The nineteenth century I (1800—52): Realists and Romantics

French Literature - A Beginner’s Guide - Carol Clark 2011

The nineteenth century I (1800—52): Realists and Romantics

Many historians would like the nineteenth century, the century of revolutions, to run from 1789 to 1917, from the French Revolution to the Russian. Certainly 1789 to 1852 in France was a period of successive dramatic political changes.

The Revolution of 1789, at first a bourgeois revolution, which established a constitutional monarchy, was succeeded by a Republic (1792), then the Terror (1793), the Convention (1794), the Directoire (1794—99), then the Consulat (1799) with Napoleon as First Consul. Not content with this role, he proclaimed himself Emperor in 1804. After his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, royal power was restored in the person of the two elderly brothers of Louis XVI: Louis XVIII (d. 1824) and his successor Charles X (Louis XVII having died as a child in captivity). Charles X was deposed by another revolution in July 1830, and replaced by a more amenable king from the lesser, Orléans branch of the royal family, Louis-Philippe, the so-called Citizen King, who reigned as a constitutional monarch until he too was deposed in 1848. His reign is called the July Monarchy.

The revolution of 1848 at first established a republic, called the Second Republic in memory of 1792. But Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of the original Napoleon, stood for and was elected to the Assembly, and then to the Presidency of the Republic, and three years later had himself proclaimed Emperor as Napoleon III (Napoleon I’s son, styled Napoleon II by his supporters, having died in exile in 1832). The Second Empire lasted from 1852 until France’s crushing defeat by the Prussians in 1870, when it was replaced by the Third Republic, which lasted until the defeat of 1940.

This chequered history means that a writer who was born in the late eighteenth century like Stendhal (b. 1783: his real name was Henri Beyle) or Honoré de Balzac (b. 1799) could remember the glory and fall of Napoleon as well as the reactionary atmosphere of the Restoration, the Revolution of 1830 and the more easy-going, get-rich-quick life of the July Monarchy. Stendhal died in 1842, Balzac in 1850 (exhausted, it was said, by the work of writing his ninety-two novels, his journalism and his endless financial crises). But Victor Hugo (1802—85) as an old man could remember, as well as the First Empire and the Restoration, the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848, in the latter of which he took an active part, the coup d’état of 1852, the end of the Second Empire in 1870 and the founding of the Third Republic, of which he became a figurehead and hero.

It is not surprising that the writing of men who lived through such times should closely reflect the society that they lived in, and the great novels of this period are the in the mode called ’realist’ (though neither Stendhal nor Balzac ever used this word).

The ’realist’ novel typically has a nearly contemporary subject, or one taken from very recent history. Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir, published in 1830, is set at the very end of the Restoration, just before the July Revolution, while Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin, published in 1831, is set just after it and makes many references to the events of the preceding year; the young intellectuals and artists that make up its cast are already disillusioned with the new democratic ideal (see Text 11). His Le Père Goriot (1834, set in 1820) and Illusions perdues (1837—43, set in 1821—2) are similarly rooted in recent events and offer detailed descriptions of contemporary settings and social mores.

The 1830s and 1840s also saw the beginnings of industrialization in France (much later than in England). Of particular interest from our point of view were advances in printing methods and particularly in paper-making, which allowed copy to be reproduced much more cheaply and permitted the development of a periodical press (newspapers and magazines). Novels were often published in parts, at first in the fortnightly or monthly literary magazines but eventually as supplements ( feuilletons) to daily newspapers. Other successful kinds of ephemeral publication included guides to fashionable life and manners, ’anatomies’ (’physiologies’) of different social types, pamphlets of literary and dramatic criticism, handbooks to art exhibitions and travel guides. All the best-remembered writers of the period worked in these forms: most notably Balzac, but also Stendhal and Théophile Gautier (1811—72), who was not only a poet, novelist and author of gothic tales, but for forty years a journalist, writing music, art and theatre criticism, and a composer of libretti for operas and scenarios for ballets. Charles Baudelaire (1821—66) was also a journalist by his twenties, publishing guides to the Salons (the annual art exhibitions) of 1845 and 1846.


The family of Honoré de Balzac (1799—1850) had intended him for the law, and as a very young man he did work as a lawyer’s clerk. But at twenty he announced his career was to be in literature, and he struggled through extreme poverty at first, always believing that fame and fortune would one day be his. He published sensational novels under pseudonyms, anonymous journalism and humorous short books with mock-learned titles commenting on contemporary manners and fashions: Physiologie du mariage: ou Méditations de philosophie éclectique sur le bonheur et le malheur conjugal (Anatomy of Marriage, or Eclectic Philosophical Meditations on Marital Fortune and Misfortune, 1829); Traîté de la vie élégante (Treatise on Fashionable Life, 1830). His first real break-through, Les Chouans (The Rebels, 1829), a story of the Revolution, began a twenty-year period of astonishing productivity during which he wrote more than ninety novels and long-short stories. Among the best-known are La Peau de chagrin (The Wild Ass’s Skin, 1831), Le Père Goriot (Old Goriot, first published in parts in the Revue de Paris in 1834—35), Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions), which appeared in three parts in 1837—42, and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (Highs and Lows in the Lives of Courtesans), a group of four related tales published between 1838 and 1847.

