180 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 978-0394487052
Linda Kelly has written a veritable Who’s Who of French literary figures that introduced the spirit of romanticism to the theater and books in the early 19th Century, and after having given us such delectable sneak peeks into the private lives of these young French Romantics, one would be forgiven the uncontrollable urge to learn yet more about them all. The French theatre at this time was bound by the ancient rules defining classical plays and poetry. A ring of playwrights and poets (led by Victor Hugo, but including Alfred de Musset, Alexandre Dumas, Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin – or rather, George Sand – Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Alfred de Vigny, and many others besides) sensed that Romanticism would be well-received, IF it could be freed from the laws of Classicism. These avant-garde artists enlisted a veritable army of supporters that would attend their plays to demonstrate that the public would welcome this new Romanticism.
Kelly does an excellent job connecting these famous names with the accomplishments and acts that are now obscure because of the fame that came later in their careers (don’t forget that this was also the time of the “Spring of Nations” of 1848 when Dumas would write his plays one day and man the barricades the next). Well written, enjoyable to read, and incredibly well researched, she has done an almost herculean task in tracking and condensing the multiple careers and fates while keeping the spirit of the book intact. The individual artist’s careers, along with their interactions with each other and the leading ladies of the theatres, reads like a modern Hollywood gossip column, yet all come to life in this group bio, rendered almost in narrative form, with Kelly’s presence softly watching the dramas, feuds and intersections at a distance. Rarely has anyone been so privy to the private humanity behind the face of these luminaries: the petty discords, fears, longings and frailties. One cannot help but to feel contempt for Sainte-Beuve’s intrigues, empathy for Dumas hard beginnings, or joy for de Vigny’s success on the opening night of Chatterton or Hugo’s Hernani. An excellent book about a subject not too well known that gives a good amount of detail about each of the major players; the only crime Linda Kelly is responsible for is not giving us more of the same.