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WOMEN IN THE LIFE OF BALZAC
By Juanita Helm Floyd
MY SISTER NANNIE
" . . . for no one knows the secret of my life, and I do not wish to disclose it to any one." /Lettres a l'Etrangere/, V. I, p. 418, July 19, 1837.
This text was originally published in 1921 by Henry Holt and Company.
In presenting this study of Balzac's intimate relations with various women, the author regrets her inability, owing to war conditions, to consult a few books which are out of print and certain documents which have not appeared at all in print, notably the collection of the late Vicomte de Spoelberch de Lovenjoul.
The author gladly takes this opportunity of acknowledging her deep gratitude to various scholars, and wishes to express, even if inadequately, her appreciation of their inspiring contact; especially to Professor Chester Murray and Professor J. Warshaw for first interesting her in the great possibilities of a study of Balzac. To Professor Henry Alfred Todd she is grateful for his sympathetic scholarship, valuable suggestions as to matter and style, and for his careful revision of the manuscript; to Professor Gustave Lanson, for his erudition and versatile mind, which have had a great influence; to Professor F. M. Warren, for reading a part of the text and for many general ideas; to Professor Fernand Baldensperger, for reading the text and for encouragement; to Professor Gilbert Chinard, Professor Earle B. Babcock and Professor LeBraz for re-reading the text and for valuable suggestions; and to Professor John L. Gerig for his sympathetic interest, broad information, and inspiring encouragement.
To still another would she express her thanks. The Princess Radziwill has taken a great interest in this work, which deals so minutely with the life history of her aunt, and she has been most gracious in giving the author much information not to be found in books. She has made many valuable suggestions, read the entire manuscript, and approved of its presentation of the facts involved.
JUANITA H. FLOYD. Evansville, Indiana.
A quantity of books have been written about Balzac, some of which are very instructive, while others are nothing but compilations of gossip which give a totally wrong impression of the life, works and personality of the great French novelist. Having the honor of being the niece of his wife, the wonderful /Etrangere/, whom he married after seventeen years of an affection which contained episodes far more romantic than any of those which he has described in his many books, and having been brought up in the little house of the rue Fortunee, afterwards the rue Balzac, where they lived during their short married life, I can perhaps better appreciate than most people the value of these different books, none of which gives us an exact appreciation of the man or of the difficulties through which he had to struggle before he won at last the fame he deserved. And the conclusion to which I came, after having read them most attentively and conscientiously, was that it is often a great misfortune to possess that divine spark of genius which now and then touches the brow of a few human creatures and marks them for eternity with its fiery seal. Had Balzac been one of those everyday writers whose names, after having been for a brief space of time on everyone's lips, are later on almost immediately forgotten, he would not have been subjected to the calumnies which embittered so much of his declining days, and which even after he was no longer in this world continued their subterranean and disgusting work, trying to sully not only Balzac's own colossal personality, but also that of the devoted wife, whom he had cherished for such a long number of years, who had all through their course shared his joys and his sorrows, and who, after he died, had spent the rest of her own life absorbed in the remembrance of her love for him, a love which was stronger than death itself.
Having spent all my childhood and youth under the protection and the roof of Madame de Balzac, it was quite natural that every time I saw another inaccuracy or falsehood concerning her or her great husband find its way into the press, I should be deeply affected. At last I began to look with suspicion at all the books dealing with Balzac or with his works, and when Miss Floyd asked me to look over her manuscript, it was with a certain amount of distrust and prejudice that I set myself to the task. It seemed to me impossible that a foreigner could write anything worth reading about Balzac, or understand his psychology. What was therefore my surprise when I discovered in this most remarkable volume the best description that has ever been given to us of this particular phase of Balzac's life which hitherto has hardly been touched upon by his numerous biographers, his friendships with the many distinguished women who at one time or another played a part in his busy existence, a description which not only confirmed down to the smallest details all that my aunt had related to me about her distinguished husband, but which also gave an appreciation of the latter's character that entirely agreed with what I had heard about its peculiarities from the few people who had known him well, Theophile Gautier among others, who were still alive when I became old enough to be intensely interested in their different judgments about my uncle. After such a length of years it seemed almost uncanny to find a person who through sheer intuition and hard study could have reconstituted with this unerring accuracy the figure of one who had remained a riddle in certain things even to his best friends, and who in the pages of this extraordinary book suddenly appeared before my astonished eyes with all the splendor of that genius of his which as years go by, becomes more and more admired and appreciated.
