The Heptameron, by Marguerite de Navarre

On the Heptameron, With Some Notice of Precedent Collections of Tales in France, of the Author, and of Her Other Works.

It is probable that every one who has had much to do with the study of literature has conceived certain preferences for books which he knows not to belong absolutely to the first order, but which he thinks to have been unjustly depreciated by the general judgment, and which appeal to his own tastes or sympathies with particular strength. One of such books in my own case is THE HEPTAMERON of Margaret of Navarre. I have read it again and again, sometimes at short intervals, sometimes at longer, during the lapse of some five-and-twenty years since I first met with it. But the place which it holds in my critical judgment and in my private affections has hardly altered at all since the first reading. I like it as a reader perhaps rather more than I esteem it as a critic; but even as a critic, and allowing fully for the personal equation, I think that it deserves a far higher place than is generally accorded to it.

Three mistakes, as it seems to me, pervade most of the estimates, critical or uncritical, of the Heptameron, the two first of old date, the third of recent origin. The first is that it is a comparatively feeble imitation of a great original, and that any one who knows Boccaccio need hardly trouble himself to know Margaret of Navarre. The second is that it is a loose if not obscene book, disgraceful for a lady to have written (or at least mothered), and not very creditable for any one to read. The third is that it is interesting as the gossip of a certain class of modern newspapers is interesting, because it tells scandal about distinguished personages, and has for its interlocutors other distinguished personages, who can be identified without much difficulty, and the identification of whom adds zest to the reading. All these three seem to me to be mistakes of fact and of judgment. In the first place, the Heptameron borrows from its original literally nothing but plan. Its stories are quite independent; the similarity of name is only a bookseller’s invention, though a rather happy one; and the personal setting, which is in Boccaccio a mere framework, has here considerable substance and interest. In the second place, the accusation of looseness is wildly exaggerated. There is one very coarse but not in the least immoral story in the Heptameron; there are several broad jests on the obnoxious cloister and its vices, there are many tales which are not intended virginibus puerisque, and there is a pervading flavour of that half-French, half-Italian courtship of married women which was at the time usual everywhere out of England. The manners are not our manners, and what may be called the moral tone is distinguished by a singular cast, of which more presently. But if not entirely a book for boys and girls, the Heptameron is certainly not one which Southey need have excepted from his admirable answer in the character of author of “The Doctor,” to the person who wondered whether he (Southey) could have daughters, and if so, whether they liked reading. “He has daughters: they love reading: and he is not the man I take him for if they are not ‘allowed to open’ any book in his library.” The last error, if not so entirely inconsistent with intelligent reading of the book as the first and second, is scarcely less strange to me. For, in the first place, the identification of the personages in the framework of the Heptameron depends upon the merest and, as it seems to me, the idlest conjecture; and, in the second, the interest of the actual tittle-tattle, whether it could be fathered on A or B or not, is the least part of the interest of the book. Indeed, the stories altogether are, as I think, far less interesting than the framework.

Let us see, therefore, if we cannot treat the Heptameron in a somewhat different fashion from that in which any previous critic, even Sainte-Beuve, has treated it. The divisions of such treatment are not very far to seek. In the first place, let us give some account of the works of the same class which preceded and perhaps patterned it. In the second, let us give an account of the supposed author, of her other works, and of the probable character of her connection with this one. In the third, without attempting dry argument, let us give some sketch of the vital part, which we have called the framework, and some general characteristics of the stories. And, in the fourth and last, let us endeavour to disengage that peculiar tone, flavour, note, or whatever word may be preferred, which, as it seems to me at least, at once distinguishes the Heptameron from other books of the kind, and renders it peculiarly attractive to those whose temperament and taste predisposes them to be attracted. For there is a great deal of pre-established harmony in literature and literary tastes; and I have a kind of idea that every man has his library marked out for him when he comes into the world, and has then only got to get the books and read them.

Margaret herself refers openly enough to the example of the Decameron, which had been translated by her own secretary, Anthony le Maçon, a member of her literary coterie, and not improbably connected with the writing or redacting of the Heptameron itself. Nor were later Italian tale-tellers likely to be without influence at a time when French was being “Italianated” in every possible way, to the great disgust of some Frenchmen. But the Italian ancestors or patterns need not be dealt with here, and can be discovered with ease and pleasure by any one who wishes in the drier pages of Dunlop, or in the more flowery and starry pages of Mr. Symonds’ “History of the Renaissance in Italy.” The next few pages will deal only with the French tale-tellers, whose productions before Margaret’s days were, if not very numerous, far from uninteresting, and whose influence on the slight difference of genre which distinguishes the tales before us from Italian tales was by no means slight.

