Saturday, October 17, 2015

Stories Too Good to Check

Reading in Friedell's Cultural History of Modernity, I was surprised to see him give Racine as an example of those who declined and died on the withdrawal of Louis XIV's favor. The story was spread by Saint-Simon in his memoirs:
It happened one evening that, talking with Racine upon the theatre, the King asked why comedy was so much out of fashion. Racine gave several reasons, and concluded by naming the principal,--namely, that for want of new pieces the comedians gave old ones, and, amongst others, those of Scarron, which were worth nothing, and which found no favour with anybody. At this the poor widow blushed, not for the reputation of the cripple attacked, but at hearing his name uttered in presence of his successor! The King was also embarrassed, and the unhappy Racine, by the silence which followed, felt what a slip he had made. He remained the most confounded of the three, without daring to raise his eyes or to open his mouth. This silence did not terminate for several moments, so heavy and profound was the surprise. The end was that the King sent away Racine, saying he was going to work. The poet never afterwards recovered his position. Neither the King nor Madame de Maintenon ever spoke to him again, or even looked at him; and he conceived so much sorrow at this, that he fell into a languor, and died two years afterwards.
It makes for a great story, but is not true. Lucy Norton, who edited and translated the memoirs, remarks in a footnote that it is probably not true. The editors of the Pleiade edition of Saint-Simon say in the end notes that there is no need to demonstrate the falsity, that among other things Racine was invited to Marly a few months before his death, ergo long after his supposed disgrace. One understands Stendahl, who disliked Racine, taking the story at face value.

Tobias Smollett did the Duke of Newcastle an ill turn in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, reporting the conversation of a court hanger-on with the duke:
In the beginning of the war, this poor half-witted creature told me, in a great fright, that thirty thousand French had marched from Acadie to Cape Breton--"Where did they find transports? (said I)" "Transports (cried he) I tell you they marched by land"--"By land to the island of Cape Breton?" "What! is Cape Breton an island?" "Certainly." "Ha! are you sure of that?" When I pointed it out in the map, he examined it earnestly with his spectacles; then, taking me in his arms, "My dear C--! (cried he) you always bring us good news--Egad! I'll go directly, and tell the king that Cape Breton is an island."'
 In the little I have read of Newcastle, he appears as no genius, but also as a man far from the incompetence Smollett depicts. Yet it is a striking picture, and from that must derive some staying power. In an essay reviewing Horace Walpole's letters, Macaulay precedes the story with
Of his ignorance many anecdotes remain, some well authenticated, some probably invented at coffee-houses, but all exquisitely characteristic...

Francis Parkman, in A Half-Century of Conflict is cagey also:
Smollett and Horace Walpole have made his absurdities familiar, in anecdotes which, true or not, do no injustice to his character ... 
Frank McLynn, in his history The Jacobites, quotes it, but with what qualification I cannot say, for the book is no longer on my shelves.

Such stories do last. Saint-Simon's memoirs were first published about 1788, Humphrey Clinker in 1771.  That gives us about a century and a quarter between Saint-Simon and Friedell, about two and quarter between Smollett and McLynn.

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