« ForrigeFortsæt »
[Cornhili Magazine, March, 1870.]
ONE day, in the year 1687, a plain-featured, studious gentleman, something more than forty years of age, entered the shop of Michallet, the bookseller and publisher, at the corner of the Rue St. Jacques, in Paris-a place where he was often wont to lounge, sometimes turning over the leaves of new publications, sometimes amusing himself with the childish prattle of the bookseller's little daughter and drawing from his pocket a manuscript, offered it to the man of business across the counter, saying, “I don't know whether you will find it answer to publish this, but in case of success all the profits shall go to my little friend here." The book answered so well that eight editions appeared within the space of seven years.
Michallet's daughter arried in the course time, and had a handsome dowry.
We talk, at the present day, of “sensation" novels and “sensation” articles. Seldom was a more pungent sensation made by any literary concoction than by that of Les Caractères de Théophraste, avec les Caractères ou les Mæurs de ce Siècle, par M. Jean de la Bruyère,
*) La Comédie de La Bruyère. Par EDOUARD FOURRIER.
which was presented to the world under the circumstances aforesaid.
The work consisted of two parts: first, a translation of Theophrastus, the Greek satirist, introduced by a preface, containing some marked allusions to modern manners; secondly, a series of original maxims or aphorisms, and of characters or "portraits," representing different types of character. The novelty of the book consisted scarcely so much in its conception as in its execution. The manufacture of “maxims” had long been a favourite fashion in the polite world of France. Those curious in literary genealogies may trace it, in the first instance, from the Italian Guicciardini, after whose time it was naturalized in France by the two Corbinellis, and imitated by De Retz, La Rochefoucauld, Madame de Sablé, and numerous other beaux esprits, whose sententious observations on the motives and varieties of human action fill a considerable space in a Louis Quatorze library. Readers of Madame de Sévigné will readily remember the jokes bandied about between her and her daughter relative to “les belles maximes", so enthusiastically cried up by their friend Corbinelli the younger.
The portraits, again, with which La Bruyère's reflections were interspersed, were by no means a novel idea on his part. The romances of the Scudéry school had started the notion of describing existing personages under feigned names in a highflying romantic style; and Mdlle. de Montpensier, thirty years before the date of La Bruyère's book, had amused herself and her ladies, in one of her winter courts at Champigny, by giving a satirical turn and a distinct embodiment to the practice of mutual characterpainting. But the work now on Michallet's counter
exhibited a combination of maxims and portraits in a form unusually methodical and purpose-like, in a tone of peculiarly just, as well as pungent satire, and in a style whose admirable qualities, concise yet varied, philosophical yet sympathetic, playful and severe, pathetic and ludicrous by turns, at once claimed for it the high rank it has ever since held among French classics.
At once curiosity was alive; and scarcely had the book made its first impression on the mind of the public, when various "keys," or explanations, were put forth by unauthorised hands, professing to solve the riddles it had suggested. It became a universal theme of convertion. All were eager to make the first happy guess; all were bent on purchasing copies of the first edition, lest in a prudent fit the author should be induced to curtail his allusions in another. But, on the contrary, the success of his publication encouraged him, when, in the course of time, a third edition was called for, to enlarge it by the addition of no less than
"characters” and remarks. The key-makers were,
course, encouraged too; and their indiscreet explanations, as time went on, were no small annoyance to La Bruyère, who disowned, though he could not always absolutely deny, them. And now,
who whas the author in question ? this cunning gentleman, who glided about, making his notes on human frailties, and sketching the motley personages whom he encountered on the thoroughfares of Parisian life? He had given his name, and there was no mystery about him. He might be seen any fine day issuing from the stately hotel which, occupying the present side of the Odéon, &c., at the north-east corner of the Luxembourg Palace, was, in those days, the town resi
15 English Essays III.
dence of the Prince de Condé; thence wending his way to Michallet's bookshop in the adjacent street, or planting himself under a certain chestnut-tree in the Luxembourg Gardens, there to listen to the quidnuncs who spent their time in hashing up the daily provender for the Mercure Galant. But he was not one of those whom court fame delighted to honour, and the beau monde of the brilliant capital were content to let him pass. In truth it has scarcely ever happened that a writer, whose work has attained such very great contemporary celebrity as that of La Bruyère, has been so little described or remembered in respect of his personal character and history. What enhances the anomaly in his case is, that at the period when he wrote, the genius of gossip was at its highest flow in France; he himself lived in a particularly conspicuous coterie; and moreover, the nature of his literary performance, while it dealt entirely with the foibles of his fellow-creatures, exposed him to their revengeful criticism in return. The ordinary account of La Bruyère to be found in biographical dictionaries, is not only very meagre, but is full of mistakes. Neither the year nor the place of his birth are stated with accuracy, and the salient fact of his life, that he was tutor to the Duc de Bourbon, grandson of the great Condé, is misconstrued into the assertion that he was tutor to the Duke of Burgundy, grandson of Louis XIV. The significance of the mistake in his case happens to be very great; the mistake itself probably arose partly from ignorance or fortgetfulness of the circumstance that “M. le Duc,” the Duke par excellence, was a title belonging to the eldest son of “M. le Prince,” i. e. the Prince of Condé, and not to the Dauphin's son, who,
though in the line of direct descent from the Crown, was only “M. le Duc de Bourgogne;" partly, also,
, from the fact that, for a short time under Bossuet, La Bruyère did aid in the education of the Dauphin himself.
The maximes and „portraits" of the ,, ingenious M. la Bruyère“ were much read and imitated by our own moralists of the Augustan age; but no curiosity seems to have been felt about the writer, until the modern passion for retrospective research has thrown certain able French critics on his track. The hints of M. Jal, M. Ste. Beuve, and others, have been diligently gathered up by M. Edoard Fourrier, who also, by his independent researches among contemporary authorities, has thrown original light on the subject. In taking his work for our guide as to facts and incidents, we shall make it our endeavour to bring out some main features of the connection between the character of La Bruyère's work and the circumstances of his position.
But a general criticism of Les Caractères is beyond our beat.
We can only recommend that those who are already familiar with its pages should read them over again, with the light of the biographical relations here suggested; and that those who may have been hitherto deterred from perusing the book under the impression that it was old-fashioned and dull, should speedily make acquaintance with one of the brightest literary productions of the age of Pascal and Molière, and one of the best examples of French style that even our owu age could imitate.
The author was born in the year 1645, in the old city of Paris, in the vicinity of the towers of Notre Dâme. His family belonged to the bourgeoisie, and had been staunch adherents of the League in the time