A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 3.



Prose fiction, for reasons which it is not at all hard to discover, is in its more complete forms always a late product of literature. Up to the beginning of the seventeenth century, France had known nothing of it except the short prose tales which had succeeded the Fabliaux, and which had been chiefly founded on imitation of the Italians, with the late and inferior prose versions of the romances of chivalry, the isolated masterpiece of Gargantua and Pantagruel, and the translated and adapted versions of the Amadis and its continuations. The imitation of Spanish literature was constant in the early seventeenth century, and the great wave of conceited style which, under the various names of Euphuism, Gongorism, Marinism, invaded all the literary countries of Europe, did not spare France. The result was a very singular class of literature which, except for a few burlesque works, almost monopolised the attention of novelists during the first half of the century. The example of it was in a manner set by Honoré d'Urfé in the Astrée, which was, however, rather pastoral than heroic. D'Urfé, who was a man of position and wealth in the district of Forez, imagined, on the banks of the Lignon, a stream running past his home, a kind of Arcadia, the popularity of which is sufficiently shown by the adoption of the name of the hero, Céladon, as one of the stock names in French for a lover. He took, perhaps, some of his machinery from the Aminta of Tasso and from the other Italian pastorals, but he emulated the Amadis in the interminable series of adventures and the long-windedness of his treatment. He had, however, some literary power, while the necessary verisimilitude was provided for by the adaptation of numerous personal experiences, and the book has preserved a certain reputation for graceful sentiment and attractive pictures of nature. It was extraordinarily popular at the time and long afterwards, so much so that a contemporary ecclesiastic, Camus de Pontcarré, considered it necessary to supply an antidote to the bane in the shape of a series of Christian pastorals, the name of one of which, Palombe, is known, because of an edition of it in the present century.

The Heroic Romances.

D'Urfé belonged as much to the sixteenth as to the seventeenth century, though the Astrée was the work of the latter part of his life, and was indeed left unfinished by him. It was shortly afterwards, under the influence chiefly of the growing fancy for literary coteries, that the heroic romance properly so called was born. This was usually a narration of vast length, in which sometimes the heroes and heroines of classical antiquity, sometimes personages due more or less to the author's imagination, were conducted through a more than Amadis-like series of trials and adventures, with interludes and a general setting of high-flown gallantry. This latter possessed a complete jargon of its own, and (though the hypothesis of its power over the classical French drama is for the most part exaggerated) continued to exercise a vast influence on literature and on society, even after Molière had poured on its chief practitioners and advocates the undying mockery of his Précieuses Ridicules. There were three prominent authors in this style, Mademoiselle de Scudéry, La Calprenède, and Gomberville. Mademoiselle de Scudéry, known in the coterie nomenclature of the time as 'Sapho,' was the sister of Georges de Scudéry, and a woman of considerable talent and more considerable industry. Madeleine de Scudéry was born at Havre in 1607, and died at Paris in 1701, her life thus covering nearly the whole of the century of which she was one of the most conspicuous literary figures. She had no beauty — indeed she was very ugly — but the eccentric military and literary reputation of her brother and her own talents made her the centre and head of an important coterie in the capital. Her romances, the earliest of which was Ibrahim, were published under her brother's name, but their authorship was well known. She was extremely accomplished, not merely in the accomplishments of a blue-stocking but in art, and even in housewifery. After her series of romances was finished she published many volumes, chiefly condensed or extracted from them, containing Conversations of the moral kind, which attracted attention from some persons who had not condescended to the romances themselves. It ought never to be forgotten that among the most fervent admirers of her books and of their fellows was Madame de Sévigné, who was certainly almost as acute in literary criticism as she was skilful in literary composition. Her novels, the most famous of their class, are the Grand Cyrus, otherwise Artamène, Clélie, Ibrahim, or the Illustrious Bassa, and Almahide, the latter being partly, but chiefly in the name of the heroine, the source of Dryden's Conquest of Granada. The Grand Cyrus is, at least by title, the best remembered, but it is in Clélie that the best-known and most characteristic trait appears, the delineation and description namely of the Carte de Tendre242. Tendre is the country of love, through which flows the river of Inclination watering the villages of 'Pretty Verses,' 'Gallant Epistles,' 'Assiduity,' etc., while elsewhere in the region are the less cheerful localities of 'Levity,' 'Indifference,' 'Perfidy,' and so forth. La Calprenède, a Gascon by birth, was the author of Cléopâtre (which ranks perhaps with Cyrus as the chief example of the style), of Cassandre and of Pharamond. Gauthier de Coste (which was his personal name) figures, like most of the notable persons of the middle of the century, in the Historiettes of Tallemant, who says of him, 'Il n'y a jamais eu un homme plus Gascon que celui-ci.' The assertion is supported by some characteristic but not easily quotable anecdotes. The criticism of Tallemant, however, does not apply badly to the whole class of compositions. 'Les héros,' says he, speaking of Cassandre, 'se ressemblent comme deux gouttes d'eau, parlent tous Phébus (the euphuist jargon of the time), et sont tous des gens à cent mille lieues au dessus des autres hommes.' Marin le Roy, Seigneur de Gomberville, who was something of a Jansenist, attended rather to edification than gallantry in his Alcidiane, Caritée, Polexandre, and Cythérée. Though earlier in date he is inferior in power to Mademoiselle de Scudéry and to La Calprenède, the first of whom had some wit and much culture, while La Calprenède possessed a decided grasp of heroic character and some notion of the method of composing historical novels. Gomberville, a man of wealth and position, was also a writer of moral works. Putting the artificiality of the general style out of the question, the chief fault to be found with these books is their enormous length. They fill eight, ten, or even twelve volumes; they consist of five, six, or even seven thousand pages, though the pages are not very large and the print by no means close. Even the liveliest work — work like Fielding's or Le Sage's — would become tiresome on such a scale as this; and it is still incomprehensible how any one not having some special object to serve by it could struggle through such enormous wastes of verbiage and unreality as form the bulk of these novels. Even when the passion for the heroic style strictly so called began to wane no great improvement at first manifested itself. Catherine Desjardins243 (who wrote under the name of Madame de Villedieu) produced numerous books (the chief of which is Le Grand Alcandre), not indeed so absolutely preposterous in general conception, but even more vapid and destitute of originality and distinction244.

