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Largillière: Madame de Pompadour Rococo and Enlightenment (XVIII Century)

O. Goldsmith: She Stoops to Conquer
      R. B. Sheridan: The School for Scandal

Probably the two most representative plays of English XVIII Century comedy, they show how the genre has evolved from the roudy expressions of the Restoration period, strongly influenced by French bourgeois comedy and the Italian Commedia dell'arte. While maintaining some grotesque aspects from early XVVIII comedy, Goldsmith and Sheridan manage to tone down the vulgarity without sacrificing anything to humor.

She Stoops to Conquer. Another case in point for the love that must be unmasked. Just like in Marivaux' Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard, the heroine means to test her lover's attachment (a.k.a. troowuv) by passing herself off as a mere servant, "stooping" in fact to "conquer". Still, here we are on the other side of the Channel and certain requirements must be met. Goldsmith's merit is to have found the perfect combination of the ridiculous (Mrs. Hardcastle), commonsense (Mr. Hardcastle, Sir Charles Marlowe, Hastings and Miss Hardcastle), sentimentality (Marlowe and Miss Hardcastle), all the while captivating his audience with attractive and handsome characters, even the most unappealing (Tony), without ever resorting to racy vulgarity.
Goldsmith, whose theatrical production is not extensive and undeservedly close to ignored, is perhaps better known for his short novel, The Vicar of Wakefield (Stephen Coote, editor), narrating with benevolent humor the misadventures of the homonimous vicar and his family, through the costumes of provincial life. The most entertaining and sympathetic figure is in fact the very Vicar who manages to face all difficulties opportuned by vain, frivolous little aristocrats and petty bourgeois, with more grains of salt than the faith which his profession should mandate. A pleasant, instructive reading by all means.
The School for Scandal, restoration comedy revised and corrected with exhuberance and good humor. That it should reflect the bad-mouthing habits of high society (London and Bath, we presume) is implicit in its title, and it doesn't stray much from a moralistic viewpoint condemning hypocrisy and warning against the false appearances of ill costumes, in a manner that is perhaps less biting than Molière's Tartuffe, and substantially gratifying the audience with a happy ending where love (and goodness of heart) triumphs crowned with economic rewards. This is Sheridan's most successful play (almost constantly present on the English stages for over two centuries), one of three, and the "comedy of manners" will have to wait for over a century before being recaptured through the pen of Oscar Wilde with Lady Windemere's Fan.

downloadable texts:
She Stoops to Conquer (authorsdirectory)
The Vicar of Wakefield (bibliomania)
The School for Scandal (bibliomania)

Abbé Prevost: Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut
     Edition du seuil

Quite aside from any literary interests, this is a novel which has marked, in different ways and periods, my emotional and intellectual life, including through its diverse filmic and theatrical interpretations. On the one hand, the stereotypical story of the woman of easy costumes who enthralls and charms the naïf, impetuous young Chevalier, all the while entertaining more pecunious, albeit less attractive and impetuous rivals; on the other hand, a romantic, adventurous, unconventional love story. Social propriety and natural impulses, economic considerations and romantic drives pull the two lovers through an ever intensifying twirl of adventures, victims of the plots of society, family and destiny, rapidly toward the tragic denouément. Manon, the prototype of the elusive, enigmatic charming nymph enslaving men through their basest instincts, represents the never resolved conflict between vice and virtue, between egotism and generosity, leaving us only partially satisfied at the end of the story. A must.

downloadable texts:
Histoire du chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (multimania)
Manon Lescaut (engl.) (encyclopediaindex)

Marivaux: Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard (ed. Larousse)

