Prosper Mérimée (28 September 1803 – 23 September 1870) was an
important French writer in the school of Romanticism, and one of the
pioneers of the novella, a short novel or long short story. He was
also a noted archaeologist and historian, and an important figure in
the history of architectural preservation. He is best known for his
novella Carmen, which became the basis of Bizet's opera Carmen. He
learned Russian and translated the work of several important Russian
writers, including Pushkin and Gogol, into French. From 1830 until
1860 he was the inspector of French historical monuments, and was
responsible for the protection of many historic sites, including the
medieval citadel of Carcassonne, and the restoration of the façade of
the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Along with the writer George
Sand, he discovered the series of tapestries The Lady and the Unicorn,
and arranged for their preservation. He was instrumental in the
creation of Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris, where the
tapestries now are displayed. The official data base of French
monuments, the Base Mérimée, bears his name.
1 Education and literary debut
2 Novellas, travels in Spain and government posts (1829–1834)
3 Inspector-General of Historical Monuments (1833–1852)
4 La Vénus d'Ille, Colomba and
5 The Second Republic and translation of Russian literature
6 Advisor to the Empress and Senator of the Empire (1852–1860)
7 Last works, the fall of the Empire and death (1861–1870)
8 Personal life
9 Literary criticism
10 Legacy and place in French literature
11.1 Dramatic works
11.2 Poems and ballads
11.5 History, literature, notes on voyages and archeology
11.6 Translations and criticism of Russian literature
12.1 Notes and citations
12.2 Bibliography (in French)
13 Further reading
14 External links
Education and literary debut
Prosper Mérimée was born in
Paris on September 28, 1803, early in
the Empire of
Napoleon Bonaparte. His father Léonor was a painter who
became professor of design at the École polytechnique, and was
engaged in a study of the chemistry of oil paints. In 1807 his father
was named of Permanent Secretary of the Academy of Painting and
Sculpture. His mother Anne was twenty-nine when he was born, and was
also a painter. His father's sister, Augustine, was the mother of the
Augustin-Jean Fresnel and the orientalist Fulgence Fresnel.
At the age of seven, Prosper was enrolled in the Lycée Napoléon,
which after the fall of
Napoleon in 1815 became the Lycée Henri-IV.
His classmates and friends were the children of the elite of
Restoration France, including Adrien Jussieu, son of famous botanist
Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, and Jean-Jacques Ampère, son of
André-Marie Ampère, famous for his research in physics and
electrodynamics. Both his parents spoke English well, traveled
frequently to England and entertained many British guests. By the age
of fifteen he was fluent in English. He had a talent for foreign
languages, and besides English mastered classical Greek and Latin.
Later in life he became fluent in Spanish, and could passably speak
Serbian and Russian. In school he also had a strong interest in
history, and was fascinated by magic and the supernatural, which later
became important elements in many of his stories.
He finished the Lycée with high marks in classical languages and in
1820 he began to study law, planning for a position in the royal
administration. In 1822 he passed the legal examinations and received
his license to practice law. However, his real passion was for
French and foreign literature: In 1820 he translated the works of
Ossian, an ancient Gaelic poet, into French. At the beginning of
the 1820s he frequented the salon of Juliette Récamier, a venerable
figure in the literary and political life of Paris, where he met
Chateaubriand and other prominent writers. In 1822, at the salons, he
met Henri Beyle, twenty years older, who became one of his closest
friends, and later became famous as a novelist under the pen name of
Stendhal. He then began to attend the salon of Étienne Delécluze,
a painter and art critic, whose members were interested in the new
Romanticism in art and literature.
Between the spring of 1823 and the summer of 1824, he wrote his first
literary works: a political and historical play called Cromwell; a
satirical piece called Les Espagnols en Dannark (The Spanish in
Denmark); and a set of six short theater pieces called the Théâtre
de Clara Gazul, a witty commentary about the theater, politics and
life which purported to be written by a Spanish actress, but which
actually targeted current French politics and society. In March 1825
he read his new works at the salon of Delécluze. The first two works
quickly forgotten, but the scenes of Clara Gazul had considerable
success with his literary friends. They were printed in the press
under the name of their imaginary author, and were his first published
work. Balzac described Clara Gazul as "a decisive step in the modern
literary revolution", and its fame soon reached beyond France; the
German Romanticist Goethe wrote an article praising it. Mérimée was
not so gracious toward Goethe; he called Goethe's own work "a
combination of genius and German naïveté".
King Louis XVIII died in 1824, and the regime of the new King, Charles
X, was much more authoritarian and reactionary. Mérimée and his
friends became part of the liberal opposition to the regime. On
November 30, 1825, he took part in a student demonstration led by the
young but already famous Victor Hugo. He was invited to Hugo's home,
where he charmed the poet by making macaroni for him. Mérimée was
drawn into the new romantic movement, led by the painter Eugène
Delacroix and the writers Hugo,
Alfred de Musset
Alfred de Musset and Eugène Sue. In
1830 he attended the riotous premiere of Hugo's play Hernani, bringing
with him a group of friends, including
Stendhal and the Russian writer
Turgenev, to support Hugo. Hugo made an anagram from his name,
Prosper Mérimée into Premiere Prose.
Frontispiece of La Guzla, showing the purported author, Hyacinthe
In July 1827 he published in a literary journal a new work, La Guzla.
Ostensibly it was a collection of poems from the ancient Adriatic
Illyria (modern Croatia), and it was published under
another assumed name, Hyacinthe Maglanovich. The poems were highly
romantic, filled with phantoms and werewolves. Mérimée drew upon
many historic sources for his picturesque and gothic portrait of the
Balkans, including a tale about vampires taken from the writings of
the 18th-century French monk Dom Calmet. These poems, published in
literary journals, were widely praised both in France and abroad. The
Alexander Pushkin had translated some of the poems in the
book into Russian before he was notified by Mérimée, through his
Russian friend Sobolevsky, that the poems, except for one Mérimée
translated from a real Serbian poet, were not authentic. A book of the
poems was not a commercial success, selling only a dozen copies, but
the journals and press made Mérimée an important literary figure.
