Honore de Balzac
After the publication of the Physiology and The Magic Skin, which followed The
Chouans and Scenes from Private Life, Balzac found himself enrolled among the
fashionable novelists. The public did not understand his ideas, they were incapable of
grasping the grandeur of the vast edifice which he already dreamed of raising to his own
glory, but they enjoyed his penetrating analysis of the human heart, his understanding of
women, and his picturesque, alluring and dramatic power of narrative. He excited the
curiosity of his women readers, who recognised themselves in his heroines as in so many
faithful mirrors; and the consequence was that he was besieged by a host of feminine
letters. Balzac had a perfumed casket in which he put away the confidences, avowals and
advances of his fair admirers, but he did not reply to them.
In September, 1831, however, an unsigned letter arrived at the chateau at Sache, where he
had been spending his vacation; but, as he had already left, it was forwarded to him in
Paris. It was distinguished by its refinement of tone, its cleverness and its frank and
discerning criticisms of the Physiology and The Magic Skin,--so much so, indeed, that
Balzac decided to answer its attacks upon him by defending his works and explaining his
ideas. There followed a second letter and then others, and before long a correspondence
had been established between Balzac and the unknown lady, so fascinating on her side of
it that Balzac was eager to know her name, and demanded it, under penalty of breaking
off the whole correspondence. She willingly revealed her identity, she was the Duchesse
de Castries. She informed him further that it would give her pleasure to have him call
upon her, in the Rue de Varennes, on the day when she received her intimate friends.
Balzac, no doubt, gave utterance to his great, joyous, triumphant laugh, in which there
was also mingled a touch of pride.
Mme. de Castries was one of the most highly courted ladies in the exclusive circle of the
Faubourg Saint-Germain, an aristocrat of aristocrats; she was still young,--her age was
thirty-five,--and beautiful, with pale and delicate features, crowned with masses of hair of
a dazzling Venetian blonde. She was a descendant of the de Maille family, her husband
had been a peer of France under Charles X, and through marriage with the Duc de Fitz-
James, one of the leaders of the legitimist party, was her brother-in-law, thus connecting
her with the highest nobility of France. To Balzac she represented the doorway to a world
of which he had had only vague glimpses as reflected in the reminiscences of Mme. de
Berny,--and she smiled upon him with a mysterious smile of welcome.
The novelist hastened to accept the Duchess's invitation, and became one of the regular
frequenters of her salon. She led him on; and he talked of his ideas, his projects and his
dreams. He also talked discreetly of his heart, and without encouraging him, she allowed
him to understand that she listened to him without displeasure. His relations with Mme.
de Berny had been tinged with a sort of bitterness, due to the disparity in their ages, and
his happiness had never been complete. These relations were now about to come to a
close, yet even after the rupture they were destined to remain like a single soul, united by
a profound and lasting affection, beyond the reach of any severance. Be that as it may,