Out of the entire theater production of this author in the first half of the XVIII Century this is the one play which is unanimously considered to be his masterpiece. Here structure, style, characters, scenic fiction and entertainment reach maximum level. First of all, two traditional themes intertwine in this play: 1) the exchange of roles between master and servant, already present in other plays by Marivaux (and in this case the exchange is double), and 2) the test to which "true love" is put (mutual, in this case). In a period in which marriages were still combined without the consent of the interested parties, Parisian audiences drew delight and relief in witnessing that, at least on the stage, feelings could triumph over petty economic and societal interests. The mask theme, so dear to Marivaux, and always enjoying great success with audiences of all times, is here employed to unmask affinities of the heart and social status (i.e., Arlequin can don master's dress as much as he likes but he will ever remain a servant in speech and manner, and that is why he finds his twin soul in the "fake mistress").
In Marivaux' other great masterpiece, Les Fausses confidences, the challenge to rigid social immobility is carried a little bit farther through a series of "false confidences," which the hero, of an inferior social background than the heroin, manages to conquer her heart. The playwright's mastery consists in making it psychologically credible that this sort of love can be awoken and grow within a single day period.
Personally, what makes this author dear and delightful to me is precisely the themes he chooses to develop and his accurate care of style, that very same which lent the name to marivaudage and which could be aesthetically represented in Watteau's paintings ("Madame, you have not answered my plead." "Mon cher chevalier, I'm blushing, what better answer could you expect?"). This is a comedy which is shifting slowly but firmly toward bourgeois sentimentality, but before losing its aristocratic ésprit and which finds in Le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard its epitome (in my humble opinion), but to appreciate even more the value of this play I recommend reading other major works by Marivaux: La fausse suivante, L'école des mères, and La double inconstance. For those who are interested in studying his complete production, in the original version, I couldn't recommend enough Theatre complet (2 vol.), a cura di Frédéric Deloffre, Classiques Garnier, 1968.

downloadable files:

La double inconstance
downloadable file:

Les Fausses confidences
downloadable file:

La fausse suivante
downloadable file:
Benoît Jacquot film version: review

Also recommended to scholars of the genre and the history of the novel:
Le Paysan Parvenu e La Vie De Marianne
Marivaux Plays (Methuen Publishing)

Other titles (at prohibitive prices, be forwarned!):

Voltaire: Candide
     Zadig / Le Monde Comme Il Va (Larousse), etc.

Perhaps the fiercest enemy of Rousseau (especially in his own eyes), to the easy sentimentalism (and paranoia) of the greengrocer in Montmartre Voltaire opposes his lucid and disenchanted optimism, although at times marked with bitter cynicism in front of the stupidity of "modern man." Subtly ironic and skeptic in each page of the mega-volumes published (or not) during his life (and after), Voltaire ridicules social conventions, superstitious beliefs, intellectual fashions and moral abuses, without missing an opportunity to strike at his old adversary (Candide is perhaps the most blatant instance, but there are several if you look carefully!). Nota bene: I have recently laid my hands on a real trove: Trattato sulla Tolleranza (On Tolerance), published by Universale Economica and edited by no less than Palmiro Togliatti (1949).

other texts:
Zadig ou La destinée (Flammarion)
Candide (Hachette)
The Portable Voltaire (Penguin)
downloadable files:
Candide (Abu)
Candide, Microméga, Zadig (france.diplomatie)
Candide (Voltaire's site)
Philosophical Dictionary (english)
Voltaire's Page (english)

Voltaire Foundation (english and french)

     Letteratura erotica
     J.-B. de Boyer d'Argens: Thérèse philosophe

There is an ongoing confusion between the terms "libertinism" and "libertinage" and this confusion leads to consider as "libertine literature" what is, strictly speaking, pure erotica. This tradition, which finds its roots already in the Renaissance (Pietro Aretino, in primis, with his Ragionamenti), passing through the proto-illuminist phase in the XVII Century (Cyrano, among others), finally explodes in the XVIII Century and rapidly declines towards the "enfers" of the bibliothéques. It is precisely to this didactic/philosophic tradition that Sade pays obeisance, as it was intended more for the gentlewomen of high society than for their male counterparts.
Thérèse philosophe (1748) combines a well-balanced mixture of blasphemous profanity with libidinous desires which classifies it as a "truly immoral" book, to use an expression which Sade puts in Juliette's mouth. Revised in different editions, "Thérèse" was enormously popular for half a century, widely read and imitated, and for this reason cannot be ignored when studying this genre. Taking off from a real "affaire" (that of the Abbé Girard, accused of seducing a young novice), the heroin narrates her process of initiation and apprenticeship in a convent and how she subsequently completed her education under the friendly care of a good count, reaching the highest level of enlightened philosophy (hence this title) through her relationship (and experiments) with this gentleman. It should be noted that the author, like the Marquis de Sade later on, was imprisoned at the Bastille for having written and published such a profane book, whose authorship, however, he never reneged.

J. Cleland: The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure/Fanny Hill

Very interesting, intriguing, pleasant reading The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, better known as Fanny Hill. Same structure as in "Thérèse", Fanny narrates her gallant adventures and initiations to a gentlewoman, but the starting point is different: almost immediately after getting married (she meets her husband in a brothel, but she's only a servant and still a virgin), he has to go to war leaving her alone to face the harsh reality of making ends meet and fending against a corrupt and frivolous society. Inevitably she resorts to prostitution which she soon takes a liking to and ends up, successful and sophisticated, building a fortune and a respectable position for herself and her distant husband. Sounds familiar? It is not altogether dissimilar, in fact, from the plot of The marriage of Maria Braun, and it eventually inspired Erica Jong's Fanny. In sum, a pleasant, entertaining, and pacifying book.

