A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 4.

Historians, Memoir-writers, Letter-writers.

Although the seventeenth century did not witness the acceptance in France of what may be called a philosophical conception of history, and though few or none of the regular histories of the time (with the exception of that of Mézeray) hold high rank as literature, no period was more fruitful in memoirs, letters, and separate historical sketches of the first merit. The names of Madame de Sévigné, of the Cardinal de Retz, of La Rochefoucauld, and at the extreme end of the period of Saint Simon, rank among those of the most original writers of France, while the historical essay has rarely assumed a more thoroughly literary form than in the short sketches of Retz, Sarrasin, and others. The subject of the present chapter may, therefore, be divided into four parts, the historians properly so called (the least interesting of the four), the historical essayists, the memoir-writers, and the letter-writers, with an appendix of erudite cultivators of historical science and of miscellaneous authors of historical gossip and other matters.

General Historians. Mézeray.

253It is said not unfrequently that the only historical work of this particular period, combining magnitude of subject with elevation and originality of thought and literary excellence of expression, is Bossuet's discourse on universal history. There is not a little truth in the saying. Still there are a few authors whose work deserves mention. The great history of De Thou was written in Latin. But the century produced in Mézeray's History of France the first attempt of merit on the subject. François Eudes de Mézeray was the son of a surgeon, who seems to have been of some means and position. Mézeray was educated at Caen (he was born in 1610), and he early betook himself to historical studies. After beginning by supervising a translated history of the Turks, he set to work on his masterpiece, the History of France, which appeared in three huge and splendid folios in 1643, 1646, and 1651. He was accused of treating his predecessors with too great contempt; but this was more than justified by the superiority, not merely in style but in historical conception and attention to documentary evidence, which he showed. Mézeray had been protected and pensioned by Richelieu, but under Mazarin he became a violent pamphleteer and author of Mazarinades. Later, when Louis XIV. was settled on the throne, he published an abridgment of his own history, in which the keen scent of Colbert discovered uncourtly strictures on the fiscal abuses of the kingdom. Mézeray refused to alter them, and was mulcted accordingly of part of his pension. He died in 1683, having earned the title of the first historian, worthy of the name, of France. With due allowance for his period, he may challenge comparison with almost any of his successors, though his style, excellent at its best, is somewhat unequal. Péréfixe (who may have been assisted by Mézeray) is responsible for a history of Henri IV.; Maimbourg for a history of the League which has some interest for Englishmen because Dryden translated it. The same great English writer projected but did not accomplish a translation from a much more worthless historian, Varillas, who is notorious among his class for indifference to accuracy. It is indeed curious that this century, side by side with the most laborious investigators ever known, produced a school of historians who, with some merits of style, were almost deliberately unfaithful to fact. If the well-known saying ('Mon siége est fait') attributed to the Abbé Vertot is not apocryphal254, he must be ranked in the less respectable class. But his well-known histories, the chief of which is devoted to the Knights of Malta, were not wholly constructed on this principle. Pellisson wrote a history of the Academy, of which he was secretary, and one of the living Louis XIV., which, as might be expected, is little more than an ingenious panegyric. The Père Daniel wrote a history of France, the Père d'Orléans one of the English revolutions; while Rapin de Thoyras, a Huguenot and a refugee, had the glory of composing in a foreign language the first book deserving the title of a History of England. Superior to all these writers, except to Mézeray, are the ecclesiastical historians Fleury and Tillemont. Fleury was a good writer, very learned and exceedingly fair. Tillemont, with less pretentions to style, is second to no writer of history in learning, industry, accuracy, and judgment.

Historical Essayists.
Saint Réal.

The historical essay, like much else of value at the time, was in great part due to the mania for coteries. In these select societies literature was the favourite occupation, and ingenuity was ransacked to discover forms of composition admitting of treatment in brief space and of the display of literary skill. The personal 'portrait,' or elaborate prose character, was of this kind, but the ambition of the competitors soared higher than mere character-drawing. They sought for some striking event, if possible contemporary, which offered, within moderate compass, dramatic unity and scope for something like dramatic treatment. Sometimes, as in the Relation du Passage du Rhin, by the Count de Guiche, personal experiences formed the basis, but more frequently passages in the recent history of other nations were chosen. Of this kind was the Conspiration de Walstein of Sarrasin, which, though incomplete, is admirable in style. Better still is the Conjuration de Fiesque of the Cardinal de Retz, his first work, and one written when he was but seventeen. Not a few of the scattered writings of Saint Evremond may be classed under this head, notably the Letter to Créqui on the Peace of the Pyrenees, which was the cause of his exile, though this was rather political than historical. Towards the end of the century, the Abbé Vertot preluded his larger histories by a short tract on the revolutions of Portugal, and another on those of Sweden, which had both merit and success. It will be observed that conspiracies, revolutions, and such-like events formed the staple subjects of these compositions. Of this class was the masterpiece of the style — the only one perhaps which as a type at least merits something more than a mere mention — the Conjuration des Espagnols contre Venise255 of Saint Réal, a piece famous in French literature as a capital example of historical narration on the small scale, and not unimportant to English literature as the basis of Otway's principal tragedy. César Vichard, Abbé de Saint Réal, was born at Chambéry in 1631, and died at the same place in 1692. He was sent early to Paris, betook himself to historical studies, and published various works, including certain discourses on history, a piece on Don Carlos, and the Conjuration des Espagnols itself, which appeared in 1672. Shortly afterwards he visited London, and was for a time a member of the coterie of Saint Evremond and Hortense Mancini. He returned to Paris and thence, in 1679, to his native town, where the Duke of Savoy made him his historiographer and a member of the Academy of Turin. Not long before his death he was employed in political work. Saint Réal's chief characteristics as a historian are the preference before everything else of a dramatic conception and treatment, and the employment of a singularly vivid and idiomatic style, simple in its vocabulary and phrase and yet in the highest degree picturesque. He has been accused of following his master, Varillas, in want of strict accuracy, but in truth strict accuracy was not aimed at by any of these essayists. Their object was to produce a creditable literary composition, to set forth their subject strikingly and dramatically, and to point a moral of some kind. In all three respects their success was not contemptible.


