Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Of Lenglet Du Fresnoy.

TheMéthode pour étudier l’ Histoire,” by the Abbé Lenglet du Fresnoy, is a master-key to all the locked-up treasures of ancient and modern history, and to the more secret stores of the obscurer memorialists of every nation. The history of this work and its author are equally remarkable. The man was a sort of curiosity in human nature, as his works are in literature. Lenglet du Fresnoy is not a writer merely laborious; without genius, he still has a hardy originality in his manner of writing and of thinking; and his vast and restless curiosity fermenting his immense book-knowledge, with a freedom verging on cynical causticity, led to the pursuit of uncommon topics. Even the prefaces to the works which he edited are singularly curious, and he has usually added bibliothèques, or critical catalogues of authors, which we may still consult for notices on the writers of romances — of those on literary subjects — on alchymy, or the hermetic philosophy; of those who have written on apparitions, visions, &c.; an historical treatise on the secret of confession, &c.; besides those “Pièces Justificatives,” which constitute some of the most extraordinary documents in the philosophy of history. His manner of writing secured him readers even among the unlearned; his mordacity, his sarcasm, his derision, his pregnant interjections, his unguarded frankness, and often his strange opinions, contribute to his reader’s amusement more than comports with his graver tasks; but his peculiarities cannot alter the value of his knowledge, whatever they may sometimes detract from his opinions; and we may safely admire the ingenuity, without quarrelling with the sincerity of the writer, who having composed a work on L’Usage des Romans, in which he gaily impugned the authenticity of all history, to prove himself not to have been the author, ambidexterously published another of L’Histoire justifiée contre les Romans; and perhaps it was not his fault that the attack was spirited, and the justification dull.

This “Méthode” and his “Tablettes Chronologiques,” of nearly forty other publications are the only ones which have outlived their writer; volumes, merely curious, are exiled to the shelf of the collector; the very name of an author merely curious — that shadow of a shade — is not always even preserved by a dictionary-compiler in the universal charity of his alphabetical mortuary.

The history of this work is a striking instance of those imperfect beginnings, which have often closed in the most important labours. This admirable “Méthode” made its first meagre appearance in two volumes in 1713. It was soon reprinted at home and abroad, and translated into various languages. In 1729 it assumed the dignity of four quartos; but at this stage it encountered the vigilance of government, and the lacerating hand of a celebrated censeur, Gros de Boze. It is said, that from a personal dislike of the author, he cancelled one hundred and fifty pages from the printed copy submitted to his censorship. He had formerly approved of the work, and had quietly passed over some of these obnoxious passages: it is certain that Gros de Boze, in a dissertation on the Janus of the ancients in this work, actually erased a high commendation of himself,1 which Lenglet had, with unusual courtesy, bestowed on Gros de Boze; for as a critic he is most penurious of panegyric, and there is always a caustic flavour even in his drops of honey. This censeur either affected to disdain the commendation, or availed himself of it as a trick of policy. This was a trying situation for an author, now proud of a great work, and who himself partook more of the bull than of the lamb. He who winced at the scratch of an epithet, beheld his perfect limbs bruised by erasures and mutilated by cancels. This sort of troubles indeed was not unusual with Lenglet. He had occupied his old apartment in the Bastile so often, that at the sight of the officer who was in the habit of conducting him there, Lenglet would call for his nightcap and snuff; and finish the work he had then in hand at the Bastile, where, he told Jordan, that he made his edition of Marot. He often silently restituted an epithet or a sentence which had been condemned by the censeur, at the risk of returning once more; but in the present desperate affair he took his revenge by collecting the castrations into a quarto volume, which was sold clandestinely. I find, by Jordan, in his Voyage Littéraire, who visited him, that it was his pride to read these cancels to his friends, who generally, but secretly, were of opinion that the decision of the censeur was not so wrong as the hardihood of Lenglet insisted on. All this increased the public rumour, and raised the price of the cancels. The craft and mystery of authorship was practised by Lenglet to perfection; and he often exulted, not only in the subterfuges by which he parried his censeurs, but in his bargains with his booksellers, who were equally desirous to possess, while they half feared to enjoy, his uncertain or his perilous copyrights. When the unique copy of the Méthode, in its pristine state, before it had suffered any dilapidations, made its appearance at the sale of the curious library of the censeur Gros de Boze, it provoked a Roxburgh competition, where the collectors, eagerly outbidding each other, the price of this uncastrated copy reached to 1500 livres; and even more extraordinary in the history of French bibliography, than in our own. The curious may now find all these cancel sheets, or castrations, preserved in one of those works of literary history, to which the Germans have contributed more largely than other European nations, and I have discovered that even the erasures, or bruises, are amply furnished in another bibliographical record.2