From then on Mérimée's stories and articles were regularly published
by the two leading literary magazines of Paris, the Revue des deux
Mondes and the Revue de Paris.
La Guzla he wrote three traditional novels: La
1828) was an historical novel about a peasant revolt in the Middle
Ages, filled with flamboyant costumes, picturesque details and
colorful settings. The critic Henri Patin reported that novel was
"lacking in drama, but many of the scenes were excellent". The
second, La Famille Carvajal (1828), was a parody of the work of Lord
Byron, set in 17th-century New Granada, filled with murders and crimes
of passion. Many of the critics entirely missed that the novel was a
parody: the Revue de
Paris denounced the story for its "brutal and
shameful passions". The third was La Chronique du Temps de Charles IX
(1829), another historical novel, set during the reign of Charles IX
of France in the 16th century. It was written three years before
Victor Hugo published his historical novel Notre-Dame de Paris.
Mérimée's story featured a combination of irony and extreme realism,
including a detailed and bloody recreation of the St. Bartholomew's
Day massacre. It was published in March 1829, without any great
success, and its author was by then tired of the genre. "I wrote a
wicked novel that bores me", he wrote to his friend Albert Stapfer.
Novellas, travels in Spain and government posts (1829–1834)
In 1829, Mérimée found a new literary genre that perfectly suited
his talents; the nouvelle or novella, essentially a long short story
or short novel. Between 1829 and 1834, he wrote thirteen stories,
following three basic principles; a brief story told in prose; a
sparse and economical style of writing, with no unneeded lyricism; and
a unity of action, all leading to the ending, which was often abrupt
and brutal. In a short period Mérimée wrote two of his most
famous novellas, Mateo Falcone, about a tragic vendetta in Corsica,
and Tamango, a drama on a slave-trading ship, which were published in
the Revue de Paris, and had considerable success.
He also began a series of long trips which provided material for much
of his future writing. In June 1830 he traveled to Spain, which he
explored at a leisurely pace, spending many hours in the Prado Museum
in Madrid, attending bullfights, and studying Moorish architecture in
Córdoba and Seville. He was in Spain in July 1830, when the
Charles X of France
Charles X of France was overthrown and replaced by the
rule of Louis Philippe I. Fascinated by Spain, he decided not to
return to France immediately, but to continue his journey. In October
1830 he met a Spanish aristocrat, the future Count of Montijo, who
shared many of his literary and historical interests and political
views. He visited the Count and met his wife, the Countess of Montijo,
and their young daughter, Eugénie, then four years old, who in 1853
was to become the Empress Eugénie, the wife of Emperor Napoleon
He returned to
Paris in January 1831, and began publishing vivid
accounts of his trip to Spain in the Revue de
Paris under the title
Lettres d'Espagne. These included the first mention of Carmen, a story
told to her by the Countess of Montijo. He also sought a position in
the new administration of King Louis Philippe. Many of his friends had
already found jobs in the new government;
Stendhal was named French
consul to Trieste, and the writers Chateaubriand and Lamartine both
received honorary government posts. Mérimée, twenty-seven years old,
briefly served as the chief of the secretariat of the Ministry of the
Navy, and then, as the new government was organized, was moved from
post to post; for a short time he was director of fine arts, then was
moved to the Interior Ministry, where, he wrote ironically, "I
conducted, with great glory, the telegraph lines, the administration
of the corps of firemen, the municipal guards, etc." He turned out
to be an efficient administrator, and was put in charge of organizing
the response to the epidemic of cholera which struck
March 29 and October 1, 1832, killing eighteen thousand Parisians.
At the peak of the epidemic, he spent much of his time at the
Hotel-Dieu, the main hospital of Paris. In November 1832 he was
moved again to the State Council, where he became Chief of Accounts.
He was not there for long; in December 1832 Prime Minister Adolphe
Thiers sent him to London on an extended diplomatic mission to report
on the British elections. He became a member of the most prominent
London club, the Athenaeum, and consulted with the venerable French
ambassador to England, Prince Talleyrand.
Inspector-General of Historical Monuments (1833–1852)
The Lady and the Unicorn
The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries discovered in 1841 by
George Sand in the Château of Boussac
On May 27, 1833, Prime Minister Thiers named Mérimée
inspector-general of historical monuments, with a salary of eight
thousand francs a year, and all travel expenses paid. Mérimée wrote
that the job perfectly suited "his taste, his laziness, and his ideas
A large part of the architectural heritage of France, particularly the
churches and monasteries, had been damaged or destroyed during the
Revolution. Of the 300 churches in
Paris in the 16th century, only 97
still were standing in 1800. The
Basilica of St Denis
Basilica of St Denis had been
stripped of its stained glass and monumental tombs, while the statues
on the façade of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de
Paris and the spire
had been taken down. Throughout the country, churches and monasteries
had been demolished or turned into barns, cafes, schools, or prisons.
The first effort to catalog the remaining monuments was made in 1816
by Alexandre de Laborde, who wrote the first list of "Monuments of
France". In 1832
Victor Hugo wrote an article for the Revue des deux
Mondes which declared war against the "massacre of ancient stones" and
the "demolishers" of France's past. King Louis Philippe declared that
restoration of churches and other monuments would be a priority of his
regime. In October 1830, the position of Inspector of Historical
Monuments had been created by the Interior Minister, François Guizot,
a professor of history at the Sorbonne. Mérimée became its second
Inspector, and by far the most energetic and long-lasting. He held the
position for twenty-seven years.
