A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 4.

Historians, Memoir-writers, Letter-writers.

Characteristics and Divisions of Eighteenth-century History.

In the three branches of literature included in this chapter the interest of the eighteenth century is great, but unequally divided. In history proper, that is to say, the connected survey from documents of a greater or lesser period of the past, the age saw, if not the beginning, certainly the maturing of a philosophical conception of the science. Putting Bossuet out of the question, Vico in Italy, Montesquieu and Turgot in France, are usually and rightly credited with the working out of this great conception. But though pretty fully worked, or at least sketched out, it was not applied in any book of bulk and merit. The writings of Montesquieu and Turgot themselves are not history — they are essays of lesser or greater length in historical philosophy. Nor from the merely literary point of view has France any historical production of the first rank to put forward at this time. The works of greater extent, such as Rollin's, are of no special literary value; the works of literary value, such as Voltaire's studies, are of but small extent, and rather resemble the historical essay of the preceding century, which still continued to be practised, and which had one special practitioner of merit in Rulhière. But nothing even distantly approaching the English masterpiece of the period, the Decline and Fall, was produced; hardly anything approaching Hume's History. Nor again do the memoirs289 of this time equal those of the seventeenth century in literary power, though they are useful as sources of historical and social information. No man of letters of the first class has left such work, and no one, not by profession a man of letters, has by such work come even near the position of the Cardinal de Retz or the Duke de Saint Simon, the latter of whom, it is fair to remember, actually lived into the second half of the century. On the other hand, the letter-writers of the time are numerous and excellent. Although no one of them equals Madame de Sévigné in bulk and in completeness of merit, the letters of Mademoiselle de l'Espinasse, of Madame du Deffand, of Diderot to Mademoiselle Volland, and some others, are of very great excellence, and almost unsurpassed in their characterization of the intellectual and social peculiarities of the time. The absence of regular histories of the first merit would be more surprising than it is if it were not fully accounted for by the dominant peculiarity of the day, which is never to be forgotten in studying its history — the absorption, that is to say, of the greater part of the intellect of the time in the philosophe polemic. Almost all the histories that were written, except as works of pure erudition, were in reality pamphlets intended to point, more or less allegorically, some moral as to real or supposed abuses in the social, ecclesiastical, or political state of France. This peculiarity could not fail to detract from their permanent interest, even if it did not (as it too often did) make the authors less careful to give a correct account of their subject than to make it serve their purpose.


The first regular historian who deserves mention is Charles Rollin, who perhaps had a longer and wider monopoly of a certain kind of historical instruction than any other author. He was born at Paris in January, 1661, of the middle class, and, after studying at the Collège du Plessis, he became Professor at the Collége de France, and, in 1694, Rector of the University; a post in which he distinguished himself by introducing many useful and much-needed reforms. He was a Jansenist, but was not much inconvenienced in consequence. Rollin's book (that is to say the only one by which he is remembered) is his extensive Histoire Ancienne, 1730-1738, the work of his advanced years, which was the standard treatise on the subject for nearly a century, and was translated into most languages. Although showing no particular historical grasp, written with no power of style, and not universally accurate, it deserves such praise as may be due to a work of great practical utility requiring much industrious labour, and not imitated from or much assisted by any previous book. The Histoire Romaine, which followed it, was of little worth, but Rollin's Traité des Études was a very useful book in its time.


Two historians, who hardly deserve the name, are usually ranked together in this part of French history, partly because they represent almost the last of the fabulous school of history-writers, partly because their disputes (for they were of opposite factions) have had the honour to be noticed by Montesquieu. These were Dubos and Boulainvilliers. The Abbé Dubos was a writer of some merit on a great variety of subjects; his Réflexions sur la Poésie et la Peinture being of value. His chief historical work is entitled Histoire Critique de l'Etablissement de la Monarchie Française dans les Gaules, in which, with a paradoxical patriotism, which has found some echoes among living historians, he maintained that the Frankish invasion of Gaul was the consequence of an amicable invitation, that the Gauls were in no sense conquered, and that all conclusions based on the supposition of such a conquest were therefore erroneous. It is fair to Dubos to say that he had been in a manner provoked by the arguments of the Count de Boulainvilliers. According to this latter, the Frankish conquest had resulted in the establishment of a dominant caste, which alone had full enfranchisement, and which was lineally, or at least titularly, represented by the French aristocracy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These reckless and baseless hypotheses would not require notice, were it not important to show how long it was before the idea of rigid enquiry into documentary facts on the one hand, and philosophical application of general laws on the other, were observed in historical writing.


