The Nabob

Author: Alphonse Daudet


Daudet once remarked that England was the last of foreign countries to welcome his novels, and that he was surprised at the fact, since for him, as for the typical Englishman, the intimacy of home life had great significance. However long he may have taken to win Anglo-Saxon hearts, there is no question that he finally won them more completely than any other contemporary French novelist was able to do, and that when but a few years since the news came that death had released him from his sufferings, thousands of men and women, both in England and in America, felt that they had lost a real friend. Just at the present moment one does not hear or read a great deal about him, but a similar lull in criticism follows the deaths of most celebrities of whatever kind, and it can scarcely be doubted that Daudet is every day making new friends, while it is as sure as anything of the sort can be that it is death, not estrangement, that has lessened the number of his former admirers.

"Admirers"? The word is much too cold. "Lovers" would serve better, but is perhaps too expansive to be used of a self-contained race. "Friends" is more appropriate because heartier, for hearty the relations between Daudet and his Anglo-Saxon readers certainly were. Whether it was that some of us saw in him that hitherto unguessed-at phenomenon, a French Dickens—not an imitator, indeed, but a kindred spirit—or that others found in him a refined, a volatilized "Mark Twain," with a flavour of Cervantes, or that still others welcomed him as a writer of naturalistic fiction that did not revolt, or finally that most of us enjoyed him because whatever he wrote was as steeped in the radiance of his own exquisitely charming personality as a picture of Corot’s is in the light of the sun itself—whatever may have been the reason, Alphonse Daudet could count before he died thousands of genuine friends in England and America who were loyal to him in spite of the declining power shown in his latest books, in spite even of the strain which /Sapho/ laid upon their Puritan consciences.

It is likely that a majority of these friends were won by the two great Tartarin books and by the chief novels, /Fromont/, /Jack/, /The Nabob/, /Kings in Exile/, and /Numa/, aided by the artistic sketches and short stories contained in /Letters from my Mill/ and /Monday Tales (Contes du Lundi)/. The strong but overwrought /Evangelist/, /Sapho/—which of course belongs with the chief novels from the Continental but not from the insular point of view—and the books of Daudet’s decadence, /The Immortal/, and the rest, cost him few friendships, but scarcely gained him many. His delightful essays in autobiography, whether in fiction, /Le Petit Chose (Little What’s-his- Name)/, or in /Thirty Years of Paris/ and /Souvenirs of a Man of Letters/, doubtless sealed more friendships than they made; but they can be almost as safely recommended as the more notable novels to readers who have yet to make Daudet’s acquaintance.

