The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 83
With all its fictitious ingredients, nothing brings Richelieu so truthfully before the imagination as Bulwer's play, which appears to us to be the masterpiece of the acting drama. Professor G. Masson now furnishes us with a study of the unique Cardinal, who eked out the lion's skin with the fox's. We must have De Vigny's "Cinq Mars"—on the table too.
The fascination of French history begins with the seventeenth century. Voltaire's "Henriade," the achievements of Henri Quâtre, is a moon beside the sun of Virgil's "Æneid," but scintillates with talent in every line, and we liken it to a Damascene blade of tempered steel. It suffices for our history of page 65 the period. Then comes the reign of Louis XIII. Richelieu steps upon the scene, that gaunt Don Quixote-like figure, aquiline in visage, with the thick white-peaked moustache, turned up a la Charles the First, the streaming grey hair, the eyes like live coals. "I fling my red robe over all," is the saying attributed to him, with regard to mistakes and even misdeeds.
Among stage pictures, you may recall that overpoweringly graphic tableau in Louis XI., when, in the ruddy glare of the rich state bed-chamber. De Nemours, in glittering armour, springs from the bed curtains upon the ape-like monarch, and thrusts the drawn sword to his throat. Another vivid picture is where the genius of Bulwer and Irving combined places before us Richelieu in grim reality, tenting young Mauprat to the quick, so that the warrior raises his gauntlet, and Huguet appears from behind the screen at the rear, with his musket levelled.
This is the imaginary, but we feel it lets us deeper into truth than the dry record of known actuality. Then the "Joseph, ha, ha! You shall be a Bishop, Joseph!" as the Cardinal and his ghostly bowing factotum walk out at the side, as close to us as possible. We lament the loss of John Ryder, who was the Joseph to Macready, Phelps, Vandenhoff, Brooke, Creswick, Sullivan, and Booth. And may we be permitted to insert a reminiscence of Irving's "Richelieu," on a raw winter's night, in Chicago, as a powerful contrast of old world and new?
We harp upon the play, more than upon Masson. We like the lath and plaster of history. Bother the moral. Give us the man and the woman. The words of Mercury—truthful Masson—are harsh after the songs of Apollo—claptrap Bulwer. But then, you know, the claptrap which one has to piece out with the myriad-minded mirror of the imagination is an indispensable ingredient in the real history. When the claptrap oozes forth, as fact, we recognise its supreme importance. An instance comes to our mind from the memoirs of Madame de Remusat.
Awfully solemn was the time when Napoleon announced to Josephine that they must be divorced. Yet we have a notion that the affair was as carefully rehearsed on both sides as Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado," or the "Berlin Conference"—or shall we say the Herat difficulty?
Napoleon and Josephine had their interview alone in a boudoir. A throng of whispering courtiers was outside. The Count de Bassano did not put his eye to the keyhole, neither did the Due de Montefiasco apply his courtly ear to the chink under the door. Suddenly there was a thud! The Emperor, pale as death, opened the door. The Empress lay senseless. Two gentlemen carried her down a winding staircase to her own room. They were cut to the very soul. The Empress whispered to the gentleman holding her bust, "Don't squeeze me so tight."page 66
What a flood of light is flung upon the career of Mazarin, when everybody in France can know that he was secretly married to the Queen Mother. The greatest political ecclesiastics in history are Becket, Wolsey, Richelieu, and Mazarin, two English and two French, but doubtless the celestial roll of a quarter million cardinals includes many of equal calibre with Richelieu, the foremost in grasping brilliant chances—and getting them.
Here is an era of French history we feel inclined to launch upon, with sketches of Louis XIV., Bossuet, Condé, Turenne, Mazarin, Colbert, and something more analytic about Richelieu, grace to Masson.
Richelieu's most pestilential foes, all inimical to the general public interest, were the Nobles, the Jesuits, and the Huguenots. After crushing them he was generous, like Cæsar. His defeat of the nobility followed that of the English Barons by Edward IV., so graphically depicted in Bulwer's best novel. All these things were preparatory to the reign of the common people in England and France.