A French Poet of the Old Régime
IN reading the history of what are notorious as corrupt periods, it seems to me that one ought to exercise a certain skepticism in behalf of humanity. If this poor world of ours is not quite so good as we should like it in our better moods, I think it is not so wholly bad, either, as it appears when we consider the lost condition of our neighbors. The satirists, who are for the most part great liars, are unhappily the best painters of contemporary manners, and History— a good, stupid, honest enough Muse — is too often dazzled by their brilliancy, and, resorting to them as authority, unconsciously applies their vivid colors to morals, and finally presents a type which is not really representive of the epoch. If society were what history or the morning paper paints it during Some period of decadence, or after some " carnival of vice,” society would incontinently drop to pieces of its own rottenness. But the truth must be that in every corrupt age there is a vast amount of quiet virtue and purity, which form the real life of the community. Possibly one age differs from another rather in the appearance than in the fact of wickedness; the corrupt age is that in which immorality is the fashion, and we all know how many people are content with merely seeming to be of the fashion, while the great majority do not care to be of the fashion at all. A vicious court gives a vicious tone to gay society and the dependents of gay society in a capital, but even there the largest life remains untainted, and in the provinces only the idlest rich and the idlest poor are tainted. One can fancy the indignation of a good average Roman citizen at being told that certain historical pictures illustrate his character in the time of the later emperors; perhaps even an average Byzantine might justly resent the attribution of the historical iniquity of Constantinople to himself and his family; and a New Yorker of the reign of Mr. Tweed, if he survived in spirit five hundred years hence, could rightfully reject the historical inference that a million New Yorkers, his contemporaries, were mostly thieves and ruffians, or shameless slaves, the culpable prey of municipal plunderers.
In all literature there is hardly a sweeter picture of domestic innocence and virtue than that which Jean François Marmontel gives of his early home in Limousin in the times of Louis XV., a prince whose vices cast a putrescent shimmer over the whole face of society. In no time could the same family have lived a worthier life, and apparently they were not exceptionally blameless among their neighbors. The tone of the humble community, poor, industrious, thrifty, was good, and it is not credible that the local gentry were much worse people than their tenants and dependents. In fact, the conditions portrayed and indicated are such as the optimist may dwell upon with consolation, and the charming interior, so to call it, which Marmontel has produced in the first chapter of his memoirs is one to delight alike the aesthetic and the moral sense. The father is a tailor by trade, —a man silent, reserved, grave, but full of the tenderest affection; the mother a woman of natural refinement and force of character, perfect housekeeper and conscientious parent, devout, intelligent, enthusiastic. Around these are grouped the good children, affectionate and obedient; the indulgent grandmother who keeps house and who pets them and feasts the children; the good aunts who help the mother and contribute in many ways to the comfort and prosperity of the family.
“ The property on which we all subsisted was very small. Order, domestic arrangement, labor, a little trade, and frugality kept us above want. Our little garden produced nearly as many vegetables as the consumption of the family required; the orchard afforded us fruit, and our quinces, our apples, and our pears, preserved with the honey of our bees, were, in winter, most exquisite breakfasts for the good old women and children. They were clothed by the small flock of sheep that folded at St. Thomas. My aunts spun the wool and the hemp of the field that furnished us with linen ; and on the evenings, when, by the light of a lamp supplied with oil by our nut-trees, the young people of the neighborhood came to help us to dress our flax, the picture was exquisite. The harvest of the little farm secured us subsistence; the wax and honey of the bees, to which one of my aunts carefully attended, formed a revenue that cost but little ; the oil pressed from our green walnuts had a taste and smell that we preferred to the flavor and perfume of that of the olive. Our buckwheat cakes, moistened, smoking hot, with the good butter of Mont d’Or, were a delicious treat to us. I know not what dish would have appeared to us better than our turnips and our chestnuts ; and on a winter evening, while these fine turnips were roasting round the fire, and we heard the water boiling in the vase where our chestnuts were cooking, so relishing and so sweet, how did our hearts palpitate with joy! I well remember, too, the perfume that a fine quince used to exhale when roasting under the ashes, and the pleasure our grandmother used to have in dividing it among us. The most moderate of women made us all gluttons. Thus, in a family where nothing was lost, trivial objects united made plenty, and left but little to expend in order to satisfy all our wants. In the neighboring forests there was an abundance of dead wood, of little value; there my father was permitted to make his annual provision. The excellent butter of the mountain and the most delicate cheese were common, and cost but little; wine was not dear, and my father himself drank of it soberly.” Sainte - Beuve, in his paper on Madame Geoffrin, regards her salon as an exquisite work of art, and herself as a consummate artist, who wrought in the social materials about her as other artists work in clay .and pigments, with a kind of instinct, of inspiration,for a good effect. “ She was plebeian, and very plebeian, by birth,” he says, and she was not even well educated, but for thirty years she assembled at her house what-