The fortified medieval town of Carcassonne, made a monument in 1860
Mérimée had honed his bureaucratic skills in the Interior Ministry,
and he understood the political and the financial challenges of the
task. He approached his new duties methodically. He first organized a
group of architects specialized and trained in restoration, and had
the money that previously had been given to the Catholic Church for
restoration transferred to his budget. On July 31, 1834, he set off on
his first inspection tour of historic monuments, traveling for five
months, describing and cataloging the monuments he saw. Between 1834
and 1852 he made nineteen inspection tours to different regions of
France. The longest, to the Southeast and to Corsica, lasted five
months, but most trips were shorter than a month. When he returned
after each trip, he made a detailed report to the Ministry on what
needed to be done. In addition, he wrote scholarly studies for
journals of archeology and history. His scholarly works included a
survey of the religious architecture in France during the Middle Ages
(1837) and of military monuments of the Gauls, Greeks and Romans
(1839). Finally, he wrote a series of books for a popular audience
about the monuments of each region, describing vividly a France that
he declared was "more unknown than Greece or Egypt".
In 1840 he published the first official List of Historic Monuments in
France, with 934 entries. By 1848 the number had grown to 2,800.
He organized a systematic review to prioritize restoration projects,
and established a network of correspondents in each region who kept an
eye on the projects, made new discoveries, and signaled any vandalism.
Though he was a confirmed atheist, many of the buildings he protected
and restored were churches, which he treated as works of art and
shrines of national history. He often disputed with local church
authorities, insisting that more recent architectural modifications be
removed, and the buildings restored to their original appearance. He
also confronted local governments who wanted to demolish or convert
old structures. With the authority of the royal government behind him,
he was able prevent the city of
Dijon from turning the medieval Palace
of Estates into an office building, and he stopped the city of Avignon
from demolishing the medieval ramparts along the
Rhône River to make
way for railroad tracks..
The Musée national du Moyen Âge, created by Mérimée in 1844
He was assisted in several of his projects by the architect Eugène
Viollet-le-Duc. Viollet-le-Duc was twenty-six, and had studied
mathematics and chemistry but not architecture; he learned his
profession from practical experience and travel. In 1840 he worked the
first time for Mérimeé; in one month he designed a solution which
prevented the collapse of the medieval
Vézelay Abbey from collapse.
In 1842-43, Mérimée gave him a much more ambitious project,
restoring the facades of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. He
returned the statues which had been removed during the French
Revolution, and later restored the spire.
Mérimée warned his conservators to avoid the "false-ancient": he
ordered them to carry out "the reproduction of that which manifestly
existed. Reproduce with prudence the parts destroyed, where there
exist certain traces. Don't give yourself to inventions... When the
traces of the ancient state are lost, the wisest is to copy the analog
motifs in a building of the same type in the same province".
However, some of his restorers, notably Viollet-le-Duc, were later
criticized for sometimes being guided by the spirit of the gothic or
romanesque architectural style, if the original appearance was not
He participated personally in the restoration of many of the
monuments. His tastes and talents were well suited to archaeology,
combining an unusual linguistic talent, accurate scholarship,
remarkable historical appreciation, and a sincere love for the arts of
design and construction. He had some practical skills in design. A few
pieces of his own art are held by the
Walters Art Museum
Walters Art Museum in Baltimore,
Maryland. some of which, with other similar pieces, have been
republished in his works.
In 1840-41, Mérimée made an extended tour of Italy, Greece and Asia
Minor, visiting and writing about archeological sites and ancient
civilizations. His archeology earned him a seat in the Académie
française des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, and his stories and
novellas won him a seat in the
Académie française in 1844.
In 1842, he arranged for the French state to purchase a medieval
building, the Hôtel d'Cluny, as well as the adjoining ruins of the
Roman baths. He had them joined together and supervised both the
construction and the collection of medieval art to be displayed. The
museum, now called the Musée national du Moyen Âge, opened on March
In 1841, during one of his inspection tours, he stayed at the Château
Boussac, Creuse in the
Limousin district of central France, in the
company of George Sand, who lived nearby. Together they explored the
castle, which had recently ben taken over by the Sub-Prefecture. In an
upstairs room they found the six tapestries of the series The Lady and
the Unicorn. They had suffered from long neglect, and had been damaged
by damp and mice, but Mérimée and Sand immediately recognized their
value. Mérimée had the tapestries inscribed in the list of monuments
and arranged for their conservation. In 1844 Sand wrote a novel
about them and correctly dated them to the 15th century, using the
ladies' costumes for reference. In 1861 they were purchased by the
French state and brought to Paris, where they were restored and put on
display in the Musée national du Moyen Âge, which Mérimée had
helped create, where they can be seen today.
La Vénus d'Ille, Colomba and
While he was researching historical monuments, Mérimée wrote three
of his most famous novellas;
La Vénus d'Ille
La Vénus d'Ille (1837), Colomba (1840)
Carmen (1845). The Venus d'Ille was a by-product of his 1834
monument inspection tour to Roussillon, to the village of Casefabre
and the Priory of Serrabina, near Ille-sur-Têt. The novella tells the
story of a statue of Venus that comes to life and kills the son of its
owner, whom it believes to be its husband. The story was inspired by a
story of the Middle Ages recounted by the historian Freher. Using
this story as an example, Mérimée described the art of writing
fantasy literature; "Don't forget that when you recount something
supernatural, one should describe as many details of concrete reality
as possible. That is the great art of Hoffmann and his fantastic
Colomba is a tragic story about a Corsican vendetta. The central
character, Colomba, convinces her brother that she must kill a man to
avenge an old wrong done to their family. This story was the result of
his long trip to that island researching historic monuments, and is
filled with details about Corsican culture and history. When it was
published in the
Revue des deux Mondes
Revue des deux Mondes it had an immense popular
success. It is still widely studied in French schools as an example of
Carmen, according to Mérimée, was based upon a story which the
Countess of Montijo had told him during his visit to Spain in 1830. It
tells of a beautiful Bohemienne (Romani) who robs a soldier, then
falls in love with him. On her behalf he kills a man and becomes an
outlaw, then he discovers she is already married, and in jealousy he
kills her husband. When he learns she has fallen in love with a
matador, he kills her, and then is arrested and sentenced to death. In
the original story told to Mérimée by the Countess,
Carmen was not a
Bohemienne, but since he was studying the Romani language and Romani
culture in Spain and in the Balkans, he decided to give her that
Carmen did not have the same popular success as Colomba.
