French Literature Of The 19th Century:
Literature Under The Empire 1852-1870
The Rise Of Realism
Literature Under The Republic-1870-1899
Read More Articles About: French Literature Of The 19th Century
The Rise Of Realism
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The transformation of the novel became complete when Gustave Flaubert (1821-188o) startled even Paris with his realistic creation, "Madame Bovary," in 1856. What Balzac had roughly though minutely begun, his pupil worked up to the finest finish. Flaubert had the enormous advantage to a novelist of refined instincts, high culture, and a facility in the strictly artistic use of language. He naturally began life under the banner of Romanticism. A period of travel gave a different bent to his earlier tastes. He took the pessimist's ungenial view of the world. Balzac had portrayed the dismal side of life with a realism that enchained the interest without exhilarating either the sense of pleasure or the better emotions. Flaubert thought he could paint a picture of an unattractive subject, yet which should kindle admiration by the skill and beauty of the workmanship.
Flaubert succeeded so well in this pen-picture that even the police were moved by it. His trial was the grand tournament of literary champions; the romanticists, realists, and rational respectabilities waged a three-cornered duel, with the law as umpire. Flaubert made his own defense, the artist must not be punished for holding the mirror to the mob in the streets. He won the fight, because the game of suppression is liable to turn into the business of oppression. Flaubert took higher artistic ground in his powerful study of ancient Carthage, named "Salammbô," from its heroine (1862). The charm of this is in its ultra-realistic picture of the time and people. Here his years of special study and travel for this result repay the effort. Great as it is, the average novel-reader will find it dry. The author carefully suppresses himself in his books; he refuses to point a moral or make an excursion into happier regions. His "Tentation de Saint Antoine" (1874) is an equally appalling picture of a holy man of old in the Egyptian desert, before whose vision passes the nightmare of humanity's evils, incurable woes intensified by futile efforts to ameliorate them. Flaubert's best novel of modern life is "L'Education Sentimentale" (1870). He again depicts a phase of sordid life in all its ugliness. By causing the hero to lose in the long run by rascality, the author may for once have posed as moralist to that extent. Flaubert's style may captivate the stylists. Those who want heart-throbs or romance will find him cold and repellent. Partly by heredity and partly by choice, he made himself one of the conspicuously able school of naturalists, some of whose later disciples have carried its methods several degrees farther in the direction of animalism.
That all its followers denied themselves the right to sunshine is disproved in the case of Octave Feuillet (1821-1890). A realist he was, but he did not disdain all romanticism. He began his career as one of Alexandre Dumas' clever young men, who worked up his plots in that merchant's back office. He collaborated with another in two romantic dramas, produced in 1845, and brought out his first original novel, "Bellah," in 1850. In this his leanings to realism were marked, though it preserved the romantic spirit. So in the succession of novels written during the next few years, "La Petite Comtesse" (1856), and his most popular and durable story, the "Roman d'un Jeune Homme Pauvre," (Story of a Poor Young Man) (1858). These have characteristics of importance as viewed in connection with their date and the author's position. The last named has a distinct value as a picture of rural life in Normandy. Though written on the lines of simple realism, it is imbued with a softened poetical influence, possibly suggested by the "Vicar of Wakefield," which rises into idealism. There is moral force, if not purpose, in the story, and the most confirmed naturalistic devotee would not venture to deny that its literary art gained by this gentle trait. In 1862 he ventured to break a lance with George Sand in the work, "Histoire de Sibylle." She replied a year later in her romance, "Mademoiselle de la Quintinie." It doubtless influenced her in the departure she was taking from the individualistic story. Both of them were tired of the selfish claim for personal gratification at any cost. To this extent Feuillet was distinctly a reformer of fiction, while continuing to picture the shadows of life. He contended for legitimate liberty for women, as for men, but always upheld pure love and honorable marriage as the ideal happiness and the only sure path to it. His greater novels are "M. de Camoes" (1867), "Julie de Trécoeur'' (1872), "Le Journal d'une Femme" (1878), and "La Morte" (1886). There are several others, besides five volumes of plays. One advantage he had in sustaining the tone he adopted, his novels mostly portray the lives of well-to-do people. Feuillet was a gentleman, and wrote as one. A high standard of honor is upheld generally. As a whole, his work may be pronounced clean, artistic, and with a tendency to the good.
