[This is taken from Leslie Stephens' Hours in a Library.]
Balzac exacts more attention than most novel-readers are inclined to give; he is often repulsive, and not unfrequently dull; but the student who has once submitted to his charm becomes spell-bound. Disgusted for a moment, he returns again and again to the strange, hideous, grotesque, but most interesting world to which Balzac alone can introduce him. Like the opium-eater, he acquires a taste for the visions that are conjured up before him with so vivid a colouring, that he almost believes in their objective existence. There are perhaps greater novelists than Balzac; there are many who preach a purer morality; and many who give a far greater impression of general intellectual force; but in this one quality of intense realisation of actors and scenery he is unique.
Balzac, indeed, was apparently himself almost incapable of distinguishing his dreams from realities. Great wits, we know, are allied to madness; and the boundaries seem in his case to have been most shadowy and indistinct. Indeed, if the anecdotes reported of him be accurate—some of them are doubtless rather overcharged—he must have lived almost in a state of permanent hallucination. This, for example, is a characteristic story. He inhabited for some years a house called les Jardies, in the neighbourhood of Paris. He had a difficulty in providing material furniture, owing to certain debts, which, as some sceptics insinuated, were themselves a vast mystification. He habitually ascribed his poverty to a certain 'deficit Kessner,' a loss which reposed on some trifling foundation of facts, but which assumed monstrous proportions in his imagination, and recurred perpetually as the supposed cause of his poverty. In sober reality, however, he was poor, and found compensation in creating a vast credit, as imaginary as his liabilities. Upon that bank he could draw without stint. He therefore inscribed in one place upon the bare walls of his house, 'Ici un revêtement de marbre de Paros;' in another, 'Ici un plafond peint par Eugène Delacroix;' in a third, 'Ici des portes, façon Trianon;' and, in short, revelled in gorgeous decorations made of the same materials as the dishes of the Barmecides' feast. A minor source of wealth was the single walnut-tree which really grew in his gardens, and which increased his dream-revenue by 60l. a year. This extraordinary result was due, not to any merit in the nuts, but to an ancient and imaginary custom of the village which compelled the inhabitants to deposit round its foot a material defined by Victor Hugo as 'du guano moins les oiseaux.' The most singular story, however, and which we presume is to be received with a certain reserve, tells how he roused two of his intimate friends at two o'clock one morning, and urged them to start for India without an hour's delay. The cause of this journey was that a certain German historian had presented Balzac with a seal, valued by the thoughtless at the sum of six sous. The ring, however, had a singular history in Balzac's dreamland. It was impressed with the seal of the Prophet, and had been stolen by the English from the Great Mogul. Balzac had or had not been informed by the Turkish ambassador that that potentate would repurchase it with tons of gold and diamonds, and was benevolent enough to propose that his friend should share in the stores which would exceed the dreams of Aladdin.
How far these and other such fancies were a merely humorous protest against the harsh realities of life, may be a matter of speculation; but it is less doubtful that the fictitious personages with whom Balzac surrounded himself lived and moved in his imagination as distinctly as the flesh-and-blood realities who were treading the pavement of Paris. He did not so much invent characters and situations as watch his imaginary world, and compile the memories of its celebrities. All English readers are acquainted with the little circle of clergymen and wives who inhabit the town of Barchester. Balzac has carried out the same device on a gigantic scale. He has peopled not a country town but a metropolis. There is a whole society, with the members of which we are intimate, whose family secrets are revealed to us, and who drop in, as it were, in every novel of a long series, as if they were old friends. When, for example, young Victurnien d'Esgrignon comes to Paris he makes acquaintance, we are told, with De Marsay, Maxime de Trailles, Les Lupeaulx, Rastignac, Vandenesse, Ajuda-Pinto, the Duchesses de Grandlieu, de Carigliano, de Chaulieu, the Marquises d'Espard, d'Aiglemont, and De Listomère, Madame Firmiani, the Comtesse de Sérizy, and various other heads of the fashionable world. Every one of these special characters has a special history. He or she appears as the hero or heroine of one story, and plays subsidiary parts in a score of others. They recall to us innumerable scandalous episodes, with which anybody who lives in the imaginary society of Balzac's Paris feels it a duty to be as familiar as a back-stairs politician with the gossip of the House of Commons. The list just given is a mere fragment of the great circle to which Balzac introduces us. The history of their performances is intimately connected with the history of the time; nay, it is sometimes essential to a full comprehension of recent events. Bishop Proudie, we fear, would scarcely venture to take an active part in the Roman Catholic emancipation; he would be dissolved into thin air by contact with more substantial forms; but if you would appreciate the intrigues which were going on at Paris during the campaign of Marengo, you must study the conversations which took place between Talleyrand, Fouché, Sieyès, Carnot, and Malin, and their relations to that prince of policemen, the well-known Corentin. De Marsay, we are told, with audacious precision of time and place, was President of the Council in 1833. There is no tendency on the part of these spectres to shrink from the light. They rub shoulders with the most celebrated statesmen, and mingle in every event of the time. One is driven to believe that Balzac really fancied the banker Nucingen to be as tangible as a Rothschild, and was convinced that the conversations of Louis XVIII. with Vandenesse were historic facts. His sister tells us that he discussed the behaviour of his own creations with the utmost gravity, and was intensely interested in discovering their fate, and getting the earliest information as to the alliances which they were about to form. It is a curious question, upon which I cannot profess to speak positively, whether this voluminous story ever comes into hopeless conflict with dates. I have some suspicions that the brilliant journalist, Blondet, was married and unmarried at the same period; but, considering his very loose mode of life, the suspicion, if true, is susceptible of explanation. Such study as I have made has not revealed any case of inconsistency; and Balzac evidently has the whole secret (for it seems harsh to call it fictitious) history of the time so completely at his fingers' ends, that the effect upon the reader is to produce an unhesitating confidence. If a blunder occurs one would rather believe in a slip of the pen, such as happens to real historians, not in the substantial inaccuracy of the narrative. Sir A. Alison, it may be remembered, brings Sir Peregrine Pickle to the Duke of Wellington's funeral, which must have occurred after Sir Peregrine's death; and Balzac's imaginary narrative may not be perfectly free from anachronism. But, if so, I have not found him out. Everybody must sympathise with the English lady who is said to have written to Paris for the address of that most imposing physician, Horace Bianchion.
