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The square shape around the seriffed letter T is formed out of interlacing ribbons with terminal foliation of acanthus leaves and pomegranate buds. The decoration is created in thin black lines, leaving the letters, vines, and leaves white. It appears to be a wood engraving.

THOSE who can endure an excursion into the
backwaters of literature may contemplate,
neither too seriously nor too lengthily, the
career and writings of Barbey d’Aurevilly.
Very obscure in his youth, he lived so long,
and preserved his force so consistently, that
in his old age he became, if not quite a
celebrity, most certainly a notoriety. At
                                                  the close of his life—he reached his eighty-
first year— he was still to be seen walking the streets or haunting
the churches of Paris, his long, sparse hair flying in the wind, his
fierce eyes flashing about him, his hat poised on the side of his
head, his famous lace frills turned back over the cuff of his coat,
his attitude always erect, defiant, and formidable. Down to the
winter of 1888 he preserved the dandy dress of 1840, and never
appeared but as M. de Pontmartin has described him, in black satin
trousers, which fitted his old legs like a glove, in a flapping, brigand
wideawake, in a velvet waistcoat, which revealed diamond studs and a
lace cravat, and in a wonderful shirt that covered the most artful pair of
stays. In every action, in every glance, he seemed to be defying the
natural decay of years, and to be forcing old age to forget him by dint
of spirited and ceaseless self-assertion. He was himself the prototype
of all the Brassards and Misnilgrands of his stories, the dandy of
dandies, the mummied and immortal beau.

    His intellectual condition was not unlike his physical one. He was
a survival—of the most persistent. The last, by far the last, of the
Romantiques of 1840, Barbey d’Aurevilly lived on into an age wholly
given over to other aims and ambitions, without changing his own
ideals by an iota. He was to the great men who began the revival,
to figures like Alfred de Vigny, what Shirley was to the early Eliza-
bethans. He continued the old tradition, without resigning a single
habit or prejudice, until his mind was not a whit less old-fashioned
than his garments. Victor Hugo, who hated him, is said to have
edicated an unpublished verse to his portrait:

            ‘Barbey d’Aurevilly, formidable imbécile.’

But ‘imbécile’ was not at all the right word. He was absurd; he was
outrageous; he had, perhaps, by dint of resisting the decrepitude of his
natural powers, become a little crazy. But imbecility is the very last
word to use of this mutinous, dogged, implacable old pirate of letters.


    Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly was born near Valognes (the ‘V——’
which figures in several of his stories) on the 2nd of November 1808.
He liked to represent himself as a scion of the bluest nobility of Nor-
mandy, and he communicated to the makers of dictionaries the fact
that the name of his direct ancestor is engraved on the tomb of
William the Conqueror. But some have said that the names of his
father and mother were never known, and others (poor d’Aurevilly !)
have set him down as the son of a butcher in the village of Saint-
Sauveur-le-Vicomte. He was at college with Maurice de Guérin, and
quite early, about 1830 apparently, he became personally acquainted
with Chateaubriand. His youth seems to be wrapped up in mystery;
according to one of the best informed of his biographers, he vanished
in 1831, and was not heard of again until 1851. To these twenty
years of alleged disappearance one or two remarkable books of his
are, however, ascribed. It appears that what is perhaps the most
characteristic of all his writings, Du Dandyisme et de Georges Brummell,
was written as early as 1842; and in 1845 a very small edition of it was
printed by an admirer of the name of Trebutien, to whose affection
d’Aurevilly seems to have owed his very existence. It is strange that
so little is distinctly known about a man who, late in life, attracted
much curiosity and attention. He was a consummate romancer, and
he liked to hint that he was engaged during early life in intrigues of a
corsair description. The truth seems to be that he lived, in great
obscurity, in the neighbourhood of Caen, probably by the aid of
journalism. As early as 1825 he began to publish; but of all the pro-
ductions of his youth, the only one which can now be met with is the
prose poem of Amaïdée, written, I suppose, about 1835; this was pub-
lished by M. Paul Bourget as a curiosity immediately after Barbey
d’Aurevilly ’s death. Judged as a story, Amaïdée is puerile; it
describes how to a certain poet, called Somegod, who dwelt on a
lonely cliff, there came a young man altogether wise and stately
named Altar, and a frail daughter of passion, who gives her name to
the book. These three personages converse in magnificent language,
and, the visitors presently departing, the volume closes. But an
interest attaches to the fact that in Somegod (Quelque Dieu!) the
author was painting a portrait of Maurice de Guerin, while the majestic
Altar is himself. The conception of this book is Ossianic; but the
style is often singularly beautiful, with a marmoreal splendour founded
on a study of Chateaubriand and, perhaps, of Goethe, and not without
relation to that of Guérin himself.


