By 1846 Honoré de Balzac had achieved tremendous fame as a writer, but his finances and health were deteriorating rapidly. After writing a series of potboiler novels in the 1820s, he published his first book under his own name, Les Chouans ("The Chouans"), in 1829. He followed this with dozens of well-received novels and stories, including La Peau de chagrin ("The Magic Skin"), in 1831, Le Père Goriot ("Father Goriot") in 1835, and the two-volume Illusions perdues ("Lost Illusions"), in 1837 and 1839. Because of his lavish lifestyle and penchant for financial speculation, however, he spent most of his life trying to repay a variety of debts. He wrote tirelessly, driven as much by economic necessity as by the muse and black coffee. This regimen of constant work exhausted his body and brought reprimands from his doctor.
As his work gained recognition, Balzac began corresponding with a Polish baroness named Ewelina Hańska, who first contacted him through an anonymous 1832 letter signed "L'Étrangère" ("The Stranger"). They developed an affectionate friendship in letters, and when she became a widow in 1841, Balzac sought her hand in marriage. He visited her often in Poland and Germany, but various complications prohibited their union. One of these was an affair Balzac had with his housekeeper, Louise Breugniot. As she became aware of his affection for Mme. Hanska, Breugniot stole a collection of their letters and used them to extort money from Balzac. Even after this episode, however, he grew closer to Mme. Hanska with each visit and by 1846 he had begun preparing a home to share with her. He grew hopeful that they could marry when she became pregnant, but she fell ill in December and suffered a miscarriage.
The mid-19th century was a time of profound transformation in French government and society. The reign of King Charles X ended in 1830 when a wave of agitation and dissent forced him to abdicate. He was replaced by Louis-Philippe, who named himself "King of the French", rather than the standard "King of France" – an indication that he answered more to the nascent bourgeoisie than the aristocratic Ancien Régime. The change in government took place while the economy in France was moving from mercantilism to industrial development. This opened new opportunities for individuals hoping to acquire wealth, and led to significant changes in social norms. Members of the aristocracy, for example, were forced to relate socially to the nouveau riche, usually with tense results. The democratic spirit of the French Revolution also affected social interactions, with a shift in popular allegiance away from the church and the monarchy.
In the mid-19th century, a new style of novel became popular in France. The serial format known as the roman-feuilleton presented stories in short regular installments, often accompanied by melodramatic plots and stock characters. Although Balzac's La Vieille Fille (The Old Maid), 1836, was the first such work published in France, the roman-feuilleton gained prominence thanks mostly to his friends Eugène Sue and Alexandre Dumas, père. Balzac disliked their serial writing, however, especially Sue's socialist depiction of lower-class suffering. Balzac wanted to dethrone what he called "les faux dieux de cette littérature bâtarde" ("the false gods of this bastard literature"). He also wanted to show the world that, despite his poor health and tumultuous career, he was "plus jeune, plus frais, et plus grand que jamais" ("younger, fresher, and greater than ever"). His first efforts to render a quality feuilleton were unsuccessful. Even though Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes ("A Harlot High and Low"), published in segments from 1838 to 1847, was celebrated by critics, Balzac complained to Mme. Hanska that he was "doing pure Sue". He tried again in 1844 with Modeste Mignon, but public reactions were mixed. Two years later Balzac began a new project, determined to create something from his "own old pen again".