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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon (1675–1755)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
AS Louis XVIII. was leaving chapel one Sunday, he was stopped by his favorite and efficient general, the Duke of Saint-Simon, a descendant of the annalist.  1
  “Sire,” he said, “I have a favor to ask of your Majesty.”  2
  “M. de Saint-Simon, I know your recent and valuable services: you may ask what you please.”  3
  “Sire, it is a matter of grace to a prisoner in the Bastille.”  4
  “You jest, I think, M. de Saint-Simon.”  5
  “About the Bastille, yes. Sire; but not about the original manuscripts of the Duke de Saint-Simon seized in 1760, and your Majesty’s prisoners of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”  6
  “I know of them, M. de Saint-Simon, and you shall have these manuscripts. I give you my word for it.”  7
  This conversation occurred in 1819, when Louis de Rouvroy, the famous Duke of Saint-Simon, had been dead for over sixty years. His vast collection of memoirs,—which Sainte-Beuve says “forms the greatest and most valuable body of memoirs existing up to the present,” which he had bequeathed by will explicitly to his cousin, the Bishop of Metz, had been all that time in the hands of government officials. A vigorous wrangle over their possession had followed the duke’s death in 1755, and for six years they were in the possession of a notary. The Bishop of Metz died in 1760 without having obtained them; and by most people they were forgotten and left unmolested at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was first in an obscure upper room “almost under the roofs” of the old Louvre, and later moved to different parts of the city.  8
  The existence of this astonishing mass of historical material had not been entirely ignored. Marmontel and Duclos obtained access to it, and gleaned many extracts for their own histories. Voltaire had read it, in part at least. Much of it had been read aloud to Madame du Deffand, as she sat old and blind in her arm-chair. Brilliant gossip herself, she wrote enthusiastically to her friend Horace Walpole of this unrivaled gossip of an earlier generation.  9
  Even after receiving the King’s authorization, General de Saint-Simon had great difficulty in obtaining his ancestor’s valuable papers; and at first only four of the eleven portfolios comprising the memoirs were grudgingly yielded to him. We know just how they looked, those leather portfolios fourteen inches long by nine and a half wide, with the Saint-Simon coat of arms in gilt on the outside. They are still in existence, with their closely written folio pages headed by the inscription in capitals, ‘Mémoires de Saint-Simon.’ There was no division into chapters or books, but the several thousand pages form one continuous narrative.  10
  A garbled three-volume edition of extracts had appeared in 1789; but it was not until 1829 that a reliable edition, revised and arranged in chapters, appeared in forty volumes. It created a stir. The critics fell upon its erratic French, its solecisms, its unconscionable digressions; but all readers admitted the charm of the vivid narrative and keen description. “He wrote like the Devil for posterity,” said Chateaubriand. In various abridged and unabridged forms it has been popular ever since, and widely read and quoted by the French nation. No other work affords such a revelation of life at the court of Louis XIV., and during the succeeding regency. Macaulay found material in it for more than one of his historical sketches.  11
  Louis de Rouvroy, Vidame de la Ferté, and later Duke of Saint-Simon and peer of France, was born in Paris, January 16th, 1675, of an ancient family which claimed descent from Charlemagne. His father, as a young page of Louis XIII., had gained royal favor, chiefly by adroitness in helping the King to change horses without dismounting. The King enriched him, made him duke and peer, and in return received his lifelong devotion. Louis, born when his father was sixty-nine, the only child of a young second wife, had Louis XIII. and Marie Thérèse as sponsors, and was early introduced to the court where most of his life was passed. He tells us that he was not a studious boy, but fond of history; and that if he had been allowed to read all he wished of it, he might have made “some figure in the world.”  12
  At nineteen he entered a company of the musketeers, and served honorably in several campaigns; witnessing the siege of Namur, and active in the battle of Neerwinden. But with his lifelong propensity to consider himself slighted, he resented his lack of advancement, and retired from the army after five years. The jealous courtier had a strongly domestic side, as is shown in his devotion to his mother and in grateful tributes to his wife. His marriage in 1695 to a beautiful blonde, eldest daughter of the Marshal de Lorges, was purely a marriage of convenance, but proved a delightful exception to the usual family intrigues of the period. He soon grew to love his wife: “She exceeded all that was promised of her, and all that I myself had hoped.”  13