There are some reasons for suspecting the picture slightly flattered. It is the fond reminiscence of an old man looking back over a varied and troubled career to his peaceful childhood, and it is the lesson of a father to his children, — of a father who has been all his life a sentimentalist, and who has written many moral tales for the edification of youth. Nevertheless, it bears marks of sincerity, and Marmontel was not so reluctant to paint other episodes of his life in darker colors that we need suppose he intentionally brightened this. The reader may safely take pleasure in it, I believe, as an idyl equally truthful and charming, and may trust it as another proof of the fact that there is no time or country so vicious but one may live virtuously in it. Not only do we here see a virtuous home in the France of Louis XV., but we find greater domestic peace under the same roof than it would be easy to find in those homes of the Anglo-Saxon race where aunts and grandmothers help to form the family circle; nay, there were great-grandmothers who sat on either side of the hearth, and there were grand-aunts as well as aunts to help compose the affectionate household of the Marmontels. The state of society in which it existed was apparently as simple and blameless as that of any old - fashioned New England community; and the mother of Marmontel had all the zeal of the best sort of American mother for her son’s education and advancement in life. He repaid her intelligent love with the tenderest and most constant affection, and the ties of this early home were honored and cherished by the successful litterateur no less than by the ardent and devoted youth, who after his father’s death became the stay of the whole family, educating his brothers, as he afterwards portioned his sister, out of the gifts of his good fortune or the gains of his toil.
Marmontel has told his story in one of the most entertaining books in the world, and whoever would know his story in full could not do himself a greater pleasure than to read that delightful autobiography. It is not merely Marmontel’s story, but it is a study of life and manners from which one can learn more of the career of a literary man under the ancien régime than from perhaps any other. It was once very much read, in all languages, and there are still enthusiasts for it, though it has now fallen into that kind of abeyance which seems to await, from time to time, good books of every kind; and it is chiefly the fathers and grandfathers of the present generation whom I risk wearying with a twice-told tale in giving a sketch of the hero’s life and character. The church was naturally the path of advancement openest to a country youth of poor family, and Marmontel was soon in that habit of abbe which has clothed so much literary and political ambition in all Latin countries; yet he was not so soon destined for the church but he had time to fall in love with a pretty and good young girl of his village, or rather to enamor himself of her voluntarily, so as to be like the rest in that simple society, which, like our own, permitted their innocent passions to the village youths and maids. Marmontel’s treatment of this affair, with the tragedy of his aunt’s interference, and his own consequent desolation, and then, finally, the young girl’s hurt affection and dignity when he appears before her in his abbé’s dress, is all very touching. He was going to be a priest, and he came very near being a Jesuit, but his mother’s strenuous opposition decided him against that order, and before he was ready to enter the church he had tasted the sweets of literary success in winning the prizes at certain Floral Games, or rhetorical contests, of the Academy of Toulouse, and he had been in correspondence with Voltaire, who advised him to come to Paris and adopt literature as his profession. It ended as such a question must with a man of Marmontel’s sentimental, undevout temperament: he became a poet and not a priest. He became a tragic poet and the fashion; he gained money, much of which he gave to his family, and he kept himself undepraved through whatever wrong he did, having always the grace to be ashamed of his sins, which was not the case with too many of his contemporaries. He was at heart, too, a modest man; he perceived, earlier than criticism, that he was not a great poet, but a very mediocre playwright, and he duly made favor with the powers that were for a public office, upon which he retired from literary activity for several years. When he returned to letters it was as the editor of the official journal, the Mercury of France, to which, owing his place to Madame Pompadour, he began to contribute his Moral Tales. Thereafter, he remained place-holder and poet, in a quiet way, all his life. Chosen, after long opposition, to the French Academy, he became the perpetual secretary of that body; be wrote tragedies and operas, now all forgotten, and when the days of the great Revolution came he remained a conscientious and moderate royalist. He became a member of the electoral assembly, in which he opposed the good conscience and the gentle voice of an obsolescent literary man to the fiery convictions and the resistless demagogy of the republican leaders; a new election unseated him, and he gladly retired to the country. During the Terror he remained quiet, not to say obscure; but in 1797 he was sent to the national assembly, and he there defended the right of Catholic worship, which with all other forms of the Christian religion had been forbidden by the Revolution. He was made member of the Council of Ancients, and he remained at Paris in the exercise of his duties till his election was declared void, when he went back to his cottage at Ablonville. There he died suddenly of apoplexy on the 31st of December, 1799, in his seventy-seventh year.