It did not become really famous until 1875, after Mérimée's death,
when it was made into opera by Georges Bizet. The opera
major changes to Mérimée's story, including eliminating the role of
Mérimée was anxious to solidify his literary reputation. He first
campaigned methodically for election to the French Academy of
Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, the highest academic body, which he
finally attained in November 1843. He next campaigned for a seat in
the most famous literary body, the Académie française. He patiently
lobbied the members each time a member died and a seat was vacant. He
was finally elected on March 14, 1844, on the seventeenth round of
The Second Republic and translation of Russian literature
At the end of 1847 Mérimée completed a major work on Spanish
history, the biography of Don Pedro I, King of Castile. It was six
hundred pages long and published in five parts in the Journal des Deux
Mondes between December 1847 and February 1848.
In 1847 he read Boris Godunov by
Alexander Pushkin in French, and
wanted to read all of Pushkin in the original language. He took as his
Russian teacher Madame de Langrené, a Russian émigré who had once
been the dame of honor of the Grand Duchess Marie, daughter of Tsar
Nicholas I of Russia. By 1848 he was able to translate Pushkin's The
Queen of Spades into French; it was published on July 15, 1849 in the
Revue des deux Mondes. He began to attend the literary salon of the
Russian writers in Paris, the Cercle des Arts on rue Choiseul, to
perfect his Russian. He translated two more Pushkin stories, The
Bohemians and The Hussar, as well as
Dead Souls and The Inspector
General by Nikolai Gogol. He also wrote several essays on Russian
history and literature. In 1852, he published a scholarly article, An
Episode of the History of Russia; the False Dimitri in the Revue des
In February 1848, as a member of the National Guard, he was a
spectator at the
French Revolution of 1848 that toppled King Louis
Philippe and founded the Second French Republic. On March 8, he wrote
to his friend Madame de Montijo: "Here we are in a republic, without
enthusiasm, but determined to hold onto it because it is the sole
chance of safety that we still have". The new government abolished
the Bureau of Historic Monuments and merged its function into the
Department of Fine Arts; however, Mérimée retained the position of
Inspector of Historic Monuments, and his membership on the Commission
of Historic Monuments. In December 1848, Louis
was elected the first president of Second Republic in December 1848,
and Mérimée resumed his activity. In 1849 he helped organize a
successful campaign to preserve the medieval Citadel of Carcassonne.
In 1850 he arranged for the crypt of Saint-Laurent in
Grenoble to be
classified as an historical monument.
The year 1852 was difficult for Mérimée. On April 30, 1852, his
mother, who lived with him and was very close to him, died. He also
became entangled in a legal affair involving one of his friends, a
professor of mathematics from Pisa named Count Libri Carrucci Della
Sommai, who settled in France in 1824 and became a professor at the
Sorbonne, a member of College of France, a holder of the Legion of
Honor, and the Inspector General of Libraries of France. It was
discovered that under his academic cover he was stealing valuable
manuscripts from state libraries, including texts by Dante and
Leonardo da Vinci, and reselling them. When he was exposed, he fled to
England, taking 30,000 works in sixteen trunks, and claimed that he
was victim of a plot. Though all the evidence was against Count Libri,
Mérimée took his side, and in April 1852 wrote a scathing attack on
Libri's accusers in the Revue des deux Mondes. He attacked the
incompetence of the prosecutors and blamed the Catholic Church for
inventing the case. On the same day that his mother died, he was
summoned before the state prosecutors, and was sentenced to fifteen
days in prison and fined one thousand francs. The Revue des deux
Mondes was also fined two hundred francs. Mérimée offered his
resignation from the government, which was refused. He served his
sentence inside one of his listed historic monuments, the Palais de la
Cité prison, passing the time studying Russian irregular verbs.
Advisor to the Empress and Senator of the Empire (1852–1860)
The Empress Eugénie in 1853
In December 1851, President Louis-
Napoleon Bonaparte was prevented by
the French Constitution from running for re-election. Instead, he
organized a coup and became Emperor
Napoleon III. Mérimée accepted
the coup philosophically, because he feared anarchy more than a
monarchy, and because he saw no other practical option. While
Mérimée accepted the coup, others, including Victor Hugo, did not.
Hugo described his last meeting with Mérimée in
Paris on December 4,
1851, just before Hugo went into exile: "'Ah', said M. Mérimée, 'I
am looking for you'. I answered, 'I hope that you will not find me'.
He extended his hand, and I turned my back. I have not seem him since.
I consider that he is dead... M. Mérimée by nature is vile". The
services of Mérimée were welcomed by the new Emperor; on January 21,
1852, soon after coup, he was promoted to officer of the Legion of
Honor. The new Emperor gave a priority to the preservation of historic
monuments, particularly the restoration of the cathedral of
Notre-Dame, and Mérimée kept his position and for a time continued
his tours of inspection.
Mérimée, without seeking it, soon had another close connection with
the Emperor. Eugénie Montijo, the daughter of his close friends the
Count and Countess of Montijo, had been invited to an event at the
Palace of Saint Cloud, where she met the new Emperor. In November 1852
she was invited to the Palace of Fontainebleau, where the Emperor
proposed marriage to her. They were married fifteen days later at the
Tuileries Palace, and she became the Empress Eugénie. Honors followed
immediately for Mérimée; he was made a Senator of the Empire, with a
salary of 30,000 francs a year, and became the confidant and closest
friend of the young Empress.
