The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Henriette Renan

by G. L. F.
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 193-200

The devoted sister of controversial French writer/philosopher Ernest Renan

There are many people in England who have a vague idea that Renan's books are "of the devil." It is safe to assert that these people have not read him. But there are many who have read his Life of Jesus and who candidly believe that his work is pernicious: blasphemous to every Christian many of his expressions must seem: pernicious perhaps only to those who are able to really appreciate the force of much that he asserts in contradiction to orthodoxy and the beauty of the language with which he clothes his ideas. Nothing can be more fascinating than his exquisite descriptions of the Holy Land, nothing more dangerous to a ductile mind than the spell of his powerful logic and rich poetic style. Perhaps the book has indeed been an agent for bad in the minds of many; if so, it is sincerely to be deplored. But no one can deny that such books serve a purpose: truth is inviolable, and therefore no attack can do it harm; on the other hand, opposition merely rouses the defence to a keener sense of its own strength. To dispute the teaching of orthodoxy is to give a fillip to discussion whereby many are instructed in matters with which all should be conversant. All opposition has its drawbacks and its advantages. The war has not been an unmitigated curse: it has taught much that required learning and much that could not have been learnt otherwise. The education question gained infinitely by being vigorously opposed, and the country at large is probably fairly well informed with regard to a subject which might not have interested the public had there been no debating. In the same way books like Renan's may do a certain amount of harm; but it is probable that the good they do by inciting thought is far greater than the damage done to easily-influenced minds. Renan's Life of Jesus is responsible for a literature which amounts to nearly 200 volumes (there are more than 170 in the catalogue of the British Museum). But apart from this there is an earnestness, a high moral tone, throughout his works, which speaks for the author and convinces the reader that the criticism is no superficial judgment, but the deep thought of a sincere thinker. By all means let a ductile intellect be warned and told of the fascination of the book; but to anathematise Renan is narrow-minded. I have begun by speaking of his books, because I feel convinced that any book bearing the name of Renan is rigorously excluded from many an English home. And if I cannot unreservedly recommend any of Renan's books for indiscriminate reading, I do not hesitate to say that one of the most beautiful volumes published recently in France is one entitled Lettres intimes, 1842-1845, containing a short sketch of Henriette Renan's life (it is not so much a sketch as a tribute of a brother's love), and, to supplement this memoir, a few letters selected with taste to illustrate the entire devotion of a sister to her brother's interests. The short biography is the tale of a sister's self-sacrifice: the letters of this devoted sister are sublime in their absolute self-effacement.

In the preface to the memoir Renan writes that, although lives nobly lived require no other remembrance than God's, pains are ever taken to record them. And we ought to be thankful for such records: nothing can be more useful than the reminder that lovely lives do exist, though they so often pass unobserved—pass all too quickly amidst the commonplace circumstances which, as a rule, fill all the columns of our newspapers and the pages of our books, and tend to make believe that the world is uniformly grey, whereas it is anything but monotonous. On one side of us there may be an unsuspected height of virtue; on the other, piteous suffering, passions, disappointment—all perhaps just, but only just, concealed beneath the cloak of conventional form. I say it is well to be reminded that saintly lives pass daily unobserved, because, like the song of birds and the beauty of flowers, they are spent for God, for God alone, and like all beauty pass too soon—"Gott machte nur das Vergälicke schön."

Henriette Renan was born at Tréguier, in 1811. Tréguier, now only a little town rich in poetic monuments, was once an episcopal city. Its streets are to a large extent bordered by the high walls which enclose the convent gardens: everywhere there is an atmosphere of sanctity and refinement which gives a peculiar charm to those ancient cities which seem almost dead compared with the modern towns around them. Her childhood was spent in the vicinity of the cathedral, whose spire points up to heaven—the higher for standing near a stunted Roman tower. Its arches rise in fearless curves till lost in the dimness which conceals the roof; its ever-burning light shines late upon a few solitary worshippers, kneeling here or there in the gloom of evening, pouring out their souls in prayer to a God who seems so near in that mysterious atmosphere of venerable silence. Or she would go with her relations to the ruins of an old church on an eminence, long since destroyed by lightning. Thither it was their wont to go on Holy Thursday, when the bells are said to go to Rome for the Pope's blessing: they would close their eyes and see them passing through the air, gently swaying, with their lace robes (those they wore when they were christened) floating in the breeze behind them.

Such associations as these (and the town was full of them) could not but strongly bias a soul naturally pious and prone to melancholy. Subsequent events made this tendency more marked. Her father was a sailor, who, after having served in the fleets of the Republic, carried on business on his own account. Utterly unfitted for commerce, he gradually lost his fortune and his joy in life; so when, in 1828, his ship returned without him, no one could tell how the accident had occurred, whether on purpose or by mishap. His body was washed to shore near St. Brieuc and buried in the sands; and all the tender love of Henriette which had been his, fell to the little brother, who was at that time seven years old. Thenceforward her whole life was wrapped in his: all she did was done in the first instance for him: his welfare was the one object of her life; and it was for him that she abandoned her wish to take the veil, for him that she faced the bitter struggle in Paris and the long years of exile so far away from home.

