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Feuillet, Octave

FEUILLET, OCTAVE (1821-1890), French novelist and dramatist, was born at Saint-Lô, Manche, on the 11th of August 1821. He was the son of a Norman gentleman of learning and distinction, who would have played a great part in politics "sans ses diables de nerfs," as Guizot said. This nervous excitability was inherited, though not to the same excess, by Octave, whose mother died in his infancy and left him to the care of the hyper-sensitive invalid. The boy was sent to the lycée Louis-le Grand, in Paris, where he achieved high distinction, and was destined for the diplomatic service. In 1840 he appeared before his father at Saint-Lô, and announced that he had determined to adopt the profession of literature. There was a stormy scene, and the elder Feuillet cut off his son, who returned to Paris and lived as best he could by a scanty journalism. In company with Paul Bocage he began to write for the stage, and not without success; at all events, he continued to exist until, three years after the quarrel, his father consented to forgive him. Enjoying a liberal allowance, he now lived in Paris in comfort and independence, and he published his early novels, none of which is quite of sufficient value to retain the modern reader. The health and spirits of the elder M. Feuillet, however, having still further declined, he summoned his son to leave Paris and bury himself as his constant attendant in the melancholy château at Saint-Lô. This was to demand a great sacrifice, but Octave Feuillet cheerfully obeyed the summons. In 1851 he married his cousin, Mlle Valérie Feuillet, who helped him to endure the mournful captivity to which his filial duty bound him. Strangely enough, in this exile - rendered still more irksome by his father's mania for solitude and by his tyrannical temper - the genius of Octave Feuillet developed. His first definite success was gained in the year 1852, when he published the novel Bellah and produced the comedy La Crise. Both were reprinted from the Revue des deux mondes, where many of his later novels also appeared. He wrote books which have long held their place, La Petite Comtesse (1857), Dalila (1857), and in particular that universal favourite, Le Roman d'un jeune homme pauvre (1858). He himself fell into a nervous state in his "prison," but he was sustained by the devotion and intelligence of his wife and her mother. In 1857, having been persuaded to make a play of the novel of Dalila, he brought out this piece at the Vaudeville, and enjoyed a brilliant success; on this occasion he positively broke through the consigne and went up to Paris to see his play rehearsed. His father bore the shock of his temporary absence, and the following year Octave ventured to make the same experiment on occasion of the performance of Un Jeune Homme pauvre. To his infinite chagrin, during this brief absence his father died. Octave was now, however, free, and the family immediately moved to Paris, where they took part in the splendid social existence of the Second Empire. The elegant and distinguished young novelist became a favourite at court; his pieces were performed at Compiègne before they were given to the public, and on one occasion the empress Eugénie deigned to play the part of Mme de Pons in Les Portraits de la Marquise. Feuillet did not abandon the novel, and in 1862 he achieved a great success with Sibylle. His health, however, had by this time begun to decline, affected by the sad death of his eldest son. He determined to quit Paris, where the life was far too exciting for his nerves, and to regain the quietude of Normandy. The old château of the family had been sold, but he bought a house called "Les Paillers" in the suburbs of Saint-Lô, and there he lived, buried in his roses, for fifteen years. He was elected to the French Academy in 1862, and in 1868 he was made librarian of Fontainebleau palace, where he had to reside for a month or two in each year. In 1867 he produced his masterpiece of Monsieur de Camors, and in 1872 he wrote Julia de Tréœur, which is hardly less admirable. His last years, after the sale of "Les Paillers," were passed in a ceaseless wandering, the result of the agitation of his nerves. He was broken by sorrow and by ill-health, and when he passed away in Paris on the 29th of December 1890, his death was a release. His last book was Honneur d'artiste (1890). Among the too-numerous writings of Feuillet, the novels have lasted longer than the dramas; of the former three or four seem destined to retain their charm as classics. He holds a place midway between the romanticists and the realists, with a distinguished and lucid portraiture of life which is entirely his own. He drew the women of the world whom he saw around him with dignity, with indulgence, with extraordinary penetration and clairvoyance. There is little description in his novels, which sometimes seem to move on an almost bare and colourless stage, but, on the other hand, the analysis of motives, of emotions, and of "the fine shades" has rarely been carried further. Few have written French with greater purity than Feuillet, and his style, reserved in form and never excessive in ornament, but full of wit and delicate animation, is in admirable uniformity with his subjects and his treatment. It is probably in Sibylle and in Julia de Trécœur that he can now be studied to most advantage, though Monsieur de Camors gives a greater sense of power, and though Le Roman d'un jeune homme pauvre still preserves its popularity.

See also Sainte-Beuve, Nouveaux Lundis, vol. v.; F. Brunetière, Nouveaux Essais sur la littérature contemporaine (1895).

(E. G.)

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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