Nicolas Edme Restif - Encyclopedia

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NICOLAS EDME RESTIF (1734-1806), called Restif De La Bretonne, French novelist, son of a farmer, was born at Sacy (Yonne) on the 23rd of October 1734. He was educated by the Jansenists at Bicetre, and on the expulsion of the Jansenists was received by one of his brothers, who was a cure. Owing to a scandal in which he was involved, he was apprenticed to a printer at Auxerre, and, having served his time, went to Paris. Here he worked as a journeyman printer, and in 1760 he married Anne or Agnes Lebegue, a relation of his former master at Auxerre. It was not until five or six years after his marriage that Restif appeared as an author, and from that time to his death, on the 2nd of February 1806, he produced a bewildering multitude of books, amounting to something like two hundred volumes, many of them printed with his own hand, on almost every conceivable variety of subject. Restif suffered at one time or another the extremes of poverty and was acquainted with every kind of intrigue. He drew on the episodes of his own life for his books, which, in spite of their faded sentiment, contain truthful pictures of French society on the eve of the Revolution. The most noteworthy of his works are Le Pied de Fanchette, a novel (1769); Le Pornographe (1769), a plan for regulating prostitution which is said to have been actually carried out by the Emperor Joseph II., while not a few detached hints have been adopted by continental nations; Le Paysan perverti (1775), a novel with a moral purpose, though sufficiently horrible in detail; La Vie de mon pere (1779); Les Contemporaines (42 vols., 1780-1785), a vast collection of short stories; Ingenue Saxancour, also a novel (1785); and, lastly, the extraordinary autobiography of Monsieur Nicolas (16 vols., 1 7941 797; the last two are practically a separate and much less interesting work), in which at the age of sixty he has set down his remembrances, his notions on ethical and social points, his hatreds, and above all his numerous 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. In 1 795 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.

Restif de la Bretonne undoubtedly holds a remarkable place in French literature. He was inordinately vain, of extremely relaxed morals, and perhaps not entirely sane. His books were written with haste, and their licence of subject and language renders them quite unfit for general perusal.

The works of C. Monselet, Retif de la Bretonne (1853), and P. Lacroix, Bibliographic et iconographie (1875), J. Assezat's selection from the Contemporaines, with excellent introductions (3 vols., 1875), and the valuable reprint of Monsieur Nicolas (14 vols., 1883-1884), will be sufficient to enable even curious readers to form a judgment of him. His life, written by his contemporary Cubieres-Palmezeaux, was republished in 1875. See also Eugen Diihren, Re'tif de la Bretonne, der Mensch, der Schriftsteller, der Reformator (Berlin, 1906), and a bibliography, Retif-Bibliothek (Berlin, 1906), by the same author.

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