    The earliest surviving production of d’Aurevilly, if we except
Amaïdée is L’ Amour Impossible, a novel published in 1841, with the
object of correcting the effects of the poisonous Lélia of George Sand.
Already, in this crude book, we see something of the Barbey d’Aure-
villy of the future, the Dandy-Paladin, the Catholic Sensualist or Dia-
volist, the author of the few poor thoughts and the sonorous, paroxysmal,
abundant style. I forget whether it is here or in a slightly later novel
that, in hastily turning the pages, I detect the sentiment, ‘Our fore-
fathers were wise to cut the throats of the Huguenots, and very stupid
not to burn Luther.’ The late Master of Balliol is said to have asked
a reactionary undergraduate, ‘What, Sir! would you burn, would you
burn?’ If he had put the question to Barbey d’Aurevilly, the scented
hand would have been laid on the cambric bosom, and the answer
would have been, ‘Certainly I should.’ In the midst of the infidel
society and literature of the Second Empire, d’Aurevilly persisted in
the most noisy profession of his entire loyalty to Rome, but his methods
of proclaiming his attachment were so violent and outrageous that the
Church showed no gratitude to her volunteer defender. This was a
source of much bitterness and recrimination, but it is difficult to see
how the author of Le Prêtré Marié and Une Histoire sans nom could
expect pious Catholics to smile on his very peculiar treatment of
ecclesiastical life.

    Barbey d’Aurevilly, none the less, deserves attention as really the
founder of that neo-catholicism which has now invaded so many
departments of French literature. At a time when no one else per-
ceived it, he was greatly impressed by the beauty of the Roman cere-
monial, and determined to express with poetic emotion the mystical
majesty of the symbol. It must be admitted that, although his work
never suggests any knowledge of or sympathy with the spiritual part
of religion, he has a genuine appreciation of its externals. It would be
difficult to point to a more delicate and full impression of the solemnity
which attends the crepuscular light of a church at vespers than is given
in the opening pages of A un Diner d’Athées. In L’Ensorcelée, too, we
find the author piously following a chanting procession round a church,
and ejaculating, ‘Rien nest beau comme cet instant solennel des cérémonies
catholiques. ’ Almost every one of his novels deals by preference with
ecclesiastical subjects, or introduces some powerful figure of a priest.
But it is very difficult to believe that his interest in it all is other
than histrionic or phenomenal. He likes the business of a priest
he likes the furniture of a church, but there, in spite of his vehemen


protestations, his piety seems to a candid reader to have begun and

    For a humble and reverent child of the Catholic Church, it must
be confessed that Barbey d’Aurevilly takes strange liberties. The
mother would seem to have had little control over the caprices of her
extremely unruly son. There is scarcely one of these ultra-catholic
novels of his which it is conceivable that a pious family would like to
see lying upon its parlour table. The Devil takes a prominent part in
many of them, for d’Aurevilly’s whim is to see Satanism everywhere,
and to consider it matter of mirth; he is like a naughty boy, giggling
when a rude man breaks his mother’s crockery. He loves to play with
dangerous and forbidden notions. In Le Prêtre Marié (which, to his
lofty indignation, was forbidden to be sold in Catholic shops) the hero
is a renegade and incestuous priest, who loves his own daughter, and
makes a hypocritical confession of error in order that, by that act of
perjury, he may save her life, as she is dying of the agony of knowing
him to be an atheist. This man, the Abbé Sombreval, is bewitched, is
possessed of the Devil, and so is Ryno de Marigny in Une vieille
Maîtresse, and Lasthénie de Ferjol in Une Histoire sans nom. This is
one of Barbey d’Aurevilly’s favourite tricks, to paint an extraordinary,
an abnormal condition of spirit, and to avoid the psychological difficulty
by simply attributing it to sorcery. But he is all the time rather
amused by the wickedness than shocked at it. In Le Bonheur dans le
Crime—the moral of which is that people of a certain grandeur of
temperament can be absolutely wicked with impunity—he frankly
confesses his partiality for la plaisanterie légèrcment sacrilège, and all
the philosophy of d’Aurevilly is revealed in that rash phrase. It is
not a matter of a wounded conscience expressing itself with a brutal
fervour, but the gusto of conscious wickedness. His mind is intimately
akin with that of the Neapolitan lady, whose story he was perhaps the
first to tell, who wished that it only were a sin to drink iced sherbet.
Barbey d’Aurevilly is a devil who may or may not believe, but who
always makes a point of trembling.