In all of these novels the hero is a very young man who battles against social barriers to realise his personal ambitions. So far, so autobiographical. But whereas Balzac’s own family was only one generation away from the peasantry (his father, François Balssa, had made his fortune supplying the revolutionary armies, like old Goriot in the novel of that name), his heroes Raphael de Valentin in La Peau de chagrin, Eugène de Rastignac in Le Père Goriot and Lucien de Rubempré in Illusions perdues and Splendeurs et miseres all have the magic ’de’ in their names which shows they spring from pre-Revolutionary aristocratic families (Balzac’s ’de’ was his own invention). All, however, have been reduced to poverty if not penury by the beginning of the action. Both Eugène and Lucien are inhabited by a fierce desire to succeed in the new, bourgeois-dominated world, and to restore their family’s rightful fortunes (both have mothers and sisters in genteel poverty whom they intend, in the long run, to support). Devising such heroes allowed Balzac to appeal to the widest possible readership: not only the leisured classes and their womenfolk (though novel-reading was often regarded as chiefly a feminine pursuit), but even young bourgeois, clerks and students who could sympathize with the heroes’ desperate shifts, or their older and more successful counterparts who could look back on their penniless youth with amusement. At the same time, the heroes’ striving for money and position, which might have appeared sordid to some readers of the 1830s, could be redeemed by the thought that they were trying only to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. (Stendhal had gone much further in Le Rouge et le noir by choosing in Julien Sorel a genuinely lower-class hero, little more than a peasant. Julien’s naked ambition, and sexual relationships with upper-class women, gave offence to many, and the book was a commercial failure.)

A man of tremendous energy, both physical and intellectual, Balzac typically had several writing projects on the go at once, as well as various money-making schemes, and, though he was not at all handsome, love affairs, usually with aristocratic ladies. Always pursued by deadlines and creditors, he would work all night, fuelled by black coffee. None of this made for an elegant style, and he drove his printers to despair by virtually rewriting whole pages at the proof stage. Nevertheless the energy of his writing, and his sheer productiveness, meant that though his purely commercial schemes all failed (from printing and type-founding to magazine publishing to trying to grow pineapples on the outskirts of Paris), he eventually made several fortunes by his writing, and lost them again by extravagant house-buying and collecting.

What characterizes his novels is, first, a mass of detail about social habits, settings, clothes, food, the objects that surround his characters and that, he believed, allowed the socially expert viewer to ’read’ them, assign them to the right milieu and, up to a point, predict their actions. Like many European readers of his day, he was a great admirer of Walter Scott, and felt that Scott’s detailed accounts of medieval architecture, costume, armour, weapons and so forth made his historical stories believable. He decided to do something similar for the present and the recent past. The level of visual detail in, say, the description of Mme Vauquer’s boarding-house at the beginning of Le Père Goriot, is almost hallucinatory, but can seem excessive to readers who have grown up with the cinema and television, and expect all that to be dealt with by a few establishing shots. However there is no doubt that his detailed descriptions appealed to readers of his day, perhaps because his was a society of growing social mobility, both upwards and downwards, in which readers had become genuinely curious about how people from different social classes lived, dressed, ate and conducted their love lives. We shall meet one such socially mobile person in the next chapter.

Balzac had two further completely original ideas for novel-writing: one, what the French call ’le retour des personnages’, the use of recurring characters, and the other, his attempt to bind all his fiction together in one huge, structured whole, which he decided to call La Comédie humaine.

He conceived the idea of recurring characters while writing Le Pére Goriot. His naive young hero from the south-west was originally to have been called Eugène de Massiac. But Balzac had already given the hero of La Peau de chagrin a foil in the person of Eugène de Rastignac, a clever, humorous southerner, a refugee from aristocratic poverty living by his wits somewhere between the worlds of journalism and high society in 1831. In the course of writing, Massiac became Rastignac, so that we now saw the same character ten years younger and only at the beginning of his battle to succeed. Rastignac would eventually appear in at least a further seven novels, not all in chronological order, and end up as a successful politician and a peer. From Le Pére Goriot onwards, Balzac created a cast of eventually some three thousand named characters, at least six hundred of whom appear and reappear in different social settings at different stages in their lives. Some rise in the world like Rastignac, others fall like Baron Hulot in La Cousine Bette, while the most regular reappearances are made by the middle-class professional characters like Bianchon the doctor (a medical student in Le Pére Goriot and hospital consultant by La Cousine Bette: Balzac is said to have asked for him on his deathbed) or Derville the lawyer. It is this complex network of vivid characters that leads critics to talk of Balzac as having created a parallel world. He himself said that he wanted to ’faire concurrence à l’Etat Civil’ (rival the registry [of births, marriages and deaths]).

He says this in his preface to the Comédie Humaine, the huge collection of his novels and tales, which was to have been the work of his final years. This was both an enormous artistic and intellectual undertaking and, as one would expect of Balzac, an ambitious financial scheme, since it allowed him to reissue all his earlier writings with a new syndicate of publishers and profit from them again. The first collected edition, which began to appear in 1842, arranged the existing novels and tales into a three-part scheme with the serious-sounding titles Etudes de mœurs (Studies of social behaviour), Etudes philosophiques and Etudes analytiques. Considerable rewriting of individual stories was done: in particular, names of many minor characters were changed in order to identify them with already existing figures in other books, and thus to tighten the network of recurring characters. In 1845, Balzac produced a catalogue for a new edition, which would have involved more rearrangement to produce a truly scientifically satisfying plan. Like the periodic table, the new structure contained gaps, which Balzac maintained he intended to fill with new novels. He wrote a further four before his death in 1850, leaving two unfinished and several of his gaps unfilled.


