1902 Encyclopedia > Prosper Merimée

Prosper Merimée
French dramatist, historian, archaeologist, and short story writer
(1803-70)




MERIMEE, PROSPER (1803-1870), novelist, archeologist, essayist, and in all these capacities one of the greatest masters of French style during the century, was born at Paris on September 28, 1803, and died at Cannes on the 23d of the same month sixty-seven years later, having lived just long enough to know that ruin was threatening France. Not many details have been published in reference to his family, but his father seems to have been a man of position and competence. Merimee had English blood in his veins on the mother's side, and was always considered, at least in France, to look and behave more like an Englishman than a Frenchman. He was educated for the bar, but entered the public service instead. A young man at the time of the romantic movement, he felt its influence strongly, though his peculiar temperament prevented him from joining any of the coteries of the period. This temperament was indeed exhibited by the very form and nature of the works in which he showed the influence of romanticism. Nothing was more prominent among the romantics than the fancy, as Merimee himself puts it, for "local colour," the more unfamiliar the better. Merimee exhibited this in an unusual way. In 1825 he published what purported to be the dramatic works of a Spanish lady, Clara Gazul, with a preface stating circumstantially how the supposed translator, one Joseph L'Estrange, had met the gifted poetess at Gibraltar. This was followed by a still more audacious and still more successful supercherie. In 1827 appeared a small book entitled La Guzla (the anagram of Gazul), and giving itself out as translated from the Illyrian of a certain Hyacinthe Maglanovich. This book, which has greater formal merit than Clara Gazul, is said to have taken in Sir John Bow-ring, a competent Slav scholar, the Russian poet Poushkin, and some German authorities, although not only had it no original, but, as Merimee declares, a few words of Illyrian and a book or two of travels and topography were the author's only materials. In the next year appeared a short dramatic romance, La Jacquerie, in which all Merimee's characteristics are visible - his extraordinary faculty of local and historical colour, his command of language, his grim irony, and a certain predilection for tragic and terrible subjects which was one of his numerous points of contact with the men of the Renaissance. This in its turn was followed by a still better piece, the Chronique de Charles IX., which stands towards the 16th century much as the Jacquerie does towards the Middle Ages. All these works were to a certain extent second-hand, being either directly imitated or prompted by a course of reading on a particular subject. But they exhibited all the future literary qualities of the author gave the two chiefest, his wonderfully severe and almost classical style, and his equally classical solidity and statuesqueness of construction. For the latter there was not much opportunity in their subjects, and the former required a certain maturity and self-discipline which Merimee had not yet given to himself. These were, however, displayed fully in the famous Corsican story of Coloinba, published in the momentous year 1830. This, all things considered, is perhaps Merimee's best tale.

He had already obtained a considerable position in the civil service, and after the revolution of July he was chef de cabinet to two different ministers. He was then appointed to the more congenial post of inspector of historical monuments. Melina& was a born archeologist, combining linguistic faculty of a very unusual kind with the accurate scholarship which does not always accompany it, with remarkable historical appreciation, and with a sincere love for the arts of design and construction, in the former of which he had some practical skill. In his official capacity he published numerous reports, some of which, with other similar pieces, have been republished in his works. He also devoted himself to history proper during the latter years of the July monarchy, and published numerous essays and works of no great length, chiefly on Spanish, Russian, and ancient Roman history. He did not, however, neglect novel writing during this period, and numerous short tales, almost without exception masterpieces, appeared, chiefly in the Revue de Paris. He travelled a good deal, both for his own amusement and on official errands ; and in one of his journeys to Spain, about the middle of Louis Philippe's reign, he made an acquaintance destined to influence his future life not a little - that of Madame de Montijo, mother of the future empress Eugenie. M6rimee, though in manner and language the most cynical of men, was a devoted friend, and shortly before the accession of Napoleon III. he had occasion to show this. His friend Libri was accused of having stolen valuable manuscripts and books from French libraries, and Merim6e took his part so warmly that he was actually sentenced to and underwent fine and imprisonment. He had been elected of the Academy in 1844, and also of the Academy of Inscriptions, of which he was a prominent member. Between 1840 and 1850 he wrote more tales, the chief of which were Arsene Guillot and Carmen..