This Méthode, after several later editions, was still enlarging itself by fresh supplements; and having been translated by men of letters in Europe, by Coleti in Italy, by Mencken in Germany, and by Dr. Rawlinson in England, these translators have enriched their own editions by more copious articles, designed for their respective nations. The sagacity of the original writer now renovated his work by the infusions of his translators; like old Æson, it had its veins filled with green juices; and thus his old work was always undergoing the magic process of rejuvenescence.3

The personal character of our author was as singular as many of the uncommon topics which engaged his inquiries; these we might conclude had originated in mere eccentricity, or were chosen at random. But Lenglet has shown no deficiency of judgment in several works of acknowledged utility; and his critical opinions, his last editor has shown, have, for the greater part, been sanctioned by the public voice. It is curious to observe how the first direction which the mind of a hardy inquirer may take, will often account for that variety of uncommon topics he delights in, and which, on a closer examination, may be found to bear an invisible connexion with some preceding inquiry. As there is an association of ideas, so in literary history there is an association of research; and a very judicious writer may thus be impelled to compose on subjects which may be deemed strange or injudicious.

This observation may be illustrated by the literary history of Lenglet du Fresnoy. He opened his career by addressing a letter and a tract to the Sorbonne, on the extraordinary affair of Maria d’Agreda, abbess of the nunnery of the Immaculate Conception in Spain, whose mystical Life of the Virgin, published on the decease of the abbess, and which was received with such rapture in Spain, had just appeared at Paris, where it excited the murmurs of the pious, and the inquiries of the curious. This mystical Life was declared to be founded on apparitions and revelations experienced by the abbess. Lenglet proved, or asserted, that the abbess was not the writer of this pretended Life, though the manuscript existed in her handwriting; and secondly, that the apparitions and revelations recorded were against all the rules of apparitions and revelations which he had painfully discovered. The affair was of a delicate nature. The writer was young and incredulous; a grey-beard, more deeply versed in theology, replied, and the Sorbonnists silenced our philosopher in embryo.

Lenglet confined these researches to his portfolio; and so long a period as fifty-five years had elapsed before they saw the light. It was when Calmet published his Dissertations on Apparitions, that the subject provoked Lenglet to return to his forsaken researches. He now published all he had formerly composed on the affair of Maria d’Agreda, and two other works; the one, “Traité historique et dogmatique sur les Apparitions, les Visions, et les Révélations particulières,” in two volumes; and “Recueil de Dissertations anciennes et nouvelles, sur les Apparitions, &c.,” with a catalogue of authors on this subject, in four volumes. When he edited the Roman de la Rose, in compiling the glossary of this ancient poem, it led him to reprint many of the earliest French poets; to give an enlarged edition of the Arrêts d’Amour, that work of love and chivalry, in which his fancy was now so deeply embedded; while the subject of Romance itself naturally led to the taste of romantic productions which appeared in “L’Usage des Romans,” and its accompanying copious nomenclature of all romances and romance-writers, ancient and modern. Our vivacious Abbé had been bewildered by his delight in the works of a chemical philosopher; and though he did not believe in the existence of apparitions, and certainly was more than a sceptic in history, yet it is certain that the “grande œuvre” was an article in his creed; it would have ruined him in experiments, if he had been rich enough to have been ruined. It altered his health; and the most important result of his chemical studies appears to have been the invention of a syrup, in which he had great confidence; but its trial blew him up into a tympany, from which he was only relieved by having recourse to a drug, also of his own discovery, which, in counteracting the syrup, reduced him to an alarming state of atrophy. But the mischances of the historian do not enter into his history: and our curiosity must be still eager to open Lenglet’s “Histoire de la Philosophie Hermétique,” accompanied by a catalogue of the writers in this mysterious science, in two volumes: as well as his enlarged edition of the works of a great Paracelsian, Nicholas le Fevre. This philosopher was appointed by Charles the Second superintendent over the royal laboratory at St. James’s: he was also a member of the Royal Society, and the friend of Boyle, to whom he communicated the secret of infusing young blood into old veins, with a notion that he could renovate that which admits of no second creation.4 Such was the origin of Du Fresnoy’s active curiosity on a variety of singular topics, the germs of which may be traced to three or four of our author’s principal works.