Montesquieu himself will come in for mention under the head of philosophers, but Voltaire's ubiquity will be maintained in this chapter. His strictly historical work was indeed considerable, even if what is perhaps the most remarkable of it, the Essai sur les Mœurs (which may be described as a treatise, with instances, on the philosophy of history, as applied to modern times), be excluded. Besides smaller works, the histories of Charles XII. and Peter the Great, the Age of Louis XIV., the Age of Louis XV., and the Annals of the Empire, belong to the class of which we are now treating. Of these there is no doubt that the Siècle de Louis Quatorze, 1752, is the best, though the slighter sketches of Charles, 1731, and Peter, 1759, are not undeserving of the position they have long held as little masterpieces. Voltaire, however, was not altogether well qualified for a historian; indeed, he had but few qualifications for the work, except his mastery of a clear, light, and lively style. He had no real conception, such as Montesquieu had, of the philosophy of history, or of the operation of general causes. His reading, though extensive, was desultory and uncritical, and he constantly fell into the most grotesque blunders. His prejudices were very strong, and he is more responsible than any other single person for the absurd and ignorant disdain of the middle ages, which, so long as it lasted, made comprehension of modern history and society simply impossible, because the origins of both were wilfully ignored. These various drawbacks had perhaps less influence on the Siècle de Louis Quatorze than on any other of his historical works, and it is accordingly the best. He was well acquainted with the subject, he was much interested in it, it touched few of his prejudices, and he was able to speak with tolerable freedom about it. The result is excellent, and it deserves the credit of being almost the first finished history (as distinguished from mere diaries like those of L'Estoile) in which not merely affairs of state, but literary, artistic, and social matters generally found a place.


The third and fourth quarters of the century are the special period when history was, as has been said, degraded to the level of a party pamphlet, especially in such works as the Abbé Raynal's Histoire des Indes. This was a mere vehicle for philosophe tirades on religious and political subjects, many if not most of which are known to have proceeded from Diderot's fertile pen. Crevier and Lebeau, however, names forgotten now, continued the work of Rollin; and meanwhile the descendants of the laborious school of historians mentioned in the last book (many of whom survived until far into the century) pursued their useful work. Not the least of these was Dom Calmet, author of the well-known 'Dictionary of the Bible.' But the chief historical names of the later eighteenth century are Mably and Rulhière. Mably, who might be treated equally well under the head of philosophy, was an abbé, and moderately orthodox in religion, though decidedly Republican in politics. He was a man of some learning; but, if less ignorant than Voltaire, he was equally blind to the real meaning and influence of the middle ages and of mediaeval institutions. He looked back to the institutions of Rome, and still more of Greece, as models of political perfection, without making the slightest allowance for the difference of circumstances; and to him more than to any one else is due the nonsensical declamation of the Jacobins about tyrants and champions of liberty. His works, the Entretiens de Phocion, the Observations sur l'Histoire de France, the Droits de l'Europe fondés sur les Traités, are, however, far from destitute of value, though, as generally happens, it was their least valuable part which (especially when Rousseau followed to enforce similar ideas with his contagious enthusiasm) produced the greatest effect.