These impracticable and barren styles of fiction were succeeded in the latter half of the century by something much better. The Picaroon romance of Spain inspired Paul Scarron with the first of a long line of novels which, in the hands of Le Sage, Defoe, Fielding, and Smollett, enriched the literature of Europe with remarkable work. Madame de la Fayette laid the foundation of the novel proper, or story of analysis of character; and towards the close of the century the fairy tale attained, in the hands of Anthony Hamilton, Perrault and Madame d'Aulnoy, its most delightful and abundant development.


Paul Scarron was one of the most remarkable literary figures of the century in respect of originality and eccentric talent, though few single works of his possess formal completeness. He was of a family of Piedmontese origin and very well connected, his father, of the same name, being a member of the Parliament of Paris, and of sufficiently independent humour to oppose Richelieu. Paul Scarron the younger (he had had an elder brother of the same name who had died an infant) was born in 1610, and his mother did not outlive his third year. His father married again; the stepmother did not get on well with Paul, and he was half obliged and half induced to become an abbé. For some years he lived a merry life, partly at Rome, partly at Paris. But when he was still young a great calamity fell on him. A cock-and-bull story of his having disguised himself as a savage in a kind of voluntary tar-and-feather suit, and having been struck with paralysis in consequence of plunging into an ice-cold stream to escape the populace, is usually told, but there seems to be no truth in it. An attack of fever, followed by rheumatism and mismanaged by the physicians of the day, appears to have been the real cause of his misfortune. At any rate, for the last twenty years of his life he was hopelessly deformed, almost helpless, and subject to acute attacks of pain. But his spirit was unconquerable. He had some preferment at Le Mans and a pension from the queen, which he lost on suspicion of writing Mazarinades. Besides these he had what he called his 'Marquisat de Quinet,' that is to say, the money which Quinet the bookseller paid him for his wares. In 1652 he astonished Paris by marrying Françoise d'Aubigné, the future Madame de Maintenon, the granddaughter of Agrippa d'Aubigné. The strange couple seem to have been happy enough, and such unfavourable reports as exist against Madame Scarron may be set down to political malice. But Scarron's health was utterly broken, and he died in 1660 at the age of fifty. His work was not inconsiderable, including some plays and much burlesque poetry, the chief piece of which was his 'Virgil travestied,' an ignoble task at best, but very cleverly performed. His prose, however, is of much greater value. Many of his nouvelles, mostly imitated from the Spanish, have merit, and his Roman Comique245, though also inspired to some extent from the peninsula, has still more. It is the unfinished history of a troop of strolling actors, displaying extraordinary truth of observation and power of realistic description in the style which, as has been said, Le Sage and Fielding afterwards made popular throughout Europe.

