Boutin on Lamartine, ed. Croisille (2003)

Lamartine, Alphonse de. Correspondance d’Alphonse de Lamartine (1830–1867). Tome VII: 1856–1867. Ed. Christian Croisille. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2003. Pp. 1003. ISBN 2-7453-0905-6.

In his memoirs in 1861, François Guizot commented that “M. de Lamartine m’apparaît comme un bel arbre couvert de fleurs, sans fruits qui mûrissent et sans racines qui tiennent” (qtd. in Croisille 674). His assessment of the man could equally apply to this final tome of the correspondence, which is often-eloquently phrased, but concerns topics increasingly mundane.

The seventh volume of Lamartine’s correspondence, edited by Christian Croisille, is the last in the republication of the author’s letters, begun in the year 2000. The years 1856–1867 were not Lamartine’s most glorious; in fact, by that time, his political career had ended, and he was desperately trying to make money by republishing his works and writing his Cours familier de littérature.

Those who study correspondence will often remark that the act of collecting letters goes hand in hand with that of constructing an image of the grand homme. What we witness in volume 7, however, is the final unraveling of this persona, as the debtor subsumes the poet/politician. By the editor’s own admission, the letters from the end of Lamartine’s life are not the most interesting: “La répétition monotone des mêmes difficultés, des mêmes opérations dérisoires, des mêmes cascades de chiffres n’est pas non plus sans provoquer, à la longue un sentiment de lassitude” (1: 13).

How did Lamartine accumulate so many debts? Years of living beyond his means, excessive generosity, an over-reliance on loans dating as far back as the 1830s, the inability to liquidate his assets promptly (among which is the cherished Milly, which he finally sold in 1860), and the unreliability of wine sales from his estates are just some of the causes alluded to in his letters. He discusses money matters with directness with many of his correspondents. In a letter to Louis Ulbach (1857), for example, Lamartine wonders what reception his portrait of Béranger will receive and adds that “je voudrais bien qu’il réussît, pour la mémoire de Béranger d’abord, et ensuite pour mon réabonnement.” Financial concerns were never too far away. Soliciting alike his friends and his subscribers (the readers subscribed to the Cours familier de littérature or to the new edition of his complete works), Lamartine shamelessly turns them into potential creditors. The letters, however, also reveal feelings of humiliation, victimization, outrage, revolt, desperation and resignation, particularly in reaction to the “souscription de l’injure” of 1858 and the Emperor’s “récompense nationale” of 1866. (His friends solicited money on his behalf but his detractors launched a smear campaign in response to his perceived mendicancy; Lamartine initially resisted but eventually took the handout offered by Napoleon III).

There is nevertheless something interesting in reading about Lamartine’s last years of literary output and efforts to shore up his œuvre. The genesis of lesser-known works such as Vie de lord Byron (1865; reed. 1989) is chronicled in Lamartine’s letters to and from Teresa de Boissy. The correspondence also reveals the reactions of Lamartine’s contemporaries to his judgments about them in the Cours familier de littérature. Paul de Musset took affront at Lamartine’s portrait of his brother (1857), a teary-eyed Michelet declared “La Vigne et la Maison” a masterpiece, Sainte-Beuve basked in the flattering light of Lamartine’s 101st and 102nd entretien (1864). Striking too is the variety of correspondents, ranging from Napoleon III to Victor Hugo. Jean Reboul and other working-class poets and regional writers such as Frédéric Mistral—who still sought Lamartine’s support and advice—are among the correspondents who add dimension to Lamartine’s often-magnanimous persona.

Collecting and organizing letters is no easy task. Croisille is to be commended for the quality and scholarly merit of the volume that contains a cogent introduction; copious notes and chronologies; supplementary documents (such as newspaper editorials) that shed light on the correspondence; and no fewer than three indexes (of the correspondents, of Lamartine’s works, of proper names). Those interested in Lamartine will naturally want the final volume in the Correspondance project, but cultural theorists and historians might also find a few insights into the period’s understanding of finances and debt.

Aimée Boutin
Florida State University
Volume 37