This is The Siècle, Episode 16: Romantiques.
Welcome back! This week we’re stepping away from our narrative to look at a cultural development in Restoration France: the burgeoning Romanticism movement in literature. This takes the form of an interview with Professor Philippe Moisan — my undergrad French professor.
Interestingly, while this is Episode 16 of The Siècle, it’s in some ways the very first episode of the show. I recorded this interview way back in May of 2018, after about five months of research into the show, but still six months before I announced it publicly, and eight months before Episode 1 was released. I happened to be back on campus, and arranged to meet Prof. Moisan for an interview. I’ve sat on it ever since, waiting for the right moment — which I feel has now arrived, as our narrative reaches the 1820s and figures such as Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo have entered the scene.
This interview is a casual conversation, in which both Moisan and I drop various references to historical figures and terms without always explaining them. If you’re ever confused, be sure to check out the transcript at thesiecle.com/episode16, to which I’ve added hyperlinks and footnotes to help explain anything uncertain. That’s t-h-e-s-i-e-c-l-e dot com.
Unlike most episodes of The Siècle, this interview requires fairly minimal background knowledge to comprehend, so if you like it, feel free to share it with your friends! If this is your first time listening to the show, then I’d encourage you to subscribe after this episode, and then go back to begin with Episode 1, which introduces France in 1814, in the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s downfall.
I’m so excited to share this with you, as it’s one of the favorite interviews I’ve ever conducted — chock full of fascinating insights and commentary about history, literary analysis and more. I hope you like it as much as I do!
THE SIÈCLE: For today’s episode, we’re going to be looking at the French literature of the early 19th Century. Now I’ll be honest: this is not my area of expertise. So I’ve brought on a guest who is an expert in this: Philippe Moisan, a professor of French at my alma mater, Grinnell College, in Iowa. Moisan is a native of Brittany with degrees from the Université de Caen and Washington University in St. Louis. He has published works on Victor Hugo, Chateaubriand, and Émile Zola, among other French authors. Professor Moisan, bienvenue.
PHILIPPE MOISAN: Thank you for having me.
SIÈCLE: Why don’t we start off with the big picture. What are the major trends and changes in French literature during the Restoration and this period in early 19th Century France.
Below: Poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine, artist unknown. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
MOISAN: Well, the main literary movement, of course, is Romanticism, which starts later than in other countries in France. It really starts with the publication of Les Méditations Poétiques,1 Poetical Meditations, by Lamartine, published in 1820. So Romanticism is going to dominate most of the period of the Restoration — which doesn’t mean it’s going to go without any problems of resistance from people call les anciens, people who were defending tradition, literary tradition. But it’s the main movement, Romanticism, yes.
SIÈCLE: Romanticism started earlier in Germany and other places.
MOISAN: Well, like you said, you’re not a specialist in [Romanticism], I’m not a specialist of German or English literature, but it started very early in Germany with Goethe, with Werther — I know the title in French, Souffrances du jeune Werther — Suffering of the Young Werther, or something like this, in I think as early as 1775, something like this.
In England in the early 19th Century with Byron, Shelley, it was predominant, way before France — mainly because young readers were busy with the Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. This is why it mainly started after the Revolution Era. Although there were authors like Chateaubriand who [anticipated] Romanticism, but it really started officially, as a literary movement, in the early ’20s in France.
SIÈCLE: Is it fair to talk about Romanticism as a single movement covering all of French literature at this point, or are there significant currents within this that are maybe unfair to lump together into one category?
MOISAN: There are other, older writers, but they are not read any more. So there are very few that we remember. Maybe the only one who is the link between the old generation and the new generation is Chateaubriand, who is in many aspects someone from the 18th Century — he started to write in the late 18th Century, and he is very, very popular at the beginning of the 19th Century. And he has a strange position because he’s admired by Victor Hugo. Victor Hugo, when he’s very young, has this sentence, when people ask him what he wants to be, he says, ‘I want to be Chateaubriand or nothing.’ Lamartine, he used to walk to Chateaubriand’s house and would climb on a tree and observe Chateaubriand in his house, in his garden, and so on. So he was admired. He is the link between the old generation and the new generation. There’s also Benjamin Constant. So there are older writers, but it’s the years where the new generation is rising slowly but surely.
