France (18th Century)

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

France (18th Century)

Philip Stewart

Anyone who was asked in 1700 or even 1730 to name the greatest French novel would very probably have cited Les Aventures de Télémaque (ca. 1696, The Adventures of Telemachus) by Archbishop François de Fénelon, a didactic work that actually had been written as part of an education program for the dauphin (eldest son of the king of France). For its classical purity and cadences it was also often described as a “poem in prose.” No fact better illustrates how much not only tastes but also genres have changed: today Télémaque, given its highly stylized structure and style, and the fact that it is, after all, a sort of high-minded pastiche of Homer, would be an unlikely candidate for inclusion in that literary category at all, let alone selected as the best.

Going into the eighteenth century, the three most important facts about the novel are these. First, roman, the French term for a novel, had been in continuous use since the Middle Ages, when it designated a verse “romance” (see HISTORY). So the novel, an ongoing though evolving literary tradition, was never thought to have been invented in any particular place or at any particular time.

The second is that the world of letters was pretty similar in France and Britain. Besides the fact that many people in both countries could read the language of the other, novels were translated in large numbers from one side of the Channel to the other (see TRANSLATION). Télémaque, for example, also went through many English editions. A number of novelists themselves translated novels from across the Channel, among them Penelope Aubin (Robert Challe's Les Illustres Françaises, 1713; The Illustrious French Lovers) and Eliza Haywood (eight mainly French novels) in England, and Antoine Prévost (Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, 1747—48 and Sir Charles Grandison, 1753—54) and Marie Riccoboni (Henry Fielding's Amelia, 1751) in France. (It needs to be conceded that “translation” at the time often implied considerable ADAPTATION.) The readership of both these imports and native works was to grow steadily throughout the century, both in terms of numbers of readers and in terms of their steadily increasing production.

The third is that comic novels had always been another aspect of the same tradition as more serious novels, and they too—Le Roman de Renart (13th century, The Fox and the Wolf), for instance—go back to medieval times. Even the heroic and pastoral novels of the seventeenth century stood in dynamic counterpoint with comic novels such as Charles Sorel's Histoire comique de Francion (1623, The History of Francion), Paul Scarron's Roman comique (1651—57, The Comic Novel) and Antoine Furetière's Roman bourgeois (1666, The City Romance). This tradition is carried forward in a major way by the likes of Alain-René Lesage with Gil Blas (1715—35) and Denis Diderot with Le Neveu de Rameau (1805, Rameau's Nephew) and Jacques le fataliste et son maître (1796, Jacques the Fatalist and his Master), the latter of which was in part inspired by Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759—69), as it is by Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding in Britain. In contrast to most novels, which mimic historical narrative as if they themselves were true (Robert Challe's is typically subtitled Histoires véritables, “true stories,” which probably would fool no one), the comic novel makes its devices patent, satirizing the form itself as much as it does the society in which it is set.

In other words, it will not do—or it will no longer do—to define the novel narrowly, discriminating between “true” novels and near-misses, or as a “national” attribute, with specific cultural variants. NATIONAL literatures are in any case an invention of the nineteenth century, not part of the earlier transnational world of letters (sometimes referred to indeed as la république des lettres). In the broad sweep of prose fiction that flows down to us from the Middle Ages (but also, one can say, from Antiquity), the novel represents not a circumscribed formula but a loose configuration of practices that more or less share certain formal features.

By the seventeenth century, the verse forms of the older roman had long been left behind but other traditional aspects—notably the close relationship to tragic and pastoral as well as comic genres—were still alive, and many of the novels retained an epic and elegiac quality. They were also often notable for their length; indeed the tradition of lengthy, multiple-volume novels extends well into the eighteenth century with Lesage, Prévost, Pierre Carlet de Marivaux, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There were shorter novels as well, some labeled histoire (generally set as oral narrative) or mémoires (when explicitly written) if they were related in the first person, others nouvelle historique (see HISTORICAL NOVEL). The only novel of the later seventeenth century that still has a wide readership today, Madame de Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves (1678, The Princess of Cleves), belongs to the latter category.

Three instant classics stand out in the opening phase of the eighteenth century. The first is Challe's Les Illustres Françaises (1713, The Illustrious French Lovers), in which the dramatic stories of seven couples with varied destinies are deftly woven together and related in round-robin manner by their protagonists to each other. It is a masterpiece by any standard, and though triumphantly rediscovered during the twentieth century, is still not well enough known.

