1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bourget, Paul Charles Joseph
BOURGET, PAUL CHARLES JOSEPH (1852– ), French novelist and critic, was born at Amiens on the 2nd of September 1852. His father, a professor of mathematics, was afterwards appointed to a post in the college at Clermont-Ferrand. Here Bourget received his early education. He afterwards studied at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and at the École des Hautes Études. In 1872–1873 he produced a volume of verse, Au bord de la mer, which was followed by others, the last, Les Aveux, appearing in 1882. Meanwhile he was making a name in literary journalism, and in 1883 he published Essais de psychologic contemporaine, studies of eminent writers first printed in the Nouvelle Revue, and now brought together. In 1884 Bourget paid a long visit to England, and there wrote his first published story (L’Irréparable). Cruelle Énigme followed in 1885; and André Cornelis (1886) and Mensonges (1887) were received with much favour. Le Disciple (1889) showed the novelist in a graver attitude; while in 1891 Sensations d’Italie, notes of a tour in that country, revealed a fresh phase of his powers. In the same year appeared the novel Cœur de femme, and Nouveaux Pastels, types of the characters of men, the sequel to a similar gallery of female types (Pastels, 1890). His later novels include La Terre promise (1892); Cosmopolis (1892), a psychological novel, with Rome as a background; Une Idylle tragique (1896); La Duchesse bleue (1897); Le Fantôme (1901); Les Deux Sœurs (1905); and some volumes of shorter stories—Complications sentimentales (1896), the powerful Drames de famille (1898), Un Homme fort (1900), L’Étape (1902), a study of the inability of a family raised too rapidly from the peasant class to adapt itself to new conditions. This powerful study of contemporary manners was followed by Un Divorce (1904), a defence of the Roman Catholic position that divorce is a violation of natural laws, any breach of which inevitably entails disaster. Études et portraits, first published in 1888, contains impressions of Bourget’s stay in England and Ireland, especially reminiscences of the months which he spent at Oxford; and Outre-Mer (1895), a book in two volumes, is his critical journal of a visit to the United States in 1893. He was admitted to the Academy in 1894, and in 1895 was promoted to be an officer of the Legion of Honour, having received the decoration of the order ten years before.
As a writer of verse Bourget was merely trying his wings, and his poems, which were collected in two volumes(1885–1887), are chiefly interesting for the light which they throw upon his mature method and the later products of his art. It was in criticism that his genius first found its true bent. The habit of close scientific analysis which he derived from his father, the sense of style produced by a fine ear and moulded by a classical education, the innate appreciation of art in all its forms, the taste for seeing men and cities, the keen interest in the oldest not less than the newest civilizations, and the large tolerance not to be learned on the boulevard—all these combined to provide him with a most uncommon equipment for the critic’s task. It is not surprising that the Sensations d’ltalie (1891), and the various psychological studies, are in their different ways scarcely surpassed throughout the whole range of literature. Bourget’s reputation as a novelist has long been assured. Deeply impressed by the singular art of Henry Beyle (Stendhal), he struck out on a new course at a moment when the realist school reigned without challenge in French fiction. His idealism, moreover, had a character of its own. It was constructed on a scientific basis, and aimed at an exactness, different from, yet comparable to, that of the writers who were depicting with an astonishing faithfulness the environment and the actions of a person or a society. With Bourget observation was mainly directed to the secret springs of human character. At first his purpose seemed to be purely artistic, but when Le Disciple appeared, in 1889, the preface to that remarkable story revealed in him an unsuspected fund of moral enthusiasm. Since then he has varied between his earlier and his later manner, but his work in general has been more seriously conceived. From first to last he has painted with a most delicate brush the intricate emotions of women, whether wronged, erring or actually vicious; and he has described not less happily the ideas, the passions and the failures of those young men of France to whom he makes special appeal.
Bourget has been charged with pessimism, and with undue delineation of one social class. The first charge can hardly be sustained. The lights in his books are usually low; there is a certain lack of gaiety, and the characters move in a world of disenchantment. But there is no despair in his own outlook upon human destiny as a whole. As regards the other indictment, the early stories sometimes dwell to excess on the mere framework of opulence; but the pathology of moral irresolution, of complicated affairs of the heart, of the ironies of friendship, in which the writer revels, can be more appropriately studied in a cultured and leisured society than amid the simpler surroundings of humbler men and women. The style of all Bourget’s writings is singularly graceful. His knowledge of the literature of other lands gives it a greater flexibility and a finer allusiveness than most of his contemporaries can achieve. The precision by which it is not less distinguished, though responsible for a certain over-refinement, and for some dull pages of the novels, is an almost unmixed merit in the critical essays. As a critic, indeed, either of art or letters, Bourget leaves little to be desired. If he is not in the very first rank of novelists, if his books display more ease of finished craftsmanship than joy in spontaneous creation, it must be remembered that the supreme writers of fiction have rarely succeeded as he has in a different field.
See also C. Lecigne, L’Évolution morale et religieuse de M. Paul Bourget (1903); Sargeret, Les Grands Convertis (1906). His Œuvres complètes began to appear in a uniform edition in 1899.