Francisque Sarcey

FRANCISQUE SARCEY is to-day the foremost critic in French dramatic literature, and in a country where the stage holds so high a place in the opinions of both native and foreigh audiences, the judgment of an authority such as Sarcey is often final, and always awaited with interest. His own contributions to literature have not been either frequent or important, for he has given his strength to the business of his life, the rapid composition of critical notices of new plays, new operas, new books, and even new pictures, — all the world of art is his, over which for many years he has held absolute sway. He has succeeded to Jules Janin, in the place he holds in public estimation, but he has brought to his task many qualifications which Janin lacked, and he has therefore been able to hold his own against the growing force of critics engaged in enlightening the world as to what it ought to think of the last novelty. Following the example of so many of the living leaders of literature, both in England and in France, he has determined to tell his own story, and thus avoid the risks incidental to posthumous biography. His book has the charm of that first condition of successful literary work in France, a clear style, simple, succinct, and well sustained.1 It is much better in this regard than the recent biography of Michelet, in which his widow has published so much of her grief and admiration that the story, as Michelet told it, has lost a great deal of its interest. Sarcey’s book has the advantage over that of Maxime Ducamp that it is shorter, and that it is his own story. Ducamp wants to make his recollections exhaustive, and so many worthies of all ranks figure in the pages of his two bulky volumes that they leave no very distinct impression of anybody. Sarcey tells the plain, straightforward story of his literary life, his training as child and boy and man, his hard work as a teacher, and his sudden and successful emancipation into the world of letters. It has that rare merit in a French book, not professedly religious, of being perfectly clean. It gives a capital sketch of domestic life in a modest sphere, and shows how in France fair ability, with hard work, finds its recognition, and secures its possessor, in the end, a fair place. As a child, he heard his father, a village school-teacher, read the best French dramas, and from that day he was unconsciously beginning to train himself for the future dramatic critic of the leading journal of Paris. In Paris itself, in the outset of his studies in the Normal School, he became one of the enthusiastic disciples of Chevé, the leader of the school of Tonic Sol Fa instruction in music. He was brought into the charmed circle of those who believed in it as if it were the only solution of music for the people, by his schoolfellow, Edmond About, who in this and in other respects was a sort of mental sponsor for Sarcey. The story of Chevé and of his predecessors, Galin and Aimé Paris, is admirably told ; and it is well worth the telling, for it is an example of unselfish devotion to a cause that, in the eyes of its champions, was worthy of every sacrifice. To-day, in France, there are hundreds of thousands of men and women enjoying music through the system that is here described, and even in the modest beginnings of the same method in this country there is some encouragement for those who have an abiding faith in the power of ideas and their vitality. Far more important is Sarcey’s description of the rise and progress of the “ École Morale,” the alma mater of so many of the leading and representative men of modern France. Sarcey’s immediate contemporaries were Taine, About, Weiss, Challemel-Lacour, Prévost-Paradol, — men whose training and ambition were to fit themselves to become professors, for in France the scholastic hierarchy is absolute, and the Minister of Education in Paris appoints the faculty of the provincial schools on an entirely irresponsible basis of authority; there are no local boards to be consulted, no examiners to be faced, — the graduate of the Normal School is assigned his post, and the reports of successive inspectors and a little influence carry him from one end of France to another, until he finally arrives at that elysium of every Frenchman, Paris itself, with the certainty of a pension at the end of thirty-five years of service, and the possibility of the university, the academy, and even the ministry, as the great prizes in the long race for pedagogic honors. Three years at the Normal School in Paris supply plenty of material for an account of training utterly unlike that of our colleges, or those of England and Germany, and well worth comparing to our own very different system. The business of teaching began for Sarcey at Chaumont, in 1851 ; then it was taken up at Lesneven, carried on at Rodez, and completed at Grenoble. Each change was made by an arbitrary exercise of authority, and often there was abundant reason for it, for Sarcey is perfectly frank and ingenuous in telling his story, but he does it in such a way as to show admirably all the faults of such a system of centralization. Teaching classics in each of the successive classes, then rhetoric, then philosophy, there was no question of consulting the teacher’s own fitness, or even that of his colleagues, for their respective tasks. The principal of each local college has a certain limited authority, but it is thrown into the shade by the inspectors, who come directly from the central bureau at Paris, are clothed with something of the sovereign power vested there, and make and unmake the professors by their reports, which are of course often influenced by personal and political likes and dislikes, and are always hidden under the veil of official secrecy, so that no man subject to the power of the minister knows when and how it will reach him. The only thing certain is that, after thirtyfive years of work, there will be a pension of three hundred francs as the final outcome of a life of toil and sacrifice and struggle. So strong is the native French love of order and orderly occupation that nothing short of the crass stupidity of the Empire drove some of its ablest opponents from the comparative obscurity of their subordinate posts under the government, in the multifarious administration, into public life, and, of course, into active opposition. In this way the ranks of those who were growing bold in their attacks and outspoken in their opinions were recruited from the teachers, the Normal School especially supplying subtle minds and trained pens. Sarcey took the tide on the flood, and after the success of a few experimental essays in the Figaro, resigned his appointment and began his new life in Paris. His souvenirs end at this point, and it rests with the public to decide whether or not they shall be continued, so as to tell the story of his later triumphs and the advantages of his assured position. His book is an admirable example of the merits of his style, with the clear, crisp, sharp, sententious writing that comes from thorough training, and long experience of just what to say and what to leave unsaid. It gives a capital picture of the life of the class of which he is so good a representative, of plain, honest, modest, industrious bourgeois, raised above the peasant in intelligence or education, and free from the vices and the faults of the aristocracy, but ambitious to learn and to do, proud of its hard earned successes, and thoroughly alive to the distinction that lifts the man of letters, who has made his mark, out of the rank and file of the great army of officeholders. The story of Sarcey’s training and of his emancipation from the bureaucracy into the noble army of free lances of letters is a characteristic bit of modern French life, little known outside the charmed circle, and well worth the reading, both because it is so well told, and because it deserves the telling, as a side light upon the shifting drama of the France of our own day.

  1. Souvenirs de Jeunesse. Par FRANCISQUE SARCEY. Paris: Ollendorff. 1885.