By the time Honoré de Balzac died from an apparent coffee overdose in August of 1850, the fruits of his caffeine-addiction had already constituted enough material for a lifetime of study.1  To literary scholars and devoted readers, Balzac left his La Comedie Humaine, a panoramic series ofroughly 90 realist novels, and a sizeable body of personal correspondence.2  Yet in contrast to Comedie, Balzac’s correspondence has frustrated literary critics since the first edition of Balzac’s letters was published in 1876. “Our bad conscience is the feeling with which we see the last remnant of charm, of the graceful and the agreeable, removed from Balzac’s literary physiognomy,” wrote Henry James in his review of the 1876 collection. “The grossly, inveterately professional character of all his activity, the absence of leisure, of contemplation, of disinterested experience, the urgency of his consuming money-hunger—all this is rudely exposed.”3 

Given these feelings, it is unlikely that James ever got around to reading Lettres à L’Étrangère,a separate collection of Balzac’s love letters, first published in 1889. But we could reasonably guess that even after a dismissively cursory perusal of L’Étrangère, James would likely stand by his criticism. Its four thick volumes chart a single long-distance, multi-year love affair—one that sprouted spontaneously in an anonymous piece of fan mail and matured into Balzac’s only marriage. The letters are filled with dramatic expressions of affection befitting their genre: “All these [worries] throw me back forcibly on you,” Balzac croons, “in whom I believe as I do in God.”4 Yet even in the writing of love letters—an uncommon pleasure that filled Balzac’s precious few hours free from work—Balzac returned time and again to equally dramatic renderings of his financial and professional woes. This is just the sort of thing Henry James despised: “A thousand tender wishes,” he concludes in a love letter from 1837, adding a last reminder of his thankless hours of work: “I wrote this letter in a few hours with constant interruptions owing to proofs.”5

However “rudely exposed” the “professional character” of these letters may be, the collection provides more than additional fodder for tired depictions of Balzac’s manic insomnia and struggles with money, or feature films starring Gerard Depardieu: They provide equally important context in the longer history of the life of the book.6  The climax of Balzac’s career and love affair coincided with a major period of growth and transition for the French book industry, and for the broader development of “the literary marketplace.” While changes in the nineteenth century French book business were major, the period remains largely understudied by scholars in comparison to others.7 Perhaps Balzac’s letters, then, may be of particular value outside the realm of biography.

Of course, any biographical study of Balzac that contextualizes his life and work in the larger history of the book trade deserves scholarly treatment at longer length. Given the limits of this article, I do not endeavor to provide a comprehensive analysis of the letters or their historiographical implications. Rather, I aim to explore the possibilities the letters present as historical sources, and the limits they face, with an eye toward further study.


Balzac’s career coincided with—and contributed to—a major expansion in the size and reach of the French publishing industry. Staggering figures tell their own story. In 1819, Jean-Antoine Chaptal estimated that the French publishing industry generated 21,652,726 francs each year. By 1827, that figure had ballooned to roughly 33,750,000 francs per annum. Some historians estimate that in Balzac’s lifetime, the book industry came to make up 10 percent of the entire Parisian economy.8 

The Revolution of 1789 had provided the foundation for expansion by ending state regulation of printing, if rather briefly. Although Napoleon reinstated regulatory controls in 1810, this temporary period of freedom nonetheless had major long-term implications. It encouraged new men—most of whom were self-identified revolutionary liberals—to enter the book trade. These entrepreneurial young bloods, or “liberals,” called themselves éditeurs and formed a political constituency committed to defining books as commodities and loosening regulations as such. They found resistance in the ranks of traditional printers and booksellers, the “corporatists,” who maintained that books were unique products deserving of protectionist regulation.9 Between 1780 and 1799, the number of printers grew four-fold, and the number of publishers by half.10