In France, as everywhere else, prose fiction, like prose of all kinds, was considerably later in production than verse, and short tales of the kind before us were especially postponed by the number, excellence, and popularity of the verse fabliaux. Of these, large numbers have come down to us, and they exactly correspond in verse to the tales of the Decameron and the Heptameron in prose, except that the satirical motive is even more strongly marked, and that touches of romantic sentiment are rarer. This element of romance, however, appears abundantly in the long prose versions of the Arthurian and other legends, and we have a certain number of short prose stories of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, of which the most famous is that of Aucassin et Nicolette. These latter, however, are rather short romances than distinct prose tales of our kind. Of that kind the first famous book in French, and the only famous book, besides the one before us, is the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles. The authorship of this book is very uncertain. It purports to be a collection of stories told by different persons of the society of Louis XI., when he was but Dauphin, and was in exile in Flanders under the protection of the Duke of Burgundy. But it has of late years been very generally assigned (though on rather slender grounds of probability, and none of positive evidence), to Anthony de la Salle, the best French prose writer of the fifteenth century, except Comines, and one on whom, with an odd unanimity, conjectural criticism has bestowed, besides his acknowledged romance of late chivalrous society, Petit Jehan de Saintré (a work which itself has some affinities with the class of story before us), not only the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, but the famous satirical treatise of the Quinze Joyes du Mariage, and the still more famous farce of Pathelin. Some of the Nouvelles, moreover, have been putatively fathered on Louis XI. himself, in which case the royal house of France would boast of two distinguished taletellers instead of one. However this may be, they all display the somewhat hard and grim but keen and practical humour which seems to have distinguished that prince, which was a characteristic of French thought and temper at the time, and which perhaps arose with the misfortunes and hardships of the Hundred Years’ War. The stories are decidedly amusing, with a considerably greater, though also a much ruder, vis comica than that of the Heptameron; and they are told in a style unadorned indeed, and somewhat dry, lacking the simplicity of the older French, and not yet attaining to the graces of the newer, but forcible, distinct, and sculpturesque, if not picturesque. A great license of subject and language, and an enjoyment of practical jokes of the roughest, not to say the most cruel character, prevail throughout, and there is hardly a touch of anything like romance; the tales alternating between jests as broad as those of the Reeve’s and Miller’s tales in Chaucer (themselves exactly corresponding to verse fabliaux, of which the Cent Nouvelles are exact prose counterparts, and perhaps prose versions), and examples of what has been called “the humour of the stick,” which sometimes trenches hard upon the humour of the gallows and the torture-chamber. These characteristics have made the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles no great favourites of late, but their unpopularity is somewhat undeserved. For all their coarseness, there is much genuine comedy in them, and if the prettiness of romantic and literary dressing-up is absent from them, so likewise is the insincerity thereof. They make one of the most considerable prose books of what may be called middle French literature, and they had much influence on the books that followed, especially on this of Margaret’s . Indeed, one of the few examples to be found between the two, the Grand Paragon de Nouvelles Nouvelles of Nicolas de Troyes (1535), obviously takes them for model. But Nicolas was a dull dog, and neither profited by his model nor gave any one else opportunity to profit by himself.

Rabelais, the first book of whose Pantagruel anticipated the Paragon by three years, while the Gargantua coincided with it, was a great authority at the Court of Margaret’s brother Francis, dedicated one of the books (the third) of Pantagruel to her, before her death, in high-flown language, as esprit abstrait, ravy et ecstatic, and must certainly have been familiar reading of hers, and of all the ladies and gentlemen, literary and fashionable, of her Court. But there is little resemblance to be found in his style and hers. The short stories which Master Francis scatters about his longer work are, indeed, models of narration, but his whole tone of thought and manner of treatment are altogether alien from those of the “ravished spirit” whom he praises. His deliberate coarseness is not more different from her deliberate delicacy than his intensely practical spirit from her high-flown romanticism (which makes one think of, and may have suggested, the Court of La Quinte), and her mixture of devout and amatory quodlibetation from his cynical criticism and all-dissolving irony. But there was a contemporary of Rabelais who forms a kind of link between him and Margaret, whose work in part is very like the Heptameron, and who has been thought to have had more than a hand in it. This was Bonaventure Despériers, a man whose history is as obscure as his works are interesting. Born in or about the year 1500, he committed suicide in 1544, either during a fit of insanity, or, as has been thought more likely, in order to escape the danger of the persecution which, in the last years of the reign of Francis, threatened the unorthodox, and which Margaret, who had more than once warded it off from them, was then powerless to avert. Despériers, to speak truth, was in far more danger of the stake than most of his friends. The infidelity of Rabelais is a matter of inference only, and some critics (among whom the present writer ranks himself) see in his daring ridicule of existing abuses nothing inconsistent with a perfectly sound, if liberally conditioned, orthodoxy. Despériers, like Rabelais, was a Lucianist, but his modernising of Lucian (the remarkable book called Cymbalum Mundï), though pretending to deal with ancient mythology, has an almost unmistakable reference to revealed religion. It is not, however, by this work or by this side of his character at all that Despériers is brought into connection with the work of Margaret, who, if learned and liberal, and sometimes tending to the new ideas in religion, was always devout and always orthodox in fundamentals. Besides the Cymbalum Mundi, he has left a curious book, not published, like the Heptameron itself, till long after his own death, and entitled Nouvelles Récréations et Joyeux Devis. The tales of which it consists are for the most part very short, some being rather sketches or outlines of tales than actually worked-out stories, so that, although there are no less than a hundred and twenty-nine of them, the whole book is probably not half the bulk of the Heptameron itself. But they are extremely well written, and the specially interesting thing about them is, that in them there appears, and appears for the first time (unless we take the Heptameron itself as earlier, which is contrary to all probability), the singular and, at any rate to some persons, very attractive mixture of sentiment and satire, of learning and a love of refined society, of joint devotion to heavenly and earthly love, of voluptuous enjoyment of the present, blended and shadowed with a sense of the night that cometh, which delights us in the prose of the Heptameron, and in the verse not only of all the Pléiade poets in France, but of Spenser, Donne, and some of their followers in England. The scale of the stories, which are sometimes mere anecdotes, is so small, the room for miscellaneous discourse in them is so scanty, and the absence of any connecting links, such as those of Margaret’s own plan, checks the expression of personal feeling so much, that it is only occasionally that this cast of thought can be perceived. But it is there, and its presence is an important element in determining the question of the exact authorship of the Heptameron itself.