The mother of the Empress, the Countess of Montijo, returned to Spain,
and Mérimée kept her informed of everything that the Empress did. He
became involved in the court life, moving with the court from imperial
residence to residence, to Biarritz, the Château de Compiègne, the
Château de Saint-Cloud
Château de Saint-Cloud and Palais de Fontainebleau. It soon became
clear the Empress was not the Emperor's only romantic interest;
Napoleon III continued his affairs with old mistresses, leaving the
Empress often alone. Mérimée became her chief friend and protector
at Court. He was obliged to attend all the court events, including
masked balls, though he hated balls and dancing. He told stories,
acted in plays, took part in charades, and "made a fool of himself",
as he wrote to his friend Jenny Dacquin in 1858. "Every day we eat too
much, and I am half dead. Destiny did not make me to be a
courtesan..." The only events he really enjoyed were the stays at
the Château de Compiègne, where he organized lectures and
discussions for the Emperor with leading French cultural figures,
Louis Pasteur and Charles Gounod. He met prominent visitors,
including Otto von Bismarck, whom he described as "very much a
gentleman" and "more spiritual than the usual German".
He gave very little attention to his role as Senator; in seventeen
years, he spoke in the chamber only three times. Mérimée had
intended to devote a large part of his time to writing a major
scholarly biography of Julius Caesar. However, when he informed the
Emperor of this project, the Emperor expressed his own admiration for
Caesar, and took over the project. Mérimée was obliged to give the
Emperor all of his research, and to assist him in writing his book.
The History of
Julius Caesar was published on March 10, 1865, under
the name of
Napoleon III, and sold one hundred forty thousand copies
on the first day.
Last works, the fall of the Empire and death (1861–1870)
He made his last long tour of monuments in 1853, though he remained
the chief inspector of monuments until 1860. He continued to attend
meetings of the
Académie française and the Academy of Inscriptions.
He wrote his last works, three novellas, in the genre of the
fantastic: Djoûmane is a story about a soldier in North Africa who
sees a sorcerer give a young woman to a snake, then realizes it was
just a dream. It was not published until 1873, after his death; La
Chambre bleu, written as an amusement for the Empress, is the story of
two lovers in a hotel room, who are terrified to find a stream of
blood coming under the door of their room, then realize it is only
port wine. Lokis is a horror story borrowed from a Danish folk tale,
about a creature which is half man and half bear. This story was also
written to amuse the Empress, and he read it aloud to the court in
July 1869, but the subject matter shocked the court, and the children
were sent from the room. It was published in September 1869 in the
Revue des deux Mondes.
He continued to work for the preservation of monuments, attending
meetings of the Commission and advising Boeswillwald, who had replaced
him as Inspector of Monuments in 1860. On his urging the Commission
acted to protect the medieval village of Cordes-sur-Ciel, the Château
de Villebon, and the romanesque churches of Saint-Émilion. He also
continued to develop his passion for Russian literature, with the help
of his friend Turgenev and other Russian émigrés in Paris. He began
writing a series of twelve articles on the life of Peter the Great,
based on a work in Russian by Nikolai Ustrialov, which appeared in the
Journal des Savants between June 1864 and February 1868. He wrote to a
friend that "
Peter the Great
Peter the Great was an abominable man surrounded by
abominable villains. That is amusing enough for me". In 1869 he
wrote to his friend Albert Stapfer that "Russian is the most beautiful
language in Europe, not excepting Greek. It is richer than German, and
has a marvelous clarity... It has a great poet and another almost as
grand, both killed in duels when they were young, and a great
novelist, my friend Turgenev".
In the 1860s he still traveled regularly. He went to England every
year between 1860 and 1869, sometimes on official business, organizing
the French participation in the 1862 Universal Exposition of Fine Arts
in London, and in 1868 to transfer two antique Roman busts from the
British Museum to the Louvre, and to see his friend Anthony Panizzi,
the director of the British Museum. In 1859 he visited Germany, Italy,
Switzerland and Spain, where he attended his last bullfight.
By 1867, he was exhausted by the endless ceremonies and travels of the
court, and thereafter he rarely participated in the imperial tours. He
developed serious respiratory problems, and began to spend more and
more time in the south of France, in Cannes. He became more and more
conservative, opposing the more liberal reforms proposed by the
Emperor in the 1860s. In May 1869 he declined an invitation to
attend the opening of the
Suez Canal by the Empress.
The political crisis between Prussia and France that began in May 1870
required his return from
Cannes to Paris, where he participated in the
emergency meetings of the Senate. His health worsened, and he only
rarely could leave his house. The Empress sent him fruit from the
imperial gardens, and on June 24 he was visited by his old lover,
Valentine Delessert, and by Viollet-le-Duc. His health continued to
decline; he told a friend: "It's well over. I see myself arriving at
death, and am preparing myself".
The war with Prussia began with patriotic enthusiasm, but quickly
turned into a debacle. The French Army and the Emperor were surrounded
at Sedan. One of the leaders of the group of deputies advocating the
creation of a republic, Adolphe Thiers, visited Mérimée to ask him
to use his influence with the Empress for a transition of power, but
the meeting was brief; Mérimée would not consider asking the Empress
and Emperor to abdicate. He told his friends that he dreaded the
arrival of a republic, which he called "organized disorder".