P. Choderlos de Laclos: Les Liaisons dangereuses (Flammarion)

Third exemplum of the erotic firmament, the infamous epistolar yawn, Les Liaisons dangereuses, sophisticated and mellifluous, molasseous heir to Richardson's Clarissa. I will not quarrel here with the narrative and stylistic qualities which Laclos does not lack, but with the moralistic attitude reflected in the novel. Primarily, I never liked those libertines who take forever to seduce a lady (or mademoiselle). I can understand the inherent charm of hunting, but quite frankly when I got halfway throught the book I was already puffing with impatience. What actually bothers me here is its blatant moralism, so close to the Rousseauian worldview. No charms, no favorable trait, no redeeming qualities can assuage the reader when reading of the unbelievably evil Marteuil; no doubt this is done to contrast it with the bottom-line "good-heartedness" of Valmont, who in the end redeems himself through love and a noble death. Around these two characters a whole flock of potential victims moves in this aquarium from where the libertines freely fish. All victims are more or less exquisitely good, extremely sensitive (but not really sensible), deadly naïf to the point of being the easy dupes of the tricks and plots that are played against them. The ending (which I hope I haven't ruined for you) arrives predictably and irritatingly. [ I'm sure I would have enjoyed J. Malkovitch as Valmont, but it's really Glenn Close that I cannot stand... ]

Liaisons dangereuses
trad. inglese (Penguin, P.W.K. Stone trans.)
Intro and Links (Philippe Lavergne)
A thorough structural analysis of Stephen Frears' movie in comparison with the novel.
Quelques pistes de réflexion sur Les Liaisons dangereuses
Valmont (Lisa Warrington)
For an interesting comparison between "Valmont" by Milos Forman and "Dangerous Liaisons" by Stephen Frears (at the expense of the latter, I'd say...)

downloadable file: Les liaisons dangereuses (alyon)
English text

Fanny Hill, Or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure
downloadable file:

Thérèse philosophe:
few selected passages

     Denis Diderot
Jacques le fataliste et son maître

Out of the huge diderotian production, this is my absolute favorite. There are different reasons for it (humor, irony, smoothness of style, philosophical considerations), but above all it is the frame play which paces the story, alternating dialogues between characters with dialogues between writer and reader (remember Calvino in If on a winter night a traveller...?), phantomizing his reactions, anticipating and playfully arguing against his obsessive and intrusive questions. This is, if one prefers, applied theory Like Voltaire, who always needs an interlocutor for displaying his theories and thought (and polemics), albeit indirectly, all that Diderot needs is his fervid and constant imagination. Philosophically speaking the message is loud and clear, revealing his preferences for classical stoicism (and anticipating by a few decades Hegel's master/slave relationship); but what is especially clear and loud is Diderot's narrative genius and unique ironic touch (see, for example, the children of the Buggers...). I agree with Philippe Sollers that it smells the artificial, unlike Le neveu or Le rêve, but perhaps that is yet another trait which charms me.
For a useful and interesting analysis of Jacques and for placing it in its historical and narrative context, I suggest you pick up the volume devoted to this novel in the Gallimard "Les Ecrivains du bac" series (10ff if you find it in a remainders' bookstore in France).

ed. Folio
english translation:
Jacques the Fatalist and His Master (Penguin)

Le Neveu De Rameau (Flammarion)

It would be sinful to omit the other little jewels (indiscreet or not) written by Diderot, if it weren't that I there are too many. So a choice is in order. Above all stands Le Neveu, most beloved by writers, remarkable for the creation of the perfect anti-hero. With immediacy and spontaneity, which are Diderot's trademarks, anarchy and opportunism, knavery and innocence, tenderness and amusement mingle to immortalize the cynical nephew of the composer Rameau. In some editions (Penguin), Le Neveu is matched with the other famous short piece Le rêve de d'Alembert (Flammarion), sandwiched between two dialogues (Flammarion) with his mathematician friend on matters of nature, god and morality; the dream in question should prove Diderot's point. There are some amusing exchanges between Mlle. de Lespinasse and the doctor she has summoned after D'Alembert's blabberings have caused her some alarm.
La Religieuse is quite a different piece of meat: pathos, la religiosa un vero e proprio antesignano della monaca di Monza, in versione meno scandalistica e piú profondamente segnata da una aperta critica alle istituzioni religiose di quanto non avrebbe mai voluto o saputo fare Manzoni. Poi, a ben guardare, di tutte le tonnellate di scritti di Diderot, ci sarebbe anche il Supplement au voyage de Bougainville, sorta di utopia dove oltre a voler smantellare il concetto del "buon selvaggio", nuovamente attacca le superstizioni religiose che hanno segnato la storia d'Europa (nel caso non si fosse capito, il buon Denis era ateo).