The empire made a considerable difference in Merimde's life. He was not a very ardent politician, but all his sympathies were against democracy, and be had therefore no reason to object to the Bonapartist rule, especially as his habitual cynicism and his irreligious prejudices made legitimism distasteful to him. But the marriage of Napoleon III. with the daughter of Madame de Montijo at once enlisted what was always the strongest of Merimee's sympathies - the sympathy of personal friendship - on the emperor's side. He was made a senator, and continued to exercise his archeological functions ; but his most important role was that of a constant and valued private friend of both the "master and mistress of the house," as he calls the emperor and empress in his letters. Ile was occasionally charged with a kind of irregular diplomacy, and once, in the matter of the emperor's Caesar, he had to pay the penalty frequently exacted from great men of letters by their political or social superiors who are ambitious of literary reputation. But for the most part he was strictly the " ami de la maison." At the Tuileries, at Compiegne, at Biarritz, he was a constant though not always a very willing guest, and his influence over the empress was very considerable and was fearlessly exerted, though he used to call himself, in imitation of Scarron, "le bouffon de sa majeste." His occupations during the last twenty years of his life were numerous and important, though rather nondescript. He found, however, time for not a few more tales, of which more will be said presently, and for two correspondences, which are not the least of his literary achievements, while they have an extraordinary interest of matter. One of these consists of the letters which have been published as Lettres a une Inconnue, the other of the letters addressed to Sir Antonio Panizzi, the late librarian of the British Museum. Various, though idle and rather impertinent, conjectures have been made as to the identity of the inconnue just mentioned. It is sufficient to say that the acquaintance extended over many years, that it partook at one time of the character of love, at another of that of simple friendship, and that Mdrimde is exhibited under the most surprisingly diverse lights, most of them more or less amiable, and all interesting. The correspondence with Panizzi has somewhat less personal interest. Mdrimde made the acquaintance originally by a suggestion that his correspondent should buy for the Museum some MSS. which were in the possession of Stendhal's sister, and for some years it was chiefly confined to correspondence. But Mdrimde often visited England, where he had many friends (among whom the late Mr Ellice of Glengarry was the chief), and certain similarities of taste drew him closer to Panizzi personally, while during part of the empire the two served as the channel for a kind of unofficial diplomacy between the emperor and certain English statesmen. These letters are full of shrewd apercus on the state of Europe at different times. Both series abound in gossip, in amusing anecdotes, in sharp literary criticism, while both contain evidences of a cynical and Rabelaisian or Swiftian humour which was very strong in Merimee. This characteristic is said to be so prominent in a correspondence with another friend, which now lies in the library at Avignon, that there is but little chance of its ever being printed. A fourth collection of letters, of much inferior extent and interest, has been printed by M. Blaze de Bury under the title of Lettres a une autre Inconnue. In the latter years of his life Merimee suffered very much from ill health. It was necessary for him to pass all his winters at Cannes, where his constant companions were two aged English ladies, friends of his mother. The terrible year found him completely broken in health, and anticipating the worst for France. He lived long enough to see his fears realized, and to express his grief in some last letters, and he died on September 23, 1870.