Rulhière, who was really a historian of excellence, and who might under rather more favourable circumstances have been one of the most distinguished, was born about 1735. His Christian names were Claude Carloman. He was of noble birth, was educated at the Collège Louis-le-Grand, and served in the army till he was nearly thirty years old. He then went to St. Petersburg as secretary to the ambassador Breteuil, whom he also accompanied to Sweden. He returned to Paris and began to write the history of the singular proceedings which during his stay in the Russian capital had placed Catherine II. on the throne. The Empress, it is said, tried both to bribe and to frighten him, but could obtain nothing but a promise not to print the sketch till her death. He continued to live in Paris, where he was distinguished for rather ill-natured wit and for polished verse-tales and epigrams. For some reason he devoted himself to the history of Poland. In 1787 he was elected to the Academy. Then he wrote some Eclaircissements Historiques sur les Causes de la Révocation de l'Édit de Nantes, and is said to have begun other historical works. He died in 1791. His 'Anecdotes on the Revolution in Russia' did not appear till 1797; his Histoire de l'Anarchie de Pologne not till even later. The Polish book is unfinished, and is said to have been garbled in manuscript. But it has very considerable merits, though there is perhaps too much discussion in proportion to the facts given. The Russian anecdotes deserve to rank with the historical essays of Retz and Saint-Réal in vividness and precision of drawing.

These are the chief names of the century in history proper, for Volney, who concludes it in regard to the study of history, is, like many of his predecessors, rather a philosopher busying himself with the historical departments and applications of his subject than a historian proper. Still more may this be said of Diderot in such works as the Essai sur les Règnes de Claude et de Néron. The creation of a school of accomplished historians was left for the next century, when the opportunity of such a subject as the French Revolution in the immediate past, the stimulus of the precepts and views of the great writers on the philosophy of history, and lastly the disinterring of the original documents of mediaeval and ancient history, did not fail to produce their natural effect. The number of historians of the first and second class born towards the close of the eighteenth century is remarkable.

Memoirs. Madame de Staal-Delaunay.
Madame d'Epinay.

The first memoirs, properly so called, which have to be mentioned as belonging to the eighteenth century, are those of Mademoiselle Delaunay, afterwards Madame de Staal. Mademoiselle Delaunay was attached to the household of the Duchess du Maine, the beautiful, impetuous, and highborn wife of one of the stupidest and least interesting of men, who happened also to be the illegitimate son of Louis XIV. The Duke du Maine, or rather his wife, for he himself was nearly as destitute of ambition as of ability, was at the head of the party opposed to that of which the Duke of Orleans (the Regent) was the natural chief, and Saint Simon the ablest partisan. The 'party of the bastards' failed, but the duchess kept up a vigorous literary and political agitation against the Regent. The court (as it may be called) of this opposition was held at Sceaux, and of the doings of this court Madame de Staal has left a very vivid account. The Marquis d'Argenson, a statesman and a man of great intelligence, concealed under a rough and clumsy exterior, has left memoirs which are valuable for the early and middle part of the reign of Louis XV. The memoirs, properly so called, of Duclos are of small extent, but he has left impersonal memoirs of the later reign of Louis XIV. and the beginning of that of his great-grandson, which are among the best historical work of the time. His account of the famous 'system' of Law is one of the principal sources of information on its subject, as is his handling of the Cellamare conspiracy and other affairs of the regency. Duclos was a man not only of considerable literary talent, but of wide historical reading, which appears amply in his work. The gossiping memoirs, attributed to Madame du Hausset, bedchamber-woman to Madame de Pompadour, give many curious details of the middle period of Louis XV.'s reign; and in the vast collection of tittle-tattle, often scandalous enough, called the Mémoires de Bachaumont, much matter of interest, and some that is of value, may be found. Among the most valuable memoirs of this kind are those of Collé, which have been only recently edited in full. Collé, who, though a time-server and an ill-natured man, had much literary talent, was an acute observer, and enjoyed great opportunities, has left important materials for the middle of the century. The Baron de Bésenval, half a Savoyard and half a Pole, who played an important part in the early days of the Revolution, and who had previously encouraged Marie Antoinette in the levities, harmless enough but worse than ill-judged, which had so fatal a result, has left reminiscences of the later years of Louis XV., and a connected narrative of the outbreak of the Revolution. The memoirs concerning the Philosophes form a library in themselves, even those which concern Voltaire alone making a not inconsiderable collection. Those of Madame d'Epinay (the friend of Grimm, of Galiani, and of Rousseau), of Marmontel, of Morellet, are perhaps the principal of this group. Marmontel's memoirs are among his best works, and Madame d'Epinay's are among the most characteristic of the period. There is a certain number of interesting memoirs of actors and actresses, which dates from this time, including those of the great actress Mademoiselle Clairon, the tragic actor Le Kain, and others.

