1902 Encyclopedia > Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon

Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon
French soldier, diplomatist and writer of memoirs
(1675-1755)




LOUIS DE ROUVRAY (or ROUVROY), DUC DE SAINT-SIMON (1675-1755), was born at Versailles on 16th January 1675. He was the son of Claude de Saint-Simon, who represented a family which had been established for many centuries at La Forte Vidame, between Mortagne and Dreux, and which claimed descent from Charlemagne. Claude de Saint-Simon had been a page of Louis XIII., and, gaining the king's favour as a sportsman, had received various preferments and was finally created due et pair. This peerage is the central fact in Saint-Simon's history, and it is impossible to understand him without under-standing it. To speak, as one of his few biographers in English has spoken, of " a young duke of recent creation," and of the apparent absurdity of such a young duke taking the aristocratic views which characterized Saint-Simon through life, is to show the most deplorable ignorance of the facts. The French peerage under the old regime was a very peculiar thing, difficult to comprehend at all, but quite certain to be miscomprehended if any analogy of the English peerage, such as is implied in the observation just quoted, is imported into the consideration. No two things could be more different in France than ennobling a man and making him a peer. No one was made a peer who was not ennobled, but men of the noblest blood in France and representing their houses might not be, and in most cases were not, peers. Derived at least traditionally and imaginatively from the denize pairs of Charlemagne, the peers were supposed to represent the chosen of the noblesse, and gradually, in an indefinite and constantly disputed fashion, became associated with the parlement of Paris as a quasi-legislative (or at least law-registering) and directly judicial body. But the peerage was further com-plicated by the fact that not persons but the holders of certain fiefs were made peers. Strictly speaking, neither Saint-Simon nor any one else in the same case was made a peer, but his estate was raised to the rank of a duche pairie or a comte pairie as the case might be. If all analogies were not deceptive, the nearest idea of a French peerage of the old kind may be obtained by an English reader if he takes the dignity of a Scotch or Irish representative peer, then supposes that dignity to be made hereditary, and then limits the heritableness of it not merely to descent but to the tenure in direct succession of certain estates. It must of course be understood that the peers were hot elected but nominated. Still they were in a way a standing committee representative of the entire body of hobles, and it was Saint-Simon's lifelong ideal and at times his practical effort to convert them into a sort of great council of the nation. These remarks are almost indispensable to illustrate his life, to which we may now return. His mother, Claude de Saint-Simon's second wife, was Charlotte de l'Aubespiue, who belonged to a family not of the oldest nobility but which had been distinguished in the public service at least since the time of Francis I. Her son Louis was well educated, to a great extent by her-self, and he had had for godfather and godmother no less persons than Louis XIV. and the queen. After some tuition by the Jesuits (especially by Sanadon, the editor of Horace), he betook himself in 1692, at the age of seventeen, to the career of arms, entering the mousquetaires gris. He was present at the siege of Namur, and next year his father died. He still continued in the army and was present at the battle of Neerwinden. But it was at this very time that he chose to begin the crusade of his life by instigating, if not bringing, an action on the part of the peers of France against Luxembourg, his victorious general, on a point of precedence. He fought, however, another campaign or two (not under Luxembourg), and in 1695 married Gabrielle de Durfort, daughter of the maréchal de Lorges, under whom he latterly served. He seems to have regarded her with a respect and affection not very usual between husband and wife at the time ; and she sometimes succeeded in modifying his aristocratic crotchets. But as he did not receive the promotion he desired he flung up his commission in 1702. Louis, who was already becoming sensitive on the point of military ill-success, and who was not likely to approve Saint-Simon's litigiousness on points of privilege, took a dislike to him, and it was only indirectly and by means of establishing interest with the dukes of Burgundy and Orleans that he was able to keep something of a footing at court. He was, however, intensely interested in all the transactions of Versailles, and by dint of a most heterogeneous collection of instru-ments, ranging from dukes to servants, he managed to obtain the extraordinary secret information which he has handed down to us about almost every event and every per-sonage of the last twenty years of the "grand monarque." His own part appears to have been entirely subordinate. He was appointed ambassador to Rome in 1705, but the appointment was cancelled before he started. At last he attached himself to the duke of Orleans and, though this was hardly likely to conciliate Louis's good will to him, it gave him at least (what was of the first importance in that intriguing court) the status of belonging to a definite party, and it eventually placed him in the position of tried friend to the acting chief of the state. He was able, more-over, to combine attachment to the duke of Burgundy with that to the duke of Orleans. Both attachments were no doubt all the more sincere because of his undying hatred to "the bastards," that is to say, the illegitimate sons of Louis XIV. It does not appear that this hatred was founded on moral reasons or on any real fear that these bastards would be intruded into the succession. The true cause of his wrath was that they had precedence of the peers.

The death of Louis seemed to give Saint-Simon a chance of realizing his hopes. The duke of Orleans was at once acknowledged regent and Saint-Simon was of the council of regency, but no steps were taken to carry out his favourite vision of a France ruled by the nobles for its good (it must always be understood that Saint-Simon's ideal was in no respect an aristocratic tyranny except of the beneficent kind), and he had little real influence with the regent. He was indeed gratified by the degradation of "the bastards," and in 1721 he was appointed ambassador to Spain to arrange for the marriage (not destined to take place) of Louis XVi and the infanta. His visit was splendid ; he received the grandeeship, and, though he also caught the smallpox, he was quite satisfied with the business. After his return he had little to do with public affairs. His own account of the cessation of his intimacy with Orleans and Dubois, the latter of whom had never been his friend, is, like his own account of some other events of his life, obscure and rather suspicious. But there can be little doubt that he was practically ousted by the favourite. He survived for more than thirty years ; but little is known of his life. His wife died in 1743, his eldest son a little later ; he had other family troubles, and he was loaded with debt. When he died, at Paris on 2d March 1755, he had almost entirely outlived his own generation (among whom he had been one of the youngest) and the prosperity of his house, though not its notoriety. This last was in strange fashion revived by a distant relation born five years after his own death, Claude Henri, Comte de Saint-Simon, the subject of the preceding article.





