1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mérimée, Prosper
MÉRIMÉE, PROSPER (1803-1870), French novelist, archaeologist, essayist, and in all these capacities one of the greatest masters of French style during the 19th century, was born at Paris on the 28th of September 1803. His grandfather, of Norman abstraction, had been a lawyer and steward to the maréchal de Broglie. His father, Jean François Léonor Mérimée (1757-1836), was a painter of repute. Mérimée had English blood in his veins on the mother's side, and had English proclivities in many ways. He was educated for the bar, but entered the public service instead. A young man at the time of the Romantic movement, he felt its influence strongly, though his peculiar temperament prevented him from joining any of the côteries of the period. Nothing was more prominent among the romantics than the fancy, as Mérimée himself puts it, for “local colour,” the more unfamiliar the better. He exhibited this in an unusual way. In 1825 he published what purported to be the dramatic works of a Spanish lady, Clara Gazul, with a preface stating circumstantially how the supposed translator, one Joseph L'Estrange, had met the gifted poetess at Gibraltar. This was followed by a still more audacious and still more successful supercherie. In 1827 appeared a small book entitled la Guzla (the anagram of Gazul), and giving itself out as translated from the Illyrian of a certain Hyacinthe Maglanovich. This book, which has greater formal merit than Clara Gazul, is said to have taken in Sir John Bowring, a competent Slav scholar, the Russian poet Poushkin, and some German authorities, although not only had it no original, but, as Mérimée declares, a few words of Illyrian and a book or two of travels and topography were the author's only materials. In the next year appeared a short dramatic romance, La Jacquerie, in which are visible Mérimée's extraordinary faculty of local and historical colour, his command of language, his grim irony, and a certain predilection for tragic and terrible subjects, which was one of his numerous points of contact with the men of the Renaissance. This in its turn was followed by a still better piece, the Chronique de Charles IX. (1829), which stands towards the 16th century much as the Jacquerie does towards the middle ages. All these works were to a certain extent second-hand. But they exhibited all the future literary qualities of the author save the two chiefest, his wonderfully severe and almost classical style, and his equally classical solidity and statuesqueness of construction.
He had already obtained a considerable position in the civil service, and after the revolution of July he was chef de cabinet to two different ministers. He was then appointed to the more congenial post of inspector-general of historical monuments. Mérimée was a born archaeologist, combining linguistic faculty of a very unusual kind with accurate scholarship, with remarkable historical appreciation, and with a sincere love for the arts of design and construction, in the former of which he had some practical skill. In his official capacity he published numerous reports, some of which, with other similar pieces, have been republished in his works. He also devoted himself to history proper during the latter years of the July monarchy, and published numerous essays and works of no great length, chiefly on Spanish, Russian and ancient Roman history. He did not, however, neglect novel writing during this period, and numerous short tales, almost without exception masterpieces, appeared, chiefly in the Revue de Paris. The best of all, Colomba, a Corsican story of extraordinary power, appeared in 1840. He travelled a good deal; and in one of his journeys to Spain, about the middle of Louis Philippe's reign, he made an acquaintance destined to influence his future life not a little—that of Mme de Montijo, mother of the future empress Eugénie. Mérimée, though in manner and language the most cynical of men, was a devoted friend, and shortly before the accession of Napoleon III. he had occasion to show this. His friend, Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja, was accused of having stolen valuable manuscripts and books from French libraries, and Mérimée took his part so warmly that he was actually sentenced to and underwent fine and imprisonment. He had been elected of the Academy in 1844, and also of the Academy of Inscriptions, of which he was a prominent member. Between 1840 and 1850 he wrote more tales, the chief of which were Arsène Guillot and Carmen (1847), this last, on a Spanish subject, hardly ranking below Colomba.
The empire made a considerable difference in Mérimée's life. His sympathies were against democracy, and his habitual cynicism and his irreligious prejudices made legitimism distasteful to him. But the marriage of Napoleon III. with the daughter of Mme de Montijo at once enlisted what was always strongest with Mérimée—the sympathy of personal friendship—on the emperor's side. He was made a senator, but his most important role was that of a constant and valued private friend of both the “master and mistress of the house,” as he calls the emperor and empress in his letters. He was occasionally charged with a kind of irregular diplomacy, and once, in the matter of the emperor's Caesar, he had to give literary assistance to Napoleon. But for the most part he was strictly the ami de la maison. At the Tuileries, at Compiègne, at Biarritz, he was a constant though not always a very willing guest, and his influence over the empress was very considerable and was fearlessly exerted, though he used to call himself, in imitation of Scarron, “le bouffon de sa majesté.” He found, however, time for not a few more tales, of which more will be said presently, and for correspondences, which are not the least of his literary achievements, while they have an extraordinary interest of matter. One of these consists of the letters which have been published as Lettres à une inconnue, another of the letters addressed to Sir Anthony Panizzi, librarian of the British Museum. After various conjectures it seems that the inconnue just mentioned was a certain Mlle Jenny Daqin of Boulogne. The acquaintance extended over many years; it partook at one time of the character of love, at another of that of simple friendship, and Mérimée is exhibited in the letters under the most surprisingly diverse lights, most of them more or less amiable, and all interesting. The correspondence with Panizzi has somewhat less personal interest. But Mérimée often visited England, where he had many friends (among whom the late Mr Ellice of Glengarry was the chief), and certain similarities of taste drew him closer to Panizzi personally, while during part of the empire the two served as the channel for a kind of unofficial diplomacy between the emperor and certain English statesmen. These letters are full of shrewd apergus on the state of Europe at different times. Both series, and others since published, abound in gossip, in amusing anecdotes, in sharp literary criticism, while both contain evidences of a cynical and Rabelaisian or Swiftian humour which was very strong in Mérimée. This characteristic is said to be so prominent in a correspondence with another friend, which now lies in the library at Avignon, that there is but little chance of its ever being printed. A fourth collection of letters, of much inferior extent and interest, has been printed by Blaze de Bury under the title of Lettres à une autre inconnue (1873), and others still by d'Haussonville (1888), and in the Revue des Deux Mondes (1896). In the latter years of his life Mérimée suffered very much from ill-health. It was necessary for him to pass all his winters at Cannes, where his constant companions were two aged English ladies, friends of his mother. The Terrible Year found him completely broken in health and anticipating the worst for France. He lived long enough to see his fears realized, and to express his grief in some last letters, and he died at Cannes on the 23rd of September 1870.
