Georges Ohnet.

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Produced by David Widger



With a General Introduction to the Series by GASTON BOISSIER, Secretaire
Perpetuel de l'academie Francaise.




The editor-in-chief of the Maison Mazarin - a man of letters who
cherishes an enthusiastic yet discriminating love for the literary and
artistic glories of France - formed within the last two years the great
project of collecting and presenting to the vast numbers of intelligent
readers of whom New World boasts a series of those great and undying
romances which, since 1784, have received the crown of merit awarded by
the French Academy - that coveted assurance of immortality in letters and
in art.

In the presentation of this serious enterprise for the criticism and
official sanction of The Academy, 'en seance', was included a request
that, if possible, the task of writing a preface to the series should be
undertaken by me. Official sanction having been bestowed upon the plan,
I, as the accredited officer of the French Academy, convey to you its
hearty appreciation, endorsement, and sympathy with a project so nobly
artistic. It is also my duty, privilege, and pleasure to point out, at
the request of my brethren, the peculiar importance and lasting value
of this series to all who would know the inner life of a people whose
greatness no turns of fortune have been able to diminish.

In the last hundred years France has experienced the most terrible
vicissitudes, but, vanquished or victorious, triumphant or abased, never
has she lost her peculiar gift of attracting the curiosity of the world.
She interests every living being, and even those who do not love her
desire to know her. To this peculiar attraction which radiates from
her, artists and men of letters can well bear witness, since it is to
literature and to the arts, before all, that France owes such living
and lasting power. In every quarter of the civilized world there are
distinguished writers, painters, and eminent musicians, but in
France they exist in greater numbers than elsewhere. Moreover, it
is universally conceded that French writers and artists have this
particular and praiseworthy quality: they are most accessible to people
of other countries. Without losing their national characteristics, they
possess the happy gift of universality. To speak of letters alone:
the books that Frenchmen write are read, translated, dramatized, and
imitated everywhere; so it is not strange that these books give to
foreigners a desire for a nearer and more intimate acquaintance with

Men preserve an almost innate habit of resorting to Paris from almost
every quarter of the globe. For many years American visitors have been
more numerous than others, although the journey from the United States
is long and costly. But I am sure that when for the first time they see
Paris - its palaces, its churches, its museums - and visit Versailles,
Fontainebleau, and Chantilly, they do not regret the travail they have
undergone. Meanwhile, however, I ask myself whether such sightseeing
is all that, in coming hither, they wish to accomplish. Intelligent
travellers - and, as a rule, it is the intelligent class that feels
the need of the educative influence of travel - look at our beautiful
monuments, wander through the streets and squares among the crowds that
fill them, and, observing them, I ask myself again: Do not such people
desire to study at closer range these persons who elbow them as they
pass; do they not wish to enter the houses of which they see but the
facades; do they not wish to know how Parisians live and speak and act
by their firesides? But time, alas! is lacking for the formation of
those intimate friendships which would bring this knowledge within their
grasp. French homes are rarely open to birds of passage, and visitors
leave us with regret that they have not been able to see more than the
surface of our civilization or to recognize by experience the note of
our inner home life.

How, then, shall this void be filled? Speaking in the first person, the
simplest means appears to be to study those whose profession it is to
describe the society of the time, and primarily, therefore, the works of
dramatic writers, who are supposed to draw a faithful picture of it. So
we go to the theatre, and usually derive keen pleasure therefrom. But
is pleasure all that we expect to find? What we should look for
above everything in a comedy or a drama is a representation, exact as
possible, of the manners and characters of the dramatis persona of the
play; and perhaps the conditions under which the play was written do
not allow such representation. The exact and studied portrayal of
a character demands from the author long preparation, and cannot be
accomplished in a few hours. From, the first scene to the last, each
tale must be posed in the author's mind exactly as it will be proved to
be at the end. It is the author's aim and mission to place completely
before his audience the souls of the "agonists" laying bare the
complications of motive, and throwing into relief the delicate shades
of motive that sway them. Often, too, the play is produced before a
numerous audience - an audience often distrait, always pressed for time,
and impatient of the least delay. Again, the public in general require
that they shall be able to understand without difficulty, and at first
thought, the characters the author seeks to present, making it necessary
that these characters be depicted from their most salient sides - which
are too often vulgar and unattractive.

