Gosse's Gossip - THE ROMANCE OF A DICTIONARY

THE ROMANCE OF A DICTIONARY

HISTOIRE DE L'ACADEMIE FRANÇOISE: avec un Abregé des Vies du Cardinal de Richelieu, Vaugelas, Corneille, Ablancourt, Mezerai, Voiture, Patru, la Fontaine, Boileau, Racine Et autres Illustres Academiciens qui la Composent.
A La Haye, MDCLXXXVIII.

            It is not often, in these days, when the pastime of bibliography is reduced to a science, that one is rewarded, as one so often was a quarter of a century ago, by picking up an unregarded treasure on the bookstalls. But the other day I really had a pleasant little "find," and it was the reward of virtue. It came of having a tender heart. My eye caught what Mr. Austin Dobson would call "a dear and dumpy twelve," lying open upon other books, face downward, in the most ignominious posture. I saw at a glance, from the tooling on its faded and half-broken back, that it was French and of the seventeenth century, and that somebody had prized it once. I could read the lettering Académ. Franc., and I gave the pence which were wanted for it. It proved a most rewarding little volume. It was published at The Hague in 1688, and it was a new edition of the Histoire de l'Académie Française. A preface says that "for the honour of our nation" (the French, presumably, not the Dutch), the publisher has thought it proper to issue an edition "more correct and more elegant" than has hitherto been seen, brought down to date with many new and curious pieces. Among other things, the said publisher thinks that "the English will not be displeased to see the Panegyric" of King Louis XIV. "admirably rendered in their language by a Person of their Nation." But what immediately caught my attention, and filled me with delight, was an absolutely contemporary account, written specially for this 1688 edition, of the great quarrel between the French Academy and the Abbé Furetière. Of this I propose to speak to-day.

            We live in an age of Dictionaries and Encyclopedias, which we look upon as universal panaceas for culture. There was a similar rage for dictionaries in France two hundred and fifty years ago. We may very rapidly remind ourselves that the French Academy was constituted in 1634 with thirty-five members, who became the stationary and immortal Forty in 1639. One of its original functions was the preparation of a great Dictionary of the French language, under the special care of the eminent grammarian, Vaugelas, who had through his lifetime made collections—"various beautiful and curious observations," as Pellisson calls them—towards a reasoned philological study of French. The poet Chapelain was appointed a sort of general editor of the projected Dictionary, which was solemnly started early in 1638. For the next four years the Academicians were very active, spurred on by Richelieu, but when, in 1642, the Cardinal died, their zeal relented, and when, in 1650, Vaugelas's presence ceased to urge them forward, it flagged altogether. Vaugelas died bankrupt, and his creditors seized his writing-desks, the drawers of which contained a great part of the MS. collections for the Dictionary. It was only after a lawsuit that the Academy recovered those papers, and Mézeray was then set to continue the editing of the work. Still twice a week the Academy met to consult about the Dictionary, but so languidly and with so little fire, that Boisrobert said that not the youngest of the Forty could hope to live to print the letter G. As a matter of fact, not one of those who started the Dictionary lived to see it published.

            In this slow fashion, with long Rip Van Winkle slumbers and occasional faint awakenings, the French Academy faltered on with fitful persistence towards the completion of its famous Dictionary. But, as I have said, it was a period of great enthusiasm about all such summaries of knowledge, and Paris was thirsting for grammars, lexicons, inventories of language and the like. The Academy insisted that the world must wait for the approach of their vast and lumbering machine; but meanwhile public curiosity was impatient, and all sorts of brief and imperfect dictionaries were issued to satisfy it. The publication of these spurious guides to knowledge infuriated the Academy, until in 1674 the dog permanently occupied the manger by inducing the King to issue a decree "forbidding all printers and publishers to print any new dictionary of the French language, under any title whatsoever, until the publication of that of the French Academy, or until twenty years have expired since the proclamation of the present decree." This cut the ground from under the feet of all rivals, and the Academy could meet twice a week as before and mumble its definitions with serene assurance. From this false security it was roused by the incident which my "dumpy twelve" recounts.

            It was from the very heart of their own body that the great attack upon their privileges unexpectedly fell upon the Academicians. In 1662 they had elected (in the place of De Boissat, a very obscure original member) the Abbé of Chalivoy, Antoine Furetière. This man, born in Paris of poor parents in 1619, had raised himself to eminence as an Orientalist and grammarian, and was welcomed among the Forty as likely to be particularly helpful to them in their Dictionary work. He was probably one of those men whose true character does not come out until they attain success. But no sooner was Furetière an Immortal than he began to distinguish himself in unanticipated ways. He proved himself an adept in parody and satire, and so long as he contented himself with laughing at people like Charles Sorel, the author of Francion, who had no friends, the Academicians were calm and amused, But Furetière was not merely the author of that extremely amusing medley, Le Roman Bourgeois (1666), which still holds its place in French literature as a minor classic, but he was also a real student of philology, and one of those who most ardently desired to see the settlement of the canon of French language. It incensed him beyond words that his colleagues dawdled so endlessly over their committees and their definitions. He began to make collections of his own, no doubt at first with the perfectly loyal intention of adding them to the common store. Meanwhile he lashed the rest of the Academy with his tongue. Other Academicians did this also, such men as Patru and Boisrobert, but they had not Furetière's nasty way of putting things. One perceives that about the year 1680 the sarcasms of Furetière had really become something more than the rest of the Immortals could put up with.

