Paul Scarron  

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli

Paul Scarron (c. July, 1610 - October 6, 1660), French poet, dramatist, novelist and first husband of Madame de Maintenon, sometimes presumed to be the author of Venus dans le cloitre. He is the author of Le Roman comique.

His father, of the same name, was a member of the parlement of Paris. Paul the younger became an abbé when he was nineteen, and in 1633 entered the service of Charles de Beaumanoir, bishop of Le Mans, with whom he travelled to Rome in 1635. Finding a patron in Marie de Hautefort, he became a well-known figure in literary and fashionable society. An improbable story is told on the authority of La Beaumelle (Mémoires ... de Mme de Maintenon) that--when in residence at his canonry of Le Mans--he once tarred and feathered himself as a carnival freak and, being obliged to take refuge from popular wrath in a swamp, was crippled from rheumatism.

What is certain is that Scarron, after having been in perfect health for nearly thirty years, passed twenty more in a state of miserable deformity and pain. His head and body were twisted, and his legs became useless. He bore up against his sufferings with invincible courage, though his circumstances were further complicated by a series of lawsuits with his stepmother over his father's property, and by the poverty and misconduct of his sisters, whom he supported. Scarron returned to Paris in 1640, and in 1643 appeared a Recueil de quelques vers burlesques, and in the next year Typhon ou la gigantomachie. At Le Mans he had conceived the idea of the Roman comique, the first part of which was printed in 1651.

In 1645 was performed the comedy of Jodelet, ou le maître valet, the name of which was derived from the actor who took the principal part. Jodelet was the first of many French plays in which the humour depends on the valet who takes the part of master, an idea that Scarron borrowed from the Spanish. After a short visit to Le Mans in 1646, he returned to Paris, and worked hard for the bookseller Quinet, calling his works his "marquisat de Quinet." He had also a pension from Fouquet, and one from the queen, which was withdrawn because he was suspected of Frondeur sentiments. When Mazarin received the dedication of Typhon coldly, Scarron changed it to a burlesque on the minister. In 1651 he definitely took the side of the Fronde in a Mazarinade, a violent pamphlet. He now had no resources but his "marquisat."

In his early years he had been something of a libertine. In 1649 a penniless lady of good family, Céleste Palaiseau, kept his house in the Rue d'Enfer, and tried to reform the gay company which assembled there. But in 1652, sixteen years after he had become almost entirely paralysed, he married a girl of much beauty and no fortune, Françoise d'Aubigné, afterwards famous as Madame de Maintenon. Scarron had long been able to endure life only by the aid of constant doses of opium, and he died on the 6th of October 1660.

Scarron's work is very abundant and very unequal. The piece most famous in his own day, his Virgile travesti (1648-1653), is now thought a somewhat ignoble waste of singular powers for burlesque. But the Roman comique (1651-1657) is a work the merit of which is denied by no competent judge. Unfinished, and a little desultory, this history of a troop of strolling actors is almost the first French novel, in point of date, which shows real power of painting manners and character, and is singularly vivid. It is in the style of the Spanish picaresque romance, and furnished Théophile Gautier with the idea and with some of the details of his Capitaine Fracasse. Scarron also wrote some shorter novels: La Precaution inutile, which inspired Sedaine's Gageure imprévue; Les Hypocrites, to which Tartuffe owes something, and others. Of his plays Jodelet (1645) and Don Japhel d'Arménie (1653) are the best.

The most complete edition of his works is by La Martiniére, 1737 (10 vols., Amsterdam). The Roman comique and the Enéide Travestie were edited by Victor Fournel in 1857 and 1858. Among the contemporary notices of Scarron, that contained in the Historielles of Tallemant des Réaux is the most accurate. The most important modern works on the subject are Scarron et le genre burlesque (1888) by Paul Morillot; a biography by Jean Jules Jusserand in English, prefixed to his edition of The Comical Romance and other tales by Paul Scarron, done into English by Tom Brown, John Savage and others (2 vols., 1892); and Paul Scarron et Françoise d'Aubigné d'après des documents nouveaux (1894) by A de Boislisle.




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