For the man and his career are as unaffectedly charming as his style, and more of a piece than his elaborate works of fiction. A sunny Provencal childhood is clouded by family misfortunes; then comes a year of wretched slavery as usher in a provincial school; then the inevitable journey to Paris with a brain full of verses and dreams, and the beginning of a life of Bohemian nonchalance, to which we Anglo-Saxons have little that is comparable outside the career of Oliver Goldsmith. But poor Goldsmith had his pride wounded by the editorial tyranny of a Mrs. Griffiths. Daudet, by a merely pretty poem about a youth and maiden making love under a plum-tree, won the protection of the Empress Eugenie, and through her of the Duke de Morny, the prop of the Second Empire. His life now reads like a fairytale inserted by some jocular elf into that book of dolors entitled /The Lives of Men of Genius/. A /protege/ of a potentate not usually lavish of his favours, and a valetudinarian, he is allowed to flit to Algiers and Corsica, to enjoy his beloved Provence in company with Mistral, to write for the theatres, and to continue to play the Bohemian. Then the death of Morny seems to turn the idyl into a tragedy, but only for a moment. Daudet’s delicate, nervous beauty made his friend Zola think of an Arabian horse, but the poet had also the spirit of such a high-bred steed. Years of conscientious literary labour followed, cheered by marriage with a woman of genius capable of supplementing him in his weakest points, and then the war with Prussia and its attendant horrors gave him the larger and deeper view of life and the intensified patriotism—in short, the final stimulus he needed. From the date of his first great success—/Fromont, Jr., and Risler, Sr./—glory and wealth flowed in upon him, while envy scarcely touched him, so unspoiled was he and so continuously and eminently lovable. One seemed to see in his career a reflection of his luminous nature, a revised myth of the golden touch, a new version of the fairy-tale of the fair mouth dropping pearls. Then, as though grown weary of the idyllic romance she was composing, Fortune donned the tragic robes of Nemesis. Years of pain followed, which could not abate the spirits or disturb the geniality of the sufferer, but did somewhat abate the power and disturb the serenity of his work. Then came the inevitable end of all life dramas, whether comic or romantic or tragic, and friends who had known him stood round his grave and listened sadly to the touching words in which Emile Zola expressed not merely his own grief but that of many thousands throughout the civilized world. Here was a life more winsome, more appealing, more complete than any creation of the genius of the man that lived it—a life which, whether we know it in detail or not, explains in part the fascination Daudet exerts upon us and the conviction we cherish that, whatever ravages time may make among his books, the memory of their writer will not fade from the hearts of men. Many Frenchmen have conquered the world’s mind by the power or the subtlety of their genius; few have won its heart through the catholicity, the broad sympathy of their genius. Daudet is one of these few; indeed, he is almost if not quite the only European writer who has of late achieved such a triumph, for Tolstoi has stern critics as well as steadfast devotees, and has won most of his disciples as moralist and reformer. But we must turn from Daudet the man to Daudet the author of /The Nabob/ and other memorable novels.

If this were a general essay and not an introduction, it would be proper to say something of Daudet’s early attempts as poet and dramatist. Here it need only be remarked that it is almost a commonplace to insist that even in his later novels he never entirely ceased to see the outer world with the eyes of a poet, to delight in colour and movement, to seize every opportunity to indulge in vivid description couched in a style more swift and brilliant than normal prose aspires to. This bent for description, together with the tendency to episodic rather than sustained composition and the comparative weakness of his character drawing—features of his work shortly to be discussed—partly explains his failure, save in one or two instances, to score a real triumph with his plays, but does not explain his singular lack of sympathy with actors. Nor was he able to win great success with his first book of importance, /Le Petit Chose/, delightful as that mixture of autobiography and romance must prove to any sympathetic reader. He was essentially a romanticist and a poet cast upon an age of naturalism and prose, and he needed years of training and such experience as the Prussian invasion gave him to adjust himself to his life-work. Such adjustment was not needed for /Tartarin de Tarascon/, begun shortly after /Le Petit Chose/, because subtle humour of the kind lavished in that inimitable creation and in its sequels, while implying observation, does not necessarily imply any marked departure from the romantic and poetic points of view.

The training Daudet required for his novels he got from the sketches and short stories that occupied him during the late sixties and early seventies. Here again little in the way of comment need be given, and that little can express the general verdict that the art displayed in these miniature productions is not far short of perfect. The two principal collections, /Lettres de mon Moulin/ and /Contes du Lundi/, together with /Artists’ Wives (Les Femmes d’Artistes)/ and parts at least of /Robert Helmont/, would almost of themselves suffice to put Daudet high in the ranks of the writers who charm without leaving upon one’s mind the slightest suspicion that they are weak. It is true that Daudet’s stories do not attain the tremendous impressiveness that Balzac’s occasionally do, as, for example, in /La Grande Breteche/, nor has his clear-cut art the almost disconcerting firmness, the surgeon-like quality of Maupassant’s; but the author of the ironical /Elixir of Father Gaucher/ and of the pathetic /Last Class/, to name no others, could certainly claim with Musset that his glass was his own, and had no reason to concede its smallness.