In our comedies and dramas it is not the individual that is drawn, but
the type. Where the individual alone is real, the type is a myth of the
imagination - a pure invention. And invention is the mainspring of the
theatre, which rests purely upon illusion, and does not please us unless
it begins by deceiving us.

I believe, then, that if one seeks to know the world exactly as it is,
the theatre does not furnish the means whereby one can pursue the study.
A far better opportunity for knowing the private life of a people is
available through the medium of its great novels. The novelist deals
with each person as an individual. He speaks to his reader at an hour
when the mind is disengaged from worldly affairs, and he can add
without restraint every detail that seems needful to him to complete the
rounding of his story. He can return at will, should he choose, to the
source of the plot he is unfolding, in order that his reader may better
understand him; he can emphasize and dwell upon those details which an
audience in a theatre will not allow.

The reader, being at leisure, feels no impatience, for he knows that he
can at any time lay down or take up the book. It is the consciousness of
this privilege that gives him patience, should he encounter a dull page
here or there. He may hasten or delay his reading, according to the
interest he takes in his romance-nay, more, he can return to the earlier
pages, should he need to do so, for a better comprehension of some
obscure point. In proportion as he is attracted and interested by the
romance, and also in the degree of concentration with which he reads
it, does he grasp better the subtleties of the narrative. No shade of
character drawing escapes him. He realizes, with keener appreciation,
the most delicate of human moods, and the novelist is not compelled to
introduce the characters to him, one by one, distinguishing them only by
the most general characteristics, but can describe each of those little
individual idiosyncrasies that contribute to the sum total of a living

When I add that the dramatic author is always to a certain extent a
slave to the public, and must ever seek to please the passing taste of
his time, it will be recognized that he is often, alas! compelled to
sacrifice his artistic leanings to popular caprice-that is, if he has
the natural desire that his generation should applaud him.

As a rule, with the theatre-going masses, one person follows the fads
or fancies of others, and individual judgments are too apt to be
irresistibly swayed by current opinion. But the novelist, entirely
independent of his reader, is not compelled to conform himself to the
opinion of any person, or to submit to his caprices. He is absolutely
free to picture society as he sees it, and we therefore can have more
confidence in his descriptions of the customs and characters of the day.

It is precisely this view of the case that the editor of the series
has taken, and herein is the raison d'etre of this collection of
great French romances. The choice was not easy to make. That form of
literature called the romance abounds with us. France has always
loved it, for French writers exhibit a curiosity - and I may say an
indiscretion - that is almost charming in the study of customs and morals
at large; a quality that induces them to talk freely of themselves and
of their neighbors, and to set forth fearlessly both the good and the
bad in human nature. In this fascinating phase of literature, France
never has produced greater examples than of late years.

In the collection here presented to American readers will be found
those works especially which reveal the intimate side of French social
life-works in which are discussed the moral problems that affect most
potently the life of the world at large. If inquiring spirits seek to
learn the customs and manners of the France of any age, they must look
for it among her crowned romances. They need go back no farther than
Ludovic Halevy, who may be said to open the modern epoch. In the
romantic school, on its historic side, Alfred de Vigny must be looked
upon as supreme. De Musset and Anatole France may be taken as revealing
authoritatively the moral philosophy of nineteenth-century thought. I
must not omit to mention the Jacqueline of Th. Bentzon, and the "Attic"
Philosopher of Emile Souvestre, nor the great names of Loti, Claretie,
Coppe, Bazin, Bourget, Malot, Droz, De Massa, and last, but not least,
our French Dickens, Alphonse Daudet. I need not add more; the very names
of these "Immortals" suffice to commend the series to readers in all

