Project Description

Honore de Balzac and Evelina Hanska

In 1829, Honore de Balzac was just beginning to attain success after writing 30 unsigned novels while living in complete poverty. As he himself said – “I stay at home so as not to wear out my clothes”. The novel “Les Chouans“ was the first work to which he signed his own name. One day he received a long letter written in a woman’s hand. It seemed that the words were so full of understanding and appreciation of his work – even the apt criticism of defects in his early writing showed sympathy. The letter was signed simply – “L’Étrangère” (“The Stranger” or “The Foreigner”). Unbeknownst to him, his secret admirer was a Polish noblewoman – Evelina Hanska. Evelina followed Balzac’s work closely and after reading his 1831 novel “La Peau de chagrin“ she got worried that Balzac had based the character of Foedora – the so-called “femme sans cœur” (“woman without a heart”) – on a real woman from his life. Motivated partly by concern, partly by boredom, and partly by a desire to influence the life of a great writer, she wrote to Balzac. He read the letter over and over, and presently another came, full of critical appreciation and of frank, friendly words of cheer. Other letters followed, and after a while their authorship was made known to Balzac. He learned that they had been written by a young Polish lady, Mme. Evelina Hanska, the wife of a Polish count. After exchanging several letters, they met for the first time at Neuchatel. Balzac found her all that he had imagined. It is said that she had no sooner raised her face, and looked him fully in the eyes, than she fell fainting to the floor, overcome by her emotion. Balzac himself was deeply moved. From that day until their final meeting he wrote to her daily. The novelist plunged into a whirl of literary labor, toiling as few ever toiled—constructing several novels at the same time. Sometimes, he would begin writing in the afternoon, and continue until dawn. Then, weary and with throbbing head, he would rise and turn to fall upon his couch. But the memory of Evelina Hanska always came to him; and with half-numbed fingers he would seize his pen, and forget his weariness in the pleasure of writing to the dark-eyed woman who drew him to her like a magnet. Balzac and Mme. Hanska met many times after that first eventful episode at Neuchatel. In 1842 Mme. Hanska’s husband died. Balzac naturally expected that an immediate marriage with the countess would take place, but it wasn’t until 1850 that the two were married – only five months before the great novelist’s death.