It can hardly be said that, except translations from the Italian (of which the close intercourse between France and Italy in the days of the later Valois produced many), Margaret had many other examples before her. For such a book as the Propos Rustiques of Noël du Fail, though published before her death, is not likely to have exercised any influence over her; and most other books of the kind are later than her own. One such (for, despite its bizarre title and its distinct intention of attacking the Roman Church, Henry Estienne’s Apologie pour Hérodote is really a collection of stories) deserves mention, not because of its influence upon the Queen of Navarre, but because of the Queen of Navarre’s influence upon it. Estienne is constantly quoting the Heptameron, and though to a certain extent the inveteracy with which the friars are attacked here must have given the book a special attraction for him, two things may be gathered from his quotations and attributions. The first is that the book was a very popular one; the second, that there was no doubt among well-informed persons, of whom and in whose company Estienne most certainly was, that the Heptameron was in more than name the work of its supposed author.

From what went before it Margaret could, and could not, borrow certain well-defined things. Models both Italian and French gave her the scheme of including a large number of short and curtly, but not skimpingly, told stories in one general framework, and of subdividing them into groups dealing more or less with the same subject or class of subject. She had also in her predecessors the example of drawing largely on that perennial and somewhat facile source of laughter — the putting together of incidents and phrases which even by those who laugh at them are regarded as indecorous. But of this expedient she availed herself rather less than any of her forerunners. She had further the example of a generally satirical intent; but here, too, she was not content merely to follow, and her satire is, for the most part, limited to the corruptions and abuses of the monastic orders. It can hardly be said that any of the other stock subjects, lawyers, doctors, citizens, even husbands (for she is less satirical on marriage than encomiastic of love), are dealt with much by her. She found also in some, but chiefly in older books of the Chartier and still earlier traditions, and rather in Italian than in French, a certain strain of romance proper and of adventure; but of this also she availed herself but rarely. What she did not find in any example (unless, and then but partially, in the example of her own servant, Bonaventure Des-périers) was first the interweaving of a great deal not merely of formal religious exercise, but of positive religious devotion in her work; and secondly, the infusing into it of the peculiar Renaissance contrast, so often to be noticed, of love and death, passion and piety, voluptuous enjoyment and sombre anticipation.

But it is now time to say a little more about the personality and work of this lady, whose name all this time we have been using freely, and who was indeed a very notable person quite independently of her literary work. Nor was she in literature by any means an unnotable one, quite independently of the collection of unfinished stories, which, after receiving at its first posthumous publication the not particularly appropriate title of Les Amants Fortunés, was more fortunately re-named, albeit by something of a bull (for there is the beginning of an eighth day as well as the full complement of the seven), the Heptameron.

Few ladies have been known in history by more and more confusing titles than the author of the Heptameron, the confusion arising partly from the fact that she had a niece and a great-niece of the same charming Christian name as herself. The second Margaret de Valois (the most appropriate name of all three, as it was theirs by family right) was the daughter of Francis I., the patroness of Ronsard, and, somewhat late in life, the wife of the Duke of Savoy — a marriage which, as the bride carried with her a dowry of territory, was not popular, and brought some coarse jests on her. Not much is said of her personal appearance after her infancy; but she inherited her aunt’s literary tastes, if not her literary powers, and gave Ronsard powerful support in his early days. The third was the daughter of Henry II., the “Grosse Margot” of her brother, Henry III., the “Reine Margot” of Dumas’ novel, the idol of Brantôme, the first wife of Henry IV., the beloved of Guise, La Mole, and a long succession of gallants, the rival of her sister-in-law Mary Stuart, not in misfortunes, but as the most beautiful, gracious, learned, accomplished, and amiable of the ladies of her time. This Margaret would have been an almost perfect heroine of romance (for she had every good quality except chastity), if she had not unluckily lived rather too long.

Her great-aunt, our present subject, was not the equal of her great-niece in beauty, her portraits being rendered uncomely by a portentously long nose, longer even than Mrs. Siddons’s, and by a very curious expression of the eyes, going near to slyness. But the face is one which can be imagined as much more beautiful than it seems in the not very attractive portraiture of the time, and her actual attractions are attested by her contemporaries with something more than the homage-to-order which literary men have never failed to pay to ladies who are patronesses of letters. Besides Margaret of Valois, she is known as Margaret of Angoulême, from her place of birth and her father’s title; Margaret of Alençon, from the fief of her first husband; Margaret of Navarre, of which country, like her grand-niece, she was queen, by her second marriage with Henry d’Albret; and even Margaret of Orleans, as belonging to the Orleans branch of the royal house. She was not, like her nieces, Margaret of France, as her father never reigned, and Brantôme properly denies her the title, but others sometimes give it. When it is necessary to call her anything besides the simple “Margaret,” Angoulême is at once the most appropriate and the most distinctive designation. She was born on the 11th or 12th of April 1492, her father being Charles, Count of Angoulême, and her mother Louise of Savoy. She was their eldest child, and two years older than her brother, the future King Francis. According to, and even in excess of, the custom of the age, she received a very learned education, acquiring not merely the three tongues, French, Italian, and Spanish, which were all in common use at the French Court during her time, but Latin, and even a little Greek and a little Hebrew. She lived in the provinces both before and after her marriage, in 1509, to her relation, Charles, Duke of Alençon, who was older than herself by three years, and though a fair soldier and an inoffensive person, was apparently of little talents and not particularly amiable. The accession of her brother to the throne opened a much more brilliant career to her. She and her mother jointly exercised great influence over Francis; and the Duchess of Alençon, to whom her brother shortly afterwards gave Berry, was for many years one of the most influential persons in the kingdom, using her influence almost invariably for good. Her husband died soon after Pavia, and in the same year (September 1525) she undertook a journey to Spain on behalf of her captive brother. This journey, with some expressions in her letters and in Brantôme, has been wrested by some critics in order to prove that her affection for Francis was warmer than it ought to have been — an imputation wanton in both senses of the word.

