(1861 – 1941)
Honore´ de Balzac, whose realist novels and plays focused on French society after the fall of Napole´on Bonaparte in 1815, was one of the most popular and influential European writers of the nineteenth century. His masterpiece La Come´die humaine (1842–1850), a multivolume work involving about one hundred interwoven novels and stories, has influenced writers as disparate as Marcel Proust, Charles Dickens, and Henry James, and continues to be regarded by critics as one of the most important and effective character studies to emerge from that century.
Early Estrangement and Ill-Fated Love The years before and after Balzac’s birth saw great political upheaval in France. The French Revolution of 1789 brought a bloody end to the country’s long-standing rule by monarchy, with many nobles publicly executed by beheading. Just a few years later, however, Napole´on Bonaparte led a coup that resulted in the establishment of his own monarchy of sorts, declaring himself emperor and appointing family members as rulers of regions he conquered. When Bonaparte was removed from power in 1815, the traditional French monarchy was reinstated, though the following decades would see still more upheaval; in 1848, another revolution once again unseated the monarchy, and another Bonaparte Napole´on III seized control of France and declared himself emperor.
These uncertain times had a profound effect on the fiction Balzac would create. Balzac, born in 1799 in Tours, France, had a solitary childhood and received little attention from his parents. He lived with a wet nurse until the age of three, and at eight was sent to board at the Oratorian College at Vendome. Later, his family moved from Tours to Paris, where Balzac completed his studies. He received his law degree in 1819; however, to his parents’ disappointment, he announced that he intended to become a writer. From 1819 to 1825 Balzac experimented with several different literary forms and later wrote sensational novels and stories under various pseudonyms. He considered these works to be stylistic exercises; they were conscious efforts to learn his craft. They were also his only means of financial support, because he had been estranged from his family. At one point in his career he abandoned writing to become involved in a series of unsuccessful business ventures. Later, he returned to writing, but despite eventual renown, money problems continued to haunt him throughout his life. Read the rest of this entry