The memoir-writers proper, who confine themselves to what they in their own persons have done, heard, or thought, are, as has been said, of far more importance. Their number is very great, and investigations into the vast record treasures which, after revolutionary devastation, France still possesses, is yearly increasing the knowledge of them. Only a brief account can here be attempted of most of them; and where the historical importance of the writer exceeds or equals his importance as a literary figure, biographical details will be but sparingly given, as they are easily and more suitably to be found elsewhere. The earliest writer who properly comes within our century (the order of the collection of Michaud and Poujoulat is followed for convenience sake) is François Duval, Marquis de Fontenay Mareuil. Fontenay was a soldier, a courtier, and a diplomatist, in which last character he visited England. He has left us connected memoirs from 1609 to 1624, and some short accounts of later transactions, such as the siege of La Rochelle, and his own mission to Rome. Fontenay is a simple and straightforward writer, full of good sense, and not destitute of narrative power. To Paul Phélypeaux de Pontchartrain (1566-1621) we owe a somewhat jejune but careful and apparently faithful account of the minority of Louis XIII. A short and striking relation of the downfall of Concini is supposed to be the work of Michel de Marillac, keeper of the seals (1573-1632), afterwards one of the victims of Richelieu. Henri de Rohan (1579-1638) is very far superior to the writers just named. Of the greatest house, save one or two, in France, he travelled much, distinguished himself in battle, both in foreign and civil war; was once condemned to death, made head for a time against all the strength of Richelieu; was near purchasing the principality of Cyprus from the Venetians, and establishing himself in the east; was recalled, commanded the French forces with brilliant success in the Valtelline, and met his death under Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar at Rheinfeld. Besides his memoirs he wrote a book called the Parfait Capitaine, and some others. The memoirs extend from the death of Henri IV. to the year 1629, and have all the vigour and brilliancy of the best sixteenth-century work of the kind. A further account of the Valtelline campaign is also most probably Rohan's, though it is not written in the first person, and has been attributed to others. Of still greater personal interest are the memoirs of François, Maréchal de Bassompierre, another of the adversaries of Richelieu, and who, less fortunate than Rohan, languished twelve years in the Bastille. Few persons played a more active part in the first years of the reign of Louis XIII. than Bassompierre, and no one has left a livelier description, not merely of his own personal fortunes, but of the personality of his contemporaries, the habits and customs of the time, the wars, the loves, the intrigues of himself, his friends and his enemies. He has not the credit of being very accurate, but he is infinitely amusing. His memoirs were written during his sojourn in the Bastille. This was terminated by the death of Richelieu, but Bassompierre followed his enemy before very long in consequence of an attack of apoplexy.

In singular contrast to Bassompierre's work are the memoirs of another chronicler of the same time, François Annibal, Maréchal d'Estrées, brother of the mistress of Henri IV. D'Estrées excludes all gossip, confines himself strictly to matters of public business, and recounts them apparently with scrupulous accuracy, and in a plain but clear and sufficient style. Among the most curious and not the least interesting of the works of this class are the memoirs of Pontis — one of the famous solitaries of Port Royal in his old age. Pontis died at the age of eighty-seven, and had been for fifty-six years in the army. His memoirs, which are strictly confined to his personal experiences, obtained the approbation of two such undeniably competent judges as Condé and Madame de Sévigné, and are by no means unworthy of the honour. The actual composition of the memoirs is said to be the work of Thomas du Fossé. The memoirs called Richelieu's are different from all these, and, notwithstanding their great extent and the illustrious name they bear, of very inferior interest, at least from the literary point of view. Richelieu's talents, it is sufficiently notorious, were not literary; and even if they had been, but little of these memoirs comes from his own hand. They are the work of secretaries, confidants, and under-strappers of all sorts, writing at most from the cardinal's dictation, and probably in many cases merely constructing précis of documents. There is, therefore, no need to dwell on them.

