Decorated initial M

ichelet himself vigorously rejected the view that he was essentially a “literary” and “imaginative” writer. On learning that Mill was planning to write a review of his Histoire de France, he penned this note: “Should Mr. Mill do me the honour of reviewing my book in an English journal, I would be most obliged to him if he would emphasize how powerfully this historian, too thoughtlessly accounted a ‘man of the imagination,’ has been motivated by a passion for the truth.” The English reading public should be made aware that his account of the trial of Joan of Arc, for instance, is based not on chronicle sources but on documents; and he counts on “the impartiality of an Englishman” to defend his book, despite the fact that it “presents so unfavourable a view of the English.” (Letter to Gustave d’Eichthal, 24 September 1841, Correspondance générale, ed. Louis Le Guillou, vol. 3 [Paris: Champion, 1995], pp. 480-81) See also Michelet’s letter to Taine, complaining that the praise heaped on him as a writer is part of a campaign to diminish him as a historian (cited in Roland Barthes, Michelet par lui-même [Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1969], p. 89) and a long letter of late July 1911 in which Lucien Febvre defends Michelet for having distinguished carefully between “l’art” and “l’histoire” against Henri Berr, founder of the Revue de Synthèse, who lumped Michelet and Thierry together as “poets” who both “created and deformed history.” (Lucien Febvre, De la ‘Revue de synthèse’ aux ‘Annales’: Lettres à Henri Berr, 1911-1954 [Paris: Fayard, 1997], p. 10).

Even as a writer, however, Michelet’s vivid, emphatic style came in for severe criticism from modern anti-Romantics; e.g. Paul Valéry: “By chance, have been reading some Michelet. […] It gave me a fit of literary indignation. That stuff is made to be preached in some popular university; there’s not a word in it worth reflection. […] All that claptrap has never been put through the intellect (it would have come to pieces and dissolved), but merely blurted out to the superficial public.” (Letter to André Gide, 5 July 1908, in Paul Valéry, History and Politics, translated by Denise Folliot and Jackson Mathews [New York: Pantheon Books, 1962], p. 512)

[Return to “Jules Michelet: A Pioneering French Historian in Victorian England”]

Last modified 1 December 2020/p>