As we have seen, the production of /Fromont jeune et Risler aine/ marked the beginning of Daudet’s more than twenty years of successful novel-writing. His first elaborate study of Parisian life, while it indicated no advance of the art of fiction, deserved its popularity because, in spite of the many criticisms to which it was open, it was a thoroughly readable and often a moving book. One character, Delobelle, the played-out actor who is still a hero to his pathetic wife and daughter, was constructed on effective lines—was a personage worthy of Dickens. The vile heroine, Sidonie, was bad enough to excite disgusted interest, but, as Mr. Henry James pointed out later, she was not effective to the extent her creator doubtless hoped. She paled beside Valerie Marneffe, though, to be sure, Daudet knew better than to attempt to depict any such queen of vice. Yet, after all, it is mainly the compelling power of vile heroines that makes them tolerable, and neither Sidonie nor the web of intrigue she wove can fairly be said to be characterized by extraordinary strength. But the public was and is interested greatly by the novel, and Daudet deserved the fame and money it brought him. His next book, /Jack/, was not so popular. Still, it showed artistic improvement, although, as in its predecessor, that bias towards the sentimental, which was to be Daudet’s besetting weakness, was too plainly visible. Its author took to his heart a book which the general reader found too long and perhaps overpathetic. Some of us, while recognising its faults, will share in part Daudet’s predilection for it—not so much because of the strong and early study made of the artisan class, or of the mordantly satirical exposure of D’Argenton and his literary "dead-beats" (/rates/), or of any other of the special features of a story that is crowded with them, as because the ill-fated hero, the product of genuine emotions on Daudet’s part, excites cognate and equally genuine emotions in us. We cannot watch the throbbing engines of a great steamship without seeing Jack at work among them. But the fine, pathetic /Jack/ brings us to the finer, more pathetic /Nabob/.

Whether /The Nabob/ is Daudet’s greatest novel is a question that may be postponed, but it may be safely asserted that there are good reasons why it should have been chosen to represent Daudet in the present series. It has been immensely popular, and thus does not illustrate merely the taste of an inner circle of its author’s admirers. It is not so subtle a study of character as /Numa Roumestan/, nor is it a drama the scene of which is set somewhat in a corner removed from the world’s scrutiny and full comprehension, as is more or less the case with /Kings in Exile/. It is comparatively unamenable to the moral, or, if one will, the puritanical, objections so naturally brought against /Sapho/. It obviously represents Daudet’s powers better than any novel written after his health was permanently wrecked, and as obviously represents fiction more adequately than either of the Tartarin masterpieces, which belong rather to the literature of humour. Besides, it is probably the most broadly effective of all Daudet’s novels; it is fuller of striking scenes; and as a picture of life in the picturesque Second Empire it is of unique importance.

Perhaps to many readers this last reason will seem the best of all. However much we may moralize about its baseness and hollowness, whether with the Hugo of /Les Chatiments/ we scorn and vituperate its charlatan head or pity him profoundly as we see him ill and helpless in Zola’s /Debacle/, most of us, if we are candid, will confess that the Second Empire, especially the Paris of Morny and Hausmann, of cynicism and splendour, of frivolity and chicane, of servile obsequiousness and haughty pretension, the France and the Paris that drew to themselves the eyes of all Europe and particularly the eyes of the watchful Bismarck, have for us a fascination almost as great as they had for the gay and audacious men and women who in them courted fortune and chased pleasure from the morrow of the /Coup d’Etat/ to the eve of Sedan. A nearly equal fascination is exerted upon us by a book which is the best sort of historical novel, since it is the product of its author’s observation, not of his reading—a story that sets vividly before us the political corruption, the financial recklessness, the social turmoil, the public ostentation, the private squalor, that led to the downfall of an empire and almost to that of a people.