He was but twenty - three when he first came up from his provincial capital to Paris in 1745, with not so much, even, as a tragedy in his pocket, but with the assurance of the great M. Voltaire’s friendship, and with the promise of employment by the comptroller-general of finance. Alas (such is the sense of the great M. Voltaire’s greeting to his young friend, whom he embraces with delight), the comptroller - general who has promised those fine things is just out of favor, and Marmontel must shift for himself. Try the theatre, suggests M. Voltaire; try comedy; at the worst, try tragedy; and the young man, with mingled resolution and misgiving, applies himself (somewhat mechanically) to the art by which he is to thrive or fail. He has the rustic virtue of frugality, and it is amusing and touching to read how he prepares to husband the few livres remaining to him from the sale of a silver lyre, the prize of one of his literary contests before a provincial academy.
“ I went and took a lodging at three half-crowns a month, near the Sorbonne, at a cook’s house in Mason Street, where I had a tolerably good dinner for ninepence. I used to reserve a part of it for my supper, and I lived well. However, my six guineas would not have gone very far. But I found an honest bookseller who offered to buy the manuscript of my translation of The Rape of the Lock, and who gave me twelve guineas for it, but in promissory notes, and these notes were at long dates. A Gascon, whose acquaintance I had made at a coffee-house, discovered for me, in the street of St. André-des-Arts, a gro-
cer, who consented to take my notes in payment, provided I would purchase goods of him to that amount. I bought twelve guineas’ worth of sugar of him; and after having paid him I entreated him to resell it for me. I lost but little by it; and with my six guineas of Montnuban, and my eleven pounds fifteen shillings of my sugar, I was enabled to go on till the harvest of academic prizes, without borrowing of any one. Eight months of my lodging and my eating would only amount together to eleven guineas and a half. I had, therefore, near six guineas left for my other expenses. This was quite enough; for, by keeping in bed, I should burn less wood in winter. I might therefore go on with my literary labors till midsummer, without inquietude; and, if I gained the prize at the academy, which was twenty guineas, I should get through the year.”
Under these severe conditions his talent acted promptly; his Dionysius the Tyrant, quickly finished and offered to the theatre, involved him in lasting displeasures with one great actress and won him the lifelong favor of another;1 what profited more, it won him the public applause and made his way in the great world upon which he had so adventurously launched himself. In that world he continued thenceforward to live, prosperously for the most part, and cheerfully nearly always. He did not live blamelessly nearly always, but he had his compunctions, as I have said; he repented of his follies, and in the memoir written for his children, at the suggestion of his wife, he owns his errors with contrition, and has no doubt but they were bad. The good in him triumphed ; he never confounded evil with it; and in the end, the world-worn man had a heart in which the vital distinctions between right and wrong were kept as clear as in the days of his unsullied youth. It is impossible not to like Marmontel; he is so gentle, so kindly, so true to his friends, so constant to his humble family, so manly with all his suppleness, so devoted to good with all his transgressions. It was indeed a strange world of which he was a part, — a world full of many more than the ordinary contradictions, of license without liberty, of elegance and refinement without delicacy, of superstition without belief, of authority without respect. Sooner or later the figures of the time distinguished in society and in literature appear in Marmontel’s picture, sketched with a subtle touch of which it is hard to doubt the truth, and characterized with a neatness of which our race has never learned the art. They are all there: Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, D’Alembert, Thomas, Chastellux, Morellet, St. Lambert, Buffon, Grimm, Helvetius, Raynal, Galiani; Madame Pompadour, Madame Geoffrin, Mademoiselle Lespinasse, Mesdames Du Deffand, De Brienne, De Duras, D’Egmont, — names that summon a brilliant, restless, epigrammatic epoch from the ruin upon which it dragged the bewildered good will, the helpless benevolence, of the age that succeeded it and that chiefly suffered for its sins.