Henri Beyle (1783—1842), who published all his works under the name of Stendhal, was sixteen years older than Balzac, but did not become known as a novelist until middle age. An officer in Napoleon’s army at seventeen, his posting to Milan began a love affair with Italy that was to last all his life. After resigning his commission in 1802 and living in Paris for a few years, he returned to the army in 1806 and served in the supply arm in Germany, Russia and Austria. Resigning again in 1813 aged thirty, he was able to return to his beloved Milan and live there for a further seven years. He appears to have had no ambition at this time to write fiction, and whereas at twenty Balzac was learning his trade by writing highly coloured tales of adventure under various assumed names, Stendhal at thirty had published only short, rather dilettantish works of criticism containing much borrowed material: lives of composers, a history of Italian painting and accounts of Rome, Naples and Florence in 1817. Returning to Paris in 1821, he continued at first to publish in this vein: another composer (Rossini), more ’Promenades dans Rome’, an attempt to define and argue for modernity in literature (Racine et Shakespeare). But towards the end of the decade he produced his first novels, each of them at attempt at utter topicality: Armance (1827), with its subtitle ’Quelques scènes d’un salon de Paris en 1827’, and Le Rouge et le noir (1830), with its subtitle ’Chronique de 1830’. Armance attracted little notice and Le Rouge et le noir not much more, and much of that negative. The tale of Julien Sorel, a sensitive but fiercely ambitious small-town boy who makes his way first as tutor to a family of the local gentry, where he seduces the wife, and then by entering a seminary, which he leaves to be secretary in the Parisian house of a great noble where the daughter seduces him (see Text 10): a story like this, ending in attempted murder and the hero’s death on the scaffold, offended many of its original readers, as did the author’s evident nostalgia for the Napoleonic period and contempt for the Restoration political regime.

The style of Le Rouge et le noir was also unlike what readers expected. The hero is in no way idealized, though the reader’s sympathy is certainly invited for him, to a large extent by the use of humour. The lengthy descriptions so important to Balzac are here absent: Stendhal, once he started writing, worked extremely fast and had not the patience to describe costumes, room settings and so forth, though his publisher complained that readers missed these details. Instead, Stendhal gives us his characters’ thoughts, what are sometimes called their inner monologues — Julien’s all the time, but other sympathetic characters quite frequently, and often more than one character’s thoughts in the same scene.


Mathilde de La Mole, the daughter of a nobleman, a proud and haughty girl, has sent a note inviting Julien Sorel, her father’s secretary, to come to her room by night using a ladder. He fears a trap but feels he must go. He has had one love affair before: this will be her first.

Elle avait décidé que s’il osait arriver chez elle, avec le secours de l’échelle du jardinier, ainsi qu’il lui était prescrit, elle serait toute à lui. Mais jamais l’on ne dit d’un ton plus froid et plus poli des choses aussi tendres. Jusque-là ce rendez-vous était glacé. C’était à faire prendre l’amour en haine. Quelle leçon de morale pour une jeune imprudente ! Vaut-il la peine de perdre son avenir pour un tel moment ?

Après de longues incertitudes, qui eussent pu paraître à un observateur superficiel l’effet de la haine la plus décidée, tant les sentiments qu’une femme se doit à elle-même avaient de peine à céder même à une volonté aussi ferme, Mathilde finit par être pour lui une maitresse aimable.

A la vérité, ces transports étaient un peu voulus. L’amour passionné était encore plutôt un modèle à imiter qu’une réalité.

Mademoiselle de La Mole croyait remplir un devoir envers elle-même et envers son amant. Le pauvre garçon, se disait-elle, a été d’une bravoure achevée, il doit être heureux, ou bien c’est moi qui manque de caractère. Mais elle aurait voulu racheter au prix d’une éternité de malheur la nécessité cruelle ou elle se trouvait.

Malgré la violence affreuse qu’elle se faisait, elle fut parfaitement maitresse de ses paroles.

Aucun regret, aucun reproche ne vinrent gâter cette nuit qui sembla singulière plutôt qu’heureuse à Julien. Quelle différence, grand Dieu ! avec son dernier séjour de vingt-quatre heures à Verrières ! Ces belles façons de Paris ont trouvé le secret de tout gâter, meme l’amour, se disait-il avec une injustice extrême.

Il se livrait à ces réflexions debout dans une des grandes armoires d’acajou où on l’avait fait entrer aux premiers bruits entendus dans l’appartement voisin, qui était celui de Madame de La Mole. Mathilde suivit sa mère à la messe, les femmes quittèrent bientôt l’appartement, et Julien s’échappa facilement avant qu’elles ne revinssent terminer leurs travaux.

Il monta à cheval et chercha les endroits les plus solitaires d’une des forêts voisines de Paris. Il était bien plus étonné qu’heureux.

[She had decided that if he dared to come to her room using the gardener’s ladder, as he had been instructed, she would give herself to him. But her words of love were spoken in the coldest and most polite tone imaginable. So far the meeting had been chilly in the extreme. It would have turned one against the very idea of love. What a moral lesson for an imprudent girl! Is a moment like this worth the sacrifice of her future?

After much hesitation, in which a superficial observer might have seen the effect of the most definite hatred, so fiercely did a woman’s self-respect struggle against the strength of her determination, Mathilde eventually behaved to him like a loving mistress.

In truth, her transports were somewhat deliberate. Passionate love was still a model to be imitated rather than something real.

Mademoiselle de la Mole felt that she was fulfilling a duty both to herself and to her lover. The poor boy has been so brave, she thought, he must have his reward or I shall have let myself down. But she would have given an eternity of torment to escape the cruel situation in which she now found herself trapped.