Above: Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, “Chateaubriand Meditating on the Ruins of Rome.” After 1808. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
SIÈCLE: You’ve mentioned a couple of names so far. Why don’t you go through some of the major figures in the French literary movement in this period, sort of 1815 on, into the 1830s and ’40s — who are the big names people should know about?
MOISAN: Once again, Chateaubriand is still very important. But I would say the two most important names at this part of the Restoration period are, first of all, Lamartine, who is very important in poetry. He starts with Méditations Poétiques, and poems like Le lac, The Lake. He starts Romanticism in France. The second very important writer is, of course, Victor Hugo, who is going to be the main representative of this new genre, this new movement, Romanticism. And around Victor Hugo there’s a galaxy of several authors, like de Vigny, Musset a little bit later. So there are salons, or what they call a Cénacle, where they talk about literature. But the main characters, main people — Lamartine and Victor Hugo. Lamartine is more about poetry. Victor Hugo is also a poet, which was one of the main literary genres; then he writes plays. So theater is where you need to gain power to achieve what you want.
SIÈCLE: Talk about what characterized French Romanticism as a genre, as a movement, and what made it unique from what came before and what came after. What are the unique characteristics of French Romanticism?
MOISAN: Well, it’s a complicated and complex system of ideas. I will try to be simple. Basically, what is before Romanticism is Classicism. To characterize Classicism, in Classicism you need to respect a set of rules. In Romanticism, you more transgress these rules. In Classicism you judge the quality of a work, of a play, of a poem, if the play or poem respects the rules of the ancients, basically. In Romanticism, this is why it’s a literary revolution, you create everything. You break the old rules, whether it is in theater — in theater in France, for example, in Classicism you have this regle des trois unité, which is like the rules that the play needs to take place in one day, in one location, in one action. What Victor Hugo is going to do is to break these rules, for example. One of his plays, his most important play I would say in the Romantic era, is Hernani, which takes place in several locations, over the course of several years, or several months, at least, so it’s breaking the rules.
Above: Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard, “The Battle of Hernani,” 1830. This caricature depicts physical fights between supporters and opponents of the changes Hugo championed in his play Hernani at the play’s debut. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
I would say that the easy way to classify the difference between Classicism and Romanticism is, at least in France, one of the main tensions in plays, in novels, is the relationship to the father. Globally I would say that in a Classic play, it’s usually the father who kills the son. In Romanticism, it’s usually about the son who’s going to kill the father.
SIÈCLE: You talk about how Romanticism got a little bit of a late start in France. How long does it last? At what point can you say that Romanticism has faded and something new has taken its place?
MOISAN: Once again, it’s difficult — well, there are dates that people know, but it’s difficult to point out. There’s no 31st of December/Jan. 1 in a cultural movement, as you know. So it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly. But there are dates that are important, I would say several phases we can identify.
There is first of all the ’20s — the 1820s. When you’re a 19th Century specialist, “the ’20s” is the 1820s. I would say the ’20s is basically the build-up, the installation of Romanticism as a literary movement. So there’s a lot of resistance from les anciens, the Ancients, the traditionalists, and the new generation. I would say this is the build-up of this literary movement, the ’20s.
Then after Hernani, it’s clear that Romanticism is installed as a cultural movement. Not only in literature by the way, but also in painting, with Delacroix, La Liberté guidant le peuple is a painting from 1830 — and also, for example, in music with Chopin, for example. The ’30s are going to be the years where Romanticism is dominant, and dominates everything. Everyone, if you are 20 and older, you have to be, you are Romantic.
Right: Eugène Delacroix, “La Liberté guidant le peuple,” 1830. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Then it starts to fade away at the beginning of the 40s. Like usually, when there’s a new generation, they’re going to contest the power of the older generation. So there’s a slow decline throughout the ’40s. I think we can identify the end of Romanticism in literature with Flaubert and Madame Bovary, who, one of the main themes of Madame Bovary is to make fun of Romanticism.
