Historical Figures

Honoré de Balzac - Short Biography

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) is one of the greatest French novelists of the 19th century and the author of the Human Comedy, a vast study of manners. Man of excess, ladies' man, proud and certain of his talent, Balzac paints between romanticism and realism the upset society of his time, marked by the Restoration and the July Monarchy. In 1833, modestly, he exclaimed:"I am simply becoming a genius . He has in fact just imagined his colossal work, the principle of which is the return of characters from one novel to another. His permanent financial difficulties will be at the origin of his extraordinary literary creativity, with more than 120 novels to his credit.

Honoré de Balzac, young writer

Born May 20, 1799 in Tours, Balzac attended school as a boarder with the Oratorians. It was at the age of 20 that he decided to acquire fame and fortune through his pen! A prolix writer, but convinced of the poor quality of his novels, he chained publications under pseudonyms until 1829 when he finally signed a novel of his name:Les Chouans . Honoré de Balzac subsequently disavows all these early works. During this difficult period, Balzac could count on the support of Mme de Berny, twenty years older, whose lover he became in 1822.

To cope financially, the young novelist, who took the pseudonym of Horace de Saint Aubin, launched into publishing, but it was a failure and he accumulated debts... His bankruptcy pushed him to resume writing and in 1829 he had some success with the Physiology of Marriage and The Chouans .

The verbose society novelist

Balzac frequented the salons, notably that of the Duchess of Abrantes, with whom he had a relationship and for whom he was the advisor and literary corrector. The French writer has become a man of the world, he writes in various magazines, rubs shoulders with good Parisian society and even allows himself to add a particle to his name in 1831 his novel L'Auberge rouge "de Balzac". To earn money, he launched himself several times into the theater, a genre that interested him little, but his plays were relative failures that did not really manage to solve his financial problems. Finally, it was his numerous female affairs that allowed him to obtain some subsidies and escape his creditors.

Among all these admirers who open up to him, one will really be the love of his life:the Countess Hanska, Polish married to a Russian prince residing in Ukraine. He maintains an epistolary correspondence with her (collected in Letters Abroad) and meets her occasionally in Switzerland, Saxony and Russia. He finally married her only very late, nine years after her widowhood, in 1850.

In 1832 the political career tempted him, he then presented himself, under the influence of the Duchess of Castries, as a monarchist and Catholic in the legitimist newspaper Le Rénovateur . This political positioning will offend the great contemporary writers like Hugo, Flaubert or Zola. However, Balzac's monarchism was sometimes seen not as conservatism, but as a rebellious act marking a rejection of bourgeois society, its vision of the world, its conquering capitalism and the new career ambitions it induces.

Balzac also campaigned for respect for writers, in 1838 he founded with Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Frédéric Soulié and George Sans the Society of People of Letters to defend moral rights, the economic and legal interests of the authors.

The Human Comedy

Balzac organizes his works within La Comédie humaine, characterized by the return of the characters (some characters are found from one novel to another, in a primary or secondary role , in the same way that famous people can resurface in everyday life) which later inspired Zola and Giono. Balzac's thought is truly systemic, carrying through his fictions all the social complexity of the world resulting from the Restoration and the July Monarchy (in the end, the Human Comedy brings together two thousand five hundred characters!). Not without pride, Balzac wrote to Mme Hanska on the originality of his project:

From then on, the publications follow one another:The lily in the valley (1835-6), History of the rise and fall of César Birotteau (1837), The Nucingen House (1838), The Village Priest (1839),Beatrix (1839) Ursule Mirouët (1841), Lost Illusions (1837-1841)... In total, the Human Comedy is made up of one hundred and thirty-three works, including ninety-five novels! All classified into three main groups:Studies of manners, Philosophical studies, Analytical studies. In 1840, he collaborated with the Parisian review, which made the great hours of the serial novel.

Balzac is generally considered the inventor of the modern novel, he covers all genres from the fantastic to the philosophical through the historical. Not only does he vary the genres, but he also varies the forms through the tale, the short story, the essay, the study... Although a supporter of a class society, Balzac makes his characters rebels, beings of excess, outlaws who go beyond the social hierarchy! He also wrote to George Sand:

His work is also sometimes classified in the realist movement because of the many descriptions and the important role of physiognomy (the interiority of the individual being perceptible in his appearance exterior).

Honoré de Balzac killed on the job

Balzac moves to Paris with Countess Hanska. But his health deteriorated rapidly and Balzac was killed on August 18, 1850 by generalized oedema, peritonitis and gangrene. It seems that one of the causes is his excessive activity and his excessive consumption of crushed coffee "Turkish style" which must stimulate his imagination:

Legend has it that, dying, he called for Horace Bianchon, the great fictional doctor of La Comédie Humaine. He was buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery where Victor Hugo pronounced his funeral oration.

Some works by Balzac

- The Skin of Sorrow (1831)

- Eugenie grandet (1833)

- Colonel Chabert (1835)

- Father Goriot (1835)


- Balzac, by Stefan Zweig. Pocket, 1996.

- Balzac, the convict of letters, by Bernard Gengembre. Perrin, 2013.

- Balzac, biography, by François Taillandier. Folio, 2005.