In spite of the dreadful violence she was doing to herself, she remained in complete control of her speech.

No regrets, no reproaches came to spoil the night, which seemed remarkable rather than delightful to Julien. Good Lord, how unlike his last twenty-four hours at Verrières! That’s Paris people for you, he said to himself (most unfairly): their fine manners manage to spoil everything, even love.

He was thinking these things standing up in one of the great mahogany wardrobes, where he had been hidden at the first sounds from the next room, which was Madame de la Mole’s. Mathilde went with her mother to Mass, the maids soon left the room and Julien easily escaped before they came back to finish their work.

He jumped on horseback and made for the loneliest stretches of one of the forests near Paris. He felt much more astonishment than happiness.]

The language used is plain: Stendhal never tries to work up emotional effects as other novelists of the time expected to do. Julien’s death is a striking example of this. We are told that he was concerned to die bravely and feared that he might not, but when he walked out into the fresh morning air, ’Marcher au grand air fut pour lui une sensation délicieuse ... Allons, tout va bien, se dit-il, je ne manque point de courage’. He remembers (for one sentence) brief moments of happiness: then the actual execution is described thus: ’Tout se passa simplement, convenablement, et de sa part sans aucune affectation’ (Everything passed off simply, appropriately and with no affectation on his part). No Sydney Carton speeches from the scaffold, no authorial soaring music at the end. No wonder readers of 1830 felt cheated.

Stendhal published no further novels until 1839, though it appears he was working on a story of contemporary French life, Lucien Leuwen, which was left incomplete at his death in 1842. Instead of finishing it, he completed and published, in 1839, La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma), which is set in the small Duchy of Parma between 1815 and 1830. (The meaning of the title becomes apparent only at the very end of the book.)

The hero of La Chartreuse de Parme, Fabrice del Dongo, is again a young man, like Julien Sorel, in fact even younger: he is only sixteen at the beginning of the action. But in all other respects he is very different: the son of a reactionary aristocratic family in northern Italy, he already has social position, money and powerful protection and (consequently, one might say) cares little for these things that were so important to Julien. He is inspired first by the desire for heroism: in the long first sequence he runs away to try to join Napoleon. (The introductory chapter hints that he was in fact the illegitimate son of a young Napoleonic officer of the kind that Stendhal himself had been at the relevant time.) Fabrice makes it to the Battle of Waterloo, but spends the day riding back and forth in confusion until his horse is stolen by real soldiers, when he is taken in charge by a kindly vivandière. He is never quite sure whether he has actually taken part in a battle or not. Returning to his family, he is prepared for ordination and a clerical career that holds no attraction for him, and the rest of his life is motivated by passionate love for a virtuous girl, the daughter of a general, who is soon married off to someone else.

Though Fabrice is the youthful protagonist of La Chartreuse, he is not central to it in the way Julien is to Le Rouge et le noir. Two other characters are at least as important: his thirtyish aunt, Gina Countess Sanseverina, who is in love with him but never tells him so, and her fiftyish lover, Count Mosca, one of the leading political figures at the court of Parma. Much of what happens to Fabrice is the result of intricate plotting by these two figures, intended for his benefit but not always having that result. For long sequences Fabrice is offstage and we learn of the feelings, thoughts and plans of Gina or Mosca, separately or together. Gina acts from a mixture of love and guilt: she has known Fabrice since childhood and feels it shameful that an ’old’ woman should be in love with a boy. Mosca knows of her love, though they never speak of it, and protects Fabrice in order to keep Gina close to himself. He too is fond of the boy, but would not be heartbroken if a clerical career removed him from Parma. Mosca’s rueful inner monologues make him in many ways the character easiest to sympathize with in the novel: if Fabrice is the dashing boy Stendhal would have loved to be, Mosca, though much more successful than the author in worldly terms, is closer to the middle-aged figure he had become by the time he was writing La Chartreuse. Gina, however, is a wonderful, larger-than-life character: beautiful, gifted, generous, able at political intrigue but contemptuous of it, giving her life to passion and stopping at nothing for the sake of the boy she loves.

Clearly this is not a ’realist’ novel in the Balzacian mode: the action is roughly contemporary, but it takes place in a small court in Italy where the manners are still those of the eighteenth century and social change seems impossible. In fact, the essentials of the story were taken from a sixteenth-century Italian tale: Stendhal liked to think that the Italian character had changed little since those passionate days, unlike (he thought) the prudish, calculating nineteenth-century French. Italy and love were Stendhal’s abiding passions, and his guiding principle the pursuit of happiness. He wrote an essay De l’Amour (1822), and his autobiographical writings describe a series of amorous if not always happy attachments. His grave in the Montmartre cemetery bears the epitaph he chose for himself: ARRIGO BEYLE, MILANESE: SCRISSE, AMO, VISSE. Ann. LIX. M. II (Henry Beyle, of Milan: he wrote, he loved, he lived fifty-nine years and two months). He said that he wrote the Chartreuse borne up by enthusiasm for the subject, dictating it in seventy days and sending some pages to the printer in the first, unmodified draft.