She was sought in marriage by or offered in marriage to divers distinguished persons during her widowhood, and this was also the time of her principal diplomatic exercise, an office for which — odd as it now seems for a woman — she had, like her mother, like her niece Catherine of Medicis, like her namesake Margaret of Parma, and like other ladies of the age, a very considerable aptitude and reputation. When she at last married, the match was not a brilliant one, though it proved, contrary to immediate probability, to be the source of the last and the most glorious branch of the royal dynasty of France. The bridegroom bore indeed the title of King of Navarre and possessed Beam, but his kingdom had long been in Spanish hands, and but for his wife’s dowry of Alençon and appanage of Berry (to which Francis had added Armagnac and a large pension) he would have been but a lackland. Furthermore, he was eleven years younger than herself, and it is at least insinuated that the affection, if there was any, was chiefly on her side. At any rate, this earlier Henry of Navarre seems to have had not a few of the characteristics of his grandson, together with a violence and brutality which, to do the Vert Galant justice, formed no part of his character. The only son of the marriage died young, and a girl, Jane d’Albret, mother of the great Bourbon race of the next two centuries, was taken away from her parents by “reasons of state” for a time. The domestic life of Margaret, however, concerns us but little, except in one way. Her husband disliked administration, and she was the principal ruler in their rather extensive estates or dominions. Moreover, she was able at her quasi-Court to extend the literary coteries which she had already begun to form at Paris. The patronage to men of letters for which her brother is famous was certainly more due to her than to himself; and to her also was due the partial toleration of religious liberty which for a time distinguished his reign. It was not till her influence was weakened that intolerance prevailed, and she was able even then for a time to save Marot and other distinguished persons from persecution. It is rather a moot-point how far she inclined to the Reformed doctrines, properly so called. Her letters, her serious and poetical work, and even the Heptameron itself, show a fervently pietistic spirit, and occasionally seem to testify to a distinct inclination towards Protestantism, which is also positively attested by Brantôme and others; but this Protestantism must have been, so far as it was consistent and definite at all, the Protestantism of Erasmus rather than of Luther, of Rabelais rather than of Calvin. She had a very strong objection to the coarseness, the vices, the idleness, the brutish ignorance of the cloister; she had aspirations after a more spiritual form of religion than the ordinary Catholicism of her day provided, and as a strong politician she may have had something of that Gallicanism which has always been well marked in some of the best Frenchmen, and which at one time nearly prevailed with her great-great-grandson, Louis XIV. But there is no doubt that, as her brother said to the fanatical Montmorency, she would always have been and always was of his religion, the religion of the State. The side of the Reformation which must have most appealed to her was neither its austere morals, nor its bare ritual, nor its doctrines, properly so called, but its spiritual pietism and its connection with profane learning and letters; for of literature Margaret was an ardent devotee and a constant practitioner.

Her best days were done by the time of her second marriage. After the King’s return from Spain persecution broke out, and Margaret’s influence became more and more weak to stop it. As early as 1533 her own Miroir de l’Ame Pécheresse, then in a second edition, provoked the fanaticism of the Sorbonne, and the King had to interfere in person to protect his sister’s work and herself from gross insult. The Medici marriage increased the persecuting tendency, and for a time there was even an attempt to suppress printing, and with it all that new literature which was the Queen’s delight. She was herself in some danger, but Francis had not sunk so low as to permit any actual attack to be made on her. Yet all the last years of her life were unhappy, though she continued to keep Court at Nérac in Pau, to accompany her brother in his progresses, and, as we know from documents, to play Lady Bountiful over a wide area of France. Her husband appears to have been rather at variance with her; and her daughter, who married first, and in name only, the Duke of Cleves in 1540, and later (1548) Anthony de Bourbon, was also not on cordial terms with her mother. By the date of this second marriage Francis was dead, and though he had for many years been anything but wholly kind, Margaret’s good days were now in truth done. Her nephew Henry left her in possession of her revenues, but does not seem to have been very affectionately disposed towards her; and even had she been inclined to attempt any recovery of influence, his wife and his mistress, Catherine de Medici and Diana of Poitiers, two women as different from Margaret as they were from one another, would certainly have prevented her from obtaining it. As a matter of fact, however, she had long been in ill-health, and her brother’s death seems to have dealt her the final stroke. She survived it two years, even as she had been born two years before him, and died on the 21 st December 1549, at the Castle of Odos, near Tarbes, having lived in almost complete retirement for a considerable time. Her husband is said to have regretted her dead more than he loved her living, and her literary admirers, such of them as death and exile had spared, were not ungrateful. Tombeaux, or collections of funeral verses, were not lacking, the first being in Latin, and, oddly enough, nominally by three English sisters, Anne, Margaret, and Jane Seymour, nieces of Henry VIII.’s queen and Edward VI.’s mother, with learned persons like Dorât, Sainte-Marthe, and Baïf. This was re-issued in French and in a fuller form later.

Some reference has been made to an atrocious slur cast without a shred of evidence on her moral character. There is as little foundation for more general though milder charges of laxity. It is admitted that she had little love for her first husband, and it seems to be probable that her second had not much love for her. She was certainly addressed in gallant strains by men of letters, the most audacious being Clement Marot; but the almost universal reference of the well-known and delightful lines beginning —

“Un doux nenny avec un doux sourire,”

to her method of dealing not merely with this lover but with others, argues a general confidence in her being a virtuous coquette, if somewhat coquettishly virtuous. It may be added that the whole tone of the Heptameron points to a very similar conclusion.

