The Decadence of “Diaboliques”

By Dennis M. HoganApril 11, 2016

Diaboliques by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly. University of Minnesota Press. 312 pages.

TO READ JULES BARBEY D’AUREVILLY’S stories is to be swept into the mind of a man with particular obsessions. The six stories in Diaboliques, first published in 1874 and which appears from the University of Minnesota Press in a new translation by Raymond M. MacKenzie, share a rich variety of recurring themes that reveal the scope and intensity of Barbey’s interests. These stories of she-devils (as at least one previous English translation has rendered Barbey’s French title) are littered with references to modern literature, especially Byron; to classical history, and especially Tacitus; to Catholicism; to the French Revolution but even more frequently to the First Empire and the Restoration; to Valognes, the tiny Norman town that was Barbey’s ancestral home; to the chouans, clandestine antirevolutionary guerillas that fought against the Revolution long after the Terror had burned itself out; to nobility (its decline and death); to idleness and the sins it fosters; and, perhaps most importantly, to the arts of conversation and storytelling that, at least as Barbey would have it, reached their peak among the idle nobility that are simultaneously the center of Barbey’s stories and the object of his critique.

Barbey originally wanted to call his book Ricochets de Conversation, implying snatches of overheard talk presented unchanged, complete with gaps, interruptions, and commentary. The style and structure of six tales reflect this intention. Each of the stories in Diaboliques centers on a story told metadiagetically — that is, related by one character in the story to another, often after a lengthy build-up. Barbey orients us to the power of storytelling, to the narrator’s ability to do it skillfully, and to the effect the story has on the audience. The elevation of conversation to art in Diaboliques happens alongside other, similar elevations, both in the stories and in Barbey’s aesthetics generally.

Fashion above all appears in this guise, and academic readers have commented extensively on the relationship between dandyism, of which Barbey was France’s most prominent proponent, and the innovative narrative strategies that Barbey pioneers in the ricochets style[1]. Not only conversation and dress but also fencing, salon hosting, and deception receive the same treatment. Ultimately, Barbey privileges the ephemeral over the concrete, and regrets that we readers cannot have been there to experience the effects of his characters’ narration in real time. This is, of course, paradoxical, since Barbey relates fictional tales and puts his words in the mouths of fictional characters. His literary production cannot exist ephemerally: Diaboliques can only exist as a concrete work of literature.

Yet in this privileging of the ephemeral moment (among which, as MacKenzie notes, Barbey counts what he calls impressions: “A powerful external stimulus that arouses something in one’s personal memory; the result is both an altered, revivified self and an inspiration for the writer”) connects Barbey to the later writers of the fin-de-siècle, to Huysmans and Pater and Wilde — who, when he came to Paris on his honeymoon in 1884 compulsively read only three books: Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, and Diaboliques[2] — and further along, connects him to Proust, who wrote approvingly of Barbey in In Search of Lost Time, and who derived at least some of his aesthetic theory from Barbey’s works. Yet Barbey remains only very rarely read in English, perhaps owing to the previous lack of a sufficiently accessible English translation.

By contrast, the contemporary French writers whom English-language readers are likely to read were, to a man — and they are all men — Barbey’s enemies. Flaubert, Zola, and in general the whole schools of French realism and naturalism constituted a literary bloc to which Barbey stood fiercely opposed.

These antipathies were personal, certainly. Barbey feuded with many of the major literary figures of his long career, which spanned four decades, from the 1840s to the 1880s. An inexhaustive list of his enemies includes Flaubert and Zola, but also Sainte-Beuve and Hugo, and, earlier in his career, the female writers derisively referred to as les bas-bleus. Proud, unorthodox, quick to offer an opinion and incredibly prolific, Barbey’s journalistic output contributed not a little to his long list of opponents. Yet his problems with the realists and the naturalists ran deeper than personal antipathy: Barbey disliked realism for what it represented and also for the artistic content of the works themselves.

