Sue Young Histories

Henri Rene Albert Guy de Maupassant 1850 – 1893

June 18, 2009

Henri Rene Albert Guy de Maupassant 1850 – 1893 was a French writer and considered one of the fathers of the modern short story.

Maupassant turned to homeopathy to treat his heart symptoms and skin eruptions when allopathy failed him.

Maupassant was fascinated by the burgeoning discipline of psychiatry, and attended the public lectures of between 1885 and

  1. Jean Martin Charcot between 1885 and 1886.

Maupassant was a friend of Alexandre Dumas Junior, Gustave Flaubert, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Ivan Turgenev, Emile Zola,

Maupassant was most likely born at the Chateau de Miromesnil, near Dieppe in the Seine Inférieure (now Seine Maritime) department.

The Maupassants were an old Lorraine family who had settled in Normandy in the middle of the 18th century. In 1846 his father had married Laure Le Poittevin. With her brother Alfred, she had been the playmate of the novelist Gustave Flaubert, who was destined to have a guiding influence on her son’s life. She was a woman of no common literary accomplishments, but was very fond of classic literature, especially Shakespeare. After separating from her husband, Le Poittevin kept her two sons, the elder Guy and younger Hervé.

Until the age of thirteen, Guy happily lived with his mother, to whom he was deeply devoted, at Étretat, in the Villa des Verguies, where between the sea and the luxuriant countryside, he grew very fond of fishing and outdoor activities; he went fishing with the fishermen off the coast and spoke Norman with the peasants.

At the age of 14 he ate roast monkey with Algernon Charles Swinburne, the famous poet. As he entered junior high school, he met the great author Gustave Flaubert.

He first entered a seminary at Yvetot, but deliberately got himself expelled. From his early education he retained a marked hostility to religion. Then he was sent to the Rouen Lycée, where he proved a good scholar indulging in poetry and taking a prominent part in theatricals.

The Franco Prussian War broke out soon after his graduation from college in 1870; he enlisted as a volunteer and fought bravely.

Afterwards, in 1871, he left Normandy and moved to Paris where he spent ten years as a clerk in the Navy Department. During these ten tedious years his only recreation and relaxation was canoeing on the Seine on Sundays and holidays.

Gustave Flaubert took him under his protection and acted as a kind of literary guardian to him, guiding his debut in journalism and literature. At Gustave Flaubert’s home he met Emile Zola and the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, as well as many of the protagonists of the realist and naturalist schools.

In 1878 he was transferred to the Ministry of Public Instruction and became a contributing editor of several leading newspapers such as Le Figaro, Gil Blas, Le Gaulois and l’Echo de Paris. He devoted his spare time to writing novels and short stories.

In 1880 he published what is considered his first masterpiece, Boule de Suif, which met with an instant and tremendous success. Gustave Flaubert characterized it as “a masterpiece that will endure.”

This was Maupassant’s first piece of short fiction set during the Franco Prussian War, and was followed by short stories such as Deux Amis, Mother Savage, and Mademoiselle Fifi.

The decade from 1880 to 1891 was the most fertile period of Maupassant’s life. Made famous by his first short story, he worked methodically and produced two or sometimes four volumes annually. He combined talent and practical business sense, which made him wealthy.

In 1881 he published his first volume of short stories under the title of La Maison Tellier; it reached its twelfth edition within two years; in 1883 he finished his first novel, Une Vie (translated into English as A Woman’s Life), 25,000 copies of which were sold in less than a year. In his novels, he concentrated all his observations scattered in his short stories. His second novel Bel-Ami, which came out in 1885, had thirty seven printings in four months.

His editor, Havard, commissioned him to write new masterpieces and Maupassant continued to produce them without the slightest apparent effort. At this time he wrote what many consider to be his greatest novel, Pierre et Jean.

With a natural aversion to society, he loved retirement, solitude, and meditation. He traveled extensively in Algeria, Italy, England, Brittany, Sicily, Auvergne, and from each voyage he brought back a new volume. He cruised on his private yacht “Bel-Ami,” named after his earlier novel.

This feverish life did not prevent him from making friends among the literary celebrities of his day: Alexandre Dumas Junior had a paternal affection for him; at Aix les Bains he met Hippolyte Taine and fell under the spell of the philosopher historian.

Gustave Flaubert continued to act as his literary godfather. His friendship with the Goncourts was of short duration; his frank and practical nature reacted against the ambience of gossip, scandal, duplicity, and invidious criticism that the two brothers had created around them in the guise of an 18th century style salon.

Maupassant was but one of a fair number of 19th century Parisians who did not care for the Eiffel tower; indeed, he often ate lunch in the restaurant at its base, not out of any preference for the food, but because it was only there that he could avoid seeing its otherwise unavoidable profile. Moreover, he and forty six other Parisian literary and artistic notables attached their names to letter of protest, ornate as it was irate, against the tower’s construction to the then Minister of Public Works.

In his later years he developed a constant desire for solitude, an obsession for self preservation, and a fear of death and crazed paranoia of persecution, that came from the syphilis he had contracted in his early days. On January 2, in 1892, Maupassant tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat and was committed to the celebrated private asylum of Dr. Esprit Blanche at Passy, in Paris, where he died on July 6, 1893.

Guy De Maupassant penned his own epitaph: “I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing.” He is buried in Section 26 of the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris.