An ‘Attic’ Philosopher, by Émile Souvestre

Émile Souvestre

No one succeeds in obtaining a prominent place in literature, or in surrounding himself with a faithful and steady circle of admirers drawn from the fickle masses of the public, unless he possesses originality, constant variety, and a distinct personality. It is quite possible to gain for a moment a few readers by imitating some original feature in another; but these soon vanish and the writer remains alone and forgotten. Others, again, without belonging to any distinct group of authors, having found their standard in themselves, moralists and educators at the same time, have obtained undying recognition.

Of the latter class, though little known outside of France, is Émile Souvestre, who was born in Morlaix, April 15, 1806, and died at Paris July 5, 1854. He was the son of a civil engineer, was educated at the college of Pontivy, and intended to follow his father’s career by entering the Polytechnic School. His father, however, died in 1823, and Souvestre matriculated as a law-student at Rennes. But the young student soon devoted himself entirely to literature. His first essay, a tragedy, ‘Le Siege de Missolonghi’ (1828), was a pronounced failure. Disheartened and disgusted he left Paris and established himself first as a lawyer in Morlaix. Then he became proprietor of a newspaper, and was afterward appointed a professor in Brest and in Mulhouse. In 1836 he contributed to the ‘Revue des Deux Mondes’ some sketches of life in Brittany, which obtained a brilliant success. Souvestre was soon made editor of La Revue de Paris, and in consequence early found a publisher for his first novel, ‘L’Echelle de Femmes’, which, as was the case with his second work, Riche et Pauvre’, met with a very favorable reception. His reputation was now made, and between this period and his death he gave to France about sixty volumes — tales, novels, essays, history, and drama.

A double purpose was always very conspicuous in his books: he aspired to the role of a moralist and educator, and was likewise a most impressive painter of the life, character, and morals of the inhabitants of Brittany.

The most significant of his books are perhaps ‘Les Derniers Bretons (1835-1837, 4 vols.), Pierre Landais (1843, 2 vols.), Le Foyer Breton (1844, 2 vols.), Un Philosophe sons les Toits, crowned by the Academy (1850), Confessions d’un Ouvrier (1851), Recits et Souvenirs (1853), Souvenirs d’un Vieillard (1854); also La Bretagne Pittoresque (1845), and, finally, Causeries Historiques et Litteraires (1854, 2 vols.)’. His comedies deserve honorable mention: ‘Henri Hamelin, L’Oncle Baptiste (1842), La Parisienne, Le Mousse, etc’. In 1848, Souvestre was appointed professor of the newly created school of administration, mostly devoted to popular lectures. He held this post till 1853, lecturing partly in Paris, partly in Switzerland.

His death, when comparatively young, left a distinct gap in the literary world. A life like his could not be extinguished without general sorrow. Although he was unduly modest, and never aspired to the role of a beacon-light in literature, always seeking to remain in obscurity, the works of Émile Souvestre must be placed in the first rank by their morality and by their instructive character. They will always command the entire respect and applause of mankind. And thus it happens that, like many others, he was only fully appreciated after his death.

Even those of his ‘confreres’ who did not seem to esteem him, when alive, suddenly found out that they had experienced a great loss in his demise. They expressed it in emotional panegyrcs; contemporaneous literature discovered that virtue had flown from its bosom, and the French Academy, which had at its proper time crowned his ‘Philosophe sons les Toits’ as a work contributing supremely to morals, kept his memory green by bestowing on his widow the “Prix Lambert,” designed for the “families of authors who by their integrity, and by the probity of their efforts have well deserved this token from the Republique des Lettres.”

JOSEPH BERTRAND

de ‘Academie Francaise.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/souvestre/emile/attic-philosopher/preface.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30