The nineteenth century II: literature for literature’s sake

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

The nineteenth century II: literature for literature’s sake

The second half of the nineteenth century was mostly a period of peace and prosperity for the upper and middle classes, despite the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the resulting collapse of the Second Empire. During this brief war Paris was besieged for four months, by the end of which time the citizens were eating rats and, famously, had polished off the animals in the zoo. German troops had got as far as Normandy before a peace was negotiated. But political elements of the Paris working class and their left-wing leadership refused to accept the peace terms, and attempted to hold the city with their own forces and run it as a socialist stronghold. This regime, called the Paris Commune, lasted for only two months, from March to May 1871, and ended in a bloodbath, but it has taken on the status of a legend for French left-wingers.

The country at large did not follow the Parisian example, choosing instead to create a Third Republic of largely bourgeois politicians, which was to survive until 1940, the longest-lasting regime between 1790 and 1958. This newfound stability, and the prosperity, at least for some, brought by industrialization and the growth of commerce and finance, greatly increased the market for literature and art. Even among manual workers literacy was increasing (free and compulsory primary education was introduced in 1871), and towards the end of the century novels were being produced in cheaper-than-ever editions and serialized in abridged form in ever more widely distributed daily newspapers.

This expansion of the readership seems to have had the paradoxical effect of making literature more inward looking. Writers, or most of the writers we now admire, turned against the idea of working for a mass public and begin to define literary values in contradistinction to that public’s tastes.

The mid-century state could be generous, offering pensions, travel grants, exhibition opportunities and the like to writers and artists who conformed to its ideals, but also imposing censorship on those who did not. When Gustave Flaubert visited Egypt in 1849 with his friend Maxime du Camp, their trip had been partly funded by a government grant, but in 1857 Flaubert found himself before a court of law, charged with outraging public morals by his novel Madame Bovary. The same year saw another obscenity trial, that of Les Fleurs du mal, by Charles Baudelaire. The two writers had not known each other before their dealings with the courts, but turned out to share some very important ideas about writing. Both works are examples of a new approach to literature: a novel with no explicit ’message’, and poems that are not outpourings of feeling with which the reader can readily sympathize. In both writers there is a desire to avoid the obvious and instead to aim at perfection of style. This does not prevent the resulting works from often being intensely moving.


Gustave Flaubert (1821—80) was born and lived most of his life in Normandy, first in Rouen where his father was chief surgeon at the city hospital and where he went to school, and then at Croisset, near the city, where the family had a small estate. He studied law in Paris in 1840—43, but failed his examinations and, after something resembling an epileptic fit, retired to live at Croisset with his mother and niece and devote himself to writing.

Madame Bovary was his first published novel. It is the story of a young woman, the daughter of a prosperous farmer who has given her a lady’s education, sending her to a convent in Rouen. Bored and restless back on the farm, she catches the eye of a young doctor, a simple soul who marries her and takes her to his village practice. Soon bored again (see Text 13), she first has a platonic friendship with a lawyer’s clerk, then a full-blown affair with a local squire who soon tires of her, and finally a sexual relationship with the clerk whom she meets again in Rouen. Throughout all this time, unknown to her husband, she has been borrowing more and more money (she is literature’s first shopaholic), and when the bailiffs arrive she takes arsenic and, after a protracted and hideous deathbed scene, dies. What gave offence in this story? It was not simply the references to irregular sexual relationships. The French reading public was much less prudish than the English in this regard, and in any case there are no explicit sex scenes in Flaubert’s novel (in fact there is a wonderful example of the ’tactful dissolve’ in Book I chapter 9, when Emma first gives herself to the squire in a forest glade). Clearly the book was seen by the prosecution as irreligious: the parish priest is shown as well-meaning but deeply stupid, and at the moment of the last rites, the anointing of Emma’s body is presented through a series of analogies with her love life. Flaubert’s defence lawyer, who secured his acquittal, argued that the book was in fact moral, as it showed an adulterous and spendthrift woman punished in the end. But though Flaubert accepted this defence gambit as necessary, he was not at all happy with it, for by this time he was convinced that works of art should not point explicit morals in this way. In fact his treatment of this case of adultery by a wife is as morally neutral as he can make it.


Emma Bovary’s dissatisfaction with her married life has been crystallised by an unaccustomed invitation to a ball at a neighbouring château (Madame Bovary, I, ix). La Marjolaine is a folk-song. Eugène Sue was an extremely successful writer of serial novels, notably Les Mystères de Paris.

La nuit, quand les mareyeurs, dans leurs charrettes, passaient sous ses fenêtres en chantant la Marjolaine, elle s’éveillait; et écoutant le bruit des roues ferrées, qui, à la sortie du pays, s’amortissaient vite sur la terre:

’Ils y seront demain’, se disait-elle.

Et elle les suivait dans sa pensée, montant et descendant les côtes, traversant les villages, filant sur la grande route à la clarté des étoiles. Au bout d’une distance indéterminée, il se trouvait toujours une place confuse où expirait son rêve.

Elle s’acheta un plan de Paris, et, du bout de son doigt, sur la carte, elle faisait des courses dans la capitale. Elle remontait les boulevards, s’arrêtant à chaque angle, entre les lignes des rues, devant les carrés blancs qui figuraient les maisons. Les yeux fatigués à la fin, elle fermait ses paupières, et elle voyait dans les ténèbres se tordre au vent des becs de gaz, avec des marchepieds de calèches, qui se déployaient à grand fracas devant le péristyle des théâtres.

Elle s’abonna à la Corbeille, journal des femmes, et au Sylphe des Salons. Elle dévorait, sans en rien passer, tous les comptes rendus de premières représentations, de courses et de soirées, s’intéressait au début d’une chanteuse, à l’ouverture d’un magasin. Elle savait les modes nouvelles, l’adresse des bons tailleurs, les jours de Bois ou d’Opéra. Elle étudia, dans Eugène Sue, les descriptions d’ameublements ; elle lut Balzac et George Sand, y cherchant des assouvissements imaginaires pour ses convoitises personnelles.

[At night, when the fish-merchants passed in their carts under her windows singing La Marjolaine, she would wake up; and listening to the noise of the iron-shod wheels, muted as soon as they reached the dirt road on the edge of the village:

’They’ll be there tomorrow’, she would think.

And she followed them in her mind, up and down the hills and through the villages, speeding down the toll-road by starlight. At the end of the journey, an indeterminate distance away, there was always a misty place where her dream faded away.

She bought a map of Paris and, tracing the lines with her finger on the paper, would travel around the capital. She would walk up the boulevards, stopping at each corner in front of the white squares that represent the houses. Finally, as her eyes tired, she would shut them and see in the darkness the flames of the gaslights twisting in the wind, and the steps of carriages being lowered with a flourish before the porches of theatres.

She took out a subscription to the Workbasket, the ladies’ journal, and to the Drawing-Room Sylph. She devoured every detail of the accounts of first nights, races and parties, took an interest in a singer’s debut or the opening of a new shop. She knew all about the new fashions, the addresses of the best tailors, the fashionable days to be seen at the Bois de Boulogne or the Opera. She read Eugène Sue for the descriptions of room settings, and Balzac and George Sand in search of imaginary fulfilments for her personal yearnings.]