Though Alexandre Dumas, the younger, who was born in 1824, died in 1895, his fame as a dramatist was won under the Empire. It is likely to endure, though disproportioned to the intrinsic worth of his literary influence. His father's wild nature was largely repeated in the romantic youth. Not until 1852 did he perceive that he must offer original work, the outcome of hard thinking, if any such celebrity as his father's was to be his. He produced the novel, afterward turned into the better known play, "Dame aux Camélias" (1848). As a study of the phase of Paris life with which he was most familiar, it was recognized as faithful and strong. There was some difficulty in getting permission to have it played, but it is a stock piece to this day. The next dramatized novel was "Diane de Lys," which failed, and then came the "Demi-Monde" in 1855, which is regarded as a masterpiece. The atmosphere of these plays cannot be breathed for any length of time with pleasure. Following up the lead thus secured, Dumas availed himself of the notoriety of his origin by using it as material for two unabashed character plays, the "Fils Naturel" (1858) and the "Père Prodigue" (1859). One of these, the "Idées de Madame Aubray" (1867), pleaded for sympathetic judgment for those who fall through weakness. Dumas took his success very seriously, favoring the world with several volumes of his plays, prefaced with eloquent arguments in proof of their moral value. From this time he regarded himself as a public oracle. No national event, such as the war of 1870, or scandal, or law suit involving large issues, was allowed to pass without its Dumas play or pamphlet to settle the principle at issue. His dramas, "La Visite de Noces" (1871); and "La Femme de Claude" (1873), showed that henceforth the stage was to be his pulpit. The point to be remarked here is that in this new departure from stage tradition Dumas was undoubtedly doing his best to widen and deepen its influence. His success was not continuous, but it was something that a mercurial people could be induced to ponder grave problems in the place where hitherto they had sought only merriment. It shows that, irrespective of his fitness for the office of moralist, Dumas possessed artistic power in no ordinary degree. He had the rare distinction of being admitted to the Academy in 1874 by a large majority, with Victor Hugo among them.
A poet of note in the naturalistic school, Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle, (1818-1894) may be included here. His work has come to the front again, owing to a new development of the literary principles he formulated for himself and adhered to. De Lisle wrote "Poèmes Antique" (1852), "Poèmes et Poésies" (1853), and "Poèmes Barbares" (1862) and "Poèmes Tragique" (1884). The severest canons of art are observed in these poems, which are gaining a new repute among the select. They betray a vein of pessimism, but are instinct with a beauty akin to the classical, and the polish which art gives to ideas, themselves coldly rough.
A set of popular works in fiction involved also political motives. They are sufficiently described as the Erckmann-Chatrian novels, being written in partnership by Emile Erckmann (1822-1899), a Lorrainer, with a taste for literature, and Alexandre Chatrian (1826-1890), an instructor in law. In 1859 their joint work, "L'Illustre Docteur Mathéus," gained a fair success. Thereafter they managed to glorify and keep alive the principles of the Revolution in a long series of stories, most craftily contrived to escape imperial censure. Under the guise of peasant stories of their native region, they depicted the seamy side of Napoleonism, its crushing influence on the poor people, and, by suggestion, the mischievous influence of the Second Empire. This subtle but telling propagandism was veiled in romances, of which the most popular were "Madame Therese, ou les Volontaires de '92" (1863), "L'Ami Fritz" (1864), "Histoire d'un Conscrit de 1813" (1864), "Waterloo" (1865), "Histoire d'un Homme du Peuple" (1865), "La Guerre" (1866), "Histoire d'un Paysan" (1868). The influence exercised by these stories had no little share in ripening the country for the downfall of imperialism. When the Second Empire fell the clever collaborators reaped a golden harvest by their realistic, though also romantic, disclosure of the methods by which the royal adventurer had coerced the nation. This they did in the "Histoire du Plébiscite, recontée par un des 7,500,000 Oui" (1872). From then until Chatrian's overstrained mind gave way, they produced a second string of novels, some almost idyllic, others strongly naturalistic, which always appealed to the sympathies of the people.