The second, Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (The Story of Gil Blas de Santillane) by Lesage, began publication in 1715 and was extended in 1724 and 1735. Lesage, who was also a comic playwright, is doubly skilled in construction of comic situations and in his witty narrative style. The episodic nature of the story and its publication, reminiscent of the tradition of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote (1605, 1615), and of its autobiographical form, are representative of many of the longer novels of the first half of the eighteenth century.

Finally, Montesquieu's Lettres persanes (1721, Persian Letters) alternates the tense inner struggles of a harem in Isfahan with the often satirical experiences of its absent master far away in Paris. In this case there is no “narrator” and no narrative framework outside the polyphonic series of letters that constitute the novel: 150 of them, spanning nine years and emanating from nineteen different characters. In the process, it helped to constitute the epistolary novel as a significant sub-genre, one which is still practiced today. Lettres persanes has been translated numerous times into English.

In the same time frame, Orientalist Antoine Galland was compiling and issuing the lengthy series of Arabian tales that make up his immensely influential Mille et Une Nuits (1704—17, A Thousand and One Nights, 12 vols.) which, translated into every European language, was the vehicle of an oriental vogue which too is still felt today (see ARABIC). It permeates many of the eighteenth century's short stories, including those of Antoine Hamilton (1731, Zeneyde, and many others) and Claude Crébillon (1734, Tanzaï et Néadarné; 1742, Le Sopha, The Sofa; 1754, Ah, quel conte!, Ah, What a Tale!), not to mention several by Voltaire, e.g., Zadig (1747).

The 1730s saw the rapid rise to prominence of three major novelists: Prévost, Marivaux, and Claude Crébillon. The first, an unhappy priest with huge pent-up skills (and perhaps emotions), first seized the public's attention with the intense, passionate episodes of Mémoires et aventures d'un homme de qualité (1728—32, Memoirs and Adventures of a Man of Quality), the seventh and final volume of which, entitled Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (The Story of the Knight of Grieux and of Manon Lescaut), became an enduring classic under the foreshortened title Manon Lescaut. In addition, Prévost also produced in a little more than a decade the Histoire de M. Cleveland, fils naturel de Cromwell (1731—39, The Story of Mr. Cleveland, Natural Son of Cromwell, 8 vols.), again a resounding success; Le Doyen de Killerine, (1735—40, The Dean of Killerine, 4 vols.); and Histoire d'une Grecque moderne (1740, 2 vols., The Story of a Modern Greek). During much of this same period he was reporting from London and Paris on the English literary scene through his periodical Le Pour et Contre (For and Against).

The power of Manon Lescaut was due to its relative concision and the almost implausible but compelling passion of its noble hero, Des Grieux, for a fetching, mysterious and flighty commoner for whom he throws fortune and duty to the winds—a story which later inspired two major operas, Jules Massenet's Manon (1884) and Giacomo Puccini's Manon Lescaut (1893). Like many novels of the time, it justified its morally dubious action as a valuable lesson—vicarious experience, in other words—that could profit young people who might be subject to like temptations. It thus exemplifies the frequent moral ambiguity of the novel, which in contrast to tragedy sometimes descended into the less dignified realms—as Gil Blas had already done—of human experience. Its persuasive rhetoric, along with the protagonists' frequently unedifying conduct, were seen by some as a pernicious combination, unsuited for the young and perhaps for ladies as well (see DECORUM).

Marivaux, an outstanding dramatist, also practiced other genres, including the novel, of which he wrote several. The best known are La Vie de Marianne (1731—42, The Life of Marianne), the story of a winsome and shrewd orphan girl and Le Paysan parvenu (1734—35, The Fortunate Peasant), the big city adventures of a handsome and opportunistic peasant lad. Whereas Prévost's protagonists range throughout Europe and the Near East, these two novels—neither of which was ever completed—are thoroughly Parisian in orientation. Meanwhile, Crébillon, while creating his largest stir by way of political satire with Tanzaï et Néadarné (1734), also gave a big boost to what is sometimes called the “libertine” genre, dealing mostly with the dissolute lifestyle of young noblemen, with his 1736 novel (also uncompleted), Les Égarements du cœur et de l'esprit (The Wayward Head and Heart). Charles Duclos soon followed with his Confessions du comte de∗∗∗ (1741, Confessions of the Count of ∗∗∗), of which the title, like Crébillon's, suggests an eventual end to licentious and dissipated youth and a return to the more stable contentment of calmer affection. All of the novels of the 1730s just mentioned are fictional autobiographies (see LIFE WRITING).