All of the principal characters are treated with some sympathy: Emma, her husband Charles, Léon, the clerk, even the predatory squire Rodolphe, and, however briefly, Justin, the apothecary’s apprentice-boy who loves Emma from afar and unwittingly gives her access to the arsenic that kills her. The only exception is M. Homais, his employer, the village apothecary, who is drawn as a personification of everything deplorable in the contemporary bourgeoisie: ambitious, half-educated, sententious, ’progressive’ in his ideas and with literary pretentions (he is a member of several corresponding societies and contributes reports of local events to the Rouen newspaper). Flaubert’s attitude to his characters and their actions is almost never voiced explicitly: he is the pioneer of the modern method of fiction writing summed up in the 1920s motto ’Show, don’t tell’. We would never find him saying, like Stendhal in our extract (Text 10), ’Quelle leçon de morale pour une jeune imprudente !’ (though Stendhal probably has his tongue in his cheek at that point). Neither does he give the characters inner monologues (’he said to himself’, ’she thought’) of any length. Instead he uses two devices to make us privy to their thoughts and feelings, one of which has been written about at great length, the other less so. The first is his ’style indirect libre’ (free indirect discourse): this device involves reporting the favoured characters’ inner thoughts in the past tense, which would be used in reported speech, but omitting the ’he thought’, ’she thought’. The reader must ascribe the ideas to the person who is having them — usually not so difficult, as at that moment the person in question is often alone, or lost in his or her own thoughts. The second device involves putting the reader ’in the character’s head’, looking out of his or her eyes or hearing with his or her ears. When we have a lengthy description in Flaubert, the purpose is rarely historical documentation or sociological analysis as it would be in Balzac: instead the description is selective, focussing on what a particular character sees, or rather notices, and dwelling on the elements of, say, a landscape that are meaningful to that person. A very good example is the beginning of Book II, chapter 6, when Emma is looking out of the window on an early spring landscape. Flaubert describes it in such a way that we come to share her confused feelings, and understand why she then rushes to the church to seek spiritual guidance from the hopelessly literal-minded Father Bournisien.

Neither of these devices is used on M. Homais, who is presented almost entirely through his speech. He loves the sound of his own voice, and is always ready with scholarly disquisitions in comically pompous language, or with ill-timed and ill-chosen advice. He is a creature of words — even his house-front is covered in writing, advertising his wares — and none of them win any sympathy from the reader. Though we may appreciate his comic value, it is a rather sinister kind of comedy.

Flaubert took four years to write Madame Bovary, and we can follow almost day by day how he did it. Throughout the process of composition he was writing two or three letters a week either to his mistress Louise Colet or his friend Louis Bouilhet, describing his struggles to achieve the perfect expression he wanted. His drafts for the novel survive and have been published: they are almost ten times the length of the finished text. We see him relentlessly eliminating signs of his own presence in the text, and also anything too obviously comical (except in M. Homais’ speeches), though in daily life he loved broad, schoolboy humour. He wrote at this time that ’a novelist in his work should be like God in creation: present everywhere, but nowhere to be seen’, and in Madame Bovary he comes near to achieving this ideal. Writing as single-mindedly as this, of course, almost demands a private income, which Flaubert was lucky enough to enjoy. For the same reason, he did not have to engage in journalism, which he despised. But he did try, without success, to break into the official theatre by having a play performed at the Comédie-Française, then a route to intellectually respectable fame and fortune.

His next novel was Salammbo (1862), which is as unlike Madame Bovary as possible, being a highly coloured tale set in ancient Carthage. L’Education sentimentale (1869) returns to the recent past, being set at the time of the 1848 revolution. Flaubert described it as ’le portrait moral des hommes de ma génération’, and it is rather a cruel portrait, with an indecisive ’hero’ who hesitates between four women and in the end loses them all. Set for most of the time in Paris, it has a much broader canvas and larger cast of characters than Madame Bovary, but employs some of the same techniques. It was not well reviewed and did not enjoy the ’succès de scandale’of the earlier novel, though some critics nowadays admire it more. It was followed by La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874), a strange, poetical series of monologues by the saint and dialogues between him and various agents of temptation. The subject fascinated Flaubert and he had been working on it on and off since 1845. This final version had some impact on the literary world, but none on the general reader, whom Flaubert finally reached with the last work published in his lifetime, Trois contes (1877). These three long-short stories bring together all his preoccupations in writing. The first, ’Un Coeur simple’, is an apparently realistic tale set in modern Normandy; ’La Légende de Saint Julien l’Hospitalier’ a treatment of a medieval legend inspired, he said, by a stained-glass window in Rouen cathedral, and the last, ’Hérodias’, a version of the story of the death of John the Baptist. One could think of them all as studies of sainthood in one form or another. Even Félicité, the faithful servant in ’Un Coeur simple’, is saintly in her selflessness and devotion to others, even if she does end, in old age, by making her devotions to a stuffed parrot! What the three stories have in common is a richness of telling historic or local detail (researched at length in the case of ’Hérodias’) and a perfection of style that Flaubert finally attained after a lifetime of struggle.

Much of Flaubert’s time in the last years of his life was taken up with research for his last planned novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet, which he did not live to complete. It was published after his death, incomplete, in 1881. It is not really a novel as generally understood, but the story of two copying-clerks in search of culture. One of them comes into a legacy, the other realizes his savings, and they decide to retire to the country and master the main fields of human knowledge. They start with science and move to philosophy, religion and education, where they attempt to put into practice Rousseau’s ideas in Emile by fostering two orphans. Each episode follows the same pattern of hope, enthusiasm, investment in books and equipment, experiment, failure and disillusionment, only to be replaced by enthusiasm for the next new field of study. In this it strangely resembles the Tiers livre of Rabelais, a writer whom Flaubert greatly admired. In order to write authoritatively about the various subjects, Flaubert had to research them himself, producing volumes of notes, which still survive. He had said in a letter about his first novel, ’Madame Bovary, c’est moi’ (though contradicting this idea entirely in other letters); he could almost equally well have said ’Bouvard et Pécuchet, c’est moi’, though the whole undertaking on his part was not underpinned by any faith in the abiding value of what he would discover. His planned ending for the book was that the two clerks should finally decide to return to what they know best — copying — and begin to copy every expression they can find of human wisdom. These were in fact to be the most glaring expressions of contemporary and recent idiocy: old wives’ tales, unexamined prejudices and statements of the obvious in pompous language. Flaubert had already begun to collect this kind of material and to copy it with glee into what is sometimes called his ’sottisier’ (book of stupid sayings) and sometimes just ’la Copie’. He also delighted in including such ’gems’ in his letters to friends. A selection from the ’sottisier’ was published as an appendix to Bouvard et Pécuchet, and afterwards as an independent slim volume, under the title Dictionnaire des idées reçues (Dictionary of Received Ideas).

Of all the nineteenth-century French novelists, Flaubert probably had the greatest influence on modernist writing in French and English and the critical literature on him is enormous. New and ever fuller editions of his complete works continue to appear, with his unpublished early stories, letters and working notes now filling more volumes than his published fiction. Jean-Paul Sartre embarked on a psycho-biography of him, which had reached three volumes and more than two thousand pages before Sartre’s failing eyesight forced him to abandon it. The title he chose was L’Idiot de la famille.