Louis XV. was king, and Madame Pompadour governed. She loved, or affected to love, letters and the arts, and society took its tone in this respect from her rather than from the king, who frankly detested them all. This prince was, oddly enough, a religious man, and he abhorred the skepticism with which the philosophy of the day had permeated literature. It shocked him; still worse, it bored him; and all Madame Pompadour’s endeavors were not enough to make him endure Voltaire. It is sickening to read in Marmontel of the things to which that great talent stooped in the hope of pleasing the apathetic and antipathetic king, — buying himself a petty place at court, and lending himself to the favorite’s schemes for amusing their jaded master; of how, when the poet had drawn the king’s portrait in the character of Trajan in an opera, and burning with impatience to know whether it had pleased or not ventured to ask, as Louis passed him, “ Is Trajan satisfied? ” and “ Trajan, surprised and displeased that he should have dared to interrogate him, answered with a cold silence.” In society it was very different. Or was it so very different, either, in regard to the society of “the great,” as the rhetoric of that age used to call its fashionable people? In spite of many appearances to the contrary, I cannot believe that genius, which has usually the misfortune to be born plebeian, has ever been thoroughly liked by its betters. It is often patronized ; having claws, it is often feared; sometimes it is diligently courted, as a fashion; but I do not believe that in any society the great have ever truly admitted it on a footing of equality. This is in human nature, or at least in the nature of things. The man who habitually dines his fellow-man inevitably rises above him in his own esteem if his fellow-man cannot dine him in return; the man who is habitually dined sinks in his own soul below the social level of his host, upon whom he cannot retaliate a dinner. There is no help for it; and for this reason the alliance between genius and rank has always been, at the best, one of tacit reciprocal contempt and heart - burning. As the world democratizes, or perhaps eommunizes, the matter may be mended; in ilte mean time it may be noted as a fact of continually less and less importance, for it belongs to the essential unrealities of life, upon which only the hollowness of the heart is set. Voltaire, whose days were largely spent in matching himself with the great, in frightening and then in flattering them, but courting their notice always, had frequent proof of the esteem in which they held him, from the time when he was called away from the Duke of Sully’s table, to be cudgeled at that nobleman’s door by the servants of the Chevalier de Rohan, to the time when the policemen of Frederick the Great insulted his withdrawal from Berlin. Those who have read Voltaire’s memoirs know in what Marsyas-state the sequel left Frederick; for refusing to back his guest’s quarrel, the Duke of Stilly’s name came out of the Henriade, where it would otherwise have been handed down to oblivion; but for his resolution to fight the coward who had outraged him, Voltaire first got certain months of the Bastile, and then certain years of exile. “ The customs of society,” says Guizot, “did not admit a poet to the honor of obtaining satisfaction from whoever insulted him.” “ What would become of us if poets had no shoulders?” asked the worthy Bishop of Blois.
This was the fine society which caressed the sleekness of Marmontel, and in which even a supposed affront consigned him, too, to the Bastile, at the suit of a nobleman who believed him the author of a certain lampoon. His imprisonment was of a very holiday sort, as imprisonments went, but that the court should espouse the cause of the Due d’Aumont against him, and that his friends about the king should be powerless to help him, is sufficient proof, if any were needed, in what light esteem a brilliant man of letters was held. He was the plaything, the amusement, of an aristocratic society in an age to which he gave lustre; he was not of that society, however he seemed to be; and all the appearances of the past that give intellect a respectable standing in any such society are simply ridiculous illusions.
“Marmontel,” says Barriere, in his edition of the Memoirs, “ paints an interesting picture of the miseries which assailed a young writer on his début, and of the courage which he opposed to them. He recounts later what reception his success won him. How wretched was the lot of literature in those days! How hard nowadays should we find what Marmontel calls a desirable position! Flatterers of the great, complaisant to the rich; parasites at all tables, too poor ever to invite a friend to their own; reduced to receive and often to ask favors from which their personal dignity suffered; . . . confined, suffocated, within the narrow circle of their necessities, their obligations, their fears, — those men of letters, who then exalted their independence, were like those dancers who display their agility loaded with chains.”
The world and art are in fact almost as alien as the world and religion. Those poor people of genius who seem to figure in it are always, I think, more or less conscious of this fact, and their social joy is from humbler sources, —from association with men and women of their own kind. In their memoirs, or' the records of them, they are always escaping from the great to the congenial, to the easy company of other authors, actors, or artists. I shall not believe that it was without a sense of his essential strangeness that Marmontel, after dining with such spirits at Madame Geoffrin’s, came to those more intimate little suppers at which he read his latest Moral Tale to “ the beautiful Countess de Brienne, the charming Marchioness de Duras, the fascinating Countess d’Egmont,” — “ those ladies who might well be likened to the three goddesses of Mount Ida.” It was no doubt rapture of a certain kind to see “ the most beautiful eyes in the world swimming in tears at the little touching scenes in which he made love or nature weep,” but he must have known at just what social value these noble ladies held the son of the tailor of Bort, and their hostess, the widow of the glass manufacturer Geoffrin. It would be pretty to suppose that they believed these charming and worthy persons as good as themselves, but it would not be possible: nay, neither Marmontel nor Madame Geoffrin believed it, though she held and he daily frequented the most famous salon in Paris, to which nobles and princes were glad to come.
