Honoré de Balzac was one of the most popular novelists in nineteenth-century France and he certainly caught the attention of one young aspiring writer who was living in France during the 1830s. This writer was George W.M. Reynolds (1814–79). Although Reynolds became the author of several controversial works, in the earlier part of his career he also wrote several pieces of serious literary criticism on French novels in The Monthly Magazine. These essays were then expanded and revised, and published in Reynolds’s two volume Modern Literature of France (1839). Reynolds’s remarks about de Balzac, transcribed by Stephen Basdeo, are reproduced below.
For many years before the French Revolution of 1830, De Balzac had written under the name of Horace St. Aubyn; and it is a most extraordinary fact, that, although some of his best works appeared during that period, he acquired but a very inconsiderable degree of reputation, until the events of the three days gave a new impulse to his mind and launched him at once upon the placid sea of fame and fortune. The evening saw him an unknown aspirant after those laurels which he was burning to attain: he awoke in the morning, and “found himself famous!” And the success which he then experienced was not a partial one: poor in circulation as had been his works previous to his days of renown, as rich were they after the sudden and miraculous change which placed his name almost at the top of the long and glorious list of French writers. But it must not be supposed that a sudden caprice on the part of the public was the origin of this vicissitude of fortune; nor should it be for a moment imagined that an increase of talent procured an increase of reputation. Now the change was sudden and striking; not gradual and almost imperceptible. The career of De Balzac was not that of an ordinary author, who, by dint of perseverance and labour, gradually pushes himself into notice: it was at first dark, unpromising, and gloomy; it was suddenly snatched from that murkiness of night to the blaze of the most cloudless day. It passed not through the various degrees of twilight and of dawn: it suddenly varied from the noon of night to the noon of day.
The reason of this phenomenon in the literary heaven, was the change which had come over the spirit of M. de Balzac’s dream. He saw the Revolution of July – he marked the throne of the imprudent Charles totter and fall — he witnessed the spirit with which his fellow — countrymen overthrew all despotic institutions, and his capacious mind instantly received a lesson which, though unacknowledged by him, was essentially beneficial in more than one respect. It enlarged his views, laid open to him a wide field for observation in the scrutiny of man’s characters, and made him probably one of the most acute observers in the literary world. Hence his next work was fashioned in a new mould, arrayed in new vesture, and sent forth to the world under a new form; and no one could recognise in this fresh offspring of the fancy, ushered to public notice under the auspices of De Balzac, a brother of aught that had appeared by the title of Horace St. Aubyn. Formerly his writings were confined to the six hundred circulating libraries of Paris: now they are elegantly bound and ranged upon the shelves of every private collection of standard works throughout the kingdom. And yet, although it be full well known that Horace St. Aubyn and Honoré de Balzac are one and the same person, still the novels of the former are not a quarter in such request as those of the latter. De Balzac before the Revolution, and De Balzac since the Revolution, are two widely different men: their pursuits, their ideas, their positions, their popularity are totally discrepant the one from the other. The former breathed the atmosphere of poverty, neglect, and obscurity: the latter basks in the sunshine of public favour, prosperity, and applause. And all this was originated by a change of style, and not by a change of name, nor a sudden caprice on the part of a fickle audience.
