JEAN FRANCOIS MARMONTEL
In that eighteenth century so dissolute and so corrupt, Jean Francois Marmontel stands out as one of the frank faces, one of the good natures, that rest the spirit and comfort the heart. Author of the graphic and charming pictures of French Sociey under Louis XV., known as the "Contes" and of the "Memoirs" was born at Bort, a small town of Limosin on the 11th day of July, 1723, and lived until the last day of the eighteenth century; he thus passed the seventy-seven years of his life, during one of the most eventful and interesting periods of European political and literary history, in contact with the remarkable persons of the age.
He is the son of a poor tailor of Bort, and by the nonentity of his social status seems destined to lead an obscure life. Happily he has a tender, intelligent, mentally distinguished mother. This excellent woman comprehends that her son has received from nature a felicitous bent for study; she does not shrink from the greatest sacrifices to aid in its development. She is at first seconded by an old priest, the Abbe Vaissiere, who instills the first rudiments of Latin into the child; then she places her son in the Jesuits' college at Mauriac to finish his studies there. Educated at the Jesuit College at Mauriac, he proceeded thence to their Academies at Clermont and Toulouse.
How difficult now is the life of this youth! Without money, Marmontel is obliged, in order to pay for his daily bread, to give private lessons to his more fortunate young schoolmates; finally he succeeds in obtaining an appointment as professor of philosophy with the Bernardins of Toulouse. Meanwhile he receives the tonsure. The Jesuits, keen appreciators of his talent, already seek to enroll their brilliant pupil in their order. They might have succeeded in their design, but a trivial incident occurs to ruin the project.
One day, when he is essaying literary production, Marmontel resolves to send to the Floral Games an ode, On The Invention of Gunpowder (his first literary production), which, contrary to his expectations, fails to win a prize and experiences the mortification which follows the non-appreciateion of merit. Vexed at this rebuff, he had the courage and good fortune to seek redress at the hands of his great countryman, Voltaire, by whom his worth was recognized. He writes to Voltaire, submitting his work to him, and complaining of "the horrible injustice of the Academy at Toulouse." The illustrious author, always kindly with beginners, consoles Marmontel, encourages him, sends him a copy of his own works and puts him in communication with Vauvenargues. Voltaire finally invites him to come to Paris, where he promises him the patronage of M. Orry, the controller-general.
The die is cast; Marmontel renounces the cassock and sets out for the capital. With fifty crowns in his pocket, he set out (1745) for that city, translating as he travelled Pope's "Rape of the Lock," which sold for a hundred crowns, and which became his first publication the year after his arrival. When he arrives and finds his protector fallen in disgrace, he esteems himself most fortunate to be accepted as tutor with one of the directors of the India Company.
During the next six years he occupied himself with the composition of a succession of tragedies -Dionysius the Tyrant (1748), his first tragedy, and it is played at the Comedie-Francaise. This piece, applauded by the public, brings Marmontel a success of another kind, which he was not dreaming of; for the fair damsel Navarre, mistress of Marshal Saxe falls in love with the author, carries him off, and goes to weave the warp and woof of perfect love with him in the depths of a village of Champagne. The caprice passes, for
"Woman's fickle as the air,
Mad is he who anchors there;"
Marmontel, deserted, returns to Paris, where he finds other consolations, - "the Clairon" first, then Mademoiselle Verrieres, another mistress whom he ravishes from Marshal Saxe.
At this period Marmontel turns his efforts specially to the stage, where he obtains the representation of Aristomenes (1749), Cleopatra (1750), Egyptus (1753), and The Hearcleids (1759).
Alone, despite Lebrun's celebrated epigram, ---
"At Cleopatra, it appears,
Such hisses rose that both at once
Audience and stage were hissing fierce;
And even the prompter, at the noise,
Prompted with hiss instead of words."
Cleopatra is the only one to attain a success of curiosity, because the public come to wonder at the automatic asp, which, hissing with a loud sound, darts at the bosom of the Queen of Egypt.
Once seen, the young provincial of Bort is quickly invited to the great life of Paris. Of tall stature, distinguished face, open mind, gracious spirit, and agreeable manners, he knows how to push himself and create useful friendships. He never misses any of the dinners of artists and men of letters, - those famous dinners where are gathered Vauvenargues, Fontenelle, Raynal, Helvetius, Buffon, J. J. Rousseau, Diderot, d'Alembert, etc. He has a place set for him at the "little suppers" of the Marquis de Duras, as at those of Mesdames du Deffand and de Tencin; and he is met at the little court of the Dauphin. In short, he is a lucky man.
Associated with Diderot and d'Alembert, he wrote a series of articles for the great "Encyclopaedia", evincing considerable critical power and insight, under the title of "Elements of Literature", amongst the higher French classics. This success, however, was not unalloyed with adversity, and his "Memoirs" contain particulars of the poverty and misery which at this time were his lot, From which even his prize poem upon the "Glory of the King" (King XV.) after the victory of Fontenoy, notwithstanding that it was sold under the auspices of Voltaire, did not rescue him. Some comic operas, the two besot of which are probably Sylvain and Zemire et Azore, were of greater service to him.
