History of Literature








French literature

 

CONTENTS:

The Middle Ages

The 16th century

The 17th century

The 18th century to the Revolution of 1789

From 1789 to the mid-19th century

19th-century thought

The 20th century. From 1900 to 1940

The mid-20th century. Approaching the 21st century



 


French literature
 


From 1789 to the mid-19th century
 



André de Chénier
Mirabeau
Jean-Paul Marat
Maximilien Robespierre
Louis de Saint-Just
Jacques-René Hébert
Gracchus Babeuf

Chateaubriand
Mme de Stael "Corinne, Or Italy"
Charles-Augustin de Sainte-Beuve
Marceline Desbordes-Valmore
Petrus
Borel
Henri de Saint-Simon
Pierre-Jean de Béranger

Alphonse de Lamartine
Victor Hugo "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"  VOLUME I, VOLUME II
Alfred-Victor, comte de Vigny
Alfred de Musset
Gérard de Nerval
Benjamin Constant
Alexandre Dumas
"The Three Musketeers"

Stendhal
George Sand
Charles Nodier
Prosper Mérimée
Honoré de Balzac "Father Goriot"
Eugène Sue

 

 



From 1789 to the mid-19th century




Revolution and empire


The French Revolution of 1789 provided no clean break with the complex literary culture of the Enlightenment. Many ways of thinking and feeling—whether based on reason, sentiment, or an exacerbated sensibility—and most literary forms persisted with little change from 1789 to 1815. Certainly, the Napoleonic regime encouraged a return to the Classical mode. The insistence on formal qualities, notions of good taste, rules, and appeals to authority implicitly underlined the regime’s centralizing, authoritarian, and imperial aims. This classicism, or, strictly speaking, Neoclassicism, represented the etiolated survival of the high style and literary forms that had dominated “serious” literature—and drama in particular—in France for almost two centuries. But Rousseau’s emphasis on subjectivity and sentiment still had its heirs, as did the new forms of writing he had helped to evolve. Likewise, while the Gothic violence that had emerged in early Revolutionary drama and novels was curbed, its dynamic remained. The seeds of French Romanticism had been sown in national ground, long before writers began to turn to other nations to kindle their inspiration.


The poetry of Chénier

André Chénier was executed during the last days of the Terror. His work first appeared in volume in 1819 and is thus associated with the first generation of French Romantic poets, who saw in him a symbol of persecuted genius. Although deeply imbued with the Classical spirit, especially that of Greece, Chénier exploited Classical myths for modern purposes. He began work on what he planned to be a great epic poem, “Hermès,” a history of the universe and human progress. The completed fragments reflect the Enlightenment spirit but also anticipate the episodic epic poems of the later Romantics. Chénier, though a moderate in revolutionary terms, was deeply committed in his politics. This is evident in the scathing fierceness of his lyrical satires, the Ïambes, many of which were written from prison shortly before his execution. His best-known poems, however, are elegies that sing of captivity, death, and dreams of youth and lost happiness.

 


André de Chénier



 

born Oct. 30, 1762, Istanbul
died July 25, 1794, Paris

poet and political journalist, generally considered the greatest French poet of the 18th century. His work was scarcely published until 25 years after his death. When the first collected edition of Chénier’s poetry appeared in 1819, it had an immediate success and was acclaimed not only by the poets of the Romantic movement but also by the anti-Romantic liberal press. Not only was Chénier’s influence felt on poetic trends throughout the 19th century but the legend of his political struggle and heroic death—celebrated in Chateaubriand’s work Le Génie du christianisme (1802), Sainte-Beuve’s Joseph Delorme (1829), Vigny’s Stello (1832), and Umberto Giordano’s opera Andrea Chénier (1896)—also made him a European symbol of the poet-hero.

His mother was Greek, and he always had a deep affection for Classical literature, in particular for elegiac poetry. He was educated in the progressive Collège de Navarre and, after an unsuccessful attempt at a military career in 1782–83, devoted himself for five years to study. In 1787 he reluctantly accepted a post in the French embassy in London. He was obsessed at that time by epic themes, notably a project for a poem on the New World, but he was psychologically inhibited from completing these works. His years in London were unhappy: he suffered from frustrated ambition and from self-doubt.

The Revolutionary upheavals in France in 1789 offered an opportunity to escape from this frustration. He returned to Paris and began to take an active part in political journalism, attacking the extremes both of monarchist reaction and of Revolutionary terror. Chénier was not a political innocent and realized the dangers of his position. At times he exposed himself unnecessarily, from the sense of moral integrity that is a fundamental theme of his work and perhaps also from an obscure hunger for self-destruction. In March 1794 he was arrested, imprisoned at Saint-Lazare, and, four months later, guillotined, a few days before the fall of the Revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre, an event that would have saved him.

Chénier’s achievement was to have demonstrated how the qualities of the Greek lyrics could revitalize French poetry. In his works of the Revolutionary period, including poems that he smuggled out of prison in a laundry basket, he makes a passionate defense of ideals of liberty and justice: the Iambes, the last of which dates from very shortly before his execution, are a moving testimonial to the human spirit in the face of persecution.



Charles-Louis Müller: "The Call for the Last Victims of the Terror, 7-9 Thermidor, Year"
(The figure seated at the centre is Chenier.)


 

Ode to Marie-Anne-Charlotte Corday


Le noir serpent, sorti de sa caverne impure,
A donc vu rompre enfin sous ta main ferme et sûre
le venimeux tissu de ses jours abhorrés!
Aux entrailles du tigre, à ses dents homicides,
Tu vins demander et les membres livides
Et le sang des humains qu'il avait dévorés!

La vertu seule est libre. Honneur de notre histoire,
Notre immortel opprobre y vit avec ta gloire.
Seule tu fus un homme, et vengea les humains.
Et nous, eunuques vils, troupeau lâche et sans âme,
Nous savons répéter quelques plaintes de femme,
Mais le fer pèserait à nos débiles mains.
. . . . .
Un scélérat de moins rampe dans cette fange.
La Vertu t'applaudit. De sa mâle louange
Entends, bell héroïne, entends l'auguste voix.
O Vertu, le poignard, seul espoir de la terre,
Est ton arme sacrée, alors que le tonnerre
Laisse régner le crime, et te vend à ses lois.

(The black serpent, leaving his filthy cave,
Has finally suffered by your hand so sure and brave
The end of its venomous existence so despised!
From the tiger's guts, from his homicidal teeth
You came and drew what he'd devoured from beneath:
The blood and livid members of his victims sacrificed.)

(Virtue alone is free. Honor of our history,
Our immortal shame we live beside your glory.
Only you were a man, your knife did vengeance wreak;
And we, vile eunuchs, cowardly and soul-less cattle.
We can at best complain like women prattle,
But to wield a sword our hands would be too weak
. . . . .
In that mud crawls one scoundrel less.
Hear, lovely heroine, hear Virtue bless,
Hear the august voice of its virile praise.
Oh virtue, the dagger that hope will raise,
Is your sacred arm, when Heaven holds its thunder
And lets crime rule, while laws are cut asunder.)

Andre Marie de Chenier




Revolutionary oratory and polemic

The intensity of political debate in Paris during the Revolution, whether in clubs, in the National Assembly, or before tribunals, threw into prominence the arts of oratory. Speaking in the name of reason, virtue, and liberty and using the Roman Republic or the city-states of Greece as a frame of reference, Revolutionary leaders such as Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, Jean-Paul Marat, Maximilien Robespierre, and Louis de Saint-Just infused the intellectual preoccupations of the Enlightenment with a sense of drama and passion. This renewal of rhetoric is echoed in the enormously expanded political press, including Marat’s L’Ami du peuple (“The Friend of the People”), Jacques-René Hébert’s Le Père Duchesne (“Old Duchesne”), and Gracchus Babeuf’s Le Tribun du peuple (“The Defender of the People”). To some extent the proclamations and communiqués of Napoleon prolonged this Revolutionary eloquence.

 


Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau




 

born March 9, 1749, Bignon, near Nemours, France
died April 2, 1791, Paris


French politician and orator, one of the greatest figures in the National Assembly that governed France during the early phases of the French Revolution. A moderate and an advocate of constitutional monarchy, he died before the Revolution reached its radical climax.

Troubled youth
Mirabeau was the elder son of the noted economist Victor Riqueti, marquis de Mirabeau, by his unhappy marriage to Marie-Geneviève de Vassan. Disfigured by smallpox at age three, the precocious Honoré-Gabriel suffered even in early childhood the disfavour of his formidable father. At age 15 he was sent as a pupil to the strict Abbé Choquard in Paris, and at 18 he went as a volunteer to serve in a cavalry regiment at Saintes, where his father hoped that military discipline would curb him. His misbehaviour, however, led to his imprisonment on the Île de Ré, under a lettre de cachet, a written order permitting imprisonment without trial. Released to serve in Corsica with the rank of sublieutenant in the army, he distinguished himself there in 1769.

Reconciled with his father, he married a rich Provençal heiress, Émilie de Marignane, in 1772, but his heavy spending and further misconduct led his father to have him imprisoned under another lettre de cachet in order to put him out of reach of his creditors. He was detained first at the Château d’If (1774), then at the Fort de Joux, near Pontarlier. Having obtained permission to visit the town of Pontarlier, he there met his “Sophie”—who, in fact, was the marquise de Monnier, Marie-Thérèse-Richard de Ruffey, the young wife of a very old man. He eventually escaped to Switzerland, where Sophie joined him; the couple then made their way to Holland, where Mirabeau was arrested in 1777.

The tribunal at Pontarlier had meanwhile sentenced him to death for seduction and abduction, but Mirabeau escaped execution by submitting to further imprisonment under a lettre de cachet. In the château of Vincennes he composed the Lettres à Sophie, some erotic works, and his essay Des lettres de cachet et des prisons d’état (“Of Lettres de Cachet and of State Prisons”). Released in December 1780, he finally had to surrender himself to arrest at Pontarlier in order to have the death sentence revoked, but by August 1782 he was entirely free. He now became involved in a lawsuit against his wife, who wanted a judicial separation. Pleading on his own behalf, he gained the sympathy of the public but lost his case (1783). Rejected by his wife and by his father, he had to renounce the aristocratic society into which he had been born.

For the next five years Mirabeau lived the life of an adventurer. He was employed sometimes as a hired pamphleteer, sometimes as a secret agent. He came into contact with Louis XVI’s ministers Charles-Alexandre de Calonne; Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes; and Armand-Marc, comte de Montmorin-Saint-Hérem. He also made an enemy of the Swiss banker Jacques Necker, at that time director of the finances, and engaged the playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais in controversy.

His activities necessitated much traveling. In London he was introduced into the best Whig society by Gilbert Elliot (later 1st earl of Minto), who had been his fellow pupil under the Abbé Choquard; he had to take refuge in Liège when his Dénonciation de l’agiotage (against stockjobbing) annoyed Calonne; and he undertook a secret mission to Berlin in 1786. With the active assistance of a Brunswick friend, Jakob Mauvillon, he wrote De la monarchie prussienne sous Frédéric le Grand (1788; “The Prussian Monarchy Under Frederick the Great”), which he dedicated to his father; but Histoire secrète de la cour de Berlin (“Secret History of the Court of Berlin”), in which he made unscrupulous use of material derived from his mission in Germany, created a scandal in 1789.


Election to the Estates-General
Within France, affairs were moving toward a crisis. The country, bankrupted by its 18th-century wars, was burdened with an archaic system of taxation and social privilege. The Estates-General, an assembly of the three estates of the realm—the clergy, the nobility, and the commons—was summoned to meet in Paris in May 1789 in an attempt to implement the necessary reforms. It was that meeting that set in motion the great French Revolution of 1789.

When the Estates-General was summoned, Mirabeau hoped to be elected as a deputy for the nobility of Provence. For this he needed his father’s support. Pleased by the book dedicated to him, the marquis had summoned Mirabeau to Argenteuil in the autumn of 1788 but had not given him any real help. Mirabeau presented himself in the chamber of the nobility in the estates of Provence in January 1789 and uttered violent diatribes against the privileged classes but was not elected deputy, as he held no fief. Turning reluctantly to the Third Estate, he was elected to represent both Marseille and Aix-en-Provence, and he chose to represent the latter.

Mirabeau came to the Estates-General without any precise constitutional doctrine. An avowed enemy of despotism (he had written Essai sur le despotisme [“Essay on Despotism”] before he was 25), he was, nevertheless, a firm supporter of the monarchy and of the executive power. Without expressly adhering to the English system, he wanted representative government. A nobleman rejected by his class, he opposed the idea of an aristocratic second chamber. Like most of his contemporaries, he had no political experience, but his intelligence and his knowledge of men made him supremely capable of acquiring such experience rapidly. Lack of money, however, exposed him to pressure and to temptation.

From May to October 1789 Mirabeau played a decisive part in the battle between the Third Estate and the privileged orders. His aim was to become the spokesman of the nation to the king and at the same time to moderate the expression of the nation’s wishes. Thus, on June 15 and 16 he was careful not to suggest the name National Assembly, which was the rallying cry of the Third Estate in its Revolutionary debate of June 17, when it set itself up as representative of the whole nation. Yet, at the ending of the “royal session” of June 23, when Henri Évrard, marquis de Dreux-Brézé, in the king’s name ordered the assembled estates to return each to its separate chamber, Mirabeau’s answer did much to confirm the deputies in their resolution to disobey and establish the National Assembly, and, in the feverish atmosphere of the early days of July, his speeches inspired the Assembly to demand the dispersal of the troops concentrated around Paris.

After the fall of the Bastille (July 14), he urged the Assembly to demand the dismissal of the ministers who were to blame for the disorders. His popularity in Paris was then considerable. On the other hand, he disapproved of the Assembly’s precipitate action in abolishing feudalism (on the night of August 4) and of the abstract Declaration of Rights, and, while he was openly against a second chamber, he yet wanted the king to have an absolute veto. In October, when the Parisians marched on Versailles and took Louis XVI back to Paris, Mirabeau’s attitude was ambiguous and gave rise to the suspicion that he might be plotting against the king. To clear himself and to keep open the door to the court’s favour, he addressed a memorandum to the king, advising him to leave Paris for Rouen, to secure the support of a small army, and to appeal to the provinces.

Mirabeau’s prime concern, however, was to win “the battle of the ministry.” Ostensibly a supporter of Necker, Mirabeau, in fact, did his utmost to destroy him: his brilliant speech on the bankruptcy of the nation was a masterstroke against this minister. Furthermore, he tried skillfully to induce the Assembly to grant to the king the option of choosing members of it to be his ministers, but the Assembly’s decree of November 7, 1789, which precluded all deputies from the ministry for the duration of the session, frustrated his hopes of ministerial office for himself.


Intrigue with the court
From November 1789, notwithstanding his oratorical triumphs of January–April 1790 in the cause of the Revolution, Mirabeau was a prey to despondency and aimlessness until his friend Auguste, prince d’Arenberg, comte de La Marck—with the approval of Florimund, Graf (count) Mercy d’Argenteau, Austrian ambassador to Paris and confidant of Queen Marie-Antoinette—approached him with the proposal from Louis XVI and the queen that he should become their secret counselor. Mirabeau accepted with delight: “I shall make it my chief business to see that the executive power has its place in the constitution” (letter of May 10). Part of the promised remuneration was to be the paying off of his debts.

In May 1790, when the Assembly was debating the king’s right to make war and peace, Mirabeau successfully opposed the left-wing orator Antoine Barnave, whom he challenged with the words: “Tell us that there should be no king, do not tell us that there should only be a powerless, superfluous king.” He impeded the progress of the Jacobins but risked his own popularity, and a pamphlet accusing him of treason was circulated (Trahison découverte du comte de Mirabeau [“The Uncovered Treason of the Comte de Mirabeau”]).

From June to October he had to work to recapture his prestige. This was the more necessary because the king and the queen, despite their secret interview of July 3 with Mirabeau at Saint-Cloud, took little notice of his advice and continued to be influenced by his rival for court favour, the marquis de Lafayette, who had scorned Mirabeau’s offer of alliance. In October 1790 the Assembly further disappointed Mirabeau by refusing, after more discussion, to revoke the decree of November 1789 on the noneligibility of its members for the ministry.

While the court was displeased by some of Mirabeau’s outbursts and by his “incurable mania of running after popularity,” Mirabeau, for his part, was enraged to see a new ministry formed under the influence of his rivals Lafayette and Alexandre, comte de Lameth. By the end of November 1790 his relations with the court were severely strained. He restored them by submitting to the king’s adviser Montmorin a “Plan” concocted to bring pressure to bear by various means on the Assembly, on Paris, and on the provinces so as to coordinate “the means of reconciling public opinion with the sovereign’s authority.”

The plan was perfect in theory but very difficult to put into practice. From January 1791 it was clear that Mirabeau had no intention of doing anything that might compromise his own popularity, though he was willing enough to sabotage the Assembly by getting it to adopt ill-considered measures of religious persecution, and he was eagerly and adroitly working to discredit Lameth’s faction at court. His popularity rose to its zenith, and the eyes of all of Europe were on him.

As spokesman of the diplomatic committee, on January 28, 1791, he made a speech that bore the unmistakable stamp of statesmanship. Anxious to avoid anything that might compromise France’s relations with neighbouring countries, particularly with England, he yet would not repudiate any of the Revolution’s political victories or allow any necessary military precautions to be overlooked. On the following day he at last became president of the Assembly for a fortnight. In this office, from which he had been so long excluded, his control of the debates was masterly.

Mirabeau’s problem was to know how and for how long his Machiavellian game could be continued before his intrigue with the court would be exposed. The people of Paris were restless, worried by rumours. Mirabeau’s position was made difficult by his intervention on behalf of the king’s aunts (who had fled from Paris), by his hostility to the law against the émigrés, and by his harsh words against the Lameths and their satellites in the Assembly (“Silence to the factious! Silence to the 33!”). On February 28 he was sorely pressed to justify himself to the Jacobins after a pitiless attack by Alexandre, comte de Lameth. The newspapers of the left redoubled their accusations of treason against him, and in March he experienced some notable reverses in the Assembly.

Death may have saved him from political defeat. Gravely ill since his presidency of the Assembly, he worsened his condition by excessive indulgence. He took to his bed on March 27, 1791, and died a week later. The people’s grief for him was boundless; he was given a magnificent funeral, and it was for him that the new church of Sainte-Geneviève was converted into the Panthéon, for the burial of great men. In the insurrection of August 10, 1792, however, papers proving Mirabeau’s relations with the court were found in an iron chest in the Tuileries Palace, and on September 21, 1794, his remains were dislodged from the Panthéon by order of the National Convention.


Assessment
As a statesman, Mirabeau failed in his main objective, that of reconciling the monarchy with the Revolution and a strong executive with national liberty. He was too much of a monarchist for the Revolution, too revolutionary for the monarchy. As an orator, he was unsurpassed. Even though his eloquence was fed by material gathered from every quarter and by a “workshop” of collaborators, it was Mirabeau who found the striking images and expressions that give to his speeches their brilliant individuality. Generally bad at extemporizing, Mirabeau could be moved by anger or by injured pride to an impassioned tone that would carry the Assembly with him.

Jean-Jacques Chevallier

 


Jean-Paul Marat


born , May 24, 1743, Boudry, near Neuchâtel, Switzerland
died July 13, 1793, Paris, France


French politician, physician, and journalist, a leader of the radical Montagnard faction during the French Revolution. He was assassinated in his bath by Charlotte Corday, a young Girondin conservative.

Early scientific work
Marat, after obscure years in France and other European countries, became a well-known doctor in London in the 1770s and published a number of books on scientific and philosophical subjects. His Essay on the Human Soul (1771) had little success, but A Philosophical Essay on Man (1773) was translated into French and published in Amsterdam (1775–76). His early political works included The Chains of Slavery (1774), an attack on despotism addressed to British voters, in which he first expounded the notion of an “aristocratic,” or “court,” plot; it would become the principal theme of a number of his articles.

Returning to the Continent in 1777, Marat was appointed physician to the personal guards of the comte d’Artois (later Charles X), youngest brother of Louis XVI of France. At this time he seemed mainly interested in making a reputation for himself as a successful scientist. He wrote articles and experimented with fire, electricity, and light. His paper on electricity was honoured by the Royal Academy of Rouen in 1783. At the same time, he built up a practice among upper-middle-class and aristocratic patients. In 1783 he resigned from his medical post, probably intending to concentrate on his scientific career.

In 1780 he published his Plan de législation criminelle (“Plan for Criminal Legislation”), which showed that he had already assimilated the ideas of such critics of the ancien régime as Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and was corresponding with the American Revolutionary leader Benjamin Franklin. More serious, perhaps, was Marat’s failure to be elected to the Academy of Sciences. Some historians, notably the American Louis Gottschalk, have concluded that he came to suffer from a “martyr complex,” imagining himself persecuted by powerful enemies. Thinking that his work refuted the ideas of Sir Isaac Newton, he joined the opponents of the established social and scientific order.

In the first weeks of 1789—the year that saw the beginning of the French Revolution—Marat published his pamphlet Offrande à la patrie (“Offering to Our Country”), in which he indicated that he still believed that the monarchy was capable of solving France’s problems. In a supplement published a few months later, though, he remarked that the king was chiefly concerned with his own financial problems and that he neglected the needs of the people; at the same time, Marat attacked those who proposed the British system of government as a model for France.


Attacks on the aristocracy
Beginning in September 1789, as editor of the newspaper L’Ami du Peuple (“The Friend of the People”), Marat became an influential voice in favour of the most radical and democratic measures, particularly in October, when the royal family was forcibly brought from Versailles to Paris by a mob. He particularly advocated preventive measures against aristocrats, whom he claimed were plotting to destroy the Revolution. Early in 1790 he was forced to flee to England after publishing attacks on Jacques Necker, the king’s finance minister; three months later he was back, his fame now sufficient to give him some protection against reprisal. He did not relent but directed his criticism against such moderate Revolutionary leaders as the marquis de Lafayette, the comte de Mirabeau, and Jean-Sylvain Bailly, mayor of Paris (a member of the Academy of Sciences); he continued to warn against the émigrés, royalist exiles who were organizing counterrevolutionary activities and urging the other European monarchs to intervene in France and restore the full power of Louis XVI.