ever was noblest, whatever was most brilliant and learned, in Paris; she was the correspondent of Catherine of Russia, and the friend and guest of the king of Poland; she was the friend and censor of all the artists and literary men of her world. Every Monday she gave a dinner to the artists; every Wednesday to the literary men, inviting always the same persons; in the evening she kept open house, and gave a little supper (“commonly a chicken, some spinach, and omelet,” Marmontel records) to such noble ladies as have been mentioned, to foreign princes who came as private persons, to ambassadors, who, Sainte-Beuve says, did not budge from the place when once they had set foot there. “ Her house is a very good one,” wrote Gibbon, who had been introduced to it by Lady Hervey; “ regular dinners there every Wednesday, and the best company of Paris in men of letters and people of fashion.” If the wits and philosophers about her grew obstreperous in argument, she stopped them with a quiet “ There, that will do! ” and she made it a rule never to speak herself unless the conversation flagged. Her husband was still more discreet, and never spoke at all. Once she was asked who was that silent old gentleman who used to dine with her so constantly. “ It was my husband; he is dead now.” Many stories were told of this silent partner, who never would read any more than he would talk. They used to try him with history or travels; he toiled through several copies of a first volume which different people had given him, and pronounced it interesting, although the author seemed to repeat himself a little. He read a volume of Bayle’s dictionary, going across the page of two columns with each line, and found the work well enough, but a little abstract. Madame Geoffrin’s success was in all respects one of great contradictions: the success of a woman. The people she assembled about her, the wits, the savants, the noble ladies and gentlemen, were mainly infidel; they belonged to a society in which Voltaire was reproached for deism, most enlightened persons being atheists; yet Madame Geoffrin remained a devout Catholic. “ To be in favor with Heaven,” says Marmontel, “without being out of favor with her society, she used to indulge in a kind of clandestine devotion: she went to mass as privately as others go to an intrigue.” This mistress of the most brilliant salon in the world was never at her ease in the houses of the great people whom she made at home in hers; she was a woman of solid worth and the most entire simplicity, but nothing pleased her so much as the notice of people of rank, who she must have known held her for their inferior. Let us believe that, whatever most flattered her vanity, her heart was with the gifted plebeians, her natural friends. Marmontel informs us how she used to like to rule them and scold them, to know all their secrets and direct their actions. She knew how to have her way with them by humoring their peculiarities, and Grimm, in a letter quoted by Barrière, tells a charming story of her going to Fontanelle for charity to a poor family whose hard case she laid before him very movingly. “ They certainly have reason to complain,” admitted the tranquil philosopher; “ he added some words upon the sad lot of humanity and began to talk of other things. Madame Geoffrin let him go on; and when she rose to leave him, ‘ Give me fifty louis for these poor people,’she said. ‘You are quite right,’said Fontanelle, and went and got them.”
She was all a woman in blaming her friends when they fell into misfortune, and then in blaming herself for having blamed them. After Marmontel had been imprisoned she unjustly reproached him, on his first visit; he retired, hurt; the next morning he was awakened by his servant, who announced Madame Geoffrin, come to reproach herself, and to weep for her unkindness. She was a sister, a mother, to her wits when they obeyed her or took her scoldings in good part; but if they rebelled or sulked, she very distinctly snubbed them when she next saw them, and she did not always make haste to atone for her injustices. This was her foible; but Walpole speaks of her as reason itself. Sainte-Beuve, indeed, intimates that she had too much common sense, and none of the uncommon. “ Let us remember that in all that goodness and beneficence there was wanting a certain celestial flame, as in all that talent and all that social art of the eighteenth century there was wanting a flower of imagination and poetry, a fond of light equally celestial. Never does one see in the distance the blue of the sky or the brightness of the stars.” Even religion in that century was therefore unspiritual, for as we have seen, Madame Geoffrin was religious in her way. She did not like it if her philosophers died without confession, and by dying put themselves beyond the reach of a good scolding. When her own time came, and she fell into a paralytic state, it became necessary for her to choose between her daughter, who was devout, and her beloved skeptics. She put herself in the hands of the former, whom the philosophers disliked: “ My daughter,” she said, “ like Godfrey de Bouillon, wishes to defend my tomb against the infidels.”
