Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, one of the most respected critics in nineteenth century France as well as the rest of Europe, lived during a rich period of French literary activity, from the 1820s to the 1860s. He chronicled the literature of his time, as well as reviewed the classics of the past. He was the pre-eminent literary critic in France for over forty years.
He was born at Boulogne-sur-Mer on December 23, 1804, son of Charles François de Sainte-Beuve, a tax collector, and Augustine Coilliot, housewife, of part-English heritage. He was their only child. Tragedy entered early in Sainte-Beuve’s life, when his father died two months before his birth. Of this, he once said that his cradle “rested on a coffin” (Nicolson, 4). As the only son, he was now the titular head of the family, and his mother cherished him—perhaps too much. In Boulogne he attended the Institut Blériot, impressing his teachers with his ability. At age fourteen he was sent off to Paris, at his request, where a more advanced education was available. There, he lived in a student pension and attended the Collège Charlemagne. His life was lonely, save for a weekly Sunday supper at the table of his uncle, François Théodore Sainte-Beuve.
When he left the Charlemagne, he attended the Collège Bourbon, a more advanced school. After graduation from there in 1823, he was urged by his mother to study medicine. In fact, she moved to Paris with an aunt to supervise his further education. Catholic and royalist, Mme Sainte-Beuve hoped that her son would follow in his father’s footsteps and uphold the traditional virtues of the middle class family. But by now, he had become more independent and moved eagerly in Parisian intellectual circles. As an old saying goes, “city air makes one free”, and Sainte-Beuve by now had breathed deeply of it.
He attended courses at the St-Louis Hospital, but his attention was less and less on physiology and cadavers than on the lively literary world in Paris. One thing he did learn during his medical classes: he had a deformation of his urethra that prevented normal sexual intercourse. It was a burden that would prove to be tormenting in the future.
It did not take long for Sainte-Beuve to realize that his future did not lie with medicine, rather with literature. When a former teacher at the Charlemagne, Pierre-François Dubois, founded a tri-weekly literary review Le Globe in 1825, he called on Saint-Beuve to join the staff, remembering his pupil’s clever papers in his classes. Sainte-Beuve, delighted, said goodbye to medicine, and became a journalist. He did not realize that the joys of journalism were moderated by the low pay and the daily deadline. Still, this was the turning point in Sainte-Beuve’s life, and he went at it with great gusto. At first he wrote news and event reports; but in a short time he was asked to contribute reviews to the paper’s literary department, and became the in-house literary critic. As a result he soon became known in literary and artistic circles in Paris for his acuity and taste.
At the Globe he was required to review current publications, but he found time to write also about classical French literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These works were quite out of fashion, but Sainte-Beuve continued to praise the artistry of such writers as Racine and Fénelon and Mme de Sévigné, who he felt were unjustly neglected. After a time, he collected a number of such reviews in 1828 in a pair of volumes titled Tableau historique et critique de la poésie française et du théâtre française au XVIe siècle (Historical and Critical Portrait of French Poetry and Theater of the Sixteenth Century, 1828). It was not a bestseller, but established Sainte-Beuve as a critic to be reckoned with for both his style and his scholarship.
Not satisfied with his reviewing, Sainte-Beuve also longed to be a poet—having associated with such current poets as Lamartine and Victor Hugo. His first book of poetry, Vie, poesies et pensèes de Joseph Delorme (The Life, Poetry, and Thoughts of Joseph Delorme, 1829) was published under the pseudonym of ‘Joseph Delorme’. But it wasn’t long before the secret was out that he was its author. The critical reception was tepid and this disgruntled Sainte-Beuve, who would remain a frustrated poet all his life.
Sainte-Beuve’s association with Victor Hugo was at first an intimate one—he became a familiar at Hugo’s Cénacle and family circle. This familiarity led to Sainte-Beuve’s infatuation with Hugo’s handsome wife Adèle, an infatuation that went on until Hugo and Sainte-Beuve eventually parted, something Hugo greatly regretted chiefly because Sainte-Beuve was such an influential critic.
Meanwhile, he continued to publish his columns, which he called his causeries, or his ‘chats’. His columns were really far from chats: they were graceful, learned, and insightful discussions of books and personalities. In 1829 he issued a critical anthology of the poet Ronsard, then in 1830 another volume of poetry, Les Consolations (The Consolations), and in 1835, a novel, Volupté (The Sensual Man), which narrates the Adèle affair in a disguised form. From 1831 he began writing for the Revue des Deux Mondes, and freelanced with other journals.
Once, his friend, the historian and statesman François Guizot, told him he would never achieve the respect due a learned man unless he produced a work of serious scholarship. Craving the respect of the world, Sainte-Beuve considered writing about the Jansenist sect at the abbey of Port-Royal, in the valley of Chevreuse. The idea titillated him, and in 1833 he began gathering source material for such a work. In 1837 he was invited by the University of Lausanne to give a series of lectures. He chose the subject of Port-Royal.
During the eight months that he delivered the lectures he lived in Lausanne, studying and writing. After the lectures were over in the spring of 1838, he decided to work his notes into a book—which in time became the five volumes titled Port-Royal. The first volume appeared in 1840, and the last in 1859. There was unqualified praise for the work, and today it is regarded as Sainte-Beuve’s masterwork (in fact, in 2004 it was reissued in two volumes, to celebrate the author’s bicentenary). It is not merely a history of the sect and its nuns and the “small schools” that became famous (at which Racine studied), but of the sect’s tribulations under the fierce opposition of the Church to its existence. By 1708, Louis XIV was pressured by Pope Clement XI to disband the abbey, and he did so, dispersing its nuns, and having its buildings torn down.