In July 1790 he declared to his readers:

Five or six hundred heads cut off would have assured your repose, freedom, and happiness. A false humanity has held your arms and suspended your blows; because of this millions of your brothers will lose their lives.

The National Assembly sentenced him to a month in prison, but he went into hiding and continued his campaign. When bloody riots broke out at Nancy in eastern France, he saw them as the first sign of the counterrevolution.


Activities in the National Convention
In 1790 and 1791 Marat gradually came to the view that the monarchy should be abolished; after Louis XVI’s attempt to flee in June 1791, he declared the king "unworthy to remount the throne" and violently denounced the National Assembly for refusing to depose the king. As a delegate to the National Convention (beginning in September 1792), he advocated such reforms as a graduated income tax, state-sponsored vocational training for workers, and shorter terms of military service. Though he had often advocated the execution of counterrevolutionaries, Marat seems to have had no direct connection with the wholesale massacres of suspects that occurred in the same month. He had opposed France’s declaration of war against antirevolutionary Austria in April, but, once the war had begun and the country was in danger of invasion, he advocated a temporary dictatorship to deal with the emergency.

Actively supported by the Parisian people both in the chamber and in street demonstrations, Marat quickly became one of the most prominent members of the Convention. Attacks by the conservative Girondin faction early in 1793 made him a symbol of the Montagnards, or radical faction, although the Montagnard leaders kept him out of any position of real influence. In April the Girondins had him arraigned before a Revolutionary tribunal. His acquittal of the political charges brought against him (April 24) was the climax of his career and the beginning of the fall of the Girondins from power.


Jacques-Louis David. The Death of Marat



Assassination
On July 13, Charlotte Corday, a young Girondin supporter from Normandy, was admitted to Marat’s room on the pretext that she wished to claim his protection, and she stabbed him to death in his bath (he took frequent medicinal baths to relieve a skin infection). Marat’s dramatic murder at the very moment of the Montagnards’ triumph over their opponents caused him to be considered a martyr to the people’s cause. His name was given to 21 French towns and later, as a gesture symbolizing the continuity between the French and Russian revolutions, to one of the first battleships in the Soviet navy.

The Death of Marat, by French artist and member of the Jacobin Club Jacques-Louis David, was painted just days after the murder. Called the “Pietà of the Revolution” (in reference to Michelangelo’s sculpture) and widely considered David’s masterpiece, the painting is frequently reproduced for its historical and artistic value.

Jean Vidalenc

 


Maximilien Robespierre




 

born May 6, 1758, Arras, France
died July 28, 1794, Paris


radical Jacobin leader and one of the principal figures in the French Revolution. In the latter months of 1793 he came to dominate the Committee of Public Safety, the principal organ of the Revolutionary government during the Reign of Terror, but in 1794 he was overthrown and executed in the Thermidorian Reaction.

Early life
Robespierre was the son of a lawyer in Arras. After his mother’s death, his father left home, and Maximilien, along with his brother and sisters, was raised by his maternal grandparents. From 1765 he attended the college of the Oratorians at Arras, and in 1769 he was awarded a scholarship to the famous college of Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where he distinguished himself in philosophy and law. He received a law degree in 1781 and became a lawyer at Arras, where he set up house with his sister Charlotte. He soon made a name for himself and was appointed a judge at the Salle Épiscopale, a court with jurisdiction over the provostship of the diocese. His private practice provided him with a comfortable income.

He was admitted to the Arras Academy in 1783 and soon became its chancellor and later its president. Contrary to the long-held belief that Robespierre led an isolated life, he often visited local notables and mingled with the young people of the district. He entered academic competitions, and his Mémoire sur les peines infamantes (“Report on Degrading Punishments”) won first prize at the Academy of Metz. By 1788 Robespierre was already well known for his altruism. As a lawyer representing poor people, he had alarmed the privileged classes by his protests in his Mémoire pour le Sieur Dupond (Report for Lord Dupond) against royal absolutism and arbitrary justice.

When the summoning of the Estates-General (a national assembly that had not been called since 1614) was announced, he issued an appeal entitled À la nation artésienne sur la nécessité de réformer les Etats d’Artois (“To the People of Artois on the Necessity of Reforming the Estates of Artois”). In March 1789 the citizens of Arras chose him as one of their representatives, and the Third Estate (the commons) of the bailiwick elected him fifth of the eight deputies from Artois. Thus he began his political career at the age of 30.


Leadership of the Jacobins
Robespierre preserved his frugal way of life, his careful dress and grooming, and his simple manners both at Versailles and later in Paris. He quickly attracted attention in an assembly that included some distinguished names. He probably made his maiden speech on May 18, 1789, and he was to speak more than 500 times during the life of the National Assembly. He succeeded in making himself heard despite the weak carrying power of his voice and the opposition he aroused, and his motions were usually applauded. Proofs of his growing popularity were the ferocious attacks made by the royalist press on this “Demosthenes,” “who believes everything he says,” this “monkey of Mirabeau’s” (the comte de Mirabeau, a politician who wanted to create a constitutional assembly).

Robespierre was kept out of the committees and from the presidency of the National Assembly; only once, in June 1790, was he elected secretary of the National Assembly. In April he had presided over the Jacobins, a political club promoting the ideas of the French Revolution. In October he was appointed a judge of the Versailles tribunal.

Robespierre nevertheless decided to devote himself fully to his work in the National Assembly, where the constitution was being drawn up. Grounded in ancient history and the works of the French philosophers of the Enlightenment, he welcomed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which formed the preamble of the French constitution of September 3, 1791, and he insisted that all laws should conform to it. He fought for universal suffrage, for unrestricted admission to the national guard, to public offices, and to the commissioned ranks of the army, and for the right to petition. He opposed the royal veto, the abuses of ministerial power, and religious and racial discrimination. He defended actors, Jews, and black slaves and supported the reunion of Avignon, formerly a papal possession, with France in September 1791. In May he had successfully proposed that all new deputies be elected to the next legislature so that, as a new body, it would better express the people’s will.

His passionate fight for liberty won him more enemies, who called him a dangerous individual—and worse. After the flight of Louis XVI (June 20–21, 1791), for which Robespierre vainly demanded his trial, the slanders against the Revolutionary deputy became twice as violent. He hastened the vote on the constitution so as to attract “as many of the democratic party as possible,” inviting in his Adresse aux Français (July 1791; Address to the French) the patriots to join forces. Martial law was proclaimed, and at the Champ-de-Mars the national guard—under the command of the marquis de Lafayette, a moderate who wanted to save the monarchy—opened fire on a group demanding the abdication of the king. Robespierre, his life threatened, went to live with the family of the cabinetmaker Maurice Duplay. He managed to keep the Jacobin Club alive after all of its moderate members had joined a rival club. When the National Assembly dissolved itself, the people of Paris organized a triumphal procession for Robespierre.

Although he had excluded himself and his colleagues from the new Legislative Assembly, Robespierre continued to be politically active, giving up the lucrative post of public prosecutor of Paris, to which he had been elected in June 1791. Henceforth, he spoke only at the Jacobin Club, where he was to be heard about 100 times, until August 1792. There he opposed the European war that Jacques-Pierre Brissot was advocating as a means of spreading the aims of the Revolution.

He denounced the secret intrigues of the court and of the royalists, their collusion with Austria, the unpreparedness of the army, and the possible treason of aristocratic officers whose dismissal he demanded in February 1792. He also defended patriotic soldiers, such as those of the Châteauvieux regiment, who had been imprisoned after their mutiny at Nancy. When Brissot’s supporters stirred up opinion against him, Robespierre founded a newspaper, Le Défenseur de la Constitution (“Defense of the Constitution”), which strengthened his hand. He attacked Lafayette, who had become the commander of the French army and whom he suspected of wanting to set up a military dictatorship, but failed to obtain his dismissal and arrest.

The reverses suffered by the French army after France had declared war on Austria and Prussia had been foreseen by Robespierre, and, when invasion threatened, the people rallied to him. Although he had defined the aims of insurrection, he hesitated to advocate it: “Fight the common enemy,” he told the provincial volunteers, “only with the sword of law.” When the insurrection nevertheless broke out on August 10, 1792, Robespierre took no part in the attack on the Tuileries Palace. But that same afternoon his section (an administrative subdivision of Paris), Les Piques, nominated him to the insurrectional Commune. As a member of the electoral assembly of Paris, he heard about the September Massacres of imprisoned nobles and clergy by Parisian crowds. He exonerated the mob, and on September 5 the people of Paris elected him to head the delegation to the National Convention.


Work in the National Convention
The Girondins—who favoured political but not social democracy and who controlled the government and the civil service—accused Robespierre of dictatorship from the first sessions of the National Convention. At the king’s trial, which began in December 1792, Robespierre spoke 11 times and called for death. His speech on December 3 rallied the hesitant. His new journal, Les Lettres à ses commettants (“Letters to His Constituents”), kept the provinces informed.

The king’s execution did not, however, resolve the struggle between the Girondins and the Montagnards, the deputies of the extreme left. At the same time, the scarcity of food and the rising prices created a revolutionary mood. The treason of General Charles Dumouriez, who went over to the Austrians, precipitated the crisis. A kind of “popular front” was formed between the Parisian sansculottes, the poor, ultraleft republicans, and the Montagnards. On May 26, 1793, Robespierre called on the people “to rise in insurrection.” Five days later he supported a decree of the National Convention indicting the Girondin leaders and Dumouriez’s accomplices. On June 2 the decree was passed against 29 of them.


The Committee of Public Safety and the Reign of Terror
After the fall of the Girondins, the Montagnards were left to deal with the country’s desperate position. Threatened from within by the movement for federalism and by the civil war in the Vendée in the northwest and threatened at the frontiers by the anti-French coalition, the Revolution mobilized its resources for victory. In his diary, Robespierre noted that what was needed was “une volonté une” (“one single will”), and this dictatorial power was to characterize the Revolutionary government. Its essential organs had been created, and he set himself to make them work.

On July 27, 1793, Robespierre took his place on the Committee of Public Safety, which had first been set up in April. While some of his colleagues were away on missions and others were preoccupied with special assignments, he strove to prevent division among the revolutionaries by relying on the Jacobin societies and the vigilance committees. Henceforward his actions were to be inseparable from those of the government as a whole. As president of the Jacobin Club and then of the National Convention, he denounced the schemes of the Parisian radicals known as the Enragés, who were using the food shortage to stir up the Paris sections. Robespierre answered the demonstrators on September 5 by promising maximum prices for all foodstuffs and a Revolutionary militia for use in the interior against counterrevolutionaries and grain hoarders.

In order to bring about a mass conscription, economic dictatorship, and total war, he asked to intensify the Reign of Terror. But he objected to pointless executions, protecting those deputies who had protested the arrest of the Girondins and of the king’s sister. He was sickened by the massacres condoned by the représentants en mission (members of the National Convention sent to break the opposition in the provinces) and demanded their recall for “dishonouring the Revolution.”

Robespierre devoted his report of 5 Nivôse, year II (December 25, 1793 [the French republican calendar had been introduced in September 1793, with its beginning, or year I, set one year prior]), to justifying the collective dictatorship of the National Convention, administrative centralization, and the purging of local authorities. He protested against the various factions that threatened the government. The Hébertists, the Cordeliers, and the popular militants all called for more-radical measures and encouraged de-Christianization and the prosecution of food hoarders. Their excesses frightened the peasants, who could not have been pleased by the decrees of 8 and 13 Ventôse, year II (February 26 and March 3, 1794), which provided for the distribution among the poor of the property of suspects.

Reappearing at the Jacobin Club after a month’s illness, Robespierre denounced the radical revolutionist Jacques-René Hébert and his adherents, who together with some foreign agents were executed in March. Those who wanted, like Georges Danton, to halt the Reign of Terror and the war attacked the policies of the Committee of Public Safety with increasing violence. Robespierre, although still hesitant, led the National Convention against these so-called Indulgents. The Dantonist leaders and the deputies who were compromised in the liquidation of the French East India Company were guillotined on 16 Germinal (April 5).

A deist in the style of Rousseau, Robespierre disapproved of the anti-Christian movement and the “masquerades” of the cult of reason. In a report to the National Convention in May, he affirmed the existence of God and the immortality of the soul and strove to rally the revolutionaries around a civic religion and the cult of the Supreme Being. That he remained extremely popular is shown by the public ovations he received after Henri Admirat’s unsuccessful attempt on his life on 3 Prairial (May 22). The National Convention elected him president, on 16 Prairial (June 4), by a vote of 216 out of 220. In this capacity he led the festival of the Supreme Being (“Etre suprême") in the Tuileries Gardens on 20 Prairial (June 8), which was to provide his enemies with another weapon against him.


Declining influence and authority
After the law of 22 Prairial (June 10) reorganizing the Revolutionary Tribunal, which had been formed in March 1793 to condemn all enemies of the regime, opposition to Robespierre grew; it was led by those représentants en mission whom he had threatened. His influence was challenged in the Committee of Public Safety itself, and the Committee of General Security, which felt slighted by the General Police Bureau directed by Robespierre, Georges Couthon, and Louis de Saint-Just, became even more hostile. In the cafés he was accused of being a moderate. And Joseph Cambon, the minister of finance, detested him.

Unremitting work and frequent speeches in the Legislative Assembly and at the Jacobin Club (a total of some 450 since the beginning of the session) had undermined Robespierre’s health, and he became irritable and distant. Embittered by the slanders and by the accusations of dictatorship being spread both by the royalists and by his colleagues, the Montagnards, he stayed away from the National Convention and then, after 10 Messidor (June 28), from the Committee of Public Safety, confining his denunciations of counterrevolutionary intrigues to the Jacobin Club. At the same time, he began to lose the support of the people, whose hardships continued despite the recent French victories. From his partial retirement Robespierre followed the unleashing of the Great Terror in the summer of 1794 and the progress of opposition.

Attempting to regain his hold on public opinion, Robespierre reappeared at the Committee of Public Safety on 5 Thermidor (July 23) and then, on 8 Thermidor (July 26), at the National Convention, to which he turned as his judge. His last speech was at first received with applause, then with disquiet, and finally the parliamentary majority turned against him. Despite his successful reception that evening at the Jacobin Club, Robespierre’s adversaries succeeded the next day in preventing him from speaking before the Convention, which indicted him together with his brother, Augustin, and three of his associates. Robespierre was taken to the Luxembourg prison, but the warden refused to jail him.

Later he went to the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), where he could, doubtless, still have continued the struggle, for armed contingents from some of the sections of the city had been summoned by the Paris Commune and were awaiting his orders. But Robespierre refused to lead an insurrection, and eventually his loyal contingents began to disperse. Declared an outlaw by the National Convention, Robespierre severely wounded himself by a pistol shot in the jaw at the Hôtel de Ville, throwing his friends into confusion. The soldiers of the National Convention attacked the Hôtel de Ville and easily seized Robespierre and his followers. In the evening of 10 Thermidor (July 28), the first 22 of those condemned, including Robespierre, were guillotined before a cheering mob on the Place de la Révolution (now the Place de la Concorde). In all, 108 people died for adherence to Robespierre’s cause.



The execution of Robespierre

Assessment
Robespierre’s enemies credited him with dictatorial power, both in the Jacobin Club and in the Committee of Public Safety, a power that he did not have. Counterrevolutionaries and the rich condemned his egalitarian ideas, while popular militants accused him of lacking boldness. After his death, his memory was relentlessly attacked, and a great many of his papers were destroyed. History portrayed him as either a bloodthirsty creature or a timid bourgeois.

But, following the appearance of working-class movements in the 19th century, both in France and abroad, homage was paid to this “persecuted patriot,” and his most famous speeches were reprinted. His social ideal consisted in reducing extreme inequalities of wealth, in increasing the number of small property owners, and in ensuring work and education for all. He was a man of his times, of the Enlightenment, a patriot, a man with a sense of duty and of sacrifice, whose influence remains considerable.

Marc Bouloiseau
 

 


Louis de Saint-Just





 

born August 25, 1767, Decize, France
died July 28, 1794, Paris

controversial ideologue of the French Revolution, one of the most zealous advocates of the Reign of Terror (1793–94), who was arrested and guillotined in the Thermidorian Reaction.

Early years
Louis-Antoine-Léon de Saint-Just was born in central France, the son of a cavalry captain. His mother, the daughter of a wealthy local notary and a woman of egalitarian notions, wished to reduce the nobility to the level of the middle class. The family eventually moved to Blérancourt, a rural town in Picardy, the native province of Louis’s father, who died there in 1777.

After attending the college of the Oratorians in nearby Soissons, he returned to Blérancourt, a small town offering few distractions. In 1785 Saint-Just became attached to the daughter of one of the town’s notaries. Her forced marriage to the son of the other notary in July 1786 marked the beginning of a crisis for Saint-Just. Hurt and angry, he fled to Paris one night in September, taking with him a few family valuables. Lodging near the Palais Royal, then the centre of a brilliant and dissolute society, he soon ran out of money.

His adventure came to a sudden end when his mother, advised of the situation, had him put into a reformatory. He remained there from October 1786 to April 1787. Sobered by his experience, he decided, like so many young men of the middle class, to establish himself and enter upon a career. He became a clerk to the public prosecutor of Soissons, studied at Reims, and took his law degree in April 1788.

France at that time was shaken by the effects of a poor harvest and a hard winter, which coincided with pre-Revolutionary tremors. In 1789 Saint-Just anonymously published his first book, an epic poem, Organt. It was ignored by the public. A long satirical and licentious poem strewn with political allusions, it was reminiscent of Voltaire’s “La Pucelle d’Orléans” (“The Maid of Orleans” ), but it lacked the force and spirit needed for public acclaim. Perhaps Saint-Just was trying to set his own mind free rather than to achieve fame. Organt sometimes suggests the misadventures of Saint-Just, with his violent enthusiasms and resentments, but the eroticism is heavy, and few of the themes of his later work appear. Saint-Just’s friends scarcely mentioned it, and his enemies derided it. The book was seized by the authorities in June 1789, and, although it had been issued anonymously, Saint-Just was prudent enough to hide at a friend’s home in Paris.

In the midst of the Revolutionary upheaval, Saint-Just, eager to participate, found himself ignored. Neither a Parisian nor a popular orator nor a leader of men, he was also not inclined to approve of slaughter. He did not speak of the storming of the Bastille, which he had witnessed, until a year later, when his attitude seemed reminiscent of that of the British politician Edmund Burke, who opposed the French Revolution. Saint-Just returned to his hometown at the end of July. The provinces, like Paris, were in full revolt. Militia or national guard units were spontaneously forming everywhere, and Saint-Just became commander of the second unit organized in Blérancourt.

But first he had to overcome the handicap of his youth and the opposition of local cliques. As a militia commander, he went to Paris for the Fête de la Fédération on July 14, 1790. He did not linger there and later spoke of it in tones of disillusionment.

Saint-Just realized that he could play the role to which he aspired in the Revolution only by election to a key post as an administrator or, preferably, as a deputy. He had, however, not reached the legally required age of 25. For most men the political clubs provided the necessary stepping-stone but not for Saint-Just, who was never a club man, doubtless because he was too overbearing. Instead, he became the municipal corporation counsel of Blérancourt, championed communal welfare and free trade, and set himself up as a spokesman for the voters. At the same time, however, he resumed his friendship with the woman whom he had been unable to marry and, in defiance of gossip, met her publicly.

He succeeded in establishing his reputation beyond Blérancourt in the district, where he was considered an energetic and able candidate for the next National Assembly. To further his candidacy, he wrote letters to politicians shamelessly flattering their self-esteem and even managed to receive the congratulations of the National Assembly after publicly burning a counterrevolutionary pamphlet.


Publication of Esprit de la révolution
Though he was driven by ambition, his ambition was to serve the cause of the poor and the peasants, and, if he turned toward Maximilien de Robespierre, the most pitiless of the revolutionaries, it was from conviction. Saint-Just now proposed directing the Revolution beyond benevolent and patriotic activity toward the making of a new society. In 1791 he finally published Esprit de la révolution et de la constitution de France (The Spirit of the Revolution and the Constitution of France). The exposition was bold, vigorous, and lofty. The brief, forceful, and elliptical formulations characterized the author. According to him, the constitution framed by the Assembly was acceptable as a first step, but the French were not yet free. Nor were they sovereign, but sovereignty of the people was acceptable only if the people were just and rational. “Law should yield nothing to opinion and everything to ethics,” Saint-Just maintained. He confided to his publisher that the boldness of his exposition attracted readers and rightly added that his work, because it was based on less extensive reading than he might have wished, had the originality of a solitary thinker.

At that time Saint-Just believed himself to be on the eve of a political career, and his elimination from the Assembly as a result of his age provoked a serious crisis. “I am a slave of my adolescence!” he cried revealingly.

He then continued his reflections on the great task of building a society based on nature in which men would live together rather than merely side by side. Taking his region as a model, he observed the village communal traditions. This sojourn in the provinces directed his thinking while straining his energies.


The National Convention
His election to the National Convention in September 1792, shortly after he became 25, finally gave him a task cut to his measure. His first speech, in November 1792, was devoted to arguing that it would be just to put the deposed king, Louis XVI, to death without a trial. "Those who attach any importance to the just punishment of a king will never found a Republic," he insisted. His brilliant oratory and his implacable logic immediately established him as one of the most militant of the Montagnards.

When the Girondins were ousted from the Convention on May 30, 1793, Saint-Just was elected to the Committee of Public Safety. In the fall of that year, he was sent on mission to oversee the army in the critical sector of Alsace. He proved himself a man of decisive action, relentless in demanding results from the generals but sympathetic to the complaints of ordinary soldiers. He repressed local opponents of the Revolution but did not indulge in the mass executions ordered by some of the other deputies on mission.

Upon his return to the Convention, in year II of the French republican calendar (1793–94), Saint-Just was elected president. He persuaded the Convention to pass the radical Ventôse Decrees, under which confiscated lands were supposed to be distributed to needy patriots. These were the most revolutionary acts of the French Revolution, because they expropriated from one class for the benefit of another. He also joined with Robespierre in supporting the execution of the Hébertists and Dantonists.

During the same period, Saint-Just drafted Fragments sur les institutions républicaines, proposals far more radical than the constitutions he had helped to frame; this work laid the theoretical groundwork for a communal and egalitarian society. Sent on mission to the army in Belgium, he contributed to the victory of Fleurus on 8 Messidor, year II (June 26, 1794), which gave France the upper hand against the Austrians. These months were the high point of his career.