SIÈCLE: So a figure like Victor Hugo wrote well beyond this period you’re talking about. Did he change with the changing currents, or did he continue to write in the same style with his later works that he was in his early works?
MOISAN: Well it’s a little bit of both, I would say. It’s true that Victor Hugo is unique in that sense because he doesn’t exactly the follow the breakdown of literary movements. If you have a novel like Les Misérables, for example, which was published in 1862, so a few years, five or six years after Madame Bovary, which is the first modern novel, Victor Hugo in many ways writes Les Misérables as if he was in the ’30s, a type of historical novel like Alexandre Dumas writes. So he’s a little bit, in some ways, [anachronistic] in that way. But at the same time, whether it is about the themes, where it takes place, Les Misérables is very much a very modern novel, too, because it talks about the political, cultural situation of the 19th Century.
SIÈCLE: You talked about how Romanticism had a difference in theme, in emphasis, in style from the earlier classic works. Were there differences in the use of language? Was the writing style itself changing, beyond the bigger picture?
MOISAN: Yes, completely. In Classicism, if you count the kind of words that are used, there are very few words used in Classicism — around 1,000, I don’t exactly remember. One of the revolutions of Victor Hugo is to introduce words that were not used at all in theatre. So a set of words, Victor Hugo said, “Je mis un bonnet rouges au dictionaire française”2 So he revolutionized the French language in literature of that period.
SIÈCLE: So it’s not the case that he was inventing words, but he was bringing words in that weren’t seen as acceptable in literature.
MOISAN: Exactly. They were words you couldn’t use in a French play or in a poem, for example. Victor Hugo introduced all kinds of words that were unknown before. It’s part of this theory that he develops in an essay, “Un préface de Cromwell,” or “Cromwell preface” — Cromwell was one of his plays — where he developed the idea of the literary concept of the harmonie contraire, harmony of the contrary, where the sublime and the grotesque need to be mixed together, and it creates something new, something beautiful. You see that in the use of the words. And you can see that in some ways in Les Misérables, a novel that everybody knows, where you could have the grotesque of Thérnardier, for example, and the sublime of the love between Marius and Cossette.
SIÈCLE: Let’s connect these literary trends to the political and economic situation that was happening at this time. Obviously France has just come off the incredibly chaotic and violent years of the French revolution and Napoleonic Wars. There’s a conservative order that’s ascended politically, but the bourgeoisie has a lot more rights and influence and money than they used to have. And France is also about to undergo an industrial revolution. How is French literature engaging with these changes in French society and politics?
Below: Louis-Auguste Bisson, “Honoré de Balzac,” 1842 (daguerrotype). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
MOISAN: Well, I would say that maybe it’s not during the Restoration that you see the influence of politics in literature, but more after, with Balzac, for example. Most of his novels, or many of them, take place during the Restoration. So you can see this cultural, economic movement shift in Balzac’s literature, where the bourgeoisie is rising. You cannot exist in Balzac’s novels, you cannot exist as a character if you don’t have any momey, if you don’t know how to gain money, have a job, you don’t exist as a character. When, for example, in Chateaubriand, there’s a famous novel called Atala. It’s a love story and to keep it short, at one moment, the two main characters, Chactas and Atala, are wandering in the American wilderness, which is described basically as a Garden of Eden. But at no point [do] they have a problem with food, or money — they can exist without the reality. I think the shift, and you see its characters exist in a society dominated by the bourgeoisie: you need to have money, you need to have a house, and all these materialistic details, to function as a character.
SIÈCLE: It’s interesting, talking about the relationship of these writers to French politics given that many of these writers, at one point or another, became heavily involved in French politics. Chateaubriand was a major Restoration figure. Lamartine was major in the Second Republic. Victor Hugo was a prominent critic of Napoleon III. Was there something unique about the stature of French literature that made this overlap between letters and politics so prominent?
