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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Prosper Mérimée (1803–1870)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Grace Elizabeth King (1852–1932)
 
ONE of the magisterial critics of Mérimée’s day, passing judgment upon his writings, dismisses personal details about the author with the remark: “As for the biography of Prosper Mérimée, it is like the history of a happy people,—it does not exist. One knows only that he was educated in a college of Paris, that he has studied law, that he has been received as a lawyer, that he has never pleaded; and the papers have taken pains to inform us that he is to-day secretary to M. le Comte d’Argout. Those who know him familiarly see in him nothing more than a man of very simple manners, with a solid education, reading Italian and modern Greek with ease, and speaking English and Spanish with remarkable purity.”  1
  This was written in 1832, when Mérimée in his thirtieth year had attained celebrity not only in the literary world of Paris, but in the world of literary Europe, as the author of the ‘Thèâtre de Clara Gazul’; ‘La Guzla’; ‘La Chronique de Charles IX.’; ‘Mateo Falcone’; ‘Tamango’; ‘La Partie de Tric-Trac’; ‘Le Vase Etrusque’; ‘La Double Méprise’; ‘La Vision de Charles XI.’: most of which Taine pronounced masterpieces of fiction, destined to immortality as classics.  2
  No tribute could have been better devised to please Mérimée, and praise his writings, than this one to the impersonality of his art, and the dispensation of it from any obligation to its author. “We should write and speak,” he held, “so that no one would notice, at least immediately, that we were writing or speaking differently from any one else.” But as that most impersonal of modern critics, Walter Pater, keenly observes: “Mérimée’s superb self-effacement, his impersonality, is itself but an effective personal trait, and transferred to art, becomes a markedly peculiar quality of literary beauty.” And he pronounces in a sentence the judgment of Mérimée’s literary posterity upon him: “For in truth this creature who had no care for half-lights, and like his creations, had no atmosphere about him,—gifted as he was with pure mind, with the quality which secures flawless literary structures,—had on the other hand nothing of what we call soul in literature.”  3
  And the brilliant young secretary and successful author, whose happiness furnishes presumptive evidence against a biography, was no more relieved from the fact of it than the hypothetical happy people of their history. With that unfaltering rectification of contemporaneous values which time and the gravitation to truth bring about, Mérimée’s position in regard to his works is quite the reverse of what he contemplated and aimed for. Of the published volumes of his writings, the many containing his artistic works could be better spared than the few containing his letters. And of his letters, that volume will longest carry his name into the future which contains his most intimate, most confidential, least meditated, in short most genuinely personal and most artistically perfect revelations,—his ‘Lettres à une Inconnue’ (Letters to an Unknown Woman).  4
  Prosper Mérimée was born in Paris in 1803, of parentage that made his vocation, it would seem, mandatory. His father was an artist of note, a pupil of David’s, and long secretary of the École des Beaux-Arts. His mother was also, and in a double measure, an artist. Her talent was for portraits of children, whose quiet sittings she secured by her other talent of relating stories,—a gift inherited from her grandmother, Madame de Beaumont, a charming writer of children’s stories, and the author of the famous and entrancing ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ At twenty, having finished his collegiate studies, Mérimée, in obedience to the will of his parents, began to fit himself for the legal profession. Following his own tastes, however, he had already sought and gained admission into the salons of the men of letters, and was already under his first and only literary influence,—that of Henri Beyle, the progenitor of modern French realism. It was in one of these salons that he, not yet twenty-one, read his first composition, a drama, ‘Cromwell’; an effort inspired by Shakespeare and composed according to the doctrines of Beyle. It was never published. Shortly afterwards, in the same place and to the same audience, he read aloud his second attempt, ‘The Spaniards in Denmark’; and ‘Heaven and Hell,’ a little dramatic scene which met with spontaneous applause, and was praised as extremely witty and still more undevout. Successive readings followed in successive evenings, under the encouragement of applause; and the collection, by a last stroke of audacious wit, in which author and audience collaborated, was published as the ‘Thèâtre de Clara Gazul’ (an imaginary Spanish actress), with the portrait of Mérimée, in low-necked dress and mantilla, for frontispiece.  5
  The strong individuality of Mérimée’s art is as easily discernible to-day, under the thin disguise of his pseudonym, as his features under his travesty: his clear, cold, impartial realism, unflinching wit, and—a trait attributed also to his mother—his invincible irreligion. The success of the mystification was immediate and effective. His next adventure was of the same kind: the publication of ‘La Guzla,’ a collection of prose ballads, pseudo-translations from the Dalmatian folk-songs, with prefatory notices, appendices, and biographical sketch of the author, the bard Magdanovitch, accompanied by a dissertation on vampires and the evil eye. The intrinsic beauty of the ballads, the barbaric strength of the imagination, in the musical rhythm of French prose, contributed to render the mystification one of the most perfect in literary history. Goethe wrote an article upon it, Pushkin made translations from it, and German scholars rejoiced in print to find in it some long-lost Illyrian metrical measure. This success disgusted Mérimée with “local color,”—the shibboleth of the young French Romantic school,—seeing, as he said, how easy it was to fabricate it.  6
  The ‘Famille Carvajal,’ a continuation of the Spanish vein,—a weird, grewsome, and pitiless tale,—and ‘Le Jacquerie,’ a dramatic historical recital in the Shakespearean vein, followed. His next venture was in historical fiction: ‘The Chronicle of Charles IX.,’ an evident inspiration from Walter Scott. From an English point of view, it is the masterpiece of French fiction in historical domain; and one, with a few reservations, not unworthy the hand of “Waverley” himself.  7