But his rise to power had wrought a remarkable change in Saint-Just’s public personality. He became a cold, almost inhuman fanatic, as bloodthirsty as even his “god” Robespierre, a man of many human weaknesses, was not. “The vessel of the Revolution can arrive in port only on a sea reddened with torrents of blood,” Saint-Just once declared to the Convention. He, rather than Robespierre, showed himself to be the forerunner of the totalitarian rulers of the 20th century when he said on another occasion,

We must not only punish traitors, but all people who are not enthusiastic. There are only two kinds of citizens: the good and the bad. The Republic owes to the good its protection. To the bad it owes only death.

Dreaded, almost totally isolated, and detested, he was arrested on 9 Thermidor (July 27). Like Robespierre, he did not try to incite the Parisian sansculottes to rise against the Convention in his defense and was guillotined the next day.


Assessment
Saint-Just has, by turns, been lauded as the archangel of the Revolution or abhorred as the terrorist par excellence. Recent scholarly research has made it possible to draw the line between man and myth. Undoubtedly the Revolution changed the unruly, self-indulgent youth into a principled and decisive, though ruthless, leader. To friends he was also kind, helping them in securing positions. Yet it is doubtful whether he had friends in the true sense, for those whom he helped attached themselves to him without becoming his equals.

Many of his contemporaries acknowledged his ability but considered him a monster of pride and cruelty. Others, particularly in later generations, have viewed him as an incorruptible patriot who paid with his life for his allegiance to democracy. Some have seen in him the prototype of the rebel. These contradictions arise in part from Saint-Just’s complex character and in part from an imperfect knowledge of his childhood and adolescence.

Women admired his attractive appearance, and he could be very engaging when he wished. Nonetheless, he had to make notes on the conduct required “to be fortunate with women.” He measured out doses of eagerness and indifference, affection and restraint, so as to make a love affair last. Yet he could be genuinely affectionate and display real family feeling. This other Saint-Just appears in the famous portraits of Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Jacques-Louis David, and other painters.

Marcel Reinhard

 


Jacques-René Hébert



 

pseudonym Père (“Father”) Duchesne

born November 15, 1757, Alençon, France
died March 24, 1794, Paris


political journalist during the French Revolution who became the chief spokesman for the Parisian sansculottes (extreme radical revolutionaries). He and his followers, who were called Hébertists, pressured the Jacobin regime of 1793–94 into instituting the most radical measures of the Revolutionary period.

Born into a bourgeois family, Hébert settled in Paris in 1780. For the next 10 years he lived in poverty. He greeted the outbreak of the Revolution (1789) with enthusiasm; and in 1790 he launched his career as a journalist by writing a series of ribald, sacrilegious political satires, adopting the pen name le père Duchesne (a popular comic figure). His newspaper Le Père Duchesne first appeared in November 1790 and soon became one of the most successful newspapers of the French Revolution. Although Hébert at first focused his editorial wrath on the aristocracy and clergy, he launched a virulent campaign against King Louis XVI in the spring of 1792.

Hébert became an influential member of the Cordeliers Club, and as a representative to the Revolutionary Commune he helped plan the popular insurrection that overthrew the monarchy on August 10, 1792. In the ensuing autumn the Hébertists had Notre-Dame Cathedral turned into a Temple of Reason and had some 2,000 other churches converted to the worship of Reason. In December Hébert was elected assistant procurator-general of the Commune, which had become the governing body of Paris. By that time Hébert had also joined the Jacobin Club. The Jacobin deputies waged a fierce campaign against the moderate Girondin faction in the National Convention, which convened in September 1792. In this struggle Hébert made his newspaper a mouthpiece of the sansculottes: he demanded the death sentence for the king, the elimination of the Girondins, and the establishment of a Revolutionary government. Hébert was a leader of the sansculotte crowds that forced the Convention to expel the leading Girondist deputies on June 2, 1793.

Hébert’s supporters organized the massive demonstrations of Parisian workers (September 4–5) that forced the Convention to inaugurate a state-controlled economy and institute the Reign of Terror. He strongly supported the anti-Christian campaign of the autumn of 1793, which sought to destroy Roman Catholic institutions in France.

When the Committee of Public Safety, the Convention’s executive body, had consolidated its power by early 1794, however, it came to regard Hébert and his extreme left-wing followers as dangerous. The Jacobins’ right wing, under Georges Danton, attacked the extremism of the Hébertists, and the Committee’s chief spokesman, Maximilien Robespierre, joined battle with both factions. While a food shortage was stimulating popular discontent, Hébert on March 4, 1794, persuaded the Cordeliers Club to call for a popular uprising. The sansculottes did not respond, however, and on March 14 the Committee of Public Safety had Hébert arrested. He and 17 of his followers were guillotined 10 days later. His execution cost the government the support of the sansculottes and contributed to the collapse of the Jacobin dictatorship in July 1794.

 


François-Noël Babeuf

byname Gracchus Babeuf

born November 23, 1760, Saint-Quentin, France
died May 27, 1797, Vendôme

early political journalist and agitator in Revolutionary France whose tactical strategies provided a model for left-wing movements of the 19th century and who was called Gracchus for the resemblance of his proposed agrarian reforms to those of the 2nd-century-bc Roman statesman of that name.

The son of a tax farmer, Babeuf worked in the 1780s as a feudal law expert, maintaining records of dues owed and paid by the peasants to the local seigneuries. His increasing distaste for the injustices of this system led him to begin an active career as a political journalist (1788–92). In 1789 he wrote a pamphlet advocating tax reform and went to Paris in hopes of becoming a journalist. He returned to his native Picardy, where he was arrested and briefly imprisoned in 1790.

Following his release he founded a journal, Le Correspondant picard. He advocated a program of radical agrarian reforms, including the abolition of feudal dues and the redistribution of land. During this period he served as an administrator in the Montdidier district of the Somme, but in February 1793 he returned to Paris, where, during the Reign of Terror, Maximilien Robespierre’s radical-democratic regime, he was again arrested and imprisoned. After his release following Robespierre’s fall in July 1794, he founded a new journal, Le Journal de la liberté de la presse (shortly thereafter renamed Le Tribun du peuple), in which he at first defended the Thermidorians and attacked the Jacobins. When he began to attack the Thermidorians, he was arrested (February 12, 1795) and imprisoned at Arras.

During this brief imprisonment, Babeuf continued to formulate his egalitarian doctrines, advocating an equal distribution of land and income, and after his release he began a career as a professional revolutionary. He quickly rose to a position of leadership in the Society of the Pantheon, which sought political and economic equality in defiance of the new French Constitution of 1795. After the society was dissolved in 1796, he founded a “secret directory of public safety” to plan an insurrection.

On May 8, 1796, a general meeting of Babouvist, Jacobin, and military insurrectionary committees took place in order to plan the raising of a force of 17,000 men to overthrow the Directory and to institute a return to the Constitution of 1793, which the committee members considered the document most legitimately sanctioned by popular deliberation. On May 10, however, the conspirators were arrested after an informant revealed their plans to the government. The trial took place between February 20 and May 26, 1797. All conspirators were acquitted except Babeuf and his companion, Augustin Darthé, both of whom were guillotined.

Babeuf was revered as a hero by 19th- and 20th-century revolutionaries because of his advocacy of communism and his conviction that a small elite could overthrow an undesirable government by conspiratorial means.
 



Chateaubriand

The French Revolution made an émigré of François-Auguste-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand, and his first major work, the Essai sur les révolutions (1797; “Essay on Revolutions”; Eng. trans. An Historical, Political and Moral Essay on Revolutions, Ancient and Modern), is a complex and sometimes confused attempt to understand revolution in general, the French Revolution in particular, and the individual’s relationship to these phenomena. Chateaubriand took as his model the stance of the 18th-century philosophe, but his Génie du christianisme (1802; The Genius of Christianity) caught a new mood of return to religious faith based on emotional appeals and proclaimed the aesthetic superiority of Christianity. The impact of this work was enormous, not least in its reinstatement of nature, and natural landscape, as the lodging place of spiritual repose and renewal. Within it were two short narratives, Atala (Eng. trans. Atala, also translated in Atala, René), a tale of fatal passion and savage (Indian) nobility, and René (Eng. trans. René). A young hero not dissimilar to Goethe’s Werther, René, who flees pain and suffering in Europe to look vainly for refuge in the wilds of America, came to represent the mal du siècle (world-weariness, literally “sickness of the century”), the essence of Romantic sensibility; he is insecure, solitary, disorientated, and in flight, searching for a happiness that will always evade him.

Behind all Chateaubriand’s works lies the sense of a break, caused by the French Revolution, in a stable, ordered existence. His Mémoires d’outre-tombe (1848–50; “Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb”; Eng. trans. The Memoirs of Chateaubriand), the masterpiece he worked on most of his adult life and intended for posthumous publication, uses the autobiographical format to meditate on the history of France, the passing of time, and the vanity of human desires. His lyrical and rhythmic prose left a deep impression on many Romantic writers.

 


François-Auguste-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand




 

born Sept. 4, 1768, Saint-Malo, France
died July 4, 1848, Paris


French author and diplomat, one of his country’s first Romantic writers. He was the preeminent literary figure in France in the early 19th century and had a profound influence on the youth of his day.

The youngest child of an eccentric and impecunious noble, Chateaubriand spent his school holidays largely with his sister at the family estate at Combourg, with its half-derelict medieval castle set in ancient oak woods and wild heaths. After leaving school, he eventually became a cavalry officer.

At the beginning of the French Revolution, he refused to join the Royalists and sailed in April 1791 for the United States, a stay memorable chiefly for his travels with fur traders and for his firsthand acquaintance with Indians in the region around Niagara Falls. After learning of Louis XVI’s flight in June 1791, Chateaubriand felt that he owed obligations to the monarchy and returned to France. Penniless, he married an heiress of 17 and took her to Paris, which he found too expensive; he then left her and joined the Royalist Army. Wounded at the siege of Thionville, he was discharged.

He went to England in May 1793. Often destitute, he supported himself by translating and teaching. In London he began his Essai sur les révolutions (1797; “Essay on Revolutions”), an emotional survey of world history in which he drew parallels between ancient and modern revolutions in the context of France’s own recent upheavals.

In 1800 Chateaubriand returned to Paris, where he worked as a freelance journalist and continued to write his books. A fragment of an unfinished epic appeared as Atala (1801); immediately successful, it combined the simplicity of a classical idyll with the more troubled beauties of Romanticism. Set in primitive American surroundings, the novel tells the story of a Christian girl who has taken a vow to remain a virgin but who falls in love with a Natchez Indian. Torn between love and religion, she poisons herself to keep from breaking her vow. The lush Louisiana setting and passionate tale are captured in a rich, harmonious prose style that yields many beautiful descriptive passages.

Shortly after the death of his mother in 1798, Chateaubriand reconciled his conflict between religion and rationalism and returned to traditional Christianity. His apologetic treatise extolling Christianity, Le Génie du christianisme (1802; “The Genius of Christianity”), won favour both with the Royalists and with Napoleon Bonaparte, who was just then concluding a concordat with the papacy and restoring Roman Catholicism as the state religion in France. In this work, Chateaubriand tried to rehabilitate Christianity from the attacks made on it during the Enlightenment by stressing its capacity to nurture and stimulate European culture, architecture, art, and literature over the centuries. Chateaubriand’s theology was weak and his apologetics illogical, but his assertion of Christianity’s moral superiority on the basis of its poetic and artistic appeal proved an inexhaustible sourcebook for Romantic writers. The renewed appreciation of Gothic architecture sparked by the book is the most prominent example of this.

Napoleon rewarded Chateaubriand for his treatise by appointing him first secretary to the embassy at Rome in 1803. But in 1804, when Napoleon stunned France with the unfair trial and hasty execution of the Duke d’Enghien on a flimsy pretext of conspiracy, Chateaubriand resigned his post in protest. The most important of the books he published during the following years is the novel René (first published separately in 1805), which tells the story of a sister who enters a convent rather than surrender to her passion for her brother. In this thinly veiled autobiographical work Chateaubriand began the Romantic vogue for world-weary, melancholy heroes suffering from vague, unsatisfied yearnings in what came to be known as the mal du siècle (“the malady of the age”). On the basis of Les Martyrs (1809), a prose epic about early Christian martyrs in Rome, and Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem (1811), an account of his recent travels throughout the Mediterranean, Chateaubriand was elected to the French Academy in 1811.

With the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814, Chateaubriand’s hopes of a political career revived. In 1815 he was made a viscount and a member of the House of Peers. His extravagant lifestyle eventually caused him financial difficulties, however, and he found his only pleasure in his liaison with Mme Récamier, who illumined the rest of his life. He began Mémoires d’outre-tombe (1849–50), his memoir from “beyond the tomb,” written for posthumous publication and perhaps his most lasting monument. This memoir, which Chateaubriand began writing as early as 1810, is as much a history of his thoughts and sensations as it is a conventional narrative of his life from childhood into old age. The vivid picture it draws of contemporary French history, of the spirit of the Romantic epoch, and of Chateaubriand’s own travels is complemented by many self-revealing passages in which the author recounts his unstinting appreciation of women, his sensitivity to nature, and his lifelong tendency toward melancholy. Chateaubriand’s memoirs have proved to be his most enduring work.

After six months as ambassador to Berlin in 1821, Chateaubriand became ambassador to London in 1822. He represented France at the Congress of Verona in 1822 and served as minister of foreign affairs under the ultra-Royalist premier Joseph, Count de Villèle, until 1824. In this capacity he brought France into the war with Spain in 1823 to restore that country’s Bourbon king Ferdinand VII. The campaign was a success, but its high cost diminished the prestige Chateaubriand won by it. He passed the rest of his life privately, except for a year as ambassador to Rome (1828–29).


 





Mme de Staël and the debate on literature


Mme de Staël (Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker, baronne de Staël-Holstein) was truly encyclopaedic in her interests. Her contribution to intellectual debate far exceeded any narrow definition of literature. At first liberal and then, after her offer of support was rebuffed, fiercely anti-Napoleon in politics, eclectic in philosophy, mixing rationalism and spiritualism, and determinedly internationalist in her feeling for literature, she moved most easily in a world of ideas, surrounding herself with the salon of intellectuals she founded at Coppet, Switzerland. Her two novels, Delphine (1802; Delphine) and Corinne (1807; Corinne, or Italy), focus on the limits society tries to impose on the independent woman and the woman of genius. The account of Corinne’s personal drama is combined with an examination of national identities in postrevolutionary Europe, offering original insights into how new alliances can be forged across old, hostile boundaries and what part artistic form and women’s influence could play in making new communities. Her two most influential works, De la littérature (1800; The Influence of Literature upon Society) and De l’Allemagne (1810; Germany), expanded conceptions of literature with the claim that different social forms needed different literary modes: in particular, postrevolutionary society required a new literature. She explored the contrast, as she saw it, between the literature of the south (rational, Classical) and the literature of the north (emotional, Romantic), and she explored the potential interest for French culture of foreign writers such as William Shakespeare, Ossian, and above all the German Romantics.

Many of these ideas emerged from discussions with August Wilhelm von Schlegel, whose work on the drama was widely translated, and from meetings with and readings of the Germans Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. The Genevan economist and writer Jean-Charles-Léonard Simonde de Sismondi reinforced many of Mme de Staël’s points in his De la littérature du midi de l’Europe (1813; Historical View of the Literature of the South of Europe). This cosmopolitan cultural relativism was infuriating to many of Staël’s French contemporaries in the prevailing Neoclassical literary climate.
 


Mme de Staël

"Corinne, Or Italy"


in full Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker, Baronne (baroness) de Staël-Holstein, byname Madame de Staël

born April 22, 1766, Paris, Fr.
died July 14, 1817, Paris


French-Swiss woman of letters, political propagandist, and conversationalist, who epitomized the European culture of her time, bridging the history of ideas from Neoclassicism to Romanticism. She also gained fame by maintaining a salon for leading intellectuals. Her writings include novels, plays, moral and political essays, literary criticism, history, autobiographical memoirs, and even a number of poems. Her most important literary contribution was as a theorist of Romanticism.

Early life and family.
She was born Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker, the daughter of Swiss parents, in Paris. Her father was Jacques Necker, the Genevan banker who became finance minister to King Louis XVI; her mother, Suzanne Curchod, the daughter of a French-Swiss pastor, assisted her husband’s career by establishing a brilliant literary and political salon in Paris.

The young Germaine Necker early gained a reputation for lively wit, if not for beauty. While still a child, she was to be seen in her mother’s salon, listening to, and even taking part in, the conversation with that lively intellectual curiosity that was to remain her most attractive quality. When she was 16, her marriage began to be considered. William Pitt the Younger was regarded as a possible husband, but she disliked the idea of living in England. She was married in 1786 to the Swedish ambassador in Paris, Baron Erik de Staël-Holstein. It was a marriage of convenience and ended in 1797 in formal separation. There were, however, three children: Auguste (b. 1790), who edited his mother’s complete works; Albert (b. 1792); and Albertine (b. 1796), who was allegedly fathered by Benjamin Constant.


Political views.
Before she was 21, Germaine de Staël had written a romantic drama, Sophie, ou les sentiments secrets (1786), and a tragedy inspired by Nicholas Rowe, Jane Gray (1790). But it was her Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J.-J. Rousseau (1788; Letters on the Works and the Character of J.-J. Rousseau) that made her known. There is in her thought an unusual and irreconcilable mixture of Rousseau’s enthusiasm and Montesquieu’s rationalism. Under the influence of her father, an admirer of Montesquieu, she adopted political views based on the English parliamentary monarchy. Favouring the French Revolution, she acquired a reputation for Jacobinism. Under the Convention, the elected body that abolished the monarchy, the moderate Girondin faction corresponded best to her ideas.

Protected by her husband’s diplomatic status, she was in no danger in Paris until 1793, when she retreated to Coppet, Switz., the family residence near Geneva. It was here that she gained fame by establishing a meeting place for some of the leading intellectuals of western Europe. Since 1789 she had been the mistress of Louis de Narbonne, one of Louis XVI’s last ministers. He took refuge in England in 1792, where she joined him in 1793. She stayed at Juniper Hall, near Mickleham in Surrey, a mansion that had been rented since 1792 by French émigrés. There she met Fanny Burney (later Mme d’Arblay), but their friendship was cut short because Mme de Staël’s politics and morals were considered undesirable by good society in England.

She returned to France, via Coppet, at the end of the Terror in 1794. A brilliant period of her career then began. Her salon flourished, and she published several political and literary essays, notably De l’influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations (1796; A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations), which became one of the important documents of European Romanticism. She began to study the new ideas that were being developed particularly in Germany. She read the elderly Swiss critic Karl Viktor von Bonstetten; the German philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt; and, above all, the brothers August Wilhelm and Friedrich von Schlegel, who were among the most influential German Romanticists.

But it was her new lover, Benjamin Constant, the author and politician, who influenced her most directly in favour of German culture. Her fluctuating liaison with Constant started in 1794 and lasted 14 years, although after 1806 her affections found little response.


Literary theories.
At about the beginning of 1800 the literary and political character of Mme de Staël’s thought became defined. Her literary importance emerged in De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800; A Treatise of Ancient and Modern Literature and The Influence of Literature upon Society). This complex work, though not perfect, is rich in new ideas and new perspectives—new, at least to France. The fundamental theory, which was to be restated and developed in the positivism of Hippolyte Taine, is that a work must express the moral and historical reality, the zeitgeist, of the nation in which it is conceived. She also maintained that the Nordic and classical ideals were basically opposed and supported the Nordic, although her personal taste remained strongly classical. Her two novels, Delphine (1802) and Corinne (1807), to some extent illustrate her literary theories, the former being strongly sociological in outlook, while the latter shows the clash between Nordic and southern mentalities.


Banishment from Paris.
She was also an important political figure and was regarded by contemporary Europe as the personal enemy of Napoleon. With Constant and his friends she formed the nucleus of a liberal resistance that so embarrassed Napoleon that in 1803 he had her banished to a distance of 40 miles (64 km) from Paris. Thenceforward Coppet was her headquarters, and in 1804 she began what she called, in a work published posthumously in 1821, her Dix Années d’exil (Ten Years’ Exile). From December 1803 to April 1804 she made a journey through Germany, culminating in a visit to Weimar, already established as the shrine of J.W. von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller. In Berlin she met August Wilhelm von Schlegel, who was to become, after 1804, her frequent companion and counselor. Her guide in Germany, however, was a young Englishman, Henry Crabb Robinson, who was studying at Jena. The journey was interrupted in 1804 by news of the death of her father, whom she had always greatly admired. His death affected her deeply, but in 1805 she set out for Italy, accompanied by Schlegel and Simonde de Sismondi, the Genevan economist who was her guide on the journey. Returning in June 1805, she spent the next seven years of her exile from Paris for the most part at Coppet.

While Corinne can be considered the result of her Italian journey, the fruits of her visit to Germany are contained in her most important work, De l’Allemagne (1810; Germany). This is a serious study of German manners, literature and art, philosophy and morals, and religion in which she made known to her contemporaries the Germany of the Sturm und Drang movement (1770–1780). Its only fault is the distorted picture it gives, ignoring, for example, the violently nationalistic aspect of German Romanticism. Napoleon took it for an anti-French work, and the French edition of 1810 (10,000 copies) was seized and destroyed. It was finally published in England in 1813.

Meanwhile Mme de Staël, persecuted by the police, fled from Napoleon’s Europe. Having married, in 1811, a young Swiss officer, “John” Rocca, in May 1812 she went to Austria and, after visiting Russia, Finland, and Sweden, arrived, in June 1813, in England. She was received with enthusiasm, although reproached by such liberals as Lord Byron for being more anti-Napoleonic than liberal and by the Tories for being too liberal. Her guide in England was Sir James Mackintosh, the Scottish publicist. She collected documents for, but never wrote, a De l’Angleterre: (the material for it can be found in the Considérations sur la Révolution française [1818; Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution], which represents a return to Necker’s ideas and holds up the English political system as a model for France).

On the Bourbon Restoration in 1814, Mme de Staël returned to Paris but was deeply disillusioned: the fall of Napoleon had been followed by foreign occupation and had in no way reestablished liberty in France. During the Hundred Days she escaped to Coppet and in September 1815 set out again for Italy. In 1816 she returned to spend the summer at Coppet, where she was joined by Byron, in flight from England after his unhappy matrimonial experience. A strong friendship developed between the two writers.

