Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly will always retain his position in the canon of French literature, but he deserves to be more widely read across Europe and the world. The chief preoccupations of this unusual writer present a jigsaw of contrasting interests: diabolism, ultramontane Catholicism, dandyism, regional culture and extreme melodrama incorporating murder and scandalous behaviour of every kind. He epitomized the extravagances of late romanticism, influenced Henry James and Marcel Proust, and helped the careers of Baudelaire and Flaubert. But he remained too distinct to inspire a literary school of his own.
Barbey d’Aurevilly was born at Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte on the Cotentin peninsula of Normandy in 1808, into a family ennobled as late as 1756 by Louis XV. The household was intransigently devoted to the Ancien Régime, to the Church and to the Bourbon monarchy, restored to power in 1814. As a student in Paris in the 1820s, in the reign of Charles X, the young Barbey declared himself a republican and atheist, breaking violently with his family tradition.
His early writing career was undistinguished. His first significant work, Du Dandysme et de Georges Brummel, published in 1845, was the first biographical work to praise ‘Beau’ Brummell, the English Regency dandy, and rehabilitate him from posthumous censure. By creating a cult of the dandy, Du Dandysme gained public attention for Barbey. While he was to succeed as a literary dandy, Barbey failed in the sartorial aspect of his creed, his costume generally ignoring the ascetic maxims of Brummell and degenerating sometimes into ludicrous costumes.
By 1845 Barbey’s life was undergoing a radical transformation. He frequented the strongly Catholic and Legitimist salon of Baroness Amaury de Maistre, niece of the leading reactionary philosopher Count Joseph de Maistre, and in 1846 was reconciled to the Church, thereafter becoming a fierce Catholic polemicist. Soon after, he entered upon the most productive period of his writing. He combined aggressive Catholicism with a preoccupation with evil, diabolical influence and violent crimes that sometimes disturbed his clerical allies.
His first major novel Une vieille maîtresse was published in 1851. It told the story of a dandy who falls in love with a young woman, but is incapable of breaking completely with his former mistress. By now, however, Barbey had conceived the idea that has ensured his enduring celebrity in French literature. Influenced by Sir Walter Scott’s Chronicles of the Canongate, which featured demotic Scottish speech, Barbey resolved to incorporate the history, habits, traditions and even the patois of his native Cotentin into a cycle of novels set in Normandy.
The first of these novels, published in 1852, was L’Ensorcelée which, despite the later fame of his Les Diaboliques, has a claim to be considered his best work. If the successful creation of atmosphere is the mark of a good writer, in that respect Barbey excelled. L’Ensorcelée (‘The Bewitched’) is a very diffuse novel, as much focused on the landscape and customs of Normandy as on the principal characters. The narrative proper begins when a peasant relates how, in the dead of night, the bell of the ruined abbey of Blanchelande, destroyed in the French Revolution, can be heard tolling for the ghostly Mass of the Abbé de la Croix-Jugan.
The story takes place during a lull in the war between the Chouans, Norman royalist guerrillas, and republican forces in the 1790s. The churches have been reopened and we are introduced to a member of the congregation in the town of Blanchelande, Jeanne le Hardouey, an aristocrat by birth, married to a peasant who has bought the confiscated property of exiled nobles. On the Second Sunday of Advent, she sees a strange priest, his features half concealed by his monk’s hood but horribly disfigured, take his place in the choir; shortly after, the words of the antiphon are sung: ‘et statim veniet Dominator’.
Jeanne associates these words with the disfigured priest who has a very commanding presence. He is the Abbé Jéhoël de la Croix-Jugan, a noble and former monk of the defunct abbey of Blanchelande, who had joined the Chouans, not as a chaplain but as a combatant, in defiance of canon law, killing many republican soldiers. On the defeat of the royalists he had unsuccessfully attempted suicide, the cause of his facial disfiguration. For these offences he is now doing severe canonical penance.
Jeanne becomes infatuated with the abbé and carries secret letters from him to the chiefs of the royalist party in Normandy. La Croix-Jugan has no personal interest in Jeanne, from whom he remains aloof, being wholly preoccupied with the cause of restoring the monarchy; when he fails to rouse the Norman royalists to action, he again despairs and no longer sees Jeanne. She, driven mad by passion, tells a confidante she is damned for loving a priest and hopes that he may be damned too, to join her in Hell. Her body is later found in a pool where local women do their laundry.
Her husband, Thomas le Hardouey, is enraged. On Easter Sunday the Abbé de la Croix-Jugan celebrates Mass in the parish church; at the moment when he elevates the consecrated host, a shot rings out from the open church door and he falls dead. It is assumed Le Hardouey is the murderer, since he disappears from the region without trace. The country people believe that the Abbé de la Croix-Jugan, for his sins (of pride, not of the flesh) has been condemned forever to attempt to finish his Mass and that his ghost tries to do so, unsuccessfully, at night in the ruined abbey.
All the characterstic elements of Barbey are present in L’Ensorcelée: his fascination with the Church’s liturgy, mirroring the seasons in nature; the omnipresence of the Devil; a supernatural dimension that is implied but never explicit; the incendiary spirit of women (Jeanne’s maiden name is De Feuardent, ‘fierce fire’); the peasantry and feudal families of Normandy; and above all the local culture. The peasant dialogue is in patois, ‘l’iau’ for ‘l’eau’, etc.. The novel is so paced that the characters, despite the drama of murder and sacrilege, are secondary to the country. Normandy is the real focus of the book. The female protagonist Jeanne is present in the novel only for eight of its sixteen chapters.
Barbey’s interest in the Chouans, of whose cause he strongly approved, was continued in his next Norman novel, Le Chevalier des Touches, published in 1863. Les Diaboliques (1874) is regarded critically as his masterpiece, but it is a collection of short stories, so that L’Ensorcelée stands as his greatest novel.
Barbey d’Aurevilly died in Paris in 1889; in 1926, appropriately, the remains of this chronicler of a Normandy long gone were brought back to rest at his birthplace of Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte. His reputation in France is assured, but his work deserves greater dissemination, notably as an explorer of the phenomenon of evil to rival Dostoevsky, and as a pioneer of cultural subsidiarity through his innovative portrayal of his native Normandy.