Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Balzac's girlfriend

Eveline Hańska by Holz von Sowgen, miniature on ivory, 1825.

The portrait above is from a minature on ivory in the Maison de Balzac Museum. The lady in the portrait is Madame Eveline de Hańska, nee Comtesse Rzewuska, a Polish noblewoman.

In 1832, Madame Hańska wrote an anonymous letter to Honoré de Balzac expressing her displeasure at the negative portrayal of women in his novel La Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Asses Skin). She left no return address and signed the letter simply L'Étrangère (the foreigner).

Balzac responded by placing a personal ad in the Gazette de France in hopes that the author of the letter would see it and respond. Thus began a correspondence of over fifteen years and a legendary literary romance.

It was Madame Hańska, in one of her letters from 1832, that first suggested to Balzac the idea of a series depicting every aspect of Parisian and Provincial Society, which he first called Etudes de Moeurs before adopting the title La Comédie humaine.

Balzac met Madame Hańska for the first time in 1833. This letter reveals how deeply smitten Balzac was with her.

Our love will bloom always fairer, fresher, more gracious, because it is a true love, and because genuine love is ever increasing.

It is a beautiful plant growing from year to year in the heart, ever extending its palms and branches, doubling every season its glorious clusters and perfumes; and, my dear life, tell me,branches, doubling every season its glorious clusters and perfumes; and, my dear life, tell me, repeat to me always, that nothing will bruise its bark or its delicate leaves, that it will grow larger in both our hearts, loved, free, watched over, like a life within our life...

Balzac had fallen in love with a respectable married lady. It is interesting that around this time he was writing Ferragus, the first of the three novellas of The History of the Thirteen, in which a man's selfish obsession with a respectable married lady causes a series of tragedies.

In 1835 Balzac dedicated the novel Seraphita to Madame Hańska.

Here is the work which you asked of me. I am happy, in
thus dedicating it, to offer you a proof of the respectful
affection you allow me to bear you. If I am reproached for
impotence in this attempt to draw from the depths of mysticism a
book which seeks to give, in the lucid transparency of our
beautiful language, the luminous poesy of the Orient, to you the
blame! Did you not command this struggle (resembling that of
Jacob) by telling me that the most imperfect sketch of this
Figure, dreamed of by you, as it has been by me since childhood,
would still be something to you?

Apparently Madame Hańska had asked Balzac to write the Swedenborgian novel Seraphita after having a dream about it.

Reading Balzac's letters to Madame Hańska, it soon becomes apparent that her influence on Balzac and his work was profound. In a letter from 1836 Balzac writes to her -

I am nearly mad about you, as much as one can be mad: I cannot bring together two ideas that you do not interpose yourself between them.

I can no longer think of anything but you.  In spite of myself, my imagination carries me to you.  I grasp you, I kiss you, I caress you, a thousand of the most amorous caresses take possession of me.

As for my heart, there you will always be - very much so.  I have a delicious sense of you there.  But my God, what is to become of me, if you have deprived me of my reason?  This is a monomania which, this morning, terrifies me.

In 1841 Madame Hańska's husband died. In 1843 Balzac visited her at her country estate in the Ukraine. His rival for her affections at this time was none other than the composer Franz Liszt. She must have been quite a lady to have Balzac and Liszt competing for her.

Madame Hańska chose Balzac, doubtless due to his way with words, and they traveled together through Germany and Italy. Afterwards Balzac wrote La Cousin Bette(1847) in which the character Madame Hulot is modeled on Madame Hańska.

In 1848 Balzac returned to the Ukraine and after overcoming many obstacles, including a prohibition from the Tsar, Madame Hańska became Madame Balzac on March 14, 1850. Balzac wrote in a letter to a friend - three days ago I married the only woman I ever loved.

On the wedding trip Balzac suffered from serious heart trouble. Sadly, he passed away just five months later on August 18, 1850. The story of Madame Balzac is a romance not unlike some in her husband's novels, except that the heroine of this romance survived. Madame Balzac lived for another 32 years after Balzac's death.


The Letters of Honoré de Balzac to Madame Hańska born Countess Rzewuska afterwards Madame de Balzac (1833-1846) by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley(1900).


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