Mme de Staël’s health was declining. After Byron’s departure she went to Paris for the winter. Though poorly received by the returned émigrés and suspected by the government, she held her salon throughout the winter and part of the spring, but after April 1817 she was an invalid. She died in Paris in July of that year.


Assessment
Germaine de Staël’s purely literary importance is far exceeded by her importance in the history of ideas. Her novels and plays are now largely forgotten, but the value of her critical and historical work is undeniable. Though careless of detail, she had a clear vision of wider issues and of the achievements of civilization. Her involvement in, and understanding of, the events and tendencies of her time gave her an unusual position: it may be said that she helped the dawning 19th century to take stock of itself.

Robert Escarpit





Romanticism



In general, full-blown Romanticism in France developed later than in Germany or Britain, with a particular flavour that comes from the impact on French writers’ sensibilities of revolutionary turmoil and the Napoleonic odyssey. Acutely conscious of being products of a very particular time and place, French writers wrote into their work their obsession with the burden of history and their subjection to time and change. The terms mal du siècle and enfant du siècle (literally “child of the century”) capture their distress. Alfred de Musset took the latter phrase for his autobiography, La Confession d’un enfant du siècle (1836; The Confession of a Child of the Century). Most French Romantics, whether they adopted a liberal or conservative attitude or whether they tried to ignore the weight of history and politics, asserted that their century was sick. Romantics often retained the encyclopaedic ambitions of their predecessors, but faith in any simple notion of progress was shaken. Some distinction can be made between the generation of 1820, whose members wrote, often from an aristocratic viewpoint, about exhaustion, emptiness, loss, and ennui, and the generation of 1830, whose members spoke of dynamism—though often in the form of frustrated dynamism.


Foreign influences

When the émigrés who had fled from the effects of the Revolution trickled back to France, they brought with them some of the cultural colouring acquired abroad (mainly in Britain and Germany), and this partially explains the paradox of aristocratic and politically conservative writers fostering new approaches to literature. Mme de Staël, as a liberal exile under Napoleon, was an exception. Travel had broadened intellectual horizons and had opened up the European cultural hegemony of France to other worlds and other sensibilities. From England the influence of Lord Byron’s poetry and of the Byronic legend was particularly strong. Byron provided a model of poetic sensibility, cynicism, and despair, and his death in the Greek War of Independence reinforced the image of the noble and generous but doomed Romantic hero. Italy and Spain, too, exercised an influence, though, with the exception of Dante, it was not their literature that attracted so much as the models for violent emotion and exotic fantasy that these countries offered: French writing suffered a proliferation of gypsies, bandits, poisonings, and revenge tales.

Colin Smethurst
Jennifer Birkett



 


The poetry of the Romantics

The new climate was especially evident in poetry. The salon of Charles Nodier became one of the first of the literary groups known as the cénacles (“clubs”); later groups were to centre on Charles-Augustin de Sainte-Beuve, who is remembered chiefly as a literary critic. The outstanding poets of the period were surrounded by a host of minor talents, and the way was opened for a variety of new voices, from the melancholic lyricism of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, giving frustrated desire a distinctive feminine expression (and bringing politics into poetry, writing ardent socialist polemic), to the frenetic extravagance of Petrus Borel. For a time, about 1830, there was a marked possibility that French Romantic poetry might veer toward radical politics and the socialism of utopian writers such as Henri de Saint-Simon rather than in the direction of l’art pour l’art, or art for art’s sake. The popularity of the songs of Pierre-Jean de Béranger is a reminder of the existence of another strand, political and satiric, that is entwined with the intimate lyricism and aesthetic preoccupations of Romantic verse.

Robin Caron Buss
Jennifer Birkett

 


Charles-Augustin de Sainte-Beuve



 

born Dec. 23, 1804, Boulogne, France
died Oct. 13, 1869, Paris


French literary historian and critic, noted for applying historical frames of reference to contemporary writing. His studies of French literature from the Renaissance to the 19th century made him one of the most respected and most powerful literary critics in 19th-century France.

Early life and Romantic period.
Sainte-Beuve was the posthumous only child of a tax collector. After a sheltered childhood, he completed his classical education in Paris and began to study medicine, which he abandoned after a year. A talented but in no way brilliant youth, he continued his general education at his own pace, attending the University of Paris and extension institutions, and in 1825 was drawn into journalism by his former teacher, Paul Dubois, editor of a new liberal periodical, Le Globe. In its pages he wrote his first essays on the poetry of Victor Hugo and soon became a member of his literary circle of Romantic writers and poets. In his first book, Tableau historique et critique de la poésie française et du théâtre français au XVIe siècle (1828; “Historical and Critical Description of French Poetry and Theatre in the Sixteenth Century”), he discovered, perhaps naturally, a Renaissance ancestry for Hugo and others of his new friends. A brief visit to England in 1828 strengthened his taste for the poetry of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, both of whom were then little known in continental Europe. His visit to England may also account for the appearance of elements of the style of William Cowper and George Crabbe in volumes of his own poetry, Vie, poésies et pensées de Joseph Delorme (1829; “The Life, Poetry, and Thought of Joseph Delorme”) and Les Consolations (1830), which on their publication attracted some attention—not least because of their deliberate flatness and apparent uncouthness, much in contrast to the grander manner of Hugo and the poet Alfred de Vigny.

He had meanwhile developed a taste for social speculation and a concern for problems of religious experience. His social concerns first crystallized in a passing attachment to the group of reformers assembled around the doctrines of Count Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon. According to Saint-Simon’s disciples, the feudal and military systems were to be replaced by one controlled by industrial managers, and scientists rather than the church were to become the spiritual directors of society. When this group in 1830 took over management of Le Globe, Sainte-Beuve was entrusted with drafting two manifestos, or “professions of faith”; and, although he was soon to be repelled by the sentimental excesses and intemperance of its leaders, he retained for 30 years a lingering sympathy for its vision of a technocratic society founded on the brotherhood of man. Almost simultaneously, Sainte-Beuve came under the spell of a religious reformer and polemist, Félicité Robert de Lamennais, to whom for a time he looked for religious guidance. Lamennais was then the spiritual adviser of the wife of Victor Hugo, Adèle, with whom Sainte-Beuve in 1831 struck up a lasting but seemingly platonic relationship of great intensity. Many of the details of this shadowy affair are more or less accurately related in the critic’s privately printed volume of lyrics, Livre d’amour (1904), which was, however, not published in the lifetime of either of them.


Early critical and historical writings.
Besides Le Globe, Sainte-Beuve from 1831 contributed articles to another new periodical, the Revue des deux Mondes. The success of his articles in the two reviews prompted him to collect them as Critiques et portraits littéraires, 5 vol. (1832–39). In these “portraits” of contemporaries, he developed a kind of critique, novel and much applauded at the time, of studying a well-known living writer in the round and entering into considerable biographical research to understand the mental attitudes of his subject.

In the early 1830s Sainte-Beuve was hampered by his dislike for the newly established regime of King Louis-Philippe, which had aroused his anger mainly by its brutal handling of the riots of 1832. He accordingly refused several educational posts that would have relieved his poverty, fearing that they might compromise his freedom of judgment.

Sainte-Beuve’s friendship with Victor Hugo, which had already begun to cool in 1830, was almost extinguished by the anonymous publication of Sainte-Beuve’s autobiographical novel Volupté in 1834. In this book the hero Amaury’s hopeless love for the saintly and unapproachable Madame de Couaën reflects its author’s passion for Adèle Hugo. Volupté is an intensely introspective and troubling study of Amaury’s frustration, guilt, religious striving, and final renunciation of the flesh and the devil.

While continuing to produce intellectual “portraits” of his literary contemporaries, as further collected in Portraits contemporains (1846), Sainte-Beuve became a member of the circle presided over by Mme Récamier, the famous hostess, and the writer and politician François-René de Chateaubriand. Sainte-Beuve greeted the appearance of Chateaubriand’s memoirs with enthusiasm, though a decade and a half later he was to write an extensive and far more detached study of that writer and his literary circle, entitled Chateaubriand et son groupe littéraire sous l’empire (1861).

A softening of Sainte-Beuve’s attitude toward Louis-Philippe’s regime coincided in 1836 with an invitation from François Guizot, then minister of education, to accept a one-year appointment as secretary of a government commission studying the nation’s literary heritage. Guizot’s suggestion at that time that Sainte-Beuve demonstrate his eminence as a scholar by producing a major work led to Port-Royal, his single most famous piece of writing. In 1837 Sainte-Beuve accepted a year’s visiting professorship at the University of Lausanne to lecture on Port-Royal, the convent famous in the 17th century for advancing a highly controversial view of the doctrine of grace, loosely called Jansenism. For his lectures he produced Histoire de Port-Royal, 3 vol. (1840–48), which he revised over the next two decades. This monumental assemblage of scholarship, insights, and historical acumen—unique of its kind—covers the religious and literary history of France over half of the 17th century, as glimpsed through the internal records of Jansenism.

On completing his year in Lausanne, Sainte-Beuve returned to Paris, and in 1840 he was appointed to a post in the French Institute’s Mazarine Library, a position he held until 1848. He continued regular essay writing, and the first two volumes of Port-Royal had also been published when he was elected to the French Academy in 1844. By then he had already broken his earlier close links with the Romantics and was highly critical of what now appeared to him as the undisciplined excesses of that movement.

After the overthrow in 1848 of Louis-Philippe, Sainte-Beuve was not impressed by what he saw of revolutionary democracy. Unfairly accused in the republican press of accepting secret government funds for the repair of a chimney in his apartment, he resigned his library appointment in a fit of pique and settled for a year at the University of Liège (Belgium) as visiting professor. There he wrote his definitive—but unfinished—study of Chateaubriand and the birth of literary Romanticism and carried out research on medieval French literature.


The Causeries du lundi period.
After Sainte-Beuve returned to Paris in 1849, he was asked by Louis Véron, editor of the newspaper Le Constitutionnel, to write a weekly article or essay on current literary topics, to appear every Monday. This was the start of the famous collection of studies that Sainte-Beuve named Causeries du lundi (“Monday Chats”), after their day of publication. These critical and biographical essays appeared in Le Constitutionnel from October 1849 to November 1852 and from September 1861 to January 1867; in Le Moniteur from December 1852 to August 1861 and from September 1867 to November 1868; and in Le Temps in 1869. Their success was such that Sainte-Beuve began collecting them as Causeries du lundi, 3 vol. (1851); the definitive 3rd edition formed 15 volumes (1857–62). A new series, consisting of the articles of 1861–69, was published in 13 volumes as Nouveaux lundis (1863–70). In his articles Sainte-Beuve wrote about both past and present French authors, with some attention paid to those of other European nations as well.

Sainte-Beuve welcomed the rise of Napoleon III’s more dictatorial and orderly regime in the early 1850s. In due course, his sympathy was rewarded by appointment to the chair of Latin at the Collège de France, a well-paid but largely nominal post. His first lectures there were interrupted by the demonstrations of radical students critical of his support of Napoleon III, however, and he resigned his duties and salary, retaining only the title. The intended lectures were published as Étude sur Virgile (1857), a full-length study of Virgil. In 1858 Sainte-Beuve received a temporary teaching appointment in literature at the École Normale Supérieure, where he drew upon his 1848 researches to deliver a course on medieval French literature; but otherwise his whole later career was based on freelance essay writing.

Under the Second Empire, many of Sainte-Beuve’s earlier acquaintances, now dead or in retirement, were replaced by other writers: Gustave Flaubert, Ernest Renan, the Goncourt brothers, Prosper Mérimée, Ivan Turgenev, Matthew Arnold, and a large number of scholars, historians, and academicians. He frequented the salon of Napoleon III’s cousin, the princess Mathilde, somewhat of a literary centre itself, though less formal in style than had been the salon of Mme Récamier until 1848.

Nevertheless, the crushing task of researching, writing, correcting, and proofreading a 3,000-word essay for publication every Monday largely prevented Sainte-Beuve from exploring in the same leisurely way as in his youth the many new trends being developed by young writers. There is no doubt that his literary tastes, though unprecedentedly wide, ceased to develop much after about 1850.

In 1865 he was made a senator by imperial decree. His addresses to the Senate were unpopular with his colleagues because of his liberal views, but two were important: that in support of public libraries and liberty of thought (1867) and that on liberty of education (1868). In December 1868 Le Moniteur, which had been independent, was reorganized and became a government organ. An article Sainte-Beuve wished to publish in the paper caused difficulties, and for the first time he was asked to correct and cut a sentence. He withdrew the article and offered it to Le Temps, for which he remained a contributor until his death in 1869 after unsuccessful bladder stone operations.


Assessment.
It was with Sainte-Beuve that French literary criticism first became fully independent and freed itself from personal prejudice and partisan passions. That he was able to revolutionize critical methods was partly a result of the rise of the newspaper and the critical review, which gave prestige and wide circulation to criticism and guaranteed its independence.

Sainte-Beuve’s critical works, published over a period of about 45 years, constitute a unique collection of literary portraits. He ranged widely, covering every genre of literature and reinstating writers whose works had been forgotten, neglected, or misunderstood. To use his own phrase, Sainte-Beuve was primarily a creator of likenesses of great men (imagier des grands hommes). He wished, as he said, to understand fully those about whom he wrote, to live alongside them, and to allow them to explain themselves to present-day readers. To this end, he conceived the practice of providing in his essays extensive data on an author’s character, his family background, physical appearance, education, religion, love affairs and friendships, and so on. Though now a standard method of historical criticism, this practice led to allegations that Sainte-Beuve was providing merely biographical explanations of literary phenomena.

The field of criticism has widened since Sainte-Beuve’s day, and as a result he has come to be reproached for his omissions and injustices toward some of his great French contemporaries. As one who prepared the way for modern poetry, he is disappointing when writing on Charles Baudelaire, and he was unfair to Gustave Flaubert, Stendhal, and especially to Honoré de Balzac. But from his earliest review articles on Hugo, Sainte-Beuve was never afraid to introduce specific reservations into his most enthusiastic eulogies, and it was this uncompromising independence that earned him the reputation of being an unreliable, or even perfidious, critic of friends.

Sainte-Beuve was able to achieve his enormous output, which constitutes an encyclopaedia of thought, only by relentless labour and an unequaled tenacity of purpose, linked with unusually subtle intellectual power. A portion of his scholarly research has, with time, become old-fashioned, but within limits the precision of his documentation is almost always impeccable, even over details on which it has been challenged by literary opponents. This precision was due to a lifetime’s habit of extreme care in documentation and to a fanatical respect for historical accuracy.

To older critical traditions whose judgment rested on rigid standards of taste, Sainte-Beuve added a much more flexible and historical approach, entailing the sympathetic reconstruction of values not necessarily shared by himself and his readers. Although he was not without limitations as a critic of literature, his success in his vocation was probably unequaled in his time. A fitting summary of his life and work was given by Barbey d’Aurevilly in his words “Sainte-Beuve, abeille des livres . . . faisant miel de tout pour le compte de la littérature” (“Sainte-Beuve, like a bee among books . . . distilling honey from everything of literary value”).

 

 


Marceline Desbordes-Valmore



 

born June 30, 1786, Douai, Fr.
died July 23, 1859, Paris


French poet and woman of letters of the Romantic period.

Her family was ruined by the French Revolution and moved to the French colony of Guadeloupe. She returned to Paris upon her mother’s death, supporting herself by acting at the Opéra-Comique and the Odéon. She married a second-rate actor, Prosper Lanchantin, called Valmore.

When illness threatened her stage voice, Desbordes-Valmore turned to writing. Her poetry—Pauvres Fleurs (1839; “Poor Flowers”), Les Pleurs (1833; “The Tears”), and Bouquets et prières (1843; “Bouquets and Prayers”)—is poignant and elegiac and concerns religion, sadness, death, and the author’s love for her daughters and her native Douai. Her prose work L’Atelier d’un peintre (1833; “A Painter’s Studio”) is autobiographical. The poet Charles Baudelaire esteemed her writing, and Paul Verlaine admitted his debt to her, giving her a place in his revised edition of Les Poètes maudits (1888; “The Damned [or Maligned] Poets”).
 

 

 


Petrus Borel


born June 29, 1809, Lyon, Fr.
died July 1859, Mostaganem, Alg.


French poet, novelist, and critic active in the Romantic movement.

The 12th of an ironmonger’s 14 children, Borel was trained as an architect but turned to literature and became one of the most eccentric young writers of the 1830s, assuming the name of “Lycanthrope” (“Wolf-Man”). He became a leader of the group of daring writers known as Les Bousingos, among whom were Gérard de Nerval and Théophile Gautier. With the revival of interest in classical style, he fell into poverty. However, he was able to obtain a post in the colonization of Algeria. Because of his proud and touchy nature, he was dismissed in 1855 and spent the rest of his life, ragged and unkempt, in a Gothic mansion in Mostaganem. His works, redolent of horror and melodrama, include Rhapsodies (1832), the short stories in Champavert, contes immoraux (1833; “Champavert, Immoral Stories”), and Madame Putiphar (1839), with a verse prologue that foreshadows the poet Charles Baudelaire’s spiritual style. Borel’s intensity, as an individual and a writer, would later inspire the Surrealists.
 

 

 


Henri de Saint-Simon



 

in full Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte (count) de Saint-Simon

born Oct. 17, 1760, Paris, Fr.
died May 19, 1825, Paris


French social theorist and one of the chief founders of Christian socialism. In his major work, Nouveau Christianisme (1825), he proclaimed a brotherhood of man that must accompany the scientific organization of industry and society.

Life.
Saint-Simon was born of an impoverished aristocratic family. His grandfather’s cousin had been the Duke de Saint-Simon, famous for his memoirs of the court of Louis XIV. Henri was fond of claiming descent from Charlemagne. After an irregular education by private tutors, he entered military service at 17. He was in the regiments sent by France to aid the American colonies in their war of independence against England and served as a captain of artillery at Yorktown in 1781.

During the French Revolution he remained in France, where he bought up newly nationalized land with funds advanced by a friend. He was imprisoned in the Palais de Luxembourg during the Reign of Terror and emerged to find himself enormously rich because of the depreciation of the Revolutionary currency. He proceeded to live a life of splendour and license, entertaining prominent people from all walks of life at his glittering salons. Within several years he had brought himself close to bankruptcy. He turned to the study of science, attending courses at the École Polytechnique and entertaining distinguished scientists.

In his first published work, Lettres d’un habitant de Genève à ses contemporains (1803; “Letters of an Inhabitant of Geneva to His Contemporaries”), Saint-Simon proposed that scientists take the place of priests in the social order. He argued that the property owners who held political power could hope to maintain themselves against the propertyless only by subsidizing the advance of knowledge.

By 1808 Saint-Simon was impoverished, and the last 17 years of his life were lived mainly on the generosity of friends. Among his many later publications were De la réorganisation de la société européenne (1814; “On the Reorganization of European Society”) and L’industrie (1816–18, in collaboration with Auguste Comte; “Industry”). In 1823, in a fit of despondency, Saint-Simon attempted to kill himself with a pistol but succeeded only in putting out one eye.

Throughout his life Saint-Simon devoted himself to a long series of projects and publications through which he sought to win support for his social ideas. As a thinker, Saint-Simon was deficient in system, clearness, and coherence, but his influence on modern thought, especially in the social sciences, is undeniable. Apart from the details of his socialist teachings, his main ideas are simple and represented a reaction against the bloodletting of the French Revolution and the militarism of Napoleon. Saint-Simon correctly foresaw the industrialization of the world, and he believed that science and technology would solve most of humanity’s problems. Accordingly, in opposition to feudalism and militarism, he advocated an arrangement whereby businessmen and other industrial leaders would control society. The spiritual direction of society would be in the hands of scientists and engineers, who would thus take the place occupied by the Roman Catholic church in the European Middle Ages. What Saint-Simon desired, in other words, was an industrialized state directed by modern science, and one in which society would be organized for productive labour by the most capable men. The aim of society would be to produce things useful to life. Saint-Simon also proposed that the states of Europe form an association to suppress war. These ideas had a profound influence on the philosopher Auguste Comte, who worked with Saint-Simon until the two men quarreled.

Although the contrast between the labouring and the propertied classes in society is not emphasized by Saint-Simon, the cause of the poor is discussed, and in his best-known work, Nouveau Christianisme (1825; “The New Christianity”), it takes the form of a religion. It was this development of Saint-Simon’s teaching that occasioned his final rupture with Comte. Before the publication of Nouveau Christianisme, Saint-Simon had not concerned himself with theology, but in this work, beginning with a belief in God, he tries to resolve Christianity into its essential elements, and he finally propounds this precept: that religion “should guide the community toward the great aim of improving as quickly as possible the conditions of the poorest class.” This became the watchword of the entire school of Saint-Simon.


His movement and its influence.
Saint-Simon died in 1825, and, in the subsequent years, his disciples carried his message to the world and made him famous. By 1826 a movement supporting his ideas had begun to grow, and by the end of 1828 the Saint-Simonians were holding meetings in Paris and in many provincial towns. In July 1830 revolution brought new opportunities to the Saint-Simonians in France. They issued a proclamation demanding the ownership of goods in common, the abolition of the right of inheritance, and the enfranchisement of women. The sect included some of the ablest and most promising young men of France. In the following years, however, the leaders of the movement quarreled among themselves, and as a result the movement fragmented and broke up, its leaders turning to practical affairs.

Despite this, the ideas of the Saint-Simonians had a pervasive influence on the intellectual life of 19th-century Europe. Thomas Carlyle in England was among those influenced by the ideas of Saint-Simon or his followers. Friedrich Engels found in Saint-Simon “the breadth of view of a genius,” containing in embryo most of the ideas of the later socialists. Saint-Simon’s proposals of social and economic planning were indeed ahead of his time, and succeeding Marxists, socialists, and capitalist reformers alike were indebted to his ideas in one way or another. Felix Markham has said that Saint-Simon’s ideas have a peculiar relevance to the 20th century, when socialist ideologies took the place of traditional religion in many countries.
 

 

 


Pierre-Jean de Béranger




 

born Aug. 19, 1780, Paris, France
died July 16, 1857, Paris


French poet and writer of popular songs, celebrated for his liberal and humanitarian views during a period when French society as a whole was undergoing rapid and sometimes violent change.

