Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Jean Charles Léonard Simonde de Sismondi (1773–1842)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Humphrey J. Desmond (1858–1932)
WHEN the Edict of Nantes was revoked, the Simonde family, who were of the Huguenot faith, migrated from Dauphiné in France to Geneva, where they became citizens of the higher class. Here Jean Charles Léonard Simonde was born, May 9th, 1773. Noticing at the beginning of his literary career the similarity of his family arms with those of the noble Tuscan house of Sismondi, he adopted the name of Sismondi,—reverting, as he believed, to the original family name. Sismondi’s intellectual tastes came from his mother, a woman of superior mind and energy. Though the family were in good circumstances, his father served for a time as the village pastor of Bossex. The family mansion was at Châtelaine near Geneva; and here and in the schools of the republican city the future historian received his education.  1
  The period of his young manhood fell in troublous times. His father, trusting in the financial skill of Necker, had lost all his investments with the collapse of the Swiss banker. Young Sismondi cheerfully accepted the irksome duties of clerk in a Lyons counting-house. Then the French Revolution drove him back to Geneva; and revolutionary ideas invading Switzerland, the family fled to England in 1793. But Sismondi’s mother pined for the home and the society of happier days; and in the face of revolutionary dangers they returned to Geneva. Here a tragedy at Châtelaine, the family mansion,—the killing by Jacobin soldiers of a friend to whom they had given shelter,—led them to seek securer refuge in Italy; and they sold Châtelaine and settled down on a small estate at Pescia, near Lucca. For two years Sismondi lived, labored, and studied on his pleasant Italian farm. Though a man of moderate views and a lover of liberty, he could not escape the turmoil of the times. On four occasions he was imprisoned as a suspect: now by the French, who thought him an aristocrat, and now by the Italians, who thought him a Frenchman. In 1800 he returned to Geneva, which thereafter was his permanent home. Here he became the intimate friend of Madame de Staël, by whom he was greatly influenced; and he found himself at home in the circle of distinguished people surrounding this brilliant woman. With her he visited Italy in 1805, on the famous journey out of which she gave the world ‘Corinne.’ At Geneva he became Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce for the department of Leman; and always taking a keen interest in the political affairs of his native city, he served for many years in its Legislative Council. One of the episodes of his life was an interview with Napoleon after the latter’s return from Elba in 1815. Sismondi espoused the cause of the Emperor, and published a series of articles in the Moniteur in support of the counter-revolution.  2
  After Waterloo he visited his mother on the Tuscan farm which she had continued to occupy. Here he met Miss Allen, an English lady, sister-in-law of Sir James Mackintosh. Subsequently, in April 1819, he married her; and this union, though made late in life (he was then forty-six), and not blessed with children, appears to have been a happy one. He made his home at Chênes, a country-house near Geneva. His mother, who had exercised a great influence over him through all his manhood years, died in 1821. He found solace now in the assiduous historical labors he had undertaken, and which absorbed him almost up to the day of his death, June 25th, 1842.  3
  The collected writings of Sismondi comprise sixty volumes, and touch upon a wide variety of subjects. His earliest work, on the ‘Agriculture of Tuscany’ (Geneva, 1801), was the result of his experiences on his Pescia farm.  4
  During his sojourn in England he acquired the English language; and the influence of his acquaintance with the writings of Adam Smith is apparent in a work on ‘Commercial Wealth’ which he published at Geneva in 1803. Later on he completely changed his economic opinions, as was evident in an article on ‘Political Economy’ which he contributed in 1817 to the Edinburgh Encyclopædia. Subsequently, in 1819, his ‘New Views of Political Economy’ was published in three volumes; and in 1836 he published his ‘Studies in Social Science,’ two volumes of which are entirely devoted to political economy.  5
  It is however as a historian that Sismondi made his first and lasting impression in literature. His ‘History of the Italian Republics,’ in sixteen volumes, appeared between the years 1803 and 1819; and that work being finished, he then turned to his still bulkier task, the ‘History of the French,’ which occupied his time from 1818 to the year of his death in 1842, and of which twenty-nine volumes were published. The amount of labor which he gave to these works was prodigious. Speaking of his ‘History of the Italian Republics,’ he says: “It was a work which continued for at least eight hours a day during twenty years. I was obliged constantly to read and converse in Italian and Latin, and occasionally in French, German, Portuguese, and Provençal.” It required untiring research. “I have nine times,” he says, “traversed Italy in different directions, and have visited nearly all places which were the theatres of any great event. I have labored in almost all the great libraries, I have searched the archives in many cities and many monasteries.” Dealing as he did with an infinity of details, it is not to be wondered at that as he went more and more into the Middle Age chronicles of petty Italian wars and conspiracies, his ardor cooled. The work was not, in its reception, a flattering success. However, the author was encouraged to persevere. His ‘History of the French’ extends from the reign of Clovis to the accession of Louis XVI., covering a period of nearly thirteen centuries.  6
  As a historian, Sismondi, though laborious and painstaking, suffers by comparison with the better work done by later writers, who have covered the same ground with a better perspective and a truer historical grasp, with more literary genius, and with the advantage of access to archives and original documents denied the Genevan. “More recent investigations,” says President Adams in his ‘Manual of Historical Literature,’ “have thrown new light on Italian affairs of the Middle Ages, and consequently Sismondi’s work cannot be regarded as possessing all its former value.” His ‘History of the French’ was soon entirely superseded by the greater work of Henri Martin. Sainte-Beuve, in one of his ‘Lundis’ devoted to Sismondi, rather sarcastically refers to him as “the Rollin of French history.”  7
  The general spirit of his historical writings is made apparent in the following extract from the close of his ‘History of the French’:
          “I am a republican; but while preserving that ardent love of liberty transmitted to me by my ancestors, whose fate was united with that of two republics, and a hatred of every kind of tyranny, I hope I have never shown a want of respect for those time-honored and lofty recollections which tend to foster virtue in noble blood, or for that sublime devotion in the chiefs of nations which has often reflected lustre on the annals of a whole people.”
  He seems, however, in later years, to have become somewhat reactionary in his views; and this brought him into unpleasant relations with his neighbors. When France demanded the expulsion from Switzerland of Prince Louis Napoleon, the citizens of Geneva were particularly opposed to so inhospitable a measure. Sismondi believed the demand should be granted. Threats were made against his life, and his native city became for him a dangerous place of residence. Then, the overturning of the ancient constitution of Geneva by the democratic revolution of November 1841, was a bitter grief to him.  9
  Outside of his historical work, Sismondi was engaged in the year 1810 to furnish the publishers of the ‘Biografia Universale’ with the lives of distinguished Italians; for which, we are informed, he was paid six francs per article. At the conclusion of this task he prepared a course of lectures on the ‘Literature of the South of Europe,’ which he delivered at Geneva in 1811. This in the year 1814 was the basis of a work in four volumes,—written, as Hallam tells us, “in that flowing and graceful style which distinguishes the author, and succeeding in all that it seeks to give,—a pleasing and popular, yet not superficial or unsatisfactory, account of the best authors in the Southern languages.” In 1822 he published a historical novel in three volumes, called ‘Julia Severa,’ purporting to show the condition of France under Clovis; and in 1832 he condensed his ‘History of the Italian Republics’ into one volume. M. Mignet, in his eulogy read in 1845 before the Royal Academy of Sciences, says of Sismondi: “For half a century he has thought nothing that is not honorable, written nothing that is not moral, wished nothing that is not useful. Thus has he left a glorious memory, which will be forever respected.”  10

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.