Without some acquaintance with a character and career like Madame Geoffrin’s one cannot quite understand the position of a literary man in French society of the last century, but after a glimpse of her salon it is clear enough. He was to amuse and, in his way, to grace society, but he was in it only by sufferance; when it would it dealt coldly, and when it would it dealt cruelly, with him. His real delights and consolations were apart from it, and when he was amusing or gracing it he must often have had to pocket his self-respect; though self-respect was in that age, apparently, a different thing from the self-respect of ours. Thackeray found that the great difference between a Frenchman of the middle class and an Englishman of the same standing was that the former would not think it an honor to be kicked by a duke; and it is possible that social selfrespect has come into being since the great Revolution. At any rate, in Marmontel’s time a man of Marmontel’s reputation thought it no shame to pay court to Madame de Pompadour’s brother, who thought it no shame to be that lady’s brother, and she in turn thought none of being what she was: they were all part of the same social growth. Marmontel must have taken whatever slights or wrongs he suffered as in the nature of things. They did not corrode or embitter his gentle nature, and he remained faithful to the old ideal of society, with its king, court, and people, while visions of a democratic republic and of a vast fraternal equality were firing so many brains. Indeed, the reader will find no part of his Memoirs more suggestive than that part in which, dropping his personal narrative, he turns to sketch the history made in his time. Marmontel was a man sprung from the people; his sympathies were with them; he had felt, however lightly, the hand of arbitrary power, and knew how heavily it might fall in an unjust cause; he hoped for a better order of things in France than that, of the old despotism ; yet he has only abhorrence for the means and the men by whom the Revolution was precipitated, and he makes you feel, as few writers can, the immense sadness, the calamitous fatality, of the king’s part in it. He meant so well, he strove so hard to befriend his people; but the wrongs, the passions, the ambitions, of his time were beyond his beneficence, and he perished by those whom he wished only good. There is something wildly grotesque, something to bewail with tears and laughter, in the butchery of that hapless creature, whose innocence and virtue and kindness suffered for the guilt, the corruption, and the cruelty of his ancestors. Marmontel makes you see the monstrous absurdity of it,; and by his simple tale of how inglorionsly the Bastile, for example, was really taken, he makes you blush for having sometime assisted in imagination to storm that prison, and for having participated similarly in other signal demonstrations of popular fury against the tottering fabric of the monarchy.
I find, or I fancy I find, in such a memoir as Marmontel’s a far more probable picture of the past than such careful and (I have no doubt) conscientious compositions as M. Taine’s offer. There is the glitter, the unnatural fixity, of a mosaic painting in these; and reading, after Marmontel’s Memoirs, the Ancient Regime of M. Taine, I am persuaded that the latter work is not true, on the whole, though probably it is not to be questioned in any particular. It assembles and sets in close order facts and traits and incidents actually scattered over large spaces of time and society; while in the simpler and more natural method of Marmontel the salient facts are relieved and explained by the conditions, the atmosphere to which the reader habituates himself, and which thus yield him the truth. Taine’s facts are like testimony in a court of justice, which, given without statement as to motive or intent, serve the advocate as material for working up the case as he likes; but Marmontel’s reminiscences are like an account of the affair which an eye-witness acquainted with the actors in it might give when not cramped by rules or confused by questions. Sainte-Beuve, indeed, complains of “the false touches which too often cross the simple tones, and spoil the impression,” but these are in matters of taste, such as that description of a good old peasant whom Marmontel knew in childhood, and whose memory he dismisses with the academic sigh, “ Ah, why cannot I go to strew flowers upon his tomb?” This is bad enough, but the critic does not find that the literary artificiality infects the narrative. He blames him, however, for that touch of sensuality which we shall all find in him; which makes him remember just what he had for dinner forty years ago, and which taints a little some of his descriptions of beauty and innocence. On the contrary, another great writer, and even greater genius (I cannot in conscience call him a great critic), Mr. Ruskin, namely, is not troubled (at least for the time being) by the fashion in which Marmontel, in the picture of his early home life, “mixes up the soul’s affections and quince marmalade. It is true, the French have a trick of doing that; but why not take it the other way, and say one’s quince marmalade mixed up with affection?” The other way is undoubtedly the way in which Marmontel would have had it taken; but I think his marmaladed affections are the least wholesome thing about Marmontel. Their unpleasant stickiness causes you such a recoil from time to time, in his Memoirs, that it is hard to remember how really genuine he is, and that this is only a lapse of taste, — Marmontelizing. Sainte-Beuve calls it. At times it seems impossible for him to say a thing unrhetorically, or simply; and yet Mr. Ruskin is right in praising him for his unrhetorical simplicity. He could for the most part forget to pose; and such is the goodness of his heart that even his posing is innocent and charming. “ She had everything but milk,” he says of his child’s nurse; then, recollecting himself, he adds, “ That breast was marble.”