  He received Jesuit training in youth, and was always a strict Catholic; retiring once a year to the monastery of La Trappe for a period of prayer and meditation, and to confess and receive absolution from his dear friend, the Abbé de La Trappe. Then feeling himself morally purged for the time being, he returned to his usual life with apparently never a thought of changing his conduct or avoiding the faults he had just confessed. Like his fellow courtiers who could quarrel over questions of precedence at the communion table, he made no clear distinction as to the relative value of religious feeling and religious observances.  14
  He was primarily a courtier, and frankly self-seeking; but too tactless to win royal favor. Louis XIV. never cordially liked him, but he maintained a place at court chiefly through the friendship of the princes. The early death of the dauphin—previously Duke of Burgundy—he felt as most disastrous to his fortunes. But he allied himself to the Duke of Orléans, and was of the council of the Regency. He did his best to reform the profligate prince, and in return was offered the position as governor of young Louis XV., or that of Guard of the Seals, both of which he refused. He had entered upon public life very young, and most of his early associates who were older died before him. So did his wife and eldest son. Left to himself, he fell into debt. Finally it was intimated to him that his presence was no longer desired at court; and he went away to spend his remaining years either at his country seat, La Ferté, or at his hotel in Paris, and to busy himself in revising his memoirs.  15
  In writing these, Saint-Simon had found the greatest interest of his life. He was only nineteen when, while serving upon one of his German campaigns, he began the work that was to extend over nearly thirty years,—from 1694 to 1723. Memoirs had a peculiar fascination for him; and after reading those of Marshal de Bassompierre, he decided to keep a close account of people and events. He was too shrewd not to realize that no sincere expression would be possible if his enterprise were known; so throughout his long life he accomplished his daily record in secret. He wrote for a posterity whom he wished to have know the truth. Even Voltaire thought it unpatriotic to dim the glory of Versailles by showing what was base in its royal inmates. But Saint-Simon was no idealist. He considered himself a philosopher, a statesman, a historian; but he hardly merits these titles. Like La Bruyère, this “little duke with his cruel, piercing, unsatisfied eyes,” was pre-eminently a portrait painter. But La Bruyère was not a nobleman, nor of the company he describes, but there on sufferance as a retainer of the haughty Condés. Saint-Simon, on the contrary, felt his noble birth as a fact of vital importance, for which he must force recognition. The ruling thought of all his work is this insistence upon precedence. All his life he labored to extend the privileges of the peerage; and bitterly resented any social advance on the part of a bourgeois, as though with instinctive presentiment of the change even then impending. Even talent, when of humble origin, was contemptible in his eyes. Of Voltaire—whom he calls Arouet—he says slightingly: “The son of a notary who was my father’s lawyer, and has been mine.” He was supremely happy when he had brought about the Bed of Justice and effected the abasement of the illegitimate princes. He had long hated them because they took precedence of peers. To him the lower classes, the mass of the nation, only existed as a pedestal for nobility, and he never considers them as a factor in society.  16
  What would they all have done,—selfish adulated Louis, dignified Madame de Maintenon, hiding her resolute will under determined tact, the hoydenish princesses, the toadying lords and ladies,—if they had known of the presence of this “spy” upon their every gesture? He cared little for nature. Even Lenôtre’s beautifully conventionalized gardens pleased him less than a salon. “I examined everybody with my eyes and ears.” He notes the courtly manners, the gorgeous robes, the royal magnificence; and he also notes the underlying treachery and corruption. “He is like those dogs, which, without seeing him, scent and discover a robber hidden under a piece of furniture,” said Sainte-Beuve.  17
  He excels in sketching individuals, and in communicating to us their manner, appearance, personality. He can paint a great canvas too, and show us the entire court gathered for a ball in the Salle de Glaces, or about the bed of a dying prince. Instead of the flawless, magnificent pageant others have shown as the court life of Louis XIV., he stamped verisimilitude upon his glittering yet grewsome representations.  18
 
 
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