Not every novelist of philosophical radical leanings indulged in this latent hostility to the Empire. Jules Sandeau (181I-1882), already referred to as collaborator with George Sand in her first romantic novel in 1831, continued to produce his own romances for nearly fifty years. His work was maintained on a higher level than that of the popular novel, the characterization was strong, and his style pure. He did not care to pander to lovers of questionable sensation. He made no sign against the new régime. It gave him two lucrative librarianships, and when the Empire collapsed the republic pensioned him for the loss of his office in the library of St. Cloud. Among his best novels are "Marianna" (1839), "Le Docteur Her-beau" (1841), "La Chasse au Roman" (1849), and "La Roche aux Mouettes" (1871). He was better known as a playwright in conjunction with Emile Angier. The most popular piece, "Le Gendre de M. Poirier," is still a favorite in its English version by Robertson.
Victor Cherbuliez, born in 1829, and elected an Academician in 1882, wrote one of the strongest romances of realism in 1873, "Meta Holdenis," the heroine being a charming deceiver. His fame had been won by the "Roman d'une Honnête Femme" (Story of an Honest Woman) (1866), a piece of character portraiture of rare artistic excellence. Cherbuliez did equally striking work as a critic in art and letters, as may be seen in his "Etudes de Littérature et d'Art" (1873) . He also published works showing deep research and philosophical thought on the political systems of Germany, 1870, and Spain, 1874. Among his popular novels are "Le Fiancé de Mdlle. Saint-Maur," "Samuel Brohl et Cie," and "L'Idée de Jean Teterol."
Another brilliant miscellaneous writer who made the best of Napoleonism was Edmond About (1828-1885). His literary career was stormy. He earned his first celebrity by the record of his observations during a sojourn in Greece, "La Grèce Contemporaine" (1855). His denunciatory criticisms led to the translation of his book into several languages. This was followed by an auto-biographical romance, "Tolla," which he had to defend against a cry of plagiary. Then came a play, "Guilléry," which was hissed off the stage on the second night. His novels, which ran through the Moniteur, had better luck, "Le Roi des Montagues," "Trente et Quarante," and others. Then he left for Rome, returning with a book on a political problem of the time, "La Question Romaine." Between 186o and 1869 About published political pamphlets, witty short stories, such as "The Man with the Broken Ear" and "The Notary's Nose," and a quick succession of stories, including "L'Infame," and "Les Mari-ages de Province," besides a manual of political economy and souvenirs of Egypt. As a friend of the Empire, in the Paris journals, he went into the field as correspondent, when the war broke out. In due course he became a loyal republican and had the honor of being arrested for treason to the German emperor when in Alsace in 1872, but was released without trial. To this indignity he responded by issuing "Alsace," in which his patriotic feelings had full play. He collaborated in several dramas, but without special success. His entire work is marked rather by versatility than special ability.
A new form of novel which arose under the empire was that familiarly known as the detective story. It was probably due to a hint from some of Poe's work. Emile Gaboriau (1835-1873) constructed several of these ingenious novels in which the reader is started on the hunt after the perpetrator of a crime or some other mystery, and for him there is no rest until it is cleared up. Among his best are "M. le Coq," "Le Crime d'Orcival" and "La Degringolade." He has imitators in abundance today. Zola was at first one of the purveyors of this type of novel. Henry Murger had shown a strain of the old romantic feeling in his realistic portrayal of happy-go-lucky student life in the Latin quarter, "Vie de Boh me." Of the throng who courted fame and ill-fame by their extravagant fiction during the closing years of the Empire, only a few survivals of merit can be found. The short story established itself on a broader foundation, and the typical decadent naturalistic novel entered upon its questionable career.
Perhaps the downfall of the Empire was a more direct incentive to the typical novel of the Republic than is supposed. By this is meant the excessively materialistic novel, which by glaring portrayal of the gross, pretends to be enhancing the charm of the pure. Once the gayety of imperialism was extinguished, a field was discovered for novels which should unveil its wickedness. It was a neat tribute to stern republican-morality. Lest this virtuous motive should not discover itself in the high-colored pictures, the authors prudently avowed their purpose in impressive prefaces. Thus grew the rage for satirizing the frailities of the rich, which has not lessened with the rise of scathing exposures of low life. The popular novel had gradually to tell a more knowing tale, the popular play had to turn upon a still stronger situation involving conjugal honor. Playwright and novelist competed in the skill with which they could dress foul skeletons to simulate ordinary men and women. City life was their study, and of all cities none met the conditions so well as Paris. Once this rivalry commenced, it had to run its course. The pace steadily increased. Plays that were prohibited and novels that were prosecuted under the old régime had now a free course. Here and there a venture would be made into the realm of romance, and there are still attempts at a revival of the idyllic story.