Minor Memoirs.

Circumstances rather political than literary have given a place in literary history to the memoirs of Linguet and Latude concerning the Bastile. That celebrated building, however, figures largely in the memoirs of the time, and the experiences of Voltaire, Marmontel, Crébillon, and others show how greatly exaggerated is the popular notion of its dungeons and torments. The so-called memoirs of the Duke de Richelieu (the type, and a very debased type, of the French noblesse of the eighteenth century, as La Rochefoucauld was of that of the seventeenth) are the work of Soulavie, a literary man and unfrocked abbé of very dubious character: but they at least rest upon authentic data, and abound in the most curious information. The President Hénault, a man of probity and learning, has left memoirs of value.

Memoirs of the Revolutionary Period.

As might be expected, the collection of memoirs which have reference to the Revolution and the Empire is very large. The fortunes of the ill-fated royal family are dealt with in three sets of memoirs, on which all historians have been obliged to draw, those of Madame Campan, of Weber, and of Cléry, all three of whom were attendants on Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette. The memoirs of the first-named are supposed to be the least accurate in matters of fact. The ill-natured and factious Madame de Genlis has left two different works of the memoir kind, the one entitled Souvenirs de Félicie, which is somewhat fictitious in form and arrangement, but is believed to be accurate enough in facts; the other, definitely called Memoirs, which was written long after date, and is much coloured by prejudice. The Marquis de Bouillé, whose gallant conduct during the Nancy mutiny set an example which the nobility of France were unfortunately slow to follow, and who would have saved Louis XVI. in the Varennes flight but for ill-luck and the king's incredible folly, has also left memoirs of value; and so has Dumouriez. The memoirs of Louvet, of Daunou, of Riouffe, of the Duke de Lauzun, of the Comte de Vaublanc, of the Comte de Ségur, may be mentioned. The unamiable but striking and characteristic figure of Madame Roland lives in memoirs which are among the most celebrated of the time. A group of short but striking accounts of eye-witnesses and narrowly-rescued victims remains to testify to the atrocities of that Second of September, which some recent historians have striven in vain to palliate. Many of the men of the Revolution, of the servants of the Empire and of their wives, have left accounts (of more or less value in point of matter) of the events of the time, some of which have been only very recently published. Among these latter special notice is deserved by the memoirs of Davout, of Madame de Rémusat, and of Count Miot de Melito. But with few exceptions (those of Madame de Rémusat are perhaps the principal) none of these memoirs are of great literary importance or interest. They are often very valuable to the historian, very curious to the student of manners or the mere seeker after interesting and amusing facts; but no one of them, named or unnamed, can be said to rank in literary interest with the work which is so plentiful in the preceding century, and which constitutes so large a part of that century's claim to a place of first importance in the history of French literature.

Abundance of Letter-writers.

It is otherwise with letters, of which the century contributes to literature some of the most remarkable which we possess. It is impossible even to give a bare list of those which remain from a time when almost every person of quality knew how to correspond either in the natural or the artificial style; but the most remarkable (each of which is in its way typical of a group) may be noticed with some minuteness. Among these the correspondence of Grimm, though one of the bulkiest and most important, may be dismissed with a brief reference; for it will be noticed again in the succeeding chapter, and most of it is not either the work of one man or real correspondence. The flying sheets which Grimm, largely aided by his complaisant friends, and especially by Diderot, sent to his august Russian and German correspondents, were in reality periodical summaries of the state of politics, society, letters, and art in Paris, not different in subject and style from the printed newspaper letters of the present day. They form in the aggregate a very important work, whether looked at from the point of view of history, or from the point of view of literature; but they are not, properly speaking, letters. Of the letter-writers proper three women and three men may be selected — Mademoiselle Aïssé, Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, and Madame du Deffand; Voltaire, Diderot, and Galiani.

Mademoiselle Aïssé.

