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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Alphonse Esquiros (1812–1876)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
“IF my hair must turn gray, a thousandfold sooner let it be with the dust of highways than that of musty tomes,” said Alphonse Esquiros; and the words show an energy which always longed to accomplish something of practical utility, and which expended itself in too many directions to be adequately successful in any one. For his contribution to literature is too meritorious not to win appreciation, yet so scanty that we wonder why he did not leave us more.  1
  Esquiros first made himself known as a poet. He was very young—only twenty—when his little volume of odes and sonnets, ‘Les Hirondelles,’ attracted Victor Hugo’s admiration and friendship. “A true poet’s book,” Hugo called it; “the fair beginning of a young man; a swarm of charming verses on radiant wing.”  2
  Then Esquiros engaged in journalism, and at the same time prepared a historical novel, ‘Charlotte Corday,’ founded on the tragic life of the Revolutionary heroine. This true story, strengthened by an imagination which presented both Charlotte and her victim Marat sympathetically, was very popular. Esquiros invested both murderous figures with a fine ideality which made them seem victims rather than sinners; and he made them symbolic too,—their final meeting the inevitable clash between the Gironde and the Mountain. In the simple, direct style there is no falsetto; and yet, as has been pointed out, Esquiros here deserts the crisp French romanticism for a touch of the sentiment we associate with our English Laurence Sterne.  3
  With his skill in story-telling and his poetic quality, his feeling for delicate emotion and grace of form, Esquiros combined much of the reformer’s spirit; and that brought him into trouble. The same year that ‘Charlotte Corday’ appeared (1840), he published too ‘L’Évangile du Peuple,’ a religious and political work, in which Jesus is portrayed as a socialistic reformer in harmony with revolutionary spirits. Naturally, this revival of revolutionary thinking was disapproved by the government, and its author was severely punished. He was sentenced to the payment of a fine of 500 francs and to an imprisonment of eight months. While confined in Sainte-Pélagie he diverted himself with poetic composition, and wrote ‘Les Chants du Prisonnier,’ pretty reminiscences of his early life. He wrote, too, several semi-socialistic works,—‘Les Vierges Martyres’ (The Virgin Martyrs), ‘Les Vierges Folles’ (The Foolish Virgins), and ‘Les Vierges Sages’ (The Wise Virgins).  4
  Esquiros was a Parisian, and much of his life was spent in the center of the political storms of his country. He was ardently patriotic, and his mind was always strongly diverted from literature to politics, in which he stoutly advocated radical and socialistic reform. Soon after his release he became a democratic member in the Legislative Assembly, where he continued until, upon the overthrow of the government, he found himself exiled.  5
  His series of historical and political works,—‘L’Histoire des Montagnards’ (History of the Montagnards: 1847), ‘L’Histoire des Martyrs de la Liberté’ (History of the Martyrs of Liberty: 1851), and ‘La Vie Future au Point de Vue Socialiste’ (The Future Life from the Socialist’s Standpoint: 1857),—although often eloquent and always earnest, are considered superficial in thought. He was a man of feeling and imagination rather than of analysis and synthesis, and philosophy was not his true vocation. One quality in which he excelled found exercise now that he was sent away from France: he had the faculty, not usual with Frenchmen, of understanding a foreign point of view, of studying other lands and peoples with intuitive sympathy. For years he lived in England, where he made many friends and was for some time professor of French literature at Woolwich. He thoroughly investigated the different interests and industries of the country, the various forms of religion, the departments of government, the army and navy; and obtained a just and comprehensive knowledge of English life, which he embodied in serious and interesting studies which ran through a long series in the Revue des Deux Mondes. They were translated into English, and in book form, ‘L’Angleterre et la Vie Anglaise’ (England and English Life), and ‘Les Moralistes Anglaises’ (The English Moralists), were greatly enjoyed on both sides of the Channel.  6
  He spent some time in Holland too, and of this one result was a delightful volume, ‘La Néerlande et la Vie Hollandaise’ (The Netherlands and Dutch Life: 1861), in which he gathered together a great deal of information about that interesting little land and gave it graphic presentation. This too was translated into English, and ‘The Dutch at Home’ is still a popular book.  7
  In 1869 Esquiros returned to France, and was soon after elected democratic deputy from Bouches-du-Rhône. The next year came the downfall of the Empire, after which he was appointed Administrateur Supérieur from the same department. Something about Esquiros is suggestive of Malesherbes; and in this position he showed similar integrity and fearless energy, until like Malesherbes his virtues proved his own undoing, and he was driven to resign.  8
  The narrative talent which makes his works on foreign lands such pleasant reading, and his two novels ‘Charlotte Corday’ and ‘Le Magicien’ always interesting, is especially striking in his one little volume of short stories. ‘Le Château Enchanté’ (The Enchanted Castle), ‘Le Mariage Fatal’ (The Fatal Marriage), and the others, are romantic tales, told with a convincing simplicity and earnest realization of the pathos of human life. Perhaps, on the whole, the most striking quality of Alphonse Esquiros was his broad sympathy.  9

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