We learn this from a letter he wrote to Balzac who, despite the fact that the novel was so unlike his own, gave it an excellent review and thus brought it to an attention it would almost certainly not have enjoyed otherwise. The letter that Stendhal wrote to thank him does not survive, but three drafts of it do. Stendhal’s gratitude to the much younger but more successful novelist seems genuine, but he still feels the need to defend himself against the few criticisms that Balzac makes of his mode of writing, and thus we learn a few of his working principles. Stendhal knows that his novels lack elements that many contemporary readers demanded (no descriptions, no tear-jerking emotional effects, no flourishes of style), and says that he does not expect to be appreciated until 1880. This prediction proved to be almost exactly correct.

New interest in his writings in the 1880s led to the publication of two further novels, both unfinished: Lamiel (1889, but written in the late 1830s) and Lucien Leuwen (1894), and also his Journal for the years 1801—18 (published 1888) and two unfinished autobiographical texts, La Vie de Henri Brulard (1890) and Souvenirs d’égotisme (1892). The plain plaque with its Italian epitaph now appears set into a much more elaborate tombstone, set up by ’SES AMIS DE 1892’.

The Romantics

The first half of the nineteenth century was also, in France as well as in England, the Romantic period. Romanticism was a movement in art and music — some would say also in history, philosophy and even politics — as well as in literature. Literary textbooks used to draw a distinction between Romanticism and Realism, but this quite quickly breaks down. Writers of both ’schools’ (which never defined themselves as such) may adopt modern subject matter, and in their choices of form disregard the strict rules of eighteenth-century classicism. Writers described as Romantic place emotion at the very centre of their writing: their heroes’ feelings are all-important and the reader is supposed to share these feelings, or at any rate to be awed by them. The Romantic hero typically detests the modern world, and rather than trying to understand and dominate it as Balzac’s heroes do, he longs to escape from it in reality or imagination, whether to distant countries or remote historical periods, or even into dreams and madness. Novels, poems and dramas set in Spain, Italy or the Orient, or in the middle ages, were very popular at this time, as were stories of magic, ghosts and demons, the so-called ’contes fantastiques’. Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin, a tale of magic with an alienated hero, might well be called a Romantic novel, but its realistic and sardonic treatment of the Paris of 1830 takes it far away from Romantic flights of fancy (see Text 11). Again, La Chartreuse de Parme, with its Italian setting and plot based entirely on love, has Romantic elements, and Stendhal spoke up for the Romantic movement in Racine et Shakespeare; but his humorous treatment of his heroes and heroine, and his plain style, ensured the book’s limited success in 1839.

The first great French Romantic was Francois-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768—1848), diplomat and politician but also novelist, essayist and historian. His literary celebrity began with Le Génie du Christianisme (1802), a four-volume apologia for Christianity based not so much on its truth as on its moral force and its beauty: the beauty of Christian poetry and art. Included in this long work was a short fiction set in the wilds of pre-independence America: René. It was soon also published as an independent volume — that is, as a very short novel — and was even more widely read in that form. René is usually thought of as the archetypal Romantic hero in French literature, just as Werther is in German (see Text 11). Also of great interest for its first-hand accounts of the political intrigues of the early nineteenth century, and for its splendid style, is Chateaubriand’s multi-volume autobiography. To the composing of this work he devoted the last years of his life, and he chose for it the dramatic title of Mémoires d’outre-tombe (Memoirs from Beyond the Grave). It was published immediately after his death, in 1849—50.


René, the hero of Chateaubriand’s short novel of that name (1805), grows up on a remote country estate, then, as a young man, travels throughout Europe, from Scotland to Sicily, without finding contentment. He finally takes refuge in the wilds of America, where we find him telling his story to a wise tribal elder and a missionary priest:

Le jour, je m’égarais sur de grandes bruyères terminées par des forêts. Qu’il fallait peu de choses à ma rêverie ! Une feuille séchée que le vent chassait devant moi, une cabane dont la fumée s’élevait dans la cime dépouillée des arbres, la mousse qui tremblait au souffle du nord sur le tronc d’un chêne, une roche écartée, un étang désert ou le jonc flétri murmurait ! Le clocher solitaire, s’élevant au loin dans la vallée, a souvent attiré mes regards ; souvent j’ai suivi des yeux les oiseaux de passage qui volaient au-dessus de ma tête. Je me figurais les bords ignorés, les climats lointains ou ils se rendent ; j’aurais voulu être sur leurs ailes. Un secret instinct me tourmentait ; je sentais que je n’étais moi-même qu’un voyageur ; mais une voix du ciel semblait me dire, “Homme, la saison de ta migration n’est pas encore venue ; attends que le vent de la mort se lève, alors tu déploieras ton vol vers ces régions inconnues que ton coeur demande”.

“Levez-vous vite, orages désirés, qui devez emporter René dans les espaces d’une autre vie !” Ainsi disant, je marchais à grands pas, le visage enflammé, le vent sifflant dans ma chevelure, ne sentant ni pluie ni frimas, enchanté, tourmenté, et comme possédé par le démon de mon coeur.

[In the daytime, I wandered over great moors bordered by forests. How little was needed to set off my dreaming! A dead leaf blown along in my path, the smoke of a hut rising among the bare treetops, a rag of moss fluttering in the north wind on the trunk of an oak tree, a solitary rock, the withered rushes murmuring around a lonely pool! The isolated steeple standing far off in the valley often drew my gaze; often my eyes followed the migrating birds flying above me. I imagined the unknown lands, the distant climes where they are headed, and wished myself borne on their wings. A secret instinct tortured me: I felt that I too was only a traveller, but a voice from heaven seemed to say to me, “O Man, the season of departure is not yet come; wait for the wind of death to rise, then you will spread your wings and take flight for those unknown regions that your heart desires”.

