A German Agitator and a French Dilettante
IT may be said with truth that there are but few novels in any tongue that will compare in interest with Helene von Racowitza’s Meine Beziehungen zu Ferdinand Lassalle.1 It bears witness, however, to the difference between fact and fiction — a difference to the credit of fiction — that distinguishes real stories from anecdotes. A more humiliating story to read, and indeed a more humiliating confession to write, it would be hard to find, and yet it is easy to see how the whole matter came about. Possibly, a glance at the writer’s portrait will explain the failure of her life. She is certainly striking-looking, and, in a way, handsome, but with a weak face that gives emphatic corroboration to her narration. It will be remembered that it was she with whom Lassalle was in love. Lassalle was a famous German socialist, who has left his mark on contemporary German thought. She was almost a child in years when she first met him, and one gathers that she was an attractive creature, and the two fell instantly in love. He was twice her age, and in many ways, from his democratic affiliations, his Jewish birth, and his stormy past, anything but the man whom a German diplomatist, who was anxious to maintain his position, would welcome as a son - in - law. From the first, her parents tried to prevent their meeting, but with only the usual success ; to be sure, the two young people saw very little of one another, but enough to determine to marry. It was during a visit to Switzerland that Helene became engaged to Lassalle. When she announced this fact to her family, there was enormous commotion. She ran off to the hotel whence Lassalle was to issue to overcome her parents by his many fascinations. He had already before this tried to simplify matters by urging her to run away with him, but she had refused. Now she proposed the same course to him, but this time he refused, and he sent her back to her home. She tells at some length how her family broke her spirit, and made her an unwilling tool to break off the match and rid them of Lassalle. When, finally, a young man, who had long been in love with her, killed Lassalle in a duel, she suffered a good deal, hut shortly afterward she consented to marry him.
Certainly, it is only the surly fathers of pretty, addle-pated daughters — such as the middle-aged observer sees in farces, and the youthful lover in very kindly old gentlemen — who can find cause for pleasure in this pitiable tale. There are, of course, some girls who would not have yielded in this way, but she brings forward in excuse her ignorance of her lover’s real character ; and there are some young men who would have been quick to run off with her, and the principal excuse for Lassalle we may take to be this, — that he had boundless confidence in his power to win the enraged parents to his way of thinking; but one cannot help thinking that he overestimated his own powers.
One is safe in saying that the novelist would have brought things to another conclusion, but the statement that Tourguéneff drew his Helene, in On the Eve, from the lady whose adventures have just been mentioned is a hasty one ; for On the Eve was published in 1859, and at that time the other Helene had never met Lassalle. But looking on it as a bit of writing, which is after all its main interest to us, one must say that the book is very interesting, like any true report of life, or of the tragedy of any human being’s life. Certainly, the writer has the merit of frankness, and she makes no effort to give facts any false name. She says that in writing the book, with its full and true account of her acquaintance with Lassalle, she hopes in some measure to mitigate the blame that has been attached to her in the matter. But this wish to justify herself does not diminish her frankness ; on the contrary, she apparently tries to place the facts before the reader as simply and fully as possible, relying on the truth of the old saying, " Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.” On the whole, one cannot help feeling pity and sympathy for the impetuous, romantic, high-spirited girl who was so ill brought up that the wonder was that she did not fall into even more mistakes of action than was the case. It is yet to be understood that the book is of the nature of a special plea for herself against the blame that she has received as the indirect cause of Lassalle’s death. But it is strange to come across a verbatim account of her conversation with him at their second meeting, at a public ball, when, in a pause of the dance, he asked her what she would do if she were his wife, and she were to see him ascending the scaffold to meet his death. She answered, “ I should wait until they had cut off that proud head, that those eagle eyes might have something they loved to rest upon until the last moment, and then I would take poison.”
