1902 Encyclopedia > France > 18th Century French History (18th Century Historical Writing)

(Part 61)


18th Century History (18th Century Historical Writing)

It is not, however, in any of the departments of belles lettres that the real eminence of the 18th century as a time of literary production in France consists. In all serious branches of study its accomplishments were, in a literary point of view, remarkable, uniting as it did an extraordinary power of popular and literary expression with an ardent spirit of inquiry, a great speculative ability, and even a far more considerable amount of laborious erudition than is generally supposed. The popular and rather desultory character of many of these researches and speculations makes it somewhat difficult to arrange them in an orderly fashion under the heads of separate departments of science. Historical, theological, metaphysical, physical, economical, political, and moral speculations confuse themselves constantly in the same author, and very often in the same work, and any division that can be adopted must be almost of necessity in many respects a cross division. The advantages, however, of maintaining some sort of order are so unmistakable that we shall continue to observe the arrangement hitherto adopted. The historical studies and results of the 18th century speculation in France are of especial and peculiar importance. There is no doubt that what is called the science of history dates from this time, and though the beginning of it is usually assigned to the Italian Vico, its complete indication may perhaps with equal or greater justice be claimed by the Frenchman Turgot. Before Turgot, however, there were great names in French historical writing, and perhaps the greatest of all is that of Montesquieu (1689-1755). The three principal works of this great writer are all historical and at the same time political in character. In the Lettres Persanes he handled, with wit inferior to the wit of no other writer even in that witty age, the corruptions and dangers of contemporary morals and politics. The literary charm of this book—the plan of which was suggested by a work of Dufresny (1648-1724), a comic writer not destitute of merit—is very great, and its plan was so popular as to lead to a thousand imitations, of which all, except those of Voltaire and Goldsmith, only bring out the immense superiority of the original. Few things could be more different from this lively popular book than Montesquieu’s next work, the Grandeur et Decadence des Romains, in which the same acuteness an knowledge of human nature are united with considerable erudition, and with a weighty though perhaps somewhat grandiloquent and rhetorical style. His third and greatest work, the Esprit des Lois, is again different both in style and character. Its defect is too hasty and sweeping generalization on facts insufficiently collected and observed. But this defect is as nothing as compared with the merits of its fertility in ideas, its splendid breadth of view, and the felicity with which the author, in a manner unknown before, recognizes the laws underlying complicate assemblages of fact which had up to that time been considered as connected only by the hazards of fate or by arbitrary causes. The style of this great work is equal to its substance ; less light than that of the Letters, less rhetorical than that of the Grandeur des Romains, it is still a marvellous union of dignity and wit. Around Montesquieu, partly before and partly after him, is a group of philosophical or at least systematic historians, of whom the chief are Dubos (1670-1742), Boulainvilliers (1658-1722), and Mably (1709-1785). Dubos, whose chief work is not historical but aesthetic (Réflexions sur la Poésie et la Peinture), wrote a so-called Histoire Critique de l’Établissement de la Monarchie Française, which is as far as possible from being in the modern sense critical, inasmuch as, in the teeth of history, and in order to exalt the Tiers État, it pretends an amicable coalition of Franks and Gauls, and not an irruption by the former. Boulainvilliers, on the other hand, maintained the rights of the nobility in virtue and as a consequence of the Frankish conquest. Mably (Observatoins sur l’Hitoire de la France) had a much greater influence than either of these writers, and a decidedly mischievous one, especially at the period of the Revolution. He more than any one else, is responsible for the ignorant and childish extolling of Greek and Roman institutions, and the still more ignorant depreciation of the Middle Ages, which was for a time characteristic of French politicians. Montesquieu was, as we have said, followed by Turgot (1727-1781), whose writings are few in number, and not remarkable for style, but full of original thought. Turgot in his turn was followed by Comdorcet (1743-1794), whose tendency is somewhat more sociological than directly historical. Towards the end of the period, too, a considerable number of philosophical histories were written, the usual object of which was, under cover of a kind of allegory, to satirize and attack the existing institutions and government of France. The most famous of these was the Histoire des Indes, nominally written by the Abbé Raynal (1711-1796), but really the joint work of many members of the Philosophe but really the joint work of many members of the Philosophe partly, especially Diderot. Side by side with this really or nominally philosophical school of history there existed another and less ambitious school, which contented itself with the older and simpler view of the science. The Abbé de Vertot (1655-1735) belongs almost as much to the 17th as to the 128th century ; but his principal works, especially the famous Histoire des Chevaliers de Malte, date from the later period, as do also the Révolutions Romaines. Vertot is above all things a literary historian, and the well-known