Béranger was active in his father’s business enterprises until they failed. He then found work as a clerk at the University of Paris (1809). He led a marginal existence, sleeping in a garret and doing literary hackwork in his spare time. After the downfall of Napoleon, he composed songs and poems highly critical of the government set up under the restored Bourbon monarchy. They brought him immediate fame through their expression of popular feeling, but they led to dismissal from his post (1821) and three months’ imprisonment (an experience he compared favourably to life in his garret).

Béranger’s lyrical, tender songs glorifying the just-passed Napoleonic era and his satires ridiculing the monarchy and reactionary clergy were written in a clear, simple, attractive style. Both song and satire soon made him as well known among ordinary country people as in the liberal literary circles of Paris. He thus became an influential and respected figure in his own lifetime. He was able to live on the proceeds of his works and refused all official honours, even membership of the French Academy. After the Revolution of 1848 he was elected a member of the new democratic parliament.

In his private character he was noted for his amiability and generosity, as ready to receive help from his many friends in Paris literary society as he was to give it when able. His best-known poems are “Le Roi d’Yvetot” (written c. 1813; “The King of Yvetot”), “Le Dieu des pauvres gens” (“The God of the Poor People”), “Le Sacre de Charles le Simple” (“The Coronation of Charles the Simple”), “La Grand-Mère” (“The Grandmother”), and “Le Vieux Sergent” (“The Old Sergeant”).
 


Lamartine

Alphonse de Lamartine made an enormous impact as a poet with his Méditations poétiques (1820; Poetical Meditations). Using a restricted Neoclassical vocabulary and remaining unadventurous in versification, he nevertheless succeeded in creating through the musicality of his verse and his vaporous landscapes a sense of great longings unfulfilled. This soft-centred elegiac tone is tempered by occasional deep despair and Byronic revolt. The Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (1830; “Poetic and Religious Harmonies”; Eng. trans. in A Biographical Sketch), with their religious emotion, reinforce the quest for serenity, which remains threatened by unease and disquiet. Jocelyn (1836; Eng. trans. Jocelyn) and La Chute d’un ange (1838; “The Fall of an Angel”) are intermittently successful attempts at epic. An undercurrent in Lamartine’s poetry is the preoccupation with politics; during the 1848 revolution he took a leading role in the provisional government.



The early poetry of Hugo

It was also in the 1820s that the powerful and versatile genius of Victor Hugo emerged. In his first poems he was a supporter of the monarchy and the church. Conservative Roman Catholic legitimism is a common strand in the poetic generation of 1820, and the debt to Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianity is evident. These early poems lack the mellifluous quality of Lamartine’s Poetical Meditations, but by the time of the Odes et ballades (1826) there are already hints of the Hugoesque mixture: intimate poetry, speaking of family relationships and problems of the ego, a prophetic and visionary tone, and an eagerness to explore a wide range of poetic techniques. Hugo called his Les Orientales (1829; “Eastern Poems”) a useless book of pure poetry. It can be linked with Théophile Gautier’s l’art pour l’art movement, concentrating on the exotic and the visual, combined with verbal and formal inventiveness. Hugo published four further important collections in the 1830s, in which poetry of nature, love, and family life is interwoven with a solitary, hesitant, but never quite despairing exploration of poetic consciousness. The poetry moves from the personal to the visionary and the prophetic, prefiguring in the lyric mode the epic sweep of much of his later work.

 

Vigny

In contrast to Hugo’s scope, the poetry of Alfred-Victor, comte de Vigny, was more limited and controlled. In common with Hugo and many other Romantic poets, however, he proposed the poet as prophet and seer. For Vigny the poet is essentially a dignified, moralizing philosopher, using the symbol less as a vehicle for emotion than as an intense expression of his thought. Broadly pessimistic in tone, emphasizing suffering and noble stoicism, his work focuses on figures of victimhood and sacrifice, with the poet-philosopher as quintessential victim. His Les Destinées (1864; “The Fates”), composed between 1838 and his death in 1863, exemplifies the high spiritual aspiration that represents one aspect of the Romantic ideal. The control and concentration of expression is in contrast to the verbal flood of much Romantic writing.

Musset

The young, brilliantly gifted Alfred de Musset quickly established his reputation with his Contes d’Espagne et d’Italie (1830; “Tales of Spain and Italy”). His exuberant sense of humour led him to use extravagant Romantic effects and at the same time treat them ironically. Later, a trajectory from dandyism through debauchery to a sense of emptiness and futility, sustained only intermittently by the linking of suffering with love, resulted in a radical dislocation of the sense of self. The Nuits (“Nights”) poems (La Nuit de mai, La Nuit de décembre, La Nuit d’août, La Nuit d’octobre, 1835–37) express the purifying power of suffering in verse of sustained sincerity, purged of all the early showiness.

Nerval

For a long while Gérard de Nerval was seen as the translator of German literature (notably Goethe’s Faust) and as a charming minor Romantic. Later critics have seen as his real contribution to poetry the 12 sonnets of Les Chimères (The Chimeras), composed between about 1844 and 1854, and the prose poems added to the spiritual odyssey Aurélia (1853–54; Eng. trans. Aurelia). The dense symbolic allusiveness of these latter works is the poetic transcription of an anguished, mystical quest that draws on the most diverse religious myths and all manner of literary, historical, occult, and esoteric knowledge. They represent one of the peaks of achievement of that side of the Romantic Movement that sought in the mystical a key to the spiritual reintegration of the divided postrevolutionary self. His formal experiments with the prose poem and his use of symbol link up with the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé.




Romantic theatre


Some critics have been tempted to call Romantic theatre in France a failure. Few plays from that time remain in the active repertory, though the theatre was perceived throughout the period to be the dominant literary form. Quarrels about the theatre, often physically engaging audiences, provided some of the most celebrated battles of Romanticism against Classicism.

 

Hugo

The first performance of Victor Hugo’s Hernani (1830; Eng. trans. Hernani) was one such battle, and Romanticism won an important symbolic victory. Hernani followed Stendhal’s call in the pamphlets Racine et Shakespeare (1823, 1825) for theatre that would appeal to a contemporary public and Hugo’s own major theoretical statement, in the preface to his play Cromwell (1827; Eng. trans. Cromwell). In the preface, Hugo called for a drama of action—which he saw as appropriate to modern man, the battleground of matter and spirit—that could transcend Classical categories and mix the sublime and the grotesque. Hernani also benefited from the production in Paris of several Shakespearean and historical dramas—in particular, a sustained and triumphal season in 1827 by an English troupe playing Shakespeare.

Hernani drew on popular melodrama for its effects, exploited the historical and geographic local colour of an imagined 16th-century Spain, and had a tragic hero with whom young Romantics eagerly identified. These elements are fused in Hugo’s lyric poetry to produce a dramatic spectacle close to that of Romantic opera. Ruy Blas (1838; Eng. trans. Ruy Blas), in a similar vein, mixes poetry, comedy, and tragedy with strong antithetical effects to provide the mingling of dramatic genres that the preface to Cromwell had declared the essence of Romantic drama. The failure of Hugo’s Les Burgraves (1843; “The Commanders”), an overinflated epic melodrama, is commonly seen as the beginning of the end of Romantic theatre.

 

Vigny

Whereas Hugo’s verse dramas tended to the lyrical and the spectacular, Vigny’s most famous play, Chatterton (1835; Eng. trans. Chatterton), in its concentrated simplicity, has many analogies with Classical theatre. It is, however, a bourgeois drama of the sort called for by Diderot, focusing on the suicide of the young poet Thomas Chatterton as a symbolic figure of poetic idealism misunderstood and rejected by a materialistic society—a typical Romantic estrangement.



Musset

Alfred de Musset did not have public performance primarily in mind when writing most of his plays, and yet, ironically, he is the one playwright of this period whose works have continued to be regularly performed. In the 1830s he wrote a series of short comedies and proverbes—almost charades—in which lighthearted fantasy and the delicate hesitations of young love, rather in the manner of Marivaux, are contrasted with ironic pieces expressing underlying disillusionment. The larger-scale Lorenzaccio (1834; Eng. trans. Lorenzaccio) is the one indisputable masterpiece of Romantic theatre. A drama set in Renaissance Florence but with clear links to the disillusionment of post-1830 France is combined with a brilliant psychological study of a once pure but now debauched hero almost paralyzed by doubt. The world of wasted youth and lost illusions and the powerlessness of men to overthrow corruption are evoked in a prose that at times resembles lyric poetry. The showy historical colour and the bluster typical of Romantic melodrama are replaced here by a real feeling for the movement of individuals and crowds of which real history is made and a deep sense of tragic poetry that stand comparison with Shakespeare.

 


Alphonse de Lamartine


Lamartine, by Henri Decaisne

 

born Oct. 21, 1790, Mâcon, Fr.
died Feb. 28, 1869, Paris


French poet and statesman whose lyrics in Méditations poétiques (1820) established him as one of the key figures in the Romantic movement in French literature.

Alphonse’s father, an aristocrat, was imprisoned during the culminating phase of the French Revolution known as the Reign of Terror but was fortunate enough to escape the guillotine. Alphonse was educated at the college at Belley, which was maintained by the Jesuits though they were suppressed in France at this time.

Lamartine had wanted to enter the army or the diplomatic corps, but because France was ruled by Napoleon, whom his faithful royalist parents regarded as the usurper, they would not allow him to serve. Thus he remained idle until the Bourbon monarchy was restored in 1814, when he served in Louis XVIII’s bodyguard. The following year, however, Napoleon returned from exile and attempted to rebuild his empire during the Hundred Days. Lamartine emigrated to Switzerland. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and the Second Bourbon Restoration, he abandoned the military profession.

Attracted to literature, he wrote some tragedies in verse and a few elegies. By this time his health was not good, and he left for the spa of Aix-les-Bains, where, in October of 1816, on the shore of Lake Bourget, he met the brilliant but desperately ill Julie Charles. Early in 1812 Lamartine had fallen deeply in love with a young working girl named Antoniella. In 1815 he had learned of her death, and later he was to recast her as Graziella in his prose “anecdote” of that name. He now became passionately attached to Charles, who, because of her vast connections in Paris, was able to help him find a position. After her death in December 1817, Lamartine, who had already dedicated many strophes to her (notably “Le Lac”), devoted new verses to her memory (particularly “Le Crucifix”).

In 1820 Lamartine married Maria Ann Birch, a young Englishwoman connected by marriage to the Churchills. The same year he published his first collection of poetry, Méditations poétiques, and finally joined the diplomatic corps, as secretary to the French embassy at Naples. Méditations was immensely successful because of its new romantic tone and sincerity of feeling. It brought to French poetry a new music; the themes were at the same time intimate and religious. If the vocabulary remained that of the somewhat faded rhetoric of the preceding century, the resonance of the sentences, the power of the rhythm, and the passion for life sharply contrasted with the often-withered poetry of the 18th century. The book was so successful that Lamartine attempted to extend it two years later with his Nouvelles méditations poétiques and his Mort de Socrates, in which his preoccupation with metaphysics first became evident. Le Dernier Chant du pèlerinage d’Harold, published in 1825, revealed the charm that the English poet Lord Byron exerted over him. Lamartine was elected to the French Academy in 1829, and the following year he published the two volumes of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a sort of alleluia, filled with deist—and even occasionally Christian (“L’Hymne au Christ”)—enthusiasm.


Lamartine in front of the Hôtel de Ville de Paris, on the 25 February 1848, by Félix Philippoteaux
 

That same year (1830), when Louis-Philippe acceded to the throne as constitutional monarch after the July Revolution, Lamartine abandoned his diplomatic career to enter politics. He refused to commit himself to the July Monarchy, however, and, preserving his independence, he set out to draw attention to social problems. After two unsuccessful attempts he was elected deputy in 1833. Yet he still wanted to write a poem, Les Visions, that he had been thinking about since 1821 and that he had conceived of as an “epic of the soul.” The symbolic theme was that of a fallen angel cast out of heaven for having chosen the love of a woman and condemned to successive reincarnations until the day on which he realized that he “preferred God.” Lamartine wrote the last fragment of this immense adventure first, and it appeared in 1836 as Jocelyn. It is the story of a young man who intended to take up the religious life but, instead, when cast out of the seminary by the Revolution, falls in love with a young girl; recalled to the order by his dying bishop, he renounces his love and becomes a “man of God,” a parish priest, consecrating his life to the service of his fellow men. In 1838 Lamartine published the first fragment of this vast metaphysical poem under the appropriate title La Chute d’un ange (“The Fall of an Angel”). In 1832–33 he travelled to Lebanon, Syria, and the Holy Land. He had by then definitively lost the Catholic faith he had tried to recover in 1820; a further blow was the death in Beirut, on Dec. 7, 1832, of his only remaining child, Julia. A son born in Rome in 1821 had not survived infancy.

After a collection published in 1839 under the title Recueillements poétiques (“Poetic Meditations”), Lamartine interrupted his literary endeavours to become more active as a politician. He was convinced that the social question, which he himself called “the question of the proletariat,” was the principal issue of his time; he deplored the inhumanity of the worker’s plight; he denounced the trusts and their dominant influence on governmental politics, directing against them two discourses, one in 1838, another in 1846; he held that a working-class revolution was inevitable and did not hesitate to hasten the hour, promising the authorities, in July 1847, a “revolution of scorn.” In the same year he published his Histoire des Girondins, a history of the right, or moderate, Girondin Party during and after the French Revolution, which earned him immense popularity with the left-wing parties.

After the revolution of Feb. 24, 1848, the Second Republic was proclaimed in Paris, and Lamartine became, in effect, head of the provisional government. The propertied classes, who were at first startled, pretended to accept the new circumstances, but they were unable to tolerate the fact that the working class possessed arms with which to defend themselves. In April 1848 Lamartine was elected to the National Assembly by 10 départements. The bourgeoisie, represented by the right-wing parties, thought they had elected in Lamartine a clever manipulator who could placate the proletariat, while military forces capable of establishing order, such as they conceived of it, were being reconstituted. The bourgeoisie was enraged to discover, however, that Lamartine was, indeed, as he had proclaimed himself to be, the spokesman of the working class. On June 24, 1848, he was thrown out of office and the revolt crushed.

A broken man, Lamartine entered the “twilight” of his life. He was 60 years old in 1850, and his debts were enormous, not because he had been personally extravagant but because of the allowances he gave his sisters to compensate for the total property inheritance he had received as the only male in the Lamartine family. For 20 years he struggled desperately, though in vain, against bankruptcy, publishing book after book: Raphaël, a transposed account of his love for Julie Charles; Les Confidences and Nouvelles Confidences, wherein he intermingled real and imaginary elements (Graziella is a fragment of it); novels: Geneviève (1851), Antoniella, Mémoires politiques (1863), the last work being of great historical interest; a periodical titled Cours familiers de littérature (1856–1868/69), in which he published such poems as “La Vigne et la maison” and “Le Désert”; some historical works that remained unequaled, including Histoire des Constituants (1854), Histoire de la Restauration (1851–52), Histoire de la Russie, Histoire de la Turquie. He died nearly forgotten by his contemporaries.

Henri Guillemin
 

 

 


Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"  VOLUME I, VOLUME II


French writer
in full Victor-Marie Hugo

born Feb. 26, 1802, Besançon, Fr.
died May 22, 1885, Paris

Main
poet, novelist, and dramatist who was the most important of the French Romantic writers. Though regarded in France as one of that country’s greatest poets, he is better known abroad for such novels as Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) and Les Misérables (1862).

Early years (1802–30)
Victor was the third son of Joseph-Léopold-Sigisbert Hugo, a major and, later, general in Napoleon’s army. His childhood was coloured by his father’s constant traveling with the imperial army and by the disagreements that soon alienated his parents from one another. His mother’s royalism and his father’s loyalty to successive governments—the Convention, the Empire, the Restoration—reflected their deeper incompatibility. It was a chaotic time for Victor, continually uprooted from Paris to set out for Elba or Naples or Madrid, yet always returning to Paris with his mother, whose royalist opinions he initially adopted. The fall of the empire gave him, from 1815 to 1818, a time of uninterrupted study at the Pension Cordier and the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, after which he graduated from the law faculty at Paris, where his studies seem to have been purposeless and irregular. Memories of his life as a poor student later inspired the figure of Marius in his novel Les Misérables.

From 1816, at least, Hugo had conceived ambitions other than the law. He was already filling notebooks with verses, translations—particularly from Virgil—two tragedies, a play, and elegies. Encouraged by his mother, Hugo founded a review, the Conservateur Littéraire (1819–21), in which his own articles on the poets Alphonse de Lamartine and André de Chénier stand out. His mother died in 1821, and a year later Victor married a childhood friend, Adèle Foucher, with whom he had five children. In that same year he published his first book of poems, Odes et poésies diverses, whose royalist sentiments earned him a pension from Louis XVIII. Behind Hugo’s concern for classical form and his political inspiration, it is possible to recognize in these poems a personal voice and his own particular vein of fantasy.

In 1823 he published his first novel, Han d’Islande, which in 1825 appeared in an English translation as Hans of Iceland. The journalist Charles Nodier was enthusiastic about it and drew Hugo into the group of friends, all devotees of Romanticism, who met regularly at the Bibliothèque de L’Arsenal. While frequenting this literary circle, which was called the Cénacle, Hugo shared in launching a new review of moderate tendencies, the Muse Française (1823–24). In 1824 he published a new verse collection, Nouvelles Odes, and followed it two years later with an exotic romance, Bug-Jargal (Eng. trans. The Slave King). In 1826 he also published Odes et ballades, an enlarged edition of his previously printed verse, the latest of these poems being brilliant variations on the fashionable Romantic modes of mirth and terror. The youthful vigour of these poems was also characteristic of another collection, Les Orientales (1829), which appealed to the Romantic taste for Oriental local colour. In these poems Hugo, while skillfully employing a great variety of metres in his verse and using ardent and brilliant imagery, was also gradually shedding the legitimist royalism of his youth. It may be noted, too, that “Le Feu du ciel,” a visionary poem, forecast those he was to write 25 years later. The fusion of the contemporary with the apocalyptic was always a particular mark of Hugo’s genius.

Hugo emerged as a true Romantic, however, with the publication in 1827 of his verse drama Cromwell. The subject of this play, with its near-contemporary overtones, is that of a national leader risen from the people who seeks to be crowned king. But the play’s reputation rested largely on the long, elaborate preface, in which Hugo proposed a doctrine of Romanticism that for all its intellectual moderation was extremely provocative. He demanded a verse drama in which the contradictions of human existence—good and evil, beauty and ugliness, tears and laughter—would be resolved by the inclusion of both tragic and comic elements in a single play. Such a type of drama would abandon the formal rules of classical tragedy for the freedom and truth to be found in the plays of William Shakespeare. Cromwell itself, though immensely long and almost impossible to stage, was written in verse of great force and originality. In fact, the preface to Cromwell, as an important statement of the tenets of Romanticism, has proved far more important than the play itself.

Success (1830–51)
The defense of freedom and the cult of an idealized Napoleon in such poems as the ode “À la Colonne” and “Lui” brought Hugo into touch with the liberal group of writers on the newspaper Le Globe, and his move toward liberalism was strengthened by the French king Charles X’s restrictions on the liberty of the press as well as by the censor’s prohibiting the stage performance of his play Marion de Lorme (1829), which portrays the character of Louis XIII unfavourably. Hugo immediately retorted with Hernani, the first performance of which, on Feb. 25, 1830, gained victory for the young Romantics over the Classicists in what came to be known as the battle of Hernani. In this play Hugo extolled the Romantic hero in the form of a noble outlaw at war with society, dedicated to a passionate love and driven on by inexorable fate. The actual impact of the play owed less to the plot than to the sound and beat of the verse, which was softened only in the elegiac passages spoken by Hernani and Doña Sol.

While Hugo had derived his early renown from his plays, he gained wider fame in 1831 with his historical novel Notre-Dame de Paris (Eng. trans. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), an evocation of life in medieval Paris during the reign of Louis XI. The novel condemns a society that, in the persons of Frollo the archdeacon and Phoebus the soldier, heaps misery on the hunchback Quasimodo and the gypsy girl Esmeralda. The theme touched the public consciousness more deeply than had that of his previous novel, Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné (1829; The Last Days of a Condemned), the story of a condemned man’s last day, in which Hugo launched a humanitarian protest against the death penalty. While Notre-Dame was being written, Louis-Philippe, a constitutional king, had been brought to power by the July Revolution. Hugo composed a poem in honour of this event, Dicté aprés juillet 1830. It was a forerunner of much of his political verse.

Four books of poems came from Hugo in the period of the July Monarchy: Les Feuilles d’automne (1831; “Autumn Leaves”), intimate and personal in inspiration; Les Chants du crépuscule (1835; Songs of Twilight), overtly political; Les Voix intérieures (1837; “Inner Voices”), both personal and philosophical; and Les Rayons et les ombres (1840; “Sunlight and Shadows”), in which the poet, renewing these different themes, indulges his gift for colour and picturesque detail. But Hugo was not content merely to express personal emotions; he wanted to be what he called the “sonorous echo” of his time. In his verse political and philosophical problems were integrated with the religious and social disquiet of the period; one poem evoked the misery of the workers, another praised the efficacy of prayer. He addressed many poems to the glory of Napoleon, though he shared with his contemporaries the reversion to republican ideals. Hugo restated the problems of his century and the great and eternal human questions, and he spoke with a warmhearted eloquence and reasonableness that moved people’s souls.

So intense was Hugo’s creative activity during these years that he also continued to pour out plays. There were two motives for this: first, he needed a platform for his political and social ideas, and, second, he wished to write parts for a young and beautiful actress, Juliette Drouet, with whom he had begun a liaison in 1833. Juliette had little talent and soon renounced the stage in order to devote herself exclusively to him, becoming the discreet and faithful companion she was to remain until her death in 1883. The first of these plays was another verse drama, Le Roi s’amuse (1832; Eng. trans. The King’s Fool), set in Renaissance France and depicting the frivolous love affairs of Francis I while revealing the noble character of his court jester. This play was at first banned but was later used by Giuseppe Verdi as the libretto of his opera Rigoletto. Three prose plays followed: Lucrèce Borgia and Marie Tudor in 1833 and Angelo, tyran de Padoue (“Angelo, Tyrant of Padua”) in 1835. Ruy Blas, a play in verse, appeared in 1838 and was followed by Les Burgraves in 1843.