Sainte-Beuve’s whole essay on Marmontel, from which I have so often quoted, is written with something more than his wonted penetration and delicacy. He compassionates and caresses while he paints the man, and he deals as tenderly, even more tenderly, with his literature. How exquisite, for instance, is the opening passage! “ Nothing is more painful to me than to see the disdain with which people treat respectable and distinguished writers of the second order, as if there were no place save for those of the first. What we have to do in regard to writers so admired in their own time, and who have outlived themselves, is to review their titles, and to separate the lifeless part from that which deserves to survive. Posterity, more and more, seems to me like a hurried traveler packing his bag, and who has only room for a small number of choice volumes. Critic, you who have the honor to be for the moment the cataloguer, the secretary, the confidential librarian, if such a thing may be, to posterity, give him quickly the names of the volumes which he must remember and must read. Make haste! the train is ready, the fire is hot, the steam is up, our traveler has only a moment. You have mentioned Marmontel; hut what work of Marmontel’s do you advise? I do not hesitate; I say the Memoirs, nothing but the Memoirs. But at each new departure I insist that they shall not be forgotten.” Sainte-Beuve has therefore nothing to say of all those tragedies and operas which “ had their day and ceased to be; ” little of those Contes Moraux, which formed the polite distraction of the prettiest and most fashionable ladies of their time; and not much of the once famous Belisarius, the tract, the essay, which was attainted of heresy by the Doctors of the Sorbonne, who found in its chapter on toleration thirty-seven damnable propositions. “Belisarius,” says the great critic, “ is perfectly tiresome, and the famous fifteenth chapter, whose theology is so insipid in itself, has lost the piquancy of appropriateness, since the absolute toleration in the civil order which the author demands is a right almost wholly conceded. I wish merely to note one fact in honor of Marmontel. When, in 1797, he retired to the hamlet of Ablonville, he was elected to the Council of Ancients from the department of the Eure, and was expressly charged to defend in the National Assembly the cause of the Catholic religion, then proscribed and persecuted; and he composed to this end a discourse which may be read, on the free exercise of worship. In this discourse, it is in the name of the same principles of toleration urged in the Belisarius in favor of the dissidents that Marmontel demands for the Catholic faith, proscribed in its turn, the liberty, of rites, ceremonies, solemnities, the voice of the bells in the steeples, and the restoration of the sign of the cross. It seems to me that this noble commentary on the fifteenth chapter of Belisarius was made to disarm logic and to hold irony in respect.”
As to the Moral Tales, “ like most writers of his time, Marmontel had many illusions concerning the goodness of mankind. He thought that all men could not become great, but that all might become good. He really believed that the world was to be reformed with Moral Tales, with Incas, and with Belisariuses. His observation as a moralist and his talent as an artist sin equally in that softness and that rondeur which never penetrates to the bottom of hearts norto the bottom of human affairs, It is to his honor that, seeing men suddenly turn furious and wicked, he checked his amiability in time, and did not let it degenerate into cowardice or baseness. When he found himself face to face with evil he had the courage to say no,” —that is, he never did anything to cause or to excuse the excesses of the Revolution.
I have had the curiosity to read some of Marmontel’s Moral Tales; perhaps I might say the conscience to read them, for it seemed to me that since I had been so charmed with the Memoirs it was a sort of duty to read something else of the author’s. I was rewarded by finding it a fresh and singular pleasure. The Moral Tales of Marmontel are moral, as the Exemplary Novels of Cervantes are exemplary: the adjectives are used in an old literary sense, and do not quite promise the spiritual edification of the reader, or if they promise it do not fulfill the promise. These tales are light, elegant, and graceful beyond anything to which I can compare them in English: their form is exquisite, and they are sometimes imagined with a fineness, a poetic subtlety, that is truly delicious. If the reader can fancy the humor of some of the stories in the Spectator turned wit, their grace indefinitely enhanced, their not very keen perception of the delicate and the indelicate indefinitely blunted, their characterization sharpened almost to an edge of cynicism at times, he will have something like an image of the Moral Tales in his mind. They are not such reading as we might now put into young people’s hands without fear of offending their modesty, but they must have seemed miracles of purity in their time, when the most fashionable books were of the most indecent sort; and they certainly take the side of virtue, of common sense, and of nature whenever there is question of these in the plot. They do their best to show vice stupid and wretched; but it is perhaps better not to show vice at all to the young and innocent? The very diction of the eighteenth century was obtuse and offensive when it came to matters of sentiment: the hero in She Stoops to Conquer has no other way of telling the heroine that he loves her for herself alone than to say that it is her “person” he wants; those loathsome ancestors when in love are always burning and freezing in the most disgusting manner. The reader will therefore allow for something coarse in the best intention of Marmontel; the over-obviousness of the lessons he inculcates makes one marvel at the world in which he lived, till one remembers that it was that fashionable world which is always so small in every community, and whose scandals are always worse than its facts. Sometimes the persons of the tales, who are always French, masquerade as Orientals or Greeks, and having no religion of their own are indifferently Moslems and pagans. Sometimes they are abstractly named Cecilia and Doriman, Belisa and Lindor; but they are realities of the gay world in that pastoralesque disguise, all the same, and their circumstances are those of the time of Louis XV. I have spoken of a real poetic breath in some of them, as in that pretty story of Two Unfortunate Ladies, where a young girl, forced to part from her lover and take the veil, regrets him through a long life of seclusion; in her age she is summoned to console an unhappy woman who has taken refuge in her convent from the cruelties of her husband; of course the cruel husband proves to be the lover so long lost and lamented. Not all the Moral Tales are so hopelessly tragic; some of them are even too cheerful. What would we think of a moral tale written nowadays which opened with the sentence, “ At that time of life when it is so agreeable to be a widow " ?
