Behind every great man stands a great woman

No one seems to know the origin of this statement, but Honoré de Balzac, inspired (for at least part of his life) by Laure de Berny, implicitly recognized the truth of it.

In 1777 Laure Antoinette Hinner (right) was born at Versailles, France, the daughter of Philippe Joseph Hinner, a German harpist and Louise Guelpee de Laborde, a maid in the royal household. Her godparents were King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, represented at her baptism by the Duc de Fronsac (to whom Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV, had tried to marry her daughter Alexandrine d’Étiolles) and the Princesse de Chimayes.

Laure was brought up amid the splendour and decadence of the court. When her father died when she was barely ten years old, her mother married François Regnier de Jarjayes, a fervent royalist, implicated in all the plots to save the royal family during the French Revolution. In Stefan Zweig’s wonderful biography Balzac (1942), he mentions the story of how Jarjayes received from the hands of the condemned Queen the letters she had written to her lover, Axel von Fersen. It’s not known if the story is true or, if it is, what became of the letters.

In 1793 at the age of sixteen, Laure married Gabriel de Berny, but the marriage was not very happy despite the birth of nine children. It seems that her sensitivity and gentleness were at odds with the cold and reserved character of her husband. In 1815 the de Bernys bought a house at Villeparisis, north-east of Paris, where they spent their summers. It was there that Laure first met the young and impressionable Honoré de Balzac (left), who, despite a considerable age difference, fell in love with her.

In Stefan Zweig’s account, “Madame de Berny made things difficult for her importunate wooer. For weeks and months she resisted with all her force. This was Balzac’s first love affair, however, and he exerted all his strength of purpose… One sultry August night the inevitable happened. In the darkness the back-gate that gave entry to the park of the De Bernys’ country house was softly opened. A tremulous touch guided the awaited lover into the house…”

In a small rural town, nothing remains secret for long. Not only did the townsfolk know, Balzac’s parents knew and his mother made every attempt to disentangle her son from a “passion that is ruining him”. But, as Zweig also notes, “Far from having any corrupting effect on him, his love for Laure de Berny helped him to find himself. By awakening the man in this nostalgic ‘being who was part child, part man’, it slowly and without undue abruptness liberated the great novelist that was latent in the hasty scribbler.”

Balzac called Laure a “great and sublime woman, an angel of friendship”, who had given him courage, freedom, and a sense of outward and inner security. He immortalised a “pale reflection” of her in the character of Pauline in Louis Lambert (1832) and Madame de Mortsauf in Le Lys dans la vallée (1835), which she read on her deathbed.

Balzac later acknowledged, “She was my mother, friend, family, companion, and adviser. She made me a writer, she gave me the sympathy I needed when I was young, she guided my taste, she wept and laughed with me like a sister, she came to me every day like a healing sleep that allays one’s pain.”

On 27 July 1836 Laure de Berny died at La Bouleaunière, her country house at Grez-sur-Loing, while Balzac was on his first trip to Italy. On his return he paid a visit to her grave where, “Some deep instinct told him that an epoch of his life had closed and that in the grave of Laure de Berny was buried his own youth.”

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