Eustace Clare Grenville Murray.

The men of the third republic; or, The present leaders of France. Reprinted from the London Daily news online

. (page 13 of 22)
Online LibraryEustace Clare Grenville MurrayThe men of the third republic; or, The present leaders of France. Reprinted from the London Daily news → online text (page 13 of 22)
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become a physician or a schoolmaster. Henri
Rochefort, however, felt no taste for a medical
career, and still less for the labours of professor-
ship. He studied medicine for a while, then gave
Latin lessons ; but he ended by obtaining a clerk-
ship at the Hotel de Yille, and as the work in this
post was not heavy, he employed most of his
business hours in playing cards or in writing,
first for the " Dictionnaire de la Conversation,"
and then for comic newspapers. Some articles
of art and dramatic criticism which he con-
tributed to the Charivari attracted the atten-
tion of Baron Haussmann. They were funny
articles, quaint and sarcastic ; but Rochefort, who


spent a great deal of his leisure time haunting
picture sales, showed that he was a connoisseur in
painting, and the Baron recommended him for a
sub-inspectorship of Fine Arts. He soon grew
tired of this post, Avhich, though better paid, was
less of a sinecure than his clerkship, and in 1861,
being then thirty-one years old, he abandoned it
to devote himself wholly to journalism. He had
already earned a name among the Boulevard wits
by a one-act comedy or two, and a clever book he
published in 1 8 6 2 on the trickeries of auctioneering
(" Petits Mysteres de I'Hotel des Yentes ") classed
him as a rising man in the light brigade of litera-
ture. This means that Rochefort was always to
be seen on the Boulevards from five to six ; that
he attended the first performances at theatres ;
criticised the Government whilst sipping absinthe,
and was welcome to insert his squibs in all papers
that were not political. The only points that
distinguished him from other literary men of his
clique were that he never smoked, and even railed
with some irony at those who did ; he also dressed
with more care than was usual with 'petits jour-
nalistes. Let it here be recalled that a petit


journaliste belonged to a category quite distinct
from tlie journalist proper. There were, until
1868, wlien tlie old press law was repealed, only
about a dozen daily papers licensed to discuss
politics. They paid 60,000 francs caution money
at starting, and were subjected to a tax of six
centimes on each copy ; but to found such a paper
required a special Ministerial authorisation, which
was not often granted ; and as a consequence the
contributors to these large journals held their
heads high, and affected to despise the gentlemen
who were on the staffs of the non-political sheets,
which anybody was free to establish. On their
side the petits journalistes, who kept a sort of
afternoon club, first at the Cafe des Varietes, and
by-and-by at the Cafd de Madrid, treated their
graver compeers as fogies, and Henri Eochefort
was perhaps the readiest to launch his shafts at
those of his press colleagues who, like the writers
on the Dehats, Temps, and Siecle, sought to debate
the affairs of the country seriously. He should
have exercised to all time this gay profession into
which he had so snugly ensconsed himself, for it
fitted him perfectly. He read capital little lessons


to peccant actors ; lashed just on the right spot
the young debauchees of high hfe who made
themselves ridiculous ; and had not his match for
inditing on the Phrynes of the Bois de Boulogne
one of those stinging articles which would bring
the victim or her protector down to the publishing
office with shrieking threats of duel or action at
law. Then there were his comedies and farces,
which were most droUy immoral. On the whole,
he meant no harm, and doubtless here and there
did good by chastising social abuses. But he was
not an earnest reformer, nor even a Liberal. He
was simply a laughing cynic, and the mere fact
that he should have suddenly towered into the
position of champion to the Liberal and Republican
parties speaks to the curious moral plight into
which France had been brought by the men of
the Empire.

