Gosse's Gossip - PHARAMOND


PHARAMOND; or, The History of France. A New Romance. In four parts. Written originally in French, by the Author of Cassandra and Cleopatra: and now elegantly rendered into English. London: Printed by Ja: Cottrell for Samuel Speed, at the Rain-Bow in Fleetstreet, near the Inner Temple-Gate. (Folio.) 1662.

            There is no better instance of the fact that books will not live by good works alone than is offered by the utterly neglected heroic novels of the seventeenth century. At the opening of the reign of Louis XIV. in France, several writers, in the general dearth of prose fiction, began to supply the public in Paris with a series of long romances, which for at least a generation absorbed the attention of the ladies and reigned unopposed in every boudoir. I wonder whether my lady readers have ever attempted to realise how their sisters of two hundred years ago spent their time? In an English country-house of 1650, there were no magazines, no newspapers, no lawn tennis or croquet, no afternoon-teas or glee-concerts, no mothers' meetings or zenana missions, no free social intercourse with neighbours, none of the thousand and one agreeable diversions with which the life of a modern girl is diversified. On the other hand, the ladies of the house had their needlework to attend to, they had to "stitch in a clout," as it was called; they had to attend to the duties of a housekeeper, and, when the sun shone, they tended the garden. Perhaps they rode or drove, in a stately fashion. But through long hours they sat over their embroidery frames or mended the solemn old tapestries which lined their walls, and during these sedate performances they required a long-winded, polite, unexciting, stately book that might be read aloud by turns. The heroic novel, as provided by Gombreville, Calprenède, and Mlle. de Scudéry supplied this want to perfection.

            The sentiments in these novels were of the most elevated class, and tedious as they seem nowadays to us, it was the sentiments, almost more than the action, which fascinated contemporary opinion. Madame de Sévigné herself, the brightest and wittiest of women, confessed herself to be a fly in the spider's web of their attractions. "The beauty of the sentiments," she writes, "the violence of the passions, the grandeur of the events, and the miraculous success of their redoubtable swords, all draw me on as though I were still a little girl." In these modern days of success, we may still start to learn that the Parisian publisher of Le Grand Cyrus made 100,000 crowns by that work, from the appearance of its first volume in 1649 to its close in 1653. The qualities so admirably summed up by Madame de Sévigné were those which appealed most directly to public feeling in France. There really were heroes in that day, the age of chivalric passions had not passed, great loves, great hates, great emotions of all kinds, were conceivable and within personal experience. When La Rochefoucauld wrote to Madame de Longueville the famous lines which may be thus translated:


To win that wonder of the world,
A smile from her bright eyes,
I fought my King, and would have hurled
The gods out of their skies,


he was breathing the very atmosphere of the heroic novels. Their extraordinary artificial elevation of tone was partly the spirit of the age; it was also partly founded on a new literary ideal, the tone of Greek romance. No book had been read in France with greater avidity than the sixteenth-century translation of the old novel Heliodorus; and in the Polexandres and Clélies we see what this Greek spirit of romance could blossom into when grafted upon the stock of Louis XIV.

            The vogue of these heroic novels in England has been misstated, for the whole subject has but met with neglect from successive historians of literature. It has been asserted that they were not read in England until after the Restoration. Nothing is further from the truth. Charles I. read Cassandra in prison, while we find Dorothy Osborne, in her exquisite letters to Sir William Temple, assiduously studying one heroic novel after another through the central years of Cromwell's rule. She reads Le Grand Cyrus while she has the ague; she desires Temple to tell her "which amant you have most compassion for, when you have read what each one says for himself." She and the King read them in the original, but soon there arrived English translations and imitations. These began to appear a good deal sooner than bibliographers have been prepared to admit. Of the Astrée of D'Urfé—which, however, is properly a link between the Arcadia of Sidney and the genuine heroic novel—there was an English version as early as 1620. But, of the real thing, the first importation was Polexandre, in 1647, followed by Cassandra and Ibrahim in 1652, Artamenes in 1653, Cleopatra in 1654-8, and Clélie in 1655, all, it will be observed, published in England before the close of the Commonwealth.

            Dorothy Osborne, who had studied the French originals, turned up her nose at these translations. She says that they were "so disguised that I, who am their old acquaintance, hardly knew them." They had, moreover, changed their form. In France they had come out in an infinite number of small, manageable tomes. For instance, Calprenède published his Cléopatre in twenty-three volumes; but the English Cleopatra is all contained in one monstrous elephant folio. Artamenes, the English translation of Le Grand Cyrus, is worse still, for it is comprised in five such folios. Many of the originals were translated over and over again, so popular were they; and as the heroic novels of any eminence in France were limited in number, it would be easy, by patiently hunting the translations up in old libraries, to make a pretty complete list of them. The principal heroic novels were eight in all; of these there is but one, the Almahide of Mlle. de Scudéry, which we have not already mentioned, and the original publication of the whole school is confined within less than thirty years.