Cyrano de Bergerac.

With Scarron may be classed another writer of not dissimilar character, but of far less talent, whose eccentricities have given him a disproportionate reputation even in France, while they have often entirely misled foreign critics. Cyrano de Bergerac was a Gascon of not inconsiderable literary power, whose odd personal appearance, audacity as a duellist, and adherence, after conversion, to the unpopular cause of Mazarin, gave him a position which his works fail to sustain. They are not, however, devoid of merit. His Pédant Joué, a comedy, gave Molière some useful hints; his Agrippine, a tragedy, has passages of declamatory energy. But his best work comes under the head of fiction. The Voyages à la Lune et au Soleil246, in which the author partly followed Rabelais, and partly indulged his own fancy for rodomontade, personal satire, and fantastic extravagance, have had attributed to them the great and wholly unmerited honour of setting a pattern to Swift. Cyrano, let it be repeated, was a man of talent, but his powers (he died before he was thirty-five) had not time to mature, and the reckless boastfulness of his character would probably have disqualified him at all times from adequate study and self-criticism. Personally, he is an amusing and interesting figure in literary history, but he is not much more. In company with him and with Scarron may be mentioned Dassoucy, alternately a friend and enemy of Cyrano, and a light writer of some merit.


Charles Sorel, an exceedingly voluminous author, historiographer of France, deserves mention in passing for his Histoire Comique de Francion247, in which, as in almost all the fictitious work of the time, serious as well as comic, living persons are introduced. The chief remarkable thing about Francion is the evidence it gives of an attempt at an early date (1623) to write a novel of ordinary manners. It is a dull story with loose episodes. More interesting is Antoine Furetière, author of the Roman Bourgeois248. Furetière, who was a man of varied talent, holds no small place in the history of the calamities of authors. He wrote poems, short tales, fables, satires, criticisms. He is said to have given both Boileau and Racine not inconsiderable assistance. Unfortunately for him, though he had been elected an academician in 1662, he conceived and executed the idea of outstripping his tardy colleagues in their dictionary work. He produced a book of great merit and utility, but one which brought grave troubles on his own head. It was alleged that he had infringed the privileges of the Academy; he was expelled from that body, his own privilege for his own book was revoked, and it was not published till after his death, becoming eventually the well-known Dictionnaire de Trévoux. Furetière's side has been warmly taken in these days, and it has been sought, not without success, to free him from the charge of all impropriety of conduct, except the impropriety of continuing to be a member of the Academy, while what he was doing could hardly be regarded as anything but a slight on it. The Roman Bourgeois is an original and lively book, without any general plot, but containing a series of very amusing pictures of the Parisian middle-class society of the day, with many curious traits of language and manners. It was published in 1666.

Madame de la Fayette.

Of very different importance is the Countess de la Fayette, who has the credit, and justly, of substituting for mere romances of adventure on the one hand, and for stilted heroic work on the other, fiction in which the display of character is held of chief account. In the school, indeed, of which Scarron set the example in France, especially in Gil Blas, its masterpiece, the most accurate knowledge and drawing of human motives and actions is to be found. But it is knowledge and drawing of human motives and actions in the gross rather than in particular. Gil Blas, and even Tom Jones, are types rather than individuals, though the genius of their creators hides the fact. It is, perhaps, an arguable point of literary criticism, whether the persevering analysis of individual, and more or less unusual, character does not lead novelists away from the best path — as it certainly leads in the long run to monstrosities of the modern French and English 'realist' type. But this is a detail of criticism into which there is no need to enter here. It is sufficient that the style has produced some of the most admirable, and much of the most characteristic, work of the last century, and that Madame de la Fayette is on the whole entitled to the credit of being its originator. Her pen was taken up in the next century by the Abbé Prevost and by Richardson, and from these three the novel, as opposed to the romance, may be said to descend. The maiden name of Madame de la Fayette249 was Marie Madeleine Pioche de la Vergne, and she was born at Paris in 1634. Her father was governor of Havre. She was carefully brought up under Ménage and Rapin, among others, and was one of the most brilliant of the précieuses of the Hôtel Rambouillet. In 1655 she married the Count de la Fayette, but was soon left a widow. After his death she contracted a kind of Platonic friendship with La Rochefoucauld, who was then in the decline of life, tormented with gout, and consoling himself for the departure of the days when he was one of the most important men in France by the composition of his undying Maxims. She survived him thirteen years, and died herself in 1693. During the whole of her life she was on the most intimate terms with Madame de Sévigné, as well as with many of the foremost men of letters of the time. In particular there are extant a large number of letters between her and Huet, bishop of Avranches, one of the most learned, amiable, and upright prelates of the age. Her first attempt at novel-writing was La Princesse de Montpensier. This was followed by Zaïde, published in 1670, a book of considerable excellence; and this in its turn by La Princesse de Clèves, published in 1677, which is one of the classics of French literature. The book is but a small one, not amounting in size to a single volume of a modern English novel, and this must of itself have been no small novelty and relief after the portentous bulk of the Scudéry romances. Its scene is laid at the court of Henri II., and there is a certain historical basis; but the principal personages are drawn from the author's own experience, herself being the heroine, her husband the Prince of Clèves, and Rochefoucauld the Duke de Nemours, while other characters are identified with Louis XIV. and his courtiers by industrious compilers of 'keys.' If, however, the interest of the book had been limited to this it would now-a-days have lost all its attraction, or have retained so much at most as is due to simple curiosity. But it has far higher merits, and what may be called its court apparatus, and the multitude of small details about court business, are rather drawbacks to it now. Such charm as it has is derived from the strict verisimilitude of the character drawing, and the fidelity with which the emotions are represented. This interest may, indeed, appear thin to a modern reader fresh from the works of those who have profited by two centuries of progress in the way which Madame de la Fayette opened. But when it is remembered that her book appeared thirty years before Gil Blas, forty before the masterpieces of Defoe, and more than half a century before the English novel properly so called made its first appearance, her right to the place she occupied will hardly be contested250.

