Although critics have generally respected Alfred de Vigny’s Cinq-Mars as one of the first important French historical novels, their judgments have varied wildly regarding its literary or artistic worth. Some of these critiques are that Cinq-Mars was Vigny’s only mediocre work (his ranking as a poet has always been high), that Vigny did not know what he was doing, that he was ideologically confused, that the novel distorts history and truth, and that his plot lacks drama and his characters are flat.
Nevertheless, upon its publication in January, 1826, Cinq-Mars achieved popular success and subsequently went through more than a dozen editions. It was translated into English by William Hazlitt (not the famous critic and essayist, but his second son, a lawyer and a specialist in French translations) in 1847, and an American edition followed in 1889. Two other English translations were issued, one by W. Bellingham in 1851 and another, under the title The Spider and the Fly, by Madge Pemberton in 1925. As Edgar Allan Poe once pointed out, however, a book may prove exceedingly popular yet have no legitimate literary merit.
The reasons for the contrary critical evaluations of Vigny’s Cinq-Mars are not difficult to imagine, given its controversial subject matter. Biases regarding politics, religion, and scientism, together with misunderstandings of Vigny’s aim and of the generic tendencies of a prose romance, are the culprits. If Vigny’s Cinq-Mars is to be judged fairly, Vigny’s background and his political and moral positions must be understood and weighed in the balance. Likewise, his philosophy of history and his execution of his narrative must be considered in terms of his aim and the attributes found in the genre of the prose romance.
Vigny was born to a distinguished family of aristocrats dating from the ancien régime of prerevolutionary France. He did not regard the French Revolution of 1789-1799 as a progressive event but as a gross error caused by the centralization policy of the royal administration guided by Cardinal Richelieu. To Vigny, this policy, first, impoverished the majority of the rural nobility;...
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