Daudet drew on his experiences, and on the notes he was always accumulating, more strenuously than he should have done. He assures us that he laboured over /The Nabob/ for eight months, mainly in his bedroom, sometimes working eighteen consecutive hours, often waking from restless sleep with a sentence on his lips. Yet, such is the irony of literary history, the novel is loosely enough put together to have been written, one might suppose, in bursts of inspiration or else more or less methodically—almost with the intention, as Mr. James has noted, of including every striking phase of Parisian life. For it is a series of brilliant, effective episodes and scenes, not a closely knit drama. Jenkins’s visit to Monpavon at his toilet, the /dejeuner/ at the Nabob’s, the inspection of the OEuvre de Bethleem—which would have delighted Dickens—the collapse of the fetes of the Bey, the Nabob’s thrashing Moessard, the death of Mora, Felicia’s attempt to escape the funeral of the duke, the interview between the Nabob and Hemerlingue, the baiting in the Chamber, the suicide of that supreme man of tone, Monpavon, the Nabob’s apoplectic seizure in the theatre—these and many other scenes and episodes, together with descriptions and touches, stand out in our memories more distinctly and impressively than the characters do—perhaps more so than does the central motive, the outrageous exploitation of the naive hero. For from the beginning of his career to the end Daudet’s eye, like that of a genuine but not supereminent poet, was chiefly attracted by colour, movement, effective pose—in other words, by the surfaces of things. One may almost say that he was more of a landscape engineer than of an architect and builder, although one must at once add that he could and did erect solid structures. But the reader at least helps greatly to lay the foundations, for, to drop the metaphor, Daudet relied largely on suggestion, contenting himself with the belief that a capable imagination could fill up the gaps he left in plot and character analysis. Thus, for example, he indicated and suggested rather than detailed the way in which Hemerlingue finally triumphed over the Nabob, Jansoulet. To use another figure, he drew the spider, the fly, and a few strands of the web. The Balzac whose bust looked satirically down upon the two adventurers in Pere la Chaise would probably have given us the whole web. This is not quite to say that Daudet is plausible, Balzac inevitable; but rather that we stroll with the former master and follow submissively in the footsteps of the latter. Yet a caveat is needed, for the intense interest we take in the characters of a novel like /The Nabob/ scarcely suggests strolling.

For although Daudet, in spite of his abounding sympathy, which is one reason of his great attractiveness, cannot fairly be said to be a great character creator, he had sufficient flexibility and force of genius to set in action interesting personages. Part of the early success of /The Nabob/ was due to this fact, although the brilliant description of the Second Empire and the introduction of exotic elements, the Tunisian and Corsican episodes and characters, counted, probably, for not a little. Readers insisted upon seeing in the book this person and that more or less thinly disguised. The Irish adventurer-physician, Jenkins, was supposed to be modelled upon a popular Dr. Olliffe; the arsenic pills were derived from another source, as was also the goat’s-milk hospital for infants. Felicia Ruys was thought by some to be Sarah Bernhardt, and originals were easily provided for Monpavon and the other leading figures. But Daudet confessed to only two important originals, and if one does not take an author’s word in such matters one soon finds one’s self in a maze of conjectures and contradictions.

The two characters drawn from life in a special sense—for Daudet, like most other writers of fiction, had human life in general constantly before him—are Jansoulet and Mora, precisely the most effective personages in the book, and scarcely surpassed in the whole range of Daudet’s fiction. The Nabob was Francois Bravay, who rose from poverty to wealth by devious transactions in the Orient, and came to grief in Paris, much as Jansoulet did. He survived the Empire, and his relatives are said to have been incensed at the treatment given him in the novel, an attitude on their part which is explicable but scarcely justifiable, since Daudet’s sympathy for his hero could not well have been greater, and since the adventurer had already attained a notoriety that was not likely to be completely forgotten. Whether Daudet was as much at liberty to make free with the character of his benefactor Morny is another matter. He himself thought that he was, and he was a man of delicate sensitiveness. Probably he was right in claiming that the natural son of Queen Hortense, the intrepid soldier, the author of the /Coup d’Etat/ that set his weaker half-brother on the throne, the dandy, the libertine, the leader of fashion, the cynical statesman—in short, the "Richelieu-Brummel" who drew the eyes of all Europe upon himself, would not have been in the least disconcerted could he have known that thirteen years after his death the public would be discussing him as the prototype of the Mora of his young /protege’s/ masterpiece. In fact, it is easy to agree with those critics who think that Daudet’s kindly nature caused him to soften many features of Morny’s unlovely character. Mora does not, indeed, win our love or our esteem, but we confess him to have been in every respect an exceptional man, and there is not a page in which he appears that is not intensely interesting. He must be an unimpressionable reader who soon forgets the death-room scenes, the destruction of the compromising letters, the spectacular funeral.