The thing began in the usual way. A silly
Minister, taking alarm at a few bold witticisms,
sought to gag the small journalist, and so swelled
him into a half-martyr. Roehefort had been
writing in the ^oUil and the Evenement When
the latter pa2)er was suppressed, the Figaro, trans-


formed from a bi-weekly , into a daily paper, took
its place, and Eocliefort became leading chroni-
queur at a salary of eighty pounds a month, at
wliicb price bis services were purchased, after a
spirited competition between M. de Villemessant
and the banker Millaud, proprietor of the
Soleil. He had just begun then to fly at higher
game than actors and spendthrifts. He made
covert allusions to politics, and his editor lived in
daily dread lest he should overshoot the line and
entail the suppression of the paper. This even-
tually happened. Rochefort having commented
too transparently on some legislative measure,
M. de Lavalette, the Home Minister, sent for M. de
Villemessant, and told him that unless Rochefort
were dismissed the staff, the Figaro should be
prosecuted for printing unlicensed politics, and sup-
pressed. M. de Yillemessant being, however, un-
willing to part with Rochefort, submitted that if
the Figaro were suffered to become a political
paper Rochefort should be attached to it only as a
htei-ary contributor. This compromise was effected,
and Rochefort, whose value in the market had
become strangely magnified by this State negotia-


tion about himself, was engaged at a salary of
£1,200 a year to write on all subjects "save those
relating to this, that, or to anything else." It
was at this juncture that the Emperor issued his
manifesto of the 19th January, 1867, stating that
he was prepared to grant the nation more liberties,
including that of starting political papers. Eoche-
fort hereupon applied for a specimen of this last
liberty ; but it was refused him, on the ground
that the Legislature (which meant in this instance
M. Rouher) had not yet ratified his Majesty's
decision. From this moment Rochefort gave him-
self out as an intractable oppositionist, and lost no
occasion of publishing that, as soon as he had a
paper of his own, he would handle the Empire
as it had never been handled before. And he
kept his word ; for when the new press law left
him free to bring out his Lanterne, the event
assumed proportions which have now become
matter of history. The Imperial Government, if it
had acted wisely, would have let Rochefort alone.
No doubt his bitter jeers, and fearless denunciation
of official abuses, were hard to bear ; but, after
all, the majority in every country will support an


established Government sooner tlian risk revolu-
tion, and, by the end of a few months' time, the
Lanterne, if allowed to flame away as it listed,
would have burned itself out. This must have
happened the more surely, as Rochefort, though
clever and humorous, was ignorant, and soon lost
all command over himself. A writer who wants
to be of use to any liberal cause must fence with
his pen, not slash with it ; he must, further, ad-
vocate one object at a time, and wait till he has
succeeded in the first attempt before going on to
the next, progress being a thing of degrees, not of
leaps and bounds. If a writer, taking up the
cudgels for reform, is good-natured enough and
weak enough to hearken to all the persons who
come to him with grievances, and if he makes
those grievances his, he arrays all society against
himself, and is a lost man. At the first number
of the Lanterne, Rochefort had nine-tenths of in-
telligent France behind him ; after the eleventh,
when he was driven to fly to Belgium by three
sentences of imprisonment, aggregating twenty-nine
months, his only adherents were the extreme
men. Some of these followed him to Brussels,


lived at liis expense, toadied liim, and ended by
turning liis head, Tliey persuaded him that he
was a great man, and a Eadical Republican ; they
drove him to sneer at Jules Favre as too moderate,
and to oppose him at the general election of 1869
as " an incumbrance to the Liberal party." They
made him so completely their puppet that when
the poor fellow took his seat in the Corps Legis-
latif after the elections of November, 1869, he
was as an Ishmael, having no programme in
common with his colleagues, no programme of
his own even — only the ludicrous pledge of being
able to solve the social question " in five minutes,"
Of Rochefort's short stay in the Chamber, of his
violent article on the death of Victor Noir, of his
imprisonment, liberation by the people, and of the
office he held for a few weeks under the Govern-
ment of the National Defence, it is needless to
speak at much length. After his lantern went
out, he founded two newspapers, the Marseillaise
and the Mot dOrdre. They had but a turbulent
and short existence. They made a great noise, but
effected no good to any cause. During the siege
of Paris he was made President of the Commission


of Barricades, and did his duty so energetically,
that he was placed on the Republican list, and, at
the election of the 8th of February, 1871, was
chosen representative for the Department of the
Seine, being the sixth out of forty-three candi-
dates ; and 165,670 votes were recorded in his
favour. At Bordeaux he sat with the members of
the Extreme Left, voted against the preliminaries
of peace, and then abruptly resigned his seat in
the Assembly. He supported the revolution of
the 18 th of March with all the strength of his
paper staff, but refused to take office under the
Commune, on the plea of ill -health. He is
accused of having instigated the destruction of
M. Thiers' s house, and charged with the responsi-
bility of having encouraged the desperate armed
resistance encountered by the troops of Versailles
in their march to Paris. He was arrested at
Meaux on the 20 th of May, interrogated while
suffering from brain fever, condemned as guilty
of nine crimes or derelictions of duty by the third
Council of War, and sentenced to imprisonment
in a fortress, M. Victor Hugo made a pressing
appeal to M. Thiers for a commutation of this