One other important characteristic of Flaubert’s characters — apart, of course, from those living in the Middle Ages or ancient Carthage — is that they read: read recent literature and model themselves on it. Admittedly Stendhal’s Julien Sorel owned two books, one, given him by an old soldier, a memoir of Napoleon, whom he did take as a role model, and the other an odd volume of La Nouvelle Héloise found in a trunk, which he used as a source of chat-up lines, with an understandable lack of success. But Emma Bovary is a consumer of literature in the modern fashion (see Text 13), and L’Education sentimentale is, among many things, a wry parody of the Balzacian story of metropolitan success, with Frédéric Moreau and his friend Deslauriers initially modelling themselves on Balzac’s young heroes in their assault upon Paris. This perhaps marks the beginning of a tendency in fiction to be self-reflexive, for writing to be about writing and reading, which we shall see develop much further in the twentieth century.


Charles Baudelaire (1821—67) was born in Paris, the son of an elderly father who had been educated for the priesthood but left it at the time of the Revolution, and a much younger mother who had lived in England as an émigrée in her early years. Old M. Baudelaire died when Charles was six, and for over a year he enjoyed his mother’s entire attention. For the rest of his life he was to look back to this time as a period of blissful near-symbiosis. Then his mother married again, to a career army officer called Captain (eventually General) Aupick. Emotionally, Baudelaire seems never to have got over the sense of abandonment caused by his mother’s remarriage. A brilliant but wayward teenager, he managed both to come second in the national Latin verse competition open to all lycée students, and to be expelled from his high school as a bad influence. Living in Paris and nominally studying law, he fell into ’bad company’ from which his parents tried to remove him by sending him on a sea voyage to the Indian Ocean. However he left the ship at Mauritius and returned to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his adult life, apart from brief visits to his mother’s houses, first at Neuilly, at that time still a village, and then at Honfleur, and his ill-fated final journey to Belgium.

In 1842 he came into his inheritance from his father’s will, and moved to the Ile St-Louis — not so exclusive a neighbourhood then as it is now, but still beyond his means, particularly as he furnished his rooms expensively with pictures and art objects. His alarmed parents, seeing his capital disappearing, took the fateful step of giving him a conseil judiciaire, that is, of putting his finances under the control of a lawyer who would pay him a monthly allowance but not allow him access to the capital. This was to treat him like a child or a mental incompetent. The allowance was small, and Baudelaire bitterly resented having constantly to beg the lawyer, a well-meaning soul called Ancelle, for advances. He lived in this humiliating situation for the rest of his life, getting deeper and deeper into debt, which he dealt with by further borrowing. It is not surprising, therefore, that so much of his surviving correspondence is about money.

Like so many writers of the period, he turned to high-class journalism, starting in 1845, with a guide to the year’s Salon (the annual exhibition of painting and sculpture). He repeated this in 1846, and also wrote guides to the Fine Art section of the ’Exposition Universelle’ of 1855 and the Salon of 1859. Altogether he published about a dozen articles on painting and sculpture, including a major essay on Delacroix and one on a now almost forgotten painter, Constantin Guys, under the title ’Le peintre de la vie moderne’. This essay has been extremely influential in defining the notion of modernity in art. A similar number of essays on writers includes a review-article on ’Madame Bovary’ written in late 1857, and a three-part essay, totalling about forty pages, on Edgar Allan Poe, whom he introduced to the French reading public. He was to go on to translate Poe’s tales under the title ’Histoires extraordinaires’. His art and literary criticism were collected after his death under the titles ’Curiosités esthétiques’ (art) and ’L’Art romantique’ (literature). These publications, over a period of about eighteen years, helped to make his name known, but they were not at all lucrative. In 1865 Baudelaire estimated that twenty years of writing and publishing had brought him little more than fifteen thousand francs — about £600 in the money of the day, and pitiful in comparison to his original inheritance of 75,000 francs.

Baudelaire is chiefly remembered today not for his criticism, interesting though that is, but for his poetry, which is still very widely read in France and abroad. He had begun publishing poems in reviews as early as 1843, but it was not until 1857 that they were collected in a single volume, given the title Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil). It was published on 25 June; an extremely hostile review appeared in the Figaro on 5 July and on 11 July all copies on sale were seized by the police and the author and publisher charged with outraging public morals. Baudelaire was not so fortunate as Flaubert in his defence counsel, and the pair were fined 300 francs and forbidden to offer the book for sale until six poems, regarded as particularly indecent, had been removed (the curious will find them in the part of a modern edition called ’Les Epaves’: two have a lesbian and one a sadistic theme). The result was that the appearance of this collection, which Baudelaire had hoped would bring him some money and public regard, failed on both counts. In 1861 he produced a second edition of Les Fleurs du mal with additional poems, which include some of those now considered his best: in particular, with a whole new section called ’Tableaux Parisiens’; a third edition, again with some new poems, appeared after his death in 1868. But his lifetime output of verse — some 160 pieces — is contained in one slim volume: a striking contrast with the most admired poet of the day, Victor Hugo, and his twenty-three collections.

Also in 1857 Baudelaire began to write and publish prose poems — a novel if not wholly unprecedented idea. In the 1830s one Louis Bertrand, self-styled Aloysius, had written a sequence of poems in prose, fanciful pictures of medieval life, which were published the year after his death in 1841 under the title Gaspard de la nuit (Ravel was to take them as the point of departure for a suite of piano pieces of the same name). Baudelaire acknowledged Bertrand’s influence, but his prose poems are very different: they are all set in modern Paris, and he was planning to publish them under the title Le Spleen de Paris: they in fact appeared after his death as Petits poèmes en prose.

’Spleen’ is an important word for Baudelaire. Much the longest section of Les Fleurs du mal is called ’Spleen et idéal’, and within it four poems simply have the title ’Spleen’. Looking at these poems will give us an idea of what Baudelaire meant by the word. It is borrowed from English, but does not have any of the connotations of petty spite that we find in expressions like ’vent one’s spleen’ or ’splenetic’. As Baudelaire uses it, it seems to be an even more extreme form of ennui, boredom — and even that was to his mind a vice, the worst of vices. (See the end of ’Au Lecteur’ (To the Reader), the introductory poem of Les Fleurs du mal.) Spleen is boredom given way to, resulting in anything from a quirky sense of oddity, out-of-jointness (’Spleen’ LXXV—LXXVII: see Text 14) to the blackest despair and desire for oblivion (’Spleen’ LXXVIII, ’Le Gout du néant’). Giving way to spleen means artistic impotence: the artist must pursue l’idéal: beauty, energy, goodness. But like the sinner, he lacks grace to follow the good, unless helped by a superior being. This role is played in the collection by a female figure described as an angel, a madonna, a goddess, a muse, sometimes referred to as Baudelaire’s ’Vénus blanche’ and identified, improbably enough, with a successful demi-mondaine called Madame Sabatier. (Though improbable, the identification is probably correct: several of the ’Vénus blanche’ poems were copied out by Baudelaire and sent anonymously to the lady in question.) But such black/white, good/evil distinctions never entirely work with Baudelaire. At least as important in the collection are the poems addressed to a female figure described as dark, a being of night and witchery, whom the poet praises almost as extravagantly as the figure of brightness and redemption. Biographers have identified this figure with the person who was his mistress, despite frequent quarrels, for most of his adult life: Jeanne Duval, a woman of mixed race from the French West Indies whom his friends jokingly referred to as ’la Vénus noire’ (an allusion to Sarah Baartman, the famous ’Hottentot Venus’ of the early nineteenth century).