The fame and respect that Sainte-Beuve relished soon came to him when he was elected to the French Academy in 1844. The welcoming speech was given by Victor Hugo, who for a time had blackballed Sainte-Beuve. The honor of a chair at the famous Academy appeased the critic for a while, but he lived to be dissatisfied, and even this honor did not make him happy. An event was to occur to make him even less happy: the outing of his private publication of his love poems to Adèle Hugo.
The Livre d’amour (Book of Love, 1843) was his tribute to his love for her. Printed in a limited private edition, copies were sent to a few of Sainte-Beuve’s friends, with the caveat not to distribute them. Unfortunately, the printer passed on a copy to the critic, Alphonse Karr, in April 1845, who quickly revealed the author in an article titled “Une infâme” (An Infamy). Hugo was enraged, yet was advised not to challenge Sainte-Beuve to a duel, since Hugo was now engaged in multiple adulteries and would be called a hypocrite. Still, the affair was not a feather in Sainte-Beuve’s cap.
When the 1848 revolution took place in Paris, Sainte-Beuve was delighted, for he was at heart a republican; he even hoped to find a spot in the new government. But an accusation arose (untrue) that he had been receiving secret payments from Louis Philippe’s government. He defended himself in the press, then humiliated by it all decided to leave the country. Opportunely, the post of professor of French literature at the University of Liège, in Belgium, was offered and he accepted it.
From October 1838 to August 1849 Sainte-Beuve was in Liège on and off, giving lectures and keeping to himself. From this time on, his articles and reviews take on a less “chatty” tone and adapt a more sober approach. One product of the Liège years was his book Chateaubriand et son groupe litéraire sous l’Empire (Chateaubriand and his Literary Circle During the Empire,1859), published after some eleven years and based on one of his lecture series.
In 1849 Sainte-Beuve became alienated from the Revue des Deux Mondes, and turned to the Constitutionnel, where he was engaged to write a causerie each Monday. In 1851 the first collection of his columns was printed: Causeries du Lundi (Monday Chats). Because of the space limitations he was obliged to be more concise, insightful, and decisive in this series. It improved his style immensely.
On the death of his mother in November 1850 he moved into her home at the rue du Montparnasse, where he would live for the remaining eighteen years of his life. From this home he would continue to work on Port-Royal, write his causeries, and pursue hopeless love affairs. Two years later, he changed his literary venue from the Constitutionnel to the Moniteur, a government paper. For now he had decided to support the Bonapartist regime (Louis Bonaparte having achieved a coup d’etat in 1851, exercising dictatorial powers), believing it more solid than the earlier republican government. His allegiance to Napoleon III was affirmed by his accepting a lectureship at the Collège de France in December 1854. But when he began his first lecture in March of 1855, the students shouted insults at him. Further uproars took place in a subsequent appearance, forcing him to resign his post. It was clear that the current student body considered him a lackey of Bonaparte.
Yet despite the humiliation of his lectures at the Collège de France, he accepted a lectureship on French literature at the Ëcole Normale Supérieure. There he would face more mature, upper level students, who would listen to him. His lectureship began in 1858, and for three years he continued teaching, even though his lecture manner was somewhat low key and monotonous.
These later appointments were a godsend to Sainte-Beuve since they provided a steady income. For, much of his life he had lived on the borderline of poverty. Only after his mother’s death in 1850 and his inheriting her home at rue du Montparnasse did he actually own his own domicile. In 1861, the editor of the Constitutionnel begged him to return and write his columns, and offered a substantial sum to make up for the loss of his academic salary. Sainte-Beuve agreed (later, he would also write for the Temps).
By now, he was acclaimed as France’s leading critic. Matthew Arnold admired his work, and once, in 1859, even visited the great man in Paris. Arnold later remarked on a dinner the two men had together that “his conversation is about the best to be had in France. . .” (Nicolson, 209). He was a consummate scholar, sometimes taking out a dozen books from the Bibliothéque Nationale in order to write a column or two.
In his last years he suffered from a bladder obstruction; in 1868, he had had a stone removed, but in time the condition returned. He had several more operations, but by September of 1869 it was clear he wouldn’t live much longer. On October 13 he passed away. His funeral was attended by Flaubert, the Dumas brothers, Renan, and George Sand, as well as students from the Ëcole Normale.
Of his reputation, Francis Steegmuller and Norbert Guterman write: “It would be difficult to name any other critic who has produced so vast and varied an oeuvre, so much of which retains its interest a hundred years after his death” (Steegmuller & Guterman, x). In his criticism Sainte-Beuve did not have a theory or a plan, but in his essay “On Sainte-Beuve’s Method” he claims that he did have a “method”. In judging a writer “. . . I am inclined to say tel arbre, tel fruit, the fruit is like the tree. Thus the study of literature leads me naturally to the study of human nature” (Steegmuller & Guterman, 299).
Nicolson, Harold, Sainte-Beuve. Constable, 1957.
Smith, Logan Pearsall, “Sainte-Beuve”, in Reperusals and Re-collections. Harcourt Brace and Company, 1937.
Steegmuller, Francis, and Gutermann, Norbert, Sainte-Beuve, Selected Essays. Anchor Books/Doubleday and Company, 1964
Billy, André, Sainte-Beuve, Sa Vie et Son Temps. 2 Vols. 1952.
Brantingham, Philip. "Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 28 September 2009
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=3911, accessed 27 April 2017.]