In 1753 he won the patronage of Madame de Pompadour, and by her favour was appointed by M. de Marigny the post of secretary to the Buildings Department. He was also employed by her to touch up dull poems, old plays, dedications, etc. Soon after he secures appointment as director of the Mercure, in which he had already commenced a series of attractive and elegant tales. These are the "Contes Moraux" alluded to above, upon which Marmontel's literary reputation mainly, according to some critics, rests. Their merit lies partly in their style, which in delicate finish frequently rivals that of his master, Voltaire, but mainly in their pictures of high life at that very interesting epoch. They were published in their entirety in 1761.
He then devoted all his activity to enhancing the prosperity of this journal, one of our most ancient periodicals, with which it was desired to create a fund for conferring pensions on literary men of slender means. Marmontel succeeds in surrounding himself with scholars who are eager to concur in establishing solidly an organ which has become in a sort of their common patrimony.
By certain critical heresies which raised a literary storm, and for awhile closed the doors of the Academy against him, he increased his reputation and name, and on the other hand opened the gates of the Bastille for his own reception on account of a parody of which he was not guilty, but sufficiently famous to bear the brunt. Unluckily he commits the imprudence of reciting at Madame Geoffrin's a stinging satire in which the Duc d'Aumont, first gentleman of the King's bedchamber, is badly mishandled. He had the manliness not to betray the author, although the imprisonment cost him his privilege of the Mercury. On d'Aumont's complaint, his Majesty has Marmontel thrown in the Bastille and his functions on the Mercure withdrawn from him.
This very short captivity (it only lasts twelve days) does not leave very painful memories in Marmontel's mind; for the governor of the Bastille treats his prisoner with the greatest regard, and regales him with exquisite cheer, - a delicate attention to which the writer, gourmand and gourmet, is very sensible.
Restored to liberty, the latter resumes his literary occupations; he contributes to the Encyclopaedia articles which, later collected in book form, revised and expanded, appear under the title Elements of Literature. At the same time be begins to write those Contes Moraux with which he creates in France a new literary species, that neighbours at the same time romance and poetry. During forty years he charms his contemporaries by facile tales, full of a sprightly grace, where civic courage sometimes glows; for, a partisan of the ideas of tolerance in what concerns religion, the author constitutes himself their champion in Belisarius. A chapter upon religious toleration incurred the censure of the Sorbonne and the Archbishops of Paris. Marmontel retorted in The Incas(two volumes), by tracing the cruelties in Spanish America to the religious fanaticism of the invaders.
In 1762 the Institute receives him into the number of the Forty Immortals; and twenty years later, after d'Alembert's death, the French Academy elects him its perpetual secretary. Marmontel is now rich and of high consideration. He has no longer, it would seem, anything to wish for. Nevertheless he takes the notion one day that his household is empty, and that a woman's presence would render his fireside more cheerful. He marries; he espouses Mademoiselle de Montigny, niece of Morellet, that caustic abbe' whom Voltaire called Mords-les (Bite-'Em).
This union is so happy that Marmontel does not understand how he can have remained so long a bachelor; but while he tastes with happiness the pure joys of the family, the great events which render the end of the eighteenth century unforgettable are hurrying forward more and more; and when the convocation of the States-General takes place, Marmontel stands for the department of the Eure, soliciting election as deputy. Beaten by his competitor Sieyes, he renounces the political career (1792). Soon he is alarmed at the rapid progress of the Revolution, which deprives him of his chief income, and overturns in France a monarchy many centuries old. He is compelled to retire into concealment and poverty, at first to Evreux (where he composed his "Memoirs", and finally takes refuge in a little village near Gaillon, where he buys a hut.
There, surrounded by his wife and his three sons, he leads the modest existence of a philosopher. How far is he then from the beauteous countesses, the enticing marchionesses of yore! What matters to him now the quarrel, in which he has taken so impassioned a part, of the Gluckists and Piccinists? Where are the Encyclopaedists, the fine suppers, the opera, the friendly conversations with the witty minds of the age? All that is for him, no more than a memory. Contrariwise, Marmontel draws up his Memories of a Father for his Children, and this task absorbs him utterly. In this work, his finest title to glory with posterity, he views for a second time his entire life; and at the same time that he captivates us by the thousand details of past existence, by the charming pictures traced with his elegant pen, he again fulfills his old official function of historiographer of France when he speaks to us of events in which he has mingled or which have passed under his eyes.
Marmontel, having been appointed historiographer of France, secretary to the Academy, 1783, and professor of history at the Lyscee, 1786, produced a "History of the Regency"; while his most successful and solid work is his "Elements of Literature, in 6 volumes in which his articles on Poetry and Literature, writen for the "Encyclopaedia" are included.
His most useful and valuable work, if not the greatest, is undoubtedly his "Memoirs." They contain a picturesque review of his whole life, a literary history of two important reigns, a great gallery of portraits extending from the venerable Massillion (whom more than half a century previously he had seen at Clermont) to the fiery Miraveau, amidst the tempestuous first years of the Revolution.
The revolutionary tempest calms itself little by little. But Marmontel, whom Bonaparte's first victories rejoice, sees only the beginning of the magnificent epic which is to overturn all Europe, and add an ineffaceable page to the history of France. Elected in 1797 to the Conseil des Anciens, he died stricken with apoplexy, on the very day on which the eighteenth century closes.
to return to French Revolution Index page
The Regency Lover's Cafe