One must be a scholar to understand Balzac; his style and manner of writing is often so heavy and so difficult to follow, reminding one more of that of a professor than of a novelist. And indeed he would have been very angry to be considered only as a novelist, he who aspired and believed himself to be, as he expressed it one day in the course of a conversation with Madame Hanska, before she became his wife, "a great painter of humanity," in which appreciation of his work he was not mistaken, because some of the characters he evoked out of his wonderful brain remind one of those pictures of Rembrandt where every stroke of the master's brush reveals and brings into evidence some particular trait or feature, which until he had discovered it, and brought it to notice, no one had seen or remarked on the human faces which he reproduced upon the canvas. Michelet, who once called St. Simon the "Rembrandt of literature," could very well have applied the same remark to Balzac, whose heroes will live as long as men and women exist, for whom these other men and women whom he described, will relive because he did not conjure their different characters out of his imagination only, but condensed all his observations into the creation of types which are so entirely human and real that we shall continually meet with them so long as the world lasts.
One of Balzac's peculiarities consisted in perpetually studying humanity, which study explains the almost unerring accuracy of his judgments and of the descriptions which he gives us of things and facts as well as of human beings. In his impulsiveness, he frequented all kinds of places, saw all kinds of people, and tried to apply the dissecting knife of his spirit of observation to every heart and every conscience. He set himself especially to discover and fathom the mystery of the "eternal feminine" about which he always thought, and it was partly due to this eager quest for knowledge of women's souls that he allowed himself to become entangled in love affairs and love intrigues which sometimes came to a sad end, and that he spent his time in perpetual search of feminine friendships, which were later on to brighten, or to mar his life.
Miss Floyd in the curious volume which she has written has caught in a surprising manner this particular feature in Balzac's complex character. She has applied herself to study not only the man such as he was, with all his qualities, genius and undoubted mistakes, but such as he appeared to be in the eyes of the different women whom he had loved or admired, and at whose hands he had sought encouragement and sympathy amid the cruel disappointments and difficulties of an existence from which black care was never banished and never absent. With quite wonderful tact, and a lightness of touch one can not sufficiently admire, she has made the necessary distinctions which separated friendship from love in the many romantic attachments which played such an important part in Balzac's life, and she has in consequence presented to us simultaneously the writer, whose name will remain an immortal one, and the man whose memory was treasured, long after he had himself disappeared, by so many who, though they had perhaps never understood him entirely, yet had realized that in the marks of affection and attachment which he had given to them, he had laid at their feet something which was infinitely precious, infinitely real, something which could never be forgotten.
Her book will remain a most valuable, I was going to say the most valuable, contribution to the history of Balzac, and those for whom he was something more than a great writer and scholar, can never feel sufficiently grateful to her for having given it to the world, and helped to dissipate, thanks to its wonderful arguments, so many false legends and wild stories which were believed until now, and indeed are still believed by an ignorant crowd of so-called admirers of his, who, nine times out of ten, are only detractors of his colossal genius, and remarkable, though perhaps sometimes too exuberant, individuality.
At the same time, Miss Floyd, in the lines which she devotes to my aunt and to the long attachment that had united the latter and Balzac, has in many points re-established the truth in regard to the character of a woman who in many instances has been cruelly calumniated and slandered, in others absolutely misunderstood, to whom Balzac once wrote that she was "one of those great minds, which solitude had preserved from the petty meannesses of the world," words which describe her better than volumes could have done. She had truly led a silent, solitary, lonely life that had known but one love, the man whom she was to marry after so many vicissitudes, and in spite of so many impediments, and but one tenderness, her daughter, a daughter who
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