"Mon siége est fait," whether true or not, certainly expresses his system. Of he same school, though far more comprehensive, was the laborious Rollin (1661-1741), whose works in the original or translated were long the chief historical manuals of Europe. In the same class, too, far superior as is his literary, power, must be ranked the historical works of Voltaire, Charles XII., Pierre le Grand, &c. A very perfect example of the historian who is literary first of all is supplied by Rulhière (1735-1791) whose Révolution en Russie en 1762 is one of the little masterpieces of history, while his larger and posthumous work on the last days of the Polish kingdom exhibits perhaps some of the defects of this class of historians. Lastly must be mentioned the memoirs and correspondence of the period, the materials of history if not history itself. The century opened with the most famous of all of these, the memoirs of the Duc de St Simon (1678-1775), an extraordinary series of pictures of the court of Louis XIV. and the Regency, written in an unequal and incorrect style, but with something of the irregular excellence of the great 16th century writers, and most striking in the sombre bitterness of its tone. The subsequent and less remarkable memoirs of the century are so numerous that it is almost impossible to select a few for reference, and altogether impossible to mention all. Of those bearing on public history the memoirs of De Stall, of D’Argenson, of Duclos, of Weber, of Madame de Genlis, of Bésenval, of Madame Campan, may perhaps be selected for mention ; of those bearing on literary and private history, the memoirs of Madame d’Epinay, and the innumerable writings having reference to Voltaire and to Philosophe party generally. Here, too, may be mentioned a remarkable class of literature, consisting purely private and almost confidential letters, which were written at this time with very remakable literary excellence. As specimens may be selected those of Mademoiselle Aissé (1693-1733), which are models of easy and unaffected tenderness, and those of Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, the companion of Madame du Deffand and afterwards of D’Alembert. These latter, in their extraodrinary fevour and passion, not merely contrast strongly with the generally languid and frivolous gallantry of the age, but constitute one of its most remarkable literary monuments. It has been said of them that they "burn the paper," and the expression is not exaggerated. While the imaginative works of the period were quite unable, with perhaps the exception of Manon Lescaut and the Nouvelle Héloise to express depth or heat of passion, these letters, written straight from the heart, equal anything that poet or novelist has ever elaborated. Of lighter letters the charming correspondence of Diderot with Mademoiselle Voland deserves special mention. But the correspondence, like the memoirs of this century, defies justice to be done to it in any cursory or limited mention. In this connexion, however, it may be well to mention some of the most remarkable works of the time, the Confessions, Rêveries, and Promenades d’un Solitaire of Rousseau. In these work, especially in the Confessions, there is not merely exhibited passion as fervid though perhaps less unaffected than that of Mademoiselle de Lespinasse,—there appear in them two literary characteristics which, if not entirely novel (no literary characteristic is ever entirely novel), were for the first time brought out deliberately by powers of the first order, were for the first time made the mainspring of literary interest, and thereby set an example which for more than a century has been persistently followed, and which has produced some of the finest results of modern literature. The first of these was the elaborate and unsparing analysis and display of the motives, the weaknesses, and the failings of individual character. This process, which Rousseu unflinchingly performed on himself, has been followed usually in respect to fictitious characters by his successors. Up to his time character-handling had been mainly abandoned to the dramatist, the satirist, the historian, the moralist, and the preacher, whose purposes led them to use bright or dark colours, bold outlines, and strongly contrasted lights and shades. Rousseau set the example of drawing a character in all its complexity, of showing the mixture of meanness and nobleness, and the intricate processes which lead to the commission of acts the simplest in appearance. The other novelty was the feeling for natural beauty and the elaborate description of it, he credit of which latter must, it has been agreed by all impartial critics, be assigned rather to Rousseau than to any other writer. His influence in this direction was, however, soon taken up and continued by Bernardin de St Pierre, some of works have been already alluded to. In sentiment as well as in literary history Bernardin de St Pierre is the connecting link between Rousseau and Chateaubriand, and thus occupies a position of considerable interest. In particular the author of Paul et Virginie set himself to develop the example of description which Rousseau had set, and his word-paintings, though less powerful than those of his model, are more abundant, more elaborate, and animated by a more amiable spirit.

Read the rest of this article:
France - Table of Contents

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries