–1801) left behind two unfinished novels and a prose poem at his untimely death. Symons also lists his works among the mystic texts familiar to Maeterlinck in ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature’, alongside Jacob Boehme, Coleridge and the neo-Platonists.

12. Charles Baudelaire praised Balzac, in passing, as ‘this great genius’ in a review of the Exposition universelle which first appeared in Le Pays in 26 May 1855.

13. Portraits by the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez (c. 1599–1660) were highly celebrated across Europe in the seventeenth century for their verisimilitude. The Prado is the Spanish national art gallery in Madrid where Velázquez’s best works hang.

14. The prolific Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) laboured under debt and the threat of bankruptcy at several points in his life. A severe economic recession in 1825 crippled his publishers Archibald Constable and Co. and the printing company he had established with friends, John Ballantyne & Co., leaving Scott with such great debts that they were not paid off until the realisation of his life insurance and the sale of his copyrights in 1833 after his death.

15. Balzac had a number of affairs before his late marriage to the Russian countess Evelyn de Hanska. Symons probably has in mind Balzac’s relationship with Laure de Berny, who was twenty-two years older than him and took a motherly interest in his career as a writer.

* [‘Passion is the whole of humanity’ – quoted in translation by Symons, above.]

[‘“Is it true, old man,” she replied, “that you killed your brother and your uncle, ruined your family, mortgaged your house and children and blew the government’s cash on an African scam with the princess?”

The Baron nodded his head sadly.

“Well, I love it!” exclaimed Josépha, standing up in her enthusiasm. “That is really burning your boats! What a Sardanapalus! It’s great! It’s the whole thing! You’re a dick, but you’ve got heart!”’]

[‘that predisposition towards inquiry which makes a scholarly Saxon trudge a hundred leagues in his rags to find a truth which is laughing at him, sitting by the side of a well, beneath a flower in a courtyard’.]

§ [‘Tears of shame rolling from the beautiful lashes of Madame Hulot brought the national guard up short’.]