From Gautier to Eliot The Influence of France on English Literature, 1851-1939
From Gautier to Eliot The Influence of France on English Literature, 1851-1939 – 236 pages- Publisher: Hutchinson- Place of publication: London – Publication year: 1960 – Contributors: Enid Starkie




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It is difficult to do justice to the subject of this monograph within such restricted limits. It is not possible to deal with the whole of French and English literature during the period, and so only those writers are studied who indubitably gained something from their connection and sympathy with France, and her literature, only those who definitely experienced her seminal influence; and they are dealt with solely from the point of view of the impact which France made upon them.

It is not a book intended for specialists. Each section, each subdivision, could be the subject of a whole book, and occupy a lifetime of research. It can serve only as a signpost for those who are not well informed, to point the way and indicate the direction which literature has taken. Those who are interested can continue along the same road, lingering at will at the various stages, to get to know the territory better, and finally make a longer stay when they reach their destination.

I have tried to chart the large currents, to indicate the trend of influences, and have avoided long lists of names which would mean little to those who have not read their works. My endeavour has been to generalize, to indicate movements and to suggest atmosphere. I do not intend to estimate relative merit — or indeed worth at all — I am only investigating the prevalence and extent of the influence of France on English literature, between the Second Empire and the Second World War.

The book is primarily addressed to readers of English literature rather than to those who specialize in French. It is more important to realize whence the literature of a country comes, than where it is going.

I have adopted a different plan for each of the two parts of the book. At first the influence of France drifted over to England in a haphazard manner, the seeds carried on the air without conscious sense of direction. At that moment movements are more important than the various forms of literature. Moreover, at the end of the nineteenth century, all the arts and forms of literature tended to merge into one another, aspiring to the ideal of unity between all the arts. That is the first part, which ends with the advent of the First World War. The influence of France was firmly established in England when war broke out, and it was then evident what immense strides had been made, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, in understanding and sympathy with France.

There arose, between the two wars, a period of extreme nationalism amongst the different arts — as amongst the various countries — when each wanted to assert its independence and its rights, its ‘autarky’. That was the time when pure music, pure painting, and pure poetry were the fashion. Then the seeds, which had floated over the Channel from France, took root in the various forms of literature — poetry, fiction, and drama. The merging of the atmosphere from France with that of England took place in the different literary genres. At this point it seemed more fruitful to treat these separately, rather than the currents.

The theory of influences must not, however, be exaggerated. The establishment of influences is one of the more pernicious aspects of modern academic research, for, with a little ingenuity, an influence can always be proved where there may have been no more than an affinity. It should be remembered that no influence can take place unless the soil is prepared for the seed, unless there is affinity. Pascal, in his Pensées, makes God say to man: ‘Thou wouldst not be seeking me, if thou hadst not already found me!’ While Gide declared: ‘Influences do not create anything; they merely awaken what is already there!’ And Baudelaire, writing to Manet, who had been accused of imitating Goya, whose work he had not even seen, said: ‘Are you sceptical about the possibility of such mathematical parallelism in nature? Well! don’t they accuse me of imitating Poe? And do you know why, with such infinite patience, I translated Poe? It was because he was like me! The first time I ever opened a book by him I discovered, not only subjects which I’d dreamt, but whole phrases which I’d conceived, written by him twenty years before!’ One must, therefore, not make too much of such resemblances. There are, in any and every age, currents of ideas, seeds of new conceptions, which float about in the air, in the different parts of the world, carried on any breeze, like feathery dandelion seeds, and they strike root in any suitable soil on which they may alight. If they did not find this suitable soil, they would fall to the ground and die sterile — many do in fact perish in this manner.

Nevertheless, English literature did obtain from France, in the period under review, more than from any other country. I shall hope to demonstrate that, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the influence of France gradually ousted that of Germany, and that French influence and prestige stood supreme during the twenty years which separate the two world wars. It is also hoped that my final chapter will suggest that our two countries have much yet to give each other, and even that the future of European culture depends on this understanding and interdependence.

I have quoted more freely from unfamiliar authors and texts than from those that are well known and of easy access, trusting that my readers will refer to these of their own accord.

I would like to thank my friend John Jordan for reading my manuscript and for saving me from error in English literature in which I am not a specialist.