De Balzac is a most voluminous writer; and, like all composers of many books, has produced much that is good and much that is but indifferent. In the latter class must of course be ranked a few of the works which have appeared since his success, as well as some that were published while he yet languished in obscurity. He is, as we before observed, gifted with a wonderful degree of perception; and this, aided by a most powerful memory, enables him to sustain his elevated rank in the literary world with undiminished splendour. He is elaborate in his descriptions; but then those descriptions are so entertaining that the reader does not wish to skip a single page, nor omit the perusal of a solitary sentence. The fatiguing delineations of scenery and costume, which are read in the romances of Ann Radcliffe, weary the mind, cloy the appetite, and encourage the approach of slumber; but, though De Balzac frequently descends to the most minute details, he is never tedious nor tiresome. He will introduce his readers into a particular room, in a particular house, and in a particular street; and having placed the street in its most true colours before their eyes, he will make them thoroughly acquainted with the structure and arrangements of the house, and then describe every nook and every corner of the room. The colour of the curtains — the pictures against the wall — the patterns of the china, are all fully detailed. Thus, when he ushers the reader into the small chamber inhabited by the widow and her daughter, in his exquisite tale entitled La Bourse, the introduction does not only extend to those ladies, but also to the meagre furniture which half fills their apartment , the old shawl which the mother throws around her shoulders , the manner in which the young and graceful girl fetches a few sticks from a cupboard to make a blaze in the cheerless grate , and a thousand minutiæ which would escape the notice of a casual observer , but which constitute the principal interest in the tales of M. de Balzac . The abode of the Vieille Fille, in the story bearing that title, is equally graphic in description; indeed, there is scarcely one of this gentleman’s novels in which the same love of detail and the same acuteness of perception may not be traced. In the princely hotel, as well as in the humble shed, is he equally at home: in the former he examines the golden cornices of the spacious halls — the texture of the tapestry — the arrangement of the tables; and in the latter, he peers into the nook where the scanty loaf is kept – he sees where lies the deficiency of the necessaries of life and he calculates how many mouthsful the piece of meat which is cooking at the fire will make for the inmates of the hovel.
It is frequently painful to peruse the graphic descriptions of the abodes of poverty or misery which De Balzac presents to his readers. He resembles the skilful surgeon, who can detect at a glance all the infirmities of the disease which is consuming the patient to whom he is summoned. De Balzac, in delineating a prison, would not forget the spider upon the wall; and in his picture of a hovel he will enumerate particulars which would even have escaped the memory of a Hogarth himself. But how true are his descriptions! how full of reality his delineations! Painful though they be, they are a counterpart of existence; and he uses no imagery to enlist additional interest in his paintings. Simple and unadorned, they stand before the world in their primitive state of nudity; and the tears, which are shed during a contemplation of those paintings, must be real and heart-wrung tears indeed! Such is the power of this mighty artist, for so he may with the greatest propriety be called.
La Peau de Chagrin is one of the most popular of the works of M. de Balzac. It was also the first in which he presented himself to the world as the new man, with new views, and new passions. It was the corner stone of the edifice of his success; and is justly celebrated for the richness of the imagination exhibited in its pages, the vigour with which it is penned, and the humour in which it abounds. It has been called prolix; but the minuteness of detail, which we have just represented to be so peculiar to this author, cannot possibly appear wearisome to those who take up a book with a more solid view than that of only finding an amusing story.
Les Scenes de la Vie Privée, Les Scenes de la Vie de Provence, and Les Scenes de la Vie Parisienne, are the three most important of De Balzac’s productions. They are subjects which allowed full scope for the exercise of his acuteness of perception; and they abound in amusing descriptions of locality, persons, and manners, at the same time that they interest by their admirable tales. La Femme de Trente Ans created a most surprising sensation; for it won the hearts of those ladies who had arrived at an age when they could never hope to be adopted as the heroines of a romancer. At thirty the French woman is older, in reference to taste, appearance, and passions, than the English; and thus the extent of the compliment paid to the former may be fully appreciated by the latter, were she to suppose that at the age of five-and-thirty she was adored in a similar manner. The French are, moreover, frivolous, vain, and conceited; and very few married ladies, in the vortex of Parisian society, think of their domestic circles, their children, or their homes; but pleasure, adulation, noise, love, and the voluptuous dance alone have charms for them. Balzac’s work was therefore the means of securing him the favour of the married lady of thirty; and thus his popularity was as firmly established in the boudoir as it had already been in the circulating library and newsroom. His publications became the study of the lady’s maid when the lady had devoured them; and the lady eulogised him to her husband and his friends, and the lady’s maid to her friends again; and De Balzac, by a brilliant stroke of policy, enlisted a numerous and a powerful audience in his favour. Add to this happy circumstance the beauty of his style, the deep interest which pervades his tales, and that unfinished mystery in which he delights to involve his heroes or his heroines, and the secret of his vast popularity is revealed. He only required to be known to be appreciated: desperate were his efforts to obtain a footing in the literary world; he succeeded, and is now one of the most envied and enviable authors in existence.