In fine, these little stories are exquisite pictures of manners, and concern themselves little or perfunctorily with morality, though it is but right to say that Marmontel sincerely inculcates the advantage of having, in all circumstances, a good and kind heart and a sober judgment: light husbands and wives are shown the folly of being fools, and young ladies are strongly counseled to marry the young men of just sentiments and sensible behavior, and not the fops who will be sure to make their lives wretched.
W. D. Howells.
- Marmontel’s account of his attempt to reconcile Mademoiselle Gaussin to his preference for Mademoiselle Clairon is one of the most amusing and characteristic passages of his history: “ When the performers had granted me a free admission to the theatre, Mademoiselle Gaussin had been the most eager to solicit in my favor. It was she who played the parts of princesses; she excelled particularly in all tender parts, and such as required only the simple expression of Love and grief. Beautiful, and of the most touching kind of beauty, with a tone of voice that went to the heart, and a look that when in tears had an inexpressible charm, her simplicity, when well placed, defied criticism. . . Never did the jealousy of talent inspire more hatred than the beautiful Gaussin bore the young Clairon. The latter had not the same charm in her face; but, in her, the features, the voice, the look, the action, and above all the dignity, the energy of character, all accorded to express violent passion and elevated sentiment. . . . In a character of force, dignity, and enthusiasm, such as that of Arétic, I could not hesitate between her and her rival : and, in spite of my repugnance to disoblige the one, I determined to offer it to the other. The indignation of Mademoiselle Gaussin could not contain itself. . . . Mademoiselle Clairon became angry in her turn, and obliged me to follow her into the box of her rival; and there, without having told me what she was going to do : ' Here, Mademoiselle,’said she, ‘ I bring him to you, and to let you see whether I have beguiled him, whether I have even solicited the preference he has given me, I declare to you, and I declare to him, that, if I accept the part, it shall only be from your hand.’ With these words she threw the manuscript on the toilet-table in the box, and left me there.↩
- “ I was then twenty-four, and I found myself téte-à-tête with the most beautiful woman in the world. Her trembling hands clasped mine, and I may say that her fine eyes were fixed like suppliants on mine. ' What then have I done to you,’ said she, with her gentle voice, ' to deserve the humiliation and the grief you cause me ? When M. de Voltaire requested for you a free admission to this theatre, it was I who spoke for you. When you read your tragedy, no one was more alive to its beauties than I. I listened attentively to the part of Arétie ; and I was too much affected by it not to flatter myself that I should play it as I felt it. Why then deprive me of it? It belongs to me by the right of seniority, and perhaps by some other title. You do me an injury by giving it to any other, and I doubt whether you benefit yourself. Believe me, it is not the noise of labored declamation that suits this character. Reflect well on it. My own success is dear to me, but yours is not less so, and it would be a grateful pleasure to me to have contributed to it.’↩
- “ I confess that the effort I made over myself was painful. My eyes, my ears, my heart, were exposed without defense to the gentlest of enchantments. Charmed by all my senses, moved to the bottom of my heart, I was in immediate danger of falling at the knees of her who seemed disposed to receive me kindly. But the fate of my work de pended on it, my only hope, and the well-being of my poor children ; and the alternative of failure or complete success was so vividly present to my mind that this interest prevailed over all the emotions with which I was agitated.↩
- “ ‘ Mademoiselle,: said I, ' were I so happy as to have written such a part as that of Andromaque, Iphigenie, Zaïre, or Inis, I should be at your feet to pray you to give it still greater effect. No one feels better than I the charm that you add to the expression of touching sorrow, or of timid and tender love. But, unfortunately, the fable of my play is not suited to such a character ; and, though the powers that this requires are less rare, less precious, than the engaging simplicity which you possess, you will yourself allow that they are quite different. I shall one day perhaps have an occasion to employ with advantage the gentle accents of your voice, those enchanting looks, those eloquent tears, that divine beauty, in a part that is worthy of you. Leave the perils and risks of my first effort to her who is willing to run them ; and, by reserving to yourself the honor of having resigned the character to her, avoid the dangers which in playing it you would yourself share with me.’ ‘ You have said enoughsaid she, disguising her displeasure. ' It is you who request it ; I give up the part.’ Then, taking the manuscript from her toilet-table, she went down with me, and, finding Mademoiselle Clairon in the green-room, ' I restore to you,’ said she, with an ironical smile, ‘ and I restore to you without regret, the part from which you expect such success and glory. I am of your opinion, that it suits you better than me.' Mademoiselle Clairon received it with modest dignity : and I in silence, without daring to look up, waited the close of the scene. But in the evening, at supper, tête-à-tête with my actress, I breathed free from the embarrassment into which she had plunged me. She was not a little sensible of the constancy with which I had sustained this trial, and it was this incident that gave birth to that lasting friendship which has grown old with us.↩