This poem (number LXXVI of Les Fleurs du Mal) is the second in the collection to bear this title. The disjointed couplets of lines 1—8 (the word that completes the rhyme never completes a sentence in the usual way, but sends the mind off in a new direction) contribute a feeling of ’out-of-jointness’ that fits the subject. Boucher was an eighteenth-century painter, usually of mildly erotic subjects, whose pictures were often engraved and sold as prints to decorate, particularly, boudoirs.

J’ai plus de souvenirs que si j’avais mille ans.

Un vieux meuble à tiroirs encombré de bilans

Cache moins de secrets que mon triste cerveau.

Je suis une pyramide, un immense caveau

Qui contient plus de morts que la fosse commune.

Je suis un cimetière abhorré de la lune

Où comme des remords se traînent de longs vers

Qui s’acharnent toujours sur mes morts les plus chers.

Je suis un vieux boudoir plein de roses fanées,

Où gît tout un fouillis de robes surannées,

Où les pastels plaintifs et les pâles Boucher,

Seuls, respirent l’odeur d’un flacon débouché.

Rien n’égale en longueur les boîteuses journées

Quand sous les lourds flocons des neigeuses années

L’ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosité

Prend les proportions de l’immortalité.

Désormais tu n’es plus, ô matière vivante,

Qu’un granit entouré d’une vague épouvante

Assoupi dans le fond d’un Sahara brumeux ;

Un vieux sphinx oublié du monde insoucieux,

Oublié sur la carte, et dont l’humeur farouche

Ne chante qu’aux rayons du soleil qui se couche.

[I have more memories than if I were a thousand years old.

A big piece of furniture, a chest of drawers cluttered with balance-sheets, with verses, love-letters, lawsuits, ballads, with heavy locks of hair rolled up in receipted bills, hides fewer secrets than my wretched brain. It is a pyramid, an enormous vault that holds more dead than the paupers’ field. I am a graveyard shunned by the moon, where, like fits of remorse, long worms slither and always choose to feed on my dearest dead. I am an old boudoir full of withered roses, where lie disorderly heaps of out-of-date fashions, where the plaintive pastels and faded Bouchers alone breathe in the odour of an unstoppered scent-bottle.

Nothing equals the length of the limping days, when, under the heavy flakes of the snowy years, tedium, born of dull incuriosity, takes on the proportions of immortality. Now you are no longer, O living matter, anything but a block of granite surrounded by a formless fear, lying torpid in the furthest reaches of a misty Sahara; an old sphinx unregarded by the careless world, forgotten on the map, and whose unsociable whim it is to sing only to the rays of the setting sun.]

Other sections of Les Fleurs du mal are entitled ’Le Vin’, ’Révolte’, ’La Mort’ and (added in 1861) ’Tableaux parisiens’. These last are all set in the modern city and among its inhabitants, except one, ’Rêve parisien’, which describes a city in a (probably drug-induced) dream. Baudelaire is known to have used drugs from 1843 onwards, and in later life to have become addicted to opium, taken in the liquid form of laudanum (see ’La Chambre double’ in Le Spleen de Paris/Petits poèmes en prose). This was one of the reasons he was later placed by Verlaine among the ’poètes maudits’ (poets under a curse).

But it is not the ’accursed’ side of Baudelaire that was to make him admired throughout the twentieth century and until today (T. S. Eliot called him ’the greatest exemplar of modern poetry in any language’). It is partly the novelty of his approach. He turns away from the established themes of Romantic poetry: love (requited or unrequited), nostalgia, nature. Asked to contribute to a volume of verse on the theme of Nature, he replied that he had never been able to ’m’attendrir sur les végétaux’ (get sentimental about the vegetable kingdom), and submitted the two ’Crépuscule’ poems later to appear in ’Tableaux parisiens’, which evoke morning and evening twilight in the city in all its harshness. Again, the Romantic poets liked to spread themselves: their poems typically run for several pages, and any images they use are fully worked out and made comprehensible to the reader, whose better feelings are often appealed to. Baudelaire prefers concision and allusion. Understanding him may require the reader to admit to feelings he would rather not recognize: at the end of the prefatory poem to Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire addresses him as ’Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère !’ The extracts from Hugo in Text 12, taken from a much longer poem, and the single short poem by Baudelaire printed in this chapter (Text 14) give a good illustration of their differing methods. Nonetheless, Baudelaire admired Hugo and dedicated one of his finest poems, ’Le Cygne’, to him. Also of great importance for French readers of Baudelaire is his mastery of sound and rhythm. He composed slowly with many corrections, holding before him — like Flaubert — an ideal of formal beauty, and the patterns of sound in his poems are most intricate and suggestive.

Later poets

The poets of the school immediately following Baudelaire became known as the Parnassians, because they published their verses in an eighteen-part collection called the Parnasse contemporain, issued by the publisher Lemerre in 1866, with a subsequent instalment in 1871 and another in 1876. But the name also suggests an aspiration to classical perfection. Their leader, Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle (1818—94), in whose house the group used to meet, was in fact three years older than Baudelaire but, like Hugo, lived on into honoured old age. His best-known collections (Poèmes antiques, Poèmes barbares) were first published in the 1850s, like Les Fleurs du mal, but appeared in later editions, including new material, in the 1870s. The other poets in the group were a generation younger, mostly born around 1840. Like Baudelaire, they wanted to avoid the emotional effusiveness and slack versification of the Romantics and worked to achieve perfection of form, but unlike him they usually achieved these ends at the price of a rather academic-seeming detachment. Their Beauty is, like Baudelaire’s, cold and marble-hard (’La Beauté’, Les Fleurs du mal, XVII), but lacks the flirtatious eyes of his snow-hearted goddess. Nonetheless, these were the officially recognized poets of the day, and school anthologies published up to the Second World War feature their poems at length.

Not only the poets now classed among the Parnassians (Leconte de Lisle, Hérédia, Sully-Prudhomme, Mendès, Coppée) actually published in the Parnasse contemporain; it was the main channel, apart from newspapers and magazines, for the publication of new verse. Baudelaire published sixteen ’Nouvelles fleurs du mal’ there in the last year of his life and Verlaine and Mallarmé in their youth also did so. Even the provincial schoolboy Rimbaud tried to have his earliest verses published in the Parnasse. But these were poets of a very different stamp. They are usually treated together in histories of literature as the Symbolists, but this title has little meaning. It seems to have been chosen for them at the time because their verses were difficult to understand (though in very different ways), and since a literal meaning could not be discerned, it was assumed there must be a hidden, symbolic one.