Hugo’s literary achievement was recognized in 1841 by his election, after three unsuccessful attempts, to the French Academy and by his nomination in 1845 to the Chamber of Peers. From this time he almost ceased to publish, partly because of the demands of society and political life but also as a result of personal loss: his daughter Léopoldine, recently married, was accidentally drowned with her husband in September 1843. Hugo’s intense grief found some mitigation in poems that later appeared in Les Contemplations, a volume that he divided into “Autrefois” and “Aujourd’hui,” the moment of his daughter’s death being the mark between yesterday and today. He found relief above all in working on a new novel, which became Les Misérables, published in 1862 after work on it had been set aside for a time and then resumed.

With the Revolution of 1848, Hugo was elected a deputy for Paris in the Constituent Assembly and later in the Legislative Assembly. He supported the successful candidacy of Prince Louis-Napoléon for the presidency that year. The more the president evolved toward an authoritarianism of the right, however, the more Hugo moved toward the assembly’s left. When in December 1851 a coup d’état took place, which eventually resulted in the Second Empire under Napoleon III, Hugo made one attempt at resistance and then fled to Brussels.

Exile (1851–70)
Hugo’s exile lasted until the return of liberty and the reconstitution of the republic in 1870. Enforced at the beginning, exile later became a voluntary gesture and, after the amnesty of 1859, an act of pride. He remained in Brussels for a year until, foreseeing expulsion, he took refuge on British territory. He first established himself on the island of Jersey, in the English Channel, where he remained from 1852 to 1855. When he was expelled from there, he moved to the neighbouring island of Guernsey. During this exile of nearly 20 years he produced the most extensive part of all his writings and the most original.

Immersed in politics as he was, Hugo devoted the first writings of his exile to satire and recent history: Napoléon le Petit (1852), an indictment of Napoleon III, and Histoire d’un crime, a day-by-day account of Louis Bonaparte’s coup. Hugo’s return to poetry was an explosion of wrath: Les Châtiments (1853; “The Punishments”). This collection of poems unleashed his anger against the new emperor and, on a technical level, freed him from his remaining classical prejudices and enabled him to achieve the full mastery of his poetic powers. Les Châtiments ranks among the most powerful satirical poems in the French language. All Hugo’s future verse profited from this release of his imagination: the tone of this collection of poems is sometimes lyrical, sometimes epic, sometimes moving, but most often virulent, containing an undertone of national and personal frustration.

Despite the satisfaction he derived from his political poetry, Hugo wearied of its limitations and, turning back to the unpublished poems of 1840–50, set to work on the volume of poetry entitled Les Contemplations (1856). This work contains the purest of his poetry—the most moving because the memory of his dead daughter is at the centre of the book, the most disquieting, also, because it transmits the haunted world of a thinker. In poems such as “Pleurs dans la nuit” and “La Bouche d’ombre,” he reveals a tormented mind that struggles between doubt and faith in its lonely search for meaning and significance.

Hugo’s apocalyptic approach to reality was the source of two epic or metaphysical poems, La Fin de Satan (“The End of Satan”) and Dieu (“God”), both of them confrontations of the problem of evil. Written between 1854 and 1860, they were not published until after his death because his publisher preferred the little epics based on history and legend contained in the first installment (1859) of the gigantic epic poem La Légende des siècles (The Legend of the Centuries), whose second and third installments appeared in 1877 and 1883, respectively. The many poems that make up this epic display all his spiritual power without sacrificing his exuberant capacity to tell a story. Hugo’s personal mythology of the human struggle between good and evil lies behind each of the legends: Eve’s motherhood is exalted in “Le Sacre de la femme”; mankind liberating itself from all religions in order to attain divine truth is the theme of “Le Satyre”; and “Plein Ciel” proclaims, through utopian prediction of men’s conquest of the air, the poet’s conviction of indefinite progress toward the final unity of science with moral awareness.

After the publication of three long books of poetry, Hugo returned to prose and took up his abandoned novel, Les Misérables. Its extraordinary success with readers of every type when it was published in 1862 brought him instant popularity in his own country, and its speedy translation into many languages won him fame abroad. The novel’s name means “the wretched,” or “the outcasts,” but English translations generally carry the French title. The story centres on the convict Jean Valjean, a victim of society who has been imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. A hardened and astute criminal upon his release, he eventually softens and reforms, becoming a successful industrialist and mayor of a northern town. Yet he is stalked obsessively by the detective Javert for an impulsive, regretted former crime, and Jean Valjean eventually sacrifices himself for the sake of his adopted daughter, Cosette, and her husband, Marius. Les Misérables is a vast panorama of Parisian society and its underworld, and it contains many famous episodes and passages, among them a chapter on the Battle of Waterloo and the description of Jean Valjean’s rescue of Marius by means of a flight through the sewers of Paris. The story line of Les Misérables is basically that of a detective story, but by virtue of its characters, who are sometimes a little larger than life yet always vital and engaging, and by its re-creation of the swarming Parisian underworld, the main theme of humankind’s ceaseless combat with evil clearly emerges.

The remaining works Hugo completed in exile include the essay William Shakespeare (1864) and two novels: Les Travailleurs de la mer (1866; The Toilers of the Sea), dedicated to the island of Guernsey and its sailors; and L’Homme qui rit (1869; The Man Who Laughs), a curious baroque novel about the English people’s fight against feudalism in the 17th century, which takes its title from the perpetual grin of its disfigured hero. Hugo’s last novel, Quatre-vingt-treize (1874; Ninety-three), centred on the tumultuous year 1793 in France and portrayed human justice and charity against the background of the French Revolution.


Last years (1870–85)
The defeat of France in the Franco-German War and the proclamation of the Third Republic in 1871 brought Hugo back to Paris. He became a deputy in the National Assembly (1871) but resigned the following month. Though he still fought for his old ideals, he no longer possessed the same energies. The trials of recent years had aged him, and there were more to come: in 1868 he had lost his wife, Adèle, a profound sadness to him; in 1871 one son died, as did another in 1873. Though increasingly detached from life around him, the poet of L’Année terrible (1872), in which he recounted the siege of Paris during the “terrible year” of 1870, had become a national hero and a living symbol of republicanism in France. In 1878 Hugo was stricken by cerebral congestion, but he lived on for some years in the Avenue d’Eylau, renamed Avenue Victor-Hugo on his 80th birthday. In 1885, two years after the death of his faithful companion Juliette, Hugo died and was given a national funeral. His body lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe and was buried in the Panthéon.


Reputation
Hugo’s enormous output is unique in French literature; it is said that he wrote each morning 100 lines of verse or 20 pages of prose. “The most powerful mind of the Romantic movement,” as he was described in 1830, laureate and peer of France in 1845, he went on to assume the role of an outlawed sage who, with the easy consciousness of authority, put down his insights and prophetic visions in prose and verse, becoming at last the genial grandfather of popular literary portraiture and the national poet who gave his name to a street in every town in France.

The recognition of Hugo as a great poet at the time of his death was followed by a period of critical neglect. A few of his poems were remembered, and Les Misérables continued to be widely read. The generosity of his ideas and the warmth of their expression still moved the public mind, for Hugo was a poet of the common man and knew how to write with simplicity and power of common joys and sorrows. But there was another side to him—what Paul Claudel called his “panic contemplation” of the universe, the numinous fear that penetrates his sombre poems La Fin de Satan and Dieu. Hugo’s knowledge of the resources of French verse and his technical virtuosity in metre and rhyme, moreover, rescued French poetry from the sterility of the 18th century. Hugo is one of those rare writers who excites both popular and academic audiences alike.

Jean-Bertrand Barrère

 

 


Alfred-Victor, comte de Vigny


born March 27, 1797, Loches, Fr.
died Sept. 17, 1863, Paris

(count of )
poet, dramatist, and novelist who was the most philosophical of the French Romantic writers.

Youth and Romantic works.
Vigny was born into an aristocratic family that had been reduced to modest circumstances by the French Revolution. His father, a 60-year-old retired soldier at the time of his son’s birth, was a veteran of the Seven Years’ War; and his maternal grandfather, the Marquis de Baraudin, had served as commodore in the royal navy. Vigny grew up in Paris and took preparatory studies for the École Polytechnique at the Lycée Bonaparte, where he conceived an “inordinate love for the glory of bearing arms,” a passion common to the young men of his generation. Attached to the monarchy by family tradition, he became a second lieutenant in the king’s guard when the Bourbons returned to power in 1814 and when he was only 17 years old.

Though he was promoted to first lieutenant in 1822 and to captain the following year, the military profession, limited to garrison duty rather than pursued on the battlefield, bored the young officer, who preferred the adventures of a literary career. After several leaves of absence, he abandoned military life in 1827. In the meantime, he had published his first poem, “Le Bal,” in 1820. Two years later his first collection of verse was published as Poèmes, along with contributions to Victor Hugo’s politically conservative literary periodical La Muse Française. Salons and reviews in Paris hailed the birth of a poet who combined grace with a strength and depth that was totally Romantic. Vigny’s expanded version of Poèmes under the title Poèmes antiques et modernes (1826) was also a success.

Vigny, however, was not content to excel merely in poetry, and he revealed his narrative talent in Cinq-Mars (1826), a historical novel centred around the conspiracy of Louis XIII’s favourite, the Marquis de Cinq-Mars, against the Cardinal de Richelieu. Cinq-Mars was the first important historical novel in French, and it derived much of its popularity at the time from the enormous vogue of the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Vigny also showed a typically Romantic interest in William Shakespeare, freely adapting Othello (Le More de Venise, first performed 1829) as well as The Merchant of Venice (Shylock, 1829). During these years Vigny was regarded as a literary leader of the Romantic movement in France. The Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine recognized his talents, and Hugo and Charles Sainte-Beuve treated him as a friend. Vigny and the writer Delphine Gay, the “muse of the country” as she was called—for her beauty as well as her literary talents—formed a striking couple before his marriage in February 1825 to Lydia Bunbury, daughter of a wealthy Englishman.


Maturity and disillusionment.
By 1830 Vigny’s temperament had become more sombre. The July Revolution engendered in him a political pessimism inspired by the repeated faults of the French monarchy, an issue that had become evident already in Cinq-Mars. As a point of honour he, like Chateaubriand, sought to remain faithful to the monarchy, but he did not conceal the fact that the cause of the Bourbon king Charles X was worth no more than that of Louis-Philippe, who had been placed on the throne by the moneyed bourgeoisie. He searched unsuccessfully for a political creed and studied every shade of opinion without giving his allegiance to any. From this time on he closely followed current affairs, grasping them with a clarity that was at times prophetic, though his overt political activity remained erratic.

He acknowledged his disillusionment as early as 1831 in “Paris,” a poem of a new genre that he termed élévations. He felt all the more tormented, for he could no longer count on the religious faith of his childhood. His feelings on this score are evident in another poem (1832) in which he contemplated suicide: “And God? Such were the times, they no longer thought about Him.” The only thing left for him to doubt was love itself, a trauma he painfully experienced in the course of his liaison (1831–38) with the actress Marie Dorval, for whom he was to create the role of Kitty Bell in the play Chatterton in 1835. He accused Dorval of deceiving him and of having maintained an overaffectionate friendship with the writer George Sand. His relationship with Dorval left Vigny profoundly embittered.

In Stello (1832) Vigny put together a series of consultations, or dialogues, between two symbolic figures: Doctor Noir (the Black Doctor), who represents Vigny’s own intellect; and Stello, who represents the poet’s desire for an active part in the public arena. In seeking to preserve Stello from the dangers of his imprudent enthusiasm, Doctor Noir tells him three anecdotes. In these three short stories Vigny examines the poet in his dealings with political authority: the levity of Louis XV condemns Nicolas Gilbert to die in privation; the fanaticism of the republican tyrant Robespierre leads André Chénier to the scaffold; the egoism of William Beckford, lord mayor of London, provokes the suicide of the poet Thomas Chatterton; all political regimes inflict on the poet the harshness of “perpetual ostracism.” What then is this evil malaise? Vigny questions himself on the nature of it. He submits Stello to a sort of psychoanalytic examination, as confided to Doctor Noir. After having listened to Stello, the doctor prescribes a remedy of “separating poetic life from political life” and advises the poet against direct involvement in politics in order to preserve the dignity of his art and escape the horrible cruelties that characterize every kind of fanaticism.

Vigny adapted the part of Stello dealing with the suicide of Chatterton into a prose drama in three acts, Chatterton (1835). In presenting the last moments of Chatterton’s life, he exalts the nobility and suffering of a misunderstood genius in a pitiless and materialistic society. The triumph of Vigny’s career as a playwright, Chatterton remains one of the best Romantic dramas. It is far superior to La Maréchale d’Ancre (first performed 1831) and expresses Vigny’s melancholy genius more seasonably than does his spiritual comedy Quitte pour la peur (first performed 1833).

Vigny’s novel Servitude et grandeur militaires (1835; “Servitude and Military Greatness”; Eng. trans. The Military Necessity) is also a consultation. The book’s three stories, linked by personal comment, deal with the dignity and suffering of the soldier, who is obliged by his profession to kill yet who is condemned by it to passive obedience as well. The first and third stories in this volume are Vigny’s masterpieces in prose, and the third story’s portrait of Captain Renaud, an old Napoleonic soldier, is a profound portrait of human greatness. Vigny began another ambitious consultation dealing with the religious prophet, but only one story, Daphné (published 1912), about the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, survives.

Vigny’s consultations enlarged upon his philosophy, formulated theories about the fate of man, and defined the principles that he thought should govern human conduct. To give these ideas the finish they required, he turned again, between 1838 and his death, to poetry, slowly composing the 11 poems that were later collected under the title Les Destinées (1864). The early poems are very pessimistic, but the later ones are increasingly confident affirmations of the imperishable nature of human spiritual powers.

In middle age Vigny gradually withdrew into a curious silence and retired, according to the famous expression of Sainte-Beuve, to an “ivory tower.” He rarely went out, preferring the calm of his country manor to the excitement of Paris. In 1841 he stood as a candidate to the Académie Française, but he was elected only in 1845, after five checks, and was received there with a perfidious speech by Count Molé. His wife, Lydia, whose longtime invalidism had caused him constant anxiety, died in 1862, and Vigny himself died of cancer of the stomach after much suffering the following year. He left several unedited works whose posthumous publication enhanced his reputation: Les Destinées, Le Journal d’un poète (1867), Daphné, and Mémoires inédits (1958).


Assessment.
Vigny’s literary art is uneven. He does not possess great technical facility, and when not profoundly inspired, he is prosaic; there are long passages in Les Destinées that are laborious and dull. His austere imagination soberly developed a few symbols of the human condition and condensed them to achieve what he called a “hard, brilliant diamond.”

It is Les Destinées above all that has earned Vigny his reputation as a philosopher-poet. His work is a poignant plea against all that is inhumane in the forces that rule the world: expedience (Cinq-Mars), governments and the mob (Stello and Daphné), and the treacherous love of women (“La Colère de Samson”). Vigny is particularly critical of the equivocality of Providence, which is silent in the face of suffering (“Le Mont des Oliviers”) and as coldly insensitive as nature (“La Maison du Berger”). Vigny’s belief in God is just strong enough for Vigny to reproach him. As a tormented skeptic, he proposes that strictly human values—honour, pity, and the love of beauty—should be adopted. His last poem celebrates the apotheosis of a Holy Spirit (“L’Esprit pur”) that is essentially human and takes over the place of God.

It would be unjust, however, to regard Vigny solely as a philosopher. His literary creations spring less from a system of thought than from a spontaneously tragic conception of existence. Thwarted love, unrecognized goodwill, humiliated greatness, the tormented conscience of the soldier who detests war but fights on energetically—these are more than just general ideas: they express a wounded sensitivity and a soul torn by moral scruples. Under the anonymous cloak of symbols, Vigny extends to the whole of humanity his own conflicts and agonies, and his work is an effort to resolve them. Therein lies the poignancy of his work.

Paul Viallaneix
Pierre-Georges Castex

 

 


Alfred de Musset





born Dec. 11, 1810, Paris, France
died May 2, 1857, Paris

French Romantic dramatist and poet, best known for his plays.

Musset’s autobiographical La Confession d’un enfant du siècle (1836; The Confession of a Child of the Century), if not entirely trustworthy, presents a striking picture of Musset’s youth as a member of a noble family, well-educated but ruled by his emotions in a period when all traditional values were under attack. While still an adolescent he came under the influence of the leaders of the Romantic movement—Charles Nodier, Alfred de Vigny, and Victor Hugo—and produced his first work, Contes d’Espagne et d’Italie (“Stories of Spain and of Italy”) in 1830. At the same time he became a dandy, one of the elegant Parisian imitators of Beau Brummell, and embarked on a life of hectic sexual and alcoholic dissipation.

After the failure of his play La Nuit vénitienne (1830; “The Venetian Night”), Musset refused to allow his other plays to be performed but continued to publish historical tragedies—e.g., Lorenzaccio (1834)—and comedies—e.g., Il ne faut jurer de rien (1836; “It Isn’t Necessary to Promise Anything”). He was also an extraordinarily versatile poet, writing light satirical pieces and poems of dazzling technical virtuosity as well as lyrics, such as “La Nuit d’octobre” (1837; “The October Night”), which express with passion and eloquence his complex emotions.

Though associated with the Romantic movement, Musset often poked fun at its excesses. His Lettres de Dupuis et Cotonet (1836–37), for example, contain a brilliant and illuminating satire of the literary fashions of the day. A love affair with the novelist George Sand that went on intermittently from 1833 to 1839 inspired some of his finest lyrics, as recounted in his Confession. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1852.

 

 


Gérard de Nerval



 

born May 22, 1808, Paris, France
died January 26, 1855, Paris

French Romantic poet whose themes and preoccupations were to greatly influence the Symbolists and Surrealists.

Nerval’s father, a doctor, was sent to serve with Napoleon’s Rhine army; his mother died when he was two years old, and he grew up in the care of relatives in the countryside at Mortefontaine in the Valois. The memory of his childhood there was to haunt him as an idyllic vision for the rest of his life. In 1820 he went to live with his father in Paris and attend the Collège de Charlemagne, where he met the poet Théophile Gautier, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. Nerval received a legacy from his grandparents and was able to travel in Italy, but the rest of his inheritance he poured into an ill-fated drama review. In 1828 Nerval produced a notable French translation of Goethe’s Faust that Goethe himself praised and which the composer Hector Berlioz drew freely upon for his opera La Damnation de Faust.

In 1836 Nerval met Jenny Colon, an actress with whom he fell passionately in love; two years later, however, she married another man, and in 1842 she died. This shattering experience changed his life. After her death Nerval traveled to the Levant, the result being some of his best work in Voyage en Orient (1843–51; “Voyage to the East”), a travelogue that also examines ancient and folk mythology, symbols, and religion.

During the period of his greatest creativity, Nerval was afflicted with severe mental disorders and was institutionalized at least eight times. In one of his finest works, the short story “Sylvie” , which was written in 1853 and included in Des Filles du feu (1854; “Girls of Fire”), he re-creates the countryside of his happy childhood in lucid, musical prose. The memory of Jenny Colon dominates the longer story Aurélia (1853–54), in which Nerval describes his obsessions and hallucinations during his periods of mental derangement. Les Chimères (1854; “The Chimeras”) is a sonnet sequence of extraordinary complexity that best conveys the musical quality of his writing. Nerval’s years of destitution and anguish ended in 1855 when he was found hanging from a lamppost in the rue de la Vieille Lanterne, Paris.

Nerval viewed dreams as a means of communication between the everyday world and the world of supernatural events, and his writings reflect the visions and fantasies that constantly threatened his grip on sanity. He attained the summit of his art whenever he combined his exquisite taste with his infallible intuition for the appropriate image by which to transcribe his dreams of a lost paradise of beauty, fulfillment, innocence, and youth.
 





The novel from Constant to Balzac


The novel was the most rapidly developing literary form in postrevolutionary France, its enormous range allowing authors great flexibility in examining the changing relationships of the individual to society. The Romantic undergrowth encouraged the flourishing of such subspecies as the Gothic novel and the terrifying or the fantastic tale—the latter influenced in many cases by the translation from German of the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann—works that, when they are not simply ridiculous, seem to be straining to provide a fictional equivalent for the subconscious or an intuition of the mystical.

Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe (1816; Eng. trans. Adolphe), presented as a fictional autobiography, belongs to an important strand in the tradition of the French novel—namely, the novel of concentrated psychological analysis of an individual—which runs from the 17th century to the present day. In that tradition, Adolphe has about it a Classical intensity and simplicity of line. However, in its moral ambiguity, the hesitations of the hero and his confessions of weakness, lies its modernity, responding to the contemporary sense of moral sickness. In spite of the difference of style, there is a clear link with the themes of Chateaubriand’s René and Étienne Pivert de Senancour’s Oberman (1804; Eng. trans. Obermann).

 


Benjamin Constant



 

in full Henri-Benjamin Constant de Rebecque

born Oct. 25, 1767, Lausanne, Switz.
died Dec. 8, 1830, Paris

Franco-Swiss novelist and political writer, the author of Adolphe, a forerunner of the modern psychological novel.

The son of a Swiss officer in the Dutch service, whose family was of French origin, he studied at Erlangen, Ger., briefly at the University of Oxford, and at Edinburgh. In 1787 he formed, in Paris, his first liaison, with Madame de Charrière, 27 years his senior. His republican opinions in no way suited him to the office of chamberlain to the duke of Brunswick, which he held for several years. In 1794 he chose the side of the French Revolution, abandoning his office and divorcing his wife, a lady of the court. Madame de Staël had much to do with his decision. Their tumultuous and passionate relationship lasted until 1806.

After the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire (1799), Constant was nominated to the tribunate, but he quickly became, like Madame de Staël, an opponent of the Bonapartist regime. Expelled from the tribunate in 1802, he followed her into exile the year after. Thereafter he spent his time either at Madame de Staël’s salon at Coppet, near Geneva, or in Germany, chiefly at Weimar, where he met Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. Constant was the associate of the brothers Friedrich and August von Schlegel, the pioneers of the Romantic idea, and with them he inspired Madame de Staël’s book De l’Allemagne (“On Germany”).

