The French novelist, dramatist, and short-storywriter Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897) is remembered chiefly for his regionalist sketches of Provence and for his transitional role in the evolution of 19th-century theater.
Born in Nîmes, as a child Alphonse Daudet experienced the heady delights of a sun-drenched Provence and the darkening contrasts of his family's steadily worsening financial condition. His father, a silk manufacturer, had to abandon business there in 1849, moving the family north to Lyons; never fully recovering from the depression which followed the Revolution of 1848, the Daudets finally lost everything in 1857. The family became scattered, and Alphonse—never an enthusiastic student—found himself miserably placed as a pion, or monitor, in a provincial Collège. After a few months he was rescued by his elder brother Ernest, who brought him to Paris and generously encouraged the boy's already evident literary talents. A collection of undistinguished love verses, Les Amoureuses, represented a most traditional debut for Alphonse, but again through his brother's influence he was directed by the opportunities of journalism to contribute prose chroniques, stylish social sketches, which won him entry to the prestigious Figaro (1859); already in these early compositions, a mixture of what critics have called "rose-water fantasy" and often sharp satire reveals Daudet's most characteristic modes: sentimentality and imaginative flight.
Until 1865 the young Daudet enjoyed financial security as a comfortable undersecretary to the Duc de Morny—a position accorded, in almost fairy tale manner, by a chance notice of the Empress Eugénie. In these years he collaborated in writing a number of one-act plays (La Dernière idole, 1862; Les Absents, 1864; L'Oeillet blanc, 1865), helped toward the stage by the Duc de Morny's influence. Daudet decided to live solely by his pen after the duke's death, and in 1866 the first of his regionalist sketches, or Lettres de mon moulin (Letters from My Mill), based on Provençal folklore began appearing in Paris papers.
Two years later Daudet's first long work, Le Petit chose (The Little Good-for-nothing), was completed; largely autobiographical, this early novel speaks of boyhood joys and travails but in the end leads its hero to the failure and obscurity which Daudet's recent successes were to forestall. The serial publication of his Aventures Prodigieuses de Tartarin de Tarascon (1869) assured Daudet a place in Parisian literary circles, and today—with Lettres and Le Petit chose—it represents his most lasting contribution to French letters. Full of boisterous good humor and the vitality of southern climes, Daudet's picaro Tartarin nevertheless stands in sharp contrast to the young hero of L'Arlésienne, originally one of the Provençal tales related in Lettres, and adapted for the stage as Daudet's most serious dramatic effort in 1872. Here somber passion and jealousy lead to suicide—a thematic shift typical of Daudet's search for personal and artistic maturity in these years. L'Arlésienne failed miserably before the theatergoers of 1872, and this reversal of fortune turned Daudet resolutely back to novel writing. The play remains important, however, for the transformation Daudet there attempted in established theatrical formulas. Augustin Scribe's "well-made play" and the "comedy of manners" fostered by Alexandre Dumas and Émile Augier had for 20 years held dominion over the French stage. The seemingly plotless, moody, sequential arrangement of L'Arlésienne (with incidental music by Georges Bizet) produced shock and laughter, reactions of a prejudiced public erased only by a second, successful production in 1885, when émile Zola's campaign for naturalistic reform in the theater as well as the novel had begun to condition audiences to a genre less dependent on formal contrivance, closer to the unconnected sequences of life.
Married in 1867, a father the following year, Daudet felt that the press of family responsibilities made success imperative; the shock of defeat and occupation after the Franco-Prussian War (1870) turned his imagination to a more serious vein, and it was at this time as well that he met regularly with Gustave Flaubert, Ivan Turgenev, Edmond de Goncourt, and Zola—all diversely arguing for an art expressive of nature in all its determinisms, of man in his natural milieu. Zola's formulation of "naturalism," weighted with scientific analogies, would not come until 1880, but Daudet followed the author of Les Rougon-Macquart as closely as his temperament permitted and over the next 20 years produced 10 long novels of his own (Froment jeune et Risler aîné, 1874; Jack, 1876; Le Nabab, 1877; Les Rois en exil, 1879; Numa Roumestan, 1881; L'évangéliste, 1883; Sapho, 1884; L'Immortel, 1887; La Lutte pour la vie, 1889; Le Soutien de famille, 1896). Perhaps the most accomplished of the early, more determinedly objective works is Jack, the story of an illegimate son reared below his station, forced to become a laborer, and eventually destroyed by the brutalizing world of industrial society. The novel contains one of the first protests heard in France against the dehumanizing effects of child labor.
As in all these realistic novels of manners, however, Daudet undermines both the force of Jack's social protest and the novel's very artistic integrity with lacrimonious appeals to reader sentiment and verbose developments. Sentimentality is perhaps the hallmark of Daudet's fictional world. Daudet died after an apoplectic attack on Dec. 16, 1897.
Daudet's works, particularly his novels, have found many translators; a version of Letters from My Mill is by John P. Macgregor (1966). Studies of Daudet in English include the early but still valuable book by R. H. Sherard, Alphonse Daudet: A Biographical and Critical Study (1894), and the general treatment by Murray Sachs, The Career of Alphonse Daudet: A Critical Study (1965). Daudet's theatrical works are studied by Guy Rufus Saylor in Alphonse Daudet as a Dramatist (1940).
Hare, Geoffrey E., Alphonse Daudet, a critical bibliography, London: Grant & Cutler, 1978. □