also of interest:
Le rêve de d'Alembert (Flammarion)English translations:
Rameau's Nephew / D'Alembert's Dream (Penguin)
The Nun (Penguin)

downloadable file:
Jacques le fataliste et son maître (Abu)
Le neveu de Rameau (Abu)
Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (Abu)
Neveu / Supplément (petite bibliothèque)
Le neveu de Rameau, Supplément voyage de Bougainville (france.diplomatie)

     M. Bradbury: To the Hermitage

Although belonging to our era (Hermitage was published in 1999), I have decided to include this splendid tale for its relevance to Diderot's character. Written with the declared intention of celebrating Diderot's visit to St. Peterburgh, occurred over two centuries earlier, a group of intellectuals, drawn from different sections of human culture, is hoarded on a similar trip and "forced" to produce papers for a conference, as well as discover a devastated, post-Communist Russia at a time of Eltsin's raise to power. Scenes from this voyage alternate with scenes from Diderot's journey and meetings with the Great Catherine. The philosophe's style is here delightfully emulated with warmth and detached common sense. Charming, enthralling, amusing.

C. Goldoni: Trilogia della villeggiatura (Off to the Country Trilogy)

To the Italian reader (as well as the Italian scholar) with a knack for "commedia dell'arte" this is a text which needs no introduction. Inserted in its own literary/historical context, these three plays (three in one, actually), they appear to be perhaps less incisive. Actually, at first glance, they would merely appear as domestic adaptations of French works, from Molière onward, but we are soon undeceived when we take into account the different audiences to which they turned: one the one side the court of Louis XIV while on the other an old, merchant society which, although donning the clothes of the aristocracy, still bears its ancient preoccupations with money. Just like in the delightful paintings by Longhi, Goldoni's plays move along a savvy, otpimistic bourgeois common sense, by which in the end what triumphs is honesty, hard work, while cunning and frivolities get their own deserts. Particularly enjoyable, in my view, are his plays in dialect where the lively spontaneity is much more enhanced. The reason why I have picked The Villeggiatura Trilogy is that it represents his last farewell to beloved Venice with an originality he was perfectly aware of, as he himself insists in his Mémoires. Moreover, it is not true, as he remarks, that each play can stand on its own. Not only the plot develops and resolves itself only in the third play, but the ironic portrait Goldoni makes of this "mania" for country holidays acquires its full meaning thanks to the three phases in which he structures it. What struck me most, I must say, is the predominance of the economic over the sentimental element in the "happy" ending (which I will not unveil for you...).
Beloved by all audiences, of course, is the famous Locandiera, more in line with the tradition of different rivals (wonderful excuse to give life to three typical characters of the "commedia dell'arte") who, in the end, must resign their aspirations to the humbler, but honest servant.

downloadable file:
La locandiera (liber liber)

     The Gothic Novel:
Walpole - The Castle of Otranto
Radcliffe - Mysteries of Udolpho
Jane Austen - Northanger Abbey

A rather peculiar volume (you will not be able to find it except, by sheer chance, in some thrift-shop, like I did) collecting three good examples of "gothic novel", one for each phase in the life cycle of the genre. To begin with Walpole's novel, i.e., the initiator; then The Mysteries of Udolpho, the most classical example; and to top it all Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen's delightful mockery of the genre.
The Castle of Otranto. Walpole's amusing intellectual divertissement reads more like a literary exercise without much involvement on the part of the author (or the reader), although there are plenty of features which will become (stereo)typical of the genre: the tormented villain; the ineffectual hero; the haunted castle; impending doom and despair; and the final resolution by the hands of a deus ex machina. It does make an interesting reading, unlike
The Mysteries of Udolpho, which imho drags on for too long, a couple of hundred pages too much, is perhaps, together with The Italian and Matthew Lewis' The Monk, one of the most famous example of gothic literature. All the elements of the genre are developed ad nauseam to make sure the (female?) reader can delve in as much terror as possible, and sighs along with the ineffectual hero. Although ripe with clichés and naïvete, it manages to convey the gasping difference between Montoni's terrifying castle and Guascogne sunny countryside, with a little touch of racism and anti-clericalism implied. Radcliffe was quite popular, as Austen's parody testifies, and received high praise even from the "gothic" Marquis de Sade. Only danger to the modern reader is discombubolating one's jaws from too much laughing :-)
As said before, Northanger Abbey is a parody of the genre where Catherine Moreland's enthusiastic expectations of living the same emotions as in Radcliffe's novels are constantly disappointed by matter-of-fact explanations and her mis-readings of ordinary events reveal an impressionable imagination. The author is not condemning gothic literature per se, but the reading we do of it, which should be disenchanted and critical, for her message can be best summarized in Mr. Tilney's words: "it is not so much a question of what we read: we must exercise our judgment after all, and not mistake fantasy for reality". As for Austen, it is still an early work, showing all the promise which she will keep with such masterpieces as Pride and Prejudice and Emma. It is therefore advisable that reader should munch through the first two novels before indulging in Northanger.
Finally, there are two other novels which should never be missing from a general overview of gothic lit: Matthew Lewis' The Monk and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Penguin) (Oxford ed.).

