Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was born in Tours. His father, Bernard-François Balssa, named his son after St Honoré whose day had just been celebrated. He had risen to the middle class, and married in 1797 the daughter of his Parisian superior, Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier; she was 31 years his junior. Bernard-François had worked as a state prosecutor and Secretary to the King's Council in Paris. During the French Revolution, he was a member of the Commune, but was transferred to Tours in 1795 because of helping his former royalistic protectors. Bernard-François felt at home in the land of Rabelais, and started energetically to run the local hospital. In 1814 the family moved back to Paris.
Balzac spent the first four years of life in foster care, not so uncommon practice in France even in the 20th century. His first years he spent in the village of Saint-Cyr, and returned to his parents at the age of four. At school Balzac was an ordinary pupil. He studied at the Collège de Vendôme and the Sorbonne, and then worked in law offices. In 1819, when his family moved for financial reasons to the small town of Villeparisis, Balzac announced that he wanted to be a writer. He returned to Paris and was installed in a shabby room at 9 rue Lediguiéres, near the Bibliothéque de l'Arsenal. A few years later he described the place in LA PEAU DE CHARGIN (1931), a fantastic tale owing much to E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822). Balzac's first work was CROMWELL. The tragedy in verse made the whole family dispirited.
By 1822 Balzac had produced several novels under pseudonyms, but he was ignored as a writer. Against his family's hopes, Balzac continued his career in literature, believing that the simplest road to success was writing. Unfortunately, he also tried his skills in business. Balzac ran a publishing company and he bought a printing house, which did not have much to print. When these commercial activities failed, Balzac was left with a heavy burden of debt. It plagued him to the end of his career. "All happiness depends on courage and work," Balzac once said. "I have had many periods of wretchedness, but with energy and above all with illusions, I pulled through them all."
After the period of failures, Balzac was 29 years old, and his efforts had been fruitless. Accepting the hospitality of General de Pommereul, he spent a short time at their home in Fougères in Brittany in search of a local color for his new novel. In 1829 appeared LA DERNIER CHOUAN (later called LES CHOUANS), a historical work in the manner of Sir Walter Scott, which he published under his own name. Gradually Balzac began to gain notice as an author. Between the years 1830 and 1832 he published six novelettes titled SCÈNES DE LA VIE PRIVÉE. The work, addressed more or less to a female readership, was first published in La Presse. His father had died in 1829. When Balzac's mother miraculously recovered from an illness, he started to study the works of Jacob Boehme, Swedenborg, and followed Anton Mesmer's lectures about 'animal magnetism' at Sorbonne. These influences are seen in LA PEAU DE CHARGRIN (1831).
In 1833 Balzac conceived the idea of linking together his old novels so that they would comprehend the whole society in a series of books. This plan eventually led to 90 novels and novellas, which included more than 2,000 characters. Balzac's huge and ambitious plan drew a picture of the customs, atmosphere, and habits of the bourgeois France. Balzac got down to the work with great energy, but also found time to pile up huge debts and fail in hopeless financial operations."I am not deep," the author once said, "but very wide." Once he developed a plan to gain success in raising pineapples at his home at Ville d'Avray (Sevres). After two two years, he had to flee from his creditors and conceal his identity under the name of his housekeeper, Madamede Brugnolle.
In the 'Avant-propos' to The Human Comedy from 1842 Balzac compares under the influence of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire's theories of the animal kingdom and human society. "Does not Society make of man, according to the milieu in which his activity takes places, as many different men as there are varieties in zoology?" However, Balzac sees that human life and human customs are more multifarious and there are dramatic conflicts in love which seldom occur among animals.
Among the masterpieces of The Human Comedy are LE PÉRE GORIOT, LES ILLUSIONS PERDUES, LES PAYSANS, LA FEMME DE TRENTE ANS, and EUGÉNIE GRANDET. In these books Balzac covered a world from Paris to Provinces. The primary landscape is Paris, with its old aristocracy, new financial wealth, middle-class trade, demi-monde, professionals, servants, young intellectuals, clerks, criminals... In this social mosaic Balzac had recurrent characters, such as Eugène Rastignac, who comes from an impoverished provincial family to Paris, mixes with the nobility, pursues wealth, has many mistresses, gambled, and has a successful politician. Henry de Marsay appeared in twenty-five different novels. There are many anecdotes about Balzac's relationship to his characters, who also lived in the author's imagination outside the novels. Once Balzac interrupted one of his friends, who was telling about his sister's illness, by saying: "That's all very well, but let's get back to reality: to whom are we going to marry Eugénie Grandet?"