            The best master in a bad class of lumbering and tiresome fiction was the author of the book which is the text of this chapter. La Calprenède, whose full name was nothing less than Gautier de Costes de la Calprenède, was a Gascon gentleman of the Guards, of whose personal history the most notorious fact is that he had the temerity to marry a woman who had already buried five husbands. Some historians relate that she proceeded to poison number six, but this does not appear to be certain, while it does appear that Calprenède lived in the married state for fifteen years, a longer respite than the antecedents of madame gave him any right to anticipate. He made a great fame with his two huge Roman novels, Cassandra and Cleopatra, and then, some years later, he produced a third, Pharamond, which was taken out of early French history. The translator, in the version before us, says of this book that it "is not a romance, but a history adorned with some excellent flourishes of language and loves, in which you may delightfully trace the author's learned pen through all those historians who wrote of the times he treats of." In other words, while Gombreville—with his King of the Canaries, and his Vanishing Islands, and his necromancers, and his dragons—canters through pure fairyland, and while Mlle. de Scudéry elaborately builds up a romantic picture of her own times (in Clélie, for instance, where the three hundred and seventy several characters introduced are said to be all acquaintances of the author), Calprenède attempted to produce something like a proper historical novel, introducing invention, but embroidering it upon some sort of genuine framework of fact.

            To describe the plot of Pharamond, or of any other heroic novel, would be a desperate task. The great number of personages introduced in pairs, the intrigues of each couple forming a separate thread wound into the complex web of the plot, is alone enough to make any following of the story a great difficulty. On the fly-leaf of a copy of Cleopatra which lies before me, some dear lady of the seventeenth century has very conscientiously written out "a list of the Pairs of Lovers," and there are thirteen pairs. Pharamond begins almost in the same manner as a novel by the late Mr. G.P.R. James might. When the book opens we discover the amorous Marcomine and the valiant Genebaud sallying forth along the bank of a river on two beautiful horses of the best jennet-race. Throughout the book all the men are valiant, all the ladies are passionate and chaste. The heroes enter the lists covered with rubies, loosely embroidered over surcoats of gold and silk tissue; their heads "shine with gold, enamel and precious stones, with the hinder part covered with an hundred plumes of different colours." They are mounted upon horses "whose whiteness might outvie the purest snow upon the frozen Alps." They pierce into woodland dells, where they by chance discover renowned princesses, nonpareils of beauty, in imminent danger, and release them. They attack hordes of deadly pirates, and scatter their bodies along the shore; and yet, for all their warlike fire and force, they are as gentle as marmozets in a lady's boudoir. They are especially admirable in the putting forth of sentiments, in glozing over a subtle difficulty in love, in tying a knot of silk or fastening a lock of hair to their bonnet. They will steal into a cabinet so softly that a lady who is seated there, in a reverie, will not perceive them; they are so adroit that they will seize a paper on which she has sketched a couplet, will complete it, pass away, and she not know whence the poetical miracle has come. In valour, in courtesy, in magnificence they have no rival, just as the ladies whom they court are unique in beauty, in purity, in passion, and in self-denial. Sometimes they correspond at immense length; in Pharamond the letters which pass between the Princess Hunnimonde and Prince Balamir would form a small volume by themselves, an easy introduction to the art of polite letter-writing. Mlle. de Scudéry actually perceived this, and published a collection of model correspondence which was culled bodily from the huge store-house of her own romances, from Le Grand Cyrus and Clélie. These interchanges of letters were kept up by the severity of the heroines. It was not thought proper that the lady should yield her hand until the gentleman had exhausted the resources of language, and had spent years of amorous labour on her conquest. When Roger Boyle, in 1654, published his novel of Parthenissa, in four volumes, Dorothy Osborne objected to the ease with which the hero succeeded; she complains "the ladies are all so kind they make no sport."

            This particular 1662 translation of Pharamond appears to be very rare, if not unique. At all events I find it in none of the bibliographies, nor has the British Museum Library a copy of it. The preface is signed J.D., and the version is probably therefore from the pen of John Davies, who helped Loveday to finish his enormous translation of Cleopatra in 1665. In 1677 there came out another version of Pharamond, by John Phillips, and this is common enough. Some day, perhaps, these elephantine old romances may come into fashion again, and we may obtain a precise list of them. At present no corner of our literary history is more thoroughly neglected.[1]

            [Footnote 1: Since this was written, a French critic of eminence, M. Jusserand, has made (in The English Novel in the Time of Shakespeare, 1890) a delightful contribution to this portion of our literary history. The earlier part of the last chapter of that volume may be recommended to all readers curious about the vogue of the heroic novel. But M. Jusserand does not happen to mention Pharamond, nor to cover the exact ground of my little study.]


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