Mademoiselle Aïssé had a singular history. When a child she was carried off by Turkish rovers, and sold at Constantinople to the French ambassador, M. de Ferriol. This was at the beginning of the century. Her purchaser had her brought up carefully at Paris as his property, which no doubt he always considered her. But in his old age he became childish, and Mademoiselle Aïssé was free to frequent society to which she had been early introduced. She met and fell in love with a certain Chevalier d'Aydie, who himself (at a later date, for the most part,) was a letter-writer of some merit. Her letters to him and of him constitute her claim to a position in the history of literature. They display the sensibilité of the time in a decided form, but in a milder one than the later letters of Mademoiselle de Lespinasse. But there is something in them more than mere sensibilité— a tender and affectionate spirit finding graceful expression and deserving a happier fate. Mademoiselle Aïssé, like most other people of her time, turned devout, but earlier than most. She died in 1733.

Madame du Deffand.

Madame du Deffand was a very different person. She was born in 1697, and she distinguished herself when quite a girl, not merely by her beauty, but by her wit and tendency to freethinking. She was married in 1718 to the Marquis du Deffand, but soon separated from him, and lived for many years the then usual life of gallantry. This merged insensibly into a life of literary and philosophical society. Though Madame du Deffand was not, like the wealthier but more plebeian Madame Geoffrin, and later Madame Helvétius, a 'nursing mother of the philosophers,' in the sense of supplying their necessities, her salon in the Rue Saint Dominique was long one of the chief resorts of philosophism. In 1753 she became blind, but this made little difference in her appetite for society. She lived like many other great ladies in a monastery. She died in 1780. As a letter-writer Madame du Deffand was the correspondent of most of the greatest men of letters of the time (Voltaire, D'Alembert, Hénault, Montesquieu, etc.). But her most remarkable correspondence, and perhaps her most interesting one, was with Horace Walpole, the most French of contemporary Englishmen. Their friendship, for which it is hard to find an exact name, unless, perhaps, it may be called a kind of passionate community of tastes, belongs to the later part of her long life. Madame du Deffand is the typical French lady of the eighteenth century, as Richelieu is the typical grand seigneur. She was perhaps the wittiest woman (in the strict sense of the adjective) who ever lived290, and an astonishingly large proportion of the best sayings of the time is traced or attributed to her. Nearly seventy years of conversation and a great correspondence did not exhaust her faculty of acute sallies, of ruthless criticism, of cynical but clearsighted judgment on men and things. But she was thoroughly unamiable, purely selfish, jealous, spiteful, destitute of humour, if full of wit. A comparison with Madame de Sévigné shows how the French character had, in the upper ranks at least, degenerated (it is worth remembering that Madame du Deffand was born just after Madame de Sévigné's death), though it must be admitted that the earlier character shows perhaps the germs of what is repulsive in the second.

Mademoiselle de Lespinasse.

The third most remarkable lady letter-writer of the century, Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, was closely connected with Madame du Deffand. She was indeed her companion, her coadjutor, and her rival. Julie Jeanne Eléonore de Lespinasse was in reality the illegitimate daughter of a lady of rank, the Countess d'Albon, who lived apart from her husband, and the name Lespinasse was merely a fancy name taken from the D'Albon genealogy. She was born, or at least baptized, at Lyons on the 19th November, 1732. Her mother, who practically acknowledged her, died when she was fifteen, leaving her fairly provided for. But her half-brothers and sisters deprived her of most of her portion, though for a time they gave her a home. In 1754 Madame du Deffand, to whom she had been recommended, and who had just been struck with blindness, invited her to come and live with her, which she did, after some hesitation. For ten years the two presided jointly over their society, but at last Madame du Deffand's jealousy broke out. Mademoiselle de Lespinasse retired, taking with her not a few of the habitués of the salon, with D'Alembert at their head. Madame Geoffrin seems to have endowed her, and she established herself in the Rue de Bellechasse, where D'Alembert before long came to join her. They lived in a curious sort of relationship for more than ten years, until Mademoiselle de Lespinasse died on the 22nd May, 1776. During this time she was a gracious hostess and a bond of union to many men of letters, especially those of the younger philosophe school. But this is not what gives her her place here. Her claim rests upon a collection of love-letters, not addressed to D'Alembert. She was thirty-four when the earliest of her love affairs began, and had never been beautiful. When she died she was forty-four, and her later letters are more passionate than the earlier. Her first lover was a young Spaniard, the Marquis Gonsalvo de Mora; her second, the Count de Guibert, a poet and essayist of no great merit, a military reformer said to have been of some talent, and pretty evidently a bad-hearted coxcomb. To him the epistles we have are addressed. All the circumstances of these letters are calculated to make them ridiculous, yet there is hardly any word which they less deserve. The great defect of the eighteenth century is that its sensibilité excludes real passion. The men and women of feeling of the period always seem as if they were playing at feeling; the affairs of the heart, which occupy so large a place in its literature, show only the progress of a certain kind of game which has its rules and stages to which the players must conform, but which, when once over, leaves no more traces than any other kind of game. To this Mademoiselle de Lespinasse is a conspicuous exception. It has been said of her that her letters burn the paper they are written on with the fervency of their sentiment, nor is the expression an exaggerated one. Except in Rousseau and (in a different form) in Manon Lescaut, it is in these letters that we must look for almost the only genuine passion of the time. It is no doubt unreal to a certain degree, morbid also in an even greater degree as regards what is real in it. But it is in no sense consciously affected, and conscious affectation was the bane of the period.