I would like also to tender my grateful thanks to all those associated with the Taylor Library at Oxford — to its librarian, Donald Sutherland, in particular — for the help they have so tirelessly afforded me, without which it would have been impossible for me to complete the book in the time at my disposal.



IN THE early years of the nineteenth century interest in French literature amongst the English was almost non-existent. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they had admired the culture of France but, later, considered that it had been desecrated by the outrages of the revolution, the tyranny of the upstart Napoleon, and finally by her defeat and humiliation in 1815, with the restoration of the effete Bourbon dynasty through foreign arms.

During the Restoration in France, as happened so often in that country in the course of her history, the young and progressive writers were inspired by the wish to know something of the literature of the nations by which they had been defeated — the literature of Germany and of England. Thus it came about that Anglomania sprang up in France, with adulation of such writers as Shakespeare, Scott, and Byron, as well as Wordsworth and the Lake poets. The travellers from England to France, however, did not reciprocate this admiration — they even despised it. France was generally held in universal contempt by the English — except as a playground for frivolous pleasure. The Rev. F. Eustace, writing in 1814, in his Letter from Paris, declared that it was cheaper to enjoy oneself in Paris than to be bored in England. This state of affairs continued all through the Restoration, right into the July Monarchy, and little was known in England of the new Romantic Movement in France until the late eighteen-thirties — and very little even then.

It is true that certain of Chateaubriand works had been translated into English by 1820 — Atala, Le Génie du Christianisme, Voyage en Orient, and Essai sur les Rvvolutions — and that an article reviewing his writings had appeared in the Edinburgh Review in November 1820, which, however, was far from favourable. Thomas Moore, the writer of this article, claimed that, although the state of France might be favourable for commerce, it was, with certain exceptions, lamentable in the realm of literature.

Most English writers agreed with Moore’s contempt for French literature, and Southey declared that poetry was as impossible in the French language as in the Chinese.

There were nevertheless some exceptions. The New Monthly Magazine and The London Magazine commissioned Stendhal to contribute to their columns. He was a fervent admirer of the English and he did something to arouse in them an interest in the literature of France — especially in such prose artists as Mérimée who, in the midst of the exaggerations of Romanticism, kept some traces of the dignity of sober classicism.

After this, other magazines followed suit. Articles on French literature began to appear in The Foreign Quarterly Review, The Foreign Review, The Westminster Review, The Athenaeum, and The Literary Gazette.

The verdict of most English critics, at this time, was that the Romantic Movement in France had come too late. There were reasons to explain why it had not developed there as early as in England or in Germany. Romanticism had sprung up in the eighteenth century all over Europe — in France as well as elsewhere, in the works of Rousseau, Bernardin de Saint Pierre, and others of the same persuasion-but its natural development had been retarded, first by the revolution and then by the dictatorial government of Napoleon, who had regulated literature as everything else. He considered — rightly — that French classicism, in the age of Louis XIV, had been one of the great glories of France, and he wished to give her back the same prestige which she had enjoyed at that time. However, the day for that form of literature was past, and all he did was to shore up, for a time, the crumbling edifice of classicism, and hide its decay beneath stucco ornamentation. He supported waning classicism, the pseudo-classicism of the late eighteenth century, and this retarded the full flowering of Romanticism for nearly a generation, until his final defeat in 1815.

But it was only after the revolution of 1830 that English interest in France and her culture began to revive. The English approved of this revolution which seemed to them a step forward towards democracy and liberty, for they considered that it had been merciful, and had shown none of the excesses of its predecessor in 1789.

The revolution stimulated an interest in the new writers in France who had been implicated in it, for 1830 marked not only the final defeat of the Ancien Régime politically, but also the defeat of classicism at the Battle of Hernani, and the victory of the new literature. This was recognized also abroad, and Victor Hugo’s play was translated into English by James Kennedy and acted with great success in London in

April 1831. Later, in the same year, there was a further translation, by Lord Francis Leveson Gower — in verse this time — which was performed before the royal family. He also translated Dumas’ Henri III et Sa Cour. At the same time Hugo novel, Notre Dame de Paris, was reviewed in The Foreign Quarterly and rated higher than any novel by Walter Scott.

However, the most highly esteemed novelists at that time in France — George Sand and Balzac — were only to be known in England in the later eighteen-forties when Elizabeth Barrett, writing to Browning on 27 April 1846, declared that, since she had read the works of Balzac, she had said farewell to the English novel.

