Artisans of Glory: Writers and Historical Thought in Seventeenth-Century France

By Orest A. Ranum | Go to book overview

Chapter IV
Sorel: A Novelist Turned Historiographer

T HE Vraye histoire comique de Francion gave Charles Sorel literary notoriety long before he settled down to purchase the droit de survivance of his uncle, Charles Bernard, as historiographer royal. Born in 1602, the son of a minor robe official who had served in the armies of the Holy League, he grew up in the obscurity of a family with noble pretensions and enough wealth to permit one of its sons to become a man of letters. The family, which occupied a house on the rue Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois, near the Louvre, claimed to descend from an old noble family of Picardy, the Sorel d'Ugny, which in turn claimed descent from an ancient Scottish clan, the Shorel of Kildare.1 These claims should not be allowed to deceive us about Sorel's robe origins, nor should they be ignored. As is often the case with the families of seventeenth-century men of letters, sufficient wealth permitted some of its members to lead a life of leisure as honnêtes hommes and to imitate casually the manners of gentlemen. Sorel belonged to that group. The talents that he possessed as a writer of both fiction and history were reflected in his social aspirations; a genuine intellectual curiosity would lead him still farther beyond letters and history to write works of science and bibliography in which he attempted to summarize human knowledge.

A member of the Comte de Cramail's entourage in 1621, for several years Sorel attended court with his patron, hoping to be noticed and to gain royal favor. By 1626 it had become clear that he lacked the talent to please at court, and in that year he seems to have decided on a career of writing. Through writing history, Sorel could quietly pass his days in the company of kings, ministers, and great princes of the

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1
The standard account of Sorel's life and works is by Ernest Roy, La vie et les oeuvres de Charles Sorel ( Paris, 1891), p. 2. Roland Mousnier, L'assassinat de Henri IV ( Paris, 1964), p. 184, points out the same scorn of the gentilshommes for the robe that appears in Sorel novel. Sorel's personal quest for gentle status and his preoccupation with elevating his charge above those of the historiographes du roi suggest that this scorn for the robe may have emanated from personal feelings.

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