In 1808 Constant secretly married Charlotte von Hardenberg. But his intellectual relationship with Madame de Staël and the group at Coppet remained unbroken. As a liberal he was disappointed by the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814, and he reconciled himself with the Napoleonic empire of the Hundred Days under the influence of Madame Récamier, the other great love of his life. On his return to Paris, Constant became one of the leaders of liberal journalism. He was elected a deputy in 1819. After the revolution of July 1830, he was appointed president of the council of state but died the same year.

During his exile, Constant began work on De la religion considérée dans sa source, ses formes, et ses développements, 5 vol. (1824–31; “On Religion Considered in Its Source, Its Forms, and Its Developments”), a historical analysis of religious feeling. He is better known, however, for his novels. Published in 1816 and written in a lucid and classical style, the autobiographical Adolphe (Eng. trans. Adolphe) describes in minute analytical detail a young man’s passion for a woman older than himself. Nearly 150 years after the publication of Adolphe, another of Constant’s autobiographical novels, Cécile, dealing with events between 1793 and 1808, was discovered and first published. Constant is also known for his Journaux intimes (“Intimate Journals”), first published in their entirety in 1952. They add to the autobiographical picture of Constant provided by his Le Cahier rouge (1907; The Red Notebook).
 




The historical novel


The acute consciousness of a changed world after the Revolution and hence of difference between historical periods led novelists to a new interest in re-creating the specificity of the past or, more accurately, reconstituting it in the light of their own present preoccupations, with a distinct preference for the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Until about 1820 the Middle Ages had generally been regarded as a period of barbarism between Classical antiquity and the neoclassical 17th and 18th centuries. Chateaubriand’s lyrical evocation of Gothic ruins—the relics of the age of religious faith—and young royalist writers’ attraction to a certain vision of feudalism provided a different evaluation of the period. The vogue for historical novels was at its strongest in the 1820s and was given impetus by the immense influence of the French translations of Sir Walter Scott (though Madame de Genlis claimed strenuously that her own historical novels had established the vogue long before). The best example of the picturesque historical novel is Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831; The Hunchback of Notre Dame). In it Hugo re-created an atmosphere of vivid, colourful, and intense 15th-century life, associating with it a plea for the preservation of Gothic architecture as the bearer, before the coming of the book, of the cultural heritage and sensibilities of the nation.

A deeper reading of Scott’s novels is implicit in some of Honoré de Balzac’s works. Balzac’s writing not only evoked the surface or the atmosphere of a precise period but also examined the processes of historical, social, and political transformation. Scott’s studies of the aftereffects of the Jacobite rising can be paralleled by Balzac’s analysis of the Breton counterrevolution in Les Chouans (1829; “The Screech Owls,” a name given to any of a number of bands of peasants). The historical novel ultimately became the staple of the popular novel, as in Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844; The Three Musketeers) by Alexandre Dumas père.




 

 

Alexandre Dumas, père


"The Three Musketeers"





French author [1802-1870]

born July 24, 1802, Villers-Cotterêts, Aisne, Fr.
died Dec. 5, 1870, Puys, near Dieppe

Main
one of the most prolific and most popular French authors of the 19th century. Without ever attaining indisputable literary merit, Dumas succeeded in gaining a great reputation first as a dramatist and then as a historical novelist, especially for such works as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. His memoirs, which, with a mixture of candour, mendacity, and boastfulness, recount the events of his extraordinary life, also provide a unique insight into French literary life during the Romantic period. He was the father (père) of the dramatist and novelist Alexandre Dumas, called Dumas fils.

Dumas’s father, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de La Pailleterie—born out of wedlock to the marquis de La Pailleterie and Marie Cessette Dumas, a black slave of Santo Domingo—was a common soldier under the ancien régime who assumed the name Dumas in 1786. He later became a general in Napoleon’s army. The family fell on hard times, however, especially after General Dumas’s death in 1806, and the young Alexandre went to Paris to attempt to make a living as a lawyer. He managed to obtain a post in the household of the Duke d’Orléans, the future King Louis-Philippe, but tried his fortune in the theatre. He made contact with the actor François-Joseph Talma and with the young poets who were to lead the Romantic movement.

Dumas’s plays, when judged from a modern viewpoint, are crude, brash, and melodramatic, but they were received with rapture in the late 1820s and early 1830s. Henri III et sa cour (1829) portrayed the French Renaissance in garish colours; Napoléon Bonaparte (1831) played its part in making a legend of the recently dead emperor; and in Antony (1831) Dumas brought a contemporary drama of adultery and honour to the stage.

Though he continued to write plays, Dumas next turned his attention to the historical novel, often working with collaborators (especially Auguste Maquet). Considerations of probability or historical accuracy generally were ignored, and the psychology of the characters was rudimentary. Dumas’s main interest was the creation of an exciting story set against a colourful background of history, usually the 16th or 17th century.

The best known of his works are Les Trois Mousquetaires (published 1844, performed 1845; The Three Musketeers), a romance about four swashbuckling heroes in the age of Cardinal Richelieu; Vingt ans après (1845; “Twenty Years After”); Le Comte de Monte Cristo (1844–45; The Count of Monte Cristo); Dix ans plus tard ou le Vicomte de Bragelonne (1848–50; “Ten Years Later; or, The Vicomte de Bragelonne”); and La Tulipe noire (1850; “The Black Tulip”).

When success came, Dumas indulged his extravagant tastes and consequently was forced to write more and more rapidly in order to pay his creditors. He tried to make money by journalism and with travel books but with little success.

The unfinished manuscript of a long-lost novel, Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine (The Last Cavalier), was discovered in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in the late 1980s and first published in 2005.



 





Stendhal

The works of Stendhal (Henri Beyle), deeply concerned with the nature of individuality, the claims of the self, and the search for happiness, represent an effort to define an aesthetic for prose fiction and to establish a distinctive, personal voice. His autobiographical sketches, such as his Vie de Henri Brulard (The Life of Henry Brulard) and Souvenirs d’égotisme (published posthumously in 1890 and 1892, respectively; Memoirs of Egotism), give a fascinating insight into a highly critical intelligence trying to organize his experience into a rational philosophy while remaining aware that the claims of emotion will often undermine whatever system he creates. In many ways Stendhal is an 18th-century rationalist with a 19th-century sensibility.

He came to the novel form relatively late in life. Le Rouge et le noir (1830; The Red and the Black) and La Chartreuse de Parme (1839; The Charterhouse of Parma) are his finest works. Both present a young would-be Napoleonic hero grappling with the decidedly nonheroic social and political environment inherited by the post-Napoleonic generation. The Red and the Black, a masterpiece of ironic realism both in its characterization and its language, focuses on France in the late 1820s. The Charterhouse of Parma, both love story and political satire, situated in Stendhal’s beloved Italy (where he lived for much of his adult life), often reflects a vision of the Italy of the Renaissance as much as that of the 19th century. His work had a quicksilver style, capable of embracing in rapid succession different emotions, ideas, and points of view and creating a sense of immediacy and spontaneity. He had a genius for precise and witty understatement, combined with an ironic vision that was simultaneously cynical and tender. All these qualities, along with his capacity for placing his floundering, aspiring heroes, with a few brushstrokes, in a multilayered evocation of the world in which they must struggle to survive, make of him one of the most individual, humane, and perpetually contemporary of novelists.



Sand

George Sand (Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dudevant) was a dominant figure in the literary life of the 19th century, and her work, much-published and much-serialized throughout Europe, was of major importance in the spread of feminist consciousness. For a long while after her death, her literary reputation rested on works such as La Mare au diable (1846; The Enchanted Lake) and La Petite Fadette (1849; Little Fadette), sentimental stories of country life tinged with realistic elements, of little artistic value. More interesting are the works modeling the subordinate position of women in the 19th-century family, such as Indiana (1832; Eng. trans. Indiana), in which a wife struggles for independence, or novels creating new images of heroic femininity, such as Lélia (1833 and 1839; Eng. trans. Lelia), whose heroine, beautiful, powerful, and tormented, founds a community to educate a new generation of independent women. Sand’s novel Mauprat (1837; Eng. trans. Mauprat) is immensely readable, with its lyrical alliance of woman, peasant, and reformed aristocracy effecting a bloodless transformation of the world by love. From the later 1830s, influenced by the socialists Félicité de Lamennais, the former abbé, and Pierre Leroux, she developed an interest in humanitarian socialism, an idealism tinged with mysticism, reflected in works such as Spiridion (1839), Le Compagnon du tour de France (1840; The Journeyman Joiner; or, The Companion of the Tour of France), and Consuelo (1842; Eng. trans. Consuelo). She is an excellent example of the sentimental socialists involved in the Revolution of 1848—her record rather marred by her reluctance to associate herself closely with the rising groups of women engaged in their own struggle for civil and political rights. A different perspective on contemporary feminism emerges in the vigorous and outspoken travel writings and journal of the socialist and feminist activist Flora Tristan, notable for Promenades dans Londres (1840; The London Journal of Flora Tristan) and Le Tour de France: journal inédit (written 1844, published 1973; “The Tour of France: Unpublished Journal”).

 


Nodier, Mérimée, and the conte


Charles Nodier and Prosper Mérimée both exploited the short story and the novella. Nodier specialized in the conte fantastique (“fantastic tale”) to explore dream worlds or various forms of madness, as in La Fée aux miettes (1832; “The Crumb Fairy”), suggesting the importance of the role of the unconscious in human beliefs and conduct. Mérimée also used inexplicable phenomena, as in La Vénus d’Ille (1837; “The Venus of Ille”), to hint at repressed aspects of the psyche or the irrational power of passion. More commonly, combining a Classical analytic style with Romantic themes, he directed a cool, ironic look at violent emotions. Short stories such as Mateo Falcone (1829) and Carmen (1845; Eng. trans. Carmen) are peaks of this art.




Balzac

Honoré de Balzac is best known for his Comédie humaine (“The Human Comedy”), the general title of a vast series of more than 90 novels and short stories published between 1829 and 1847. In these works he concentrated mainly on an examination of French society from the Revolution of 1789 to the eve of the Revolution of 1848, organically linking realistic observation and visionary intuition while at the same time seeking to analyze the underlying principles of this new world. He ranged back and forth, often within the same novel, from the philosophical to the social, the economic, and the legal; from Paris to the provinces; and from the summit of society to the petite bourgeoisie, studying the destructive power of what he called thought or passion or vital energy. By using techniques such as the recurrence of characters in several novels, Balzac gave a temporal density and dynamism to his works. The frustrated ambitions of his young heroes (Rastignac in Le Père Goriot [1835; Old Goriot]; Lucien de Rubempré, failed writer turned journalist, in Illusions perdues [1837–43; Lost Illusions]) and the subjection of women, particularly in marriage, are used as eloquent markers of the moral impasse into which bourgeois liberalism led the French Revolution. Most presciently, he emphasized the paradox of money—its dissolving power and its dynamic force—and of the every-man-for-himself individualism unleashed by the Revolution, at once condemning and celebrating the raw energies of a nascent capitalism. Vautrin, the master-criminal whose disguises carry him across the frontiers of Europe, and Madame de Beauséant, the doyenne of old aristocracy, are the two faces of the powers that dominate this world, gatekeepers of the two futures offered to its young inheritors.


 

 

Stendhal



French author
pseudonym of Marie-henri Beyle
born Jan. 23, 1783, Grenoble, Fr.
died March 23, 1842, Paris

Main
one of the most original and complex French writers of the first half of the 19th century, chiefly known for his works of fiction. His finest novels are Le Rouge et le noir (1830; The Red and the Black) and La Chartreuse de Parme (1839; The Charterhouse of Parma).

Life.
Stendhal is only one of the many pseudonyms Henri Beyle adopted. His father, Chérubin Beyle, was a barrister in Grenoble’s high court of justice. Henri’s mother died when he was seven, and this loss, which he felt keenly, increased his sense of solitude and his resentment toward his father. But, though he tended throughout his life to stress the dreary and oppressive atmosphere of his home after his mother’s death, there is no reason to believe that he was deprived of affection. As a student he grew interested in literature and mathematics. In 1799 he left for Paris, ostensibly to prepare for the entrance examination to the École Polytechnique, but in reality to escape from Grenoble and from paternal rule.

His secret ambition on arriving in Paris was to become a successful playwright. But some highly placed relatives of his, the Darus, obtained an appointment for him as second lieutenant in the French military forces stationed in Italy. This led him to discover Piedmont, Lombardy, and the delights of Milan. The culture and landscape of Italy were the revelation that was to play a psychologically and thematically determining role in his life and works.

In 1802 the 19-year-old Henri Beyle was back in Paris and at work on a number of literary projects, none of which he completed. He dreamed of becoming a modern Molière, enrolled in drama classes, worked at ridding himself of his provincial accent, and fell in love with a second-rate actress (Mélanie Louason), whom he followed to Marseille. By then he was keeping a diary (posthumously published as his Journal) and writing other texts dealing with his intimate thoughts.

The year 1806 proved to be a turning point. Count Pierre Daru, having been appointed intendant-general of Napoleon’s army, had his young protégé sent as an adjunct military commissary to the German city of Brunswick. This was the beginning of an administrative career in the French army that allowed Henri Beyle to discover parts of Germany and Austria. His army appointment gave him a direct experience of the Napoleonic regime and of Europe at war. He watched Moscow go up in flames, took part in the French forces’ retreat from Russia, and helped organize the military defense of the province of Dauphiné back in France. In 1814, when the French empire fell, he decided to settle in Italy.

From the moment he took up residence in Milan, his literary vocation became irreversible. He became friends with Milanese liberals and Carbonari patriots, discovered the Edinburgh Review, studied music and the visual arts, and published his first books: Vies de Haydn, de Mozart et de Métastase (1814; Lives of Haydn, Mozart and Metastasio) and Histoire de la peinture en Italie (1817; “History of Painting in Italy”). In these early works Henri Beyle was not always above plagiarism, which was seasoned, however, with brilliant and original insights. His travel book Rome, Naples et Florence en 1817 also appeared (a later version was published in 1826), and this was the first time he used the pseudonym of Stendhal. Stendhal’s stay in Milan ended in deep emotional disappointment: Métilde Dembowski, the woman whose memory was to haunt him for the rest of his life, rejected him as a lover. His political friendships had meanwhile compromised him in the eyes of the Austrian occupying authorities, which finally led him to leave Milan in 1821.

From 1821 to 1830, Stendhal’s social and intellectual life in Paris was very active. He made a name for himself in the salons as a conversationalist and polemicist. His wit and unconventional views were much appreciated, and he had notable friendships and love affairs. In 1822 he published De l’amour (On Love), which claims to study the operations of love dispassionately and objectively, but which can be read as a hidden confession of Stendhal’s emotional experiences and longings. His Racine et Shakespeare (1823, 1825) was one of the first Romantic manifestos to appear in France. In it Stendhal developed the central idea that each historical period has been “romantic” in its own time, that Romanticism is a vital aspect of every cultural period. Stendhal’s literary production during this period was quite varied. In addition to his regular contributions to English journals, he published Vie de Rossini (1823; Life of Rossini); his first novel, Armance (1827); and the travel book Promenades dans Rome (1829). During this period he also wrote one of his two masterpieces, the novel Le Rouge et le noir (The Red and the Black), which appeared in 1830.

The year 1830, during which the July Revolution brought the constitutional monarch Louis-Philippe to the throne in France, marked a new turning point in Stendhal’s life. He was appointed French consul in the port of Civitavecchia in the Papal States. In this small town, where he felt bored and isolated, Stendhal was occupied by endless administrative chores and found it difficult to write in a sustained manner. He sought distractions in nearby Rome, absenting himself frequently from his official duties. Lonely, aware of age and of failing health, he felt increasingly drawn to autobiography and began Souvenirs d’égotisme (1892; Memoirs of an Egotist) and Vie de Henri Brulard (1890; The Life of Henri Brulard), as well as a new and largely autobiographical novel entitled Lucien Leuwen (1894). All these works remained uncompleted, though they were published posthumously, and are now considered among Stendhal’s finest writings.

During his consulate, Stendhal discovered in Rome unpublished accounts of crimes of passion and grim executions set in the Renaissance. They became the inspiration for stories he later published under the title of Chroniques italiennes (“Italian Chronicles”). But it was only in Paris, where he took up residence again during a prolonged leave (1836-1839), that Stendhal could undertake new major literary work. He composed Mémoires d’un touriste; his second masterpiece, the novel La Chartreuse de Parme (1839; The Charterhouse of Parma); and began work on a new novel, Lamiel (1889), which he did not live long enough to complete. He died in 1842 after suffering a stroke while again on leave in Paris.


Works
During Stendhal’s lifetime, his reputation was largely based on his books dealing with the arts and with tourism (a term he helped introduce in France), and on his political writings and conversational wit. His unconventional views, his hedonistic inclinations tempered by a capacity for moral and political indignation, his prankish nature and his hatred of boredom—all constituted for his contemporaries a blend of provocative contradictions. But the more authentic Stendhal is to be found elsewhere, and above all in a cluster of favourite ideas: the hostility to the concept of “ideal beauty,” the notion of modernity, and the exaltation of energy, passion, and spontaneity. His personal philosophy, to which he himself gave the name of “Beylisme” (after his real family name, Beyle) stressed the importance of the “pursuit of happiness” by combining enthusiasm with rational skepticism, lucidity with willful surrender to lyric emotions. “Beylisme,” as he understood it, meant cultivating a private sensibility while developing the art of hiding and protecting it.

It was in his novels above all, and in his autobiographical writings (the interchange between these two literary activities remains a constant feature in his case), that Stendhal’s thoughts are expressed most fully. But even these texts remain baffling. Their prosaic and ironic style at first glance hides the intensity of Stendhal’s vision and the profundity of his views.

Armance (1827) is a somewhat enigmatic novel in which the hero’s sexual impotence is symbolic of France’s conformist and oppressive society after the Restoration. The antagonism between the individual and society is the central subject of The Red and the Black. This realistic novel depicts the French social order under the Second Restoration (1815–30). The story centres on a carpenter’s son, Julien Sorel, a sensitive and intelligent but extremely ambitious youth who, after seeing no road to power in the military after Napoleon’s fall, endeavours to make his mark in the church. Viewing himself as an unsentimental opportunist, he employs seduction as a means to advancement, first with Madame de Rênal, whose children he is employed to tutor. After then spending some time in a seminary, he leaves the provinces and goes to Paris, where he seduces the aristocratic Mathilde, the daughter of his second employer. The book ends with Julien’s execution for the attempted murder of Madame de Rênal after she had jeopardized his projected marriage to Mathilde.

The title of The Red and the Black apparently refers to both the tensions in Julien’s character and to the conflicting choice he is faced with in his quest for success: the army (symbolized by the colour red) or the church (symbolized by the colour black). A variety of other polarities tempt the ambitious young hero as he sets out with fierce determination to rise above his lowly condition: the provinces or Paris, tender love or sexual conquest, happiness through ambition and achievement or happiness through reverie and the cultivation of selfhood. Careerism, political opportunism, the climate of fear and denunciation in Restoration France, a critique of bourgeois materialistic values—all these are dealt with in a subtle and incisive manner in a novel that is based on a newspaper account of a contemporary crime of passion. Julien Sorel, the central character, is a study in psychological complexity who both attracts and repels the reader. Timid and aggressive, sensitive and ruthless, vulnerable and supremely ambitious, Julien ultimately comes to realize, in prison, the vanity of worldly success and the superior value of love and a rich inner life. The Red and the Black also offers delicate portraits of two feminine figures, the maternal Madame de Renal and the romantic young aristocrat Mathilde de La Mole. At every point, the novel challenges conventions and denounces the sham of societal values. As a literary achievement, it is remarkable for its blend of comedy, satire, and ironic lyricism.

The uncompleted Lucien Leuwen (1894) is perhaps the most autobiographical of Stendhal’s novels. The memory of Métilde Dembowski hovers over the relationship between the young hero of the title and Madame de Chasteller. This biting fictional assessment of French society and politics during the reign of Louis-Philippe also describes a basic father-son conflict that corresponds to the conflicting ethos of two distinct historical periods. As it stands, despite its imperfections and uncompleted form, Lucien Leuwen contains some of Stendhal’s finest pages of psychological and social analysis, as well as delicate evocations of a young lover’s emotional states.

The Charterhouse of Parma is Stendhal’s other masterpiece. It fuses elements of Renaissance chronicles, fictional and historical sources, recent historical events (the Napoleonic regime in Italy, the Battle of Waterloo, the Austrian occupation of Milan), and an imaginative, almost dreamlike transposition of contemporary reality into fictional terms. The novel is set mainly in the court of Parma, Italy, in the early 19th century. Fabrice del Dongo, a young aristocrat and ardent admirer of Napoleon, goes to Paris to join the French army and is present at the Battle of Waterloo. He returns thereafter to Parma and enters the church for worldly advantage under the sponsorship of his aunt, the Duchess de Sanseverina, who is the mistress of the chief minister of Parma, Count Mosca. Following an affair with an actress, Fabrice kills a rival, is imprisoned, escapes, and is pardoned. In prison Fabrice falls in love with Clélia Conti, the daughter of the citadel’s governor. He continues his affair with her after she marries, and he becomes a high-ranking ecclesiastic and an admired preacher. The death of their child and then of Clélia herself causes Fabrice to retire to the Carthusian monastery, or charterhouse, of Parma, where he dies.

The incongruous yet always harmonious combination of lyricism and high comedy, of realism and dreamlike atmosphere, of The Charterhouse of Parma allows the author to caricaturize the petty tyranny of post-Napoleonic Europe, to question public morality, and to assert the prerogatives of love’s follies. There are subtly drawn portraits of the naive and idealistic young Fabrice del Dongo (notably at the Battle of Waterloo); of his courageous and passionate aunt, the Duchess de Sanseverina; of her lover, the benevolent Machiavellian statesman Count Mosca; and of the young and innocent Clélia Conti, the daughter of Fabrice’s jailer, who falls in love with the handsome prisoner. Passion in all its forms is the novel’s recurrent theme. And once again, the young hero learns the deeper lessons of spirituality, love, and freedom within the liberating confines of a prison cell.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The Charterhouse of Parma is its highly sophisticated psychology. Rejecting traditional notions of a fixed and determined psychological makeup, Stendhal never defines his characters and instead depicts individuals in the process of becoming. His literary devices (his authorial comments, the improvisational tone of his narration) seem to grant his characters the freedom to discover themselves. Various forms of freedom are Stendhal’s ultimate preoccupation, which probably explains why he repeatedly explores the ambiguities of the prison image. True freedom, in the world of Stendhal, reveals itself in the context of the cell, once confinement becomes the symbol of the inner world of dreams and longings. His novels thus illustrate metaphorically the fundamental conflict between the demands of society and those of the individual.