            He delivered himself into their hands, and here my little volume takes up the tale. On the 3rd of January, 1685, the French Academy met to mourn the death of its most illustrious member, the great Pierre Corneille, and to elect his younger brother to take his place. While the members were chatting together their Librarian handed about among them copies of a "privilege" which had just been obtained by the Abbé Furetière to publish "a universal Dictionary containing generally all French words, old as well as modern, and the terms employed in all arts and sciences." So declares my little book; but it would seem that the officers of the Academy at least a week earlier had their attention drawn to what Furetière was doing. Perhaps it was not until the election of Thomas Corneille that an opportunity occurred of making the members generally aware of it. One wonders whether Furetière himself was present on the 3rd of January; if so, what puttings of periwigs together there must have been in corners, and what taps of gold-headed canes on lace-frilled cuffs! It was felt, as my little volume puts it, that "Monsieur the Abbé Furetière, being one of the Forty Academicians, ought not to have been privately busying himself on a work which he knew to be the principal occupation of the whole Academy." It is surprising, in the face of the monopoly which that body had secured, that Furetière was able to obtain a Privilege for his own Dictionary, but in all probability, as he was one of the Forty, the censors supposed that he was acting in concert with his colleagues.

            Then began a hue and cry with which the learned world of Paris rang for months. Never was such a scandal, never such a rain of pamphlets and lampoons on one side and the other. One has only to glance at the contemporary portraits of Furetière to see that he was not the man to yield a point; his wrinkled face looks the very mirror of sarcastic obstinacy and brilliant ill-nature. The Academy, in solemn session, appointed Regnier Desmarais, their secretary, to wait on the Chancellor to demand the cancelling of Furetière's privilege. But the Abbé had powerful friends also, and by their help the Chancellor's action was delayed, while Furetière hurried out a specimen of his work. He says in the preface that no author ever had a more pressing need for the protection of a prince than he has who sees the labour of years about to be sacrificed to the envy of others. He goes on to explain that he has never dreamed of interfering with the work of the Academy, for which he has the greatest possible respect, but that he only hopes to render service to the public by supplementing its labours. The Academy, in fact, had expressly declined to include in its Dictionary the technical terms of art and science, and it is particularly with these that Furetière is occupied. His answer to those who accuse him of stealing from the unpublished cahiers of the Academy is the uniformity of his work from A to Z; whereas, if he had stolen from his colleagues, he must have stopped at O-P, which was the point they had reached in 1684.

            The Academy was not pacified, and began to take counsel how they could turn Furetière out of their body. There was no precedent for such a degradation, but a parallel was sought for in the fact that the Sorbonne had successfully ejected one of its most famous doctors, Arnauld. Meanwhile the suit went on, the Thirty-nine versus the One. Furetière is said to have bowed for a moment beneath the storm, offering to blend his work in the general Dictionary of the Academy, or to remove from it all words not admitted to deal technically with art and science. But passion had gone too far, and on the 22nd of January, 1685, at a general meeting, twenty Academicians being present, Furetière was expelled from the body by a majority of nineteen to one. It is believed that the one who voted for mercy was the most illustrious of all, Racine. Boileau and Bossuet also defended the Abbé, and when the matter became at last so serious that the King himself was obliged to take cognisance of it, it was understood that his sympathies also were with Furetière.

            My little volume (written, I think, in 1687) does not know anything about the expulsion, which was therefore probably secret. It says: "As to Monsieur Furetière, he no longer puts in an appearance at the meetings of the Academy, but it is not known whether any other Academician is to be elected in his place." As a matter of fact, the society hesitated to go so far as this, and the seat was left vacant. Not for long, however; the unanimous rancour of so many men of influence and rank had successfully ruined the fortune and broken the spirit of the old piratical lexicographer. Before retiring into private life, however, he poured out in his Couches de l'Académie a torrent of poison, which was distilled through the presses of Amsterdam in 1687. One of his earlier colleagues at the Academy supplied the bankrupt man with the necessaries of life, until, on the 14th of May, 1688, probably just as the "dumpy twelve" was passing through the press, he died in Paris like a rat in a hole. His Dictionary, being suppressed in France, was edited, after his death, in 1690, at The Hague and Rotterdam, and enjoyed a great success. We learn from a letter of Racine to Boileau that in 1694 the publisher ventured to offer a copy of a new edition of it to the King of France, and that it was graciously received. If the poor old man could have struggled on a little longer he might have lived to see himself become fashionable and successful again.

            With all his misfortunes he managed to beat the Academy, for that body, in spite of its superhuman efforts, did not contrive to publish its Dictionary till four years after the appearance of Furetière's. The latter is a great curiosity of lexicography, a vast storehouse of peculiar and rare information. It is always consulted by scholars, but never without a recollection of the extraordinary struggle which its author sustained, singlehanded, against the world, and in which he fell, overpowered by numbers, only to triumph after all in the ashes of his fame.

 

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