On September 2, news arrived in
Paris that the army had capitulated
Napoleon III had been taken prisoner. On September 4,
Mérimée got out of bed to attend the last meeting of the French
Senate at the Luxembourg Palace. In the chamber he wrote a brief note
to Panizzi: "All that the most gloomy and most dark imagination could
invent has been surpassed by events. There is a general collapse, a
French Army which surrenders, and an Emperor who allows himself to be
taken prisoner. All falls at once. At this moment the legislature is
being invaded and we cannot deliberate any longer. The National Guard
which we just armed pretends to govern. Adieu, my dear Panizzi, you
know what I suffer". The Third Republic was proclaimed on the same
day. Despite his illness, he hurried to the Tuileries Palace hoping to
see the Empress, but the Palace was surrounded by armed soldiers and a
crowd. The Empress fled for exile to London, and Mérimée did not see
Mérimée returned to
Cannes on September 10. He died there on
September 23, 1870, five days before his 67th birthday. Though he had
been an outspoken atheist most of his life, at his request he was
buried at the Cimetière du Grand Jas, the small cemetery of the
Protestant church in Cannes. A few months later, in May 1871, during
Paris Commune, a mob burned his
Paris home, along with his
library, manuscripts, archeological notes and collections because of
his close association with the deposed
He lived with his mother and father in
Paris until the death of his
father in September 1837. From 1838 he shared an apartment with his
mother on the Left Bank at 10 rue des Beaux-Arts, in the same building
as the offices of the Revue des deux Mondes. They moved to a house at
18 rue Jacob in 1847 until his mother died in 1852.
Mérimée never married, but he needed female company. He had a series
of romantic affairs, sometimes carried out by correspondence. In
January 1828, during his youth, he was wounded in duel with the
husband of his mistress at the time, Émilie Lacoste. In 1831 he began
a relationship by correspondence with Jenny Dacquin. Their
relationship continued for ten years, but they only met six or seven
times, and then rarely alone. In 1873, after his death, she published
all of his letters under the title Lettres a une inconnue, or "Letters
to an Unknown", in several volumes.
In his youth he had a mistress in Paris, Céline Cayot, an actress
whom he supported financially and paid for an apartment. He then had a
longer and more serious relationship with Valentine Delessert. Born in
1806, she was the daughter of Count Alexandre de Laborde, aide-de-camp
to King Louis Philippe, and she was married to Gabriel Delessert, a
prominent banker and real estate developer, who was twenty years
older. Mérimée met Delessert in 1830, and she became his mistress in
1836, when he was visiting Chartres, where her husband had been named
Prefect. he wrote to
Stendhal that "She is my grand passion; I am
deeply and seriously in love". Her husband, who had become prefect
of police in Paris, apparently ignored the relationship. However, by
1846, the relationship had cooled, and while he was on one of his long
tours, she became the mistress of another writer, Charles de Rémusat.
His correspondence shows he was desolate when Delessert abandoned him
for younger writers Rémusat and then, in 1854, for Maxime Du Camp.
One consolation for Mérimée in his last years was a reconciliation
with Delessert in 1866.
In 1833 he had a brief romantic liaison with the writer George Sand,
which ended unhappily. After they spent a night together, they
separated without warmth. She told a friend, the actress Marie Darval,
"I had Mérimèe last night, and it wasn't much". Darval promptly told
her friend Alexandre Dumas, who then told all of his friends.
Mérimée promptly counter-attacked, calling her "a woman debauched
and cold, by curiosity more than by temperament". They continued to
collaborate on common goals. They both played a part in 1834 in the
discovery and preservation of
The Lady and the Unicorn
The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries; he
declared the tapestries were of historic value, and she publicized
them in one of her novels. In 1849 he assisted her when she asked that
the paintings in the church of Nohant, where she lived, be classified,
which he did. He also provided a subsidy of 600 francs to the church.
However, she deeply offended him by openly ridiculing the Empress
Eugénie. At their last meeting in 1866, he found her hostile. She
came to visit him a few days before his death, but he refused to see
When he traveled on his inspection trips around France, he often
sought the company of prostitutes. He was often cynical about his
relationships, writing, "There are two kinds of women; those who are
worth the sacrifice of your life, and those who are worth between five
and forty francs. Many years later he wrote to Jenny Dacquin, "It
is a fact that at one time of my life I frequented bad society, but I
was attracted to it through curiosity only, and I was there as a
stranger in a strange country. As for good society, I found it often
enough deadly tiresome."
He had a very close friendship with Stendhal, who was twenty years
older, when they were both aspiring writers, but the friendship later
became strained as Mérimée's literary success exceeded that of
Stendhal. They traveled together to Rome and Naples in November 1837,
but in his correspondence
Stendhal complained of the vanity of
Mérimée and called him "his Pedantry, Mister Academus". The early
Paris on March 23, 1842, shocked Mérimée. He
offered his correspondence from
Stendhal to the Revue des deux Mondes,
but the editor refused them as not worthy of attention. In 1850, eight
years after the death of Stendhal, Mérimée wrote a brief brochure of
sixteen pages describing the romantic adventures that he and Stendhal
had had together in Paris, leaving most of the names blank. Only
twenty-five copies were made, and distributed to friends of Stendhal.
The brochure caused a scandal; Mérimée was denounced as an "atheist"
and "blasphemer" by friends of
Stendhal for suggesting that Stendhal
had ever behaved improperly. He responded that he simply wanted to
Stendhal was a genius but not a saint.
The poet and critic
Charles Baudelaire compared the personality of
Mérimée with that of the painter Eugène Delacroix, both men
suddenly thrust into celebrity in the artistic and literary world of
Paris. He wrote that they both shared "the same apparent coldness,
lightly affected, the same mantle of ice covering a shy sensibility,
an ardent passion for the good and the beautiful, the same hypocrisy
of egoism, the same devotion to secret friends and to the ideas of
In his later years, Mérimée had very little good to say about other
French and European writers, with a few exceptions, such as his
Stendhal and Turgenev. Most of his criticism was contained in
his correspondence with his friends. He described the later works of
Victor Hugo as "words without ideas". Describing Les Misérables,
Mérimée wrote: "What a shame that this man who has such beautiful
images at his disposal lacks even a shadow of good sense or modesty,
and is unable to refrain from saying these platitudes not worthy of an
honest man". He wrote his friend Madame Montijo that the book was
"perfectly mediocre; not a moment that is natural". Speaking of
Flaubert and Madame Bovary, he was a little kinder. He wrote: "There
is a talent there which he wastes under the pretext of realism".