As one telling example, we might consider Barbey’s response to Madame Bovary. Flaubert’s novel was serialized in 1856, and in 1857 Flaubert was put on trial for, and acquitted of, obscenity. When Madame Bovary appeared in book form later that year, the result was, predictably, a succès de scandale. While critics differed on the literary merits of the novel, Barbey was unequivocal. In his review of Madame Bovary, he wrote:

Mr. Flaubert, himself, has no emotions at all: he has no judgment, at least, no appreciable judgment. He is an incessant and indefatigable narrator, he is an analyst that never troubles himself: he is a describer down the smallest subtleties. But he is deaf and dumb to the impressions of all that he retells. He is indifferent to all that he lovingly and scrupulously describes. If, in Birmingham or Manchester, they forged storytelling or analyzing machines made of good English steel, and they operated all by themselves through unknown dynamic processes, they would function exactly like Mr. Flaubert. You would feel as much life, as much soul, as much human entrails in these machines as in the man of marble that wrote Madame Bovary with a pen made of stone like the knives of savages.[3]

For Barbey, this lack of feeling is the ultimate sin, and Barbey’s justifications for his own titillating, often violent, not infrequently sexually explicit fiction reside here. Barbey presents what he presents, but he does not claim to do so neutrally or nonjudgmentally. He calls Flaubert a moralist but paints him as a moralist who fails to muster any convincing sentiment on behalf of his moral opinions. Barbey, by contrast, explores the most depraved sins in his episodes, but insists that he does so in order to condemn them: “It ought to be clear enough from the title Les Diaboliques that this book has no pretention to be a collection of prayers or an Imitatio Christi . . . For all that, they were written by a Christian moralist, but one who prides himself on accurate observation, no matter how painful, and who believes [. . .] that the powerful painters can paint anything, and that their painting will always be sufficiently moral when it is tragic and creates in the viewer a sense of horror at the things depicted.” Does Barbey only offer his stories for the moral instruction of his readership? It seems unlikely. Certainly, there is a knowing wink in these breathless assertions of artistic license, and without a doubt Barbey relished the contrast between his public persona as a monarchist and staunch Catholic and that of his literary reputation as a something of a glorified smut-peddler.

And the stories in Diaboliques certainly retain their ability to shock and astonish (even today, one can’t help but wonder where on earth Barbey managed to come up with some of the more inventively depraved scenarios he manages to depict.) Yet the collection starts off unremarkably enough. The first story, “The Crimson Curtain,” tells of a clandestine provincial love affair between a young army officer and the daughter of the bourgeois couple with whom he is billeted. The affair takes an unexplained and tragic turn as the girl, Alberte, dies in the young soldier’s arms during orgasm as her parents sleep in their room down the hall. On the advice of his regimental commander the soldier flees the town before his hosts can awaken to discover what has taken place. The soldier, who recounts the story to the narrator many years after the events took place, is reassigned and never manages to find out what became of the situation.

Though “The Crimson Curtain” is relatively tame by the standards of Diaboliques, it establishes many of the tropes and themes that make the book so powerful. The narrator is a man of Parisian society, unknown to us except for his role as the reteller of the tale; the soldier, the Vicomte de Brassard, is introduced at great length as an impressive and remarkable man, and, like so many of the protagonists of the stories, as a dandy whose commitment to dandyism has impeded his professional life even as it has enriched his ability to have an effect on others. Brassard tells the story to the narrator, and tells it to the best of his knowledge, complete with gaps, unsolved mysteries, and dead ends. The narrator asks the reader for a tremendous amount of credulity. He expects us to take at face value his description of Brassard as beautiful, brave in battle, charming with women, and gifted with exquisite conversational abilities; moreover, he asks us to imagine Brassard’s expressions and to understand the meaning of his changes in tone. These elements of conversation, so apparently crucial to Barbey, are not described but merely related; everywhere he violates the well-worn maxim against telling rather than showing. Yet he weaves suspense throughout, manipulating the reader’s curiosity in order to subvert the traditional narrative structure of French 19th-century short fiction, as Susanne Rossbach has argued[4]: whereas most such fiction leads to a surprising climax followed by a dénouement that explains everything, Barbey offers climax but no dénouement, leaving his reader unsettled and pondering, just like his narrators. Barbey, in his original introduction, claims to draw these stories from life, and though they are plainly fictional, they reproduce the feeling of having been told a really juicy piece of gossip or a fantastic anecdote that satisfies completely, even though all the pieces might not fit together.

