1902 Encyclopedia > Charles Perrault

Charles Perrault
French author of fairy tales and participant in Quarrel of Ancients and Moderns

CHARLES PERRAULT, (1628-1703), the most prominent author of France in a specially French kind of literature—the fairy tale—and one of the chief actors.in the famous literary quarrel of ancients and moderns, was born at Paris on 12th January 1628. His father, Pierre Perrault, was a barrister, all whose four sons were men of some distinction,—Claude, the second, who was first a physician and then an architect, being the best known next to Charles the youngest. The latter was brought up at the College de Beauvais, until he chose to quarrel with his masters, after which (an incident rather rare at the time when patriarchal government of families was in full fashion) he was allowed to follow his own bent in the way of study. He took his degree of "licencié en droit" at Orleans in 1651, and was almost immediately called to the Paris bar, where, however,- he practised for a very short time. In 1654 his father bought himself the post of receiver-general at Paris, and made Charles his clerk. After nearly ten years of this employment he was, in 1663, chosen by Colbert as his secretary in a curious and not easily describable office. Put shortly, Perrault's duties were to assist and advise the minister in matters relating to the arts and sciences, not forgetting literature. The protection of Colbert procured a place in the Académie Française for his protégé in 1671, and Perrault justified his election in several ways. One was the orderly arrange-ment of the business affairs of the Academy, another was the suggestion of the custom (which more than anything else has given the institution a hold on the French public) of holding public seances for the reception of candidates. Colbert's death in 1683 put an end to Perrault's official career, but even before that event he had experienced the morose and ungenerous temper which was the great draw-back of that very capable statesman. He now gave himself up to literature, in which, like most men of his time, he had made some experiments already. The famous dispute of ancients and moderns is said to have arisen in consequence of some words used by Perrault in one of the regular academic discourses, on which Boileau, with his usual rudeness, commented in violent terms. Perrault, though a very good-natured man, had ideas and a will of his own, and the Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes, which appeared between 1688 and 1696, was the result. The well-known controversy that followed in its train raged hotly in France, passed thence to England, and in the days of La Motte and Fénelon broke out again in the country of its origin. As far as Perrault is concerned, he was inferior to his adversaries in learning, but decidedly superior to them in wit. It is not known what, except the general popularity of the fairy tale in the last decade of the century, drew Perrault to the composition of the only works of his which are still read. The first of them, Griselidis, which is in verse, appeared in 1691, Peau d'Ane and Les Souhaits Ridicules, also in verse, in 1694. But Perrault was no poet, and the merit of these pieces is entirely obscured by that of the prose tales, La Belle au Bois Dormant, Petit Chaperon Rouge, La Barbe Bleue, Le Chat Botté, Les Fées, Cendrillon, Biquet à la Houppe, which, after being published in a miscellany during 1696 and 1697, appeared in a volume with the last-named year on the title-page, and with the general title of Histoires du Temps Passé. No criticism of these famous productions is necessary, and it is scarcely less superfluous to observe that Perrault has no claim to the invention of the subjects. His merit is that he has treated them with a literary skill in adapting style to matter which cannot possibly be exceeded. Of his other work some Mémoires and academic Éloges need alone be mentioned. He died on 16th May 1703.

Except the tales, Perrault's works have not recently been re-printed. Of the tales the best recent editions are those of Giiaud (Lyons, 1865) and Lefévre (Paris, 1875).

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