1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Marivaux, Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de
MARIVAUX, PIERRE CARLET DE CHAMBLAIN DE (1688–1763), French novelist and dramatist, was born at Paris on the 4th of February 1688. His father was a financier of Norman extraction whose real name was Carlet, but who assumed the surname of Chamblain, and then superadded that of Marivaux. M. Carlet de Marivaux was a man of good reputation, and he received the appointment of director of the mint at Riom in Auvergne, where and at Limoges the young Pierre was brought up. It is said that he developed literary tastes early, and wrote his first play, the Père prudent et équitable, when he was only eighteen; it was not, however, published till 1712, when he was twenty-four. His chief attention in those early days was paid to novel writing, not the drama. In the three years from 1713 to 1715 he produced three novels—Effets surprenants de la sympathie; La Voiture embourbée, and a book which had three titles—Pharsamon, Les Folies romanesques, and Le Don Quichotte moderne. All these books were in a curious strain, not in the least resembling the pieces which long afterwards were to make his reputation, but following partly the Spanish romances and partly the heroic novels of the preceding century, with a certain intermixture of the marvellous. Then Marivaux’s literary ardour took a new phase. He fell under the influence of Antoine Hondar[d] de La Motte, and thought to serve the cause of that ingenious paradoxer by travestying Homer, an ignoble task, which he followed up (perhaps, for it is not certain) by performing the same office in regard to Fénelon. His friendship for La Motte, however, introduced him to the Mercure, the chief newspaper of France, where in 1717 he produced various articles of the “Spectator” kind, which were distinguished by much keenness of observation and not a little literary skill. It was at this time that the peculiar style called Marivaudage first made its appearance in him. The year 1720 and those immediately following were very important ones for Marivaux; not only did he produce a comedy, now lost except in small part, entitled L’Amour et la vérité, and another and far better one entitled Arlequin poli par l’amour, but he wrote a tragedy, Annibal (printed 1737), which was and deserved to be unsuccessful. Meanwhile his affairs underwent a sudden revolution. His father had left him a comfortable subsistence, but he was persuaded by friends to risk it in the Mississippi scheme, and after vastly increasing it for a time lost all that he had. His prosperity had enabled him to marry (perhaps in 1721) a certain Mlle Martin, of whom much good is said, and to whom he was deeply attached, but who died very shortly. His pen now became almost his sole resource. He had a connexion with both the fashionable theatres, for his Annibal had been played at the Comédie Française and his Arlequin poli at the Comédie Italienne, where at the time a company who were extremely popular, despite their imperfect command of French, were established. He endeavoured too to turn his newspaper practice in the Mercure to more account by starting a weekly Spectateur Français (1722–1723), to which he was the sole contributor. But his habits were the reverse of methodical; the paper appeared at the most irregular intervals; and, though it contained some excellent work, its irregularity killed it. For nearly twenty years the theatre, and especially the Italian theatre, was Marivaux’s chief support, for his pieces, though they were not ill received by the actors at the Français, were rarely successful there. The best of a very large number of plays (Marivaux’s theatre numbers between thirty and forty items) were the Surprise de l’amour (1722), the Triomphe de Plutus (1728), the Jeu de l’amour et du hasard (1730), Les Fausses confidences (1737), all produced at the Italian theatre, and Le Legs (1736), produced at the French. Meanwhile he had at intervals returned to both his other lines of composition. A periodical publication called L’Indigent philosophe appeared in 1727, and another called Le Cabinet du philosophe in 1734, but the same causes which had proved fatal to the Spectateur prevented these later efforts from succeeding. In 1731 Marivaux published the first two parts of his best and greatest work, Marianne, a novel of a new and remarkable kind. The eleven parts appeared in batches at intervals during a period of exactly the same number of years, and after all it was left unfinished. In 1735 another novel, Le Paysan parvenu, was begun, but this also was left unfinished. He was elected a member of the Academy in 1742. He survived for more than twenty years, and was not idle, again contributing occasionally to the Mercure, writing plays, “reflections” (which were seldom of much worth), and so forth. He died on the 12th February 1763, aged seventy-five years.
The personal character of Marivaux was curious and somewhat contradictory, though not without analogies, one of the closest of which is to be found in Goldsmith. He was, however, unlike Goldsmith, at least as brilliant in conversation as with the pen. He was extremely good-natured, but fond of saying very severe things, unhesitating in his acceptance of favours (he drew a regular annuity from Helvetius), but exceedingly touchy if he thought himself in any way slighted. He was, though a great cultivator of sensibilité, on the whole decent and moral in his writings, and was unsparing in his criticism of the rising Philosophes. This last circumstance, and perhaps jealousy as well, made him a dangerous enemy in Voltaire, who lost but few opportunities of speaking disparagingly of him. He had good friends, not merely in the rich, generous and amiable Helvetius, but in Mme de Tencin, in Fontenelle and even in Mme de Pompadour, who gave him, it is said, a considerable pension, of the source of which he was ignorant. His extreme sensitiveness is shown by many stories. He had one daughter, who took the veil, the duke of Orleans, the regent’s successor, furnishing her with her dowry.
The so-called Marivaudage is the main point of importance about Marivaux’s literary work, though the best of the comedies have great merits, and Marianne is an extremely important step in the legitimate development of the French novel—legitimate, that is, in opposition to the brilliant but episodic productions of Le Sage. Its connexion, and that of Le Paysan parvenu, with the work not only of Richardson but of Fielding is also an interesting though a difficult subject. The subject matter of Marivaux’s peculiar style has been generally and with tolerable exactness described as the metaphysic of love-making. His characters, in a happy phrase of Claude Prosper Jolyot Crébillon’s, not only tell each other and the reader everything they have thought, but everything that they would like to persuade themselves that they have thought. The style chosen for this is justly regarded as derived mainly from Fontenelle, and through him from the Précieuses, though there are traces of it even in La Bruyère. It abuses metaphor somewhat, and delights to turn off a metaphor itself in some unexpected and bizarre fashion. Now it is a familiar phrase which is used where dignified language would be expected; now the reverse. In the criticism of Crébillon’s already quoted occurs another happy description of Marivaux’s style as being “an introduction to each other of words which have never made acquaintance, and which think that they will not get on together,” a phrase as happy in its imitation as in its satire of the style itself. This kind of writing, of course, recurs at several periods of literature, and did so remarkably at the end of the 19th century in more countries than one. Yet this fantastic embroidery of language has a certain charm, and suits perhaps better than any other style the somewhat unreal gallantry and sensibilité which it describes and exhibits. The author possessed, moreover, both thought and observation, besides considerable command of pathos.
The best and most complete edition of Marivaux is that of 1781 in 12 vols. reprinted with additions 1825–1830. The plays had been published during the author’s lifetime in 1740 and 1748. There are modern editions by Paul de Saint Heylli Victor (1863), by G. d’Heylli (1876) and by E. Fournier (1878), while issues of selections and separate plays and novels are numerous. Of works concerning him J. Fleury’s Marivaux et le Marivaudage (Paris, 1881), G. Larroumet’s Marivaux, sa vie et ses œuvres (1882; new ed., 1894), the standard work on the subject, and G. Deschamps’s Marivaux (1897), in the Grands écrivains français, are the most important. Separate articles on him will be found in the collected essays of the chief modern French critics from Sainte-Beuve onwards. (G. Sa.)