Of the other characters there is little space to speak here. Nearly all have their good points, as might be expected of the creator of his two fellow Provencals, Numa and Tartarin, the latter being probably the only really cosmopolitan figure in recent literature; but some, like the Hemerlingues, verge upon mere sketches; others, like Jansoulet’s obese wife, upon caricatures. The old mother is excellently done, however, and Monpavon, especially in his suicide, is nothing short of a triumph of art. It is the more or less romantic or sentimental personages that give the critic most qualms. Daudet seems to have introduced them—De Gery, the Joyeuse family, and the rest—as a concession to popular taste, and on this score was probably justified. A fair case may also be made out for the use of idyllic scenes as a foil to the tragical, for the Shakespearian critics have no monopoly of the overworked plea, "justification by contrast." Nor could a French analogue of Dickens easily resist the temptation to give us a fatuous Passajon, an ebullient Pere Joyeuse—who seems to have been partly modelled on a real person—an exemplary "Bonne Maman," a struggling but eventually triumphant Andre Maranne. The home-lover Daudet also felt the necessity of showing that Paris could set the Joyeuse household, sunny in its poverty, over against the stately elegance of the Mora palace, the walls of which listened at one and the same moment to the music of a ball and the death-rattle of its haughty owner. But when all is said, it remains clear that /The Nabob/ is open to the charge that applies to all the greater novels save /Sapho/—the charge that it exhibits a somewhat inharmonious mixture of sentimentalism and naturalism. Against this charge, which perhaps applies most forcibly to that otherwise almost perfect work of art, /Numa Roumestan/, Daudet defended himself, but rather weakly. Nor does Mr. Henry James, who in the case of the last-named novel comes to his help against Zola, much mend matters. But the fault, if fault it be, is venial, especially in a friend, though not strictly a coworker, of Zola’s.

Naturally an elaborate novel like /The Nabob/ lends itself indefinitely to minute comment, but we must be sparing of it. Still it is worth while to call attention to the skill with which, from the opening page, the interest of the reader is controlled; indeed, to the remarkable art displayed in the whole first chapter devoted to the morning rounds of Dr. Jenkins. The note of romantic extravagance is on the whole avoided until the Nabob brings out his check-book, when the money flies with a speed for which, one fancies, Daudet could have found little justification this side of Timon of Athens. In the description of the /Caisse Territoriale/ given by Passajon this note is relieved by a delicate irony, but seems still somewhat incongruous. One turns more willingly to the description of Jansoulet’s sitting down to play /ecarte/ with Mora, to the story of how he gorged himself with the duke’s putative mushrooms, and to similar episodes and touches. In the matter of effective and ironically turned situations few novels can compare with this; indeed, it almost seems as if Daudet made an inordinate use of them. Think of the poor Nabob reading the announcement of the cross bestowed on Jenkins, and of the absurd populace mistaking him for the ungrateful Bey! As for great dramatic moments, there is at least one that no reader can forget—the moment when Jansoulet, in the midst of the speech on which his fate depends, catches sight of his old mother’s face and forbears to clear himself of calumny at the expense of his wretched elder brother. The situation may not bear close analysis, but who wishes to analyze? Or who, indeed, wishes to indulge in further comment after the scene has risen to his mind?