pimisliment, but without result. M, Rocliefort
was first confined at Fort Boyard, and in the
month of June last (1872) he was transferred to the
Citadel of St. Martin de Rd. A few days' liberty
was, however, granted to him in the autumn, in
order that he might legitimatise his children, and
marry their mother, who had retired to a convent
in Paris, and was said to be dying. The cere-
mony over, he was sent back to jail ; and perhaps
no more melancholy wedding was ever witnessed.
M. Rocliefort upon this occasion formally pro-
fessed his belief in the Roman Catholic faith, and
denied that he had ever been a heretic at heart.

Rochefort's instincts were always good, and
his behaviour invariably weak. When left to
himself he acted well ; under the bad advice of
interested wire-pullers he frequently conducted him-
self like a madman. There is no excusing his
unparalleled violence during the Commune, except
by supposing that his hatred of the Empire had
culminated into a monomania ; and that he re-
garded every man who did not share his views to
the full as a conspirator plotting the return of
that execrated regime. But once again, for these


excited terrors and for the deplorable conduct
which resulted from them, Eochefort's few dis-
reputable intimates are more to blame than him-
self. As a general rule it must be laid down that
the chiefs of an insurrection should be punished,
and the lowlier rebels, when possible, spared. But
Kochefort is one of those few insurrectionary-
leaders who have never led anybody, but have
always followed the commands of their subordi-
nates. His crimes are, to have been too feeble,
too good-hearted, and too vain. Surely, however,
these offences have been expiated.


IIT EDMOND ABOUT, whom tlie Germans
arrested at Saverne, is tlie most tho-
roughly French amongst all French novelists, the
most biting of French pamphleteers, the most un-
lucky of deserving dramatic authors, the most
restless of newspaper editors, and in politics the
most disappointed man in France. In his own
words, "he has been offered everything, he has
accepted everything, and he has got nothing."
Edmond Fran9ois Valentin About was born at
Dieuze, a little town of Lorraine, on the 14th
of February, 1828 ; and when sent five-and-
thirty years ago to a seminary at Pont-a-
Mousson, in his native Lorraine, he already
gave promise of being a clever man ; but he was
emphatically a sad boy, who had imbibed some-
where a contempt for the sacred writers, and spoke
of them with such precocious levity that the


reverend fathers, his teachers, first tried what
cuffing on the head would do, and then expelled
him. Young Edmond's family, however, though
a poor one, had friends, and these procured the
boy an exhibition at the Lyc^e Charlemagne in
Paris. Religious instruction being no part of the
programme here. About got on very well ; but he
was not an amiable character out of school hours,
and fought more than one shin-and-claw battle
with sensitive comrades' whom his bitter sayings
and pert demeanour humiliated. At the Concours
General (general competitive examination of public
schools), in 1848, About carried off the grand
prize for the Latin essay (" Prix d'Honneur de
Philosophic"), Pr^vost-Paradol being that same
year winner of the French essay prize. These are
the supreme honours to which French schoolboys
can aspire, and their value was heightened in this
instance by the speech which M. Carnot, the
Republican Minister of Public Instruction, made to
the pair of young scholars as he handed them their
laurel crowns and prize books, and told them that
the Second Republic relied for its support on rising
generations of men such as they. M. Carnot's


encouragements would appear to liave touched
Edmond About, for on entering tlie Ecole Normale
he was a very determined Eepublican indeed,
though, for that matter, he stood in no contrast to
his brilliant college friends who were as far from
dreaming then that a Bonaparte would ever come to
gag them, as they were from suspecting that some
of their number would turn courtly advocates of the
gag. MM. Taine, Weiss, Libert, Prdvost-Paradol,
and Francisque Sarcey are some of the names
which figured beside About' s at the Normal
School. It was a most hopeful pleiad ; patriots
like M. Carnot might well draw favourable auguries
from it, and the only wonder is how a generation
which produced such offshoots should have sub-
mitted so long and so tamely to be kept under
foot. On leaving the Ecole Normale, Edmond
About proceeded to the French School at Athens,
which was a sort of finishing college for aspiring
professors, and for awhile he gave himself up
to archaeological studies. But this was not the
natural bent of his mind. At five-and-twenty he
was an accomplished scholar, teeming with wit,
malice, and scepticism. He had studied Voltaire