Eugenie Grandet is a splendid production, in which a deep and profound acquaintance with the human mind individually, and the world generally, is everywhere displayed. It is a work, one page of which is alone sufficient to confer the honours of immortality upon a writer; it is a book which none, who have read it, can ever forget; it is a history of mankind, seen through the mirror which reflects the life and destinies of two or three individuals. It leaves an impression behind it which the most callous and indifferent cannot easily shake off: it is a volume, each word of which falls upon the memory with as indelible a trace as molten lead on the sensitive flesh.
The Medecin de Campagne, Le Père Goriot, Le Lys de Vallée, and the Recherche de l’Absolu, are admirable in their way, but far inferior to Eugenie Grandet. Le Vicaire des Ardennes, and its continuation, Annette et le Criminal, contain some of the most powerful passages ever penned by a modern writer. The beauty, the passion, and the sufferings of Melanie in the former; and the tender devotion, profound love, and noble conduct of Annette in the latter, at once excite the sympathies and the enthusiastic admiration of the reader. The interest – unflagging and unwearied — which per vades these two tales , carries him on with a species of galvanic force, over which he has no controul; and even the very villanies of the principal actor in these novels assume a certain air of heroism which excites something less severe than indignation or abhorrence in the mind.
The tragedy of King Lear has furnished M. de Balzac with the groundwork of one of his most successful tales; viz., Le Père Goriot, to which allusion has been slightly made above. Like Lear, father Goriot has two daughters; and when the old man has richly portioned his property between them, and left himself but a scanty pittance to support a miserable existence; and when, in his tenderness for his much loved children, he has purchased costly things with the remnants of his means, to testify his affection to those whom he has already made rich, he dies neglected by the children that were rendered happy by the beggary of their sire!
It would seem as if M. de Balzac roved often through the streets of Paris, in the day time, to catch the characters of men, whom he meets upon the Boulevards, from the expression of their countenances; and by night, to discover the haunts of poverty and crime, or to watch the crowds that enter or issue from the rich man’s lordly mansion. He appears to be ever on the alert to collect fresh materials for a new novel; and he spares neither time nor trouble in the search of a new feature of interest. The whining beggar or the haughty paladin passes him by; and from each he borrows a moral or a character. He enters the lowest hovel or he roves through the brilliant saloons of the fashionable and proud; and he returns home with an addition to the memorandum book of his most retentive memory. He studies much; for his writings bear evidence of profound reading on the part of their author. To him the most trivial occurrence is fraught with interest; for who but he could on such slight materials as those which originated La Bourse, have composed so sweetly pathetic, so interesting, and so perfect a tale? His description of the chevalier in La Vieille Fille must have caused many an aristocrat of the Faubourg Saint Germain to start, when he first perused it, with the conviction that he was reading a minute delineation of himself. It is thus that this mighty magician can cast his spells around us, and weave so complicated a web of interest to retain us in its toils, that we become the willing slaves of his wand before we are even well acquainted with the witchery of his language; and then, the more he speaks, the more eagerly do we listen! His imagination is not always so fertile in incident during the progressive development of a tale, as that of many of his contemporaries; but his plots are invariably well designed, well kept up, and as admirably carried on to their denoúenent. To the casual reader, and to the one who merely occupies himself with a work for the sake of the amusement it may afford, De Balzac will often appear prolix and tedious; but to the individual who reads for instruction, who reads to ascertain the workings of the human mind in all its phases, and who reads to receive an impression somewhat more lasting than that which the mere reminiscence of a tale is capable of affording — to such an one are the writings of De Balzac invaluable and peerless treasures. De Balzac is deeply read in the history of the world; he has profoundly studied that volume which many regard but superficially; the minutest fibres that concrete in the human heart have vibrated to his magic touch. Not a smile – not a sigh –not a look – not a tear – are unnoticed by him; and in each he sees something more real, more important, and more true, than ever meets the glance of a cursory observer. Hence has he transferred to his writings that vast knowledge which his mind had long treasured up; hence is the page of his book an echo to the tablet of his memory; and hence does he occasionally detail minutely those feelings and passions which the generality of authors usually express in one word.
 George W.M. Reynolds, The Modern Literature of France, 2 vols (London: George Henderson, 1839), I, pp. 38–88.
Categories: 19th Century, Essay, French Literature, g w m reynolds, Honoré de Balzac, Literary criticism