Her literary work was very considerable, and it falls under three divisions: letters, the book before us, and the very curious and interesting collection of poems known by the charming if fantastic title of Les Marguerites de la Marguerite des Princesses, a play on the meanings, daisy, pearl, and Margaret, which had been popular in the artificial school of French poetry since the end of the thirteenth century in a vast number of forms.

The letters are naturally of the very first importance for determining the character of Margaret’s life as a woman of business, a diplomatist, and so forth. They show her to us in all these capacities, and also in that of an enlightened and always ready patroness of letters and of men of letters. Further, they are of value, though their value is somewhat affected by a reservation to be made immediately, as to her mental and moral characteristics. But they are not of literary interest at all equal to that of either of the other divisions. They are, if not spoilt, still not improved, by the fact that the art of easy letter-writing, in which Frenchwomen of the next century were to show themselves such proficients, had not yet been developed, and that most of them are couched in a heavy, laborious, semiofficial style, which smells, as far as mere style goes, of the cumbrous refinements of the rhétoriqueurs, in whose flourishing time Margaret herself grew up, and which conceals the writer’s sentiments under elaborate forms of ceremonial courtesy. Something at least of the groundless scandal before referred to is derived in all probability, if not in all certainty, from the lavish use of hyperbole in addressing her brother; and generally speaking, the rebuke of the Queen to Polonius, “More matter with less art,” is applicable to the whole correspondence.

Something of the same evil influence is shown in the Marguerites. It must be remembered that the writer died before the Pléiade movement had been fully started, and that she was older by five years than Marot, the only one of her own contemporaries and her own literary circle who attained to a poetic style easier, freer, and more genuine than the cumbrous rhetoric, partly derived from the allegorising style of the Roman de la Rose and its followers, partly influenced by corrupt following of the re-discovered and scarcely yet understood classics, partly alloyed with Flemish and German and Spanish stiffness, of which Chastellain, Crétin, and the rest have been the frequently quoted and the rarely read exponents to students of French literature. The contents of the Marguerites, to take the order of the beautiful edition of M. Félix Frank, are as follows: Volume I. contains first a long and singular religious poem entitled Le Miroir de l’Ame Pécheresse, in rhymed decasyllables, in which pretty literal paraphrases of a large number of passages of Scripture are strung together with a certain amount of pious comment and reflection. This is followed (after a shorter piece on the contest in the human soul between the laws of the spirit and of the flesh) by another poem of about the same length as the Miroir, and of no very different character, entitled Oraison de L’Ame Fidèle à son Seigneur Dieu, and a shorter Oraison à Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ completes the volume. The second volume yields four so-called “comedies,” but really mysteries on the old mediæval model, only distinguishable from their forerunners by slightly more modern language and a more scriptural tone. The subjects are the Nativity, the Adoration of the Three Kings, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the Flight into Egypt. The third volume contains a third poem in the style of the Miroir, but much superior, Le Triomphe de l’Agneau, a considerable body of spiritual songs, a miscellaneous poem or two, and some epistles, chiefly addressed to Francis. These last begin the smaller and secular division of the Marguerites, which is completed in the fourth volume by Les Quatre Dames et les Quatre Gentilhommes, composed of long monologues after the fashion of the Froissart-Chartier school, by a ”comédie profane,” a farce entitled Trop, Prou [much], Peu, Moins; a long love poem, again in the Chartier style, entitled La Coche, and some minor pieces.

Opinion as to these poems has varied somewhat, but their merit has never been put very high, nor, to tell the truth, could it be put high by any one who speaks critically. In the first place, they are written for the most part on very bad models, both in general plan and in particular style and expression. The plan is, as has been said, taken from the long-winded allegorical erotic poetry of the very late thirteenth, the fourteenth, and the fifteenth centuries — poetry which is now among the most difficult to read in any literature. The groundwork or canvas being transferred from love to religion, it gains a little in freshness and directness of purpose, but hardly in general readableness. Thus, for instance, two whole pages of the Miroir, or some forty or fifty lines, are taken up with endless playings on the words mort and vie and their derivatives, such as mortifiez, and mort fiez, mort vivifiée and vie mourante. The sacred comedies or mysteries have the tediousness and lack of action of the older pieces of the same kind without their naïveté; and pretty much the same may be said of the profane comedy (which is a kind of morality), and of the farce. Of La Coche, what has been said of the long sacred poems may be said, except that here we go back to the actual subject of the models, not on the whole with advantage: while in the minor pieces the same word plays and frigid conceits are observable.

But if this somewhat severe judgment must be passed on the poems as wholes, and from a certain point of view, it may be considerably softened when they are considered more in detail. In not a few passages of the religious poems Margaret has reached (and as she had no examples before her except Marot’s psalms, which were themselves later than at least some of her work, may be said to have anticipated) that grave and solemn harmony of the French Huguenots of the sixteenth century, which in Du Bartas, in Agrippa d’Aubigné, and in passages of the tragedian Montchrestien, strikes notes hardly touched elsewhere in French literature. The Triomphe de l’Agneau displays her at her best in this respect, and not unfrequently comes not too far off from the apocalyptic resonance of d’Aubigné himself. Again, the Bergerie included in the Nativity comedy or mystery, though something of a Dresden Bergerie (to use a later image), is graceful and elegant enough in all conscience. But it is on the minor poems, especially the Epistles and the Chansons Spirituelles, that the defenders of Margaret’s claim to be a poet rest most strongly. In the former her love, not merely for her brother, but for her husband, appears unmistakably, and suggests graceful thoughts. In the latter the force and fire which occasionally break through the stiff wrappings of the longer poems appear with less difficulty and in fuller measure.

