About Catherine de Medici (Sur Catherine de Médicis):
The Calvinist Martyr (Le Martyr Calviniste)
The Ruggieri’s Secret (La Confidence des Ruggieri)
The Two Dreams (Les Deux Rêves)
This book (as to which it is important to remember the Sur if injustice is not to be done to the intentions of the author) has plenty of interest of more kinds than one; but it is perhaps more interesting because of the place it holds in Balzac’s work than for itself. He had always considerable hankerings after the historical novel: his early and lifelong devotion to Scott would sufficiently account for that. More than one of the Œuvres de Jeunesse attempts the form in a more or less conscious way: the Chouans, the first successful book, definitely attempts it; but by far the most ambitious attempt is to be found in the book before us. It is most probable that it was of this, if of anything of his own, that Balzac was thinking when, in 1846, he wrote disdainfully to Madame Hanska about Dumas, and expressed himself towards Les Trois Mousquetaires (which had whiled him through a day of cold and inability to work) nearly as ungratefully as Carlyle did towards Captain Marryat. And though it is, let it be repeated, a mistake, and a rather unfair mistake, to give such a title to the book as might induce readers to regard it as a single and definite novel, of which Catherine is the heroine, though it is made up of three parts written at very different times, it has a unity which the introduction shows to some extent, and which a rejected preface given by M. de Lovenjoul shows still better.
To understand this, we must remember that Balzac, though not exactly an historical scholar, was a considerable student of history; and that, although rather an amateur politician, he was a constant thinker and writer on political subjects. We must add to these remembrances the fact of his intense interest in all such matters as Alchemy, the Elixir of Life, and so forth, to which the sixteenth century in general, and Catherine de’ Medici in particular, were known to be devoted. All these interests of his met in the present book, the parts of which appeared in inverse order, and the genesis of which is important enough to make it desirable to incorporate some of the usual bibliographical matter in the substance of this preface. The third and shortest, Les Deux Rêves, a piece partly suggestive of the famous Prophecy of Cazotte and other legends of the Revolution (but with more retrospective than prospective view), is dated as early as 1828 (before the turning-point), and was actually published in a periodical in 1830. La Confidence des Ruggieri, written in 1836 (and, as I have noted in the general introduction, according to its author, in a single night) followed, and Le Martyr Calviniste), which had several titles, and was advertised as in preparation for a long time, did not come till 1841.
It is unnecessary to say that all are interesting. The personages, both imaginary and historical, appear at times in a manner worthy of Balzac; many separate scenes are excellent; and, to those who care to perceive them, the various occupations of the author appear in the most interesting manner. Politically, his object was, at least by his own account, to defend the maxim that private and public morality are different; that the policy of a state cannot be, and ought not to be, governed by the same considerations of duty to its neighbors as those which ought to govern the conduct of an individual. The very best men – those least liable to the slightest imputation of corrupt morals and motives – have endorsed this principle; though it has been screamed at by a few fanatics, a somewhat larger number of persons who found their account in so doing, and a great multitude of hasty, dense, or foolish folk. But it was something of a mark of that amateurishness which spoilt Balzac’s dealing with the subject to choose the sixteenth century for his text. For every cool-headed student of history and ethics will admit that it was precisely the abuse of this principle at this time, and by persons of whom Catherine de’ Medici, if not the most blamable, has had the most blame put on her, that brought the principle itself into discredit. Between the assertion that the strictest morality of the Sermon on the Mount must obtain between nation and nation, between governor and governed, and the maxim that in politics the end of public safety justifies any means whatever, there is a perfectly immense gulf fixed.
If, however, we turn from this somewhat academic point, and do not dwell very much on the occult and magical sides of the matter, interesting as they are, we shall be brought at once face to face with the question, Is the handling of this book the right and proper one for an historical novel? Can we in virtue of it rank Balzac (this is the test which he would himself, beyond all question, have accepted) a long way above Dumas and near Scott?
I must say that I can see no possibility of answer except, “Certainly not.” For the historical novel depends almost more than any other division of the kind upon interest of story. Interest of story is not, as has been several times pointed out, at any time Balzac’s main appeal, and he has succeeded in it here less than in most other places. He has discussed too much; he has brought in too many personages without sufficient interest of plot; but, above all, he exhibits throughout an incapacity to handle his materials in the peculiar way required. How long he was before he grasped “the way to do it,” even on his own special lines, is the commonplace and refrain of all writing about him. Now, to the special kind he gave comparatively little attention, and the result is that he mastered it less than any other. In the best stories of Dumas (and the best number some fifteen or twenty at least) the interest of narrative, of adventure, of what will happen to the personages, takes you by the throat at once, and never lets you go till the end. There is little or nothing of this sort here. The three stories are excellently well-informed studies, very curious and interesting in divers ways. The Ruggieri is perhaps something more; but it is, as the author no doubt honestly entitled it, much more an Etude Philosophique than an historical novelette. In short, this was not Balzac’s way. We need not be sorry – it is very rarely necessary to be that – that he tried it; we may easily forgive him for not recognizing the ease and certainty with which Dumas trod the path. But we should be most of all thankful that he did not himself enter it frequently, or ever pursue it far.
The most important part of the bibliography of the book has been given above. The rest is a little complicated, and for its ins and outs reference must be made to the usual authority. It should be enough to say that the Martyr, under the title of Les Lecamus, first appeared in the Siècle during the spring of 1841. Souverain published it as a book two years later with the other two, as Catherine de Medicis Expliquée. The second part, entitled, not La Confidence, but Le Secret des Ruggieri, had appeared much earlier in the Chronique de Paris during the winter of 1836-37, and had been published as a book in the latter year; it was joined to Catherine de Medicis Expliquée as above. The third part, after appearing in the Monde as early as May 1830, also appeared in the Deux Mondes for December of the same year, then became one of the Romans et Contes Philosophiques, then an Etude Philosophique, and in 1843 joined Catherine de Medicis Expliquée. The whole was inserted in the Comedie in 1846.
Gambara exhibits a curious and, it must be admitted, a somewhat incoherent mixture of two of Balzac’s chief outside interests – Italy and music. In his helter-skelter ramblings, indulged in despite his enormous literary labors, he took many a peep at Italy; and it is evident that for him the country exercised a powerful fascination. In his eyes it was ideal – ideal in its music, in its painting, and in those who fanned the fires divine. His affection for Italy was, in fact, about as ardent and untutored as that for the arts. The story of Gambara is an illustration of these two sentiments; it can best be understood when the author’s attitude is known.
There is a little about the forceful character of Andrea Marcosini that reminds one of de Marsay. He has an inherent nobleness unknown to the latter, but unfortunately made subservient to a banality which even the genius of Balzac cannot efface. This marring clause of the Count and Marianna is hardly to be excused on the ground of dramatic necessity, since other themes of this nature are not cloyed by baser earth. The introductory scene in the restaurant is good, and stands out brightly contrasted with Gambara’s music-ravings and the faint echo of Giardini’s cookery conceits. Each is but the quest of something unattained – a note more grandly uttered in La Peau de Chagrin, or La Recherche de l’Absolu, or the wonderful sketch, Le Chef d’ œuvre Inconnu. But as a fresh embodiment of this thought, Gambara may be welcomed, for in such themes as these the novelist is most distinctly in his element.
The first appearance of Gambara was in the Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris during July and August 1837, in four chapters and a conclusion. In 1839 it was included in a book with the Cabinet des Antiques. Ten years later it was included as Le Livre des Douleurs with Séraphita, Les Proscrits, and Massimilla Doni. It took its place in the Comédie in 1846.
From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.