Mérimée's character was a peculiar and in some respects an unfortunate one, but by no means unintelligible. Partly by temperament, partly it is said owing to some childish experience, when he discovered that he had been duped and determined never to be so again, not least owing to the example of Henri Beyle (Stendhal), who was a friend of his family, and of whom he saw much, Mérimée appears at a comparatively early age to have imposed upon himself as a duty the maintenance of an attitude of sceptical indifference and sarcastic criticism. Although a man of singularly warm and affectionate feelings, he obtained the credit of being a cold-hearted cynic; and, though both independent and disinterested, he was abused as a hanger-on of the imperial court. Both imputations were wholly undeserved, and indeed were prompted to a great extent by political spite or by the resentment felt by his literary equals on the other side at the cool ridicule with which he met them. But he deserved in some of the bad as well as many of the good senses of the term the name of a man of the Renaissance. He had the warm partisanship and amiability towards friends and the scorpion-like sting for his foes, he had the ardent delight in learning and especially in matters of art and belles lettres, he had the scepticism, the voluptuousness, the curious delight in the contemplation of the horrible, which marked the men of letters of the humanist period. Even his literary work has this Renaissance character. It is tolerably extensive, amounting to some seventeen or eighteen volumes, but its bulk is not great for a life which was not short, and which was occupied, at least nominally, in little else. About a third of it consists of the letters already mentioned. Rather more than another third consists of the official work which has been already alluded to—reports, essays, short historical sketches, the chief of which latter is a history of Pedro the Cruel (1843), and another of the curious pretender known in Russian story as the false Demetrius (1852). Some of the literary essays, such as those on Beyle, on Turgueniev, &c., where a personal element enters, are excellent. Against others and against the larger historical sketches—admirable as they are—Taine's criticism that they want life has some force. They are, however, all marked by Mérimée's admirable style, by his sound and accurate scholarship, his strong intellectual grasp of whatever he handled, his cool unprejudiced views, his marvellous faculty of designing and proportioning the treatment of his work. In purely archaeological matters his Description des peintures de Saint-Savin is very noteworthy. It is, however, in the remaining third of his work, consisting entirely of tales either in narrative or in dramatic form, and especially in the former, that his full power is perceived. He translated a certain number of things (chiefly from the Russian); but his fame does not rest on these, on his already-mentioned youthful supercheries, or on his later semi-dramatic works. There remain about a score of tales, extending in point of composition over exactly forty years and in length from that of Colomba, the longest, which fills about one hundred and fifty pages, to that of l'Enlèvement de la redoute (1829), which fills just half a dozen. They are unquestionably the best things of their kind written during the century, the only nouvelles that can challenge comparison with them being the very best of Gautier, and one or two of Balzac. The motives are sufficiently different. In Colomba and Mateo Falcone (1829), the Corsican point of honour is drawn on; in Carmen (written apparently after reading Borrow's Spanish books), the gipsy character; in la Venus d'Ille (1837) and Lokis (two of the finest of all), certain grisly superstitious, in the former case that known in a milder form as the ring given to Venus, in the latter a variety of the were-wolf fancy. Arséne Guillot is a singular satire, full of sarcastic pathos, on popular morality and religion; la Chamber bleue, an 18th-century conte, worthy of C. P. J. Crébillon for grace and wit, and superior to him in delicacy; The Capture of the Redoubt just mentioned is a perfect piece of description; l'Abbé au bain is again satirical; la Double méprise (the authorship of which was objected to Mérimée when he was elected of the Academy) is an exercise in analysis strongly impregnated with the spirit of Stendhal, but better written than anything of that writer's. These stories, with his letters, assure Mérimée's place in literature at the very head of the French prose writers of the century. He had undertaken an edition of Brantôme for the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne, but it was never completed.
Mérimée's works have only been gradually published since his death. There is no uniform edition, but almost everything is obtainable in the collections of MM. Charpentier and Calmann Lévy. Most of the sets of letters above referred to from those to the first inconnue, where the introduce was Taine, have essay-prefaces on Mérimée. Maurice Tourneux's Prosper Mérimée, sa bibliographie (1876) and Prosper Mérimée, ses portraits (1879), are useful, while Émile Faguet and many other critics have dealt with him incidentally. But the best single book on him by far is the Mérimée et ses amis of Augustin Filon (1894). M. F. Chambon's Correspondence inédite (1897) gives little that is substantive, but supplies and corrects a good many gaps or faults in earlier editions. English translations, especially of Colomba and Carmen, are numerous. The Chronique de Charles IX. was translated by G. Saintsbury in 1889 with an introduction; and the same writer has also prefixed a much more elaborate essay, containing a review of Mérimée's entire work, to an American translation. (G. Sa.)