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  • Honoré de Balzac and the “Genius” of Walter Scott: Debt and Denial
  • Edward C. Smith III

“Si vous voulez ne pas être le singe de Walter Scott, il faut créer une manière différente, et vous l’avez imité.”

Balzac, Illusions perdues (1837) 1

There was no other author in the history of literature to whom the French realist Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) owed more than the historical novelist Walter Scott (1771–1832). Indeed, in terms of both subject matter and narrative technique, Scott’s Waverley Novels provided Balzac with an important and inexhaustible stimulus. Ample testimony of this debt is found throughout Balzac’s many novels, letters, and literary reviews. Despite such evident admiration, however, his relation to Scott is a subject which has remained relatively unexplored by literary history. 2 And in those instances where it is treated, it is generally done so in a manner which simply rehearses the terms Balzac himself employs to speak of that debt, notably in reference to Scott’s “génie” and the docile and overly puritan aspects of his characters. Ernst Robert Curtius’ Balzac (1951), for example, can be considered typical of this inability to think beyond the categories which Balzac first proposed. This is evident near the end of his study, when he asserts that “it is impossible to describe Scott’s relationship to Balzac better than he himself did so. The truth of life, the reality of human nature—these were things which the great Scott did not possess. He did not know passion . . . . He is a puritan.” 3 And H. J. Garnard in his The Influence of Walter Scott on the Works of Balzac (1971) evokes this same general tendency when he argues that “whatever there is of Scott, Cooper, or other writers admired by Balzac, it is overwhelmingly overshadowed by the Frenchman’s genius” (132). Remarks such as these, however, find their original source in Balzac, and despite the general commendation with which they are often mixed, they introduce conceptual [End Page 209] categories whose terms function to underscore Balzac’s own incomparable genius to the detriment of Scott. As such, they must be read with a good deal of suspicion; for while they do avow a debt too obvious to ignore, they ultimately serve to belittle the Waverley Novels’ demonstrable importance to the various texts which compose La Comédie humaine.

What is of interest in Balzac’s many references to the “génie” of Scott—and to the lesser talents of his contemporaries—is the way in which this category is defined and developed. For as one gleans from Balzac’s comments, this is a notion consonant with Scott’s innovative ability to collect and organize the random details of reality within a comprehensive vision which was able to provide both conceptual stability and narrative coherence. As such, Balzac considers Scott’s project to be identical with his own desire to present the unifying illusion of an objective, realistic “world,” whose very completeness was capable of subsuming the otherwise destabilizing forces of ideological contradiction and social contestation which were central to La Comédie humaine’s plots and intrigues.

There are countless examples of this central idea in Balzac’s many references to Scott. In an 1838 letter to his future wife Madame Hanska, for example, he praises Kenilworth (1821) as “le plus grand, le plus complet, le plus extraordinaire” of Scott’s texts, and compares it to St. Ronan’s Well (1824) in terms of its “détail” and “patience du fini.” 4 He continues by claiming that all of Scott’s novels have “un mérite particulier” and that “le génie est partout.” And in these same terms he then denigrates the greatness of Byron in comparison to Scott’s creativity, arguing that the latter “grandira, et Byron tombera, l’un a toujours été lui, l’autre a créé!” In the July, 1840 issue of his ill-fated Revue Parisienne, Balzac undertakes a similar criticism of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pathfinder (1840). He argues here that Cooper’s use of comic devices is particularly “inférieur à Walter Scott,” and that the latter, as “un homme de génie...