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The Characters of Balzac's 'La Comédie Humaine': Fact or Fiction?

The Characters of Balzac’s ‘La Comédie Humaine': Fact or Fiction?

Balzac’s series of stories within La Comédie Humaine made use of numerous characters, and many appeared in more than one book. This gave a continuity to the stories, and drew his readers in by giving them a degree of familiarity and hence an involvement.

All his characters were crafted with a specific role in mind, and he attributed to each a position in society that played off the other characters in each story. To achieve this was an immense task that involved constant research and revision. I quote an extract from an article in The New York Times 21 May 1899 – ‘Balzac, as is well known, wanted all the heroes of his novels to have clearly defined existences of their own. Their ancestry was carefully drawn up and their very names chosen with regard for the part that they were to play. No detail, however minute, relative to their social condition was overlooked by the novelist. For those of his heroes who belonged to the aristocracy he had prepared therefore armorial bearings suitable for their rank in life. He intrusted this work of composing these coats of arms to a friend of his, Ferdinand de Gramont, a connoisseur in such matters’.

To achieve this level of detail one has to wonder whether all these characters sprang from Balzac’s creative mind, or whether he drew on the backgrounds of real families, whether living or extinct. It seems probable to me that they were a mixture of historical fact and fiction.

I am no expert on Balzac, nor am I a specialist in history. I arrived at Balzac’s pages because I decided to look at my own family’s history.

My name is Despard and we have detailed records on our family dating from 1692. This name was unique to the branches of our family. The name was used as either Despard or d’Espard. The spirited suffragette Charlotte Despard, was addressed as both Madame d’Espard and Mrs Despard. The American branch of the family were reported in law cases and social columns in 1906 as d’Espard.



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