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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Edmond (1822–1896) and Jules (1830–1870) de Goncourt
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
EDMOND AND JULES HUOT DE GONCOURT, French writers who became famous alike for the perfectness of their collaboration, the originality of their methods, and the finish of their style, were born, the first in Nancy in 1822, the other in Paris in 1830. Until the death of Jules in 1870 they wrote nothing for the public that did not bear both their names; and so entirely identical were their tastes and judgment that it is impossible to say of a single sentence they composed that it was the sole product of one or the other. “Charming writers,” Victor Hugo called them; “in unison a powerful writer, two minds from which springs a single jet of talent.” Born of a noble family of moderate wealth, they were educated as became their station in life. Both had an early leaning toward the arts; but Edmond, in deference to the wishes of his family, took a government appointment and held the office till the death of his mother, when he was twenty-six years of age. Their father had died while they were boys.  1
  Drawn together by their common bereavement and the death-bed injunction of their parent that Edmond should be the careful guardian of his younger brother, whose health had always been delicate, the young men then began a companionship which was broken only by death. They set out to make themselves acquainted with southern Europe, and at the same time to escape the political turmoils of Paris; and extended their travels into Africa, which country they found so congenial that in the first ardor of their enthusiasm they determined to settle there. Business arrangements, however, soon recalled them to Paris, where ties of friendship and other agreeable associations bound them fast to their native soil. They took up their residence in the metropolis, where they lived until a short time before the death of Jules, when, to be free from the roar of the city, they purchased a house in one of the suburbs. Their intellectual development may be traced through their Journal and letters to intimate friends, published by the surviving brother. From these it appears that most of their leisure hours during their travels were taken up with painting and drawing. Jules had attempted some dramatic compositions while at college, and Edmond had been strongly drawn to literature by the conversation of an aunt, of whom he saw much before his mother’s death. It was while engaged with their brushes in 1850 that it occurred to the brothers to take up writing as a regular vocation; and thus was begun their remarkable literary partnership.  2
  Their first essay was a drama. It was rejected; whereupon, nothing daunted, they wrote a novel. It was entitled ‘18—,’ and it is interesting to observe that here, at the very outset of their career, they seem to have had in mind the keynote of the chord on which they ever afterwards played: the eighteenth century was the chief source of their inspiration, and it was their life’s endeavor to explore it and reproduce it for their contemporaries with painstaking fidelity. The novel engaged their serious and earnest attention, and when it was given to the publisher they watched for its appearance with painful anxiety. Unfortunately it was announced for the very day on which occurred the Coup d’État. The book came out when Paris was in an uproar; and though Jules Janin, one of the most influential critics of the day, unexpectedly exploited it at great length in the Journal des Débats, its circulation in that first edition was not more than sixty copies, most of which were distributed gratuitously.  3
  The blow was a hard one, but the brothers were not thus to be silenced, nor by the subsequent failure of other dramatic ventures and an effort to found a newspaper. They had been little more than imitators. They now entered the field they soon made their own. The writers of their day were for the most part classicists; a few before Victor Hugo were romanticists. The de Goncourts stood for the modern, what they could see and touch. In this way they became realists. What their own senses could not apprehend they at once rejected; all they saw they deemed worthy to be reproduced. They lived in a period of reconstruction after the devastation of the revolution. The refinement and elegance of the society of the later Bourbon monarchy, still within view, they yearned for and sought to restore. A series of monographs dealing with the art and the stage of these days, which appeared in 1851–2, won for them the first real recognition they enjoyed. These were followed by various critical essays on the same subjects, contributed to newspapers and periodicals, and a novel, ‘La Lorette,’ which had a large sale and marked the beginning of their success from a financial point of view. “This makes us realize,” they wrote in their Journal, “that one can actually sell a book.”  4
  Their reputation as men of letters was established by the publication in 1854–5 of ‘Histoire de la Société Pendant la Revolution’ and the same ‘Pendant le Directoire’ the aim of which, they said, was “to paint in vivid, simple colors the France of 1789 to 1800.” This object they accomplished, so far as it concerned the society of which they themselves were descendants; but the reactionary spirit in them was too strong for an impartial view of the struggle, and their lack of true philosophic spirit and broad human sympathy led them to make a picture that, interesting as it is, is sadly distorted. Their vivid colors are lavished mainly on the outrages of the rioters and the sufferings of the aristocrats. But for wealth of detail, the result of tireless research, the history is of value as a record of the manners and customs of the fashionable set of the period. Of the same sort were their other semi-historical works: ‘Portraits Intimes du XVIIIième Siècle,’ separate sketches of about a hundred more or less well-known figures of the age; ‘L’Histoire de Marie Antoinette,’ and ‘La Femme au XVIIIième Siècle,’ in which the gossip and anecdote of former generations are told again almost as graphically as are those which the authors relate of their own circle in their memoirs. Their most important contribution to literature was their ‘L’Art au XVIIIième Siècle,’ monographs gathered and published in seventeen volumes, and representing a dozen years’ labor. This was indeed a labor of love, and it was not in vain; for it was these appreciative studies more than anything else that turned public attention to the almost forgotten delicacy of the school of painters headed by Watteau, Fragonard, Latour, Boucher, Debricourt, and Greuze, whose influence has ever since been manifested on the side of sound taste and sanity in French art.  5