In the memoirs of Arnauld d'Andilly and of his son, the Abbé Arnauld, the personal interest and the abundance of anecdote and character-drawing which characterise the memoir work of the time reappear; the latter are, indeed, particularly full of them. Those of the father are chiefly interesting, as exhibiting the curious mixture of worldly and spiritual motives which played so large a part in the history of the time. For Arnauld who was the fervent friend and disciple of Saint Cyran, the practical founder of Jansenism in France, was also an assiduous courtier of Gaston d'Orléans, and not too well satisfied with the results of his courtiership. There are memoirs attributed to Gaston himself, but they are almost certainly the work of another hand; their historical value is not inconsiderable, but they have little literary interest. Those of Marie, Duchess de Nemours, and daughter of the Duke de Longueville, are short, but among the most interesting of all those dealing with the Fronde, from the vividness and decision of their personal traits.

Madame de Motteville.

More important still among the memoirs of this time are those of Françoise Bertaut, Madame de Motteville, a member of the family of the poet Bertaut. She was introduced by her mother, when very young, to Anne of Austria, and soon became her most intimate confidante. The jealousy of Richelieu banished her for a time from the court, and she married M. de Motteville, a man of wealth and position in the civil service of the province of Normandy. Shortly before Richelieu's death she lost her husband; and as soon as Anne of Austria succeeded to the regency she was recalled to court, and spent her time there during the queen's life. She survived her mistress many years, and was a member of the society of Madame de Sévigné. She died in 1689. Her memoirs, which were not published till many years after her death, contain many curious revelations of the court history of the time, for she was not only intimate with Anne of Austria, but also with the unfortunate Henrietta Maria of England, and with La Grande Mademoiselle. With the latter she interchanged some curious and characteristic letters on a fantastic project of Mademoiselle's for founding a new abbey of Thelema. The general style of her memoirs is sober and intelligent, but it is injured by the abundance of moral reflections, in matter according to the taste, but in manner lacking much of the piquancy, of the time. These memoirs are somewhat voluminous, and extend to the death of Anne of Austria. Madame de Motteville, notwithstanding her affection for her mistress, is one of the best authorities for the period of the Fronde, because, unlike Retz and La Rochefoucauld, she was only secondarily interested in the events she relates. Some curious details of the later Fronde are found in the short memoirs of Père Berthod, of whom nothing is known. Of the Comte de Brienne, who was a favourite and minister of Anne of Austria, and whose book contains much information on foreign, and especially English affairs; of Montrésor and Fontrailles, both followers of Gaston of Orléans, and the latter the author of a relation of the Cinq Mars conspiracy, short, but minute and striking; of La Châtre, an industrious courtier and intriguer, and a vivid and picturesque writer, whose work, as will presently be mentioned, became entangled in a strange fashion with that of La Rochefoucauld; of the great Turenne, a worthy follower of Montluc and Rohan in the art of military writing, little more than mention can be made. There are some military memoirs of interest, which go under the name of the Duke of York (James II).

Cardinal de Retz.

The works and personages of some other writers demand a fuller notice. Paul de Gondi256, Cardinal de Retz, who occupies with Saint Simon, and perhaps La Rochefoucauld, the first place among French memoir-writers of the seventeenth century, was born in 1614, and died in 1679. He was a younger son of an ancient and noble house, uniting French and Italian honours, and was early destined for the church, for which probably no churchman ever had less vocation. He intrigued in society and politics, was a practised duellist, and though he was not more than seven-or eight-and-twenty at Richelieu's death, had already caballed against him. His appointment by Louis XIII., almost on his deathbed, to the coadjutorship (involving the reversion) of the archbishopric of Paris, which was then held by his uncle, a very old man of no personal capacity or influence, put into his hands a formidable political weapon, and he was not long in making use of it. He was more than any other man the instigator of the Fronde, that singular alliance of the privileged bourgeoisie of the great towns with the still more privileged nobility against the royal authority as exercised through ministers. The history of this confused and turbulent period is in great part the biography of Retz. It is not easy to see that he had any definite political views except the jealousy of Mazarin, which he shared with almost all his order, an inveterate habit of insubordination, and a still more inveterate habit of conspiracy. The Fronde was and could have been but a failure, and Retz was a failure with it. He was for some time in exile, but at last reconciled himself to the inevitable, and even enjoyed some public employments under Louis XIV. His principal occupation, however, was the payment of his enormous debts, which he effected with an honesty not common at the time among his class by rigorously reducing his expenditure, selling and mortgaging his numerous benefices, and, as Madame de Sévigné put it, 'living for his creditors.' He is said thus to have paid off four millions of francs, a vast sum for the time. Meanwhile he was writing the Memoirs which, like the Maxims of his rival and half-enemy, La Rochefoucauld, unexpectedly gained for him a higher reputation in literature than he could have hoped for in politics. When a mere boy he had shown in the Conjuration de Fiesque no small literary talent, and his sermons deepened the impression. His Memoirs, however, are different in style from both. They are addressed to a lady friend, and contain a most extraordinary mixture of anecdote, description, personal satire, moral reflection, and political portraiture. In the three points of anecdote, portrait-drawing, and maxim-making, Retz has no rival except in the acknowledged masters of each art respectively.