One word in conclusion: America may rest assured that her students
of international literature will find in this series of 'ouvrages
couronnes' all that they may wish to know of France at her own
fireside - a knowledge that too often escapes them, knowledge that
embraces not only a faithful picture of contemporary life in the French
provinces, but a living and exact description of French society in
modern times. They may feel certain that when they have read these
romances, they will have sounded the depths and penetrated into the
hidden intimacies of France, not only as she is, but as she would be




The only French novelist whose books have a circulation approaching the
works of Daudet and of Zola is Georges Ohnet, a writer whose popularity
is as interesting as his stories, because it explains, though it does
not excuse, the contempt the Goncourts had for the favor of the great
French public, and also because it shows how the highest form of
Romanticism still ferments beneath the varnish of Naturalism in what is
called genius among the great masses of readers.

Georges Ohnet was born in Paris, April 3, 1848, the son of an architect.
He was destined for the Bar, but was early attracted by journalism and
literature. Being a lawyer it was not difficult for him to join the
editorial staff of Le Pays, and later Le Constitutionnel. This was soon
after the Franco-German War. His romances, since collected under
the title 'Batailles de la Vie', appeared first in 'Le Figaro,
L'Illustration, and Revue des Deux Mondes', and have been exceedingly
well received by the public. This relates also to his dramas, some of
his works meeting with a popular success rarely extended to any author.
For some time Georges Ohnet did not find the same favor with the
critics, who often attacked him with a passionate violence and unusual
severity. True, a high philosophical flow of thoughts cannot be detected
in his writings, but nevertheless it is certain that the characters and
the subjects of which he treats are brilliantly sketched and clearly
developed. They are likewise of perfect morality and honesty.

There was expected of him, however, an idea which was not quite
realized. Appearing upon the literary stage at a period when Naturalism
was triumphant, it was for a moment believed that he would restore
Idealism in the manner of George Sand.

In any case the hostile critics have lost. For years public opinion has
exalted him, and the reaction is the more significant when compared with
the tremendous criticism launched against his early romances and novels.

A list of his works follows:

Serge Panine (1881), crowned by the French Academy, has since gone
through one hundred and fifty French editions; Le Maitre des Forges
(1882), a prodigious success, two hundred and fifty editions being
printed (1900); La Comtesse Sarah (1882); Lise Fleuyon (1884); La Grande
Maynieye (1886); Les Dames de Croix-Mort (1886); Volonte (1888); Le
Docteur Rameau (1889); Deynier Amour (1889); Le Cure de Favieyes (1890);
Dette de Haine (1891); Nemsod et Cie. (1892); Le Lendemain des Amours
(1893); Le Droit de l'Enfant (1894.); Les Vielles Rancunes (1894); La
Dame en Gris (1895); La Fille du Depute (1896); Le Roi de Paris (1898);
Au Fond du Gouffre (1899); Gens de la Noce (1900); La Tenibreuse (1900);
Le Cyasseur d'Affaires (1901); Le Crepuscule (1901); Le Marche a l'Amour

Ohnet's novels are collected under the titles, 'Noir et Rose (1887) and
L'Ame de Pierre (1890).

The dramatic writings of Georges Ohnet, mostly taken from his novels,
have greatly contributed to his reputation. Le Maitre des Forges was
played for a full year (Gymnase, 1883); it was followed by Serge Panine
(1884); La Comtesse Sarah (1887). La Grande Mayniere (1888), met also
with a decided and prolonged success; Dernier Amour (Gymnase, 1890);
Colonel Roquebrune (Porte St. Martin, 1897). Before that he had already
written the plays Regina Sarpi (1875) and Marthe (1877), which yet hold
a prominent place upon the French stage.

I have shown in this rapid sketch that a man of the stamp of Georges
Ohnet must have immortal qualities in himself, even though flayed and
roasted alive by the critics. He is most assuredly an artist in form, is
endowed with a brilliant style, and has been named "L'Historiographe
de la bourgeoise contemporaine." Indeed, antagonism to plutocracy and
hatred of aristocracy are the fundamental theses in almost every one of
his books.