Napoleon charted a middle course between the constituencies of regulation and free enterprise when he reestablished controls over the book trade in February 1810; on the one hand, Napoleon protected the limited number of book printing licenses (a mere sixty in Paris, for example); on the other hand, he expanded and extended authorial copyrights so they lasted twenty years after an author’s death.11 At the end of the nineteenth century, however, liberal publishers emerged victorious. By forming a powerful lobby to manipulate the increasingly professional political sphere, the publishers managed to liberate the industry from state regulations by the end of the reign of Louis Napoleon (1852-1870).12 

Balzac’s correspondence with Ewelina Rzewuska, the Polish noble also known as “Madame Hanska” who first tasted—and subsequently, devoured—Balzac’s novels at her husband’s estate in Ukraine, began in in 1832 when Hanska wrote a letter describing her criticisms of Scenes from a Private Life. The start of their affair came as Balzac’s authorial notoriety began to reach new heights but his crippling finances had begun to plunge to new lows. Their correspondence also coincided with the emergence of a powerful new role for publishers. Before 1830, publishers usually took on additional roles in the supply chain, perhaps also playing printer, book salesman, or both. After 1830, the publisher became a distinct professional specialty that took on the characteristics of a financial hub in a widening web of writers, printers, and paying readers.13 

From 1833 to 1837, Balzac’s letters come to decry the architecture of this publisher-centric trade. By his own account, mountains of debt had accumulated from a series of failed business ventures, including several failed publishing ventures of his own. This left Balzac at the mercy of his publishers, whose capacity for financial patronage and ability to sell books constituted the only means of finding capital to keep up with debt payments and interest. In his letters, Balzac explains that in 1833, he hoped to pay off significant debts by forming an exclusive arrangement with a publisher named Werdet.14 By 1837, his debt obligations had actually grown to 150,000 francs. When Werdet went bankrupt, Balzac told Hanska that he laid on the cusp of ruin: “There is no longer a publisher possible for me as long as he is a publisher of the publisher race!” By his own account, Balzac had made “every possible sacrifice” for Werdet. Yet it was to Werdet, whose access to printing and distribution channels Balzac relied on, that Balzac’s career prospects were shackled: “I must now have the egoism of a man who is not working for himself but for his creditors.”15
Even before Werdet’s bankruptcy, Balzac had lamented to Hanska in 1835 that the financial constructions of publishing were rigged against exploited writers. “All these labours [sic] will seem to me nothing as long as they do not give me liberty, independence,” he wrote. To make “six thousand ducats” on a commissioned story would require “six bottles of ink over twenty-four quires of paper. “It is enough to make me shudder,” he lamented.16 

Capitalizing on their new financial position at the center of the book industry, publishers also used the power of the law to punish Balzac for unfinished work or missed deadlines. In July 1833, Balzac described “an abominable law-suite [sic] against me,” even though “the work is finished to-day, July 19”17  The legal tussle lasted through the fall, when Balzac again referenced the suit in a letter on November 29th (marked “five o’clock in the morning” under the date). “I am waiting to-day the result of a transaction which will put an end to everything between me and [my publisher],” Balzac explained. It would cost him 4,000 francs, his “last available funds,” and this week he would have to find another 12,000 francs to settle “another piece of litigation.”18 

Balzac did, however, find some victories, albeit small ones, among what he claimed were countless “daily combats.” What is more, Werdet could prove a powerful advocate when mutual interests aligned. When the editor of La Revue de Paris, who had commissioned six months of work on a story called “Seraphita,” decided to reject the final draft for publication, Balzac and Werdet leaked “the strange story of this refusal” to the periodical press and fronted their own capital to finance an initial print run. “It will make such a hubbub,” Balzac said, “seeing that the editor of the Revue is not loved, that Werdet is sure to sell out the edition” in one day. “Such feats of strength require prodigious efforts,” he boasted. “They are like the campaigns in Italy.”19 


A historical reading of Balzac’s letters to Madame Hanska evidently poses several problems of interpretation. For one, Balzac’s deep personal loathing for publishers, borne out of his precarious position on the edge of financial ruin, make him a “dangerous witness” for historians. Balzac, clearly considered publishers to be “mercenary philistines” who profited from the “parasitical exploitation” of artistic geniuses like him.20 Much of Balzac’s precarious financial situation originated in his own failed business ventures, yet his letters universally spare even modest self-criticism with dramatic flourishes of self-pity.