as more pious people do tlieir Bible ; lie carried
volumes of tlie philosopher s works about with
him, soaked his fancies in them, and had ended
by so impregnating himself with the Voltairean
spirit that when he began to write he unconsciously
did so in a style as bright and firm as his great
master's own, and with a humour every whit as
diabolical. "La Grece Contemporaine," which
was his first regular work, proved an immediate
success ; but it raised a great clamour both at
Athens and among the Greeks of Paris, who taxed
M. About with having repaid the hospitalities ex-
tended to him by satires of the most ungrateful
and exaggerated description. To this it may be
answered that people who receive wits into their
houses must be prepared for the consequences.
M. About had been allowed the free run of
Athenian drawing-rooms ; he had seen a great
deal, been amused at much, and, once home, had
noted his impressions with that pitiless French
raillery which spares nothing. People have since
accused the author of always turning round upon
former hosts and benefactors, and an esteemed
critic has written, " Chacun des livres de M. About


est un clief d'oeuvre et une maiivaise action." But
if the truth could be known, M. About lias pro-
bably made up bis mind that in accepting hospi-
talities he is conferring an obligation, not receiving
one ; nor is he quite wrong His manners are
proverbially delightful, and none the less so for
the spice of self-assertion which flavours them.
People love to get him within a drawing-room
circle of ladies, and to set him pulling men or
women of the day to pieces in the quick, cool, and
dry fashion which^is his characteristic. There are
few things finer in the way of intellectual treats.
Only, those who have enjoyed this instructive
pleasure for an evening may as well take it kindly
if the wit makes them in their turn serve the pur-
poses of entertainment before other audiences.

Edmond About was twenty-seven when he
brought out his first work, and M. Buloz lost no
time in ordering a novel of him for the Revue des
Deux Mondes. M. About contributed " Tolla," a
sort of autobiography, of which he drew the idea
from an Italian novel published a few years previ-
ously, but little read. He candidly admitted the
imitation, but this did not save him from virulent


accusations of plagiarism, and tli-e storm raised by
this event had not yet lulled when the Theatre
Frangais produced his three-act comedy, Ouillery,
which a cabal (swelled, it is said, by the entire
Greek colony of Paris, and by contingents from
London and Marseilles) killed in two nights.
Acute M. de Villemessant, always on the look-out
for writers with a little spleen to vent, engaged
the furious author to write chroniques in the new
Figaro under a pseudonym, and M. About' s
detractors were soon brought to book in a style
they had not reckoned on. One must recall the
political stagnation of France at that time to
realise the interest which literary quarrels excited.
Parisians pounced upon newspapers containing a
good slashing lampoon by one writer upon another
as on butter in siege time, and the readers of the
Figaro had no reason to complain that Vallentin
de Qu^villy (M. About' s nom de plume) stinted
them either as to the amount or the quality of the
invectives he lavished. The writer's connection
with the Figaro, however, terminated in an abrupt
and singular way. The Emperor having been
shot at, M. About wrote lightly: — "The only


weapon to be relied on in trying to assassinate a
sovereign is the dagger." These imprudent words
very nearly dragged M. de Villemessant and his
contributor before the Assizes under an indictment
for inciting to murder ; as it was, the Figaro was
only saved from extinction by M. de Quevilly's
instant dismissal. At that moment M. About was
contributing novels and art criticisms to the
Moniteur, as well as chroniques to the Figaro, and
the public naturally expected that his repudiation
by the latter print would have been followed by
his departure from the official sheet. But M.
About made his peace with the Tuileries through
the interposition of Prince Napoleon. That free-
thinking pseudo-liberal highness, who loved to
play (on an economical scale) the part of Mecaenas,
patronised About, assured the Emperor that he
was a man to be courted, not quarrelled with, and
secured his stay on the Moniteur. M. About
wrote there some of the most charming things in
the French language. Within four years he con-
tributed " Les Mariages de Paris," a series of
novelettes ; " Le Roi des Montagues," a new satire
on Greece, which acquired double force from the


