Restif, Nicolas Ednie
books life author time
RESTIF, NICOLAS EDNIE (1734-1806), called RESTIF DE LX BRETONNE (the form RETIE, though occasionally used by the author himself, and adopted by M. Monselet, has the less authority), was born at Sacy in the present department of the Yonne, France, on 23d October 1734. His father was a farmer of not the lowest rank, and the vanity of Restif has preserved or invented an extraordinary genealogy (supposed to date from his grandfather's time) in which the family is traced to the Roman emperor Pertinax. This Restif did not take very seriously, but he is himself almost the only authority for the details of his own career, which he has voluminously recorded, and these details are in part so incredible, in part so obviously dis-torted by various motives, that it is very hard to do more than discover the general outline of his life. He was well educated - partly if not chiefly by his own devotion to books - he was apprenticed to a printer at Auxerre, and, having served his time, went to Paris. Here he worked as a journeyman printer for some time (indeed he con-tinued his manual work for the greater part of his life), and in 1760 he married Anne or Agnes Lebegue, a relation of his former master at Auxerre. He soon tired of her, and has left the most unfavourable pictures of her morals and temper. In the early years of their married life they were but little together, and for the last twenty they never saw each other ; but Restif's own account is sufficient to show that certainly not all, and pro-bably very few, of the faults were on the wife's side. It was not till five or six years after his marriage that Restif, who by his own account had written voluminously from his earliest youth but had published nothing, appea-red an author, and from that time to his death on February 2, 1806, he 'produced a bewildering multitude of books (amounting to something like two hundred volumes, and many of them printed with his own hand) on almost every conceivable variety of subject. The most noteworthy are Le Pied de Fanchette, a novel (1769); Le Pornographe (same date), a plan for regulating prostitution which is said to have been actually carried out by the emperor Joseph IL, while not a few detached hints have been adopted by Continental nations; Le Paysan Perverti (1774), a novel in which much of his own experience is worked in ; La Vie de Mon Pere (1779), a really remarkable monu-ment of filial piety; Les Conternporaines (42 vols., 1780-85), a vast collection of short stories showing at once Restif's fertility of' invention, his narrative faculty, and his accurate observation of the manners of Paris ; Inggnue Saxctncour, also a novel (1789) ; and, lastly, the extraordinary autobio-graphy of Monsieur Nicolas (16 vols., 1794-97; the last two are practically a separate and much less interesting work), in which at the age of sixty he has set down voluminously his remembrances, his notions on ethical and social points, his hatreds, and above all his numerous or innumerable loves real and fancied. The original editions of these, and indeed of all his books, have long been bibliographical curiosities owing to their rarity, the beautiful and curious illustrations which many of them contain, and the quaint typographic system in which most are composed. The author's life during this long period was a singular mixture of hard work and perpetual falling in love. He seerns to have really seen society of the most varied kind, though in this as in all other matters he certainly exaggerates and perhaps invents in a way which makes it impossible to dis-cern the exact truth. Some of his books sold well, and, as has been said, he was always industrious as an author or a printer and sometimes as both. But he had repeated losses, and though never in actual want was never in easy circumstances. He was arrested once during the Revolu-tion but had no difficulty in getting off; indeed he seems to have been a convinced republican. In 1795 he received a gratuity of 2000 francs from the Government, and just before his death Napoleon gave him a place in the ministry of police, which he did not live to take up. After his death Cubieres Palmeaux, a gentleman literary-hack of the day, wrote his life.
Restif de la, Bretonne undoubtedly holds a remarkable place in French literature, though the rarity and curious character of his books have sometimes induced his editors and commentators to take too high a view of his merits. Ife was inordinately vain, of extremely relaxed morals, and perhaps not entirely sane. Ilis books were written with such haste and in such bulk that they can only be praised with great allowance. Their licence of subject and language renders some if not most of them quite unfit for general perusal. But when every deduction is made there will reniain on a just estimate the facts that Restif had a singular and profound knowledge of the human heart /the second title of his Monsieur Nicolas is Le Cour Humain nevale), that among his random and often chimerical speculations on social, ethical, and political matters thoughts of extraordinary justness now and then occur, that his observation of manners was keen, and that his narrative faculty, at least in short tales and detached passages, was exception-ally good.
Origina1 editions of Restif are, as has been said, bibliographical curiosities. The works of Ch. 3Ionselet (1853) and P. Lacroix (1875), Asszat's selection from the Contemporaines, with excellent Introductions (3 vols., 1875), and the valuable reprint of Monsieur Nicotas (14 rola., 1883-84), will be sufficient to enable even curious readers to form a judgment of him. The selection from the Contern-poraines preserves Bestirs curious printing and spelling.