It is, however, undoubtedly curious, and not to be explained merely by the difference of subject, that the styles of the letters and of the poems, agreeing well enough between themselves, differ most remarkably from that of the Heptameron. The two former are decidedly open to the charges of pedantry, artificiality, heaviness. There is a great surplusage of words and a seeming inability to get to the point. The Heptameron if not equal in narrative vigour and lightness to Boccaccio before and La Fontaine afterwards, is not in the least exposed to the charge of clumsiness of any kind, employs a simple, natural, and sufficiently picturesque vocabulary, avoids all verbiage and roundabout writing, and both in the narratives and in the connecting conversation displays a very considerable advance upon nearly all the writers of the time, except Rabelais, Marot, and Despériers, in easy command of the vernacular. It is, therefore, not wonderful that there has, at different times (rather less of late years, but that is probably an accident), been a disposition if not to take away from Margaret all the credit of the book, at any rate to give a share of it to others. In so far as this share is attempted to be bestowed on ladies and gentlemen of her Court or family there is very little evidence for it; but in so far as the pen may be thought to have been sometimes held for her by the distinguished men of letters just referred to (there is no reason why Master Francis himself should not have sometimes guided it), and by others only less distinguished, there is considerable internal reason to favour the idea. At all times and in all places — in France perhaps more than anywhere else — kings and queens, lords and ladies, have found no difficulty (we need not use the harsh Voltairian-Carlylian phrase, and say in getting their literary work “buckwashed,” but) in getting it pointed and seasoned, trimmed and ornamented by professional men of letters. The form of the Heptameron lends itself more than any other to such assistance; and while I should imagine that the setting, with its strong colour, both of religiosity and amorousness, is almost wholly Margaret’s work, I should also think it so likely as to be nearly certain that in some at least of the tales the hands of the authors of the Cymbalum Mundi and the Adolescence Clémentine, of Le Maçon and Brodeau, may have worked at the devising, very likely re-shaped and adjusted by the Queen herself, of the actual stories as we have them now.

The book, as we have it, consists of seven complete days of ten novels each, and of an eighth containing two novels only. The fictitious scheme of the setting is somewhat less lugubrious than that of the Decameron, but still not without an element of tragedy. On the first of September, “when the hot springs of the Pyrenees begin to enter upon their virtue,” a company of persons of quality assembled at Cauterets, we are told, and abode there three weeks with much profit. But when they tried to return, rain set in with such severity that they thought the Deluge had come again, and they found their roads, especially that to the French side, almost entirely barred by the Gave de Béarn and other rivers. So they scattered in different directions, most of them taking the Spanish side, either along the mountains and across to Roussillon or straight to Barcelona, and thence home by sea. But a certain widow, named Oisille, made her way with much loss of men and horses to the Abbey of Notre Dame de Serrance. Here she was joined by divers gentlemen and ladies, who had had even worse experiences of travel than herself, with bears and brigands, and other evil things, so that one of them, Longarine, had lost her husband, murdered in an affray in one of the cut-throat inns always dear to romance. Besides this disconsolate person and Oisille, the company consisted of a married pair, Hircan and Parlamente; two young cavaliers, Dagoucin and Saffredent; two young ladies, Nomerfide and Ennasuite; Simontault, a cavalier-servant of Parlamente; and Geburon, a knight older and discreeter than the rest of the company except Oisille.1

1 These names have been accommodated to M. Le Roux de Lincy’s orthography, from MS. No. 1512; but for myself I prefer the spellings, especially “Emarsuitte,” more usual in the printed editions. — G. S.

These form the party, and it is to be noted that idle and contradictory as all the attempts made to identify them have been (for instance, the most confident interpreters hesitate between Oisille and Parlamente, an aged widow and a youthful wife, for Margaret herself), it is not to be denied that the various parts are kept up with much decision and spirit. Of the men, indeed, Hircan is the only one who has a very decided character, and is represented as fond of his wife, Parlamente, but a decided libertine and of a somewhat rough and ruthless general character — points which have made the interpreters sure that he must be Henry d’Albret. The others, except that Geburon is, as had been said, older than his companions, and that Simontault sighs vainly after Parlamente, are merely walking gentlemen of the time, accomplished enough, but not individual. The women are much more distinct and show a woman’s hand. Oisille is, as our own seventeenth-century ancestors would have said, ancient and sober, very devout, regarded with great respect by the rest of the company, and accepted as a kind of mistress both of the revels and of more serious matters, but still a woman of the world, and content to make only an occasional and mild protest against tolerably free stories and sentiments. Parlamente, considerably younger, and though virtuous, not by any means ignorant of or wholly averse to the devotion of Simontault, indulging occasionally in a kind of mild conjugal sparring with her husband, Hircan, but apparently devoted to him, full of religion and romance and refinement at once, is a very charming character, resembling Madame de Sévigné as she may have been in her unknown or hardly known youth, when husband and lovers alike were attracted by the flame of her beauty and charm, only to complain that it froze and did not burn. Longarine is discreetly unhappy for her dead husband, but appears decidedly consolable; Ennasuite is a haughty damsel, disdainful of poor folk, and Nomerfide is a pure madcap, a Catherine Seyton of the generation before Catherine herself, the feminine Dioneo of the party, and, if a little too free-spoken for prudish modern taste, a very delightful girl.

