Historical Dictionary of the French Second Empire, 1852-1870

By William E. Echard | Go to book overview

A

ABOUT, EDMOND ( 1828-1885), novelist, playwright, and journalist; born at Dieuze (Meurthe), 14 February 1828. About's father was a grocer of modest means who died when About was six. His ambitious and energetic mother was determined to provide her son with every available opportunity. She took him to Paris where his intellectual precocity earned him a scholarship to the Lycée Charlemagne and, subsequently, entrance to the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure ( 1848). Graduating in 1850 with the highest honors, About studied at the Ecole Française d'Athènes ( 1851-1853) and traveled extensively in Greece. But he decided against teaching and began his literary career with two travel narratives, one of which, La Grèce contemporaine ( 1855), attracted the attention of the writer Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly. Soon he had commissions to write for various Paris newspapers and reviews. With Tolla ( 1855), he began a long series of highly successful novels, fairly superficial in character but immensely popular (he was considered by some enthusiasts to be the heir of Voltaire).

About directed his literary efforts not only toward the novel but also toward the theater. Here, however, his efforts met with less success. His first play, Guillery, opened at the Théâtre Français on 2 February 1856 and ran for only two performances. Two later plays were banned by the censorship, and two one- act presentations enjoyed some success ( 1860, 1861). But Gaëtana, when presented at the Odéon 2 January 1862 (and subsequently in the provinces), was booed from the stage by a cabal of liberals and Catholics whom About's political writings had offended. In Paris the production had only four performances.

It is probable that About's lack of success in the theater was due at least in part to his political convictions and connections. Following his initial literary successes, he had been introduced to the most important literary salons and had become acquainted with the intellectual liberal faction of the imperial court, the emperor's cousins Princess Mathilde and Prince Napoleon, Achille Fould (one of the Empire's chief political figures), and their friends. About was firmly committed to the principle of nationalities (freedom and, if desired, unity for oppressed peoples) and to religious and press freedoms. He was a fervent anti- clerical and an enemy of ultramontanism (papal sovereignty). Through his new

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