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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Among the former the Memoires of Mdlle


The life of the time is seen in many memoirs, and in the correspondence of many distinguished persons, both men and women. Among the former the _Memoires_ of Mdlle. Delaunay, afterwards Mme. de Staal (1684-1750) are remarkable for the vein of melancholy, subdued by irony, underlying a style which is formed for fine and clear exactness. The Duchesse du Maine's lady-in-waiting, daughter of a poor painter, but educated with care, drew delicately in her literary art with an etcher's tool, and her hand was controlled by a spirit which had in it something of the Stoic. The _Souvenirs_ of Mme. de Caylus (1673-1729), niece of Mme. de Maintenon--"jamais de creature plus seduisante," says Saint-Simon--give pictures of the court, charming in their naivete, grace, and mirth. Mme. d'Epinay, designing to tell the story of her own life, disguised as a piece of fiction, became in her _Memoires_ the chronicler of the manners of her time. The society of the _salons_ and the men of letters is depicted in the Memoirs of Marmontel. These are but examples from an abundant literature constantly augmented to the days of Mme. de Campan and Mme. Roland. The general aspect of the social world in the mid-century is presented by the historian Duclos (1704-1772) in his _Considerations sur les Moeurs de ce Siecle_, and with reparation for his previous neglect of the part played in society by women in his _Memoires pour servir a l'Histoire du XVIIIe Siecle_.

As much or more may be learnt from the letter-writers as from the writers of memoirs. If Voltaire did not take the first place by his correspondence, so vast, so luminous, so comprehensive, it might justly be assigned to his friend Mme. du Deffand (1697-1780), whose lucid intelligence perceived everything, whose disabused heart seemed detached until old age from all that most interested her understanding. For clear good sense we turn to the Marquise de Lambert, for bourgeois worth and kindliness to Mme. Geoffrin, for passion which kindles the page to Mdlle. de Lespinasse, for sensibility and romance ripening to political ardour and strenuous convictions to Mme. Roland. Among the philosophers Diderot pours the torrent, clear or turbid, of his genius into his correspondence with affluent improvisation; D'Alembert is grave, temperate, lucid; the Abbe Galiani, the little Machiavel--"a pantomime from head to foot," said Diderot--the gay Neapolitan punchinello, given the freedom of Paris, that "capital of curiosity," is at once wit, cynic, thinker, scholar, and buffoon. These, again, are but examples from an epistolary swarm.

While the eighteenth century thus mirrored itself in memoirs and letters, it did not forget the life of past centuries. The studious Benedictines, who had already accomplished much, continued their erudite labours. Nicolas Freret (1688-1749), taking all antiquity for his province, illuminated the study of chronology, geography, sciences, arts, language, religion. Daniel and Velly narrated the history of France. Vertot (1655-1735), with little of the spirit of historical fidelity, displayed certain gifts of an historical artist. The school of scepticism was represented by the Jesuit Hardouin, who doubted the authenticity of all records of the past except those of his own numismatic treasures. Questions as to the principles of historical certitude occupied the Academy of Inscriptions during many sittings from 1720 onwards, and produced a body of important studies. While the Physiocrats were endeavouring to demonstrate that there is a natural order in social circumstances, a philosophy of history, which bound the ages together, was developed in the writings of Montesquieu and Turgot, if not of Voltaire. The _Esprit des Lois_, the _Essai sur les Moeurs_, and Turgot's discourses, delivered in 1750 at the Sorbonne, contributed in different degrees and ways towards a new and profounder conception of the life of societies or of humanity. By Turgot for the first time the idea of progress was accepted as the ruling principle of history. It cannot be denied that, as regards the sciences of inorganic nature, he more than foreshadowed Comte's theory of the three states, theological, metaphysical, and positive, through which the mind of humanity is alleged to have travelled.


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