Now when this good company had assembled at Serrance and told each other their misadventures, the waters on inquiry seemed to be out more widely and more dangerously than before, so that it was impossible to think of going farther for the time. They deliberated accordingly how they should employ themselves, and, after allowing, on the proposal of Oisille, an ample space for sacred exercises, they resolved that every day, after dinner and an interval, they should assemble in a meadow on the bank of the Gave at midday and tell stories. The device is carried out with such success that the monks steal behind the hedges to hear them, and an occasional postponement of vespers takes place. Simontault begins, and the system of tale-telling goes round on the usual plan of each speaker naming him or her who shall follow. It should be observed that no general subject is, as in the Decameron, prescribed to the speakers of each day, though, as a matter of course, one subject often suggests another of not dissimilar kind. Nor is there the Decameronic arrangement of the “king.” Between the stories, and also between the days, there is often a good deal of conversation, in which the divers characters, as given above, are carried out with a minuteness very different from the chief Italian original.

From what has been said already, it will be readily perceived that the novels, or rather their subjects, are not very easy to class in any rationalised order. The great majority, if they do not answer exactly to the old title of Les Histoires des Amants Fortunés, are devoted to the eternal subject of the tricks played by wives to the disadvantage of husbands, by husbands to the disadvantage of wives, and sometimes by lovers to the disadvantage of both. “Subtilité” is a frequent word in the titles, and it corresponds to a real thing. Another large division, trenching somewhat upon the first, is composed of stories to the discredit of the monks (something, though less, is said against the secular clergy), and especially of the Cordeliers or Franciscans, an Order who, for their coarse immorality and their brutal antipathy to learning, were the special black (or rather grey) beasts of the literary reformers of the time. In a considerable number there are references to actual personages of the time — references which stand on a very different footing of identification from the puerile guessings at the personality of the interlocutors so often referred to. Sometimes these references are avowed: “Un des muletiers de la Reine de Navarre,” “Le Roi François montre sa générosité,” “Un Président de Grenoble,” “Une femme d’Alençon,” and so forth. At other times the reference is somewhat more covert, but hardly to be doubted, as in the remarkable story of a “great Prince” (obviously Francis himself) who used on his journeyings to and from an assignation of a very illegitimate character, to turn into a church and piously pursue his devotions. There are a few curious stories in which amatory matters play only a subordinate part or none at all, though it must be confessed that this last is a rare thing. Some are mere anecdote plays on words (sometimes pretty free, and then generally told by Nomer-fide), or quasi-historical, such as that already noticed of the generosity of Francis to a traitor, or deal with remarkable trials and crimes, or merely miscellaneous matters, the best of the last class being the capital “Bonne invention pour chasser le lutin.”

In so large a number of stories with so great a variety of subjects, it naturally cannot but be the case that there is a considerable diversity of tone. But that peculiarity at which we have glanced more than once, the combination of voluptuous passion with passionate regret and a mystical devotion, is seldom absent for long together. The general note, indeed, of the Heptameron is given by more than one passage in Brantôme — at greatest length by one which Sainte-Beuve has rightly quoted, at the same time and also rightly rebuking the sceptical Abbé’s determination to see in it little more than a piece of précieuse mannerliness (though, indeed, the Précieuses were not yet). Yet even Sainte-Beuve has scarcely pointed out quite strongly enough how entirely this is the keynote of all Margaret’s work, and especially of the Heptameron. The story therefore may be worth telling again, though it may be found in the “Cinquième Discours” of the Vies des Dames Galantes.

Brantôme’s brother, not yet a captain in the army, but a student travelling in Italy, had in sojourning at Ferrara, when Renée of France was Duchess, fallen in love with a certain Mademoiselle de la Roche. For love of him she had returned to France, and, visiting his own country of Gascony, had attached herself to the Court of Margaret, where she had died. And it happened that Bourdeilles, six months afterwards, and having forgotten all about his dead love, came to Pau and went to pay his respects to the Queen. He met her coming back from vespers, and she greeted him graciously, and they talked of this matter and of that. But, as they walked together hither and thither, the Queen drew him, without cause shown, into the church she had just left, where Mademoiselle de la Roche was buried. “Cousin,” said she, “do you feel nothing stirring beneath you and under your feet?” But he said, “Nothing, Madame.” “Think, cousin,” then said she once again. But he said, “Madame, I have thought well, but I feel nought; for under me there is but a stone, hard and firmly set.” “Now, do I tell you,” said the Queen, leaving him no longer at study, “that you are above the tomb and the body of Mademoiselle de la Roche, who is buried beneath you, and whom you loved so much in her lifetime. And since our souls have sense after our death, it cannot be but that this faithful one, dead so lately, felt your presence as soon as you came near her; and if you have not perceived it, because of the thickness of the tomb, doubt not that none the less she felt it. And forasmuch as it is a pious work to make memory of the dead, and notably of those whom we loved, I pray you give her a pater and an ave, and likewise a de profundis, and pour out holy water. So shall you make acquist of the name of a right faithful lover and a good Christian.” And she left him that he might do this.

Brantôme (though he had an admiration for Margaret, whose lady of honour his grandmother had been, and who, according to the Bourdeilles tradition, composed her novels in travelling) thought this a pretty fashion of converse. “Voilà,” he says, “l’opinion de cette bonne princesse; laquelle la tenait plus par gentillesse et par forme de devis que par créance à mon avis.” Sainte-Beuve, on the contrary, and with better reason, sees in it faith, graciousness, feminine delicacy, and piety at once. No doubt; but there is something more than this, and that something more is what we are in search of, and what we shall find, now in one way, now in another, throughout the book: something whereof the sentiment of Donne’s famous thoughts on the old lover’s ghost, on the blanched bone with its circlet of golden tresses, is the best known instance in English. The madcap Nomerfide indeed lays it down, that “the meditation of death cools the heart not a little.” But her more experienced companions know better. The worse side of this Renaissance peculiarity is told in the last tale, a rather ghastly story of monkish corruption; its lighter side appears in the story, already referred to, of the “Grand Prince” and his pious devotions on the way to not particularly pious occupation. But touches of the more poetical and romantic effects of it are all over the book. It is to be found in the story of the gentleman who forsook the world because of his beloved’s cruelty, whereat she repenting did likewise (“he had much better have thrown away his cowl and married her,” quoth the practical Nomerfide); in that of the wife who, to obtain freedom of living with her paramour, actually allowed herself to be buried; in that (very characteristic of the time, especially for the touch of farce in it) of the unlucky person to whom phlebotomy and love together were fatal; and in not a few others, while it emerges in casual phrases of the intermediate conversations and of the stories themselves, even when it is not to be detected in the general character of the subjects.

