The Life and Works of Honoré de Balzac, French Novelist

The coffee-addled writer who pioneered realism in novels

Daguerrotype of Honore de Balzac circa 1845
Daguerrotype of Honore de Balzac circa 1845, photo by Louis Auguste Bisson (Getty).

Honoré de Balzac (born Honoré Balssa, May 20, 1799 – August 18, 1850) was a novelist and playwright in nineteenth-century France. His work formed part of the foundation of the realist tradition in European literature, with particular focus on his remarkably complex characters.

Family and Early Life

Honoré’s father, Bernard-Francois Balssa, was from a large lower-class family. As a young man, he worked hard to climb up the social ladder and eventually did so, working for the governments of both Louis XVI and, later, Napoleon. He changed his name to Francois Balzac to sound more like the aristocrats he now interacted with, and eventually married the daughter of a wealthy family, Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier. The age gap was considerable – thirty-two years – and was arranged in gratitude for Francois’s assistance to the family. It never was a love match.

Despite this, the couple had five children. Honoré was the eldest to survive infancy, and was closest in age and affection to his sister Laure, born a year later. Honoré attended the local grammar school, but struggled with the rigid structure and consequently was a poor student, even once he was returned to the care of his family and private tutors. It was not until he entered university at the Sorbonne that he began to thrive, studying history, literature, and philosophy under some of the great minds of the day.

After college, Honoré began a career as a law clerk on the advice of his father. He was intensely dissatisfied with the work, but it did provide him with the opportunity to come into contact with and observe people of all walks of life and the moral dilemmas inherent in the practice of the law. Leaving his law career caused some discord with his family, but Honoré held firm.

Early Career

Honoré began his attempts at a literary career as a playwright, then, under a pseudonym, as a co-writer of “potboiler” novels: quickly-written, often scandalous novels, the equivalent of modern-day “trashy” paperbacks. He tried his hand at journalism, commenting on the political and cultural state of the post-Napoleon era in France, and failed miserably at his business venture when he tried to make a living as a publisher and printer.

In this literary era, two specific subgenres of novels were in vogue both critically and popularly: historical novels and personal novels (that is, those which narrate a specific person’s life in detail). Honoré embraced this style of writing, bringing his own experiences with debtors, the printing industry, and the law into his novels. This experience set him apart from the bourgeois novelists of the past and many of his contemporaries, whose knowledge of other ways of life was entirely gleaned from previous writers’ depictions.

La Comedie Humaine

In 1829, he wrote Les Chouans, the first novel he published under his own name. This would become the first entry into his career-defining work: a series of intertwined stories depicting various facets of French life during the Restoration and July Monarchy periods (that is, from about 1815 to 1848). When he published his next novel, El Verdugo, he again used a new name: Honoré de Balzac, rather than just “Honoré Balzac.” The “de” was used to denote noble origins, so Honoré adopted it in order to better fit into respected circles of society.

In many of the novels that make up La Comedie Humaine, Honoré moved between sweeping portraits of French society as a whole and the small, intimate details of individual lives. Among his most successful works were La Duchesse de Langeais, Eugenie Grandet, and Pere Goriot. The novels ranged hugely in length, from the thousand-page epic Illusions Perdues to the novella La Fille aux yeux d’or.

The novels in this series were notable for their realism, particularly when it came to their characters. Rather than writing characters who were paragons of good or evil, Honoré depicted people in a much more realistic, nuanced light; even his minor characters were shaded with different layers. He also gained a reputation for his naturalistic depictions of time and place, as well as driving narratives and intricate relationships.

Honoré’s writing habits were the stuff of legend. He could write for fifteen or sixteen hours a day, with copious amounts of coffee to fuel his concentration and energy. In many instances, he became obsessed with perfecting the smallest details, often making change after change. This didn’t necessarily stop when the books were sent off to the printers, either: he frustrated many a printer by rewriting and editing even after the proofs were sent to him.

Social and Family Life

Despite his obsessive work life, Honoré managed to have a thriving social life. He was popular in society circles for his storytelling prowess, and he counted other famous figures of the day – including fellow novelist Victor Hugo – among his acquaintance. His first love was Maria Du Fresnay, a fellow writer who was unhappily married to a much older man. She bore Honoré’s daughter, Marie-Caroline Du Fresnay, in 1834. He had also had an earlier mistress, an older woman by the name of Madame de Berny, who had saved him from financial ruin prior to his novelistic success.

Honoré’s great love story, though, began in a way that seems like something from a novel. He received an anonymous letter in 1832 that criticized the cynical depictions of faith and of women in one of his novels. In response, he posted an advertisement in a newspaper to attract his critic’s attention, and the pair began a correspondence that lasted fifteen years. The person on the other side of these letters was Ewelina Hanska, a Polish countess. Honoré and Ewelina were both highly intelligent, passionate people, and their letters were full of such topics. They first met in person in 1833.

Her much-older husband died in 1841, and Honoré traveled to St. Petersburg, where she was staying, in 1843 to meet her again. Because they both had complicated finances, and Ewelina’s family was mistrusted by the Russian tsar, they were unable to marry until 1850, by which time they were both suffering health issues. Honoré had no children with Ewelina, although he did father children from other earlier affairs.

Death and Literary Legacy

Honoré only enjoyed his marriage for a few months before he fell ill. His mother arrived in time to say goodbye, and his friend Victor Hugo visited him on the day before his death. Honoré de Balzac died quietly on August 18, 1850. He is buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and a statue of him, the Balzac Monument, sits at a nearby intersection.

The greatest legacy Honoré de Balzac left behind was the use of realism in the novel. The structure of his novels, in which the plot is presented in sequential order by an omniscient narrator and one event causes another, was influential for many later writers. Literary scholars have also focused on his exploration of the links between social standing and character development, as well as a belief in the strength of the human spirit that has endured to this day.

Honoré de Balzac Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Honoré de Balzac
  • Occupation: Writer
  • Born: May 20, 1799 in Tours, France
  • Died: August 18, 1850 in Paris, France
  • Key Accomplishments: Honoré de Balzac was a groundbreaking French novelist, whose realist approach and complex, detailed characters formed the foundation of the modern concept of the novel.
  • Quote: "There is no such thing as a great talent without great will power.

Sources

  • Brunetiere, Ferdinand. Honoré de Balzac. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, 1906.
  • “Honore de Balzac.” New World Encyclopedia, 13 January 2018, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Honore_de_Balzac.
  • “Honore de Balzac.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 14 August 2018, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Honore-de-Balzac.
  • Robb, Graham. Balzac: A Biography. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.