During the hundred years or so that transpired before the great revolution of 1789, France experienced profound cultural, social, economic, and demographic changes. The realities of these changes can be obscured by excessive emphasis on narrowly defined political history or by a tendency to assume from the shock waves of 1789 that France was a dormant country prior to that time. From the artificially sheltered, and therefore distorted, point of view of the absolutist Bourbon monarchs, the social fabric lay largely undisturbed. This was the Age of Enlightenment, the Siècle des lumières, when a new class of writers and social critics called philosophes advanced progressive ideas to a rapidly expanding bourgeois readership critical of the Crown and anxious to be rid of the feudal obligations and restrictions that undergirded the edifice of French absolutism. Such philosophes as Voltaire (1694-1778), Charles de Montesquieu (1689-1755), and Denis Diderot also lashed out at the Roman Catholic Church for its legacy in France of persecution and bigotry. Here, too, they found ready assent from the middle-class readers to whom they appealed.
The philosophes could count on a burgeoning readership for their tracts and treatises and for the massive multivolume Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (1751-1772; partial translation Selected Essays from the Encyclopedy, 1772; complete translation Encyclopedia, 1965) edited by Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783); a steadily increasing literacy rate, an increasing number of outlets and vehicles for literary activity, and a general and dramatic population increase resulting largely from the growth of a middle, or bourgeois, class were perhaps the most significant trends shaping the literary culture of this period. Population growth was itself linked to a significant decline in pestilence and other natural disasters and to an impressive expansion of the food supply. Indeed, economic growth was steady throughout the eighteenth century, although England was as yet the only country in which manufacture rather than agriculture largely set the pace.
It is estimated that the percentage of literate (defined as those who could sign their names) French people at the end of the seventeenth century was 21 percent, increasing by the end of the eighteenth century to 37 percent. Unlike England, France had to wait until the revolution to experience a real proliferation in newspapers, but they were increasing, as were broadsides and pamphlets of various kinds. By the mid-eighteenth century, the institution of the café, modeled on the British coffeehouse, had taken hold as the social setting for reading and discussing new books, periodicals, and newspapers. Voltaire and the other philosophes all experienced censorship at one time or another, and several of them, including Voltaire, knew imprisonment and exile, yet they lived to see the ban lifted and experience the sense that their ideas circulated ever more widely. The growing body of readers to whom they appealed, however, were interested in more than political treatises and satires. They read novels eagerly, and occasionally the philosophes themselves accommodated them with contes philosophiques (philosophical tales) and didactic novels.
Though it would occupy a more central role in the publishing world of the nineteenth century, the novel’s popularity was increasingly noted by French publishers of the ancien régime. On the face of it, the “frivolous” novel would seem to have been a safer venture for a publisher than the more overtly political writings of a Voltaire, but the latter were not always more vulnerable to censorship. The world of French publishing was far from standardized in the eighteenth century, and this lack of predictability and routine provided headaches for publisher and author alike. Surely one of the publisher’s major headaches was the uneven and unpredictable exercise of royal censorship. In order to operate, a publisher needed a royal license, or privilège, which granted him, in some cases, a monopoly in certain types of publishing, but this could easily be withdrawn on a royal whim. Apart from that major uncertainty, publishers could not be sure when they might face censorship. By definition, broad powers of censorship were in the hands of royally sanctioned provincial courts called parlements, of which the most important and most active was the Parlement de Paris. The institution of parlements reflected the increasing tendency since the age of Louis XIV for publishing to be concentrated in and around Paris itself, whereas regional centers such as Rouen and Lyons had been prominent in earlier centuries. Even the Parlement de Paris, Voltaire’s great nemesis, occasionally let a “scandalous” book pass. When censorship came, however, punishment was often harsh. This fact, coupled with the pessimistic tendencies of some publishers to expect the worst from the parlements, led to the creation of a thriving underground publishing industry. Diderot is the best-known name associated with this illegal publishing activity.
Authors, too, faced an uncertain existence—and not merely because of the more serious threats of censorship and imprisonment. Authors’ relationships with their publishers were often severely strained. To begin with, nothing resembling a modern copyright law existed in the eighteenth century. An author’s name would not necessarily appear on the book, and payment was not always guaranteed. Piracy was a common problem; unscrupulous publishers were known to seize manuscripts of authors whose names could be counted upon to sell copies. Royalties were unknown. Today, an author commonly receives a fixed percentage of the price of each copy that is sold. This practice was not, however, adopted until the nineteenth century.
In the age of the philosophes, it was possible for an author to enter into an agreement whereby he would receive a fixed sum for a certain number of copies to be printed, regardless of whether they were actually sold. If the book proved popular and additional printings were run, the author received nothing. Not until nearly the end of the eighteenth century was this practice modified so that the author was paid a fixed amount on a certain quantity of copies that were actually sold, and it was well into the nineteenth century before the per-copy royalty practice was adopted. As a result of these many uncertainties, most eighteenth century authors were forced to rely on some sort of patronage from wealthy admirers and benefactors. Diderot was one of the few examples of a truly professional writer who attempted to earn a living, albeit a modest one, by his pen, and even he benefited, at least temporarily, from the royal patronage of the Russian empress Catherine the Great.
Most critics and historians of French literature reserve the adjective “great” for the novels of the nineteenth century, but within the changing eighteenth century milieu, the French novel began to come into its own. To a great extent, this can be attributed to the very exclusion pronounced by Boileau and other guardians of tradition in the preceding century. Not that the sense of shame and apology held toward the novel, even by novelists themselves, was completely dispelled in the eighteenth century, but the novel and other fictional genres were free, in a sense, to develop in an undefined new literary space: a terra incognita unglimpsed by académiciens and other traditionalists. The novel’s proven popularity with a steadily expanding readership further undermined whatever reservations authors might have.
It has become commonplace in French literary history to assign La Princesse de Clèves (1678; The Princess of Clèves, 1679), by Madame de La Fayette (1634-1693), the position of “first” in the development of the modern French roman, using the argument that it embodies the essential characteristics of the genre in its modern form: recognizable, believable characters; ordinary settings; and attention to the feelings, motivations, and psychological states of the principal characters. Set in the period of the French Renaissance, La Fayette’s novel nevertheless offers descriptions of scenes much more recognizable to her late seventeenth century readers. In portraying privileged court society, she adhered to the aesthetic of the more established genres but broke radically with literary tradition by translating this milieu into the novelistic realm.
Much of the interest this novel has held for readers past and present has been its presentation of a woman as the central tragic figure, coupled with the fact of its feminine authorship. The Princess is a woman caught in an intolerable situation, for she is married to a man she does not love. Though she is pursued by a would-be lover, she resists temptation as she remembers the counsel of her beloved mother with regard to the crucial importance of wifely virtue. Even her virtue goes unrecognized and unacknowledged by her husband, who torments and eventually destroys himself through suspicious jealousy. At the end of the novel, the Princess has become widowed, and, shunning the attentions of the man she would then be free to marry, she retires to a convent, remaining true to the memory of the husband she never loved.
Certainly, in one sense, The Princess of Clèves reaffirmed the carefully circumscribed social role available to women, even women of the privileged class. Ending her days in the convent, the Princess recalls the much earlier, prototypically tragic, figure of Héloïse. Yet La Fayette was able to portray her protagonist in such a way as to encourage empathy with her on...