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Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850). Old Goriot.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Biographical Note

HONORÉ DE BALZAC was born at Tours on May 20, 1799. His father, Bernard François Balssa, who adopted the form of the family name made familiar by the novelist, came of peasant stock from the south of France. Honoré went to school at Vendôme, Tours, and Paris, later proceeding to study law, and spending three years in a solicitor’s office. But when his father wished him to devote himself definitely to the practice of law he revolted, and at the age of twenty-one took up with determination the profession of letters. For five years he lived in very straitened circumstances, producing unsuccessful dramas and a large number of equally unsuccessful novels, chiefly after the pattern of the English “School of Terror.”

The prospect of making a living by his pen remaining dark, he went into business in 1825 as a publisher, printer, and type-founder; but all he seems to have gained from this enterprise was a large debt, which burdened him ever after, some experience of life, and a knowledge of the details of business, of which he availed himself in his later writings.

In 1829 he again began to publish, and his historical novel, “Les Chouans,” marks the real beginning of his literary career. This work is influenced by Scott, whom Balzac greatly admired, and is of a distinctly romantic type. The “Physiologie du mariage,” published in the same year, is as distinctly realistic. For the next twenty-one years, Balzac continued to produce with unexampled fertility. About 1842 he set about planning his books as part of a vast “Comédie humaine,” into which scheme he fitted, as far as possible, the works already issued. This was subdivided into scenes from private life, from provincial life, from political life, from military life, and from country life; and outside of these groups were philosophical and analytical studies. Among the most important titles are “La Peau de chagrin,” “Le Curé de Tours,” “Eugénie Grandet,” “L’Illustre Gaudissart,” “La Recherche de l’absolu,” “La Femme de trente ans,” “Le Père Goriot,” “Séraphita,” “Histoire de la grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau,” “Ursule Mironet,” and “La Cousine Bette.”

In spite of the amount and popularity of his work, Balzac was continually in financial straits, partly because of his bad business management, partly because his habit of rewriting his books after they were in proof increased enormously the cost of production. No man ever labored more persistently in his profession. He would write sixteen hours a day, and keep it up for weeks; and it is little wonder that ultimately his constitution broke down. For the last eighteen years of his life he was devoted to a Madame Hanska, a wealthy Polish countess, with whom he corresponded and whom he occasionally visited. They were finally married in March, 1850; but scarcely had Balzac settled down to enjoy the long-deferred fulfillment of his desires than he was seized with heart disease, and died on the 17th of August of that year. Victor Hugo delivered the eulogy over his grave.

Balzac’s two great gifts were a colossal imagination and a capacity for minute observation. From the first came the romantic tendency which predominates in a number of his works and crops out here and there throughout; from the second the realism which makes his “Comédie” so wonderful a picture of France in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. “Old Goriot,” an acknowledged masterpiece, gives an excellent idea of his power of portraying a section of society, of presenting memorable—if seldom wholly admirable—types, and of moving us with the picture of a passion like parental love turned into a fatal weakness and the source of intolerable suffering.

W. A. N.