MOISAN: I don’t know how far you can go, but there is a tradition of what we now call in France intellectuel, public figures who have written books who have a voice in the public sphere, political sphere. It started with the 18th Century, with Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, [who] were intellectuals, and [had] a discourse about the way society should be run. In many ways, Victor Hugo, Lamartine and Chateaubriand continue this tradition in the 19th Century. But the term intellectuel will arrive with the Dreyfus Affair, with Zola, when Zola will have a real political influence because of his status — because he wrote books, basically. People are going to listen to him because Zola didn’t have any political role, he wasn’t elected in any way, shape or form, but his intellectual power because he wrote novels. They continue, they are a part of this French tradition, I would say.
Above: The famous front page of L’Aurore in which the writer Émile Zola accused the French government of a miscarriage of justice in the Dreyfus Affair, beneath the headline “J’Accuse…!”. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
SIÈCLE: Some of the figures you mention — perhaps most notably Chateaubriand, but also a number of other figures — were also heavily involved in writing nonfiction at this time. Do you see that as something distinct from the literary changes in Romanticism, or the changes in the nonfiction works — Chateaubriand’s On Christianity and other topics, the various histories of the French Revolution that were written during this time by Guizot and Thiers — is that part of Romantic movement as well, or is that something different?
MOISAN: Well, I think that’s… a complicated issue, and very complex to deal with. But I would say it’s important to understand that what we could call the hierarchy between genres is completely different under the Restoration, and after the Restoration. To put it very simply, I would say that if you want to be, if you are young, usually these are men — that’s another question, but most of [19:38] … writers are male — if you are a young man in the 1820s, the main genre is poetry and theatre. Novel as a genre doesn’t exist, or is at the periphery of literature. It’s going to change completely with Balzac. Balzac is going to in many ways invent the modern novel. The genre is going to be, if you want to achieve something, you need to write novels, an important novel. I don’t know if it’s answering your question, but it’s more, I would say, fluid before Balzac, and less, I would say, after.
SIÈCLE: You mention, of course, that most of these writers are male. What can you say about the degree of diversity there was? Are these all men from a fairly narrow socio-economic class? Or were there a diversity of perspectives? I know there were a handful of female authors at the time. French literacy was still not universal at this point. How diverse was the French population of authors, and readers, at this time?
Below: Auguste Charpentier, “Portrait de George Sand,” 1838. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
MOISAN: It’s interesting about Romanticism, because many of the Romantic writers come from the aristocracy. De Musset, De Vigny, Lamartine, were all members of the aristocracy. There’s a paradox because the young members, some young members of this dying class, aristocracy, were presenting this new literary genre, at least at the beginning of Romanticism in France. So, aristocracy. But most of them would come from the bourgeoisie. The working class doesn’t exist yet. People who live in the country, they could read, but to be a writer, you need a library at home, this kind of thing. So it’s very much either a member of the aristocratic elite, or a young bourgeois. There are extremely few women — George Sand is probably the most famous one — but she’s the exception. She had, because of family, was very open-minded, she had access to a library, so it was completely different. She was unique.
SIÈCLE: Is there one author or work that you think really encapsulates the spirit of the times, of Romanticism in the 1820s, 1830s, 1840s in France?
MOISAN: Once again these are difficult questions. But I would say, I don’t know where to start. I would give several. I would say, someone, we didn’t talk about it, which is a novel, actually: The Red and the Black by Stendhal, Le Rouge et le Noir, which describes the tragic story of a young man, Julien Sorel. The novel takes place in the Restoration, during Romanticism. Julien Sorel is in many ways the archetype of a Romantic hero. So to understand how a Romantic hero or character functions, I think Julien Sorel would be a good character.
Above: Olof Södermark, “Marie-Henri Beyle” (better known as “Stendhal”), 1840. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
SIÈCLE: Talk a little bit more about The Red and the Black and this character, and why he’s such an archetypical example of the Romantic period.
MOISAN: Well, first of all, Julien Sorel exists in a society that is pretty much still dominated by the old classes — aristocracy and the clergy. He’s also a young man, in his 20s, who exists after the Napoleonic Era. Julien Sorel feels that, first of all, he cannot be a Napoleonic hero, the war is over, and the only way he can survive is to play with the system. This is one aspect that is important.