From 1835 until 1840 she lived in Paris, teaching and working sixteen hours a day, acquiring knowledge which enabled her to participate in all her brother's work in later years. In 1840 she accepted a situation as governess in the family of Count André Zamoyski; this with a view not only to wiping out the family debt incurred by the father's misfortunes, but also to acquiring money to defray her brother's education if necessary. There she remained for ten years; the measure of her suffering may be found in her brother's words: "En Septembre, 1850, j'allai la rejoindre à Berlin. Ces dix années d'exil l'avaient toute transformée. Les rides de la vieillesse s'étaient prématurément imprimées sur son frant du charme qu'elle avait encore quand elle me dit adieu dore il parloir du séminaire Saint-Nicholas, il ne lui restait que l'expression délicieuse de son ineffable bonté." [I met her in Berlin, in Semptember, 1850. That ten years' exile had ever changed her. Her forehead was prematurely wrinkled, and her sweet look of ineffable goodness was all that remained of the charm she possessed when she said good-bye to me in the college parlour.]

Soon after this they took a small flat in Paris, where they lived in peace and seclusion; the sister sharing in all her brother's studies, writing out his MSS. for him, correcting his proofs, criticising his style, stimulating his thought and sustaining his courage. Though she herself wrote sometimes for her friends, her only real ambition was to be her brother's indispensable companion: her one idea was to love him as no one else could love him, to be more worthy of his love than anyone else. But the inevitable "someone else" came to disturb for awhile the absolute tranquility of that little household. Henriette suffered intensely when first she learnt that her brother was engaged to Ary Scheffer's daughter—and yet she herself had advised him to marry. Like all women who really love, Henriette could not bear to think that someone else shared the heart she loved so deeply, nothing but entire love could repay and satisfy her own entire devotion. But after a few struggles, so touching on that they reveal all the weakness which mingles with the sublime, after a few tears, all was peace once more, and the household now numbered three instead of two. And although Henriette must ever have regretted the days when she was her brother's sole companion, she certainly had the satisfaction of retaining her unique position in his life: she accompanied him during his journeys in Asia Minor and Palestine, and shared his literary labours. And when the end came, both lay stricken with fever, as if death had feared to take the one whilst the other watched. Death dame to Henriette; and her brother was near her, unconscious, he too, at death's door. And when consciousness returned, it seemed to him as if he had lost a member, so habitual was the intercourse of these two minds, so used was the one heart to rest beside the other, that every moment brought the pang of remembrance, the feeling of that something missing.

The twenty-nine letters which are included in this volume were written during the years 1842-1845. Nineteen of these are Renan's, the remainder his sister's. Even as specimens of correspondence, they must be of interest to all who value letters, and who know what "letter-writing" in its best sense can mean. It would, I fancy, be difficult to pick out letters amongst the millions which circulate each day, worthy to find a place beside these letters of a brother to his sister, of the sister to the brother. They are all long, necessarily so, because of the considerable intervals which elapsed between the posts. And yet there is no room for frivolity or commonplaces. All is written in a tone seldom dreamt of by many of us. Throughout there are three guiding thoughts—first, great importance of study and the inestimable value of time; second, the thought of the old mother so dearly loved and respected; and, lastly, the mutual love, so different in the sister, and yet at heart the same as the brother's, a communion of thought and a harmony of aspiration, ambition, and ideas which knit them in a friendship as rare as it is exquisite.

The letters were written at a time when Renan was preparing for the Church, and during which he gradually came to the conviction that he must abandon the idea of taking Holy Orders. The mental struggles attest his earnestness: the noble sentiments must soften the judgment, even of those who most disapprove his theories; and the way in which he plans to carefully prepare his mother's mind for the inevitable disappointment, proves not only how much he thought of her, and with what tact he smoothed the way for what must otherwise have been a great shock to her, but also the force of his conviction that it was his duty entirely to renounce a calling for which he seemed in so many ways eminently suited, and with a view to which all his earlier studies had been arranged.

But it is rather concerning Henriette Renan's letters that I would like to add a few words. Perhaps a few extracts (though half the charm is lost in translation) will be sufficient to reveal the character of the letters, and to tempt my readers to add so delightful a volume to their shelf of French books.

. . . "I cannot cease to beg you, darling Ernest, to ask you as tenderly as might a mother, to beware of rashly binding yourself in any way; before accepting any engagements which will determine your lot in life, be sure you understand their full import. I might, dear boy, take advantage of the influence I could bring to bear on you through my love and the experience of a much-tried life; but I will not do so because I have confidence in your intelligence, and I shall never do more than appeal to it. You are right, my Ernest, you were not born to a life of frivolity, and I feel with you that the calling of which you speak (Holy Orders) would be most suited to your inclinations, if only it be found practicable . . .

