Another View of Renan
—I spent the year 1875 in Paris, and occasionally went to hear the lectures which were delivered at the Collége de France. After a time I sought out the lecture-room of Joseph Ernest Renan, whose Life of Jesus I had been reading, although it was contrary to the advice of one of my own American college professors. Renan lectured in a small room to a small audience, ranging in numbers from five to twenty,— more frequently the former ; but as his lectures were devoted entirely to the Semitic languages, his coterie of regular listeners would naturally be small, He sat at one end of a long table, around which were gathered his pupils in Oriental literature. He made constant use of the blackboard, and his drawings were produced with marked rapidity and force. He had extremely white and beautifully formed bands and wrists, that were in strong contrast to his general appearance, which I made a note of at the time in the following words : ‘‘Imagine a short, stout, well-dressed man, with a large head, sparsely furnished with graying hair, joining his shoulders, with only the suggestion of a neck intervening ; large, rugged features ; a florid, heavy, smoothly shaven face, more German than French, — a face that would be repellent but for the kindly gleam in the small gray eyes. Add to this a marked vivacity of French gesticulation, a pleasing voice, rapid utterance of elegant diction, perfect ease and naturalness of manner, and you have a portrait in large strokes of one of the most accomplished and learned men of France.”
After hearing his first lecture, I tarried to speak to M. Renan, and told him that I had been reading his book, adding laughingly that I had been warned against its perusal. (I was at this time a young girl.) He asked, with an amused gleam in his eyes, if I had been banned by reading it; to which I replied that I had found it perfectly harmless, and wondered what any one could find in it to criticise as harmful. After this, circumstances led to the exchange of letters between us anent some personal matters, and an invitation came from him and his wife to visit them at their home; Madame Renan coining in from the country (it was in the early summer) to their town house to receive my visit. They lived on the fourth floor, in a modest but well-furnished apartment, in the Rue de Varenue; and upon my arrival Madame Renan met me with such cordiality and graciousness of manner as to make me her ardent friend for all time. She was one of the most beautiful Frenchwomen I ever saw, — tall, large, fair, superbly formed, and at that fascinating age of a handsome woman which lies anywhere between thirtyfive and forty-five years. She spoke some English, and so our conversation proceeded in my native tongue, plentifully peppered, however, with French expressions, for which she seemed unable to find English equivalents. She told me much about her husband’s early life, — of his bigoted but devoted mother, of the drowning of his father in the port of Tréguier, his education, his struggles with his religious convictions, the sympathy between him and his sister Henriette, his final renouncement of Romanism, and his rebound to the other extreme of religious faith.
In the midst of our talk M. Renan himself came in, and as he spoke no English the conversation was continued in French. “ As Madame Renan has been telling you so much about me, I must be revenged and tell you something about her,” he began, with charming gayety of manner. “ You must know that she is a daughter of Henri Scheffer, thus a niece of Ary Scheffer, and that I first met her at a soirée given by Ary Scheffer to a number of distinguished Americans then in Paris. I thought she was an American ! She looks like one, — do you not think so ? And has she told you that we were married three times in one day, — once by the magistrate, once by a Catholic priest to satisfy my Catholic family, and once by a Protestant pastor to please the Scheffers ? ”
M. Renan spoke of his sister Henriette, and, although she then had been dead a dozen years, tears filled his eyes and a profound sigh escaped his heart. There was no mistaking the largeness of M. Renan’s nature for affection and gratitude. Henriette was twelve years his senior, and to her was largely due Renan’s renunciation of the priesthood, to which his family had in a way consecrated him. She passed some years in Germany as a governess, where her own views took on the “ advanced ” forms of German savans. She was one of the most devoted sisters on record. For her brother she lived, studied, toiled, economized, sacrificed ; and in the whole history of fraternal affection nothing has come under my observation equaling that which existed between Renan and his sister. Madame Renan showed me Henriette’s portrait, which she said was a very poor one ; but it would have required an artist of the most idealizing faculty to turn that excessively plain face, which had been rendered still more unfortunate by a cruel disfiguring wound, into an attractive one. If resembled Renan’s in no way, being long and thin, that of an ascetic. She accompanied Renan on one of his Oriental expeditions, and died at or near Amschit, where she was buried, or rather placed in a vault, from which her brother never had the heart to remove her to the “ sad cemeteries of France which she regarded with repulsion.” After her death, Renan wrote the story of her life, a book of which only one hundred copies were printed ; and when I left the Renans, that day, Madame Renan gave me one of the precious brochure, which reads as if the pen that wrote it had been dipped in tears. In it Renan tells of the trial of soul that Henriette endured after he had met and loved Cornelia Scheffer, and how, when he saw her sufferings and realized what he owed to her, he resolved to give up Cornelia, and allow no other woman to come in between him and Henriette. This resolution he made known to his sister, which so affected her that she went immediately to the house of Henri Scheffer, sought Cornelia, confessed her feelings, and declared that the marriage must take place ; but it was only after children came to the home of the Renans that the soreness in Henriette’s heart seemed to be wholly healed. Her death, occurring before fame had come to the brother for whom she had given her life, touched Renan deeply, for she had been so identified with his work, was so his other working self, that he felt she had passed away without having received her just compensation, and it left in his heart an ineffaceable sorrow.
Such, in brief, is a glimpse of the man whose recent death removed not only a romantic and learned figure from the literary world, but also one of the most sincere and devoted of men.