The startling realisation may be due in part to a mere literary trick. We meet with artifices like those by which De Foe cheats us into forgetfulness of his true character. One of the best known is the insertion of superfluous bits of information, by way of entrapping his readers into the inference that they could only have been given because they were true. The snare is more worthy of a writer of begging-letters than of a genuine artist. Balzac occasionally indulges in somewhat similar devices; little indirect allusions to his old characters are thrown in with a calculated nonchalance; we have bits of antiquarian information as to the history of buildings; superfluous accounts of the coats-of-arms of the principal families concerned, and anecdotes as to their ancestry; and, after he has given us a name, he sometimes takes care to explain that the pronunciation is different from the spelling. As a rule, however, these irrelevant minutiæ seem to be thrown in, not by way of tricking us, but because he has so genuine an interest in his own personages. He is as anxious to set De Marsay or the Père Goriot distinctly before us, as Carlyle to make us acquainted with Frederick or Cromwell. Our most vivid painter of historical portraits is not more charmed to discover a characteristic incident in the life of his heroes, or to describe the pimples on his face, or the specks of blood on his collar, than Balzac to do the same duty for the creations of his fancy. De Foe may be compared to those favourites of showmen who cheat you into mistaking a flat-wall painting for a bas-relief. Balzac is one of the patient Dutch artists who exhaust inconceivable skill and patience in painting every hair on the head and every wrinkle on the face till their work has a photographic accuracy. The result, it must be confessed, is sometimes rather trying to the patience. Balzac's artistic instinct, indeed, renders every separate touch more or less conducive to the general effect; but he takes an unconscionable time in preparing his ground. Instead of launching boldly into his story, and leaving his characters to speak for themselves, he begins, as it were, by taking his automatons carefully to pieces, and pointing out all their wires and springs. He leaves nothing unaccounted for. He explains the character of each actor as he comes upon the stage; and, not content with making general remarks, he plunges with extraordinary relish into the minutest personal details. In particular, we know just how much money everybody has got, and how he has got it. Balzac absolutely revels in elaborate financial statements. And constantly, just as we hope that the action is about to begin, he catches us, as it were, by the button-hole, and begs us to wait a minute to listen to a few more preparatory remarks. In one or two of the stories, as, for example, in the 'Maison Nucingen,' the introduction seems to fill the whole book. After expecting some catastrophe, we gradually become aware that Balzac has thought it necessary to give us a conscientious explanation of some very dull commercial intrigues, in order to fill up gaps in other stories of the cycle. Some one might possibly ask, what was the precise origin of this great failure of which we hear so much, and Balzac resolves that he shall have as complete an answer as though he were an accountant drawing up a balance-sheet. It is said, I know not on what authority, that his story of 'César Birotteau' has, in fact, been quoted in French courts as illustrating the law of bankruptcy; and the details given are so ample, and, to English readers at least, so wearisome, that it really reads more like a legal statement of a case than a novel. As another example of this elaborate workmanship I may quote the remarkable story of 'Les Paysans.' It is intended to illustrate the character of the French peasant, his profound avarice and cunning, and his bitter jealousy, which forms a whole district into a tacit conspiracy against the rich, held together by closer bonds than those of a Fenian lodge. Balzac resolves that we shall have the whole scene and all the actors distinctly before us. We have a description of a country-house more poetical, but far more detailed, than one in an auctioneer's circular; then we have a photograph of the neighbouring cabaret; then a minute description of its inhabitants, and a detailed statement of their ways and means. The story here makes a feeble start; but Balzac recollects that we don't quite know the origin of the quarrel on which it depends, and, therefore, elaborately describes the former proprietor, points out precisely how she was cheated by her bailiff, and precisely to what amount, and throws in descriptions of two or three supplementary persons. We now make another start in the history of the quarrel; but this immediately throws us back into a minute description of the old bailiff's family circumstances, of the characters of several of his connections, and of the insidious villain who succeeds him. Then we have a careful financial statement of the second proprietor's losses, and the commercial system which favours them; this leads to some antiquarian details concerning the bailiff's house, and to detailed portraits of each of the four guards who are set to watch over the property. Then Balzac remarks that we cannot possibly understand the quarrel without understanding fully the complicated family relations, owing to which the officials of the department form what in America would be called a 'ring.' By this time we are half-way through the volume, and the promised story is still in its infancy. Even Balzac makes an apology for his longueurs, and tries to set to work in greater earnest. He is so much interrupted, however, by the necessity of elaborately introducing every new actor, and all his or her relations, and the houses in which they live, and their commercial and social position, that the essence of the story has at last to be compressed into half-a-dozen pages. In short, the novel resolves itself into a series of sketches; and reading it is like turning over a set of photographs, with letterpress descriptions at intervals. Or we may compare it to one of those novels of real life, so strange to the English mind, in which a French indictment sums up the whole previous history of the persons accused, accumulates every possible bit of information which may or may not throw light upon the facts, and diverges from the point, as English lawyers would imagine, into the most irrelevant considerations.
Balzac, it is plain, differs widely from our English authors, who generally slightly despise their own art, and think that, in providing amusement for our idle hours, they are rather derogating from their dignity. Instead of claiming our attention as a right, they try to entice us into interest by every possible artifice: they give us exciting glimpses of horrors to come; they are restlessly anxious to get their stories well under way. Balzac is far more confident in his position. He never doubts that we shall be willing to study his works with the seriousness due to a scientific treatise. And occasionally, when he is seized by a sudden and most deplorable fit of morality, he becomes as dull as a sermon. The gravity with which he sets before us all the benevolent schemes of the médecin de campagne, and describes the whole charitable machinery of the district, makes his performance as dismal as a gigantic religious tract. But when, in his happier and wickeder moods, he turns this amazing capacity of graphic description to its true account, the power of his method makes itself manifest. Every bit of elaborate geographical and financial information has its meaning, and tells with accumulated force on the final result. I may instance, for example, the descriptions of Paris, which form the indispensable background to the majority of his stories, and contribute in no inconsiderable share to their tragic effect. Balzac had to deal with the Paris of the Restoration, full of strange tortuous streets and picturesque corners, of swinging lanterns and defective drainage; the Paris which inevitably suggested barricades and street massacres, and was impregnated to the core with old historical associations. It had not yet lowered itself to the comprehension of New Yorkers, and still offered such scenery as Gustave Doré has caught in his wonderful illustrations of the 'Contes Drolatiques.' Its mysterious and not over-cleanly charm lives in the pages of Balzac, and harmonises with the strange society which he has created to people its streets. Thus, in one of his most audacious stories, where the horribly grotesque trembles on the verge of the ridiculous, he strikes the key-note by an elegant apostrophe to Paris. There are, he tells us, a few connoisseurs who enjoy the Parisian flavour like the bouquet of some delicate wine. To all Paris is a marvel; to them it is a living creature; every man, every fragment of a house, is 'part of the cellular tissue of this great courtesan, whose head, heart, and fantastic manners are thoroughly known to them.' They are lovers of Paris; to them it is a costly luxury to travel in Paris. They are incessantly arrested before the dramas, the disasters, the picturesque accidents, which assail one in the midst of this moving queen of cities. They start in the morning to go to its extremities, and find themselves still unable to leave its centre at dinner-time. It is a marvellous spectacle at all times; but, he exclaims, 'O Paris! qui n'a pas admiré tes sombres paysages, tes échappées de lumière, tes culs-de-sac profonds et silencieux; qui n'a pas entendu tes murmures entre minuit et deux heures du matin, ne connait encore rien de ta vraie poésie, ni de tes bizarres et larges contrastes.'