The Memoirs of Guy Joly, a lawyer and the friend and confidant of Retz, in a manner supplement this latter's work. Joly was faithful to his master even in exile, but at last they quarrelled, and the Memoirs do not always throw a very favourable light on the proceedings of the turbulent cardinal. They are very well written. Claude Joly, the uncle of Guy, an ecclesiastic, has also left anti-Mazarin writings of less literary worth.


Of very great importance historically, and by no means unimportant as literature, are the Memoirs of Pierre Lenet, a man of business long attached to the house of Condé. These memoirs are, in fact, memoirs of the great Condé himself, until the peace of the Pyrenees. Personal and literary interest both appear in a very high degree in the Memoirs of Anne Marie Louise de Montpensier, commonly called La Grande Mademoiselle. The only daughter of Gaston of Orleans and of the Duchess de Montpensier, she inherited enormous wealth, and a position which made it difficult for her to marry any one but a crowned head. In her youth she was self-willed, and by no means inclined to marriage, and prince after prince was proposed to her in vain. During the Fronde she took an extraordinary part — heading armies, mounting the walls of Orleans by a scaling ladder, and saving the routed troops of Condé, after the battle of the Faubourg Saint Antoine, by opening the gates of Paris to them, and causing the cannon of the Bastille to cover their flight. Mazarin never forgave her this, nor perhaps did Louis XIV. When she was past middle age, Mademoiselle conceived an unfortunate affection for Lauzun, then merely a gentleman of the South named Puyguilhem. By dint of great entreaties she obtained permission from the king to marry him, but the combined efforts of the queen and the princes of the blood caused this to be rescinded, and Lauzun was imprisoned in Pignerol. After many years Mademoiselle purchased his release by making over a great part of her immense possessions to Louis' bastard, the Duke du Maine, and secretly married her lover, who was not only younger than herself, but a notorious adventurer. He was basely ungrateful, and she separated from him before her death. Her memoirs, which are voluminous, contain a minute history of her singular life, written with not a little egotism, but with all the vivacity and individuality of savour which characterise the best work of the time. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is that, although entirely occupied with herself and her fortunes, Mademoiselle does not appear either to exaggerate her own merits, or to disguise her faults. She photographs herself, which is not common. Valentin Conrart, a man of letters, who figures repeatedly in the history of the time, who was the real founder of the Academy, who published but little in his lifetime, and who has only recently been the subject of a sufficient study, left memoirs of no great length, but of value in reference to the Fronde. The Marquis de Montglat, of whom not much is known, wrote important military memoirs of the latter portion of the Thirty Years' War, and of the campaigns between France and Spain, which continued until the peace of the Pyrenees.

La Rochefoucauld.

The Memoirs of La Rochefoucauld257 would have assured him a considerable place in the history of literature, even had he never written the Maxims, and the singular fate of these Memoirs would have deserved notice even had they been far less intrinsically interesting in matter and style than they are. The seventeenth century was the palmy time of literary piracy, and this piracy was facilitated not merely by the absence of any international copyright, but by the common habit of circulating books in manuscript long before their appearance in print. They were thus copied and re-copied, and the number of unauthorised duplicates made it impossible for the author to protect his work. Not unfrequently the difficulties of authors were increased by the custom (inherited from the middle ages) of simultaneously or rather continuously transcribing different works in the same large notebook, without any very scrupulous attention to their separate origin, plan, and authorship. When La Rochefoucauld, after the conclusion of the Fronde and the triumph of Mazarin, retired in dudgeon and disgrace to his estates, he devoted himself to the writing of memoirs, and the fact soon became known. He succeeded once in preventing an unauthorised publication at Rouen. But the Elzevirs (who were as much princes of piracy as of printing) were beyond his reach, and in 1662 there appeared a book purporting to be the Memoirs of M. L. R. F. This book excited much indignation in the persons commented upon, and La Rochefoucauld hastened to deny its authenticity, alleging that but a fraction was his, and that garbled. His denial was very partially credited, and has remained the subject of suspicion almost to the present day. Probably, however, he was warned by the incident of the danger of this sort of contemporary criticism, and no authentic edition was issued. After his death a new turn of ill-luck befell him. A fresh recension of the Memoirs was published, not indeed quite so incorrect as the first, but still largely adulterated, nor was the injustice repaired until 1817, and then not entirely. It is only within the last few years that the publication of the Memoirs from a manuscript in the possession of his representatives has finally established the text, and that laborious enquiries have demonstrated the conglomerate character of the early editions (which were made up of the work of La Rochefoucauld, of La Châtre, of Vineuil, and of several other people, even such well-known writers as Saint Evremond being laid under contribution), and the justice of the author's repudiation. The genuine Memoirs are, however, extremely interesting; they are less full, and perhaps less absolutely frank than those of Retz, but they yield to these alone of the Fronde chronicles in piquancy and interest, while their purely literary merit is superior. The strange bird's-eye view of conduct and motives which characterises the Maxims is already visible in them, as well as the profundity of insight which accompanies width of range. The form is less finished, but its capacities are seen.

