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Honoré de Balzac

Balzac early photograph CCAndreasPraefcke Wikimedia Commons cmp

Honoré de Balzac quote: “True love is eternal, infinite, and always like itself. It is equal and pure, without violent demonstrations: it is seen with white hairs and is always young in the heart.”

Honoré de Balzac was a French novelist born on 20 May 1799 in the Rue de la Grande Armée in Tours, in the region of Centre.

His father was a hospital administrator and deputy Mayor of Tours and his mother was 32 years younger than her husband and an unwilling bride. She had been forced into marriage and after giving birth to the baby Honoré incredibly she did not see him again until he was four years old.

Thanks to his parents largesse – they seemed to have warmed to him as he aged – he studied law, tried writing, became a tutor , set up a printing company, invested in mines, shipping and railways and failed at everything.

That is except for one thing – whilst tutoring the children of one Madame de Berny who was his mother’s friend and god daughter of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI he seems to have discovered a way with the ladies. Madame de Berny (married and 22 years his senior) became his mistress and lavished vast amounts of money on him enabling him to live far beyond his means at least for a while. He was at one time imprisoned for debt and took great steps to avoid bumping into the numerous creditors he owed money to.

He persevered with his writing throughout and his output was prolific. His work ethic was legendary, he claimed to eat one small meal in the evening, retire to bed at 20.00, have a servant wake him at 12.00 and work until 17.00 with just a break for a one hour bath in the morning (a habit he copied from Napoleon).

He also persevered with the ladies with great success and it is claimed that he had a huge circular bed that was 50 feet round. He was not a conventionally attractive man but he had a lot of charm and panache – he wore exotic and fine clothes including Moroccan style slippers and colourful waistcoats and was hardly ever seen without gloves as he was obsessed with hygiene and cleanliness.

The writings of Honoré de Balzac have been hugely influential, he himself said “What Napoleon achieved by the sword, I shall achieve by the pen”. He admired Napoleon greatly and when he worked kept a statuette of the Emperor in front of him.

In just 20 years of writing he created 85 novels. His most famous work is La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy). Written as a series  of 97 books that he said would paint a panoramic portrait of “all aspects of society.” He planned to have 137 books in the series but died before they were complete. In the series there are 2000 characters and he kept track of them by making dolls as aide-memoires.

Honoré de Balzac died aged 51 on 18 August 1850, just five months after he married Ewelina Hańska, from Odessa. She had written to him in 1832 to commiserate that his portrayal of women in his book La Peau de Chagrin was too negative and signed her letter anonymously “l’estranger”. Ever the romantic, de Balzac took out an advert in a newspaper hoping that his secret critic would see it. She did, and as a married lady they corresponded secretly for years. When she became a widow in 1841 he wooed her (as did composer Franz Liszt) for 9 more years before finally succeeding in making her his bride.

Honoré de Balzac is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Victor Hugo who admired him greatly read the oration in which he called the writer a “man of talent… and genius”.

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