His exposition, I repeat, is startlingly neat, the development of his
plots absolutely logical, and the world has acclaimed his ingenuity in
dramatic construction. He is truly, and in all senses, of the Ages.

de l'Academie Francaise




The firm of Desvarennes has been in an ancient mansion in the Rue Saint
Dominique since 1875; it is one of the best known and most important in
French industry. The counting-houses are in the wings of the building
looking upon the courtyard, which were occupied by the servants when the
family whose coat-of-arms has been effaced from above the gate-way were
still owners of the estate.

Madame Desvarennes inhabits the mansion which she has had magnificently
renovated. A formidable rival of the Darblays, the great millers of
France, the firm of Desvarennes is a commercial and political power.
Inquire in Paris about its solvency, and you will be told that you may
safely advance twenty millions of francs on the signature of the head of
the firm. And this head is a woman.

This woman is remarkable. Gifted with keen understanding and a firm
will, she had in former times vowed to make a large fortune, and she has
kept her word.

She was the daughter of a humble packer of the Rue Neuve-Coquenard.
Toward 1848 she married Michel Desvarennes, who was then a journeyman
baker in a large shop in the Chaussee d'Antin. With the thousand francs
which the packer managed to give his daughter by way of dowry, the young
couple boldly took a shop and started a little bakery business. The
husband kneaded and baked the bread, and the young wife, seated at the
counter, kept watch over the till. Neither on Sundays nor on holidays
was the shop shut.

Through the window, between two pyramids of pink and blue packets of
biscuits, one could always catch sight of the serious-looking Madame
Desvarennes, knitting woollen stockings for her husband while waiting
for customers. With her prominent forehead, and her eyes always bent on
her work, this woman appeared the living image of perseverance.

At the end of five years of incessant work, and possessing twenty
thousand francs, saved sou by sou, the Desvarennes left the slopes of
Montmartre, and moved to the centre of Paris. They were ambitious
and full of confidence. They set up in the Rue Vivienne, in a shop
resplendent with gilding and ornamented with looking-glasses. The
ceiling was painted in panels with bright hued pictures that caught the
eyes of the passers-by. The window-shelves were of white marble, and the
counter, where Madame Desvarennes was still enthroned, was of a width
worthy of the receipts that were taken every day. Business increased
daily; the Desvarennes continued to be hard and systematic workers.
The class of customers alone had changed; they were more numerous
and richer. The house had a specialty for making small rolls for the
restaurants. Michel had learned from the Viennese bakers how to make
those golden balls which tempt the most rebellious appetite, and which,
when in an artistically folded damask napkin, set off a dinner-table.

About this time Madame Desvarennes, while calculating how much the
millers must gain on the flour they sell to the bakers, resolved, in
order to lessen expenses, to do without middlemen and grind her own
corn. Michel, naturally timid, was frightened when his wife disclosed to
him the simple project which she had formed. Accustomed to submit to the
will of her whom he respectfully called "the mistress," and of whom he
was but the head clerk, he dared not oppose her. But, a red-tapist by
nature, and hating innovations, owing to weakness of mind, he trembled
inwardly and cried in agony:

"Wife, you'll ruin us."

The mistress calmed the poor man's alarm; she tried to impart to him
some of her confidence, to animate him with her hope, but without
success, so she went on without him. A mill was for sale at Jouy, on the
banks of the Oise; she paid ready money for it, and a few weeks later
the bakery in the Rue Vivienne was independent of every one. She ground
her own flour, and from that time business increased considerably.
Feeling capable of carrying out large undertakings, and, moreover,
desirous of giving up the meannesses of retail trade, Madame
Desvarennes, one fine day, sent in a tender for supplying bread to the
military hospitals. It was accepted, and from that time the house ranked
among the most important. On seeing the Desvarennes take their daring
flight, the leading men in the trade had said:

"They have system and activity, and if they do not upset on the way,
they will attain a high position."