Another form of first-person narrative, however, was soon to attain prominence, and Crébillon also helped promote it with Lettres de la marquise de M∗∗∗ au comte de R∗∗∗ (Letters from the Marquis of M∗∗∗ to the Count of R∗∗∗) in 1732. Like the prototype of the genre, Lettres portuguaises (1669, Portuguese Letters), attributed to Gabriel de Guilleragues, this novel consists of a series of letters by only one character (a variant labeled “monophonic”), the loved one either not responding or his letters not being transcribed; it is thus the perfect vehicle for the pathos of a woman who has been abandoned by her lover. The same form was adopted by Françoise de Graffigny in her 1747 bestseller, Lettres d'une Péruvienne (Letters from a Peruvian Woman), a tale told through the letters of a Peruvian princess who has been abducted and brought to France but never united (though they do once meet again) with her beloved Aza, who ends up in Spain instead of France and marries someone else. Another woman who wrote a number of highly popular letter-novels between 1757 and 1777 was Riccoboni.

But the range of the epistolary novel was about to expand exponentially. In 1754 Crébillon turned an interesting formal trick by his combination of narratives in Les Heureux Orphelins (The Happy Orphans). Though he started out to adapt Haywood's Fortunate Foundlings (1744), he soon diverged into an almost entirely different story with an unexampled hybrid structure: part one tells (in the third person) the adventure of the orphan Lucie, desperately fleeing first her own adoptive father and then the rake Lord Chester; in part two Madame de Suffolk relates to Lucie, now her companion, her own history of passion for and betrayal by the selfsame man; then in parts three and four it is Chester himself who, in a series of letters to a similarly unprincipled comrade in France, tells that very story once more, this time from his own, thoroughly jaded perspective. The various narrative forms thus embody complementary perspectives on events that largely overlap from one account to the next (see NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE).

Montesquieu had already suggested something of the dramatic possibilities of multiple exchanges of letters in Les Lettres persanes. In such a case, much of the action is incorporated within the letters themselves, one of the lines of influence being their illocutionary force, i.e., their intended effect upon the person addressed. The major event in this department was the publication and almost immediate translation into French of Samuel Richardson's first two novels, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Clarissa (1747—48). The latter, despite its stupendous length (5 vols.) almost all of which Prévost's translation retained, took the reading public by storm, and in the process helped usher in an era of highly emotional fiction that would ultimately extend all the way into nineteenth-century Romanticism.

By this time, even conservative literary critics were beginning to relax the old prejudice that held the novel to be an upstart genre lacking classical antecedents (see REVIEWING), and thus one that could not be measured alongside comedy, tragedy, history, and epic; in other words, that it could be little more than popular literature. It had long been argued by some that on the contrary the novel was nothing other than the modern extension of the classical epic genre. In any case, it did appeal to an ever-widening public, in part because there was a steady growth in literacy. The production of new novels in French ranged from five to twenty per year in the first decade of the eighteenth century, from fifteen to forty in the 1750s, and from twenty-nine to sixty-nine in the decade 1778—87. (This number shot up in the Revolutionary period, 1787—99, in large part because censorship lapsed for several years.) So it is no wonder that the novel constantly expanded its horizons along with its readership.

There were still obstacles to the writer's ability to earn a living exclusively as a novelist. One was the lack of protection for authors' rights (see COPYRIGHT), which were generally relinquished once a manuscript was sold to a bookseller for a fixed (and final) price. A second was an official prepublication CENSORSHIP apparatus, focused on political, moral, and religious values, to which all books legally published in France were subject. It varied in intensity over time but was sometimes very strict on novels in particular. Still another was the flourishing, although certainly illegal, market in pirated editions, which soaked up a larger portion of the profits the more popular a book became (see REPRINTS). There were significant numbers of readers of French, and also publishers and sellers of books written in French, throughout Europe—notably in Britain, in the Netherlands and in Germany—which made control of the trade difficult and the rules of any one country impossible to enforce. Place of publication was often falsely imprinted; contraband was active and efficient, and never returned any profit to the writer.

It was the now-popular epistolary format that characterized two French masterpieces of international stature. By the time Rousseau published Julie ou la nouvelle Héloïse (Julie or the New Héloïse.) he had already made a name for himself as a defiant social critic, so his novel was much awaited, and when it arrived in 1761 it inspired intense and widely divergent opinions. In it Julie d'Étange, the only daughter of a minor but proud Swiss baron, falls uncontrollably in love with her tutor (formally unnamed, but referred to at times by the pseudonym St. Preux), finally succumbing to his seductions. Their letters, along with those of Julie's cousin Claire, principally chronicle their long struggle first to express and justify their hopeless love and ultimately to sacrifice and overcome it once Julie has finally given in to an arranged marriage with an ageing military comrade of her father's. The dynamics of irrepressible passion in tension with societal and moral obligations is the engine of this complex work that, like Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, to which it was much compared, is based on powerful sexual and emotional needs but equally on an obsession with virtue. Julie remains, as one critic has put it, the greatest French novel of the eighteenth century, though not necessarily the best.