    The most interesting feature of Barbey d’Aurevilly’s temperament,
as revealed in his imaginative work, is, however, his preoccupation with
his own physical life. In his youth, Byron and Alfieri were the objects
of his deepest idolatry; he envied their disdainful splendour of passion;
and he fashioned his dream in poverty and obscurity so as to make
himself believe that he was of their race. He was a Disraeli—with
whom, indeed, he has certain relations of style—but with none of


Disraeli’s social advantages, and with a more inconsequent and violent
habit of imagination. Unable, from want of wealth and position, to
carry his dreams into effect, they became exasperated and intensified,
and at an age when the real dandy is settling down into a man of the
world, Barbey d’Aurevilly was spreading the wings of his fancy into
the infinite azure of imaginary experience. He had convinced himself
that he was a Lovelace, a Lauzun, a Brummell, and the philosophy of
dandyism filled his thoughts far more than if he had really been able
to spend a stormy youth among marchionesses who carried, set in
diamonds in a bracelet, the ends of the moustaches of viscounts. In
the novels of his maturity and his old age, therefore, Barbey d’Aurevilly
loved to introduce magnificent aged dandies, whose fatuity he dwelt
upon with ecstasy, and in whom there is no question that he saw
reflections of his imaginary self. No better type of this can be found
than that Vicomte de Brassard, an elaborate, almost enamoured, por-
trait of whom fills the earlier pages of what is else a rather dull story,
Le Rideau Cramoisi. The very clever, very immoral tale called Le
Plus Bel Amour de Don Juan—which relates how a superannuated but
still incredibly vigorous old beau gives a supper to the beautiful women
of quality whom he has known, and recounts to them the most piquant
adventure of his life—is redolent of this intense delight in the pro-
longation of enjoyment by sheer refusal to admit the ravages of age.
Although my space forbids quotation, I cannot resist repeating a
passage which illustrates this horrible fear of the loss of youth and the
struggle against it, more especially as it is a good example of
d’Aurevilly’s surcharged and intrepid style:

    ‘II n’y avail pas lk de ces jeunesses vert tendre, de ces petites damoiselles
qu’exécrait Byron, qui sentent la tartelette et qui, par la toumure, ne sent encore
que’des épluchettes, mais tons étés splendides et savoureux, plantureux automnes,
épanouissements a. plénitudes, seins éblouissants battant leur plien majestueux au
bord decouvert des corsages, et, sous les camees de 1’épaule nue, des bras de tout
galbe, mais surtout des bras puissants, de ces biceps de Sabines qui ont utté avec
les Remains, et qui seraient capables de s’entrelacer, pour l’arrêter, dans les rayons
de la roue du char de la vie.’

    This obsession of vanishing youth, this intense determination to
preserve the semblance and colour of vitality, in spite of the passage of
years, is, however, seen to greatest advantage in a very curious book
of Barbey d’Aurevilly’s, in some aspects, indeed, the most curious
which he has left behind him, Du Dandyisme et de Georges Brummell.
This is really a work of his early maturity, for it was printed in a small
private ’edition so long ago as ,845. It was no, published, however,


until 1861, when it may be said to have introduced its author to the
world of France. Later on he wrote a curious study of the fascination
exercised over La Grande Mademoiselle by Lauzun, Un Dandy d’avant
les Dandys, and these two are now published in one volume, which
forms that section of the immense work of d’Aurevilly which best
rewards the curious reader.

    Many writers in England, from Thomas Carlyle in Sartor Resartus
to our ingenious young forger of paradoxes, Mr. Max Beerbohm, have
dealt upon that semi-feminine passion in fatuity, that sublime attention
to costume and deportment, which marks the dandy. The type has
been, as d’Aurevilly does not fail to observe, mainly an English one.
We point to Lord Yarmouth, to Beau Nash, to Byron, to Sheridan, and,
above all, ‘à ce Dandy royal, S. M. Georges iv;’ but the star of each
of these must pale before that of Brummell. These others, as was said
in a different matter, had ‘other preoccupations,’ but Brummell was
entirely absorbed, as by a solemn mission, by the conduct of his person
and his clothes. So far, in the portraiture of such a figure, there is
nothing very singular in what the French novelist has skilfully and
nimbly done, but it is his own attitude which is so original. All other
writers on the dandies have had their tongues in their cheeks. If they
have commended, it is because to be preposterous is to be amusing.
When we read that ‘dandyism is the least selfish of all the arts,’
we smile, for we know that the author’s design is to be entertaining.
But Barbey d’Aurevilly is doggedly in earnest. He loves the great
dandies of the past as other men contemplate with ardour dead
poets and dead musicians. He is seriously enamoured of their mode
of life. He sees nothing ridiculous, nothing even limited, in their
self-concentration. It reminds him of the tiger and of the condor;
it recalls to his imagination the vast, solitary forces of Nature;
and when he contemplates Beau Brummell, his eyes fill with tears of
nostalgia. So would he have desired to live; thus, and not otherwise,
would he fain have strutted and trampled through that eighteenth
century to which he is for ever gazing back with a fond regret. ‘To
dress one’s self,’ he says, ‘should be the main business of life,’ and
with great ingenuity he dwells upon the latent but positive influence
which dress has had on men of a nature apparently furthest re-
moved from its trivialities; upon Pascal, for instance, upon Buffon,
upon Wagner.