The precise origin of the fancy for writing fairy stories, which took possession of polite society in France at the end of the seventeenth century, has been the subject of much discussion, and cannot be said to have been finally settled. Probably the fables of La Fontaine, which are very closely allied to the style, may have given the required impulse. As soon as an example was set this style was seen to lend itself very well to the still surviving fancy for coterie compositions, and the total amount of work of the kind produced in the last years of the seventeenth and the first of the eighteenth century must be enormous. Much of it has not yet been printed, and the names of but few of the authors are generally known, or perhaps worth knowing251. Three, however, emerge from the mass and deserve attention — Anthony Hamilton, Madame d'Aulnoy, and above all, Charles Perrault, the master beyond all comparison of the style.

Fairy Tales.

Marie Catherine, Comtesse d'Aulnoy, was born about the middle of the seventeenth century, and died in 1720. It is sufficient to say that among her works are the 'Yellow Dwarf' and the 'White Cat,' stories which no doubt she did not invent, but to which she has given their permanent and well-known form. She wrote much else, memoirs and novels which were bad imitations of the style of Madame de la Fayette, but her fairy tales alone are of value. Anthony Hamilton was one of the rare authors who acquire a durable reputation by writing in a language which is not their native tongue. He was born in Ireland in 1646, and followed the fortunes of the exiled royal family. He returned with Charles II., but adhering to Catholicism, was excluded from preferment in England until James II.'s reign, and he passed most of his time before the Revolution, and all of it afterwards, in France. Hamilton produced (besides many fugitive poems and minor pieces) two books of great note in French, the Mémoires de Grammont, his brother-in-law, which perhaps is the standard book for the manners of the court of Charles II., and a collection of fairy tales, less simple than those of Perrault and Madame d'Aulnoy and more subordinated to a sarcastic intention, but full of wit and written in French, which is only more piquant for its very slight touch of a foreign element. Many phrases of Hamilton's tales have passed into ordinary quotation, notably 'Bélier, mon ami, tu me ferais plaisir si tu voulais commencer par le commencement.'


The master of the style was, however, as has been said, Charles Perrault, whose literary history was peculiar. He was born at Paris in 1628, being the son of Pierre Perrault, a lawyer, who had three other sons, all of them of some distinction, and one of them, Claude Perrault, famous in the oddly conjoined professions of medicine and architecture. Charles was well educated at the Collège de Beauvais, and at first studied law, but his father soon afterwards bought a place of value in the financial department, and Charles was appointed clerk in 1662. He received a curious and rather nondescript preferment (as secretary to Colbert for all matters dependent on literature and arts), which, among other things, enabled him to further his brother's architectural career. In 1671 he was, under the patronage of Colbert, elected of the Academy, into the affairs and proceedings of which he imported order almost for the first time. He had done and for some time did little in literature, being occupied by the duties which, under Colbert, he had as controller of public works. But after a few essays in poetry, partly burlesque and partly serious, notably a Siècle de Louis XIV., he embarked on the rather unlucky work which gave him his chief reputation among his own contemporaries, the Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes, in which he took the part of the moderns. The dispute which followed, due principally to the overbearing rudeness of Boileau, has had something more than its proper place in literary history, and there is no need to give an account of it. It is enough to say that while Boileau as far as his knowledge went (and that was not far, for he knew nothing of English, not very much of Greek, and it would seem little of Italian or Spanish) had the better case, Perrault, assisted by his brother, made a good deal the best use of his weapons, Boileau's unlucky 'Ode on Namur' giving his enemies a great hold on him. After six years' fighting, however, the enemies made peace, and, indeed, it does not seem that Perrault at any time bore malice. He produced, besides some memoirs and the charming trifles to be presently spoken of252, a good many miscellanies in prose and verse of no particular value, and died in 1703.