Describing the Fleurs du mal by Baudelaire, he wrote: "Simply
mediocre, nothing dangerous. There are a few sparks of poetry... the
work of a poor young man who doesn't know life... I don't know the
author, but I'll wager that he is naïve and honest. That's why I hope
they don't burn him."
In an essay of October 1851, he attacked the entire genre of Realism
and Naturalism in literature: "There is a tendency in almost all of
our modern school to arrive at a faithful imitation of nature, but is
that the objective of art? I don't believe so".
He was equally scathing in his descriptions of the foreign writers of
his time, with the exception of the Russians, particularly Turgenev,
Pushkin and Gogol, whom he admired. Of
Charles Dickens he wrote: "[He]
is the greatest one among the pygmies. He has the misfortune of being
paid by the line, and he loves money". He was even harsher toward the
Germans: Goethe was "a great humbug", Kant was a "chaos of obscurity",
and of Wagner he wrote: "There is nothing like the Germans for
audacity in stupidity".
In return, Mérimée was attacked by Victor Hugo, who had admired
Mérimée at the beginning of his career, but never forgave him for
becoming a senator under
Napoleon III. In one of his later poems, he
described a scene as being "flat as Mérimée".
Legacy and place in French literature
Mérimée's best-known literary work is the novella Carmen, though it
is known principally because of the fame of the opera made from the
Georges Bizet after his death. He is also known as one of the
pioneers of the short story and novella, and also as an innovator in
fantasy fiction. His novellas, particularly Colomba, Mateo Falcone,
Tamango and La Vénus d'Ille, are widely taught in French schools as
examples of vivid style and concision.
Mérimée was an important figure in the Romantic movement of French
literature in the 19th century. Like the other Romantics, he used
picturesque and exotic settings (particularly Spain and Corsica) to
create an atmosphere, and looked more often at the Middle Ages than to
classical Greece or Rome for his inspiration. He also frequently used
themes of fantasy and the supernatural in his stories, or, like Victor
Hugo, used the Middle Ages as his setting. He used a careful selection
of details, often noted during his travels, to create the setting. He
often wrote about the rapport of force between is characters; man and
woman, slave and master, father and son, and his stories often
featured extreme passions, violence, cruelty and horror, and usually
ended abruptly in a death or tragedy. He told his stories with a
certain distance and ironic tone that was particularly his own.
His development and mastery of the nouvelle, a long short story or
short novel, was another notable contribution to French literature.
When he began his writing career in the 1830s, the most prominent
genres were the drama (
Victor Hugo and Musset), poetry (Hugo,
Lamartine and Vigny), and the autobiography (Chateaubriand). Mérimée
perfected the short story, with an economy of words and action. The
contemporary literary critic Sainte-Beuve wrote: "...He goes right to
the fact, and goes immediately into action... his story is clear,
lean, alert, vivid. In the dialogues of his characters there is not a
useless word, and in his actions he lays out in this advance exactly
how and why it will have to happen". In this genre, he was the
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe and the predecessor of Guy de
Merimée's other important cultural legacy is the system of
classification of historic monuments that he established, and the
major sites that he saved, included the walled citadel of Carcasonne,
and his part in the foundation of the National Museum of Medieval
History in Paris. The French national list of heritage monuments is
Base Mérimée in his honor. Another part of his legacy is
the discovery and preservation of
The Lady and the Unicorn
The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries
now on display in the National Museum of Medieval History.
Théâtre de Clara Gazul — several short satirical pieces
purportedly by a Spanish actress, Clara Gazul (1825)
La Jacquerie, scènes féodales — dramatic scenes about a peasant
insurrection in the Middle Ages (1828)
Le Carrosse du Saint Sacrement — a comedy about a theatrical troupe,
published the Revue de
Paris (1829; later made into the film The
Golden Coach by Jean Renoir)
Poems and ballads
La Guzla, ou Choix de Poésies Illyriques recueillies dans la
Dalmatie, la Croatie et l'Herzegowine — ballads purportedly
translated from the original "Illyrian" (i.e. Croatian) by one
Hyacinthe Maglanovich (1827)
La Chronique du temps de Charles IX — a novel set at the
French court at the time of the
St. Bartholomew massacre
St. Bartholomew massacre in 1572
Mateo Falcone — a novella about a Corsican man who kills his son in
the name of justice (published in the Revue de Paris; 1829)
Vision de Charles XI — novella published in Revue de
L'Enlevement de la Redoute — historical novella published in the
Tamango — historical novella about the slave trade in the 18th
century, published in the Revue de
Federigo — novella published in the Revue de
La Vase étrusque — novella published in Revue de
La Partie de trictrac — novella published in the Revue de Paris
La Double Meprise — novella published in Revue de
Mosaïque — a collection of the novellas published earlier in the
press, as well as three of his letters from Spain (1833)
Les âmes du Purgatoire — a novella about the libertine Don Juan
La Vénus d'Ille
La Vénus d'Ille — a fantastic horror tale of a bronze statue that
seemingly comes to life (1837)
Carmen — a novella describing an unfaithful gypsy girl who is killed
by the soldier who loves her (1845). It was later the basis of the
Georges Bizet (1875)
Colomba — a novella about a young Corsican girl who pushes her
brother to commit murder to avenge their father's death (1840)
Lokis — a horror story, set in Lithuania, about a man who appears to
be half-bear and half-man. This was his last work published in his