/The Nabob/ was followed by /Kings in Exile/; then came /Numa Roumestan/ and /The Evangelist/; then, on the eve of Daudet’s breakdown, /Sapho/; and the greatest of his humorous masterpieces, /Tartarin in the Alps/. It is not yet certain what rank is to be given to these books. Perhaps the adventures of the mountain-climbing hero of the Midi, combined with his previous exploits as a slayer of lions —his experiences as a colonist in /Port-Tarascon/ need scarcely be considered—will prove, in the lapse of years, to be the most solid foundation of that fame which even envious Time will hardly begrudge Daudet. As for /Kings in Exile/, it is difficult to see how even the art with which the tragedy of Queen Frederique’s life is unfolded or the growing power of characterization displayed in her, in the loyal Merault, in the facile, decadent Christian, can make up for the lack of broadly human appeal in the general subject-matter of a book which was so sympathetically written as to appeal alike to Legitimists and to Republicans. Good as /Kings in Exile/ is, it is not so effective a book as /The Nabob/, nor such a unique and marvellous work of art as /Numa Roumestan/, due allowance being made for the intrusion of sentimentality into the latter. Daudet thought /Numa/ the "least incomplete" of his works; it is certainly inclusive enough, since some critics are struck by the tragic relations subsisting between the virtuous discreet Northern wife and the peccable, expansive Southern husband, while others see in the latter the hero of a comedy of manners almost worthy of Moliere. If /Numa/ represents the highest achievement of Daudet in dramatic fiction or else in the art of characterization, /The Evangelist/ proved that his genius was not at home in those fields. Instead of marking an ordered advance, this overwrought study of Protestant bigotry marked not so much a halt, or a retreat, as a violent swerving to one side. Yet in a way this swerving into the devious orbit of the novel of intense purpose helped Daudet in his progress towards naturalism, and imparted something of stability to his methods of work. /Sapho/, which appeared next, was the first of his novels that left little to be desired in the way of artistic unity and cumulative power. If such a study of the /femme collante/, the mistress who cannot be shaken off—or rather of the man whom she ruins, for it is Gaussin, not Sapho, that is the main subject of Daudet’s acute analysis—was to be written at all, it had to be written with a resolute art such as Daudet applied to it. It is not then surprising that Continental critics rank /Sapho/ as its author’s greatest production; it is more in order to wonder what Daudet might not have done in this line of work had his health remained unimpaired. The later novels, in which he came near to joining forces with the naturalists and hence to losing some of the vogue his eclecticism gave him, need not detain us.

And now, in conclusion, how can we best characterize briefly this fascinating, versatile genius, the most delightful humorist of his time, one of the most artistic story-tellers, one of the greatest novelists? It is impossible to classify him, for he was more than a humorist, he nearly outgrew romance, he never accepted unreservedly the canons of naturalism. He obviously does not belong to the small class of the supreme writers of fiction, for he has no consistent or at least profound philosophy of life. He is a true poet, yet for the main he has expressed himself not in verse, but in prose, and in a form of prose that is being so extensively cultivated that its permanence is daily brought more and more into question. What is Daudet, and what will he be to posterity? Some admirers have already answered the first question, perhaps as satisfactorily as it can be answered, by saying, "Daudet is simply Daudet." As for the second question, a whole school of critics is inclined to answer it and all similar queries with the curt statement, "That concerns posterity, not us." If, however, less evasive answers are insisted upon, let the following utterance, which might conceivably be more indefinite and oracular, suffice: Alphonse Daudet is one of those rare writers who combine greatness with a charm so intimate and appealing that some of us would not, if we could, have their greatness increased.



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Chicago: Alphonse Daudet, "Introduction," The Nabob, ed. Burton, Isabel, Lady, 1831-1896 and trans. W. Blaydes in The Nabob Original Sources, accessed December 15, 2019,

MLA: Daudet, Alphonse. "Introduction." The Nabob, edited by Burton, Isabel, Lady, 1831-1896, and translated by W. Blaydes, in The Nabob, Original Sources. 15 Dec. 2019.

Harvard: Daudet, A, 'Introduction' in The Nabob, ed. and trans. . cited in , The Nabob. Original Sources, retrieved 15 December 2019, from