- Aesthetics of Fraudulence in Nineteenth-Century France: Frauds, Hoaxes and Counterfeits
The warning note struck in the initial chapter of this book — 'Introduction: Caveat Lector' — might well apply to the Introduction itself, and to certain subsequent segments, characterized by a rather condescending attempt to write 'engagingly', as the cover blurb puts it. 'Feeling cheated already? Misled?', Scott Carpenter writes on page 2, adding 'I understand. I even sympathize'! There is, furthermore, some incongruous jargon, according to which, for example, writers are 'major players' (p. 3) or have 'second-string status' (p. 17); and the reader stumbles across the occasional excruciating metaphor, such as the case in which Louis XVI is said to have lost his life 'under the blade of the national razor' and later to have had 'a close shave with oblivion' (p. 87), or the odd portentous assertion, such as the claim that 'throughout the nineteenth century, life is on the move' (p. 155). There is also in this text a tendency to overexplain, notably when Carpenter comments on the obvious pun contained in Philipon's mock memorial to Louis-Philippe, his 'monument expiapoire', noting appropriately that it refers to the pear but adding 'yes, the fruit' (p. 71)! However, the reader would be well advised to ignore such authorial self-indulgence, for Carpenter has many interesting things to say and has written a thoroughly researched, enlightening, and highly original study exploring a broad range of texts and cultural creations designed to deceive or dealing with deception. One suspects [End Page 496] that, notwithstanding Carpenter's cautious claim, the period covered by his study, ranging mainly from the Restoration to the Second Empire, exemplifies no more than any other the 'culture of fraudulence' about which he writes, although he does a remarkable job in analysing the specific forms that it takes. Of the writers treated, Mérime´e, quite naturally, has pride of place in searching studies of selected tales and a chapter on Les Faux Démétrius with its possible references to the Bonapartist pretender, who, it should be noted, orchestrated his coup d'état in 1851, not 1852 as Carpenter states at one point (p. 56). Other texts, usually literary, by Balzac, George Sand, and Baudelaire, allow Carpenter to explore aspects of his complex theme, such as plagiarism, deceptive transvestism, fakes, and the counterfeit. But there are two thoroughly absorbing, non-literary chapters that deserve special mention: 'The Ghosts of Kings', on the wiles and wherefores of commemoration and forgetting, with an intriguing section on the problematic recovery of the remains of Louis XVI; and 'Vidocq and the Image of the Counterfeit', a fascinating exploration of the memoirs of the Paris chief of police, with its layers of dissimulation. There are excellent illustrations throughout the book, and, beneath the breezy manner, a wealth of scholarship on a theme that would become, of course, even more relevant in the last decade of the century, which culminated in the momentous shams of the Dreyfus Affair.