Stéphane (born Étienne) Mallarmé (1842—98) was a lycée teacher of English by profession, but by inspiration and decision a man of letters. From his thirties onwards he was in constant contact with ’advanced’ movements in writing, painting and music: a friend of Whistler, of Degas and the Manet/Morisot family, of Debussy, and at least an acquaintance of practically every writer of the day. His ’mardis’, the famous Tuesday at-homes at his modest flat, were a place of pilgrimage for younger writers for almost twenty years. Having begun everything — schoolteaching, marriage, fatherhood, poetic composition — very early in life (aged 24, he had eleven poems published in the Parnasse contemporain of 1866), his output of verse soon became agonizingly slow. Of the 1,300 pages of his collected writings in the standard Pléiade edition, which does not include letters, only 180 are of verse and 100 of those are ’vers de circonstance’: that is, album and birthday verses, verses accompanying presents, inscriptions on photographs and fans, and versified addresses (twenty pages of these convoluted little quatrains, written on envelopes, which must have provoked the postmen to fury). There are also some fifty pages of prose poems, thirty of which are translations of Poe’s verse poems into French prose, and a prose piece described by Mallarmé as a ’conte’ (Igitur), together with a poem related to it (Jamais un coup de dés n’abolira le hasard, No throw of the dice will ever abolish chance), which is in neither verse nor prose, but made up of isolated words and phrases in different typefaces and sizes strewn seemingly at random (but in fact painstakingly placed) across the paper. The rest of the Pléiade volume is made up of occasional prose writing of one kind and another — prefaces to the writings of others, observations on poetry, painting, music and the theatre, even on fashion (Mallarmé was, like Wilde, briefly the editor of a ladies’ magazine). All but the earliest are in an elaborate, somewhat precious prose style, which Mallarmé made his trademark. Most of these pieces originally appeared in small-circulation magazines, French, English or American, aimed at the self-defining artistic and literary elite: this was the first great age of ’little magazines’.

A Mallarmé verse poem is typically short or very short (only four are longer than a page, if we include ’Hérodiade’, eight pages of a verse drama begun in 1864 but which Mallarme was still talking of completing in the year of his death). His writing is very condensed, often in defiance of normal French syntax, and impossible to paraphrase.

If there is one thing the Symbolist poets have in common, it is the idea that a poem is not a reworking in more elegant terms of something that could be said in plain prose. The story is told of Degas remarking to Mallarmé, ’I should write poems, I have lots of ideas for them’, and Mallarmé replying, ’Poems are not made of ideas, M. Degas, but of words’. Similarly, when asked what he had meant (in French, ’voulu dire’, wanted to say) by a particular piece of writing, Rimbaud, according to his sister, replied ’J’ai voulu dire ce que ça dit, littéralement et dans tous les sens’ (I wanted to say what the thing says, literally and in all possible senses). For the Symbolist poet, a poem is an object, an artefact, to be engaged with on its own terms, and does not come supplied with a satisfying interpretation, by the writer or anyone else. The American modernist Archibald MacLeish was to say something similar in his 1926 poem ’Ars Poetica’, which ends ’A poem should not mean/But be’.

MacLeish compares a poem to quite everyday things, natural objects or simple artefacts that we engage with, for example, by touch. Mallarmé’s comparison is more ambitious, and drawn from sight. In the essay ’Crise de vers’ he speaks of the poet handing over the initiative to the word]s: it is their interaction that will create the poem as they catch light from one another like a pile or necklace of gems: ’comme une virtuelle trainée de feux sur des pierreries’ (’Crise de vers’, Pléiade p. 366).

The poems of Paul Verlaine (1844—96) do not burn with a hard gem-like flame. In fact, they often — particularly the most anthologized ones — seem in danger of drifting away like a formless cloud. This imprecision is deliberate. Verlaine too wrote an ’Art poétique’, which begins:

De la musique avant toute chose,

Et pour cela préfère l’impair

Plus vague et plus soluble dans l’air,

Sans rien en lui qui pèse ou qui pose.

[Music first and foremost

And to that end, choose the impair,

Vaguer and more easily dissolved in the air

With nothing in it that weighs heavy or strikes an attitude.]

Traditionally, French verse was written in lines of an even number of syllables, usually eight, ten or twelve (the best-known previous ’Art poétique’, Boileau’s of 1674, is four cantos of stately alexandrines). The impair, the ’odd’ line of five, seven or nine syllables, was reserved for ’light’ verse, like the fable of La Fontaine in Text 6. So to write an ’Art poétique’ in nine quatrains of nine-syllable lines was already a provocation. The rest of the poem, written in a mixture of literary and colloquial language, is a veritable plea for vagueness, lightness and evanescence: like Mallarmé, Verlaine wished to remove any trace of the rhetorical from verse.

In most other respects, their lives and writings could not have been more different. A lazy schoolboy, Verlaine was found an undemanding clerk’s job in the Hôtel de Ville, the Paris town hall, and on the strength of that married, aged twenty-six, a girl of seventeen from a respectable family. He had already begun to frequent literary cafés and to write: his first two collections of poetry, now considered to be among his best, appeared in 1866 (Poèmes saturniens) and 1869 (Fêtes galantes). By 1870 he had begun to drink heavily, and in later life was an alcoholic. In the upheavals of 1871 he lost his job at the Hôtel de Ville, which was burned to the ground, along with other public buildings, in the last days of the Commune. But what had an even greater impact on his life was a fan letter written to him in the same year by a provincial schoolboy seeking to join the Paris literary world. The actual letters exchanged between Rimbaud and Verlaine are lost, but the key words of Verlaine’s decisive reply survive: ’Venez, chère grande âme, on vous appelle, on vous attend !’ (Come, dear great soul, we call upon you, we are waiting for you).

The boy took him at his word, arriving without money or clothes and expecting Verlaine to look after him. At first the older man took him under his wing, finding him lodgings with literary friends who soon threw him out, and taking him to literary gatherings where many of the guests, even those considering themselves unconventional, were horrified by Rimbaud’s language and behaviour, and the evident relationship between the two men. Verlaine’s relationship with his young wife and her family had already deteriorated badly, due to his drinking, and after one final, furious quarrel in which he threw his baby son against the wall, he left Paris with Rimbaud first for Brussels and then for London, where many French artists and writers compromised by their association with the Commune were then living. The year 1872—3 was artistically the most productive for both poets, resulting for Verlaine in the collection Romances sans paroles (Songs without Words), which is considered his best. But in other respects it was a desperate time of poverty, drunkenness and quarrels, ending in Verlaine’s attempt to shoot Rimbaud, for which he stood trial in Belgium and served two years in prison. During that time he returned to the Catholic faith in which he had been baptised, and his next collection, Sagesse, expressing penitence and the desire for God’s grace, reconciled at least part of the respectable reading public to him.

Alas, his repentance was short-lived, and he led an increasingly disreputable life in England, Belgium and finally in Paris, which included another spell in prison and many more in Paris poor-hospitals, where even the fastidious Mallarmé did not hesitate to visit him. For he continued to publish poetry (nine more collections) and little-magazine journalism and, particularly after the appearance in 1884 of his essays on ’Les Poètes maudits’ he was taken up by the younger generation of writers, who elected him ’Prince des poètes’ (a purely honorific title) in 1894.