That title may just go instead to a work no less troubling than La nouvelle Héloïse, the 1782 succès de scandale that was Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons). Laclos proved himself, for one thing, an unequaled literary technician, by virtue not only of deft plot construction (see NARRATIVE STRUCTURE) but also of stylistic virtuosity. Whereas all of Rousseau's characters, though not wholly lacking in differentiation, speak a rather uniform sort of language, each character in the Liaisons has a distinctive personality and voice. More than most novelists, Laclos was prepared to defy conventional pretexts about the pedagogical benefits of the novel in order to denounce—he borrows his epigraph, “J'ai vu les mœurs de mon temps, et j'ai publié ces lettres” (“I have seen the morals of my times, and published these letters”) from Rousseau—what he saw as depravity on the part of elegant cynics who became, in effect, sexual predators on sincere but weaker prey. Thematically, his book thus has much in common with Les Égarements du cœur et de l'esprit, but it is more shrewdly designed, more cruel, and devastatingly complete in its plot resolution. Known today as much for its many celluloid versions as for its original text, Les Liaisons dangereuses remains one of the summits of intrigue and craftsmanship in the entire history of the novel.

Not that its contents were the most explicit with respect to graphic sensuality; it is indeed politely restrained in comparison to some of the period's pornography, a strain of literature which had been around since the printing press was invented. Some novels in this category had covertly attained legendary status, such as the (necessarily anonymous) Histoire de Dom Bougre, portier des chartreux (1741, The Story of Dom Bougre, Porter of the Carthusians) and Vénus dans le cloître ou la religieuse en chemise (1719, Venus in the Cloister, or the Nun in Her Chemise). As they defied many taboos, such works frequently also cloaked themselves in philosophical pretensions, which led to a certain degree of conflation of the designation romans philosophiques with flagrant impropriety (see PHILOSOPHICAL). This combination is quite deliberate in some instances, such as Thérèse philosophe (1748, Therese the Philosopher), attributed to Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, marquis d'Argens. On the other hand, there were still many lighter-hearted “libertine” novels of carefully calibrated decency, in particular Jacques de la Morlière's Angola, histoire indienne (1746, Angola, An Eastern Tale), a mixture of fairytale and social satire, à la Crébillon; Point de lendemain (1777, Never Again!) by Dominique Vivant Denon, a delirious and lush sexual fantasy; and Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvray's complex, rollicking Les Amours du chevalier de Faublas (1786—89, The Amours of the Chevalier de Faublas).

There was no French phenomenon quite equivalent to the great vogue of the gothic novel in Britain, but there were some works that explored the uncertain boundaries between the natural and the supernatural. One was a short work by Jacques Cazotte, Le Diable amoureux (1772, The Devil in Love), based on the conundrum of seduction by an otherworldly sprite in the form of a woman. It was however a Pole, Jean Potocki, who produced the hallucinatory blockbuster of the genre in Le Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse (1804—10, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa), the original French version of which has been pieced back together only very recently.

Donatien de Sade, who had many axes to grind, was happy to plug into that particular tradition with a vengeance, favoring lugubrious stories, often situated in monasteries, and filled with sexual and other, related kinds of violence. Though virtually unheard-of before the Revolution, the famous “marquis” could freely publish his works once press restrictions were lifted, at which time he released a series of famous and infamous novels such as Justine ou les malheurs de la vertu (1791, Justine; or, The Misfortunes of Virtue), La Philosophie dans le boudoir (1795, Philosophy in the Boudoir), Juliette (1787), Les Crimes de l'amour (1800, Crimes of Passion), and Les 120 Journées de Sodome (1904, One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom), which were to become underground classics for a century and a half until, in an era less obsessed with repressing pornography, Sade became, if not exactly a mainstream author, at least an acknowledged and significant novelist.

Diderot is nothing like Sade but was similarly unknown, insofar as his novelistic production was concerned, to all but a few before the 1790s. He flirted with exotic and erotic themes in Les Bijoux indiscrets (1748, The Indiscreet Jewels), but after an early stint in the prison at Vincennes, refrained from publishing virtually all of his substantive fiction. Yet he quietly penned three other wonderfully original novels, all published posthumously, that posterity would treasure: La Religieuse (1796, The Nun), the wrenching and pathetic story of a recalcitrant young nun struggling to break free; Le Neveu de Rameau (1805, Rameau's Nephew), an unabashed exploration of art and contemporary morality based on alternations of description and lively dialogue; and Jacques le fataliste (1796, Jacques the Fatalist), a whimsical, freewheeling novel dealing partly but not entirely, with chance and destiny, and also incorporating a good deal of highly entertaining dialogue.