In the scenes which follow, we are introduced to a lover watching the beautiful and virtuous object of his adoration as she descends an infamous street late in the evening, and enters one of the houses through a damp, moist, and fetid passage, feebly lighted by a trembling lamp, beneath which are seen the hideous face and skinny fingers of an old woman, as fitly placed as the witches in the blasted heath in 'Macbeth.' In this case, however, Balzac is in one of his wildest moods, and the hideous mysteries of a huge capital become the pretext for a piece of rather ludicrous melodrama. Paris is full enough of tragedies without the preposterous beggar Ferragus, who appears at balls as a distinguished diplomat, and manages to place on a young gentleman's head of hair a slow poison (invented for the purpose), which brings him to an early grave. More impressive, because less extravagant, is that Maison Vauquer, every hole and corner of which is familiar to the real student of Balzac. It is situated, as everybody should know, in the Rue Neuve St.-Geneviève, just where it descends so steeply towards the Rue de l'Arbalète that horses have some trouble in climbing it. We know its squalid exterior, its creaking bell, the wall painted to represent an arcade in green marble, the crumbling statue of Cupid, with the half-effaced inscription—
'Qui que tu sois, voici ton maître,—
Il l'est, le fut, ou le doit être.'
We have visited the wretched garden with its scanty pot-herbs and scarecrow beds, and the green benches in the miserable arbour, where the lodgers who are rich enough to enjoy such a luxury indulge in a cup of coffee after dinner. The salon, with its greasy and worn-out furniture, every bit of which is catalogued, is as familiar as our own studies. We know the exact geography even of the larder and the cistern. We catch the odour of the damp, close office, where Madame Vauquer lurks like a human spider. She is the animating genius of the place, and we know the exact outline of her figure, and every article of her dress. The minuteness of her portrait brings out the horrors of the terrible process by which poor Goriot gradually sinks from one step to another of the social ladder, and simultaneously ascends from the first floor to the garrets. We can track his steps and trace his agony. Each station of that melancholy pilgrimage is painted, down to the minutest details, with unflinching fidelity.
Paris, says Balzac, is an ocean; however painfully you explore it and sound its depths, there are still virgin corners, unknown caves with their flowers, pearls, and monsters, forgotten by literary divers. The Maison Vauquer is one of these singular monstrosities. No one, at any rate, can complain that Balzac has not done his best to describe and analyse the character of the unknown social species which it contains. It absorbs our interest by the contrast of its vulgar and intensely commonplace exterior with the terrible passions and sufferings of which it is the appropriate scene.
The horrors of a great metropolis, indeed, give ample room for tragedy. Old Sandy Mackaye takes Alton Locke to the entrance of a London alley, and tells the sentimental tailor to write poetry about that. 'Say how ye saw the mouth o' hell, and the twa pillars thereof at the entry, the pawnbroker's shop on the one side and the gin-palace at the other—two monstrous deevils, eating up men, women, and bairns, body and soul. Look at the jaws o' the monsters, how they open and open to swallow in anither victim and anither. Write about that!' The poor tailor complains that it is unpoetical, and Mackaye replies, 'Hah! is there no the heaven above them here and the hell beneath them? and God frowning and the deevil grinning? No poetry there! Is no the verra idee of the classic tragedy defined to be—man conquered by circumstances? Canna ye see it here?' But the quotation must stop, for Mackaye goes on to a moral not quite according to Balzac. Balzac, indeed, was anything but a Christian socialist, or a Radical reformer; we don't often catch sight in his pages of God frowning or the devil grinning; his world seems to be pretty well forgotten by the one, and its inhabitants to be quite able to dispense with the services of the other. Paris, he tells us in his most outrageous story, is a hell, which one day may have its Dante. The prolétaire lives in its lowest circle, and seldom comes into Balzac's pages except as representing the half-seen horrors of the gulf reserved for that corrupt and brilliant society whose vices he loves to describe. A summary of his creed is given by a queer contrast to Mackaye, the accomplished and able De Marsay. People speak, he says, of the immorality of certain books; here is a horrible, foul, and corrupt book, always open and never to be shut; the great book of the world; and beyond that is another book a thousand times more dangerous, which consists of all that is whispered by one man to another, or discussed under ladies' fans at balls. Balzac's pages are flavoured, rather to excess, with this diabolical spice, composed of dark allusions to, or audacious revelations of these hideous mysteries. If he is wanting in the moral elevation necessary for a Dante, he has some of the sinister power which makes him a fit guide to the horrors of our modern Inferno.
Before accepting Balzac's guidance into these mysterious regions, I must touch upon another peculiarity. Balzac's genius for skilfully-combined photographic detail explains his strange power of mystification. A word is wanting to express that faint acquiescence or mimic belief which we generally grant to a novelist. Dr. Newman has constructed a scale of assent according to its varying degrees of intensity; and we might, perhaps, assume that to each degree there corresponds a mock assent accorded to different kinds of fiction. If Scott, for example, requires from his readers a shadow of that kind of belief which we grant to an ordinary historian, Balzac requires a shadow of the belief which Dr. Pusey gives to the Bible. This still remains distinctly below any genuine assent; for Balzac never wishes us really to forget, though he occasionally forgets himself, that his most lifelike characters are imaginary. But in certain subordinate topics he seems to make a higher demand on our faith. He is full of more or less fanciful heresies, and labours hard to convince us either that they are true or that he seriously holds them. This is what I mean by mystification, and one fears to draw a line as to which he was probably far from clear himself. Thus, for example, he is a devout believer in physiognomy, and not only in its obvious sense; he erects it into an occult science. Lavater and Gall, he says, 'prove incontestably' that ominous signs exist in our heads. Take, for example, the chasseur Michu, his white face injected with blood and compressed like a Calmuck's; his ruddy, crisp hair; his beard cut in the shape of a fan; the noble forehead which surmounts and overhangs his sunburnt, sarcastic features; his ears well detached, and possessing a sort of mobility, like those of a wild animal; his mouth half open, and revealing a set of fine but uneven teeth; his thick and glossy whiskers; his hair, close in front, long on the sides and behind, with its wild, ruddy hue throwing into relief the strange and fatal character of the physiognomy; his short, thick neck, designed to tempt the hatchet of the guillotine: these details, so accurately photographed, not only prove that M. Michu was a resolute, faithful servant, capable of the profoundest secresy and the most disinterested attachment, but for the really skilful reader of mystic symbols foretell his ultimate fate—namely, that he will be the victim of a false accusation. Balzac, however, ventures into still more whimsical extremes. He accepts, in all apparent seriousness, the theory of his favourite, Mr. Shandy, that a man's name influences his character. Thus, for example, a man called Minoret-Levrault must necessarily be 'un éléphant sans trompe et sans intelligence,' and the occult meaning of Z. Marcas requires a long and elaborate commentary. Repeat the word Marcas, dwelling on the first syllable, and dropping abruptly on the second, and you will see that the man who bears it must be a martyr. The zigzag of the initial implies a life of torment. What ill wind, he asks, has blown upon this letter, which in no language (Balzac's acquaintance with German was probably limited) commands more than fifty words? The name is composed of seven letters, and seven is most characteristic of cabalistic numbers. If M. Gozlan's narrative be authentic, Balzac was right to value this name highly, for he had spent many hours in seeking for it by a systematic perambulation of the streets of Paris. He was rather vexed at the discovery that the Marcas of real life was a tailor. 'He deserved a better fate!' said Balzac pathetically; 'but it shall be my business to immortalise him.'