“O come quickly, longed-for storms, which will bear René away to the vast spaces of another life”. So saying, I strode ahead, my face aflame, my hair streaming in the wind, feeling neither rain nor frost, under a spell, tormented, and like one possessed by the demon in my heart.’]

Raphael de Valentin, the hero of Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin (1831) is, like René, a young aristocrat, and handsome and intellectually brilliant as well. But he is penniless and unknown. In the first scene of the book we see him stake his last coins in a Paris gambling den and lose. Now there is nothing for him, he thinks, but death, and he heads for the Pont Royal.

M. Dacheux was the inspector of the Seine rescue services.

Arrivé au point culminant de la voûte, il regarda l’eau d’un air sinistre.

— Mauvais temps pour se noyer, lui dit en riant une vieille femme vêtue de haillons. — Est-elle sale et froide, la Seine !

Il répondit par un sourire plein de naïveté qui attestait le délire de son courage ; mais il frissonna tout à coup en voyant de loin, sur le port des Tuileries, la baraque surmontée d’un écriteau ou ces paroles sont tracées en lettres hautes d’un pied : SECOURS AUX ASPHYXÍES. M. Dacheux lui apparut armé de sa philanthropie, réveillant et faisant mouvoir ces vertueux avirons qui cassent la tête aux noyés, quand malheureusement ils remontent sur l’eau ; il l’aperçut ameutant les curieux, quêtant un médecin, apprêtant des fumigations ; il lut les doléances écrites entre les joies d’un festin et le sourire d’une danseuse ; il entendit sonner les écus comptés à des bateliers pour sa tête par le préfet de la Seine. Mort, il valait cinquante francs, mais vivant il n’était qu’un homme de talent sans protecteurs, sans amis, sans paillasse, sans tambour, un véritable zéro social, inutile à l’Etat, qui n’en avait aucun souci. Une mort en plein jour lui parut ignoble, il résolut de mourir pendant la nuit, afin de livrer un cadavre indéchiffrable à cette Société qui méconnaissait la grandeur de sa vie. Il continua donc son chemin vers le quai Voltaire en prenant la démarche indolente d’une désoeuvré qui veut tuer le temps.

[Arriving at the top of the span, he looked grimly down at the water.

’Nasty day to jump in’, laughed a ragged old woman. ’Cold and dirty, the river, ain’t it?’

He smiled back at her, a naive smile that showed all his desperate courage. But he suddenly trembled, seeing at a distance, on the Tuileries bank, the hut with a sign on it in foot-high letters saying HUMANE SOCIETY. In his mind’s eye he saw M. Dacheux armed with all his philanthropy, setting in motion the virtuous oars that crack drowning men’s skulls if they are unlucky enough to come to the surface. He saw him mustering a crowd, calling for a doctor, preparing a smoke enema; now he read the report of his own sad demise written between the pleasures of a banquet and a dancer’s smile; he heard the coins, the price of his head, being counted out to the boatmen by the prefect of the Seine. Dead, he would be worth fifty francs, but alive he was nothing but a man of talent without protectors, without friends, with no one to bang the drum for him, a real social zero, of no use to the State, which cared nothing for him. Death in broad daylight would be contemptible, he decided; he resolved to wait for night, so as to deliver up an undecipherable corpse to the Society that had not recognized the greatness of his life.

So he carried on walking towards the quai Voltaire, with the indolent gait of a man of leisure trying to kill time.]

On the quai Voltaire, Raphael will be offered a choice that transforms his life — but still leads him to death at the end of nine months.

Other French Romantic writers who have continued to be admired and read (though less in recent years than, say, before 1960) are Alphonse de Lamartine (1790—1869), lyric poet and in his latter years orator and statesman; Alfred de Vigny (1797—1863), poet and dramatist, the author of long philosophical poems and translator of Shakespeare for the French stage (Le More de Venise, 1829), Alfred de Musset (1810—57), poet, novelist, dramatist and all-round celebrity, and Gérard de Nerval (1808—55), poet, critic, traveller, translator of Goethe into French. A series of mental breakdowns from 1841 onwards ended in Nerval’s suicide, but he was able to describe his hallucinatory visions with great lucidity in Aurélia: ou le Rêve et la vie (1855), and to turn his obsessions into the twelve cryptic but perfect sonnets of Les Chimères (1854).

Extremely successful in her day was the novelist who published under the name of George Sand (born Amantine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin, 1804—76). Married at 18, a mother at 19, she left her husband after nine years of marriage and soon became notorious for her series of lovers, including Alfred de Musset and Chopin, and for her habit of occasionally wearing men’s dress. She is the exception to the rule that nineteenth-century France, unlike England, had few or no admired women writers.

The Code civil of 1804, the new system of laws introduced by Napoleon and little altered despite all the political changes of the ensuing century, placed women in a definitely inferior position, and little was done for their education beyond the rudimentary stage. The new lycées were for boys only: the first lycées for girls were not opened until 1880. The worlds of writing and publishing were extremely unwelcoming to women: a woman author was seen as something between a monster and a joke. Perhaps Sand was only able to make an initial impact by adopting conventionally male habits. Her early writing, however, passionately takes the woman’s part: the heroines of her novels Valentine (1831), Indiana (1832) and Lélia (1833) are beautiful, intelligent, gifted, sensitive women oppressed by the marriage system and husbands who do not understand them. Such novels readily found readers (Indiana was a real bestseller), to the disgust and anger of male critics.