Now, in the eighteen-thirties, many periodicals were founded in England which studied French literature and interpreted it to English readers. There were: The Critic, The Foreign Monthly Review, The British and Foreign Review, The Dublin Review, The Dublin University Review. There were, as well, joint Anglo-French productions — The Paris Literary Gazette, founded in 1835, Le Panorama de Londres of 1836, Le Paris-Londres, ou Keepsake Français of 1837, and Paris and Continental Spectator of 1844.

Nevertheless, there were still many readers in England who would not tolerate what they called the immorality and cynicism of George Sand and the coarseness of Balzac. This nullified, for them, the good impression created by the revolution of 1830. Some tried to be broadminded — as did Bulwer Lytton, as befitted an aristocrat — but only succeeded in being condescending. Mrs. Trollope frankly indulged her prejudices in her disapproval of Les Jeunes-France, in 1835, and declared that Victor Hugo was the ‘champion of vice, shame, and degradation’ who transgressed the bounds of decency. The Quarterly Review, through the pen of a critic called Croker, violently attacked the immorality of France in a series of articles between 1834 and 1836. G. W. Reynolds , writing in 1839, in the Preface to his Modern Literature of France, calls them ‘the most desperate attack ever made upon a foreign nation by the pen’ and said that ‘this assault was disgraceful in the extreme’. Croker declared that the revolution of 1830 was to be attributed to the depraved taste of the nation with regard to literature, for French drama was lamentable, the novel even worse, and he gave examples of the state of depravity reached by Dumas, Hugo, Balzac, and George Sand. He claimed that the revolution had effected a sudden change in the morality of the French by emancipating women from all etiquette and reserve; that is to say, from all modesty.

Reynolds deplored this ignorance on the part of his fellow-countrymen and said that the books written on France in England ‘originated in the most deplorable ignorance, the worst feeling of spite and malignity, or an extraordinary facility of misapprehension and mistake’.

He was, however, an exception, and Thackeray, in his Paris Sketches, published the same year as Reynolds’ book, treated French literature with ironical contempt. He declared that there were only three kinds of drama in France. The old classical drama, ‘well-nigh dead, and full time too!’ That is to say the old tragedies, in which ‘half a-dozen characters appear and spout sonorous Alexandrines for half a-dozen hours’. Rachel, according to him, had been trying to revive this genre and ‘untomb’ Racine, but it was comforting to reflect, he thought, that he could never come to life again, and that she was only able to galvanize the corpse, but not to revivify it. Then, Thackeray explained, there was contemporary comedy of which Scribe was the main exponent. « ‘Playwrights », he added, ‘have handled it for about two thousand years, and the public, like a great baby, must have the tale repeated to it over and over again.’ Finally there was the drame said to be fathered by Shakespeare, which had sprung to life of late years, and Thackeray said that ‘after having seen most of the grand dramas which have been produced in Paris for the last half-dozen years, the fictitious murders, rapes, adulteries, and other crimes, a man may take leave to be heartily ashamed of the manner in which he has spent his time; and of the hideous kind of mental intoxication in which he has permitted himself to indulge’.

On the whole, the best-informed interest of English readers in French literature, between 1830 and 1850, lay in the realm of philosophical thought, in works such as those by Cousin, Michelet, and Comte. Carlyle, in his French Revolution, expressed appreciation of Cousin’s writings, but this may have been because his form of idealism was almost Germanic, and thus more likely to appeal to the English. John Stuart Mill read Guizot, Michelet, and Comte; he was particularly interested in the latter, with whom he corresponded between 1841 and 1846, and about whom he wrote his Auguste Comte and Positivism.

The first major English writer of the period to show any appreciation of France and her literature was Matthew Arnold. Being half Celtic he had perhaps more affinity and sympathy with a Mediterranean race than his Anglo-Saxon fellow-countrymen. His father was one of the rare Englishmen, at that time, to rate the civilization of France higher than that of Germany, and he had a warmer sympathy for it. The English, at this time, on the whole, considered the French a frivolous people, and thought that Germany was the fount of all wisdom. Dr. Arnold, on the contrary, believed that the anti-French policy of Palmerston in 1840 was unwise as well as wrong, and he uttered a warning against it, con-



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