Balzac returns to this subject so often and so emphatically that one half believes him to be the victim of his own mystification. Perhaps he was the one genuine disciple of Mr. Shandy and Slawkenbergius, and believed sincerely in the occult influence of names and noses. In more serious matters it is impossible to distinguish the point at which his feigned belief passes into real superstition; he stimulates conviction so elaborately, that his sober opinions shade off imperceptibly into his fanciful dreamings. For a time he was attracted by mesmerism, and in the story of Ursule Mirouet he labours elaborately to infect his readers with a belief in what he calls 'magnetism, the favourite science of Jesus, and one of the powers transmitted to the apostles.' He assumes his gravest airs in adducing the cases of Cardan, Swedenborg, and a certain Duke of Montmorency, as though he were a genuine historical inquirer. He almost adopts the tone of a pious missionary in describing how his atheist doctor was led by the revelations of a clairvoyante to study Pascal's 'Pensées' and Bossuet's sublime 'Histoire des Variations,' though what those works have to do with mesmerism is rather difficult to see. He relates the mysterious visions caused by the converted doctor after his death, not less minutely, though more artistically, than De Foe described the terrible apparition of Mrs. Veal, and, it must be confessed, his story illustrates with almost equal force the doctrine, too often forgotten by spiritualists, that ghosts should not make themselves too common. When once they begin to mix in general society, they become intolerably prosaic.
The ostentatious belief which is paraded in this instance is turned to more artistic account in the wonderful story of the 'Peau de Chagrin.' Balzac there tries as conscientiously as ever to surmount the natural revolt of our minds against the introduction of the supernatural into life. The peau de chagrin is the modern substitute for the old-fashioned parchment on which contracts were signed with the devil. M. Valentin, its possessor, is a Faust of the boulevards; but our prejudices are softened by the circumstance that the peau de chagrin has a false air of scientific authenticity. It is discovered by a gentleman who spends a spare half-hour before committing suicide in an old curiosity shop, which occupies a sort of middle standing-ground between a wizard's laboratory and the ordinary Wardour Street shop. There is no question of signing with one's blood, but simply of accepting a curious substance with the property—rather a startling one, it is true—that its area diminishes in proportion to the amount of wishes gratified, and vanishes with the death of the possessor. The steady flesh-and-blood men of science treat it just as we feel certain that they would do. After smashing a hydraulic press in the attempt to compress it, and exhausting the power of chemical agents, they agree to make a joke of it. It is not so much more wonderful than some of those modern miracles, which leave us to hesitate between the two incredible alternatives that men of science are fallible, or that mankind in general, like Sir Walter Scott's grandmother, are 'awfu' leears.' Every effort is made to reduce the strain upon our credulity to that moderate degree of intensity which may fairly be required from the reader of a wild fiction. When the first characteristic wish of the proprietor—namely, that he may be indulged in a frantic orgie—has been gratified without any apparent intervention of the supernatural, we are left just in that proper equilibrium between scepticism and credulity which is the right mental attitude in presence of a marvellous story. Balzac, it is true, seems rather to flag in continuing his narrative. The symbolical meaning begins to part company with the facts. Stories of this kind require the congenial atmosphere of an ideal world, and the effort of interpreting such a poetical legend into terms of ordinary life is perhaps too great for the powers of any literary artist. At any rate M. Valentin drops after a time from the level of Faust to become the hero of a rather commonplace Parisian story. The opening scenes, however, are an admirable specimen of the skill by which our irrepressible scepticism may be hindered from intruding into a sphere where it is out of place; or rather—for one can hardly speak of belief in such a connection—of the skill by which the discord between the surroundings of the nineteenth century and a story of grotesque supernaturalism can be converted into a pleasant harmony. A similar effect is produced in one of Balzac's finest stories, the 'Recherche de l'Absolu.' Every accessory is provided to induce us, so long as we are under the spell, to regard the discovery of the philosopher's stone as a reasonable application of human energy. We are never quite clear whether Balthazar Claes is a madman or a commanding genius. We are kept trembling on the verge of a revelation till we become interested in spite of our more sober sense. A single diamond turns up in a crucible which was unluckily produced in the absence of the philosopher, so that he cannot tell what are the necessary conditions of repeating the process. He is supposed to discover the secret just as he is struck by a paralysis, which renders him incapable of revealing it, and dies whilst making desperate efforts to communicate the crowning success to his family. Balzac throws himself into the situation with such energy that we are irresistibly carried away by his enthusiasm. The impossibility ceases to annoy us, and merely serves to give additional dignity to the story.
One other variety of mystification may introduce us to some of Balzac's most powerful stories. He indulges more frequently than could be wished in downright melodrama, or what is generally called sensational writing. In the very brilliant sketch of Nathan in 'Une Fille d'Eve,' he remarks that 'the mission of genius is to search, through the accidents of the true, for that which must appear probable to all the world.' The common saying, that truth is stranger than fiction, should properly be expressed as an axiom that fiction ought not to be so strange as truth. A marvellous event is interesting in real life, simply because we know that it happened. In a fiction we know that it did not happen; and therefore it is interesting only as far as it is explained. Anybody can invent a giant or a genius by the simple process of altering figures or piling up superlatives. The artist has to make the existence of the giant or the genius conceivable. Balzac, however, often enough forgets this principle, and treats us to purely preposterous incidents, which are either grotesque or simply childish. The history of the marvellous 'Thirteen,' for example, that mysterious band which includes statesmen, beggars, men of fortune, and journalists, and goes about committing the most inconceivable crimes without the possibility of discovery, becomes simply ludicrous. Balzac, as usual, labours to reconcile our minds to the absurdity; but the effort is beyond his powers. The amazing disease which he invents for the benefit of the villains in the 'Cousine Bette' can only be accepted as a broad joke. At times, as in the story of the 'Grande Bretêche,' where the lover is bricked up by the husband in the presence of the wife, he reminds us of Edgar Poe's worst extravagances. There is, indeed, this much to be said for Balzac in comparison with the more recent school, who have turned to account all the most refined methods of breaking the ten commandments and the criminal code; the fault of the so-called sensation writer is, not that he deals in murder, bigamy, or adultery—every great writer likes to use powerful situations—but that he relies upon our interest in startling crimes to distract our attention from feebly-drawn characters and conventional details. Balzac does not often fall into that weakness. If his criminals are frequently of the most outrageous kind, and indulge even in practices unmentionable, the crime is intended at least to be of secondary interest. He tries to fix our attention on the passions by which they are caused, and to attract us chiefly by the legitimate method of analysing human nature—even, it must be confessed, in some of its most abnormal manifestations. Macbeth is not interesting because he commits half-a-dozen murders; but the murders are interesting because they are committed by Macbeth. We may generally say as much for Balzac's villains; and it is the only justification for a free use of blood and brutality. In applying these remarks, we come to the real secret of Balzac's power, which will demand a fuller consideration.