  In 1830 came the visit to Spain, related in his published letters, and the forming of the friendship with the Countess of Montijo which led to a correspondence, of which the fragments published are warrant that it will prove in the future an invaluable guide to the social, literary, and political history of Paris during the yet controverted period of the Empire. Always sensitive to feminine influence, if not to local color, it is to the Countess of Montijo that Mérimée owes the Spanish inspiration, as it may well be called, which bore fruit in his incomparable relation of ‘Carmen.’ And while a guest of his friend, listening to her charming tales of the Alhambra and the Generalife, Mérimée formed his historical friendship with the Empress Eugénie, then a little girl playing around her mother’s knee.  8
  Appointed inspector-general of the historical monuments of France, Mérimée threw his archæological erudition into diligent performance of official duties. His reports, written with minute and even pedantic conscientiousness, bear out Faguet’s assertion that—archæologist, traveler, art critic, historian, and philologist, man of the world and senator, and competent and sure as each—he would and should have belonged to four academies; it was only his discretion that restricted him to two,—the Académie Française and Académie des Inscriptions. As a compatriot states, it was the inspector-general that related to him two of his most perfect stories, the ‘Venus d’Ille’ and ‘Colomba,’ while it was the philologist who found the episode of ‘Carmen.’  9
  It was at this point of his life, at the meridian of age and success, that he received his first letter from the Inconnue,—a graceful tribute from the graceful pen of a woman, who yielded to an impulse to express her admiration, yet guarded her identity beyond possibility of discovery. The correspondence ensued that a posthumous publication under the editorship of H. Taine has revealed to the public. In it, for one who knows how to read the letters, as Taine says, Mérimée shows himself gracious, tender, delicate, truly in love, and a poet. After nine years of expostulation and entreaty he obtained an interview; and his mysterious friend proved to be a Mademoiselle Jenny Dacquin, the daughter of a notary of Boulogne. The friendship that ensued waxed into love through the thirty succeeding years, and waned again into a friendship that ended only with Mérimée’s life; his last letter to the Inconnue, a few lines, was written two hours before he died.  10
  Mérimée’s ‘Studies in the History of Rome,’ his ‘Social War,’ and ‘Catiline,’ were to have been followed and closed by a study of Cæsar. Circumstances, however, adjourned the task, which was afterwards ceded to an illustrious competitor, or collaborator,—Napoleon III. In 1844 he was elected to the French Academy. On the following day he published ‘Arsène Guillot.’ Had the publication preceded the election, the result might have been different; for repentant Academicians pronounced immoral the tale which Anglo-Saxon critics have generally selected as the most simple, most pathetic, and only human one the author ever wrote.  11
  In 1852, the little girl whose growth and development Mérimée had watched with tenderest interest became Empress of the French. He was appointed life senator in the reconstructed government; and became one of the most familiar members of the new and brilliant court at the Tuileries, and always a conspicuous one. His pleased, tender, sad, gay, and always frank and critical commentary of the court and its circles, forms the interest of his weekly bulletins to the Countess of Montijo. His conversational charm, his wit, and his ever-ready response to demands upon his artistic and historical lore, in questions of etiquette, costumes, and precedent; his versatility as dramatist and actor, and his genius for friendship with women,—made him not only a favorite, but a spoiled favorite, in the royal circle. His coldness, reserve, cynicism, frank speech, and independent political opinions saved him from even a suspicion of being a courtier. He nevertheless lost none of his diligence in literature. It was the period of his edition of Henri Beyle and of Brantôme, of numerous miscellaneous articles in reviews, and of those excursions into Russian literature—critical dissertations upon Gogol, Pushkin, and Turgenev—which may be considered the pioneer of that advance into Russian literature which has resulted in throwing it open to, and making it one with, the literature of Europe.  12
  To this period also belongs his friendship with Panizzi, the administrator of the British Museum; and the voluminous correspondence in which he reveals himself in all the fineness and breadth of his culture,—as Taine puts it, the possessor of six languages with their literature and history, man of the world and politician, as well as philosopher, artist, and historian.  13
  So shrewd an observer of men and politics could not be unprepared for the catastrophe of 1870. He had never been free from vague apprehensions, and the acute presentiment overshadows the gayety in his letters. In addition he was growing old, and infirm health drove him during the winter months into annual exile at Cannes. It was there that, in a crisis of his malady, the journals, in anticipation of the end, published his death, and M. Guizot in consequence made official announcement of it at the Academy. Mérimée lived, however, to return to Paris, and suffer through to the end of the tragedy. He dragged himself to the Tuileries, had a last interview with his mistress, sat for the last time in his seat in the Senate, and voted for adjournment to a morrow which never came. Four days afterwards he departed for Cannes, where a fortnight later he died. He was buried in the Protestant cemetery.
          “A gallant man and a gentleman,” says Faguet, “he has had the reward he would have wished. He has been discreetly and intimately enjoyed by delicate tastes. He has not been brutally balloted about in the tumult of scholastic discussions. He has not been attacked by any one, nor praised with loud cries, nor admired with great reinforcement of adjectives…. His glory is of the good ore, as are his character, his mind, and his style…. He has entered posterity as one enters a parlor, without discussion and without disturbance; received with the greatest pleasure, without vain effusion, he installed himself comfortably in a good place, from which he will never be moved…. It was his rare talent to give us those limpid, rapid, full tales, that one reads in an hour, re-reads in a day, which fill the memory and occupy the thoughts forever.”
  14
 
 
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