Despite the old joke, Verlaine was not ’always chasing Rimbauds’. He seems never to have wanted to re-enact that terrifying relationship. He had one further long-term relationship with a much younger man, but a gentler character, originally one of his pupils when he was briefly a schoolmaster. Verlaine’s sexual relationships in later life seem to have been mostly with women — the kind of women that a bald, penniless alcoholic could hope to attract. Among his later writings are collections of extremely explicit erotic verse (Les Amies, Femmes, Hombres), which could not be openly published at the time but are now easily available.

He died in near-squalor in 1896, but Gabriel Fauré played the organ at his funeral service, and Mallarmé spoke at his graveside and wrote a fine sonnet (’Tombeau de Verlaine’) on the first anniversary of his death.

Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud (1854—91) has no doubt the most extraordinary writing and publishing history of any poet. His father having deserted the family, he was brought up on a small farm outside Charleville in eastern France by his mother, a woman of small education but intelligent, forceful and ambitious for her children. Sent to the Collège de Charleville he was at first considered an outstanding pupil. At fifteen he achieved a distinction in Latin verse in the concours général (as Baudelaire had done, but at sixteen, and from the prestigious Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris), and his teachers had great hopes for him. Alas, at sixteen he ’went off the rails’, as teachers say, running away from home, once to Belgium and twice to Paris, the second time during the Commune. Found travelling without a railway ticket, he more than once saw the inside of a jail. From May until September 1871 he was to be seen in Charleville, hanging about in the most disreputable cafes, smoking and drinking beer and cheap wine at the expense (he afterwards said) of older drinkers whom he kept amused with stories of Paris and filthy improvised verses.

But he was also writing: formally conventional poems at first, though from 1870 always on more or less unconventional subjects, and using extraordinary imagery. He obviously hoped to publish these poems and make his mark in the Paris literary world, since he wrote an almost insultingly fulsome fan letter to the established Paris poet Théodore de Banville on 24 May 1871, asking how he might get his work into the Parnasse contemporain. Later in the same year he also approached Verlaine, with the results already described. Before leaving, like a Balzacian hero, to take Paris by storm, he wrote out neat copies of all his work to date, and composed one long poem that was to be his showpiece, and which is still considered his greatest: ’Le Bateau ivre’.

’Ivre’ (a favourite word with Baudelaire) is very difficult to translate. Its basic meaning is ’drunk’ (not ’drunken’, which suggests a habit rather than a single experience), but it can also mean exhilarated, intoxicated (with joy, freedom, heroism, love as well as alcohol or drugs). One of Baudelaire’s prose poems begins, ’Il faut être toujours ivre’ (We must be ’ivre’ all the time), and goes on to say ’Mais de quoi ? De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise’ (But on what? Wine, poetry or [heroic] virtue, as you please). For what it is worth, Rimbaud’s boat appears to be drunk on freedom. A trading vessel being hauled along a river, it first escapes the tow ropes and then follows the current into the open sea. Its real ’ivresse’ begins once the sea has washed away the signs of everyday drunkenness — stains of cheap wine and vomit — and the boat gives itself up to the power of the waves and the splendour of colour and light. All of these are evoked with hallucinatory vividness by a boy of sixteen who had in fact never seen the sea.

In the 1960s Rimbaud’s poems were taken as a tribute to the power of drugs to inspire the artist: drop a tab of acid and you too can write ’Le Bateau ivre’. The results of this method have not been impressive. But in any case, the argument does not stand up historically. Rimbaud wrote all his great early poems before leaving home. Cannabis, in the form of hashish, could be bought in Paris at this time, but probably not in Charleville and certainly not by a boy whose mother doled him out a penny a week to put in the plate in church. Once in Paris he may well have encountered hashish, but for him and Verlaine the intoxicant of choice was always to be the cheapest: bad red wine and industrial absinthe.

By the time of the Brussels shooting, none of Rimbaud’s poems had been published, apart from a couple of early pieces, alarmingly competent but conventional in style, in local newspapers. With Verlaine in jail, he retreated to Charleville and there, in his mother’s house, wrote Une Saison en enfer (A Time in Hell), a group of nine prose poems based on the life he had been leading in the previous two years. Two of these are called ’Délires’ I and II: the first one, called ’La Vierge folle’, appears to be a reflection on his time with Verlaine, written from the latter’s point of view, with Verlaine as the Foolish Virgin and Rimbaud as ’l’Epoux infernal’ — the Bridegroom from Hell. The second, ’Alchimie du verbe’, describes his poetic ambitions up to that point, which he now seems to be renouncing, and includes eight verse poems composed in 1872—3. It is possible to read Une Saison en enfer as an expression of passionate repentance for past folly, and a renunciation of the literary life, and many, particularly Catholic, commentators did read it that way in the early twentieth century. Later critics were able to show, however, that at least some of Rimbaud’s collection of prose poems, Les Illuminations, were written months or even years later. It was not until 1880, after five years of wandering in Europe, that Rimbaud definitely turned his back on Paris and the friends he had known there and remade his life in East Africa as a trader. Only illness — in the end, insufferable pain — drove him back to France, and he died of bone cancer in a Marseilles hospital in 1891.


This version of this poem is the one that appears in Une Saison en enfer. A different version of the first section appears elsewhere, with the title ’Fêtes de la faim’ (Celebrations of hunger). The brook Kedron is mentioned in the Bible.


Si j’ai de la faim, ce n’est guère

Que pour la terre et les pierres.

Je déjeune toujours d’air

De roc, de charbons, de fer.

Mes faims, tournez. Paissez, faims,

Le pré des sons.

Attirez le gai venin

Des liserons.

Mangez les cailloux qu’on brise,

Les vieilles pierres d’église ;

Les galets des vieux déluges,

Pains semés dans les vallées grises.

Le loup criait sous les feuilles

En crachant les belles plumes

De son repas de volailles :

Comme lui je me consume.

Les salades, les fruits

N’attendent que la cueillette ;

Mais l’araignée de la haie

Ne mange que les violettes.

Que je dorme ! Que je bouille

Aux autels de Salomon.

Le bouillon court sur la rouille

Et se mêle au Cédron.

[If I feel hunger, it is only for earth and stones. I always lunch on air, rock, coals, iron. Keep turning, my hungers. Feed, hungers, on the meadow of sounds. Draw to yourselves the gay venom of the bindweeds.

Eat the stones the convicts break, the old stones of churches, the pebbles of old deluges, round loaves sown in the grey valleys.

The wolf was crying out under the leaves, as he spat out the fine feathers of his meal of poultry: like him I am eating myself up. Salad leaves, fruit are just waiting to be picked; but the spider in the hedge eats only violets.

Let me sleep! Let me boil on the altars of Solomon. The broth bubbles over on the rust and mingles with the Kedron.]