The three examples which have been chosen of the masculine letter-writing of the period are of somewhat wider range. Mademoiselle Aïssé and Mademoiselle de Lespinasse show in various forms the amiable weaknesses of womankind, Madame du Deffand its unamiable strength. The letters of Voltaire, of Diderot, and of the Abbé Galiani are not so typical of a sex, but are more representative of individuals and at the same time of the age. Voltaire's correspondence is simply enormous in point of bulk. Fresh letters of his are constantly being discovered and edited even now. His long life, his extraordinary industry, his position during nearly half a century as first one of the leading men of letters, and then unquestionably the leading man of letters of Europe, the curious diversity of his interests, even the prosperity in point of fortune which made him command the services of secretaries and under-strappers, while humbler men of letters had to do the mechanical work of composition for themselves, all contributed to bring about this fecundity. The consequence is, that not only is the correspondence of Voltaire of vast extent but it is also of the most various character. We have from him early love-letters, letters to private friends of all dates, business letters, literary letters, letters to great persons, letters intended for publication, letters not intended for publication, flattering letters, insulting letters, benevolent letters, patronising letters, begging letters, letters of almost every sort and kind that the ingenuity of human imagination can conceive or the diversity of human relationships and circumstances require. Partial critics have contended that the singular quality of Voltaire's genius might be sufficiently exemplified from his letters, if no other documents were forthcoming. Without going quite so far as this, it may be allowed that his correspondence is a remarkable monument of those qualities in literature which enable a man to express himself happily and rapidly on any subject that happens to present itself. The letters of Voltaire do not perhaps supply any ground for disputing Carlyle's sentence on Voltaire (a sentence which has excited the wrath of French critics) that there is not one great thought in all his works. But they enable us, even better than any other division of those works, to appreciate the singular flexibility of his intellect, the extraordinarily wide range of his interests and sympathies, the practical talents which accompanied his literary genius.


Diderot's correspondence is also considerable in bulk, though not in that respect to be compared to Voltaire's. It has several minor divisions, the chief of which is a body of letters addressed to the sculptor Falconnet in Russia. But the main claim of this versatile writer and most fertile thinker to rank in this chapter lies in his letters to Mademoiselle Volland, a lady of mature years, to whom, in his own middle and old age, he was, after the fashion of the time, much attached. These letters were not published till forty or fifty years after his death, and it is not too much to say that they supply not only the most vivid picture of Diderot himself which is attainable, but also the best view of the later and extremer philosophe society. Many, if not most of them, are written from that society's head-quarters, the country house of the Baron d'Holbach, at Grandval, where Diderot was an ever welcome visitor. This society had certain drawbacks which made it irksome, not merely to orthodox and sober persons, but to fastidious judges who were not much burdened with scruples. Horace Walpole, for instance, found himself bored by it. But it was the most characteristic society of the time, and Diderot's letters are the best pictures of it, because, unlike some not dissimilar work, they unite great vividness and power of description with an obvious absence of the least design to 'cook,' that is to say, to invent or to disguise facts and characters. Diderot, who possessed every literary faculty except the faculty of taking pains and the faculty of adroitly choosing subjects, was marked out as the describer of such a society as this, where brilliancy was the one thing never wanting, where eccentricity of act and speech was the rule, where originals abounded and took care to make the most of their originality, and where all restraint of convention was deliberately cast aside. The character and tendencies of this society have been very variously judged, and there is no need to decide here between the judges further than to say that, on the whole, the famous essay of Carlyle on Diderot not inadequately reduces to miniature Diderot's own picture of it. Only the extremest prejudice can deny the extraordinary merit of that picture itself, the vividness and effortless effect with which the men and women dealt with — their doings and their sayings — are presented, the completeness and dramatic force of the presentation.