Our Abbé promised to write his own life, and his pugnacious vivacity, and hardy frankness, would have seasoned a piece of autobiography; an amateur has, however, written it in the style which amateurs like, with all the truth he could discover, enlivened by some secret history, writing the life of Lenglet with the very spirit of Lenglet: it is a mask taken from the very features of the man, not the insipid wax-work of an hyperbolical éloge-maker.5

Although Lenglet du Fresnoy commenced in early life his career as a man of letters, he was at first engaged in the great chase of political adventure; and some striking facts are recorded, which show his successful activity. Michault describes his occupations by a paraphrastical delicacy of language, which an Englishman might not have so happily composed. The minister for foreign affairs, the Marquis de Torcy, sent Lenglet to Lille, where the court of the Elector of Cologne was then held: “He had particular orders to watch that the two ministers of the elector should do nothing prejudicial to the king’s affairs.” He seems, however, to have watched many other persons, and detected many other things. He discovered a captain, who agreed to open the gates of Mons to Marlborough, for 100,000 piastres; the captain was arrested on the parade, the letter of Marlborough was found in his pocket, and the traitor was broken on the wheel. Lenglet denounced a foreign general in the French service, and the event warranted the prediction. His most important discovery was that of the famous conspiracy of Prince Cellamar, one of the chimerical plots of Alberoni; to the honour of Lenglet, he would not engage in its detection unless the minister promised that no blood should be shed. These successful incidents in the life of an honourable spy were rewarded with a moderate pension. — Lenglet must have been no vulgar intriguer; he was not only perpetually confined by his very patrons when he resided at home, for the freedom of his pen, but I find him early imprisoned in the citadel of Strasburgh for six months: it is said for purloining some curious books from the library of the Abbé Bignon, of which he had the care. It is certain that he knew the value of the scarcest works, and was one of those lovers of bibliography who trade at times in costly rarities. At Vienna he became intimately acquainted with the poet Rousseau, and Prince Eugene. The prince, however, who suspected the character of our author, long avoided him. Lenglet insinuated himself into the favour of the prince’s librarian; and such was his bibliographical skill, that this acquaintance ended in Prince Eugene laying aside his political dread, and preferring the advice of Lenglet to his librarian’s, to enrich his magnificent library. When the motive of Lenglet’s residence at Vienna became more and more suspected, Rousseau was employed to watch him; and not yet having quarrelled with his brother spy, he could only report that the Abbé Lenglet was every morning occupied in working on his “Tablettes Chronologiques,” a work not worthy of alarming the government; that he spent his evenings at a violin-player’s married to a Frenchwoman, and returned home at eleven. As soon as our historian had discovered that the poet was a brother spy and newsmonger on the side of Prince Eugene, their reciprocal civilities cooled. Lenglet now imagined that he owed his six months’ retirement in the citadel of Strasburgh to the secret officiousness of Rousseau: each grew suspicious of the other’s fidelity; and spies are like lovers, for their mutual jealousies settled into the most inveterate hatred. One of the most defamatory libels is Lenglet’s intended dedication of his edition of Marot to Rousseau, which being forced to suppress in Holland, by order of the States-general; at Brussels, by the intervention of the Duke of Aremberg; and by every means the friends of the unfortunate Rousseau could contrive; was, however, many years afterwards at length subjoined by Lenglet to the first volume of his work on Romances; where an ordinary reader may wonder at its appearance unconnected with any part of the work. In this dedication, or “Éloge Historique,” he often addresses “Mon cher Rousseau,” but the irony is not delicate, and the calumny is heavy. Rousseau lay too open to the unlicensed causticity of his accuser. The poet was then expatriated from France for a false accusation against Saurin, in attempting to fix on him those criminal couplets, which so long disturbed the peace of the literary world in France, and of which Rousseau was generally supposed to be the writer; but of which on his death-bed he solemnly protested that he was guiltless. The coup-de-grace is given to the poet, stretched on this rack of invective, by just accusations on account of those infamous epigrams, which appear in some editions of that poet’s works; a lesson for a poet, if poets would be lessoned, who indulge their imagination at the cost of their happiness, and seem to invent crimes, as if they themselves were criminals.