. . . "Better than anyone else, your sissy is able to appreciate the charm of a life at once secluded, free, independent, full of work and, above all else, of use; but where is it to be found? Such independence I hold, if not impossible, at all events granted but to a very few. Personally, I have never come across a single instance; how then can I dare hope for you? . . . But wait awhile, when you are become a man you will be able to decide what to refuse, what to accept. Then, even if you still adhere to your present views, will you not need some practical knowledge of life before being entrusted with the guidance of others' lives? How can a young man of four or five-and-twenty, who has never done anything much but study, be capable of acting as a guide and help to those who have perpetually to struggle against life's many difficulties? . . .

. . . "Let no thought of the needs of the family stand in your way: has not the one comfort in all my work been the dream that the fruit of it might some day be useful to those I love, to you, the child of my adoption, my own dear Ernest? One day, it will be your turn, if I live long enough, but say, do we ever owe anything to those we love? . . .

. . . "Be sure that I will not betray the secret of your doubts to mother; I feel as you do about it. You know that, so long as I can do so without deception, I like to keep from her everything which might trouble her peace of mind. On her happiness depends on my own . . .

. . . "Yes, dear boy, a life of seclusion from the world of fashion, of devotion to the good of others, of complete independence, would surely be the realization of the dreams of every generous heart; unfortunately such a life is not of this world. Independence itself, that best of boons, is only a bright vision, and your chief, to whom you opened your heart, was wise in asking you, 'Ah! but where will you find it?' How often have I, just like you, longed for it more than all else! How often, in lovely rooms or at a sumptuous table, have I said in my heart, 'My God, dry bread and rest and leisure with myself is all I ask!' Vain longings, which many another, without doubt, fondly cherishes, but to attain to which how few are destined! . . . I agree with you, that we are fortunate in possessing faculties which no man can coerce; it is in the assurance that this is so, that relief from suffering is found; but I can assure you, Ernest, that it is only after many a struggle that that inner freedom can be secured from all intrusion . . .

. . . "Whatever happens, my own dear brother, you will ever have my zealous and devoted help. Unfortunately my power to aid you is restricted; but, at any rate, what little I can do will never fail you. Courage, dear boy, and onward in the path of right, wisdom, prudence, so that whatever be your ultimate decision, you will always be a true gentleman. Never lose your confidence in me; I will ever look upon it as most precious and sacred. All my life I shall depend upon it, as I shall on your reciprocating the boundless love I feel for you . . .

. . . "As to the delicacy which makes you refuse to accept my offer to pay for you whilst studying independently, let me argue the question with you, dear boy. Is not my one wish, my one aim in working as I do, to help you to succeed in life? Do you think I could allow a trifling outlay to stand in the way when your whole life depends upon it? A young man who chooses to work and live carefully can do with 1200 francs a year in Paris; and even if I had to give two or three times that that amount to prepare a career for you, you know, dear boy, that I would not hesitate a moment. Should I not be more than satisfied to see the future well defined? All this, of course, is strictly entre nous [between us]; did we not long ago agree to have everything in common? . . .

. . . "Let it be your constant care to fit yourself for the highest calling, whatever your ultimate course may be; and believe me, to sow your seed sparingly would be not only a fatal speculation, but also a grave error from a moral point of view. 'To whom much is given, from him shall much be required,' saith the Scripture, and the man who concealed his talent was punished as severely as if he had been a spendthrift. What a treasure of wisdom there is in that Book, my Ernest, and how many of us fail to profit by it! Let us try, my boy, let us at any rate do our best to let the gifts which heaven gave you fructify . . . If ever I saw you take a mistaken and irrevocable decision, it would be a life-long grief to me, and I should hear a voice asking, 'where is thy brother?' . . . Weigh well my counsels, I entreat you. They are prompted by an affection so true, so free from any selfish thought, that I cannot fear to have them misunderstood either by you or by dear mother. Oh, would I could be with you, if only for a day, an hour! I think that by the very force of my conviction I could bring you to think as I do . . . "

And so, throughout all the letters of which these fragments can give but a poor idea, there is that intense love, that self-devotion which was the mainspring of Henriette Renan's life. Some will perhaps be struck with what seems like selfishness in Renan: some of his letters indeed gave me that impression. But I fancy that the development of exceptional talents often involves a certain amount of self-culture to the detriment of others. And can one regret it in this case, when it is perhaps perceptible only because contrasted with Henriette's unselfishness; and, after all, had there been no Renan to live for, Henriette's beautiful existence might have been one of the countless lovely lives, unnoticed save by a few close friends, without other record than the one in heaven.

G. L. F.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, December 2008