One does not like to think of her unavailing regret, as she wrote these lines, that, instead of such an ending of their ardent love, he should have been killed in a duel on her account, and she should have let herself be persuaded into marrying the man who shot him. It would be hard to imagine a more bitter sarcasm on the difference between our notion of ourselves and what we actually are.
Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it is at times not so beautiful, as we may see by comparing the fate of this Helene with Tourguéneff’s Helene, the circumstances of whose life bear so striking a resemblance to those of the one who lived to record her career. But in the novel Bersenieff did not draw back when he was asked to run away with the woman he loved, and we are brought back to our original feeling that if a loving, headlong, easily influenced girl is to act like a heroine she must have a whole-hearted hero to inspire her, and not a man who is the prey of vanity and ambition, as we must suspect Lassalle to have been.
It is uot unfair to look upon Helene von Racowitza’s book as a special plea, as the presentation of her side of an interesting case, but the reader who wishes to learn more about the questions she raises will not feel contented unless he reads Kutschbach’s little volume,2 which brings forward a great deal of new testimony, and, from its impartial summing up of the words of various witnesses, may be looked upon as a sort of judge’s charge. Helene’s book is interesting, but it grows dull by the side of this fuller volume, and many of the points that are left in the dark by her have the full light of day thrown upon them by this writer.
What is made pretty clear is that Lassalle was more indifferent to Helene at the period before they met in Switzerland than she supposed. This is not a very important matter, however, for there is no doubt that he was in love with her after that time. What seemed inexplicable was his treatment of her when she fled from her father’s house, and offered to run away with him. He simply upbraided her for acting foolishly, and sent her back to her parents. It is true that she had promised not to speak to them of the matter until he Should reach Geneva, but when she found her family rejoicing and inclined to amiability on account of the recent engagement of her sister, she judged it a fitting moment to try her luck with her parents. Naturally enough, the contrast between this new love affair and the one they were rubbing their hands over did but drive the parents, and especially the stern father, to greater wrath.
Lassalle’s rejection of Helene was the turning-point in this tragic history. She went back to her home, possibly mortally wounded by his treatment. He, on the other hand, then first began to think seriously of her. In two or three of his letters, — not with perfect tact, it must be acknowledged, — he says that be only began to love her a few hours after that unfortunate affair. But from that moment he set to work with the utmost energy he summoned his most trustworthy friends to his aid ; ho sent letters to Helene by various messengers ; he went to Munich to get the help of the state department in opposing Helene’s father, who was in the diplomatic service. In a word, he took the most active measures to undo what he then thought to be his folly, and to get back the opportunity he had once let slip through his fingers.
His letters to her gave her full information about the way she should conduct herself, in order to escape from her father’s persecution. He besought her to stand firm, and when he began to hear of her wavering, he spoke with mingled severity and entreaty. This writer makes it very plain that Helene is inexact in her defense of herself; in certain particulars she is condemned by very strong testimony. But, however that may be, she, as she says, soon yielded to her parents’ wishes, and threw Lassalle over. That she did this with extreme readiness no one who has read much fiction can for a moment doubt. Meanwhile Lassalle was moving heaven and earth to win her, and raging like a lion over all the obstacles that stood in his way. Her conduct may with justice be called heartless ; but then he knew before that she had no will of her own, and the reader’s sympathy for him is tempered by the thought that she was so little worthy of all this passionate devotion.
Yet when one speaks of passionate devotion, one cannot help thinking of two or three instances of Lassalle’s grossness, that are disclosed in this book, that will make many estimable people regret only that it was not they who fired the pistol that mortally wounded him. When he learned that she was false to him,—and anything more enraging than Helene’s conduct no novelist could devise,—he wrote to her father a letter in which he said that since he was now convinced that Helene was “ a contemptible drab ” he had no reason for not calling out the old gentleman, who had so insulted him. In short, he brought his death upon himself, and it was the only conclusion, in his eyes, to as complicated a bit of love business as one often finds reported in the nobler, or at least more pretentious, gossip of printed books. But where is the person, man or woman, who is really indifferent to gossip ? In other words, who is absolutely indifferent to every one else ?