Merimee's character (which has been unwarrantably slandered by those to whom political differences or his sarcastic intolerance of " pose " in literature made him obnoxious) was a peculiar and in some respects an unfortunate one, but by no means unintelligible, and perhaps in a minor degree not uncommon. Partly by temperament, partly it is said owing to some childish experience, when he discovered that he had been duped and determined never to be so again, not least owing to the example of Beyle, who was a friend of his family, and of whom be saw much, Merimee appears at a comparatively early age to have imposed upon himself as a duty the maintenance of an attitude of sceptical indifference and sarcastic criticism. He certainly succeeded. Although, as has been said, a man of singularly warm and affectionate feelings, he obtained the credit of being a cold-hearted cynic ; and, although he was both independent and disinterested, he was abused as a hanger-on and toad-eater of the imperial court. Both imputations were wholly undeserved, and indeed were prompted to a great extent by the resentment felt by his literary equals on the other side at the cool ridicule with which he met them. But he deserved in some of the bad as well as many of the good senses of the term the phrase which we have applied to him of a man of the Renaissance. He had the warm partisanship and amiability towards friends and the scorpion-like sting for his foes, he had the ardent delight in learning and especially in matters of art and belles lettres, he had the scepticism, the voluptnousness, the curious delight in the contemplation of the horrible, which marked the men of letters of the humanist period. Like them he was a man of the world, and a man who without any baseness liked a king's palace better than a philosopher's hovel. Like them lie had an acute judgment in matters of business, and like them a singular consciousness of the nothingness of things. Even his literary work has this Renaissance character. It is tolerably extensive, amounting to some seventeen or eighteen volumes, but its bulk is not great for a life which was not short, and which was occupied at least nominally in little else. About a third of it consists of the letters already mentioned, which will always be to those who delight in personal literature the most attractive part, and which, though in a fragmentary fashion, are really important as throwing side lights on history. Rather more than another third consists of the official work which has been already alluded to - reports, essays, short historical sketches, the chief of which latter is a history of Pedro the Cruel, and another of the curious pretender known in Russian story as the false Demetrius. Some of the literary essays, such as those on Beyle, on Turguenief, &c., where a personal element enters, are excellent. Against others and against the larger historical sketches - admirable as they are - M. 'Faille's criticism that theyy. want life has some force. They are, however, all marked by Merimee's admirable style, by his sound and accurate scholarship, his strong intellectual grasp of whatever he handled, his cool unprejudiced views, his marvellous faculty of designing and proportioning the treatment of his work. It is, however, in the remaining third of his work, consisting entirely of tales either in narrative or in dramatic form, and especially in the former, that his full power is perceived. He translated a certain number of things (chiefly from the Russian); but his fame does not rest on these, on his already-mentioned youthful supercheries, or on his later semi-dramatic works. There remain about a score of tales extending in point of composition over exactly forty years, and in length from that of Colomba, the longest, which fills about one hundred and fifty pages, to that of L'Enlevement de la Redottte, which fills just half a dozen. They are unquestionably the best things of their kind written during the century, the only nouvelles that can challenge comparison with them being the very best of Gautier, and one or two of Balzac. The motives are sufficiently different. In Colomba and Mateo Falcone, the Corsican point of honour is drawn on • in Carmen (written apparently after reading Borrow's Spanish books), the gipsy character ; in La Venus d' Me and Lokis (two of the finest of all), certain grisly superstitions, in the former case that known in a milder form as the ring given to Venus, in the latter a variety of the were-wolf fancy. Arsene Guillot is a singular satire full of sarcastic pathos on popular morality and religion ; La Chambre Bleue, an 18th-century conic, worthy of Crebillon for grace and wit, and superior to him in delicacy ; The Capture of the Redoubt just mentioned is a perfect piece of description ; L' Abbe Aubain is again satirical ; La Double Meprise (the authorship of which was objected to Nerimee when he was elected of the Academy) is an exercise in analysis strongly impregnated with the spirit of Stendhal, but better written than anything of that writer's. These stories, with his letters, assure Merimee's place in literature at the very head of the French prose writers of the century. He had undertaken an edition of Brantbme for the Bibliotheque Elzevirienne, but it was never completed.

Merimee's works have only been gradually published since his death. The latest, The Letters to Panizzi, which have also appeared in English, bears date 1881. There is as yet no uniform or handsome edition, but almost everything is obtainable in the collections of MM. Charpentier and Calmann Levy. (G. SA.)









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