Jean Hérault de Gourville stood to La Rochefoucauld in something like the relation which Guy Joly bore to Retz, but was far more fortunate. Born at La Rochefoucauld, without any advantages of family or fortune, he began as a domestic of its seigneur. He passed from this service to that of Condé and Mazarin, held public employments which enriched him, became the friend of Fouquet, and escaped the general ruin which fell on the superintendent's friends at his fall, married, it is said, secretly a daughter of the house where he had served in a menial capacity, was recalled honourably to his country, discharged important political and diplomatic offices, lived on equal terms with the greatest nobles of the court, and died full of years, riches, and honours, in 1703. His Memoirs, which were written but a short time before his death, were dictated to a secretary. They are of a somewhat gossiping character, but full of curious information. The so-called memoirs of Omer Talon are really accounts, written in a stilted and professional style, of the proceedings of the Parliament of Paris. Henri de Guise, the last, the least fortunate, but not the least remarkable of his famous family, has left an account of the wild expedition which he made to Naples at the time of the revolt of Masaniello, which is somewhat too long for the subject. The Memoirs of the Maréchal de Grammont were composed from his papers by his second son, Louvigny, afterwards Duke de Grammont. The eldest son, Count de Guiche, the most accomplished cavalier of the earlier court of Louis XIV., died before his father. Guiche left a brilliant relation (written some say on the spot and at once) of the passage of the Rhine, an exploit much exaggerated by the king's flatterers, but which was really a brilliant feat of arms, and was mainly due to Guiche himself. Like those of Grammont, the Memoirs of the Maréchal du Plessis are not the work of the hero, but in this case a professional man of letters — it is thought Segrais — seems to have been called in. Their somewhat stilted regularity contrasts with the irregular vigour of most of the work mentioned in this chapter. Some anonymous Mémoires pour servir à l'Histoire du XVIIème Siècle, though evidently a compilation, are not destitute of literary merit. They seem to be extracted for the most part from works already mentioned. The Memoirs of La Porte, the valet de chambre of Anne of Austria and the youthful Louis XIV., are rather important to history than to literature. Madame de la Fayette wrote Memoirs of Henrietta, the daughter of Charles I., and the first wife of the Duke of Orleans, but they are not equal to her novels in merit. The poet-Marquis La Fare began memoirs on an extensive plan, but only completed a small part of them. Those of the Duke of Berwick are justly considered models of simple straightforward writing, of clear judgment, and of accurate statement. The Souvenirs of Madame de Caylus had the honour of having Voltaire for their first editor, and deserved it. They are purely personal, and might even be called frivolous, were it not for the interest and historical importance of the society whose manners they depict. The memoirs of Torcy give a clear and lucid account of the negotiations in which that diplomatist was engaged. Last of this long list come three works of value, the memoirs of Villars, Forbin, and Duguay Trouin. The last two are among the somewhat rare records of French prowess on sea. Both are somewhat boastful, and the memoirs of Forbin, which are the longer and the more amusing of the two, are suspected of some inaccuracy. They were not, it appears, the unaided work of their nominal authors. The memoirs of Villars are of greater historical importance, and of much literary interest.

Saint Simon.

A few authors, not included in the collection the order of which has been followed, have now to be mentioned. Bussy Rabutin, cousin of Madame de Sévigné, and one of the boldest, most unscrupulous, and most unlucky of aspirants after fortune, has left a considerable number of letters and memoirs in which he exposes his own projects and wrongs, and, above all, a kind of scandalous chronicle called the Histoire Amoureuse des Gaules, in which gossip against all the ladies of the court, not excepting his own relations and friends, is pitilessly recorded. Bussy had many of the family qualities which show themselves more amiably in the cousin whom he libelled. His literary faculty was considerable, his brain fertile in invention, and his tongue witty in expression; but he made no very good use of his powers. The Marquis de Dangeau258 has left an immense collection of memoirs, describing in the minutest detail the etiquette of the court of Louis XIV. and all that happened there for years; but he had hardly any faculty of writing, and his work, except for its matter, is chiefly remarkable because of the contrast which it presents to a book which deals with much the same subject, and which has yet to be noticed. This book, with grave defects and inequalities, exhibits in the highest degree the merits of the class and period of literature which is now under review. These are the skill shown by writers in no respect professional, but trained to expression only by literary amusements and the conversation of the salons; the keen insight into motive and character; the intense interest and power of reflection with which contemporary events are taken in and represented.