downloadable files:
The Castle of Otranto:
(proj. gutenberg)

The Mysteries of Udolpho:
(proj. gutenberg)

Northanger Abbey:
(tilneysandtrapdoors) + illustrations
The Monk (selfknowledge)
Frankenstein (upenn)

B. de Saint-Pierre: Paul et Virginie

A royal bore especially if compared to the adventures of des Grieux and Manon. Interesting, nevetheless, for it coincides with typical XVIII Century fascination with exotic places (often theaters of literary utopias), resulted from more frequent contacts with the colonies. Romantic, adventurous, heart-rending tears, it bears all the influence of rousseauian ideology with respect to the "bon sauvage" and direct contact with nature. Worthwhile mostly as a testimony to the spirit of an era it may tempt you to visit the Mauritius islands, after all...

downloadable file:
petite bibliothéque

     Casanova: L'Histoire de ma vie

What does a great libertine when he has already reached senior citizen status and is too exhausted to go on chasing skirts (or whatever else may tickle his sensuality)? He may find a protector, a magnate; he may work as a librarian, but he may find that his reputation still exercises some power over the "weak sex." He looks back and realizes that his life is one splendid tale to tell and if he doesn't wish to let it go to waste, he has to put it down on paper, as best as he can (for he can, he's a consummate story teller). A few adjustments here and there, a few corrections by memory, a few (many) phisolophical/moral reflections just to make more sense to the reader, et voilá: seven volumes of adventure, intrigue, escapes, seductions, women galore. Besides the evident merit of being written in a easy, pleasant style (at times with a touch of irony), it offers the modern reader a rather complete picture of life in the XVIII Century: border and customs' issues, money exchange and various problems connected with credit financing, laws that vary considerably within a very tiny geographical area, political instability, health related issues (how many times our hero gets "stuck" with some unpleasant venereal disease!), cultural differences (save in bed, where things never change!).
What really bothered me is a certain pernicious tendency to take himself too seriously, to make inopportune moral judgments (nice tirade against homosexuality: a shame that only a few chapters later he himself falls for this unusual type of pleasure!). Perhaps it is not worth spending 300 bucks in your local bookshop (if you really must, you may be well advised to order it at or in the original French version), but if you can find it in your nearest library, you should take advantage of the opportunity (just like I did).
The Story of My Life (Penguin Classics)

     LeRoy-Ladurie: L'argent, l'amour et la mort en pays d'oc

A history book, a novel and a literary essay rolled into one volume. Through a complete in-depth analysis of a provençal folk tale, written toward the end of the XVIII Century, LeRoy-Ladurie procedes to comparing it with its previous, oral versions, as well as with local customs in matters of marriage, death and money (inheritance); the French historian presents us with an accurate, vivid picture of peasant life in Southern France during the Ancien Régime, looking at it from an unusual perspective by scholarly standards, which is also its main source of fascination (at least for this reader). To read more about the fairy tale traditions (doubly oral and literary), see the Fairy Tale Page. When you're done reading it, you may want to re-read the literary function of heroes and villains in classical novels.

Relevant pages:

Figurative Arts


Additional Resources

Titles available at

The Castle of Otranto

Tom Jones

Marivaux Plays (engl)


To the Hermitage

The Beggar's Opera


The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy

Jacques the Fatalist and his Master

Northanger Abbey

School for Scandal

Les Liaisons dangereuses (Penguin)

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Oxford)

Mysteries of Udolpho

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Copyright © 2001 Marina Pianu