Under the easy morals and tolerance of the Regency literature prospered, and heresy found a footing that it never lost again. Theaters and the opera recovered from the frowns of the late King and Mme. de Maintenon; Philippe, or some of his household, attended the Opéra, the Opéra-Comique, the Théâtre-Français, or the Théâtre des Italiens almost every evening. The Théâtre-Français, while preserving Corneille, Racine, and Molière, opened its stage to fresh plays like Voltaire’s Oedipe, in which the voice of a new and rebel age was heard.
Barring Voltaire, the greatest writers of this period were conservatives molded under the Grand Monarque. Alain René Lesage, born in 1668, belonged in spirit and style to the seventeenth century, though he lived till 1747. Educated by the Jesuits at Vannes, he came to Paris and studied law—his mistress paying his tuition fees.75 After sufficient service to a tax collector to make him hate financiers, he undertook to support his wife and children by writing books; he might have starved had not a kindly abbé pensioned him with six hundred livres per year. He translated some plays from the Spanish, and Avellaneda’s continuation of Don Quixote. Inspired by Vélez de Guevara’s El diablo cojuelo (The Lame Devil), he struck a happy vein with Le Diable boiteux (1707), which pictured an impish demon, Asmodeus, perching on a pinnacle in Paris, lifting roofs at will with his magic wand, and revealing to his friend the private lives and unlicensed loves of the unsuspecting residents. The result was a rollicking disclosure of the sordid schemes, hypocrisies, vices, and devices of humanity. One lady, surprised by her husband in bed with his valet, solves a dozen problems at once by crying out that she is being raped; the husband kills the valet, the lady saves both her virtue and her life, and dead men tell no tales. Nearly everyone rushed to buy or borrow the book, delighted to see other people exposed; “two seigneurs of the court,” said the Journal de Verdun for December, 1707, “fought, sword in hand, in Barbin’s shop, to get the last copy of the second edition.”76Sainte-Beuve found almost an epitome of the age in the remark of Asmodeus about a brother demon with whom he had quarreled: “We embraced, and since then we are mortal enemies.”77
Two years later Lesage reached almost the level of Molière with a comedy satirizing the financiers. Some of these had advance news of Turcaret, and tried to prevent its performance; a story, probably legendary, pictured them offering the author 100,000 francs to withdraw the play;78 the Dauphin, son of Louis XIV, ordered it produced. Turcaret is a contractor-merchant-moneylender who lives in luxury amid the destitution of war. He is generous only to his mistress, who bleeds him as sedulously as he bleeds the people. “I marvel at the course of human life,” says the valet Frontin; “we pluck a coquette; the coquette devours a man of affairs; the man of affairs pillages others; and all this makes the most diverting chain of knaveries imaginable.”79
Perhaps the satire here is unfair and is edged with revenge. In the most famous of eighteenth-century French novels Lesage succeeded in depicting a more complex character, and with greater objectivity. Following Spanish models again, The Adventures of Gil Blas de Santillane moves in picaresque style through a world of banditry, drinking bouts, abductions, seductions, and politics, in which cleverness is the supreme virtue and success pardons all. Gil begins as an innocent youth, tender with ideals and love of mankind, but credulous, talkative, and vain. He is captured by robbers, joins them, learns their arts and ways, graduates from them to the Spanish court, and serves the Duke of Lerma as aide and pander. “Before I was about the court my nature was compassionate and charitable; but tenderness of heart is an unfashionable frailty there, and mine became harder than any flint. Here was an admirable school to correct the romantic sensibilities of friendship.”80 He turns his back upon his parents, and refuses to help them. His luck fails, he is imprisoned, he resolves to reform; he is released, retires to the country, marries, and tries to be a good citizen. Finding this an intolerable bore, he returns to the court and its code. He is knighted, marries again, and is surprised by the virtue of his wife and by his happiness in her children, of whom “I devoutly believe myself the father.”81
Gil Blas became the favorite novel of French readers until Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862) challenged its size and supremacy. Lesage loved his book so well that he spread it over twenty years of his life. The first two volumes appeared in 1715, the third in 1724, the fourth in 1735; and, as in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the last was as good as the first. He financed his old age by writing little comedies for the popular Théâtre de la Foire (Theater of the Fair); and in 1738 he issued another novel, Le Bachelier de Salamanque,padding the book with unacknowledged pilferings in the manner of the time. He had become almost deaf at forty, but could hear with a trumpet; lucky man, who could close his ears at will, as we close our eyes. Toward the end of his life he lost the use of his faculties “except in the middle of the day,” so that, said his friends, “his mind seemed to rise and set with the sun.”82 He died in 1747, in his eightieth year.
Lesage’s Gil Blas finds fewer readers today than the Mémoires of Louis de Rouvroy, Duc de Saint-Simon. No one loves the Duke now, for he lacked the modest man’s ability to conceal his vanity. He never forgot that he was one of the ducs et pairs of France, ranking in grandeur only after the royal family itself; he never forgave Louis XIV for preferring bourgeois competence to noble mediocrity in the administration of the government, nor for putting the royal bastards ahead of the “dukes and peers” in the ritual of the court and succession to the throne. On September 1, 1715, he tells us,
I learned the death of the King upon awakening. Immediately afterward, I went to pay my respects to the new monarch…. I went thence to M. le Duc d’Orléans; I reminded him of a promise he had given me, that he would allow the dukes to keep their hats on when their votes were asked for.83
He loved the Regent sincerely, served him in the Council of State, admonished him to moderation in mistresses, and comforted him in bereavements and defeats. Close to events for fifty years, he began in 1694 to record them—from the standpoint of his class—from his own birth in 1675 to the Regent’s death in 1723. He himself survived till 1755 into an uncongenial age. The Marquise de Créqui set him down as “an old sick crow, burning with envy and devoured by vanity.”84 But she was writing memoirs, too, and could not stomach his obstinate continuance.
The garrulous Duke was always biased, often unjust in his judgments, occasionally careless of chronology,85 sometimes consciously incorrect in his report;86 he ignored everything but politics, and lost himself, now and then, in bootless gossip about the aristocracy; but his twenty volumes are a detailed and precious record by an observant and penetrating eye and a fluent pen; they enable us to see Mme. de Maintenon, Fénelon, Philippe d’ Orléans, and Saint-Simon almost as vividly as Bourrienne allows us to see Napoleon. To give his prejudices freedom, he tried to keep his memoirs secret, and forbade their publication within a century of his death. None of them reached print till 1781, many of them not before 1830. Of all the memoirs that illuminate the history of France these stand unrivaled at the top.