Meanwhile, Verlaine’s essay on him in ’Les Poètes maudits’ (1884), illustrated with some of his earlier poems, had won him the notice and praise from young poets that he had so wanted thirteen years earlier. The manuscripts of many of his surviving verse poems were in Verlaine’s hands, and he published them at intervals, as well as Les Illuminations in their entirety, in the little magazine La Vogue in 1886. The story of Une Saison en enfer is particularly odd. Obviously realising that it would never find a commercial publisher, Rimbaud had it printed at his own expense in 1873 by a small jobbing printer in Brussels. He took the six free copies he was entitled to and sent four to friends: one copy to the prison where Verlaine was serving his sentence, the others to the young poet Jean Richepin, the artist Forain and Rimbaud’s schoolfriend Ernest Delahaye. These were the only copies known until 1901, when the remaining print run of 500 copies was discovered in the printer’s storeroom. Unable to pay for the pamphlets, Rimbaud had simply left them behind.

All of his surviving output, therefore, was written between the ages of fifteen and (at the latest) twenty, apart from the memoir of an exploration in the Ogaden desert of Abyssinia; which he sent to the Société de Géographie in 1883. His reputation, however, began to take shape long after he had deliberately renounced writing, continued to grow well into the following century and is still powerful today.

Jules Laforgue (1860—87) died even younger than Rimbaud, at twenty-six, of tuberculosis. But by the time of his death he had produced a large body of verse, which had appeared in two collections, Les Complaintes (Street Ballads, 1885) and L’Imitation de notre-dame la lune (The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon, 1886). His remaining poems, some of them among his best, were published after his death as Derniers vers (1887), as were his parody tales in prose, Moralités légendaires (1887). These are rewritings, in a fanciful but satirical style, of stories that Laforgue obviously felt had been overworked by other writers of the time. The protagonists include Salome (treated by Flaubert in ’Hérodias’ and Mallarmé in ’Hérodiade’, among many others) and Hamlet (who ends by washing his hands of Elsinore and running off with Kate, the Player King’s daughter).

Most of Laforgue’s verse poems are similarly light and ironical. Many treat the relations between men and women from the point of view of a young, not very ’masculine’ man, who nonetheless is attracted to, if sceptical about, the ’eternal feminine’. (Despite the tongue-in-cheek attitude of these poems, and despite his youth and poverty, Laforgue in fact married an equally young and poor English governess seven months before his death.)

The young T.S. Eliot admired Laforgue and wrote some poems in imitation of him, including two in French. One can still hear some echoes of the Laforgue persona in J. Alfred Prufrock.

Later fiction

Novelists after Flaubert are usually assigned to the Realist or Naturalist schools. These — particularly the latter — were organized movements, with defined membership, recognized leaders and programmes. Realism (the term seems to have been borrowed from the painter Courbet, who first spoke of ’l’art réaliste’) was first defined as such after the great realist novelists, Balzac and Stendhal, were dead, with the appearance in 1857 of the manifesto Le Réalisme by the comparatively insignificant novelist Champfleury. A Realist novel was to take its subject from everyday contemporary life, reproduced (as if such a thing were possible) with the kind of careful documentation Flaubert had brought to ancient Carthage. The life of the poor was seen as more ’real’ than that of the leisured classes (certainly it was a new field for fiction), and the detail in which it was documented led critics to protest at the ugliness and squalor in which, they said, these novelists wallowed. ’Un mot réaliste’ came to mean a vulgar or coarse word.

The realists claimed Flaubert as a member of their school, but he angrily rejected this identification. The best realist novels (and even they are hardly a rewarding read) were written by the brothers Edmond (1822—96) and Jules (1830—70) de Goncourt, minor aristocrats living in Paris on a comfortable private income, collectors and critics of art. Needless to say they had no personal experience whatever of low life. Their best-known novel, Germinie Lacerteux (1864), was inspired by the distressing discovery that their long-serving maid, whom they imagined to have been solely devoted to cherishing them, had in fact had another life outside their house, taking violent lovers. The Goncourts’ novels are little read today: there is much more interest in the their art criticism and particularly in the Journal that they began to keep in 1851 and that Edmond continued alone after 1870, which engages readers with its glimpses of literary, artistic and political life and its waspish wit.

Emile Zola (1840—1902), the recognized leader of the Naturalist school, at any rate had had experience of poverty, after the early death of his engineer father and the consequent failure of his business, and later when he was trying to support his mother and establish himself in Paris as a writer. His first proper job was with the Hachette publishing firm, at first in their bookshop but eventually in the publicity department. It was there that he acquired much useful knowledge about book production and promotion. All his novels were serialised in newspapers or magazines and placed in lucrative outlets such as railway bookstalls. He was endlessly productive, of fiction and literary and political journalism, to the point that by 1895 his earnings were estimated at 150,000 francs a year (compare Baudelaire’s fifteen thousand over a total of twenty years).

But Zola does not seem to have written chiefly for money. He had a passionate wish to produce a new kind of literature suited to the new scientific age, and attracted around him a group of young disciples who called themselves the Naturalists. Their meetings at Zola’s house at Medan are commemorated in a collection of six short stories called Soirées de Medan (1880), the most famous of which is ’Boule de suif’ (Butterball) by Guy de Maupassant (1850—93). After his first big success with Thérèse Raquin (1867), Zola conceived the idea of producing, like Balzac, a sequence of novels with recurring characters (Figure 5). But unlike the Comédie humaine, which had taken shape after the event and to some extent at random, Zola’s would be planned in advance, and there would be a necessary connection between all the principal characters, since they would be members, legitimate and illegitimate, of the same extended family. This would allow Zola to show (as he thought) the working-out of heredity and the power of environment in determining human characteristics. The planned series, to be called Les Rougon-Macquart, eventually grew from the planned twelve volumes to fifteen and eventually to twenty: still, Zola was able to complete it between 1871 and 1893.


Figure 5 Zola saluting the bust of Balzac, caricature by André Gill, 1878

Zola had always been politically active, but from 1894 onwards became particularly involved in the Dreyfus case (the conviction for spying, on forged evidence, of the young Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus, and the ensuing attempts, over twelve years, to have the verdict overturned). Zola’s famous article ’J’accuse’, an open letter to the President of the Republic about the case, which occupied the entire front page of L’Aurore for 13 January 1898, earned him a year’s prison sentence, which he avoided by taking refuge in England. His involvement in this case, and his willingness to risk his own freedom for it, won him many admirers on the left, but an equal number of bitter enemies on the political right. The case inspired such hatred that it has been seriously suggested that Zola’s death (at sixty-one, in his home, from carbon monoxide poisoning) was murder.

Of the twenty novels of the Rougon-Macquart series, the most successful at the time and still the most widely read today are L’Assommoir (1877), Nana (1880) and Germinal (1885). All at least begin in a working-class setting, though the heroine Nana goes on to achieve fame and riches as a serially kept woman, one of the notorious creatures who were called at the time the grandes horizontales (from the position in which they made their fortunes). The most interesting is probably L’Assommoir, the story of a brave, ambitious washerwoman who is eventually brought down by misfortune and drink, for much of it is written in an original style that Zola does not attempt anywhere else. It is a version of Flaubert’s style indirect libre, but reproducing not only the thoughts of the main character but also those of her neighbours, expressed in the kind of language they might use. Many critics were shocked, not only by the ’low’ subject, but also to see Parisian slang and non-standard grammar in print, but Flaubert and Mallarmé both admired the book.