It is common to say of all great novelists, and of Balzac in particular, that they display a wonderful 'knowledge of the human heart.' The chief objection to the phrase is that such knowledge does not exist. Nobody has as yet found his way through the complexities of that intricate machine, and described the springs and balances by which its movement is originated and controlled. Men of vivid imagination are in some respects less competent for such a work than their neighbours. They have not the cool, hard, and steady hand required for psychological dissection. Balzac gave a queer specimen of his own incapacity in an attempt to investigate the true history of a real murder, celebrated in its day, and supposed by everybody but Balzac to have been committed by one Peytel, who was put to death in spite of his pleading. His skill in devising motives for imaginary atrocities was a positive disqualification for dealing with facts and legal evidence. The greatest poet or novelist describes only one person, and that is himself; and he differs from his inferiors, not necessarily in having a more systematic knowledge, but in having wider sympathies, and so to speak, possessing a great number of characters. Cervantes was at once Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; Shakespeare was Hamlet and Mercutio and Othello and Falstaff; Scott was at once Dandie Dinmont and the Antiquary and the Master of Ravenswood; and Balzac embodies his different phases of feeling in Eugénie Grandet and Vautrin and the Père Goriot. The assertion that he knew the human heart must be interpreted to mean that he could sympathise with, and give expression to, a wide range of human passions; as his supposed knowledge of the world implies merely that he was deeply impressed by certain phenomena of the social medium in which he was placed. Nobody, I should be inclined to think, would have given a more unsound judgment than Balzac as to the characters of the men whom he met, or formed a less trustworthy estimate of the real condition of society. He was totally incapable of stripping the bare facts given by observation of the colouring which they received from his own idiosyncrasy. But nobody, within certain points, could express more vividly in outward symbols the effect produced upon keen sympathies and a powerful imagination by the aspect of the world around him.
The characteristic peculiarities of Balzac's novels may be described as the intensity with which he expresses certain motives, and the vigour with which he portrays the real or imaginary corruption of society. Upon one particular situation, or class of situations, favourable to this peculiar power, he is never tired of dwelling. He repeats himself indeed, in a certain sense, as a man must necessarily repeat himself who writes eighty-five stories, besides doing other work, in less than twenty years. In this voluminous outpouring of matter the machinery is varied with wonderful fertility of invention, but one sentiment recurs very frequently. The great majority of Balzac's novels, including all the most powerful examples, may thus be described as variations on a single theme. Each of them is in fact the record of a martyrdom. There is always a virtuous hero or heroine who is tortured, and most frequently, tortured to death, by a combination of selfish intrigues. The commonest case is, of course, that which has become the staple plot of French novelists, where the interesting young woman is sacrificed to the brutality of a dull husband: that, for example, is the story of the 'Femme de Trente Ans,' of 'Le Lys dans la Vallée,' and of several minor performances; then we have the daughter sacrificed to the avaricious father, as in 'Eugénie Grandet;' the woman sacrificed to the imperious lover in the 'Duchesse de Langeais;' the immoral beauty sacrificed to the ambition of her lover in the 'Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes;' the mother sacrificed to the dissolute son in the 'Ménage de Garçon;' the woman of political ambition sacrificed to the contemptible intriguers opposed to her in 'Les Employés;' and, indeed, in one way or other, as subordinate character or as heroine, this figure of a graceful feminine victim comes into nearly every novel. Virtuous heroes fare little better. Poor Colonel Chabert is disowned and driven to beggary by the wife who has committed bigamy; the luckless curé, Birotteau, is cheated out of his prospects and doomed to a broken heart by the successful villainy of a rival priest and his accomplices; the Comte de Manerville is ruined and transported by his wife and his detestable mother-in-law; Père Goriot is left to starvation by his daughters; the Marquis d'Espard is all but condemned as a lunatic by the manœuvres of his wife; the faithful servant Michu comes to the guillotine; the devoted notary Chesnel is beggared in the effort to save his scape-grace of a master; Michaud, another devoted adherent, is murdered with perfect success by the brutal peasantry, and his wife dies of the news; Balthazar Claes is the victim of his devotion to science; and Z. Marcas dies unknown and in the depths of misery as a reward for trying to be a second Colbert. The old-fashioned canons of poetical justice are inverted; and the villains are dismissed to live very happily ever afterwards, whilst the virtuous are slain outright or sentenced to a death by slow torture. Thackeray, in one or two of his minor stories, has touched the same note. The history of Mr. Deuceace, and especially its catastrophe, is much in Balzac's style; but, as a rule, our English novelists shrink from anything so unpleasant.