journal whicli published it, and again brought
down Hellenes innumerable about the author's ears;
" Germaine," " Les Echasses de Maitre Pierre,"
and that most laughable of stories, " Trente et
Quarante." It is impossible to speak too highly
of these delightful books. The style of them is
perfect, the humour inexhaustible, and the
morality always pure. In this respect M. About
is an example and a reproach to the class of
French writers who contend that there is no being
amusing without dipping into licence. Edmond
About' s novels are those of a gentleman, and he
deserves to be classed honourably apart with
MM. Erckmann-Chatrian, among the fiction writers
of the Second Empire.

One would be glad to say as much for the
author's politics as for his books ; but the smiles
of society had soon thawed the Republicanism he
brought with him from the Ecole Normale. He
was the Empress's favourite author, and knew it.
No official rout was complete without him. He
shunned many of his old friends ; then, finding
himself cut by them in return, he began to
sprinkle the vials of his bitterest ridicule on the


men and principles of tlie Liberal party. This
was not a very brave performance towards a body
of men wbo were beiag exiled and thrown iato
gaol ; and tbougli !M. About has since returned to
his first faith, Liberals can never quite forgive him
for his cruel treatment of them at a time when it
would have been at least gracious to be silent.
In 1858 M. About received the Cross of the
Legion of Honour, and shortly afterwards was
sent, at Government expense, to report on the
condition of Rome. He had never, though a
Bonapartist, recanted his Positivist tenets. He
was purely a Csesarist, of the same mood as Cassar
himseH at that moment ; and in sending him to
Eome, the Emperor well knew what kind of report
to expect. ^I. About, on his return, published
" La Question Eomaine," a pamphlet which stirred
a commotion from one end of Europe to the other.
It was bold, powerful, and fuU of the most im-
placable logic, but its chief importance was derived
from its being supposed to echo the Emperor's
own views on the Itahan question, and if the
Emperor had any clear views at that time, no
doubt the pamphlet did represent them. From


that moment M. About was generally regarded in
France as one of the future Ministers of the
Empire, and he himself had full confidence in his
shining destiny. He contributed to Prince Na-
poleon's organ, L' Opinion Rationale, a series of
anti-Papal articles ; published two more political
pamphlets, " La Nouvelle Carte d' Europe " and " La
Prusse en 1860 ;" brought out a pendant to his
first Greek book — " Rome Contemporaine ;" and
accepted a standing engagement as leader writer
on the semi-official Gonstitutionnel. Then, aspir-
ing to consecrate Jiis reputation by a theatrical
success, he wrote a drama — (raetowa— incautiously
wrote, for the fine coalition of enemies he had
arrayed against himself were only waiting for some
such opportunity to pay off old scores ; and pay
they did. Gaetana was brought out at the Odeon
on the 2nd of January, 1862. All the author's
foes, religious, political, and literary, seemed to
have gathered there, and from the moment the
curtain rose until the going down thereof the
tumult of yells and hisses was inconceivable. At
the close of the performance the Latin Quarter
students, who had attended in a body to damn


the piece, marclied processionally to tlie office of
tlie Constitutionnel in the Kue de Yalois, and gave
three groans for that newspaper ; then they wended
their way to the Passage Saulnier, where M. About
resided, and favoured him with a charivari which
lasted half an hour. Gaetana — a drama of un-
doubted merit, by the way — had to be withdrawn
on the fourth night, nor was it ever able to attain
a longer" run in the provinces. During a couple
of months the departmental cities where the piece
was mounted became the scenes of turbulent
demonstrations as in Paris, the clergy, in more
than one instance, encouraging their flocks to go
and hiss. It should be mentioned that the Figaro,
where M. About had originally written, had be-
come by this time foremost among his tormentors,
the chief reason being that M. About had declined
to return to the staff of that journal when solicited
by M. de Yillemessant. The Figaro described the
persecution of Gaetana as "an act of justice sug-
gested by outraged public conscience."

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Online LibraryEustace Clare Grenville MurrayThe men of the third republic; or, The present leaders of France. Reprinted from the London Daily news → online text (page 13 of 22)