restricted access Marivaux
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[ 1 Marivaux1 Art & Letters, 2 (Spring 1919) 80-85 This is the man whom Gautier noticed as the discoverer of l’analyse sérieuse de l’amour.2 Marivaux has been ignored in England, and has hardly received his due at the hands of French critics. His due, and no more, from the critics ; it is admitted that he wrote half a dozen of the best comedies, and two of the best novels in the language. But critics are impersonal people, engaged usefully in dissociating ideas and discharging accumulated pretensions ; and they avoid intimacies with authors. Marivaux attracts neither the classical nor the romantic mind: to the former he is heretical and dangerous ; he is too personal, he is not the representative of a party; for the latter he is too reticent – the man is altogether in the work. Marivaux’ biography is one of rumours and glimpses. Even the useful book of M. Larroumet gives us very little: an uneventful life, first of hackwork , then of reputation and the Academy, but always of poverty.3 There remains the report, unprecise but persistent, of his passion for Sylvia, of the Théâtre Italien, the actress who played his Luciles and Angéliques.4 At any rate, he seems to have made a suitable marriage elsewhere, for of his wife we hear almost nothing; and M. de Marivaux was very popular in society.5 At Madame de Lambert’s, Madame de Tencin’s, later at Madame du Deffand’s, he was considered a good talker, a charming reader of his own plays, but a person very difficult to manage. He was timid and independent. “Il n’y eut jamais, je crois,” said Madame de Tencin, “d’amour propre plus délicat, plus chatouilleux et plus craintif.”6 Collé wrote: “il fallait le louer et le caresser continuellement comme une jolie femme.”7 And Grimm, a less friendly critic than either of these two, says: “il entendait finesse à tout . . . il supposait volontiers qu’on cherchait à le mortifier, ce qui l’a rendu malheureux est son commerce épineux et insupportable.”8 Marmontel once offended Marivaux by smiling as the latter came into a room. He gave Marivaux a very reasonable explanation of the misunderstanding, and Marivaux professed to be satisfied. Yet Marivaux was never again able to regard Marmontel without some distrust and hostility. In spite of this hedgehog disposition, however, Marivaux did not lack friends; he was intimate with Fontenelle, who was his most persistent backer for the 1919 2 ] Academy; and current opinion records with emphasis his generosity and kindness.9 Personal detail, as a matter of fact, is unimportant in the case of Marivaux. What is to be appreciated is the particular moment at which the work of Marivaux appeared. He belongs to the period of the Regency and the first years of Louis XV; his best plays had all been written by 1746. When Marivaux began to write plays, the age of Molière was well over;10 several years of weak imitation had prepared Paris for receiving favourably something entirely new; something making use of different machinery, investigating different emotions, disregarding all traditions and laying hold on a new world as the material of its art. Then came perhaps not the greatest , but certainly the most civilised period of French art and letters. Magniloquence and rhetoric were discarded; sentimentalism had not yet appeared. Moralists are replaced by observers. Instead of Rochefoucauld, we have Vauvenargues;11 instead of Madame de Sévigné, Madame du Deffand;12 instead of Molière, Marivaux; and instead of Racine also, Marivaux. Between Claude and Poussin on the one hand, and Greuze on the other, is Watteau; and the similarity between Watteau and Marivaux, both the men and the work, is more than superficial.13 Perhaps the temper which I am endeavouring to localise existed only in a very few men; but very few ever can be civilised. The age, at least, was propitious, and the painting of Watteau, the Dialogues des Morts of Fontenelle, and the plays and novels of Marivaux are the result.14 In England, there was Chesterfield, perhaps Horace Walpole.15 Since Rousseau, the flood of barbarism has left very few peaks. It is difficult to be civilised alone. By the time when Marivaux wrote, Pascal was solemn and orotund; Corneille stiff and absurd;16 Molière grotesque; there remains only Racine, admired of Marivaux and of Voltaire. Even Rochefoucauld is alien to the eighteenth century. For Rochefoucauld is hard, but...