    It was natural that a writer who delighted in this patrician ideal of
conquering man should have a limited conception of life. Women to


Barbey d’Aurevilly were of two varieties — either nuns or amorous
tigresses; they were sometimes both in one. He had no idea of soft
gradations in society: there were the tempestuous marchioness and
her intriguing maid on one side; on the other, emptiness, the sordid
hovels of the bourgeoisie. This absence of observation or recognition
of life d’Aurevilly shared with the other Romantiques, but in his
sinister and contemptuous aristocracy he passed beyond them all. Had
he lived to become acquainted with the writings of Nietzsche, he would
have hailed a brother-spirit, one who loathed democracy and the
humanitarian temper as much as he did himself. But there is no
philosophy in Barbey d’Aurevilly, nothing but a prejudice fostered and
a sentiment indulged.

    In referring to Nicholas Nickleby, a novel which he vainly endeavoured
to get through, d’Aurevilly remarks : ‘ I wish to write an essay on
Dickens, and at present I have only read one hundred pages of his
writings. But I consider that if one hundred pages do not give the
talent of a man, they give his spirit, and the spirit of Dickens is odious
to me.’ ‘ The vulgar Dickens,’ he calmly remarks in Journalistes et
Polémistes, and we laugh at the idea of sweeping away such a record
of genius on the strength of a chapter or two misread in Nicholas
Nickleby. But Barbey d’Aurevilly was not Dickens, and it really is
not necessary to study closely the vast body of his writings. The
same characteristics recur in them all, and the impression may easily
be weakened by vain repetition. In particular, a great part of the
later life of d’Aurevilly was occupied in writing critical notices and
studies for newspapers and reviews. He made this, I suppose, his
principal source of income; and from the moment when, in 1851, he
became literary critic to Le Pays to that of his death, nearly forty years
later, he was incessantly dogmatising about literature and art. He
never became a critical force, he was too violent and, indeed, too
empty for that; but a pen so brilliant as his is always welcome with
editors whose design is not to be true, but to be noticeable, and to
escape ‘the obvious.’ The most cruel of Barbey d’Aurevilly’s enemies
could not charge his criticism with being obvious. It is intensely
contentious and contradictory. It treats all writers and artists on the
accepted nursery principle of ‘Go and see what baby’s doing, and tell
him not to.’ This is entertaining for a moment; and if the shower of
abuse is spread broadly enough, some of it must come down on
shoulders that deserve it. But the ‘slashing’ review of yester-year is
dismal reading, and it cannot be said that the library of reprinted


criticism to which d’Aurevilly gave the general title of Les CEuvres et
les Homines is very enticing.

    He had a great contempt for Goethe and for Sainte-Beuve, in whom
he saw false priests constantly leading the public away from the true
principle of literary expression, ‘le couronnement, la gloire et la force
de toute critique, que je cherche en vain. A very ingenious writer, M.
Ernest Tissot, has paid Barbey d’Aurevilly the compliment of taking
him seriously in this matter, and has written an elaborate study on
what his criterium was. But this is, perhaps, to inquire too kindly. I
doubt whether he sought with any very sincere expectation of finding;
like the Persian sage, ‘he swore, but was he sober when he swore?’
Was he not rather intoxicated with his self-encouraged romantic exas-
peration, and determined to be fierce, independent, and uncompromising
at all hazards? Such are, at all events, the doubts awakened by his
indignant diatribes, which once amused Paris so much, and now influence
no living creature. Some of his dicta, in their showy way, are forcible.
La critique a pour blason la croix, la balance et la gloire;’ that is a
capital phrase on the lips of a reviewer, who makes himself the appointed
Catholic censor of worldly letters, and is willing to assume at once the
cross, the scales, and the sword. More of the hoof peeps out in
this: ‘La critique, c’est une intrépidité de l’esprit et du caractère! To a
nature like that of d’Aurevilly, the distinction between intrepidity and
arrogance is never clearly defined .

