1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Heroic Romances

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21831551911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 13 — Heroic RomancesEdmund William Gosse

HEROIC ROMANCES, the name by which is distinguished a class of imaginative literature which flourished in the 17th century, principally in France. The beginnings of modern fiction in that country took a pseudo-bucolic form, and the celebrated Astrée (1610) of Honoré d’Urfé (1568–1625), which is the earliest French novel, is properly styled a pastoral. But this ingenious and diffuse production, in which all is artificial, was the source of a vast literature, which took many and diverse forms. Although its action was, in the main, languid and sentimental, there was a side of the Astrée which encouraged that extravagant love of glory, that spirit of “panache,” which was now rising to its height in France. That spirit it was which animated Marin le Roy, sieur de Gomberville (1600–1674), who was the inventor of what have since been known as the Heroical Romances. In these there was experienced a violent recrudescence of the old medieval elements of romance, the impossible valour devoted to a pursuit of the impossible beauty, but the whole clothed in the language and feeling and atmosphere of the age in which the books were written. In order to give point to the chivalrous actions of the heroes, it was always hinted that they were well-known public characters of the day in a romantic disguise.

In the Astrée of Honoré d’Urfé, which was a pure pastoral, in the religious romances of Pierre Camus (1582–1653), in the comic Francion of Charles Sorel, piquancy had been given to the recital by this belief that real personages could be recognized under the disguises. But in the Carithée of Gomberville (1621) we have a pastoral which is already beginning to be a heroic romance, and a book in which, under a travesty of Roman history, an appeal is made to an extravagantly chivalrous enthusiasm. A further development was seen in the Polyxène (1623) of François de Molière, and the Endymion (1624) of Gombauld; in the latter the elderly queen, Marie de’ Medici, was celebrated under the disguise of Diana, for whom a beautiful shepherd of Caria (the author himself) nourishes a hopeless passion. The earliest of the Heroic Romances, pure and simple, is, however, the celebrated Polexandre (1629) of Gomberville. The author began by intending his hero to represent Louis XIII., but he changed his mind, and drew a portrait of Cardinal Richelieu. In this novel, for the first time, the romantic character proper to this class of books is seen undiluted; there is no intrusion of a personage who is not celebrated for his birth, his beauty or his exploits. The story deals with the adventures of a hero who visits all the sea-coasts of the world, the most remote as well as the most fabulous, in search of an ineffable princess, Alcidiane. This absurd and pretentious, yet very original piece of invention enjoyed an immense success, and historical romances of a similar class competed for the favour of the public. There was an equal amount of geography and more of ancient history in the Ariane (1632) of Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin (1595–1676), a book which, long neglected, has in late years been rediscovered, and which has been greeted by M. Paul Morillot as the most readable and the least tiresome of all the Heroic Romances. The type of that class of literature, however, has always been found in the highly elaborate writings of Gauthier de Coste de la Calprenède (1609–1663), which enjoyed for a time a prodigious celebrity, and were read and imitated all over Europe. La Calprenède was a Gascon soldier, imbued with all the extravagance of his race, and in full sympathy with the audacity and violence of the aristocratic society of France in his day. His Cassandre, which appeared in ten volumes between 1642 and 1645, is perhaps the most characteristic of all the Heroic Romances. It deals with a highly romantic epoch of ancient history, the decline of the empire of Alexander the Great. The wars of the Persians and of the Scythians are introduced, and among the characters are discovered such personages as Artaxerxes, Roxana and Ephestion. It must not be supposed, however, that la Calprenède makes the smallest effort to deal with the subject accurately or realistically. The figures are those of his own day; they are seigneurs and great ladies of the court of Louis XIII., masquerading in Macedonian raiment. The passion of love is dominant throughout, and it is treated in the most exalted and hyperbolical spirit. The central heroes of the story, Oroondate and Lysimachus, are dignified, eloquent and amorous; they undergo unexampled privations in the quest of