It is a curious fact that Théophile Gautier has ceased to be a contemporary writer so soon after his death. This statement is not a bull, it may be well to say, hut simply a recognition of the fact that what he aimed at doing has ceased to be the aim of the new generation of writers. With him, to state it broadly, execution was everything ; but nowadays, taking Daudet and Zola for examples, the execution is of less moment, and the main thing is the matter that has to be expressed. Thus, Daudet’s Les Rois en Exil is made of long episodes and detached incidents; there is no separate, distinctly marked catastrophe ; the book is a serious work, not an accumulation of cleverness. Gautier could run on, too, at will, as his Le Capitaine Fracasse shows; but his lighter work, and more especially his poetry, gives us only the spectacle of a man playing with difficulties, and continually surprising us by his dexterity. It is an ungrateful person who does not derive pleasure from Gautier’s wonderful performance, but one does not have to be a very stern moralist to insist that real greatness is a very different thing from the possession of any conceivable amount of skill. The disadvantages of Gautier’s theories were seen when Tom, Dick, and Harry decided that it made no difference what they wrote about, so long as they expressed themselves with grace, and that he was an evil-minded man who asked what was the use of blowing soapbubbles. But Gautier was better than his imitators, and we can admire him without making it an article of literary faith that it is necessary for every one to try to do what he almost alone could do well. These are thoughts which suggest themselves on taking up a little volume about Gautier that his son-in-law and fond admirer, Emile Bergerat, has just published.3 The author knew Gautier for only the last few years of his life, but he has succeeded in giving us what is really a distinct impression of the charm the poet exercised upon his friends. The book contains, too, scraps of his talk, which will be found interesting. Here is one remark: “ While man wholly dies, there is nothing about him that dies so truly as his voice. We know, or at least we can imagine, what becomes of the rest of him, but what becomes of the voice ? What is there left of it? Nothing can recall the memory of a human voice to those who have forgotten it; nothing can give an idea of it to those who have not heard it. It is absolutely annihilated. It returns to chaos without leaving any trace; a voice that is extinct is extinct forever, and ail nature, with its hundred thousand orchestras, and the infinitely multiplied echoes of its orchestras, will never by any chance find it again. No sound of it, no notion! There is nothing to fix its modulation, to attest its charm and quality, — nothing! ”
There are passages in the book, however, and notably some of Gautier’s poems, which serve to give a complete notion of one part of that eminent writer’s nature, while they indicate very clearly one radical difference between French literature and that of some other countries. These are those poems which could not be published in any collection with claims to being thought reputable. M. Bergerat, who desires to be a faithful chronicler, shows us those qualities in his father in-law which one whom lie would call prudish would endeavor to hide. But when one is speaking about Théophile Gautier, one is privileged to be almost as frank as he himself was, and all of his offenses against conventional propriety were in good part redeemed by his child-like unconsciousness of the way he was shocking his contemporaries. It should be said about this book that it brings Gautier vividly before us, and that this result is the more remarkable in view of the slight quantity of material that the author was able to make use of. What we have here makes us only regret the more that we have no full report of the distinguished writer when a young man. He must have been a strange character even for Paris.
- Meine Beziehungen zu Ferdinand Lassalle. Von HELENE VON RACOWITZA, geb. v. Dönniges. Breslau und Leipzig: S. Schottländer. Boston: C. Schönhof. 1879.↩
- Lassalle’s Tod. Tm Anschluss an die Memoiren der Helene von Racowitza: Meine Beziehungen zu Ferdinand Lassalle, zur Ergänzung derselben. Von A. KUTSCHBACH. Chemnitz: Schmeitznet. New York: E. Steiger. Boston: C. Schönhof. 1880.↩
- Théophile Gautier. Entretiens, Souvenirs, et Correspondance. Paris: Charpentier. Boston: Schonhof. 1879.↩