1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/About, Edmond François Valentin

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130601911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 1 — About, Edmond François ValentinFrank Thomas Marzials

ABOUT, EDMOND FRANÇOIS VALENTIN (1828–1885), French novelist, publicist and journalist, was born on the 14th of February 1828, at Dieuze, in Lorraine. The boy’s school career was brilliant. In 1848 he entered the École Normale, taking the second place in the annual competition for admission, Taine being first. Among his college contemporaries were Taine, Francisque, Sarcey, Challemel-Lacour and the ill-starred Prévost-Paradol. Of them all About was, according to Sarcey, the most highly vitalized, exuberant, brilliant and “undisciplined.” At the end of his college career he joined the French school in Athens, but if we may believe his own account, it had never been his intention to follow the professorial career, for which the École Normale was a preparation, and in 1853 he returned to France and frankly gave himself to literature and journalism. A book on Greece, La Grèce contemporaine (1855), which did not spare Greek susceptibilities, had an immediate success. In Tolla (1855) About was charged with drawing too freely on an earlier Italian novel, Vittoria Savelli (Paris, 1841). This caused a strong prejudice against him, and he was the object of numerous attacks, to which he was ready enough to retaliate. The Lettres d’un bon jeune homme, written to the Figaro under the signature of Valentin de Quévilly, provoked more animosities. During the next few years, with indefatigable energy, and generally with full public recognition, he wrote novels, stories, a play—which failed,—a book-pamphlet on the Roman question, many pamphlets on other subjects of the day, newspaper articles innumerable, some art criticisms, rejoinders to the attacks of his enemies, and popular manuals of political economy, L’A B C du travailleur (1868), Le progrès (1864). About’s attitude towards the empire was that of a candid friend. He believed in its improvability, greeted the liberal ministry of Émile Ollivier at the beginning of 1870 with delight and welcomed the Franco-German War. That day of enthusiasm had a terrible morrow. For his own personal part he lost the loved home near Saverne in Alsace, which he had purchased in 1858 out of the fruits of his earlier literary successes. With the fall of the empire he became a republican, and, always an inveterate anti-clerical, he threw himself with ardour into the battle against the conservative reaction which made head during the first years of the republic. From 1872 onwards for some five or six years his paper, the XIXᵉ Siècle, of which he was the heart and soul, became a power in the land. But the republicans never quite forgave the tardiness of his conversion, and no place rewarded his later zeal. On the 23rd January 1884 he was elected a member of the French Academy, but died on the 16th of January 1885, before taking his seat. His journalism—of which specimens in his earlier and later manners will be found in the two series of Lettres d’un bon jeune homme à sa cousine Madeleine (1861 and 1863), and the posthumous collection, Le dix-neuvième siècle (1892)—was of its nature ephemeral. So were the pamphlets, great and small. His political economy was that of an orthodox popularizer, and in no sense epoch-making. His dramas are negligible. His more serious novels, Madelon (1863), L’infâme (1867), the three that form the trilogy of the Vieille Roche (1866), and Le roman d’un brave homme (1880)—a kind of counterblast to the view of the French workman presented in Zola’s Assommoir—contain striking and amusing scenes, no doubt, but scenes which are often suggestive of the stage, while description, dissertation, explanation too frequently take the place of life. His best work after all is to be found in the books that are almost wholly farcical, Le nez d’un notaire (1862); Le roi des montagnes (1856); L’homme à l’oreille cassée (1862); Trente et quarante (1858); Le cas de M. Guérin (1862). Here his most genuine wit, his sprightliness, his vivacity, the fancy that was in him, have free play. “You will never be more than a little Voltaire,” said one of his masters when he was a lad at school. It was a true prophecy.  (F. T. M.)