Louis de Rouvroy, Duke de Saint Simon259, was born at La Ferté Vidame, the family seat, in 1675. The family was of very great antiquity and unblemished noblesse, claiming descent from Charlemagne; the dukedom and the peerage — it is to be remembered that peerage in France has, or rather had under the old régime, an entirely different sense from the modern English sense, referring not in the least to the ennobling of the persons enjoying it, but to their admission into a kind of great council of the kingdom which had indeed long lost its active functions, but retained its dignity — were conferred only on Saint Simon's father, a favourite and a faithful servant of Louis XIII. His mother was Charlotte de l'Aubespine, of a family which had much distinguished itself for several generations since the days of Francis the First. Saint Simon was brought up by the Jesuits, went to the wars in Flanders at the age of seventeen, and a year later succeeded to the title and estates by the death of his father. Thus at the age of eighteen he found himself in a position theoretically superior to every man in France except the princes of the blood, and his few brother peers — theoretically, for the rule of Louis did not admit of any real exercise of the privileges of the peerage. Saint Simon, however, began at once to show his devotion to the idol of his whole life — the status of his order — by going to law with Luxembourg, the famous Marshal, on a question of precedence and title of the most intricate kind. At the Peace of Ryswick he left the army, to the displeasure of the king; but he was none the less constant at court, though he could hardly be called a courtier, and though his inveterate stickling for precedence frequently brought down the king's wrath on his head. In 1705 he was made ambassador to Rome, but the appointment was almost immediately cancelled. Many years later, however, a similar, but greater, honour fell to his lot. The death of Louis put power into the hands of Philippe d'Orléans, who was a friend of Saint Simon's, and the latter enjoyed the greatest triumph of his life by bringing about the degradation of the 'Bastards' (the illegitimate sons of Louis), on whom, to the indignation of the peers, the king had bestowed the rank and precedence of princes of the blood. In 1721 Saint Simon went on a special embassy to Spain to arrange the double marriage of Louis XV. to the Infanta, and of the Prince of the Asturias to the Regent's granddaughter. There he was made a grandee of the first class. Soon after his return he gave up interference in public affairs, but he lived for thirty years longer, writing incessantly, and died in 1755.

The history of his enormous literary productions is curious enough. Nothing was published, and, from the personal nature of most of his work, nothing could well be published, during his lifetime. He died intestate, and with no immediate heirs, and opportunity was taken to impound the whole of his manuscripts, amounting to hundreds of volumes. Extracts from the memoirs were surreptitiously published from time to time during the eighteenth century, but it was not till 1839 that the whole was fully and faithfully given to the world. These memoirs, however, form relatively but a small part of the vast mass of Saint Simon's manuscripts, though they fill twenty printed volumes. Until very recently obstacles of a not very intelligible character have been thrown in the way of publication by the French Foreign Office, to which the MSS. belong; but at length these seem to have been overcome, and three different workers, M. de Boislisle, M. Drumont, and M. Faugère, have been engaged in editing or re-editing different parts of the total. The minor works, however, from the specimens already published, would seem to be of less interest than the memoirs; most of them bearing on the, to Saint Simon, inexhaustible subject of the privileges of the peerage, and its place in the hierarchy of government. To discuss these subjects would lead us out of our way. It is sufficient to say that it is a great mistake to regard Saint Simon as a mere selfish aristocrat in the cant sense. He would have had the kingdom justly and wisely governed for the benefit of the whole nation, but he regarded the nobility, and, above all, the peers, as the pre-destined instruments of government. 'Much for the people, but nothing by the people,' was his political motto.

The importance of Saint Simon in literature is, however, entirely independent of his standpoint as a politician, though that standpoint was not without influence on his literary characteristics. He is valuable to us as, without exception, the most vivid and graphic painter of contemporary history of the anecdotic kind in French or any other language. His style is incorrect, and sometimes barely grammatical, and all his work bears the character of notes, hurriedly dashed off, rather than of a finished and regularly arranged history. Opinions differ as to his trustworthiness in matters of fact, but it is certain, from his positive manner of recounting the incidents and the actual words of interviews at which he could not have been present, and as to which he is not likely to have had more than hearsay information, that his testimony is to be received with caution. His prejudices, too, were extraordinarily strong, and he is in the habit of representing everything and everybody that he does not like in the blackest possible colours. His furious denunciation thus makes a curious contrast to the good-humoured malice of the author with whom he is most likely to be compared — Madame de Sévigné. But all these drawbacks affect only the matter, not the manner of his work. The picture which he has given of the inner life of the court of Versailles during the later years of Louis XIV. is unrivalled in history. Still more extraordinary is the power of single passages, such especially as the famous one describing the Dauphin's death. Saint Simon has often been compared to Tacitus, but his torrent of words very little resembles the laconic incisiveness of the Roman. A much nearer parallel, though with remarkable differences, might be found in the late Mr. Carlyle.

Some memoirs of great extent and interest, valuable as checking Saint Simon and Dangeau (whom Saint Simon annotated), have recently appeared for the first time, at least in a form that is to be complete. They are the work of the Marquis de Sourches260, a great court officer, and they cover the last thirty years of Louis's reign. Their chief literary peculiarity is the formal and almost official character of the text contrasted with the greater freedom of the numerous notes.

Madame de Sévigné.