But the mistress seemed to have the gift of divination. She worked
surely - if she struck out one way you might be certain that success
was there. In all her enterprises, "good luck" stood close by her; she
scented failures from afar, and the firm never made a bad debt. Still
Michel continued to tremble. The first mill had been followed by many
more; then the old system appeared insufficient to Madame Desvarennes.
As she wished to keep up with the increase of business she had
steam-mills built, - which are now grinding three hundred million francs'
worth of corn every year.

Fortune had favored the house immensely, but Michel continued to
tremble. From time to time when the mistress launched out a new
business, he timidly ventured on his usual saying:

"Wife, you're going to ruin us."

But one felt it was only for form's sake, and that he himself no
longer meant what he said. Madame Desvarennes received this plaintive
remonstrance with a calm smile, and answered, maternally, as to a child:

"There, there, don't be frightened."

Then she would set to work again, and direct with irresistible vigor the
army of clerks who peopled her counting-houses.

In fifteen years' time, by prodigious efforts of will and energy,
Madame Desvarennes had made her way from the lonely and muddy Rue
Neuve-Coquenard to the mansion in the Rue Saint-Dominique. Of the bakery
there was no longer question. It was some time since the business in the
Rue Vivienne had been transferred to the foreman of the shop. The flour
trade alone occupied Madame Desvarennes's attention. She ruled the
prices in the market; and great bankers came to her office and did
business with her on a footing of equality. She did not become any
prouder for it, she knew too well the strength and weakness of life
to have pride; her former plain dealing had not stiffened into
self-sufficiency. Such as one had known her when beginning business,
such one found her in the zenith of her fortune. Instead of a woollen
gown she wore a silk one, but the color was still black; her language
had not become refined; she retained the same blunt familiar accent, and
at the end of five minutes' conversation with any one of importance she
could not resist calling him "my dear," to come morally near him. Her
commands had more fulness. In giving her orders, she had the manner of
a commander-in-chief, and it was useless to haggle when she had spoken.
The best thing to do was to obey, as well and as promptly as possible.

Placed in a political sphere, this marvellously gifted woman would
have been a Madame Roland; born to the throne, she would have been a
Catherine II.; there was genius in her. Sprung from the lower ranks,
her superiority had given her wealth; had she come from the higher, the
great mind might have governed the world.

Still she was not happy; she had been married fifteen years, and her
fireside was devoid of a cradle. During the first years she had rejoiced
at not having a child. Where could she have found time to occupy herself
with a baby? Business engrossed her attention; she had no leisure to
amuse herself with trifles. Maternity seemed to her a luxury for
rich women; she had her fortune to make. In the struggle against the
difficulties attending the enterprise she had begun, she had not had
time to look around her and perceive that her home was lonely. She
worked from morning till night. Her whole life was absorbed in this
work, and when night came, overcome with fatigue, she fell asleep, her
head filled with cares which stifled all tricks of the imagination.

Michel grieved, but in silence; his feeble and dependent nature missed a
child. He, whose mind lacked occupation, thought of the future. He said
to himself that the day when the dreamt-of fortune came would be more
welcome if there were an heir to whom to leave it. What was the good
of being rich, if the money went to collateral relatives? There was
his nephew Savinien, a disagreeable urchin whom he looked on with
indifference; and he was biased regarding his brother, who had all but
failed several times in business, and to whose aid he had come to save
the honor of the name. The mistress had not hesitated to help him, and
had prevented the signature of "Desvarennes" being protested. She had
not taunted him, having as large a heart as she had a mind. But Michel
had felt humiliated to see his own folk make a gap in the financial
edifice erected so laboriously by his wife. Out of this had gradually
sprung a sense of dissatisfaction with the Desvarennes of the other
branch, which manifested itself by a marked coolness, when, by chance,
his brother came to the house, accompanied by his son Savinien.

And then the paternity of his brother made him secretly jealous. Why
should that incapable fellow, who succeeded in nothing, have a son? It
was only those ne'er-do-well sort of people who were thus favored. He,
Michel, already called the rich Desvarennes, he had not a son. Was it
just? But where is there justice in this world?

The first time that she saw him with a downcast face the mistress had

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Online LibraryGeorges OhnetSerge Panine — Complete → online text (page 1 of 19)