Stendhal’s autobiographical writings, Souvenirs d’égotisme (1892; Memoirs of an Egotist) and Vie de Henri Brulard (1890; The Life of Henri Brulard), are among his most original achievements. Behind their vivacity and charming digressions, they reveal the uneasiness of a tender-hearted and fundamentally insecure human being wearing various masks. The Life of Henri Brulard in particular is a masterpiece of ironic self-searching and self-creation, in which the memories of childhood are closely interwoven with the liberating joy of writing.

Stendhal’s writings and his personality were marked by a striking independence of mind. He was a romantic who kept his distance from Romanticism, an antiauthoritarian with a nostalgia for the pre-Revolutionary world, a dreamer and tender-hearted enthusiast who passed himself off as a cynic. His writings combine lyrical fervour with a rationalist’s passion for analysis. Stendhal’s contemporaries, however, found it difficult to appreciate his nimble and ironic sensibility. The novelist Honoré de Balzac, in a famous article on The Charterhouse of Parma published in La Revue parisienne in 1840, was the only one to recognize his genius as a novelist. Stendhal’s literary fame came late in the 19th century, and this posthumous fame has steadily grown since then, largely because of the devotion of “Beylistes” or “Stendhalians” who have made of him a true cult. Stendhal has now come to be recognized as one of the great French masters of the novel in the 19th century.

Victor Brombert
 

 

 


George Sand



 

pseudonym of Armandine-Aurore-Lucille Dudevant, née Dupin

born July 1, 1804, Paris, France
died June 8, 1876, Nohant

French Romantic writer, known primarily for her so-called rustic novels.

She was brought up at Nohant, near La Châtre in Berry, the country home of her grandmother. There she gained the profound love and understanding of the countryside that were to inform most of her works. In 1817 she was sent to a convent in Paris, where she acquired a mystical fervour that, though it soon abated, left its mark.

In 1822 Aurore married Baron Casimir Dudevant. The first years of the marriage were happy enough, but Aurore soon tired of her well-intentioned but somewhat insensitive husband and sought consolation first in a platonic friendship with a young magistrate and then in a passionate liaison with a neighbour. In January 1831 she left Nohant for Paris, where she found a good friend in Henri de Latouche, the director of Le Figaro, who accepted some of the articles she wrote with Jules Sandeau under the pseudonym Jules Sand. In 1832 she adopted a new pseudonym, George Sand, for Indiana, a novel in which Sandeau had had no part. This novel, which brought her immediate fame, is a passionate protest against the social conventions that bind a wife to her husband against her will and an apologia for a heroine who abandons an unhappy marriage and finds love. In Valentine (1832) and Lélia (1833) the ideal of free association is extended to the wider sphere of social and class relationships. Valentine is the first of many Sand novels in which the hero is a peasant or a workman.

Meanwhile, the list of her lovers was growing; eventually it included, among others, Prosper Mérimée, Alfred de Musset, and Frédéric Chopin. She remained impervious to Musset’s skeptical views and Chopin’s aristocratic prejudices, while the man whose opinions she adopted wholeheartedly, the philosopher Pierre Lerous, was never her lover. The fact remains, however, that most of her early works, including Lélia, Mauprat (1837), Spiridion (1839), and Les sept Cordes de la lyre (1840), show the influence of one or another of the men with whom she associated.

Eventually, she found her true form in her rustic novels, which drew their chief inspiration from her lifelong love of the countryside and sympathy for the poor. In La Mare au diable (1846), François le Champi (1848), and La Petite Fadette (1849), the familiar theme of George Sand’s work—love transcending the obstacles of convention and class—in the familiar setting of the Berry countryside, regained pride of place. These rustic tales are probably her finest works. She subsequently produced a series of novels and plays of impeccable morality and conservatism. Among her later works are the autobiography Histoire de ma vie (1854–55; “Story of My Life”) and Contes d’une grand’mère (1873; “Tales of a Grandmother”), a collection of stories she wrote for her grandchildren.
 

 

 


Charles Nodier




 

born April 29, 1780, Besançon, Fr.
died Jan. 27, 1844, Paris

writer more important for the influence he had on the French Romantic movement than for his own writings.

Nodier had an eventful early life, in the course of which he fell foul of the authorities for a skit on Napoleon. In 1824 he settled in Paris after his appointment as director of the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal (Arsenal Library) and soon became one of the leaders of the literary life of the capital. In his drawing room at the Arsenal, Nodier drew together the young men who were to be the leading lights of the Romantic movement: Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, and Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve.

An ardent admirer of Goethe and Shakespeare, he did much to encourage the French Romantics to look abroad for inspiration. Nodier wrote a great deal, but the only works of his that are still read are his fantastic, masterfully written short stories, rather in the style of the German Romantic E.T.A. Hoffmann. By his revelation of the creative power of the dream and by his equation of a state of innocence with certain conditions normally called mad, Nodier was rebelling against the tyranny of “common sense” and opening up a new literary territory for later generations. His election to the Académie Française in 1833 virtually constituted official recognition that Romanticism had become a significant and respectable literary movement.

 

 


Prosper Mérimée


born Sept. 28, 1803, Paris
died Sept. 23, 1870, Cannes, Fr.


French dramatist, historian, archaeologist, and master of the short story whose works—Romantic in theme but Classical and controlled in style—were a renewal of Classicism in a Romantic age.

Of a cultured, middle-class Norman background, Mérimée first studied law but was more devoted to learning the Greek, Spanish, English, and Russian languages and their literatures. At 19 he wrote his first play, Cromwell (1822); his close friend the novelist Stendhal encouraged him in this literary direction.

A collection of his plays, Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul, appeared in 1825. Indulging his taste for mystification, he presented them as translations by a certain Joseph L’Estrange of the work of a Spanish actress. His next hoax was La Guzla (1827), by “Hyacinthe Maglanowich,” ballads about murder, revenge, and vampires, supposedly translated from the Illyrian. Both works deceived even scholars of the day.

Mérimée’s passions were mysticism, history, and the unusual. Inspired by the vogue for historical fiction established by Sir Walter Scott, he wrote La Jacquerie (1828), 36 dramatic scenes about a peasant insurrection in feudal times, and the novel La Chronique du temps de Charles IX (1829), concerning French court life during war and peace.

Mérimée’s short stories best illustrate his imagination and sombre temperament; many are mysteries, of foreign inspiration and local colour. Spain and Russia were his principal literary sources; he was the first interpreter of Russian literature in France. Pushkin was his master, especially for his themes of violence and cruelty and the human psychology behind them. In one of his best known stories, “Mateo Falcone” (1833), a father kills a son for betraying the family honour. The collection Mosaïque (1833) was followed by his most famous novellas: Colomba (1840), the story of a young Corsican girl who forces her brother to commit murder for the sake of a vendetta, and Carmen (1845), in which an unfaithful gypsy girl is killed by a soldier who loves her. The latter story is internationally known through the opera by Bizet. Lokis (1869) and La Chambre bleue (1872) show Mérimée’s fascination with the supernatural.

In 1831 he met a young girl, Jenny Dacquin, with whom he engaged in a lifelong correspondence, which was published after his death as Lettres à une inconnue (1874; “Letters to an Unknown Girl”). Mérimée, who served in the French Admiralty as general inspector of historical monuments, wrote his Notes de voyages . . . (1835–40), covering his travels through Greece, Spain, Turkey, and France. He was also an excellent historian and archaeologist and wrote several works in these fields, as well as literary criticism.

Mérimée was a longtime friend of the Countess of Montijo, whom he met in Spain in 1830. Later, in 1853, when her daughter became the empress Eugénie of France, Mérimée was admitted to the royal circle and made a senator. He was not fond of Napoleon III, however, and never became a wholehearted courtier. His letters to Sir Anthony Panizzi, principal librarian of the British Museum and his closest friend in Mérimée’s old age, have been described as a “history of the Second Empire.” They were published posthumously as Lettres à M. Panizzi: 1850–70 (1881).

Mérimée has been acclaimed for the precision and restraint of his writing style. Though his best stories are imbued with mystery and local colour, exoticism never seems to take precedence over the psychological delineation of character. His use of realistic detail and precise delineation to establish the presence of the supernatural and fantastic is also notable. Mérimée’s works frequently feature exceptional characters whose forceful and passionate natures have something inhuman about them and which lift them above the common run of humanity.

 

 


Honoré de Balzac


"Father Goriot"



 

French author
original name Honoré Balssa
born May 20, 1799, Tours, France
died August 18, 1850, Paris

French literary artist who produced a vast number of novels and short stories collectively called La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy). He helped to establish the traditional form of the novel and is generally considered to be one of the greatest novelists of all time.

Early career
Balzac’s father was a man of southern peasant stock who worked in the civil service for 43 years under Louis XVI and Napoleon. Honoré’s mother came from a family of prosperous Parisian cloth merchants. His sister Laure (later de Surville) was his only childhood friend, and she became his first biographer.
Balzac was sent to school at the Collège des Oratoriens at Vendôme from age 8 to 14. At Napoleon’s downfall his family moved from Tours to Paris, where he went to school for two more years and then spent three years as a lawyer’s clerk. During this time he already aimed at a literary career, but as the writer of Cromwell (1819) and other tragic plays he was utterly unsuccessful. He then began writing novels filled with mystic and philosophical speculations before turning to the production of potboilers—gothic, humorous, historical novels—written under composite pseudonyms. Then he tried a business career as a publisher, printer, and owner of a typefoundry, but disaster soon followed. In 1828 he was narrowly saved from bankruptcy and was left with debts of more than 60,000 francs. From then on his life was to be one of mounting debts and almost incessant toil. He returned to writing with a new mastery, and his literary apprenticeship was over.
Two works of 1829 brought Balzac to the brink of success. Les Chouans, the first novel he felt enough confidence about to have published under his own name, is a historical novel about the Breton peasants called Chouans who took part in a royalist insurrection against Revolutionary France in 1799. The other, La Physiologie du mariage (The Physiology of Marriage), is a humorous and satirical essay on the subject of marital infidelity, encompassing both its causes and its cure. The six stories in his Scènes de la vie privée (1830; “Scenes from Private Life”) further increased his reputation. These long short stories are for the most part psychological studies of girls in conflict with parental authority. The minute attention he gave to describing domestic background in his works anticipated the spectacularly detailed societal observations of his later Parisian studies.
From this point forward Balzac spent much of his time in Paris. He began to frequent some of the best-known Parisian salons of the day and redoubled his efforts to set himself up as a dazzling figure in society. To most people he seemed full of exuberant vitality, talkative, jovial and robustious, egoistic, credulous, and boastful. He adopted for his own use the armorial bearings of an ancient noble family with which he had no connection and assumed the honorific particle de. He was avid for fame, fortune, and love but was above all conscious of his own genius. He also began to have love affairs with fashionable or aristocratic women at this time, finally gaining that firsthand understanding of mature women that is so evident in his novels.
Between 1828 and 1834 Balzac led a tumultuous existence, spending his earnings in advance as a dandy and man-about-town. A fascinating raconteur, he was fairly well received in society. But social ostentation was only a relaxation from phenomenal bouts of work—14 to 16 hours spent writing at his table in his white, quasi-monastic dressing gown, with his goose-quill pen and his endless cups of black coffee. In 1832 Balzac became friendly with Éveline Hanska, a Polish countess who was married to an elderly Ukrainian landowner. She, like many other women, had written to Balzac expressing admiration of his writings. They met twice in Switzerland in 1833—the second time in Geneva, where they became lovers—and again in Vienna in 1835. They agreed to marry when her husband died, and so Balzac continued to conduct his courtship of her by correspondence; the resulting Lettres à l’étrangère (“Letters to a Foreigner”), which appeared posthumously (4 vol., 1889–1950), are an important source of information for the history both of Balzac’s life and of his work.
To clear his debts and put himself in a position to marry Madame Hanska now became Balzac’s great incentive. He was at the peak of his creative power. In the period 1832–35 he produced more than 20 works, including the novels Le Médecin de campagne (1833; The Country Doctor), Eugénie Grandet (1833), L’Illustre Gaudissart (1833; The Illustrious Gaudissart), and Le Père Goriot (1835), one of his masterpieces. Among the shorter works were Le Colonel Chabert (1832), Le Curé de Tours (1832; The Vicar of Tours), the trilogy of stories entitled Histoire des treize (1833–35; History of the Thirteen), and Gobseck (1835). Between 1836 and 1839 he wrote Le Cabinet des antiques (1839), the first two parts of another masterpiece, Illusions perdues (1837–43; Lost Illusions), César Birotteau (1837), and La Maison Nucingen (1838; The Firm of Nucingen). Between 1832 and 1837 he also published three sets of Contes drolatiques (Droll Stories). These stories, Rabelaisian in theme, are written with great verve and gusto in an ingenious pastiche of 16th-century language. During the 1830s he also wrote a number of philosophical novels dealing with mystical, pseudoscientific, and other exotic themes. Among these are La Peau de chagrin (1831; The Wild Ass’s Skin), Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu (1831; The Unknown Masterpiece), Louis Lambert (1834), La Recherche de l’absolu (1834; The Quest of the Absolute), and Séraphîta (1834–35).
In all these varied works Balzac emerged as the supreme observer and chronicler of contemporary French society. These novels are unsurpassed for their narrative drive, their large casts of vital, diverse, and interesting characters, and their obsessive interest in and examination of virtually all spheres of life: the contrast between provincial and metropolitan manners and customs; the commercial spheres of banking, publishing, and industrial enterprise; the worlds of art, literature, and high culture; politics and partisan intrigue; romantic love in all its aspects; and the intricate social relations and scandals among the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie.
No theme is more typically Balzacian than that of the ambitious young provincial fighting for advancement in the competitive world of Paris. Balzac admired those individuals who were ruthless, astute, and, above all, successful in thrusting their way up the social and economic scale at all costs. He was especially attracted by the theme of the individual in conflict with society: the adventurer, the scoundrel, the unscrupulous financier, and the criminal. Frequently his villains are more vigorous and interesting than his virtuous characters. He was both fascinated and appalled by the French social system of his time, in which the bourgeois values of material acquisitiveness and gain were steadily replacing what he viewed as the more stable moral values of the old-time aristocracy.
These topics provided material largely unknown, or unexplored, by earlier writers of French fiction. The individual in Balzac’s stories is continually affected by the pressure of material difficulties and social ambitions, and he may expend his tremendous vitality in ways Balzac views as socially destructive and self-destructive. Linked with this idea of the potentially destructive power of passionate will, emotion, and thought is Balzac’s peculiar notion of a vital fluid concentrated inside the person, a store of energy that he may husband or squander as he desires, thereby lengthening or shortening his vital span. Indeed, a supremely important feature in Balzac’s characters is that most are spendthrifts of this vital force, a fact that explains his monomaniacs who are both victim and embodiment of some ruling passion; avarice, as in the main character of Gobseck, a usurer gloating over his sense of power, or the miserly father obsessed with riches in Eugénie Grandet; excessive paternal affection, as in the idolatrous Learlike father in Le Père Goriot; feminine vindictiveness, as evidenced in La Cousine Bette and a half-dozen other novels; the mania of the art collector, as in Le Cousin Pons; the artist’s desire for perfection, as in Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu; the curiosity of the scientist, as in the fanatical chemist of La Recherche de l’absolu; or the vaulting and frustrated ambition of the astonishingly resourceful criminal mastermind Vautrin in Illusions perdues and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. Once such an obsession has gained a hold, Balzac shows it growing irresistibly in power and blinding the person concerned to all other considerations. The typical structure of his novels from the early 1830s onward is determined by this approach: there is a long period of preparation and exposition, and then tension mounts swiftly to an inevitable climax, as in classical tragedy.

La Comédie humaine
The year 1834 marks a climax in Balzac’s career, for by then he had become totally conscious of his great plan to group his individual novels so that they would comprehend the whole of contemporary society in a diverse but unified series of books. There were to be three general categories of novels: Études analytiques (“Analytic Studies”), dealing with the principles governing human life and society; Études philosophiques (“Philosophical Studies”), revealing the causes determining human action; and Études de moeurs (“Studies of Manners”), showing the effects of those causes, and themselves to be divided into six kinds of scènes—private, provincial, Parisian, political, military, and country life. This entire project resulted in a total of 12 volumes (1834–37). By 1837 Balzac had written much more, and by 1840 he had hit upon a Dantesque title for the whole: La Comédie humaine. He negotiated with a consortium of publishers for an edition under this name, 17 volumes of which appeared between 1842 and 1848, including a famous foreword written in 1842. In 1845, having new works to include and many others in project, he began preparing for another complete edition. A “definitive edition” was published, in 24 volumes, between 1869 and 1876. The total number of novels and novellas comprised in the Comédie humaine is roughly 90.
Also in 1834 the idea of using “reappearing characters” matured. Balzac was to establish a pool of characters from which he would constantly and repeatedly draw, thus adding a sense of solidarity and coherence to the Comédie humaine. A certain character would reappear—now in the forefront, now in the background, of different fictions—in such a way that the reader could gradually form a full picture of him. Balzac’s use of this device places him among the originators of the modern novel cycle. In the end, the total number of named characters in the Comédie humaine is estimated to have reached 2,472, with a further 566 unnamed characters.
In January 1842 Balzac learned of the death of Wenceslas Hanski. He now had good expectations of marrying Éveline, but there were many obstacles, not the least being his inextricable indebtedness. She in fact held back for many years, and the period of 1842–48 shows Balzac continuing and even intensifying his literary activity in the frantic hope of winning her, though he had to contend with increasing ill health.
Balzac produced many notable works during the early and mid-1840s. These include the masterpieces Une Ténébreuse Affaire (1841; A Shady Business), La Rabouilleuse (1841–42; The Black Sheep), Ursule Mirouët (1841), and one of his greatest works, Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1843–47; A Harlot High and Low). Balzac’s last two masterpieces were La Cousine Bette (1847; Cousin Bette) and Le Cousin Pons (1847; Cousin Pons).
In the autumn of 1847 Balzac went to Madame Hanska’s château at Wierzchownia and remained there until February 1848. He returned again in October to stay, mortally sick, until the spring of 1850. Then at last Éveline relented. They were married in March and proceeded to Paris, where Balzac lingered on miserably for the few months before his death.
Balzac did not quite realize his tremendous aim of making his novels comprehend the whole of society at that time. His projected scenes of military and political life were only partially completed, and there were certain other gaps, for instance in regard to the new class of industrial workers. Nevertheless, few novelists have thronged their pages with men and women drawn from so many different spheres, nor with characters so widely representative of human passions and frailties, projected with dynamic and convincing force.
Balzac was notable for his peculiar methods of composition. He often began with a relatively simple subject and a brief first draft, but fresh ideas came crowding in during composition until finally the story expanded far beyond his first intention. The trouble lay in the fact that Balzac tended to expand and amplify his original story by making emendations after it had been typeset by the printers. The original skeleton of a story was thus filled out until it had reached the proportions of a full-length novel, but only at a ruinous cost of printer’s bills to its author. Even when the novel was in print he would frequently introduce new variations on his theme, as successive editions appeared.
Balzac’s method was almost invariably to reinforce, to emphasize, and to amplify. There are lengthy digressions in which he aired his remarkably detailed knowledge of legal procedures, financial manipulations, or industrial processes, but at its best his style is remarkably graphic, fast-moving and tersely epigrammatic but richly studded with sarcasm, wit, and psychological observation. His command of the French language was probably unrivaled, and he was also an outstanding master of dialogue. His sardonic humour saves his more pessimistic stories from being uniformly dark, and he had a real gift for comedy.
Balzac is regarded as the creator of realism in the novel. He is also acknowledged as having helped to establish the technique of the traditional novel, in which consequent and logically determined events are narrated by an all-seeing observer (the omniscient narrator) and characters are coherently presented. Balzac had exceptional powers of observation and a photographic memory, but he also had a sympathetic, intuitive capacity to understand and describe other people’s attitudes, feelings, and motivations. He was bent on illustrating the relation between cause and effect, between social background and character. His ambition was to “compete with the civil register,” exactly picturing his contemporaries in their class distinctions and occupations. In this he succeeded, but he went even further in his efforts to show that the human spirit has power over men and events—to become, as he has been called, “the Shakespeare of the novel.”
 

 

 

APPENDIX

 


Eugène Sue

born Jan. 26, 1804, Paris, France
died Aug. 3, 1857, Annecy, Savoy


French author of sensational novels of the seamy side of urban life and a leading exponent of the roman-feuilleton (“newspaper serial”). His works, although faulted for their melodramatics, were the first to deal with many of the social ills that accompanied the Industrial Revolution in France.

Sue’s early experiences as a naval surgeon prompted his first books, several highly coloured sea stories (e.g., Plik et Plok, 1831). He also wrote a number of historical novels and worked as a journalist. Having inherited a fortune from his father, Sue became a well-known dandy. His carriage and horses, pack of beagles, and displays of luxury made him the talk of Paris. He was one of the first members of the exclusive French Jockey Club (1834). He depicted contemporary “high life” in Arthur (1838) and Mathilde (1841). The latter showed socialist tendencies, and Sue turned in this direction in Les Mystères de Paris (1842–43; The Mysteries of Paris)—which influenced Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables—and Le Juif errant (1844–45; The Wandering Jew). Published in installments, these long but exciting novels vastly increased the circulation of the newspapers in which they appeared. Both books display Sue’s powerful imagination, exuberant narrative style, and keen dramatic sense. These qualities, along with Sue’s realistic and sympathetic depictions of the urban poor, help to compensate for his implausible plots and one-dimensional characters. Sue’s other books are less successful.

After participating in the 1848 Revolution, Sue was elected Socialist deputy for the Seine in 1850. He opposed Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851, went into exile at Annecy, Savoy (then independent of France), and remained there until his death.
 

 

 
 
 
 
 

Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

 
| privacy