Alphonse Daudet (doh-day) is among the most durable of the literary figures of France in the last half of the nineteenth century, as well as one of the most prolific of his generation. His poetic approach to realism made him universally popular, for, unlike his contemporaries, he wrote with a sympathy and a cautious optimism that produced an appealing tenderness without recourse to mawkish sentimentality. Critics who find his prose difficult to define have termed him variously a realist, a naturalist, an impressionist, and an independent. Daudet himself professed to follow no school, maintaining that all such inflexibility is absurd.
A native of Nîmes, in Provence, where he was born in 1840 and where his family struggled to preserve a rapidly failing silk weaving business, Daudet grew up in a period of financial crises which taught him sympathy for all human failings. At the age of sixteen, he was forced to take a position as a novice instructor in a small provincial school at Alais, where he suffered innumerable humiliations and hardships, most of which he later incorporated into his first novel, My Brother Jack. Two years later, he joined his brother in Paris to seek his fortune as an author. Believing himself destined to be a poet, Daudet made his debut with a small volume of poetry patterned after the romantic verses of Alfred de Musset. Entitled Les Amoureuses, the collection had a vogue in the salons of the period and brought him to the attention of the Duc de Morny, who hired him as a secretary. It was at this time that Daudet was stricken with a nervous disease that was to plague him until his death.
Once settled in Paris, Daudet began a succession of novels and collections of short stories, which established him as an important author. Letters from My Mill is a volume of short stories whose setting is Daudet’s beloved Provence; the work contains some of Daudet’s most delightful sketches. The Franco-Prussian war produced Letters to an Absent One, a collection of semihistorical reminiscences of the war. In 1872, Daudet published the first of the amusing Tartarin trilogy, Tartarin of Tarascon, the story of a Provençal who sets out for Algeria to make good his boasts that he is a first-rate killer of lions. Tartarin on the Alps and Port Tarascon complete the trilogy. The novel that was crowned by the French Academy, Froment the Younger and Risler the Elder, wherein a jealous, scheming wife ruins a prosperous business partnership, is considered by many to be Daudet’s finest novel and marks the point at which Daudet turned from his native Provence to write of the manners and mores of the Second Empire. Jack is a two-volume treatise of the struggles of a young boy to come to terms with life in the face of an indifferent mother and her pseudo-intellectual lover. The Nabob depicts the attempts of a wealthy Tunisian expatriate to buy respectability in Parisian society. Kings in Exile gives a vivid picture of the plight of exiled royalty struggling to maintain a life it can no longer afford.
Other novels exploring various segments of Parisian society include Numa Roumestan, a novel of manners; Sappho, concerning the vicissitudes of a young provincial who finds a mistress in Paris only to become ensnared by her demanding love, and One of the Forty.
In addition to his novels and poems, Daudet wrote several dramas, the best known of which is The Woman from Arles, based on one of his short stories. He frequently contributed art and theater criticism to journals and newspapers, along with his short stories and articles.
Although he was never elected to the French Academy, Daudet remains one of the most beloved and respected authors of France. His novels enjoyed an enormous vogue in their day, and their exceptional sensitivity has never lost its attraction for admirers of the man who saw himself as a marchand de bonheur (merchant of happiness).
Nothing had more effect on Alphonse Daudet’s rather uneventful life than the fact that he was born and brought up in southern France, the Midi. Throughout his life, Daudet maintained that the meridional temperament, which was his heritage, made him profoundly different from Northerners and accounted for his facile volubility and intense emotionalism. Although he was a Parisian by adoption for most of his life, it is a fact that his identity as a southerner, including the distinctive accent of the Midi, never faded, and his great gifts as a spellbinding talker in social situations is widely attested.
For the first eight years of his life, Daudet lived in Nîmes, with its strong flavor of ancient Roman civilization. The family then moved to Lyons, where Alphonse experienced both a less prosperous family life and a more “northern” culture and atmosphere than Nîmes had afforded, although it was still distinctly part of the Midi. His studies were interrupted at age sixteen so he could take on the post of class assistant in a school in the southern town of Alès, thus relieving his family of a financial burden.
He lasted only a few months in that post, however, and at the age of seventeen he went to Paris and moved in with his older brother Ernest. He had been writing since his early teens, and within a year of his arrival in Paris he was able to arrange publication of a small volume of his poems and even had some success reciting his poems in a few literary salons of the day. With the help of his brother, he obtained a sinecure as secretary to the Duc de Morny, and he supplemented his income with occasional journalism and work for the theater, so he could enjoy the bohemian existence of the spirited young man-about-Paris with literary aspirations.
Health problems and an unhappy relationship with a mistress marked those bohemian years. Marriage in 1867 and the birth of a child a year later confirmed the start of a serious literary career and a very bourgeois family existence. Fame did not come quickly—there were several failures, especially in the theater, and his novels and short stories were only modest successes at first. He still needed the income from journalism, but significant sums of money accrued for the first time with the publication in 1874 of his first attempt at a realistic novel, set in Paris. That novel, Fromont jeune et Risler aîné, was the book that revealed to him his vocation as a popular novelist, and he enjoyed success and prosperity in that role for the next fifteen years.
By 1890, however, his health had deteriorated from the effects of the late stage of the syphilis he had contracted in his bohemian youth. It began to be difficult for him to walk and even to hold a pen since all his joints were afflicted. The unremitting pain inevitably slowed down his work pace, although, his brain being completely unaffected, he remained determined to continue working every day. His last works seemed uninspired and excessively didactic and sentimental, except for two remarkable short stories composed in 1896 and 1897, in which he movingly evoked, in fictional disguise, details of his youthful literary beginnings. When death came, in December of 1897, he had just completed a novel and a dramatization of an earlier novel, both of which were published posthumously and represent the final acts of a literary career spanning nearly forty years.