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"La Maladie anglaise" in French Eighteenth-Century Writing: From Stereotype to Individuation

From: Studies in the Literary Imagination
Volume 44, Number 2, Fall 2011
pp. 109-132 | 10.1353/sli.2011.0008

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"La Maladie anglaise" in French Eighteenth-Century Writing:
From Stereotype to Individuation

Throughout the eighteenth century, in letters, newspapers, medical treatises, travel narratives, literary criticism, and popular and high-brow literature of all sorts, the melancholy Englishman is a recurrent stereotype in French writing, an emblematic figure of the English national character and indeed of the nation itself. Inspiring a mixture of sympathy, perplexity, admiration, pity, and horror, the singularity of his condition is seen as a pathological disorder, one which mirrors other forms of English deviance. So pervasive is this stereotype that it comes to be adopted by British writers themselves. When George Cheyne published his treatise devoted to "nervous diseases of all kinds" in 1733, he consciously integrated the view from France, promoting melancholy above the scurvy and venereal diseases as the condition now designated by the words of his title, The English Malady. Back in 1698, Henri Misson de Valbourg had identified four "very Dangerous Distempers in England that are much less known in other Countries; the Scurvy, Consumption, Rickets, and Hypochondriac Melancholy" (Misson 68),1 but by mid-century, the physical disorders had become secondary national characteristics. The English malady, seen from France, was situated above all in the mind and the soul.

The ingredients of this stereotype are complex and wide-ranging. Their starting points are the perceived differences between the French and the English. In 1770 an anonymous author summed up what she or he saw as the stereotypical images of the English and the French:

It has been decreed for all time that the Englishman will be philosophical, serious and taciturn, and that he will kill himself in cold blood out of pure boredom; and that the Frenchman will be thoughtless, playful, scatterbrained, high spirited almost to extravagance, passionate to the point of madness, but without ever being in love; and that he will only risk his life for his king or for the futile principle of a so-called point of honour.

(qtd. in D'Orville 6)2 [End Page 109]

The term most frequently employed in French to describe the Englishman's condition is mélancolie. Other terms were sometimes used either as synonyms (la tristesse) or as concomitant adjectives that engender melancholy (sérieux, pensif). This vocabulary is applied not to individuals so much as to social groups, and sometimes to the entire nation. According to Pierre-Jean Grosley, "melancholy prevails in London in every family, in circles, in assemblies, in public and private entertainments" (1: 183).3 His three-volume book on London was published in Switzerland in 1770 and is based on the time he spent in the English capital in 1765. Like many French books on England, it was soon translated into English, in this case by Thomas Nugent, the translator of Montesquieu, as A Tour to London: or, new observations on England and its Inhabitants, which appeared in 1772. Grosley's use of the word "tristesse" (translated by Nugent as "melancholy") needs to be considered in the light of his comments on the Latin origin of the word, tristitia, which, according to him, contained a harsher meaning of spite. Tristesse evolved into a more ephemeral emotion that had nothing to do with "the excesses into which men are hurried by yielding to the impressions of melancholy" (1: 231).4 When Grosley uses tristesse, he is reinvesting it with its original, darker significance.5

It is interesting to compare Grosley's terminology with that of an earlier observer of English manners, Jean-Bernard Le Blanc, whose Lettres d'un François, also in three volumes, were published in La Haye in 1745. Le Blanc claims to have written them during his time in England between 1737 and 1744. Their English translation, Letters on the English and French Nations, dates from 1747. Le Blanc wonders why the English have no word for that quintessentially French expression, l'ennui, one that we now tend to associate with nineteenth-century poets such as Baudelaire or de Vigny:

How comes it to pass that the English, who have borrowed so many words from our language without necessity, have not received this, which so well expresses a thing they...