Balzac’s letters to Madame Hanska, even when they focused on financial woes, were never free of agenda. Though Madame Hanska was a married woman, Balzac knew even in his earlier letters that her husband would likely die and make real the possibility of marriage. It would only be natural for Balzac to use his storytelling abilities to persuade Madame Hanska that his financial troubles were not his fault and that he would not fail her financially as a husband.21 At the same time, Haynes readily demonstrates that many corporatist publishers were ruthless champions of the free market, even if their commodities invited a false sense of sentimentality; Balzac lost at a dangerous game.

Balzac’s correspondence also invites broader questions about the relationship between productivity, artistic genius, and capitalism. Would Balzac, freed from the two-faced effects of capitalism—the burdens of debt and exploitative publishers on the one hand, a growing hunger for and access to a mass market of books on the other—have produced as much work, as quickly as he did, as brilliant as it was? Did freeing the price of literature from government’s grasp give rise to fiction we now consider priceless? If Balzac’s letters to Madame Hanska do indicate that the frenetic rhythms of capitalism were deeply related to the drumbeat of productivity in his life and work, was that relationship correlative, causational, or the root cause of death by overcaffeination?

Perhaps these questions fall short by omitting the role of consumers like Madame Hanska. In focusing on how competing interests dueled to reign over the literary marketplace, let us not forget the less tangible benefits of a burgeoning book trade for the constituency Balzac’s labors, in the end, benefitted the most: the reader.


  1. As declared by Balzac’s physician, Dr. Nacquart: “An old heart complaint, frequently aggravated by working through the night and by the use or rather the abuse of coffee, to which he had recourse in order to counteract man’s natural propensity to sleep, had just taken a new and fatal turn.”Quoted in both Graham Robb, Balzac: A Life (New York: Norton, 1995), 401; and Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K Bealer, The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug (New York: Routledge, 2001), 293.
  2. Of which the editing and publication continues. See, for example, Honoré de Balzac, Roger Pierrot, and Hervé Yon, Correspondance (Paris: Gallimard, 2006).
  3. Henry James and Leon Edel, Henry James: Literary Criticism, vol. Volume 2: European Writers (New York; Library of America: Literary classics of United States; 1984), 69. 
  4. Honoré de Balzac, The Love Letters of Honoré De Balzac, 1833-1842, Volume II, ed. D.F. Hannigan (London: Downey, 1901), 122. 
  5. Ibid., 135.
  6. See A Life of Passion, which focuses on Balzac’s relationships with women.
  7. Particularly in comparison with scholarship examining the book trade of early Modern Europe. Christine Haynes, Lost Illusions the Politics of Publishing in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), 2. 
  8. Ibid. See also Jean-Antoine Chaptal, De L’Industrie Francaise, ed. Louis Bergeron (Paris: Imprimerie National Editions, 1993; first published 1819), 365. As Haynes notes, the claim that publishing constituted all of 10 percent of business activity in Paris remains subject to scholarly debate, but has been defended by a number of contemporary historians, including Jean-Yves Mollier.
  9. Ibid., 3-8.
  10. Ibid., 50. 
  11. See Carla Alison Hesse, Publishing and Cultural Politics in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1810 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).
  12. Haynes, Lost Illusions the Politics of Publishing in Nineteenth-Century France, 4. 
  13. Haynes, Lost Illusions the Politics of Publishing in Nineteenth-Century France, 4.
  14. Haynes, Lost Illusions the Politics of Publishing in Nineteenth-Century France, 4.
  15. Ibid., 74
  16. Ibid., 267.
  17. Ibid., 74.
  18. Ibid., 105.
  19. Ibid., 331. 
  20. Martyn Lyons, “Book Review: Christine Haynes, Lost Illusions: The Politics of Publishing in Nineteenth-Century France,” Law and History Review 28, no. 04 (October 4, 2010): 1103–1104.
  21. Robb, Balzac, 81.