The most famous and remarkable of all the letter-writers of the time — perhaps the most famous and remarkable of all letter-writers in literature — was Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné261. She was born at Paris on the 6th of February, 1626, and died at Grignan, of small-pox, on the 10th of August, 1696. Her family was a distinguished one both in war and other ways. Her grandmother was the well-known Sainte Chantal, the pupil of St. François de Sales, and her first cousin, as has been mentioned, was Bussy Rabutin. Her father and mother both died when she was very young, and an uncle, not more than twenty years older than herself, the Abbé de Coulanges, took charge of her, remaining, for the greater part of her life, her chief friend and counsellor. She soon became a great beauty, and something of a scholar, though not of a blue-stocking. Ménage and Chapelain had, among others, much to do with her education, and she was a member of the celebrated coterie of the Hôtel Rambouillet, though her satirical humour saved her from being a précieuse. At the age of eighteen she married the Marquis de Sévigné, of a good and wealthy Breton family. Her husband was, however, a selfish profligate, who wasted her substance with Ninon de l'Enclos, and such-like persons — though Ninon herself, to do her justice, never plundered her lovers — and did not pretend the slightest return for the affection she gave him. He was killed in a duel in 1651, leaving her with two children, a daughter, Françoise Marguerite, and a son Charles. After a few years of seclusion she returned to the world, being then in the full possession of her beauty, and only twenty-eight years old. She continued for more than forty years to form part of the best society of the capital, without suffering the least stain on her reputation. The selfish vanity of the superintendent Fouquet made him keep certain of her letters; but though they were discovered in a casket which was fatal to many of his friends of both sexes, Madame de Sévigné came scathless out of the ordeal. In 1669 her daughter, then twenty-two years old, married the Count de Grignan, a Provençal gentleman of the noblest birth, of great estate, rank, and fortune, but already twice a widower, past middle age, plain, and of somewhat embarrassed means, considering the great expenses which, as Governor of Provence, he had to meet. He was, however, a man of good sense and probity, and his wife seems to have been sincerely attached to him. The great bulk of Madame de Sévigné's voluminous correspondence was addressed to her daughter, for whom she had an almost frantic fondness; Charles de Sévigné, though apparently far the more lovable of the two, having but an inferior share of his mother's affection. The letters to Madame de Grignan are for the most part dated either from Paris (in which case they are full of court news and gossip), or from Les Rochers, the country seat of the Sévignés, near Vitré, in which case they are full of social satire and curious details of the provincial life of that time. One very interesting series describes the habits and regimen of Vichy, which Madame de Sévigné visited in consequence of a severe attack of rheumatism. The correspondence thus serves as a minute and detailed history of the author for the last thirty years of her life, except during her rare visits to Grignan, in one of which, as has been mentioned, she caught the illness which proved fatal to her.

It has been said that Madame de Sévigné's letters are very numerous. Those to her daughter especially were garbled in the earlier editions by omissions, and by the substitution of phrases which seemed to the 18th century more suitable than the fresh nature of the originals. The edition cited gives the extant MSS. faithfully. The enthusiastic affection lavished by the mother on the daughter naturally commends itself differently to different persons. It is certain that if it is not tedious, it is only due to the extraordinary literary art of the writer, an art which is at once the most artful and the most artless to be anywhere found. The only other faults of the letters are an occasional crudity of diction (which, however, is, when rightly taken, perfectly innocent and even valuable as exemplifying the manners of the time,) and a decided heartlessness in relating the misfortunes of all those in whom the writer is not personally interested. Madame de Sévigné has been blamed for not sympathising more with the oppression of the French people during her time. This, however, is an unfair charge. In the first place she simply expresses the current political ideas of her day, and, in the second place, she goes decidedly beyond those ideas in the direction of sympathy. Her treatment of some of her own equals leaves much more to desire. The account of Madame de Brinvilliers' sufferings — unworthy of much pity as the victim was — is callous to brutality, and it seems to be sufficient for any one to have ever offended Madame de Grignan, or to have spoken slightingly of her, to put him, or her, out of the pale of even ordinary human sympathy. But no other fault can be found. For vivid social portraiture the book equals Saint Simon at his best, while it is far more uniformly good. The letters describing the engagement of La Grande Mademoiselle to Lauzun, the death of Vatel, the trial of Fouquet, the Vichy sojourn, the meeting of the states of Britanny, and many others, are not to be surpassed in this respect. Unlike Saint Simon, too, Madame de Sévigné has no fixed idea — except that of Madame de Grignan's perfections, which rarely interferes — to prevent her from taking fresh, original, and acute views of things in general as distinguished from mere court intrigues. Her literary criticism is excellent, and if she somewhat overvalues moralists like Nicole and novelists like Mademoiselle de Scudéry, who ministered to her peculiar tastes, her remarks on the great preachers, on La Fontaine, on Corneille and Racine, display a singular insight as well as a singular power of expression. She is, indeed, except in politics, on which few persons of her class had at the time any clear or distinct ideas, never superficial; and this union of just thought with accurate observation and exceptional power of expression makes her position in literature.

Tallemant des Réaux.