Another eccentric and most energetic late-century novelist who has come to be valued at least by scholars is Nicolas-Edme Rétif de la Bretonne, who combined fiction with systematic inside reporting on everyday life, particularly in some of its most wretched manifestations. Le Paysan perverti (1775, The Corrupted Country-Boy) and La Paysanne pervertie (1784, The Corrupted Country-Girl)—pastiches of Marivaux's title—are his best-known works, alas too infrequently published. Indeed the scholarship since the 1950s has done much to rediscover or rehabilitate quite a few masterpieces of the eighteenth century, such as Claude-Joseph Dorat's Les Malheurs de l'inconstance (1772, The Fatal Effects of Inconstancy), a libertine novel into which an anti-libertine twist ultimately inserts itself. This surprising work set the stage in ways previously unsuspected for Les Liaisons dangereuses. Among the rediscoveries of this late period also figure Mémoires d'Anne de Gonzague, princesse palatine (1786—87, The Memoirs of Princess Anna Gonzaga) by Gabriel Sénac de Meilhan, several novels by Isabelle de Charrière—Lettres de Mistriss Henley (1784, Letters of Mistress Henley), Caliste ou continuation des “Lettres écrites de Lausanne” (1787, Caliste or The Further Letters from Lausanne), Lettres neuchâteloises (1783, Neuchâtel Letters)—and a number of works from the Revolutionary period, notably L'Émigré (1797, The Immigrant), also by de Meilhan, and Pauliska ou la perversité moderne (1798, Pauliska or The Modern Corruption) by Antoine Révéroni Saint-Cyr.

Thus a considerable change has taken place since about 1950, not only in the canon of the novel but in the range of the known and recognized works, which has mushroomed in that time. A century ago, Les Illustres Françaises was as forgotten as its author, who has by now reclaimed possession not only of that work but of his extensive travel and polemical writings as well. Crébillon, who used to be relegated to the status of secondary libertine writer—let alone de Sade—was mentioned only furtively; even Julie was accorded little serious critical attention in the context of Rousseau's major writings, and no woman novelist in the eighteenth century was considered to demand much more than honorable mention.

How different today! As in English literature, many novelists, including in particular a number of women, have been unearthed since the 1950s and restored to some of the stature and popularity they once enjoyed, giving them in some cases a visibility even enhanced by contemporary disciplinary perspectives such as structural narratology and women's studies (see STRUCTURALISM, GENDER). Several useful anthologies have helped to draw attention to a whole range of such works, among them Raymond Trousson's Romans de femmes du XVIIIe siècle (1996, Novels by Women of the Eighteenth Century) and Romans libertins du XVIIIe siècle (1993, Libertine Novels of the Eighteenth Century), Patrick Wald Lasowski's two-volume Romans libertins du XVIIIe siècle (2000—2005, Libertine novels of the Eighteenth Century), not to mention Michel Delon's editions of several of the writers mentioned above, and of the complete works of de Sade (1990—99).

It has been said that a first stage of Romanticism already begins with Rousseau, all the more so since he made the first documented use of the adjective romantique (romantic). His influence in this direction owes probably more to Émile, his treatise on education, than to his one novel. Romanticism is present full-blown in Bernardin de Saint Pierre's Paul et Virginie (1788), an idyllic but initially infantile love story set on a small island in the Indian Ocean, which turns to tragedy when the outside world disrupts its fragile but ageless harmonies. The author, very much a Rousseauist, first creates a world of almost prehistoric innocence, exempt from social vices and therefore filled with fraternal love and other supreme felicities, only to have it dashed by the onset of puberty, which seems to require that Paul and Virginie be separated at least for a while, and Virginie's great aunt summons her to France for some finishing. The vessel that returns her to Ile Maurice is within sight of the port when it sinks in a tempest, dragging Virginie down with it when modesty forbids her to shed her fatally billowing dress. The book's romantic themes and its pathos so suited the mood of the times that Paul and Virginie, like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774, The Sufferings of Young Werther), became icons throughout Europe of a new esthetic and a new vogue, almost impossible for us to imagine in an age that long preceded the often contrived hype of television and the internet.

Much had been achieved and everything changed by this time, and the novel was well established as a major, perhaps even the dominant, literary genre. Not until the efflorescence of the cinema would that position be seriously challenged.


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