    It is, after all, in his novels that Barbey d’Aurevilly displays his
talent in its most interesting form. His powers developed late; and
perhaps the best constructed of all his tales is Une Histoire sans nom,
which dates from 1882, when he was quite an old man. In this, as in
all the rest, a surprising narrative is well, although extremely leisurely,
told, but without a trace of psychology. It was impossible for d’Aure-
villy to close his stories effectively; in almost every case, the futility
and extravagance of the last few pages destroys the effect of the rest.
Like the Fat Boy, he wanted to make your flesh creep, to leave you
cataleptic with horror at the end, but he had none of Poe’s skill in pro-
ducing an effect of terror. In Le Rideau Cramoisi (which is considered,
I cannot tell why, one of his successes) the heroine dies at an embarrass-
ing moment, without any disease or cause of death being suggested—
she simply dies. But he is generally much more violent than this; at
the close of A un Dîner d’Athées, which up to a certain point is an
extremely fine piece of writing, the angry parents pelt one another
with the mummied heart of their only child; in Le Dessons des Cartes,


the key of all the intrigue is discovered at last in the skeleton of an
infant buried in a box of mignonette. If it is not by a monstrous fact,
it is by an audacious feat of anti-morality, that Barbey d’Aurevilly
seeks to harrow and terrify our imaginations. In Le Bonheur dans le
Crime, Hauteclaire Stassin, the woman-fencer, and the Count of
Savigny, pursue their wild intrigue and murder the Countess slowly,
and then marry each other, and live, with youth far prolonged (d’Aure-
villy’s special idea of divine blessing), without a pang of remorse,
without a crumpled rose-leaf in their felicity, like two magnificent
plants spreading in the violent moisture of a tropical forest.

    On the whole, it is as a writer, pure and simple, that Barbey
d’Aurevilly claims most attention. His style, which Paul de Saint-
Victor (quite in his own spirit) described as a mixture of tiger’s blood
and honey, is full of extravagant beauty. He has a strange intensity,
a sensual and fantastic force, in his torrent of intertwined sentences
and preposterous exclamations. The volume called Les Diaboliques,
which contains a group of his most characteristic stories, published in
1874, may be recommended to those who wish, in a single example,
compendiously to test the quality of Barbey d’Aurevilly. He has a
curious love of punning, not for purposes of humour, but to intensify
his style: ‘Quel oubli et quelle oubliette’(Le Dessous des Cartes ), ‘bou-
doir fleur de pécher ou de péché’ (Le Plus Bel Amour), ‘renoncer à
l’amour malpropre, mats jamais à l’amour propre’ (A un Dîner d’Athées).
He has audacious phrases which linger in the memory: ‘Le Profil,
c’est l’écueil de la beauté’ (Le Bonheur dans le Crime ); ‘Les verres à
champagne de France , un lotus qui faisait [les Anglais] oublier les
sombres et religieuses habitudes de la patre;’ ‘Elle avait l’air
de monter vers Dieu, les mains toutes pleines de bonnes œuvres’

    That Barbey d’Aurevilly will take any prominent place in the
history of literature is improbable. He was a curiosity, a droll, obstinate
survival. We like to think of him in his incredible dress, strolling
through the streets of Paris, with his clouded cane like a sceptre in one
hand, and in the other that small mirror by which every few minutes
he adjusted the poise of his cravat, or the studious tempest of his hair.
He was a wonderful old fop or beau of the forties handed down to the
eighties in perfect preservation. As a writer he was fervid, sumptuous,
magnificently puerile; I have been told that he was a superb talker,
that his conversation was like his books, a flood of paradoxical, flam-
boyant rhetoric. He made a gallant stand against old age, he defied


it long with success, and when it conquered him at last, he retired to
his hole like a rat, and died with stoic fortitude, alone, without a friend
to close his eyelids. It was in a wretched lodging high up in a house
in the Rue Rousselet, all his finery cast aside, and three melancholy cats
the sole mourners by his body, that they found, on an April morning
of 1889, the ruins of what had once been Barbey d’Aurevilly.

                                                                                                EDMUND GOSSE.

MLA citation:

Gosse, Edmund. “Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly.” The Pageant, 1897, pp. 18-31. Pageant Digital Edition, edited by Frederick King and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2019-2021. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2021.