Perhaps the most striking example of this method is the 'Père Goriot.' The general situation may be described in two words, by saying that Goriot is the modern King Lear. Mesdames de Restaud and de Nucingen are the representatives of Regan and Goneril; but the Parisian Lear is not allowed the consolation of a Cordelia; the cup of misery is measured out to him drop by drop, and the bitterness of each dose is analysed with chemical accuracy. We watch the poor old broken-down merchant, who has impoverished himself to provide his daughters' dowries, and has gradually stripped himself, first of comfort, and then of the necessaries of life to satisfy the demands of their folly and luxury, as we might watch a man clinging to the edge of a cliff and gradually dropping lower and lower, catching feebly at every point of support till his strength is exhausted, and the inevitable catastrophe follows. The daughters, allowed to retain some fragments of good feeling and not quite irredeemably hateful, are gradually yielding to the demoralising influence of a heartless vanity. They yield, it is true, pretty completely at last; but their wickedness seems to reveal the influence of a vague but omnipotent power of evil in the background. There is not a more characteristic scene in Balzac than that in which Rastignac, the lover of Madame de Nucingen, overhears the conversation between the father in his wretched garret and the modern Goneril and Regan. A gleam of good fortune has just encouraged old Goriot to anticipate an escape from his troubles. On the morning of the day of expected release Madame Goneril de Nucingen rushes up to her father's garret to explain to him that her husband, the rich banker, having engaged all his funds in some diabolical financial intrigues, refuses to allow her the use of her fortune; whilst, owing to her own misconduct, she is afraid to appeal to the law. They have a hideous tacit compact, according to which the wife enjoys full domestic liberty, whilst the husband may use her fortune to carry out his dishonest plots. She begs her father to examine the facts in the light of his financial experience, though the examination must be deferred, that she may not look ill with the excitement when she meets her lover at the ball. As the poor father is tormenting his brains, Madame Regan de Restaud appears in terrible distress. Her lover has threatened to commit suicide unless he can meet a certain bill, and to save him she has pledged certain diamonds which were heirlooms in her husband's family. Her husband has discovered the whole transaction, and, though not making an open scandal, imposes some severe conditions upon her future. Old Goriot is raving against the brutality of her husband, when Regan adds that there is still a sum to be paid, without which her lover, to whom she has sacrificed everything, will be ruined. Now old Goriot had employed just this sum—all but the very last fragment of his fortune—in the service of Goneril. A desperate quarrel instantly takes place between the two fine ladies over this last scrap of their father's property. They are fast degenerating into Parisian Billingsgate, when Goriot succeeds in obtaining silence and proposes to strip himself of his last penny. Even the sisters hesitate at such an impiety, and Rastignac enters with some apology for listening, and hands over to the countess a certain bill of exchange for a sum which he professes himself to owe to Goriot, and which will just save her lover. She accepts the paper, but vehemently denounces her sister for having, as she supposes, allowed Rastignac to listen to their hideous revelations, and retires in a fury, whilst the father faints away. He recovers to express his forgiveness, and at this moment the countess returns, ostensibly to throw herself on her knees and beg her father's pardon. She apologises to her sister, and a general reconciliation takes place. But before she has again left the room she has obtained her father's endorsement to Rastignac's bill. Even her most genuine fury had left coolness enough for calculation, and her burst of apparent tenderness was a skilful bit of comedy for squeezing one more drop of blood from her father and victim. That is a genuine stroke of Balzac.
Hideous as the performance appears when coolly stated, it must be admitted that the ladies have got into such terrible perplexities from tampering with the seventh commandment, that there is some excuse for their breaking the fifth. Whether such an accumulation of horrors is a legitimate process in art, and whether a healthy imagination would like to dwell upon such loathsome social sores, is another question. The comparison suggested with 'King Lear' may illustrate the point. In Balzac all the subordinate details which Shakespeare throws in with a very slovenly touch are elaborately drawn, and contribute powerfully to the total impression. On the other hand, we never reach the lofty poetical heights of the grandest scenes in 'King Lear.' But the situation of the two heroes offers an instructive contrast. Lear is weak, but is never contemptible; he is the ruin of a gallant old king, is guilty of no degrading compliance, and dies like a man, with his 'good biting falchion' still grasped in his feeble hand. To change him into Goriot we must suppose that he had licked the hand which struck him, that he had helped on the adulterous intrigues of Goneril and Regan from sheer weakness, and that all his fury had been directed against Cornwall and Albany for objecting to his daughters' eccentric views of the obligation of the marriage vow. Paternal affection leading a man to the most trying self-sacrifice is a worthy motive for a great drama or romance; but Balzac is so anxious to intensify the emotion, that he makes even paternal affection morally degrading. Everything must be done to heighten the colouring. Our sympathies are to be excited by making the sacrifice as complete, and the emotion which prompts it as overpowering, as possible; until at last the love of children becomes a monomania. Goriot is not only dragged through the mud of Paris, but he grovels in it with a will. In short, Balzac wants that highest power which shows itself by moderation, and commits a fault like that of an orator who emphasizes every sentence. With less expenditure of horrors, he would excite our compassion more powerfully. But after all, Goriot is, perhaps, more really affecting even than King Lear.
Situations of the 'Père Goriot' kind are, in some sense, more appropriate for heroines than for heroes. Self-sacrifice is, for the present at least, considered by a large part of mankind as the complete duty of woman. The feminine martyr can indulge without loss of our esteem in compliances which would be degrading in a man. Accordingly Balzac finds the amplest materials for his favourite situation in the torture of innocent women. The great example of his skill in this department is Eugénie Grandet, in which the situation of the Père Goriot is inverted. Poor Eugénie is the victim of a domestic tyrant, who is, perhaps, Balzac's most finished portrait of the cold-blooded and cunning miser. The sacrifice of a woman's life to paternal despotism is unfortunately even commoner in real life than in fiction; and when the lover, from whom the old miser has divided her during his life, deserts her after his death, we feel that the mournful catastrophe is demanded by the sombre prologue. The book may indeed justify, to some extent, one of the ordinary criticisms upon Balzac, that he showed a special subtlety in describing the sufferings of women. The question as to the general propriety of that criticism is rather difficult for a male critic. I confess to a certain scepticism, founded partly on the general principle that hardly any author can really describe the opposite sex, and partly on an antipathy which I cannot repress to Balzac's most ambitious feminine portraits.
