Etienne Pivert de Senancour - Encyclopedia

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ETIENNE PIVERT DE SENANCOUR (1770-1846), French author, was born in Paris in November 1770. His father desired him to enter the seminary of Saint-Sulpice preparatory to becoming a priest, but Senancour, to avoid a profession for which he had no vocation, went on a visit to Switzerland in 1789. At Fribourg he married in 1790 a young Frenchwoman, Mademoiselle Daguet, but the marriage was not a happy one. His wife refused to accompany him to the Alpine solitude he desired, and they settled in Fribourg. His absence from France at the outbreak of the Revolution was interpreted as hostility to the new government, and his name was included in the list of emigrants. He visited France from time to time by stealth, but he only succeeded in saving the remnants of a considerable fortune. In 1799 he published in Paris his Reveries sur la nature primitive de l'homme, a book containing impassioned descriptive passages which mark him out as a precursor of the romantic movement. His parents and his wife died before the close of the century, and Senancour was in Paris in 1801 when he began Obermann, which was finished in Switzerland two years later, and printed (Paris, 2 vols.) in 1804. This singular book, which has never lost its popularity with a limited class of readers, was followed in the next year by a treatise De l'amour, in which he attacked the accepted social conventions. Obermann, which is to a great extent inspired by Rousseau, was edited and praised successively by Sainte-Beuve and by George Sand, and had a considerable influence both in France and England. It is a series of letters supposed to be written by a solitary and melancholy person, whose headquarters are placed in a lonely valley of the Jura. The idiosyncrasy of the book in the large class of Wertherian-Byronic literature consists in the fact that the hero, instead of feeling the vanity of things, recognizes his own inability to be and do what he wishes. Professor Brandes has pointed out that while Rene was appreciated by some of the ruling spirits of the century, Obermann was understood only by the highly gifted, sensitive temperaments, usually strangers to success. Senancour was tinged to some extent with the older philosophe form of free-thinking, and had no sympathy with the Catholic reaction. Having no resources but his pen, Senancour was driven to hackwork during the period which elapsed between his return to France (1803) and his death at St Cloud (loth of January 1846); but some of the charm of Obermann is to be found in the Libres Meditations d'un solitaire inconnu. Thiers and Villemain successively obtained for Senancour from Louis Philippe pensions which enabled him to pass his last days in comfort. He wrote late in life a second novel in letters entitled Isabelle (1833). He composed his own epitaph; Eternite, sois mon asile. Senancour is immortalized for English readers in the Obermann of Matthew Arnold. Obermann itself was translated into English, with biographical and critical introduction, by A. G. Waite (1903). See the preface by Sainte-Beuve to his edition (1833, 2 vols.) of Obermann, and two articles Portraits contemporains (vol. i.); Un Precurseur and Senancour (1867) by J. Levallois, who received much information from Senancour's daughter, Eulalie de Senancour, herself a journalist and novelist; and a biographical and critical study Senancour, by J. Merlant (1907).

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