La Chambre bleue — a novella that combines a supernatural tale and
farce, written for the amusement of the Court of
published after his death
Djoûmane — his last novella, published after his death (1870)
History, literature, notes on voyages and archeology
Lettres d'Espagne (Letters from Spain) — descriptions of Spanish
life, including the first mention of the character
Notes d'un voyage dans la midi de la France — an account of his
first tour as Inspector of Public Monuments (1835)
Notes d'un voyage dans l'ouest de la France — description of the
monuments of western France (1836)
Notes d'un voyage en
Auvergne — description of the monuments of the
Notes d'un voyage en Corse — description of the monuments of
Corsica. This trip gave him the material for his next novella, Colomba
Essai sur la guerre sociale — an essay on the Social War in ancient
Mélanges historiques et littéraires (1841)
Études sur l'histoire romaine: vol.1 Guerre sociale, vol.II
Conjuration de Catilina (1844)
Les Peintures de St.-Savin — the first detailed study of the
Romanesque murals of the Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, now
a UNESCO World Heritage site (1845)
Histoire de don Pédre, roi de Castille — a biography of Peter of
Castile, also known as Peter the Cruel and Peter the Just, ruler of
Castile in the 14th century (1848)
Un Episode de l'histoire de Russie; le faux Demitrius — a study of
the history of the False Dmitry in Russian history (1852)
Histoire du regnè de Pierre le Grand — first of a series of
articles on the reign of
Peter the Great
Peter the Great of Russia (1864)
Translations and criticism of Russian literature
La Dame de pique (The Queen of Spades, "Пиковая дама"), Les
Bohémiens (The Gypsies, "Цыганы"), Le Hussard ("Гусар")
Alexander Pushkin (1852)
L'Inspecteur général (The Government Inspector; "Ревизор") by
Nikolai Gogol (1853)
Le Coup de pistolet ("Выстрел") by
Alexander Pushkin (1856)
Apparitions ("Призраки") by
Ivan Turgenev (1866)
Nikolai Gogol (1852),
Alexander Pushkin (1868), Ivan
Lettres à une inconnue (Letters to an unknown) — a collection of
letters from Mérimée to Jenny Dacquin (1874)
Letters to Panizzi, collection of his letters to the Sir Anthony
Panizzi, librarian of the British Museum
General Correspondence, edited by Parturier, in three volumes (1943)
"Lettres à Edward Ellice" , with an introduction and notes by
Marianne Cermakian and France Achener (1963) Bernard Grasset, Paris
Notes and citations
^ a b Darcos 1998, p. 20.
^ Balsamo, Jean, Notes and introduction to Colomba (1995)
^ a b Pierl, Caecelia, Notes to Mateo Falcone, page 17
^ Darcos 1998, p. 38-45.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 74.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 43.
^ a b c d Quillet, p. 3717.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 82.
^ Darcps 1998, p. 82.
^ Darcos 1998, pp. 82=83.
^ Notes on Colomba by Jean Balsamo (1995)
^ Darcos 1998, p. 110.
^ Fierro, Alfred, Histoire et Dictionnaire de
Paris (1996), page 617
^ Darcos 1998, p. 115.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 119.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 118.
^ Darcos 1998, pp. 156-159.
^ Darcos 1998, pp. 148-156.
^ Petit Robert - Dictionnaire Universel des noms propres, Volume 2,
(1988) page 1880
^ Darcos 1998, p. 209.
^ a b Darcos 1998, p. 219.
^ Darcos 1998, pp. 219-221.
^ "Prospere Mérimée". Retrieved 29 August 2014.
^ Mérimée, Prosper (1834). "Letters from Spain No. III: An
Execution", The Dublin University Magazine, Vol. IV, pp. 184–191.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 221.
^ Tindall, Gillian, On a Unicorn Hunt in France, The New York Times,
May 31, 1998
^ "Medieval Mysteries: A Guide to History, Lore, Places and Symbolism:
Karen Ralls PhD, p. 180: 9780892541720: Amazon.com: Books",
Amazon.com, retrieved 1 January 2015
^ a b c d Darcos 1998, p. 270.
^ Mérimée 1995, pp. 3-54.
^ a b Darcos 1998, pp. 294-296.
^ a b Darcos 1998, p. 313.
^ Darcos 1998, pp. 332-333.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 232.
^ Darcos 1998, pp. 324-325.
^ Darcos 1995, pp. 358.
^ Darcos 1998, pp. 345-352.
^ Darcos 1995, p. 357.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 399.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 434.
^ Darcos 1995, p. 403.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 410.
^ Darcos 1998, pp. 486-489.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 352.
^ a b Darcos 1998, p. 528.
^ Darcos 1998, pp. 529-531.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 244.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 241.
^ a b Darcos 1998, p. 461.
^ Darcos 1998, pp. 238-239.
^ MériméeLetters to an Unknown, XXI
^ Darcos 1998, pp. 231-232.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 248.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 438.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 439.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 447.
^ Darcos 1998, p. 445.
^ Mérimée, Prosper, Mateo Falcone, notes and presentation by
Caecilia Perl, Flammarion (200), pages 10-13
^ Mérimée, Prosper, Mateo Falcone, notes and presentation by
Caecilia Perl, Flammarion (200), pages 10-13
^ From Notes and presentation by Caecelia Pierl for
Mateo Falcone and
Tamango (2013), Flammarion
This article incorporates text from a publication now in
the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Mérimée,
Prosper". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University
Bibliography (in French)
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Wikiquote has quotations related to: Prosper Mérimée
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Prosper Mérimée.
Wikisource has the text of a 1921
Collier's Encyclopedia article about
Prosper Mérimée at Project Gutenberg
Works by or about
Prosper Mérimée at Internet Archive
Prosper Mérimée at
LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
Mérimée's works, a bibliography and a chronology of his life in
Barnes, Julian (7 July 2007). "An inspector calls". The Guardian.
Académie française seat 25
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