By the 1840s George Sand had become a much quieter character (though now involved in left-wing politics) and was writing stories of rural life, some of which remained popular well into the twentieth century, when they came to be regarded as particularly suitable for children. The ’Pantheon Nadar’, a huge lithograph produced in 1854 by the caricaturist and pioneer of photography Nadar, nicely shows the respect in which she was held by the mid-century. It brings together caricatures of 249 of the best-known poets, novelists and journalists of the time, in the form of a long winding procession. The great men who had recently died (Balzac, Chateaubriand) are shown as sculpted roundels at the head of the procession. Of the 249 only eleven are women. They are not caricatured: ten of them appear as head-and-shoulders busts placed on a kind of shelf above and towards the back of the procession; they are less than half the size of the most obscure male authors shown, and two of them have their names misspelt. But George Sand, who in her youth had often been caricatured with trousers and cigar, here leads the cortege, in the form of a life-size bust on a pedestal, followed by the main living authors in respectful attitudes (Figure 4).


Figure 4 Panthéon Nadar, 1854, detail

By the 1860s Sand had become a kind of mother-figure to the world of letters. She had a long, unpatronising correspondence with Flaubert, who addressed her as ’Chère maître’, a formula of respect used to older and more successful writers. (’Chère maîtresse’ would have been impossible, of course.) His fondness for her did not, however, prevent him from making barbed remarks about her ’feminine’ style to his male correspondents.


The writer who stands like a colossus above all the Romantics is Victor Hugo (1802—85), who in some ways was thought to personify the whole French nineteenth century. This is partly because of the length of his life and the sheer volume of his output, but also because of the number of different genres in which he worked and excelled, and the dramatic life he led outside the realm of literature.

The son of one of Napoleon’s generals, Hugo embarked on adult life at seventeen by founding, with his brothers, a literary review. At twenty he was married and had written his first volume of verse. Between 1822 and 1840 he was to publish eight collections of poems, five novels (including Notre-Dame de Paris, 1831) and eight plays, set variously in Italy, Spain, France and England at various historical periods. The turbulent first performance of Hernani (1830), a verse drama set in sixteenth-century Spain with a high-minded bandit as its hero, is usually taken as marking the triumph of the Romantic drama in France. These unwieldy five-act costume pieces are very rarely revived today, and even at the time the vogue for them was quite short-lived. Hugo’s ninth play, Les Burgraves (1843), was a resounding failure, which seems to have caused him to turn temporarily away from literature and towards a political career.

By 1845 he was a pair de France, a member of the upper house under Louis-Philippe, but he had republican leanings and after the 1848 revolution was elected to the new Assemblée législative. Initially sympathetic to Louis-Napoleon on his election as president, Hugo may have hoped for office in his government, but none was offered. Certainly he was enraged by the coup d’état of December 1851 and went into exile, first on Jersey and then on Guernsey, where he took a house and remained for nineteen years, firing off satires against the man he now called Napoléon le petit.

When the Second Empire collapsed in 1870, Hugo returned to Paris, to find himself now an almost legendary figure. He was promptly elected to the new Assemblée nationale and then to the Sénat (the new upper house). Between 1870 and 1885 he wrote a further nine volumes of verse, seven published in his lifetime and two after his death (L’Art d’être grand-père, 1877, was particularly popular at the time); a novel (Quatre-vingt-treize, 1873, set in the Revolutionary period); another verse drama and a collection of little plays, very free in form (Le Théâtre en liberté, 1886). By the time of his death Hugo was regarded as a national hero: his body lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe and then, as he had directed with ostentatious humility in his will, it was borne on a pauper’s hearse through the streets of Paris to the Pantheon, resting-place of the country’s greatest men. It is said that more than a million people lined the streets to see it go past.

Such a reputation was bound to be deflated by time, and the sad truth is that Hugo is little read today. His larger-than-life stories have provided subjects for operas (Verdi’s Ernani and Rigoletto), for films (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, seven times filmed; The Toilers of the Sea, three times) and, most remarkably, for a hugely successful musical play that was recently staged at the O2 arena in London to celebrate its twenty-five years of continuous performance around the world: Les Misérables.

This novel, published in 1862 when Hugo had been living outside France for eleven years, is probably the piece of Hugo’s writing that is best known to French people today. Few have read it in its entirety (it is very long and full of digressions), but many have come across it in abridged versions, school extracts and the like. It has been filmed twenty-four times, in various languages, and serialised on television. As a result, some of the characters and elements of the story, like some of Dickens’s characters, are known to millions of people who have never read the book. It was a huge publishing success, but privately rather coldly received by writers of the new generation, who disliked its political axe-grinding and found it sentimental and lacking in direct knowledge of contemporary society. ’Il n’est pas permis de peindre si faussement la société quand on est le contemporain de Balzac et de Dickens’, Flaubert wrote to a friend. (It is not acceptable to paint society so falsely when one is the contemporary of Balzac and Dickens.) But the younger novelist begins by saying that his remarks must be private, since Hugo is still the revered figurehead of all French writers, the one they had all looked up to in youth. ’Moi [j’ai] passé ma vie à l’adorer’, says Flaubert. (I’ve worshipped him all my life.)

Among Hugo’s best writings are the two poetry collections he published in the early years of his exile, Les Châtiments (Punishments, 1853), a set of furious diatribes, cast in the most varied poetic forms, against Napoleon III and his regime (see Text 12), and Les Contemplations (1856), quieter poems of love and loss written at various times over the preceding thirteen years.