The second aspect is also the importance of love, love and the expression of the self — happiness is an essential part of Julien Sorel, the way he functions.
SIÈCLE: You’ve written about this period marking, ‘the end of humanism and the birth of modernity.’ What do you mean by that?
MOISAN: What is important during this period, I would say the Restoration — and actually another novel we can use to see this very well is Les Misérables, which is a novel which was published in 1862, but the action is mainly during the Restoration: the real action starts in 1815, and stops in 1833, 34. So it’s about the Restoration.
Below: Émile Bayard, “Young Cosette sweeping (1886 engraving for Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables), 1886. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.*
What you see during this period is basically the end of the Enlightenment. People have the Enlightenment, have read the French philosophers of the 18th Century, and they’re still using them, and there are many characters in Les Misérables who have the 18th Century as a foundation, intellectual foundation. But one of the ideas of Les Misérables is that the tools created by the 18th Century philosophers are not working, because the society is completely different. The 18th Century intellectuals were talking about a world that was essentially rural; the 19th Century is more and more urban. So the social problems that you have in the 18th Century are completely different from the problems that you have in the 19th Century. You can see this in Les Misérables. This is what I’m talking about, actually — the ‘end of humanism’ is basically the end of the way you see and can analyze the world in the beginning of the 19th Century.
Then you have the creation of new tools. We talk about ‘Pre-Romanticism’, we can talk about ‘Pre-Marxism’. You’re going to start to invent tools that will be able to solve or try to solve the problems of the 19th Century. This period is, once again, hard to pinpoint specific dates, but basically the first from the 1820s to the 1840s, there is sort of a no-man’s land between Enlightenment and Modernity.
SIÈCLE: The final major question I’d like to ask you: This is all obviously interesting for its own sake, but what’s the importance of this period in French literature? Why is it worth talking about and reading and discussing here in the 21st Century? Why is this enduring and not just a historical relic?
MOISAN: Once again, it’s a very difficult question to answer. Why is it important to read 19th Century literature? First of all, the problems are usually, I would say, universal. Many of the personal issues related to relations between men and women, love, desire, it is still pretty much exists. We have differences, but the bottom line is, we more or less function the same way as individuals.
In the same way there is kind of a universalism. Me, someone from China, someone from Spain, we are the same human. There’s a universalism throughout the period. I am the same person. There are many similarities between people who lived before me, and me. This is why it’s important, because there’s a dialogue we can have between generations and between centuries. This is why it’s important.
Also, because it’s an era that was, it’s the beginning of our modernity. It’s the beginning of democracy, human rights, all this movement, these ideas, were put in place during the 19th Century. So it’s important to understand maybe better our period. It gives us some templates.
SIÈCLE: I don’t think I could have summed up the purpose of this podcast better myself.
This has been a fascinating discussion. I’ll ask you one final question on the way out. For listeners who are interested and want to get in to French literature of this time, where would you recommend they start? What’s a book or author that you’d recommend as a good starting point?</i>
MOISAN: Once again, there are many. If they don’t know Les Misérables, they should read Les Misérables. They should read The Red & the Black by Stendhal. A very important book that we just mentioned, but which is very important and one of the best, probably, novel in my opinion ever, is Madame Bovary by Flaubert. These three would be a good start, but I understand there are many others and people would be mad at me for not mentioning them.
SIÈCLE: Well, Prof. Moisan, thank you very much for your time!
That’s the interview! My thanks to all of you for listening to and sharing the podcast, which has continued to grow. Again, if you’d like to learn more about the various figures and works discussed today, visit thesiecle.com/episode16 to read an annotated transcript. And if you’re not already following the show, I’d encourage you to subscribe and start listening from Episode 1!
Over the coming weeks I’m going to be releasing several bonus episodes of The Siècle, interesting discussions with other history podcasters about the similarities and differences between Restoration France and the places and times they cover. At some point in the next month will come the next full episode, a look at the international scene in post-Napoleonic Europe. Join me then for Episode 17: Europe in Concert.