Friday, 29 July 2016

New Addition: Anthology of Frenetic Poet-Historians

Le Livre de beauté: Souvenirs historique (The Book of Beauty: Historical Memories). ed. Louis Janet? (1834) Sole Edition? Louis Janet: Paris. 239 pp.

This interesting volume indicates how closely related historiography and poetics were considered among the early avant-garde, and reveals the increasing strain between mainstream and Frenetic Romanticism. In French Romanticism, the revolution in historiography and that in creative culture were considered part of the same continuum, and the founders of modern French historiography–Michelet, Méry, Lacroix, Maquet, etc.–incorporated both academic history and historical fiction into their larger historiographic projects (sometimes to the despair of later historians). We see here that this general tendency was also reflected within the extremist fringes of the broader movement.

Published (and likely edited) by Louis Janet, whose ultra-Romanticist press published the comprehensive yearly avant-garde anthology Les Annales Romantiques, this anthology presents a selection of 14 texts about historical women, most written by people known primarily as radical Romanticist poets and playwrights, including four members of the Jeunes-France/Bouzingo. The contributors were young, most ranging from their mid-20s to mid-40s, and included the most radical exponents of Frenetic Romanticism, Petrus Borel and Charles Lassailly, and ultra-Romanticists such as Aimable Tastu (the only female contributor), Cordellier Delanoue, Gustave Drouineau, Henri Martin, and Jean-Pierre Lesguillon. Their chosen subjects diverge from mainstream selections in such collections, which typically focused on women known for their moral correctness, social compassion, and self-sacrifice–traits traditionally associated with 'the weaker sex'. Instead, here we find women notable for their political influence, in some cases exerted as strong monarchs, in other cases as royal mistresses. Many of the texts are hybrid constructions, which shift between traditional scholarly reportage and historical fiction, punctuated by contemporary commentary.

It seems that the book once contained portraits of each woman, by artists who were equally associated with Frenetic and Avant-Garde Romanticism, including Jeunes-France members Louis Boulanger and both of the Devéria brothers.

This copy of the book lacks the illustrations (there is no obvious evidence of removal, leaving open the possibility that it was a reduced, cheaper edition, possible bound from overstock when the tipped-in engravings ran out). Nonetheless, according to worldcat there are only two surviving copies of the book held in public libraries, both in Europe, possibly making this the only copy of the book available in the Western hemisphere.
The anthology begins with a surprisingly ambivalent preface by Charles Nodier, and reflects the awkward place in which he found himself in 1834, when the divergence of mainstream Romanticism from the nascent avant-garde was becoming definitive. As the organiser of the Cénacle group, he had overseen the cultural coup-d'état that was swiftly making Romanticism the dominant force in nearly every domain of contemporary culture. But through his experimental, sometimes hallucinatory gothic-horror novels he was also the half-intentional father of the dark, violent, gothic substream known as Frenetic Romanticism, around which had built up the even-more radical community beginning to call itself the avant-garde, which was proving a political and aesthetic embarrassment as the movement's leaders settled into relative respectability. After a few predictable pages of the usual commonplaces regarding the virtues of Love (cf. "Women are the masterpieces of Divinity", Nodier ends his Preface by stating his disappointment at the low moral character of many of the women chosen for the anthology, and exhorting his readers to focus on the uplifting contributions such as the one on Queen Elizabeth. One feels that Nodier is fulfilling a contractual obligation, fearful of endorsing an anthology destined for critical attack from the respectable mainstream press.

In addition to Janet assembling this collection and publishing dozens of female writers in his anthologies, journals and books, his editor for the Annales Romantiques, Charles Malo, had also published his own book of feminist biographies several years earlier (see Historiography tab). Closely associated with the Frenetic and other extremist currents, Janet's fortunes seem to have been tied to it, and he appears to have ceased publishing by the time that it had subsided at the end of the 1830s and the energies of the avant-garde diverted away from Romanticism.
This copy was owned by the Institution Hortus (Here is a prospectus of the school the year of Huysmans' graduation), and was probably in the library while it was attended by the future Decadent novelist J.-K. Huysmans, who attended from the age of eight to eighteen, and would himself later contribute famously to the avant-garde intertwining of history, fiction, and social theory.

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