These lines come from Victor Hugo’s long poem ’L’Expiation’, which was written in December 1852 and published in the collection Les Châtiments in 1853. The first three sections show three of the lowest points in the life of Napoleon I: here, the retreat from Moscow, then Waterloo and Saint Helena. Each time the despairing emperor asks God if this is the punishment for his sins, and a mysterious voice replies ’Not yet’. After the return of his ashes to France, and their triumphal reburial in the Invalides, the emperor seems to be at peace, but at the beginning of the last section he awakens in his tomb to find France in the power of a gang of bandits and buffoons all trading on his name: ’Nous sommes les neveux du grand Napoléon!’ This is the ’expiation’, the real punishment — and for what? The voice replies ’DIX-HUIT BRUMAIRE’ — the date of the first of Napoleon’s coups d’état.

Il neigeait. On était vaincu par sa conquête.

Pour la première fois l’aigle baissait la tête.

Sombres jours ! L’empereur revenait lentement,

Laissant derrière lui brûler Moscou fumant.

Il neigeait. L’âpre hiver fondait en avalanche.

Après la plaine blanche une autre plaine blanche.

On ne connaissait plus les chefs ni le drapeau.

Hier la grande armée, et maintenant troupeau.

On ne distinguait plus les ailes ni le centre.

Il neigeait. Les blessés s’abritaient dans le ventre

Des chevaux morts ; au seuil des bivouacs désolés

On voyait des clairons à leur poste gelés

Restés debout, en selle et muets, blancs de givre,

Collant leur bouche en pierre aux trompettes de cuivre.

Boulets, mitraille, obus, mêlés aux flocons blancs

Pleuvaient ; les grenadiers, surpris d’être tremblants

Marchaient pensifs, la glace à leur moustache grise.

Il neigeait, il neigeait toujours ! La froide bise

Sifflait ; sur le verglas, dans des lieux inconnus,

On n’avait pas de pain et l’on allait pieds nus.

Ce n’étaient plus des coeurs vivants, des gens de guerre :

C’était un rêve errant dans la brume, un mystère,

Une procession d’ombres sous le ciel noir.


Toute une armée ainsi dans la nuit se perdait

L’empereur était là, debout, qui regardait.

Il était comme un arbre en proie à la cognée.

Sur ce géant, grandeur jusqu’alors épargnée,

Le malheur, bûcheron sinistre, était monté ;

Et lui, chêne vivant, par la hache insulté,

Tressaillant sous le spectre aux lugubres revanches,

Il regardait tomber autour de lui ses branches.

Chefs, soldats, tous mouraient. Chacun avait son tour.

Tandis qu’environnant sa tente avec amour,

Voyant son ombre aller et venir sur la toile,

Ceux qui restaient, croyant toujours à son étoile,

Accusaient le destin de lèse-majesté,

Lui se sentit soudain dans l’âme épouvanté.

Stupéfait du désastre et ne sachant que croire,

L’empereur se tourna vers Dieu ; l’homme de gloire

Trembla ; Napoleon comprit qu’il expiait

Quelque chose peut-être, et, livide, inquiet,

Devant ses légions sur la neige semées :

Est-ce le châtiment, dit-il, Dieu des armées ?

Alors il s’entendit appeler par son nom

Et quelqu’un qui parlait dans l’ombre lui dit : Non.

[It was snowing. We were defeated by our conquest.

For the first time the eagle was bowing its head.

Dark days! The emperor was returning slowly,

Leaving behind him the smoke of Moscow burning.

It was snowing. The bitter winter was dissolving into an avalanche.

After the white plain, another white plain.

No-one could see the leaders or the flag.

Yesterday the Great Army, today a flock of sheep.

The wings could not be distinguished from the centre.

It snowed on. The wounded were sheltering in the bellies

Of the dead horses; outside forlorn bivouacs

Buglers could be seen frozen at their posts,

Still standing, silent, white with frost,

Their stone lips stuck to the brass mouthpieces.

Cannon-balls, bullets, shells, mixed with the white flakes

Were raining down; the grenadiers, surprised to find themselves shivering,

Walked pensively on, with ice on their grey moustaches.

And still it snowed and snowed! The icy wind

Whistled; on black ice, in unknown places,

They went hungry and walked barefoot.

They were no longer living hearts, not warriors,

But a dream wandering through the fog, a mystery,

A procession of shadows under the black sky.

An army was disappearing into the night.

The emperor stood watching.

He was like a tree being felled.

Upon this giant, spared until now,

Misfortune, dread woodcutter, had climbed up;

And he, living oak insulted by the axe,

Starting under this ghost with its sinister revenges,

He watched his branches falling all around him.

Chiefs, soldiers, all were dying. Each one had his turn.

And while, lovingly surrounding his tent,

Watching his shadow come and go on the canvas,

Those who were left, still believing in his star,

Were accusing destiny of lese-majesté,

He suddenly felt fear enter his soul.

Stunned by the disaster and not knowing what to believe,

The emperor turned to God: the man of glory

Trembled; Napoleon understood that he was paying the price

For something, perhaps, and, pale and anxious,

Before his legions strewn upon the snow:

’Is this the punishment, O Lord of Hosts?’, he asked.

Then he heard a voice calling his name

And someone, speaking out of the darkness, said: No.

What mostly clearly characterizes the writing of the years 1800—50 is a conscious modernity, a feeling in most of the authors that their generations had lived through experiences unprecedented in history, that their society was also evolving into something quite unprecedented, and that their writing should reflect this. The realistic novel is the most lasting expression of this desire for justified novelty.