Madame de Sévigné, so to speak, dwarfs all other letter-writers of her time. Yet many of those already mentioned under the head of memoirs left letters which have been preserved, and which are of merit. It is, however, not necessary to specify any except Madame de Maintenon, whose correspondence is voluminous and important both as history and as literature. It has not the charm of Madame de Sévigné, but it displays the great intellectual powers of the writer262. Of a very different kind, but not less worthy of notice are the letters of Guy Patin, which are for the most part violent Mazarinades, and full of scandalous anecdotes, but full also of lively wit. Scandal, indeed, was very much the order of the day, as appears from the large and curious collection of broadsheets and pamphlets republished by the late M. Fournier in his Variétés Historiques et Littéraires263. These, most of which refer to the present period, form a kind of appendix to historical and biographical writing of the more serious kind. There is, however, one remarkable work which remains to be noticed, and which, for want of a better place for it, must be noticed here, the Historiettes of Tallemant des Réaux264. The author of this singular book, Gédéon Tallemant des Réaux, was born at La Rochelle about 1619, and died in 1692. He was of a family not noble but wealthy and well connected, and he himself was able, by marriage with a cousin who was an heiress, to live without any profession, and to purchase an estate and seignory of some importance. Little, however, is known of his life except that he was much at the Hôtel de Rambouillet in his youth, and that in his old age he underwent some not clearly defined misfortune or disgrace. The Historiettes were written in the years immediately preceding 1660, and form an almost complete commentary on the persons most celebrated in society and literature for three quarters of a century before that date. There is no other book to which they can be exactly compared, though they have, with much less literary excellence, a certain resemblance in form to the work of Brantôme. They are, as published by Monmerqué, 376 in number, filling five (nominally ten) stout volumes. Each is as a rule headed with the name of a single person, though there are a few general or subject headings. The articles themselves are not regular biographies, but collections of anecdotes, not unfrequently of the most scandalous kind. Tallemant, though by no means of small ability, appears to have been a somewhat malicious person, and not too careful to examine the value of the stories he tells, especially when they bear heavily on the old nobility, of whom, as a new man, he was very jealous. Yet his sources of information were in many cases good, and his statements are confirmed by independent evidence sufficiently often to show that, if they are in other cases to be accepted with caution, they are not the work of a mere libeller. No one, even in that century of unstinted personal revelations, has taken us so much behind the scenes, and certainly no one has left a more amusing book of its kind or (with the proper precautions) a more valuable one.

Historical Antiquaries.
Du Cange.

The class of learned investigators into the sources of history cannot be omitted in any account of French literature; though their work was chiefly in Latin, and though even when it was not it was rather of value as material for future literature than as literature itself. This century and the earlier part of the succeeding one were the palmy time of really laborious erudition — the work of the Benedictines and Bollandists, and of many isolated writers worthy of being ranked with the members of these famous communities. The individuals composing this class are, however, too numerous, and, from the purely literary view, too unimportant to detain us. Exceptions may be made in favour of André Duchesne, whose collections of French and Norman Chronicles, and his genealogical histories of the houses of Laval and Vergi, are valuable examples of their kind; of Mabillon, famous for his labours in hagiology, in the history of France, and above all in that of Italy; and lastly, of Du Cange. The last-named has a special right to a place here because, both directly and indirectly, he did much towards the rediscovery of old French literature. Du Cange was his seignorial style, his personal name being Charles Dufresne. He devoted himself to the study of the middle ages generally, and particularly of the Byzantine Empire. He edited Joinville, wrote a history of the Latin Empire, and in his most famous work, the Glossarium Mediae et Infimae Latinitatis, contributed not a little to the study of the oldest form of French.

253 The following paragraph contains, except as far as Mézeray is concerned, chiefly second-hand information. I have hitherto been unable to devote the time necessary to enable me to speak at first hand of these books, which are very bulky, not as a rule interesting or important in manner, and for the most part long obsolete in matter.

254 The legend, familiar probably to most readers, is that Vertot required documents for his account of a certain military operation. Tired with waiting for them, he constructed the history out of his own head, and when they arrived made the ejaculation in the text.

255 This, with some other of the pieces here mentioned, will be found in two volumes of the Collection Didot, entitled Petits Chefs d'œuvre Historiques.

256 Ed. Feillet, Gourdault and Chantelauze. Paris (in progress).

257 Ed. Gilbert et Gourdault. Paris, 1868-81.

258 Ed. Feuillet de Conches. 19 vols. Paris, 1854-61.

259 Memoirs, ed. Chéruel. 20 vols. Paris, 1873. Now being re-edited by M. de Boislisle. Miscellaneous works are also appearing.

260 Ed. Bertrand et de Cosnac. Vol. i. Paris, 1882.

261 Ed. Monmerqué. 14 vols. Paris, 1861-66, to which must be added 2 vols. of Lettres Inédites discovered and published by M. Capmas.

262 A full and excellently edited selection has been given by A. Geffroy. 2 vols. Paris, 1887.

263 10 vols. Paris, 1855-63.

264 10 vols. in 5. Ed. Monmerqué. Third edition. Paris, n. d.


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