Of the six stories presented in Diaboliques, “Happiness in Crime” is the most memorable, even if it is neither the most shocking (that would have to be “At a Dinner of Atheists”, whose final scene depicts a pair of lovers assaulting one another with the mummified heart of their deceased child), nor the most narratively complex. “Happiness in Crime” centers on the marriage of Serlon de Savigny, a local nobleman of Valognes, “the last noble town in France”, a hotbed of antirevolutionary, religious, and ultramonarchist sentiment, and Hauteclaire Stassin, the daughter of a retired army officer and fencing instructor who found a vocation giving fencing lessons to the titled men of the town, a position that Hauteclaire inherits. Hauteclaire represents one of the more memorable female characters in a French decadent canon that counts many, and she is unique among the book’s diaboliques in that she does not come to a sad or grisly end. As the story progresses, she is discovered to have disguised herself as a chambermaid in the Savigny household so that she can live in concubinage with Serlon, playing her role perfectly by day and engaging in marathon fencing sessions with him by night. (Torty, the story’s narrator, makes the sexual metaphor more than explicit, even if the phallic implications of female swordsmanship go unmentioned.) At the story’s conclusion, Serlon’s wife is poisoned; she confesses to her doctor, Torty, that she has discovered her husband’s affair with her servant, and she swears him to help conceal the crime, not to protect Serlon but to the save the Savigny name from scandal.

Barbey brilliantly situates this story at the nexus of a century of changes in social and political relationships in France, most of which he opposed. He dramatizes in miniature the supplanting of the nobility and the triumph of the bourgeoisie; the rise of rational positivism and scientific analysis; the replacement of an essentially private legal system with a publicly administered one in which trials and inquiries become sensationalized public affairs; and the real anxieties around changing gender roles combined with the still quite limited possibilities available to a woman like Hauteclaire. Barbey accomplishes this in a story of some 45 pages, and the result is a masterpiece of short fiction: “Happiness in Crime” alone is worth the price of admission.

Yet not all of Barbey’s heroines benefit from so charitable a treatment. While many share Hauteclaire’s positive traits, especially self-possession and the fine-tuned awareness of the minds and thoughts of other characters, they are all too often dismissed as unknowable sphinxes and are killed off with astonishing regularity, while the male protagonists, always just as culpable and often more so, generally get off with only emotional and not physical scars. Barbey has, as Karen L. Humphreys acknowledges[5], a reputation for misogyny, one that goes beyond standard-issue 19th-century paternalism. Yet he profits by comparison to his friend Baudelaire, that other French dandy misogynist, in this: Barbey’s women are always agential. They always have a hand in deciding their fates, even if they must choose from a very limited number of options as compared to the men. Barbey casts these women as entrancing, but he does not ask us to be seduced by them, as so many men are. Barbey’s women act with single-minded purpose: they seize the objects of their desire, they use the men they encounter for their own ends until, in most cases, they meet their tragic deaths. A line spoken by Dr. Torty is instructive: “The Devil teaches women their true natures — or, rather, they teach them to the Devil, if by chance he doesn’t know already.” Diaboliques is not a work of fantastic literature, though much goes unexplained or remains inexplicable, but it takes place within a cosmology in which the Devil may well actually exist, and Satan is mentioned by name at least once in each story. Yet here, as the indomitable materialist Torty observes, women do not learn to sin from Satan, but rather teach him the ways of which they are already the masters.

So even though Barbey presented Diaboliques as morality tales, his claim remains hard to believe. The stories feature sin, treachery, and contemptible behavior, certainly, but the multiple levels of narration make it impossible to pin down a singularly authoritative authorial voice that might pass judgment on the actions taken by the characters, both men and women. Diaboliques is no Evangelical hell house erected to scare its readers straight, because within the text it offers no moral alternative and no promise of salvation. Satan exists, but the jury remains out about God.

But to focus only on the stories themselves without situating Diaboliques in the larger literary-historical context in which it appeared would be to do readers new to Barbey a disservice. Barbey explained away interest in Madame Bovary by asserting that the book’s scandalous trial was responsible for readerly interest, but Barbey himself would benefit from just such a scandalous success when Diaboliques first appeared in 1874. Barbey had the misfortune too of publishing his book during the ultra-prudish 1870s when, in the wake of French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, religious faith and public morality became a core issue for the political right. A popular view held that the humiliating events of the war and the disaster of the Paris Commune were divine punishments sent by God to a French people that had killed their king and turned away from the Catholic Church. Authorities in such an environment had little patience for the frankly lascivious Diaboliques, whatever protests Barbey might make. The public prosecutor’s office seized all the copies of the book that they could find and began an investigation into the work; Barbey was interrogated at length concerning the contents of specific passages from the book. Ultimately, the prosecution declined to try the matter after Barbey mustered every influential connection he had to plead his case for him[6]. The near-trial was apparently so harrowing that Barbey did not print a second edition of the book until 1882, by which point a new government under the reformer Jules Ferry had established freedom of expression as a sacred and inviolable republican value.