His first tale, Griselidis (in verse, and by no means his best), appeared in 1691, Peau d'Âne and Les Souhaits Ridicules in 1694, La Belle au Bois Dormant in 1696, and the rest in 1697. These are Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, La Barbe Bleue, Le Maître Chat ou le Chat Botté, Les Fées, Cendrillon, Riquet à la Houppe, and Le Petit Poucet. It is needless to say that Perrault did not invent the subjects of them. What he contributed was an admirable and peculiar narrative style, due, as seems very probable, in great part to the example of La Fontaine, but distinguished therefrom by all the difference of verse and prose. The characteristics of this style are an extreme simplicity which does not degenerate into puerility, great directness, and at the same time vividness in telling the story, and a remarkable undercurrent of wit which is never obtrusive, as is sometimes the case in the verse tales. Perrault's stories deserve their immense popularity, and they found innumerable imitators chiefly among persons of quality, who, as M. Honoré Bonhomme, the best authority on the obscurer fairy-tale writers, observes, probably found an attraction in the style because of the way in which it lent itself to cover personal satire. This, however, is something of an abuse, and little or nothing of it is discernible in Perrault's own work, though later, and especially in the eighteenth century, it was frequently if not invariably present.

Note to the last Three Chapters.

Although the list of names mentioned here under the respective heads of poets, dramatists, and novelists is considerable, it is very far indeed from being exhaustive. It may, indeed, be said generally that it is only possible in this history, especially as we leave the invention of printing farther and farther behind, to mention those names which have left something like a memory behind them. The dramas and novels of the seventeenth century are extremely numerous, and have been but very partially explored. In regard to the poems there is an additional difficulty. It was a fashion of the time to collect such things in recueils— miscellaneous collections — in which the work of very large numbers of writers, who never published their poems separately or obtained after their own day any recognition as poets, is buried. Specimens, published here and there by the laborious editors of the greater classics in illustration of these latter, show that with leisure, opportunity, and critical discernment, this little-worked vein might be followed up not without advantage. But for such a purpose, as for the similar exploration of many other out-of-the-way corners of this vast literature, conditions are needed which are eminently 'the gift of fortune.' These remarks apply more or less to all the following chapters and books of this history. But they may find an appropriate place here, not merely because it is from this period onwards that they are most applicable, but because this special department of French literary history — the earlier seventeenth century — contains, perhaps, the greatest proportion of this wreckage of time as yet unrummaged and unsorted by posterity.

242 Not du Tendre, as it is often erroneously cited in French and English works.

243 The learned editor of Tallemant des Réaux calls her Marie Hortense. She also wrote verses and plays. There were many other romance writers of the period now forgotten, or remembered only for other things, such as the Abbé d'Aubignac.

244 I cannot boast of an intimate or exhaustive acquaintance with the 'heroic' romances; but I have taken care to satisfy myself of the accuracy of the statements in the text.

245 Ed. Dillaye. 2 vols. Paris, 1881.

246 The full title is Histoire Comique des États de la Lune et du Soleil. Cyrano's works have been edited by P. L. Jacob. 2 vols. Paris, 1858.

247 Ed. Colombey. Paris, 1877.

248 Ed. Jannet. 2 vols. Paris, 1878.

249 Ed. Garnier. Paris, 1864.

250 Madame de la Fayette also wrote La Comtesse de Tende, and interesting Memoirs of Henrietta of England. Zaïde was published under the name of Segrais, who was a nouvelle-writer of no great merit, though a pleasant poet.

251 See H. Bonhomme, Le Cabinet des Fées.

252 Ed. Lefèvre. Paris, 1875. Ed. Lang. Oxford, 1888.


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