And thus we can pretty well decide what is the most interesting and important part of the whole subject. The question, What is the special virtue of the Heptameron? I have myself little hesitation in answering. There is no book, in prose and of so early a date, which shows to me the characteristic of the time as it influenced the two great literary nations of Europe so distinctly as this book of Margaret of Angoulême. Take it as a book of Court gossip, and it is rather less interesting than most books of Court gossip, which is saying much. Take it as the performance of a single person, and you are confronted with the difficulty that it is quite unlike that other person’s more certain works, and that it is in all probability a joint affair. Take its separate stories, and, with rare exceptions, they are not of the first order of interest, or even of the second. But separate the individual purport of these stories from the general colour or tone of them; take this general colour or tone in connection with the tenor of the intermediate conversations, which form so striking a characteristic of the book, and something quite different appears. It is that same peculiarity which appears in places and persons and things so different as Spenser, as the poetry of the Pléiade, as Montaigne, as Raleigh, as Donne, as the group of singers known as the Caroline poets. It is a peculiarity which has shown itself in different forms at different times, but never in such vigour and precision as at this time. It combines a profound and certainly sincere — almost severe — religiosity with a very vigorous practice of some things which the religion it professes does not at all countenance. It has an almost morbidly pronounced simultaneous sense of the joys and the sorrows of human life, the enjoyment of the joys being perfectly frank, and the feeling of the sorrows not in the least sentimental. It unites a great general refinement of thought, manners, opinion, with an almost astonishing occasional coarseness of opinion, manners, thought. The prevailing note in it is a profound melancholy mixed with flashes and intervals of a no less profound delight. There is in it the sense of death, to a strange and, at first sight, almost unintelligible extent. Only when one remembers the long night of the religious wars which was just about to fall on France, just as after Spenser, Puritan as he was, after Carew and Herrick still more, a night of a similar character was about to fall on England, does the real reason of this singular idiosyncrasy appear. The company of the Heptameron are the latest representatives, at first hand, and with no deliberate purpose of presentment, of the mediaeval conception of gentlemen and ladies who fleeted the time goldenly. They are not themselves any longer mediaeval; they have been taught modern ways; they have a kind of uneasy sense (even though one and another of themselves may now and then flout the idea) of the importance of other classes, even of some duty on their own part towards other classes. Their piety is a very little deliberate, their voluptuous indulgence has a grain of conscience in it and behind it, which distinguishes it not less from the frank indulgence of a Greek or a Roman than from the still franker naïveté of purely mediaeval art, from the childlike, almost paradisiac, innocence of the Belli-cents and Nicolettes and of the daughter of the great Soldan Hugh in that wonderful serio-comic chanson of the Voyage à Constantinople. The mark of modernity is on them, and yet they are so little conscious of it, and so perfectly free from even the slightest touch of at least its anti-religious influence. Nobody, not even Hircan, the Grammont of the sixteenth century; not even Nomerfide, the Miss Notable of her day and society; not even the haughty lady Ennasuite, who wonders whether common folk can be supposed to have like passions with us, feels the abundant religious services and the periods of meditation unconscionable or tiresome.

And so we have here three notes constantly sounding together or in immediate sequence. There is the passion of that exquisite rondeau of Marot’s, which some will have, perhaps not impossibly, to refer to Margaret herself —

En la baisant m’a dit: “Amy sans blasme,

Ce seul baiser, qui deux bouches embasme,

Les arrhes sont du bien tant espéré,”

Ce mot elle a doulcement proféré,

Pensant du tout apaiser ma grand flamme.

Mais le mien cour adonc plus elle enflamme,

Car son alaine odorant plus que basme

Souffloit le feu qu’Amour m’a préparé,

En la baisant.

Bref, mon esprit, sans congnoissance d’âme,

Vivoit alors sur la bouche à ma dame,

Dont se mouroit le corps énamouré;

Et si la lèvre eust guères demouré

Contre la mienne, elle m’eust succé l’âme,

En la baisant.

There is the devout meditation of Oisille, and that familiarity with the Scriptures which, as Hircan himself says, “I trow we all read and know.” And then there is the note given by two other curious stories of Brantôme. One tells how the Queen of Navarre watched earnestly for hours by the bedside of a dying maid of honour, that she might see whether the parting of the soul was a visible fact or not. The second tells how when some talked before her of the joys of heaven, she sighed and said, “Well, I know that this is true; but we dwell so long dead underground before we arise thither.” There, in a few words, is the secret of THE HEPTAMERON: the fear of God, the sense of death, the voluptuous longing and voluptuous regret for the good things of life and love that pass away.

George Saintsbury.2

London, October 1892.

2 As I have spoken so strongly of the attempts to identify the personages of the Heptameron, it might seem discourteous not to mention that one of the most enthusiastic and erudite English students of Margaret, Madame Darmesteter (Miss Mary Robinson), appears to be convinced of the possibility and advisableness of discovering these originals. Everything that this lady writes is most agreeable to read; but I fear I cannot say that her arguments have converted me. — G. S.

The Heptameron

of the tales of the Queen of Navarre

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09