incomparable ladies whose beauty and whose nobility is only equalled by their magnificent loyalty. These books were written with an aim that was partly didactic. Their object was to entertain the ladies and to gratify a taste for endlessly wire-drawn sentimentality, but it was also to teach fortitude and grandeur of soul and to inculcate lessons of practical chivalry. La Calprenède followed up the success of his Cassandre with a Cléopâtre (1647) in twelve volumes, and a Faramond (1661) which he did not live to finish. He became more extravagant, more rhapsodical as he proceeded, and he lost all the little hold on history which he had ever held. Cléopâtre, nevertheless, enjoyed a prodigious popularity, and it became the fashion to emulate as far as possible the prowess of its magnificent hero, the proud Artaban. It should be said that la Calprenède objected to his books being styled romances, and insisted that they were specimens of “history embellished with certain inventions.” He may, in opposition to his wishes, claim the doubtful praise of being, in reality, the creator of the modern historical novel. He was immediately imitated or accompanied by a large number of authors, of whom two have achieved a certain immortality, which, unhappily, must be confessed to be partly of ridicule. The vogue of the historical romance was carried to its height by a brother and a sister, Georges de Scudéry (1601–1667) and Madeleine de Scudéry (1608–1701), who represented in their own persons all the extravagant, tempestuous and absurd elements of the age, and whose elephantine romances remain as portents in the history of literature. These novels—there are five of them—were signed by Georges de Scudéry, but it is believed that all were in the main written by Madeleine. The earliest was Ibrahim, ou l’Illustre Bassa (1641); it was followed by Le Grand Cyrus (1648–1653) and the final, and most preposterous member of the series was Clélie (1649–1654). The romances of Mlle de Scudéry (for to her we may safely attribute them) are much inferior in style to those of la Calprenède. They are pretentious, affected and sickly. The author abuses the element of analysis, and pushes a psychology, which was beyond the age in penetration, to a wearisome and excessive extent. Nothing, it is probable, in the whole evolution of the Historical Romances has attracted so much attention as the “Carte de Tendre” which occurs in the opening book of Clélie. This celebrated map, drawn by the heroine in order to show the route from New Friendship to Tender, and a geographical symbol, therefore, of the progress of love, with its city of Tender-upon-Esteem, its sea of Enmity, its river of Inclination, its rock-built citadel of Pride, its cold lake of Indifference, is a miracle of elaborate and incongruous ingenuity. But, amusing as it is, it shows into what depths of puerility the amorous casuistry of these romances had fallen. These novels formed the chief topic of conversation and of correspondence in the literary society which gathered at and around the Hotel de Rambouillet, and in the personages of Mlle de Scudéry’s romances could be recognized all the famous leaders of that society. The mawkish love-making and the false heroism of these monstrous novels went rapidly out of fashion in France soon after 1660, when the epoch of the Heroic Romance came to an end. In England the Heroic Romance had a period of flourishing popularity. All the principal French examples were very promptly translated, and “he was not to be admitted into the academy of wit who had not read Astrea and The Grand Cyrus.” The great vogue of these books in England lasted from about 1645 to 1660. It led, of course, to the composition of original works in imitation of the French. The most remarkable and successful of these was Parthenissa, published in 1654 by Roger Boyle, Lord Broghill and afterwards Earl of Orrery (1621–1679), which was greatly admired by Dorothy Osborne and her correspondents. Addison speaks in the “Spectator” of the popularity of all these huge books, “the Grand Cyrus, with a pin stuck in one of the middle leaves, Clélie, which opened of itself in the place that describes two lovers in a bower.” When the drama, and in particular tragedy, was reinstituted in England, sentimental readers found a field for their emotions on the stage, and the heroic romances immediately began to go out of fashion. They lingered, however, for a quarter of a century more, and M. Jusserand has analysed what may be considered the very latest of the race, Pandion and Amphigenia, published in 1665 by the dramatist, John Crowne.

See Gordon de Percel, De l’usage des romans (1734); André Le Breton, Le Roman au XVII e siècle (1890); Paul Morillot, Le Roman en France depuis 1610 (1894); J. J. Jusserand, Le Roman anglais au XVII e siècle (1888).  (E. G.)