It will have heen observed that the actual events of Saint-Simon's life, long as it was and high as was his position, are neither very numerous nor very noteworthy. If nothing more had been known about him than was known at the time of his death he would certainly not have deserved mention at length here. Saint-Simon is, however, an almost unique example of a man who has acquired great literary fame entirely by posthumous publications. He was an indefatigable writer, and not merely from the time he left the army but much earlier he began to set down in black and white all the gossip he collected, all his interminable legal disputes of precedence, and a vast mass of unclassified and almost unclassifi-able matter. Most of his manuscripts came into the possession of the Government, and it was long before their contents were published in anything like fulness. Extracts and abstracts, however, leaked out and parts of the manuscript were sometimes lent to privileged persons, so that some notion of the unique value of Saint-Simon got abroad within twenty or thirty years of his death. Partly in the form of notes on Dangeau's Journal, partly in that of original and independen t memoirs, partly in scattered and multifarious tracts and disquisitions, he had committed to paper an amount of matter which has probably never been exceeded by any one except a professional journalist, if indeed the parallel will hold even there. The new edition now publishing of the Memoirs with the notes on Dangeau is estimated to contain thirty large octavo volumes. Besides this, M. Drumont, M. Eaugère, and other in-dependent workers are bringing out series of Œuvres Inédites of a less gossiping and more technical character found in different re-ceptacles of the public archives. But the mere mass of these pro-ductions is their least noteworthy feature, or rather it is most remarkable as contrasting with their character and style. The voluminous writer is usually thought of as least likely to be characterized by an original and sparkling style. Saint-Simon, though careless and sometimes even ungrammatical, ranks among the most striking memoir writers of France, the country richest in memoirs of any in the world. His pettiness, his absolute injustice to his private enemies and to those who espoused public parties with which he did not agree, the bitterness which allows him to give favourable portraits of hardly any one, his omnivorous appetite for gossip, his lack of proportion and perspective, are all lost sight of in admiration of his extraordinary genius for historical narrative and character-drawing of a certain sort. He has been compared to Tacitus, and for once the comparison, so often made and generally so ludicrously out of place, is just. In the midst of his enormous mass of writing phrases scarcely inferior to the Roman's occur frequently, and here and there passages of sustained description equal for intense concentration of light and life to those of Tacitus or of any other historian. As may be expected from the vast extent of his work, it is in the highest degree unequal. But he is at the same time not a writer who can be "sampled" easily, inasmuch as his most characteristic phrases sometimes occur in the midst of long stretches of quite uninteresting matter. Hence he has been even since his discovery more praised than read, and better liked by critics than by the general reader. A few critical studies of him, especially those of Sainte-Beuve, are in fact the basis of much, if not most, that has been written about him. Yet no one is so little to be taken at second-hand. Even his most famous passages, such as the account of the death of the dauphin or of the bed of justice where his enemy the duke of Maine was degraded, will not give a fair idea of his talent. These are his gallery pieces, his great "machines," as French art slang calls them. Much more noteworthy as well as more frequent are the sudden touches which ho gives. The bishops are "cuistres violets"; M. de Caumartin " porte sous son manteau toute la fatuité que M. de Yilleroy étale sur son baudrier"; another politician has a "mine de chat fâché"; a third is hit off as "comptant faire" ("he would still be doing," though Saint-Simon certainly did not know that phrase). In short, the interest of the Memoirs, independent of the large addition of positive knowledge which they make, is one of constant surprise at the novel and adroit use of word and phrase. It is not super-fluous to inform the English reader that some of Macaulay's most brilliant portraits and sketches of incident are adapted and some-times almost literally translated from Saint-Simon.

The 1st edition of Saint-Simon (some scattered pieces may have been printed before) appeared in 1788. It was a mere selection in three volumes and was much cut down before it was allowed to appear. Next year four more volumes made their appearance, and in 1791 a new edition, still further increased. The whole, or rather not the whole, was printed in 1S29-30 and reprinted some ten years later. The real creator of Saint-Simon, as far as a full and exact text is concerned, was M. Chéruel, whose edition in 20 volumes dates from 1856 and was reissued again revised in 1872. So immense, however, is the mass of Saint- Simon's MSS. that still another recension has been found necessary, and is now being published by M. de Boislisle in the series of Grands Écrivains, but with M. Cheruel's sanction and assistance. Even this, as above noted, will not ex- haust available Saint-Simoniana, and it may be doubted whether it will be possible for many years to place a complete edition on the shelves. It must, however, be admitted that the matter other than the Memoirs is of altogether inferior interest and may be pretty safely neglected by any one but professed antiquarian and historical students. For criticism on Saint-Simon there is nothing better than Sainte-Beuve's two sketches in the 3d and 15th volumes of the Causeries du Lundi. The latter was written to accompany M. Cheruel's 1st edition. In English by far the most accurate treatment is in a recent Lothian prize essay by E. Caiman (Oxford and London, 1885). (G. SA.)






The above article was written by: George Saintsbury.



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