But to return to our Lenglet. Had he composed his own life, it would have offered a sketch of political servitude and political adventure, in a man too intractable for the one, and too literary for the other. Yet to the honour of his capacity, we must observe that he might have chosen his patrons, would he have submitted to patronage. Prince Eugene at Vienna; Cardinal Passionei at Rome; or Mons. Le Blanc, the French minister, would have held him on his own terms. But “Liberty and my books!” was the secret ejaculation of Lenglet; and from that moment all things in life were sacrificed to a jealous spirit of independence, which broke out in his actions as well as in his writings; and a passion for study for ever crushed the worm of ambition.

He was as singular in his conversation, which, says Jordan, was extremely agreeable to a foreigner, for he delivered himself without reserve on all things, and on all persons, seasoned with secret and literary anecdotes. He refused all the conveniences offered by an opulent sister, that he might not endure the restraint of a settled dinner-hour. He lived to his eightieth year, still busied, and then died by one of those grievous chances, to which aged men of letters are liable: our caustic critic slumbered over some modern work, and, falling into the fire was burnt to death. Many characteristic anecdotes of the Abbé Lenglet have been preserved in the Dictionnaire Historique, but I shall not repeat what is of easy recurrence.

1 This fact appears in the account of the minuter erasures.

2 The castrations are in Beyeri Memoriæ historico-criticæ Librorum rariorum, p. 166. The bruises are carefully noted in the Catalogue of the Duke de la Valière, 4467. Those who are curious in such singularities will be gratified by the extraordinary opinions and results in Beyer; and which after all were purloined from a manuscript “Abridgment of Universal History,” which was drawn up by Count de Boulainvilliers, and more adroitly than delicately inserted by Lenglet in his own work. The original manuscript exists in various copies, which were afterwards discovered. The minuter corrections, in the Duke de la Valière’s catalogue, furnish a most enlivening article in the dryness of bibliography.

3 The last edition, enlarged by Drouet, is in fifteen volumes, but is not later than 1772. It is still an inestimable manual for the historical student, as well as his Tablettes Chronologiques.

4 The “Dictionnaire Historique,” 1789, in their article Nich. Le Fevre, notices the third edition of his “Course of Chemistry,” that of 1664, in two volumes; but the present one of Lenglet du Fresnoy’s is more recent, 1751, enlarged into five volumes, two of which contain his own additions. I have never met with this edition, and it is wanting at the British Museum. Le Fevre published a tract on the great cordial of Sir Walter Rawleigh, which may be curious.

5 This anonymous work of “Mémoires de Monsieur l’Abbé Lenglet du Fresnoy,” although the dedication is signed G. P., is written by Michault, of Dijon, as a presentation copy to Count de Vienne in my possession proves. Michault is the writer of two volumes of agreeable “Mélanges Historiques et Philologiques;” and the present is a very curious piece of literary history. The “Dictionnaire Historique” has compiled the article of Lenglet entirely from this work; but the Journal des Sçavans was too ascetic in this opinion. Etoit-ce la peine de faire un livre pour apprendre au public qu’un homme de lettres fut espion, escroc, bizarre, fougueux, cynique, incapable d’amitié, de soumission aux loix? &c. Yet they do not pretend that the bibliography of Lenglet du Fresnoy is at all deficient in curiosity.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37