1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Daudet, Alphonse
DAUDET, ALPHONSE (1840–1897), French novelist, was born at Nîmes on the 13th of May 1840. His family, on both sides, belonged to the bourgeoisie. The father, Vincent Daudet, was a silk manufacturer—a man dogged through life by misfortune and failure. The lad, amid much truancy, had but a depressing boyhood. In 1856 he left Lyons, where his schooldays had been mainly spent, and began life as an usher at Alais, in the south. The position proved to be intolerable. As Dickens declared that all through his prosperous career he was haunted in dreams by the miseries of his apprenticeship to the blacking business, so Daudet says that for months after leaving Alais he would wake with horror thinking he was still among his unruly pupils. On the 1st of November 1857 he abandoned teaching, and took refuge with his brother Ernest, only some three years his senior, who was trying, “and thereto soberly,” to make a living as a journalist in Paris. Alphonse betook himself to his pen likewise,—wrote poems, shortly collected into a small volume Les Amoureuses (1858), which met with a fair reception,—obtained employment on the Figaro, then under Cartier de Villemessant’s energetic editorship, wrote two or three plays, and began to be recognized, among those interested in literature, as possessing individuality and promise. Morny, the emperor’s all-powerful minister, appointed him to be one of his secretaries,—a post which he held till Morny’s death in 1865,—and showed him no small kindness. He had put his foot on the road to fortune.
In 1866 appeared Lettres de mon moulin, which won the attention of many readers. The first of his longer books, Le petit chose (1868), did not, however, produce any very popular sensation. It is, in its main feature, the story of his own earlier years told with much grace and pathos. The year 1872 produced the famous Aventures prodigieuses de Tartarin de Tarascon, and the three-act piece L’Arlésienne. But Fromont jeune et Risler aîné (1874) at once took the world by storm. It struck a note, not new certainly in English literature, but comparatively new in French. Here was a writer who possessed the gift of laughter and tears, a writer not only sensible to pathos and sorrow, but also to moral beauty. He could create too. His characters were real and also typical; the ratés, the men who in life’s battle had flashed in the pan, were touched with a master hand. The book was alive. It gave the illusion of a real world. Jack, the story of an illegitimate child, a martyr to his mother’s selfishness, which followed in 1876, served only to deepen the same impression. Henceforward his career was that of a very successful man of letters,—publishing novel on novel, Le Nabab (1877), Les Rois en exil (1879), Numa Roumestan (1881), Sapho (1884), L’Immortel (1888),—and writing for the stage at frequent intervals,—giving to the world his reminiscences in Trente ans de Paris (1887), and Souvenirs d’un homme de lettres (1888). These, with the three Tartarins,—Tartarin the mighty hunter, Tartarin the mountaineer, Tartarin the colonist,—and the admirable short stories, written for the most part before he had acquired fame and fortune, constitute his life work.
Though Daudet defended himself from the charge of imitating Dickens, it is difficult altogether to believe that so many similarities of spirit and manner were quite unsought. What, however, was purely his own was his style. It is a style that may rightly be called “impressionist,” full of light and colour, not descriptive after the old fashion, but flashing its intended effect by a masterly juxtaposition of words that are like pigments. Nor does it convey, like the style of the Goncourts, for example, a constant feeling of effort. It is full of felicity and charm,—un charmeur Zola has called him. An intimate friend of Edmond de Goncourt (who died in his house), of Flaubert, of Zola, Daudet belonged essentially to the naturalist school of fiction. His own experiences, his surroundings, the men with whom he had been brought into contact, various persons who had played a part, more or less public, in Paris life—all passed into his art. But he vivified the material supplied by his memory. His world has the great gift of life. L’Immortel is a bitter attack on the French Academy, to which august body Daudet never belonged.
Daudet wrote some charming stories for children, among which may be mentioned La Belle Nivernaise, the story of an old boat and her crew. His married life—he married in 1867 Julia Allard—seems to have been singularly happy. There was perfect intellectual harmony, and Madame Daudet herself possessed much of his literary gift; she is known by her Impressions de nature et d’art (1879), L’Enfance d’une Parisienne (1883), and by some literary studies written under the pseudonym of Karl Steen. In his later years Daudet suffered from insomnia, failure of health and consequent use of chloral. He died in Paris on the 17th of December 1897.
The story of Daudet’s earlier years is told in his brother Ernest Daudet’s Mon frère et moi. There is a good deal of autobiographical detail in Daudet’s Trente ans de Paris and Souvenirs d’un homme de lettres, and also scattered in his other books. The references to him in the Journal des Goncourt are numerous. See also L. A. Daudet, Alphonse Daudet (1898), and biographical and critical essays by R. H. Sherard (1894); by A. Gerstmann (1883); by B. Diederich (1900); by A. Hermant (1903), and a bibliography by J. Brivois (1895); also The Works of Alphonse Daudet, translated by L. Ensor, H. Frith, E. Bartow (1902, etc.). Criticism of Daudet is also to be found in F. Brunetière, Le Roman naturaliste (new ed., 1897); J. Lemaître, Les Contemporains (vols. ii. and iv.); G. Pellissier, Le Mouvement littéraire au XIX e siècle (1890); A. Symons, Studies in Prose and Verse (1904). (F. T. M.)