Eugénie Grandet is perhaps the purest of his women; but then Eugénie Grandet is simply stupid, and interesting from her sufferings rather than her character. She reminds us of some patient animal of the agricultural kind, with bovine softness of eyes and bovine obstinacy under suffering. His other women, though they are not simply courtesans, after the fashion of some French writers, seem, as it were, to have a certain perceptible taint; they breathe an unwholesome atmosphere. In one of his extravagant humours, he tells us that the most perfect picture of purity in existence is the Madonna of the Genoese painter, Piola, but that even that celestial Madonna would have looked like a Messalina by the side of the Duchesse de Manfrigneuse. If the duchess resembled either personage in character, it was certainly not the Madonna. And Balzac's best women give us the impression that they are courtesans acting the character of virgins, and showing admirable dramatic skill in the performance. They may keep up the part so obstinately as to let the acting become earnest; but even when they don't think of breaking the seventh commandment, they are always thinking about not breaking it. When he has done his best to describe a thoroughly pure woman, such as Henrietta in the 'Lys dans la Vallée,' he cannot refrain from spoiling his performance by throwing in a hint at the conclusion that, after all, she had a strong disposition to go wrong, which was only defeated by circumstances. Indeed, the ladies who in his pages have broken loose from all social restraints, differ only in external circumstances from their more correct sisters. Coralie, in the 'Illusions Perdues,' is not so chaste in her conduct as the immaculate Henriette, but is not a whit less delicate in her tastes. Madame de la Baudraye deserts her husband, and lives for some years with her disreputable lover at Paris, and does not in the least forfeit the sympathies of her creator. Balzac's feminine types may be classified pretty easily. At bottom they are all of the sultana variety—playthings who occasionally venture into mixing with the serious affairs of life, but then only on pain of being ridiculous (as in the 'Employés,' or the 'Muse du Département'); but properly confined to their drawing-rooms, with delicate cajoleries for their policy, and cunning instead of intellect. Sometimes they are cold-hearted and selfish, and then they are vicious, making victims of lovers, husbands, or fathers, consuming fortunes, and spreading ill-will by cunning intrigues; sometimes they are virtuous, and therefore according to Balzac's logic, pitiable victims of the world. But their virtue, when it exists, is the effect, not of lofty principle, but of a certain delicacy of taste corresponding to a fine organisation. They object to vice, because it is apt to be coarse; and are perfectly ready to yield, if it can be presented in such graceful forms as not to shock their sensibilities. Marriage is therefore a complicated intrigue in which one party is always deceived, though it may be for his or her good. If you will be loved, says the judicious lady in the 'Mémoires de Deux Jeunes Mariées,' the secret is not to love; and the rather flimsy epigram is converted into a great moral truth. The justification of the lady is, that love is only made permanent by elaborate intrigue. The wife is to be always on the footing of a mistress who can only preserve her lover by incessant and infinitely varied caresses. To do this, she must be herself cool. The great enemy of matrimonial happiness is satiety, and we are constantly presented with an affectionate wife boring her husband to death, and alienating him by over-devotion. If one party is to be cheated, the one who is freest from passion will be the winner of the game. As a maxim, after the fashion of Rochefoucauld, this doctrine may have enough truth to be plausible; but when seriously accepted and made the substantive moral of a succession of stories, one is reminded less of a really acute observer than of a lad fresh from college who thinks that wisdom consists in an exaggerated cynicism. When ladies of this variety break their hearts, they either die or retire in a picturesque manner to a convent. They are indeed the raw material of which the genuine dévote is made. The morbid sentimentality directed to the lover passes without perceptible shock into a religious sentimentality, the object of which is at least ostensibly different. The graceful but voluptuous mistress of the Parisian salon is developed without any violent transition into the equally graceful and ascetic nun. The connection between the luxurious indulgence of material flirtations and religious mysticism is curious, but unmistakable.
Balzac's reputation in this respect is founded, not on his little hoard of cynical maxims, which, to say the truth, are not usually very original, but on the vivid power of describing the details and scenery of the martyrdom, and the energy with which he paints the emotion, of the victim. Whether his women are very lifelike, or very varied in character, may be doubted; but he has certainly endowed them with an admirable capacity for suffering, and forces us to listen sympathetically to their cries of anguish. The peculiar cynicism implied in this view of feminine existence must be taken as part of his fundamental theory of society. When Rastignac has seen Goriot buried, the ceremony being attended only by his daughters' empty carriages, he climbs to the highest part of the cemetery, and looks over Paris. As he contemplates the vast buzzing hive, he exclaims solemnly, 'à nous deux maintenant!' The world is before him; he is to fight his way in future without remorse. Accordingly, Balzac's view of society is, that it is a masquerade of devils, engaged in tormenting a few wandering angels. That society is not what Balzac represents it to be is sufficiently proved by the fact that society exists; as indeed he is profoundly convinced that its destruction is only a question of time. It is rotten to the core. Lust and avarice are the moving forms of the world, while profound and calculating selfishness has sapped the base of all morality. The type of a successful statesman is De Marsay, a kind of imaginary Talleyrand, who rules because he has recognised the intrinsic baseness of mankind, and has no scruples in turning it to account. Vautrin, who is an open enemy of society, is simply De Marsay in revolt. The weapons with which he fights are distinguished from those of greater men, not in their intrinsic wickedness, but in their being accidentally forbidden by law. He is less of a hypocrite, and scarcely a greater villain than his more prosperous rivals. He ultimately recognises the futility of the strife, agrees to wear a mask like his neighbours, and accepts the congenial duties of a police agent. The secret of success in all ranks of life is to be without scruples of morality, but exceedingly careful of breaking the law. The bankers, Nucingen and Du Tillet, are merely cheats on a gigantic scale. They ruin their enemies by financiering instead of picking pockets. Be wicked if you would be successful; if possible let your wickedness be refined; but, at all events, be wicked.
There is, indeed, a class of unsuccessful villains, to be found chiefly amongst journalists, for whom Balzac has a special aversion; they live, he tells us, partly on extortion, and partly on the prostitution of their talents to gratify political or personal animosities, and are at the mercy of the longest purse. They fail in life, not because they are too immoral, but because they are too weak. They are the victims instead of the accomplices of more resolute evil-doers. Lucien de Rubempré is the type of this class. Endowed with surpassing genius and personal beauty, he goes to Paris to make his fortune, and is introduced to the world as it is. On the one hand is a little knot of virtuous men, called the cénacle, who are working for posterity and meanwhile starving. On the other is a vast mass of cheats and dupes. After a brief struggle Lucien yields to temptation, and joins in the struggle for wealth and power. But he has not strength enough to play his part. His head is turned by the flattery of pretty actresses and scheming publishers: he is enticed into thoughtless dissipation, and, after a brilliant start, finds that he is at the mercy of the cleverer villains who surround him; that he has been bought and sold like a sheep; that his character is gone, and his imagination become sluggish; and, finally, he has to escape from utter ruin by scarcely describable degradation. He writes a libel on one of his virtuous friends, who is forgiving enough to improve it and correct it for the press. In order to bury his mistress, who has been ruined with him, he has to raise money by grovelling in the foulest depths of literary sewerage. He at last succeeds in crawling back to his relations in the country, morally and materially ruined. He makes another effort to rise, backed up by the diabolical arts of Vautrin, and relying rather on his beauty than his talents. The world is again too strong for him, and, after being accomplice in the most outrageous crimes, he ends appropriately by hanging himself in prison. Vautrin, as we have seen, escapes from the fate of his partner because he retains coolness enough to practise upon the vices of the governing classes. The world, in short, is composed of three classes—consistent and, therefore, successful villains; inconsistent and, therefore, unsuccessful villains; and virtuous persons, who never have a chance of success, and enjoy the honours of starvation.