Using the same technique in Germinal would not have been an option, however, since to have written it in the dialect of the northern miners among whom it is set would have made it unintelligible to readers in most other parts of France. Instead the style of Germinal carries the reader before it with poetic descriptions of beauty and squalor, and stirring set pieces of strikes, demonstrations, mine disasters and the eventual destruction of the mine itself by sabotage. Nothing could be further from the dispassionate, ’scientific’ account demanded by Naturalist theory.

Among the Medan group the one who went on to achieve most fame was Maupassant, who soon diverged from the strict Naturalist gospel. His six novels and sixteen collections of short stories show an ironic and even cynical approach to his subjects, and obviously their concise format does not allow for pages of documented description. The stories are perfect of their kind, however, and were models for many writers in England and America. Another early admirer of Zola was Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848—1907). His early novels followed the Naturalist precepts (he too was one of the contributors to the Soirées de Medan), but after 1882 he began to write in a completely different vein, and his A rebours (Against the Grain, 1884), still sometimes read by the determined, is usually quoted as the supreme example of French Decadent writing. It is the ’poisonous French novel’ that sets the hero on the wrong path in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Des Esseintes, the hero of A rebours, is the last scion of a once proud noble house. This was literally true of Philippe-Auguste, comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (1838—89), novelist, playwright and writer of short stories, whose ancestors (or so he believed) had fought in the Crusades and been Knights of Malta, but who now lived in wretched poverty in Paris, cohabiting with his laundress, whom he married on his deathbed so as to legitimize his son. Villiers is usually classed as a Symbolist and his lengthy, unstageable dramas probably deserve this title, but his stories, collected as Contes cruels (1883), Tribulat Bonhomet (1887) and Nouveaux contes cruels (1888) are concise and memorable examples of what would later be called ’humour noir’. He also wrote an early science-fiction story, L’Eve future, in which Thomas Edison is a character and the Eve of the Future a female android created by him.


Having been a centre of political argument and heated rhetoric under the Revolution, the theatre was placed under strict government control during the Empire, and remained so even after its fall. Government approval for the opening of any new theatre was required until 1864, and dramatic censorship was not finally lifted until 1906. Nevertheless, the growth and increased prosperity of the middle class under the Second Empire and Third Republic led to an increase in the number and size of theatres. Paris theatres of 1000-plus seats built at this time and still in use include the Châtelet (1862) and the Theâtres de la Ville, de la Porte Saint-Martin and de la Renaissance, all rebuilt in 1872—3 to replace previous houses burnt down in the last days of the Commune. The state-owned and run Comédie-Française and Odéon continued to present the classics and selected pieces by approved new authors, but audiences for the commercial theatres had more varied tastes. The ceiling of the Châtelet was decorated with cartouches bearing the words Danse, Opéra, Féerie, Musique, Drame, Tragédie, Comédie, Vaudeville, Pantomime. A féerie was a spectacle-play with elaborate costumes and sets, transformation scenes and the like, rather like the lavish parts of an English Christmas pantomime without the slapstick scenes, whereas a pantomime was an all-mimed production. A vaudeville was, and is, what English speakers call a French farce: a complicated story of misunderstandings, mistaken identities, hiding in cupboards and so forth, with a comic plot usually based on one or more attempted adulteries. The great, late master of vaudeville was Georges Feydeau (1862—1921). Comedies in this vein but somewhat less frantic are also called comédies de boulevard: this, because commercial theatres were originally situated mostly on the Paris boulevards, first on the Boulevard du Temple but later on the new wide roads cut through the city by Baron Haussman in his renovations of 1852—70. ’Boulevard theatre’ is therefore an expression like ’Broadway’ or ’Shaftesbury Avenue’ theatre. A drame might be any kind of non-comic play in prose. Opera and light opera in its various forms (opéra-comique, opéra-bouffe, opérette — they are not very clearly distinguished) were also extremely popular with the middle-class public. Here the great name is that of Jacques (born Jacob) Offenbach (1819—80), the son of a German cantor who settled in Paris and took French nationality. His sparkling opéras-bouffes, the best of them written to libretti by Meilhac and Halévy, held the stage from 1858 until 1870, and are thought to be the best embodiment of the pleasure-loving spirit of the upper classes under the Second Empire. Also put on in the large theatres were lavish costume-dramas, of which Sarah Bernhardt (1845—1923) was the best-known exponent. Her influence in the theatre was enormous, not only as an actress but also as a commissioner of new plays and, from 1893, the manager of her own company, first at the Théâtre de la Renaissance and then, from 1899, at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt on the Place du Châtelet. This house was renamed Théâtre de la Cité in 1940 when the Nazis insisted on the removal of the Jewish actress’s name, and is now the Théâtre de la Ville.

Such were the tastes of the broad mass of theatre-goers. But just as in prose writing and poetry, there was another kind of theatre appealing to the more intellectually inclined. Companies of actors would open up in small premises and put on work by little-known or foreign dramatists, often using acting styles and set designs very different from those of the established theatres. The most successful of these undertakings were the Théâtre Libre, led by André Antoine, and the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, led by the actor Lugné-Poë.

The Théâtre Libre opened in the unfashionable 18th arrondissement in 1887 and apart from mounting foreign work by such dramatists as Ibsen and Strindberg, specialized in ’slice-of-life’ plays by the Naturalist school, with realistic sets to match — an early example of ’kitchen-sink’ drama. Just as the Impressionist school in painting had originally emerged from the salon des refusés of Imperial times, so the Théâtre Libre declared its mission was to show the work of the ’refusés de la Comédie-Française et de l’Odéon’. It failed in its original premises in 1894, and the name Théâtre Libre passed to a successor company, so that when Antoine was able to put his together again in 1897 he had to rent a new theatre, on the Boulevard de Strasbourg, and rename it the Théâtre Antoine. In 2011, it was still functioning there, with fairly ambitious programming.

The Théâtre de l’Oeuvre operated in a small off-street theatre from 1893 to 1899, also offering Ibsen and Strindberg, but otherwise specialising in Symbolist dramas (including Wilde’s Salome in 1896). Perhaps its best-remembered piece of programming was not Symbolist, however, but rather the unclassifiable Ubu Roi (Ubu the King) (1896) of the eccentric poet Alfred Jarry (1873—1907). This bloodthirsty farce begins as a kind of wild parody of Macbeth but continues as a grotesque satire of modern diplomatic and tax-raising methods. It was played in wholly unrealistic style in hand-painted costumes and masks, and had a succès de scandale not matched by its sequels Ubu cocu (Ubu Cuckolded) and Ubu enchaîné (Ubu Bound, which, despite its title, is not a parody of Prometheus Bound, but more of a satire per absurdum of French Third-Republic ideals of freedom and equality). Jarry’s plays have given the French language the word ubuesque, meaning overweening, ignorant, irrational, violent but at the same time absurdly comical. The late Emperor Bokassa, for example, was often referred to (in private) as a personnage ubuesque.

These little theatres and others like them had a huge influence on the development of drama in France and other countries in the twentieth century. But it was a boulevard entertainment that was really to revolutionize the public’s experience of fiction. On 28 December 1895, at the Grand Café, 14 boulevard des Capucines, the Lumière brothers gave the first public showing of their cinématographe.