The last of the epistolers selected for comment, the Abbé Galiani, has this peculiarity as distinguished from Voltaire and Diderot, that he is little except a letter-writer to the present and probably to all future generations of readers. He will indeed appear again, but his dealings with political economy are of merely ephemeral interest. Galiani was of a noble Neapolitan family, was attached to the Neapolitan Legation in Paris, and made himself a darling of philosophe society there. When he was recalled to his native country and endowed with sufficiently lucrative employments, his chief consolation for the loss of Parisian society was to gather as far as he could a copy of it — consisting partly of Italians, partly of foreign and especially English visitors — to Italy, to study classical archæology, in which (and especially in the department of numismatics) he was an expert, and to write letters to his French friends. In his long residence at Paris, Galiani had acquired a style not entirely destitute of Italianisms, but all the more piquant on that account. His letters were published early in this century, but incompletely and in a somewhat garbled fashion. They have recently had the benefit of two different complete editions. They are addressed, the greater part of them to Madame d'Epinay, and the remainder to various correspondents. Galiani had the reputation of being one of the best talkers of his time, and the memoirs and correspondence of his friends (especially Diderot's) contain many reported sayings of his which amply support the reputation. Like many famous talkers, he seems to have been not quite so ready with the pen as with the tongue. But it is only by comparison that his letters can be depreciated. Less voluminous and manifold than Voltaire, less picturesque than Diderot, he is a model of general letter-writing. He is also remarkable as an exponent of the curious feeling of the time towards religion; a feeling which was prevalent in the cultivated classes (with certain differences) all over Europe. Galiani was not, like some of his French friends, a proselytising atheist. He held some ecclesiastical employments in his own country with decency, and died with all due attention to the rites of the Church. But it is obvious that he was as little of a Christian, in any definite sense of the word, as any humanist of the fifteenth century.

The light thrown in this fashion upon the social, moral, and intellectual characteristics of the time constitutes the chief value of all its historical literature, except the great philosophico-historical works of Montesquieu and Turgot. It has a certain flimsiness about it; it is brilliant journalism rather than literature properly so called; the dialect in which it is written wants the gravity and sonorousness, the colour and the poetry, of the seventeenth and earlier centuries. But it is unmatched in power of social portraiture. Written, as much of it is, by men of the middle class, and more of it by men who, from whatever class they sprang, were deeply interested in social, economical, and political problems, it is free from that ignoring of any life and class except that of the nobility which mars much of the work of earlier times. The picture it gives is very far from being a flattering one. The nature to which the mirror is held up is in most cases a decidedly corrupt nature; but the mirror is held frankly, and the reflection is useful to posterity.

289 In studying the history, and especially the memoirs, of the eighteenth century, the reader is at a disadvantage, inasmuch as the admirable collections of MM. Buchon, Petitot, Michaud et Poujoulat, etc., do not extend beyond its earliest years. Their place is very imperfectly supplied by a collection in twenty-eight small volumes, edited by F. Barrière for MM. Didot. This is useful as far as it goes, but it is very far from complete; much of it is in extract only, and the component parts of it are not selected as judiciously as they might be. Separate editions of the principal memoirs of the century are of course obtainable, and the number is being constantly increased; but such separate editions are far less useful than the collections which enable the memoir-writing of France during five centuries of its history to be studied at an advantage scarcely to be paralleled in the literature of any other nation.

290 Her earlier contemporary, Madame de Tencin, is her chief competitor.


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