The provinces differ from Paris in the nature of the social warfare, but not in its morality. Passions are directed to meaner objects; they are narrower, and more intense. The whole of a man's faculties are concentrated upon one object; and he pursues it for years with relentless and undeviating ardour. To supplant a rival, to acquire a few more acres, to gratify jealousy of a superior, he will labour for a lifetime. The intensity of his hatred supplies his want of intellect; he is more cunning, if less far-sighted; and in the contest between the brilliant Parisian and the plodding provincial we generally have an illustration of the hare and the tortoise. The blind, persistent hatred gets the better in the long run of the more brilliant, but more transitory, passion. The lower nature here, too, gets the better of the higher; and Balzac characteristically delights in the tragedy produced by genius which falls before cunning, as virtue almost invariably yields to vice. It is only when the slow provincial obstinacy happens to be on the side of virtue that stupidity, doubled with virtue, as embodied for example in two or three French Caleb Balderstons, generally gets the worst of it. There are exceptions to this general rule. Even Balzac sometimes relents. A reprieve is granted at the last moment, and the martyr is unbound from the stake. But those catastrophes are not only exceptional, but rather annoying. We have been so prepared to look for a sacrifice that we are disappointed instead of relieved. If Balzac's readers could be consulted during the last few pages of a novel, I feel sure that most thumbs would be turned upwards, and the lions allowed to have their will of the Christians. Perhaps our appetites have been depraved; but we are not in the cue for a happy conclusion.
I know not whether it was the cause or the consequence of this sentiment that Balzac was a thorough legitimist. He does not believe in the vitality of the old order, any more than he believes in the truth of Catholicism. But he regrets the extinction of the ancient faiths, which he admits to be unsuitable; and sees in their representatives the only picturesque and really estimable elements that still survived in French society. He heartily despises the modern mediævalists, who try to spread a thin varnish over a decaying order; the world is too far gone in wickedness for such a futile remedy. The old chivalrous sentiments of the genuine noblesse are giving way to the base chicanery of the bourgeois who supplant them: the peasantry are mean, avaricious, and full of bitter jealousy; but they are triumphantly rooting out the last vestiges of feudalism. Democracy and communism are the fine names put forward to justify the enmity of those who have not, against those who have. Their success means merely an approaching 'descent of Niagara,' and the growth of a more debasing and more materialist form of despotism. But it would be a mistake to assume that this view of the world implies that Balzac is in a state of lofty moral indignation. Nothing can be further from the case. The world is wicked; but it is fascinating. Society is very corrupt, it is true; but intensely and permanently amusing. Paris is a hell; but hell is the only place worth living in. The play of evil passions gives infinite subjects for dramatic interests. The financial warfare is more diabolical than the old literal warfare, but quite as entertaining. There is really as much romance connected with bills of exchange as with swords and lances, and rigging the market is nothing but the modern form of lying in ambush. Goneril and Regan are triumphant; but we may admire the grace of their manners and the dexterity with which they cloak their vices. Iago not only poisons Othello's peace of mind, but, in the world of Balzac, he succeeds to Othello's place, and is universally respected. The story receives an additional flavour. In a characteristic passage, Balzac regrets that Molière did not continue 'Tartufe.' It would then have appeared how bitterly Orgon regretted the loss of the hypocrite, who, it is said, made love to his wife, but who, at any rate, had an interest in making things pleasant. Your conventional catastrophe is a mistake in art, as it is a misrepresentation of facts. Tartufe has a good time of it in Balzac: instead of meeting with an appropriate punishment, he flourishes and thrives, and we look on with a smile not altogether devoid of complacency. Shall we not take the world as it is, and be amused at the 'Comédie Humaine,' rather than fruitlessly rage against it? It will be played out whether we like it or not, and we may as well adapt our tastes to our circumstances.
Ought we to be shocked at this extravagant cynicism; to quote it, as respectable English journalists used to do, as a proof of the awful corruption of French society, or to regard it as semi-humorous exaggeration? I can't quite sympathise with people who take Balzac seriously. I cannot talk about the remorseless skill with which he tears off the mask from the fearful corruptions of modern society, and penetrates into the most hidden motives of the human heart; nor can I infer from his terrible pictures of feminine suffering that for every one of those pictures a woman's heart had been tortured to death. This, or something like this, I have read; and I can only say that I don't believe a word of it. Balzac, indeed, as compared with our respectable romancers, has the merit of admitting passions whose existence we scrupulously ignore; and the further merit that he takes a far wider range of sentiment, and does not hold by the theory that the life of a man or a woman closes at the conventional end of a third volume. But he is above all things a dreamer, and his dreams resemble nightmares. Powerfully as his actors are put upon the stage, they seem to me to be, after all, 'such stuff as dreams are made of.' A genuine observer of life does not find it so highly spiced, and draws more moderate conclusions. Balzac's characters run into typical examples of particular passions rather than genuine human beings; they are generally monomaniacs. Balthazar Claes, who gives up his life to search for the philosopher's stone, is closely related to them all; only we must substitute for the philosopher's stone some pet passion, in which the whole nature is absorbed. They have the unnatural strain of mind which marks the approach to madness. It is not ordinary daylight which illuminates Balzac's dreamland, but some fantastic combination of Parisian lamps, which tinges all the actors with an unearthly glare, and distorts their features into extravagant forms. The result has, as I have said, a strange fascination; but one is half-ashamed of yielding, because one feels that it is due to the use of rather unholy drugs. The vapours that rise from his magic caldron and shape themselves into human forms smell unpleasantly of sulphur, or perhaps of Parisian sewers.
The highest poetry, like the noblest morality, is the product of a thoroughly healthy mind. A diseased tendency in one respect is certain to make itself manifest in the other. Now Balzac, though he shows some powers which are unsurpassed or unequalled, possessed a mind which, to put it gently, was not exactly well regulated. He took a pleasure in dwelling upon horrors from which a healthy imagination shrinks, and rejoiced greatly in gloating over the mysteries of iniquity. I do not say that this makes his work immoral in the ordinary sense. Probably few people who are likely to read Balzac would be any the worse for the study. But, from a purely artistic point of view, he is injured by his morbid tendencies. The highest triumph of style is to say what everybody has been thinking in such a way as to make it new; the greatest triumph of art is to make us see the poetical side of the commonplace life around us. Balzac's ambition was, doubtless, aimed in that direction. He wished to show that life in Paris or at Tours was as interesting to the man of real insight as any more ideal region. In a certain sense, he has accomplished his purpose. He has discovered food for a dark and powerful imagination in the most commonplace details of daily life. But he falls short in so far as he is unable to represent things as they are, and has a taste for impossible horrors. There are tragedies enough all round us for him who has eyes to see. Balzac is not content with the materials at hand, or rather he has a love for the more exceptional and hideous manifestations. Therefore the 'Comédie Humaine,' instead of being an accurate picture of human life, and appealing to the sympathies of all human beings, is a collection of monstrosities, whose vices are unnatural, and whose virtues are rather like their vices. One feels that there is something narrow and artificial about his work. It is intensely powerful, but it is not the highest kind of power. He makes the utmost of the gossip of a club smoking-room, or the scandal of a drawing-room, or perhaps of a country public-house; but he represents a special phase of manners, and that not a particularly pleasant one, rather than the more fundamental and permanent sentiments of mankind. When shall we see a writer who can be powerful without being spasmodic, and pierce through the surface of society without seeking for interest in its foulest abysses?
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