  A volume entitled ‘Idées et Sensations,’ and their Journal and letters, complete the list of the more important of their works outside the field of fiction. The Journal will always be valuable as an almost complete document of the literary history of France in their time, made up as it is of impressions of and from the most important writers of the day, with whom they were on terms of intimate friendship, including Flaubert, Gautier, Renan, Sainte-Beuve, Hugo, Saint-Victor, Michelet, Zola, and George Sand. In fiction the de Goncourts were less prolific, but it is to their novels mainly that they owe their reputation for individuality, and as true “path-breakers” in literature. They have been called the initiators of modern French realism. Their friend Flaubert perhaps better deserves the title. Their determination to see for themselves all that could be seen, the result of which gave real worth to their historical work, even where their prejudice robbed it of weight, was what put the stamp of character upon their novels. How much importance they attached to correct and comprehensive observation may be gathered from their remark, “The art of learning how to see demands the longest apprenticeship of all the arts.” They took life as they found it, examined it on every side,—rarely going far under the surface,—and then sought to reproduce it on their pages as the artist would put it on canvas. Capable of terseness, of suggestiveness, quick to note and communicate the vital spark, they were yet rarely content with it alone. Every minute particle of the body it vivified, they insisted on adding to their picture. Nothing was to be taken for granted; as nothing was accepted by them at second hand, so nothing was left to the imagination of the reader until their comprehensive view was his. It was in this way that they were realists. They did not seek out and expose to public view the grossness and unpleasantness of life. Their own preference was for the beautiful, and in their own lives they indulged their refined tastes. But they looked squarely at the world about them, the ugly with the beautiful, the impure with the pure, and they did not hesitate to describe one almost as faithfully as the other.  6
  Curiously, the discrimination against the masses and the bias that mar their history do not appear in their fiction. “They began writing history which was nothing but romance,” says one of their critics, “and later wrote romance which in reality is history.” Indeed, their novels are little more than sketches of what occurred around them. ‘Madame Gervaisais’ is a character study of the aunt of strong literary predilections who influenced Edmond; ‘Germinie Lacerteux’ is the biography of their servant, at whose death, after long and faithful service, they discovered that she had led a life of singular duplicity; ‘Sœur Philomène’ is a terribly true glimpse of hospital life, and ‘Manette Salomon,’ with its half-human monkey drawn from the life, is transferred without change from the Parisian studios under the Empire. ‘Renée Mauperin’ comes nearest to the model of an ordinary novel; but no one can read of the innocent tomboy girl struck down with fatal remorse at the consequences of her own natural action, on learning of her brother’s dishonor, without feeling that this picture too was drawn from the life. Several of their stories were dramatized, but with scant success; and a play which they wrote, ‘Henriette Maréchal,’ and had produced at the Comédie Française through the influence of Princess Mathilde, their constant friend and patroness, was almost howled down,—chiefly however for political reasons.  7
  After the death of Jules de Goncourt, his brother wrote several books of the same character as those which they produced in union, the best known of which are ‘La Fille Élisa,’ and ‘Chérie,’ a study of a girl, said to have been inspired by the Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff. The best critics in France, notably Sainte-Beuve, have given the brothers Goncourt a very high place in literature and conceded their originality. English reviewers have been less ready to exalt them, mainly on account of the offensive part of their realism. They have objected also to their superficiality as historians, and to their sympathy with the sentimental admirers of such types as Marie Antoinette; but they too have been ready to praise the brothers as leaders of a new fashion, and especially for their devotion to style. In this respect the Goncourts have few rivals in French literature. Balzac himself was not more finical in the choice of words, or more unsparing of his time and energy in writing and re-writing until his exact meaning, no more or less, had been expressed; and they covered up the marks of their toil better than he. In a letter to Zola, Edmond de Goncourt said:—“My own idea is that my brother died of work, and above all from the desire to elaborate the artistic form, the chiseled phrase, the workmanship of style.” He himself spent a long life at this fine artistry, and died in Paris in July, 1896.  8
 
 
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