These many reversals and contradictions lie at the very heart of Barbey the man and Barbey the writer, and an understanding of these complications only improves the experience of reading his work. Fortunately, MacKenzie has contributed an illuminating introduction as well as an all-important set of translator’s notes, which mainly explain and highlight references and contextual information that even specialist readers might not catch. These notes are occasionally necessary to follow the plot, but more often they draw the reader further into the web of cultural obsessions that Barbey constructed around his book. Finally, MacKenzie includes an appendix, which consists of a short essay called “A Page From History — 1606,” published in the same year as the second edition of Diaboliques, as well as the 1865 preface to Barbey’s 1851 novel The Last Mistress. Both go a long way towards explaining Barbey’s aesthetics and stated rationale for the kind of work he published, and while they feel somewhat anticlimactically appended after the show-stopping final stories of Diaboliques, they are certainly of interest. More than this, though, MacKenzie has accomplished a sorely needed and very readable new translation. Diaboliques was last translated in 1964, and that translation seems virtually unavailable, while the easiest copy to get in English is a recent reprint of a 1926 translation that feels dated. Mackenzie’s updates the language and delivers important annotations while preserving the density and the eloquence of the original.

I like to think that Barbey must have at least appreciated the irony that the supposed defenders of moral order, his natural political allies, went to great lengths to suppress his work while the progressive republicans whose efforts he had always opposed ended up making the distribution of his most successful book possible. Barbey’s conservatism and Catholicism were sincere, no doubt, but he broke from the civil and ecclesiastical authorities too often to be counted among the conventionally devoted. As MacKenzie explains in his introduction: “Baudelaire wrote that ‘d’Aurevilly invites you to receive communion with him like someone else invites you to dinner.’” And a poet and critic from the following generation, Georges Rodenbach, describes Baudelaire and Barbey approaching the altar in Notre Dame as dandies, wondering if it is acceptable to receive communion with hands poised on hips.”

Barbey and Baudelaire appear here as the clear ancestors of Oscar Wilde and as contributors to a kind of masculinity that can only be called queer. Such behavior won Barbey few allies among the traditional conservative bases in France, especially during the Third Republic, while his popularity only grew among young and innovative writers in the 1880s. Through the modern era France has always had a complicated relationship with republicanism, secularism, free expression, and religion, and Barbey’s experience only testifies to the fact that the contemporary debate about the place of religion in French public life stretches back at least to the middle of the 19th century, though the contours have changed in important ways. Barbey’s attacks on bourgeois piety and public virtue constitute exactly kind of expression France has become willing to countenance, though Barbey was at first glance a less-than-likely practitioner. I couldn’t get away with saying we might find in Barbey a writer for our time, but then again, he never set out to be a writer for his own time, either.


[1] See Humphreys and Rossbach, cited below.

[2] During this trip Wilde also discovered Huysmans and his novel A Rebours, which would have a tremendous influence on The Picture of Dorian Gray. Daniel Salvatore Schiffer, interview by Franck Ferrand, Au coeur de l'Histoire, Europe 1, radio broadcast, November 28, 2015.

[3] Barbey d’Aurevilly, Jules. “Madame Bovary, par M. Gustave Flaubert.” Le Pays, October 6, 1857. Republished online by the Centre d’études et de recherche éditer/interpréter at the University of Rouen.

[4] Rossbach, Susanne. “(Un)Veiling the Self and the Story: Dandyism, Desire, and Narrative Duplicity in Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Les Diaboliques.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies, 37, no. 3 and 4 (2009): 276-290.

[5] Humphreys, Karen L. “Bas-bleus, filles publiques, and the Literary Marketplace in the Work of Barbey d’Aurevilly.” French Studies, 66, no. 1 (2012). 26-40.

[6] This history comes principally from the Présentation of Diaboliques, edited by Judith Lyon-Caen, in the Quarto collection of the Gallimard edition of Barbey’s Romans (2013).


Dennis M. Hogan is a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Brown University.

LARB Contributor

Dennis Hogan is a writer, academic, and organizer based in Providence, Rhode Island.


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