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Jean-François Marmontel - Biography

Jean-François Marmontel, was a French encyclopedist, historian, storyteller, novelist, poet as well as a grammarian, philosopher and playwright. Marmontel was born in Bort-les-Orgues, France, on July 11th 1723. Close to the famous writer Voltaire (1694–1778) but an enemy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), Marmontel enjoyed great fame at the court of France and all throughout Europe. Born into a poor family, Jean-François Marmontel was the eldest son of Martin Marmontel, a master tailor, and Marianne Jourdes who died in 1747. Marmontel’s parents had six children: Anne (born March 9th 1727), Marie-Jeanne (born March 28th 1728), Antoinette (born August 10th 1730, died January 23, 1766), John (December 1731), Antoine (March 1738) and Jeanne (1739).

After learning to read at the Convent of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, whose nuns are friends of his mother, Marmontel went to priest Vaissiere’s school located in his native Bort-les-Orgues, before following, from 1734 to 1738, studies at the college of Mauriac, led by Jesuits. Expelled from middle school a month before the end in his final year, his father placed Marmontel as an apprentice at a merchant of Clermont-Ferrand, in the centre of France. Marmontel got lucky and after becoming  an apprentice tailor, a Jesuit from Clermont took him under his protection by providing him a place of tutor in an an upper class family. In this way, Marmontel managed not only to survive but to study philosophy at the city school from 1738 to 1740. Then the next year, Marmontel was employed as a tutor by the wealthy Marquis de Linars. At that point Marmontel lost his father who was a victim of tuberculosis. This unforeseen event brought his family to despair and misery, as Marmontel recounts it all in his memoirs. Marmontel made promises to his family to help them and moved to Toulouse in 1741, where he studied philosophy with the Jesuits and quickly became tutor to them, sending his family a big chunk of his salary.

Marmontel submitted an ode to the invention of gunpowder at the competition of the “Academy of Floral Games”. His poem did not get distinguished. Marmontel would write the following about this disappointing experience: “I was outraged and in my indignation I wrote to Voltaire and shouted revenge by sending him my work [...] He answered with such grace and he was so liberal. What flattered me even more than his letter is that he also sent a corrected copy of his works from his hand as a gift." This exchange marked the beginning of a strong friendship they had during thirty-five years.

Marmontel persevered with the “Floral Games” and ultimately won the prize for his idyll romance poem entitled The Eclogue in 1744. Marmontel then won the three prizes of the Floral Games and even a prize at the Academy of Montauban, France in 1745. At that point Marmontel planned to enroll at the university in order to study theology, but Voltaire advised him to come to Paris instead. Marmontel agreed and sold some of the silver he had been awarded by the Academy of Montauban, which allowed him the travel expenses.

In Paris, Marmontel first experienced an extremely difficult financial position. He tried, unsuccessfully, to launch a journal of literature called The Literary Observer, which only had eight issues in total. Marmontel was saved by the French Academy in 1746 which awarded him its prize for poetry on the topic of the glory of Louis XIV perpetuated in his successor the new King. Voltaire would help Marmontel to disseminate the poem and went as far as selling some for him and giving Marmontel all the money.

Now in a better financial situation Marmontel showed his gratitude to his friend by writing, still in 1746, a commendation preface to an edition of The Henriade, which would be often reprinted in later editions of Voltaire’s poem. The following year Marmontel won again the poetry prize of the Academy. Marmontel’s subject matter this time was the mercy of Louis XIV as one of the virtues of his successor.

On February 5th 1748 Marmontel’s first tragedy, Dionysius the Tyrant, is performed. This work is a genuinely original play and is a great success. It has movement, action, and portrays tyranny and punishment, and even given the zeitgeist, received the interest of the public. His next play, Aristomène (1749), was also popular, particularly thanks to the talent of Mademoiselle Clairon (1723-1803).

It is not until 1767 that Marmontel published his first novel, Bélisaire, who was officially censured by the Sorbonne in December of that year because of Chapter fifteen in which he boasts religious tolerance. On january 31 1768, the Archbishop of Paris, Monsignor Christophe de Beaumont, condemned the book in a pastoral letter that is read from the pulpit of every church in the diocese. No longer having much support in the court since the death of Madame de Pompadour, and confident of not being able to count on the support of his academic colleagues, Marmontel first attempted to appease the wrath of the theologians in making multiple concessions. Only in a second stage in which he is asked to accept unconditionally the dogma of civil intolerance that, calculating that he risked losing everything--reputation, friends--in accepting, that Marmontel preferred confrontation. This allowed him to appear publicly as a victim of arbitrary law. At that point Marmontel also called Voltaire to the rescue. This censorship of Marmontel’s work as well as the sentencing, only contributed to the success of the book, which by now was defended by most philosophers too.

As requested by the French composer Andre Grétry (1741-1813), Marmontel wrote the libretto of Huron, adapted from The Huron of Voltaire, which the Italians first saw performed on August 20th 1768, a country where where Marmontel enjoyed great success. Lucile followed, also in Italy on January 5, 1769. Then Sylvain, performed for the first time February 19th 1770. The Friend of the House, performed at Fontainebleau, France October 26th 1771 and in Paris May 24th 1772. Finally Zemire and Azor, an adaptation of the story of Beauty and the Beast, performed at Fontainebleau November 9th 1771 and in Paris December 16th 1771.

During the French Revolution, Marmontel, who was in fact hostile to it, retired to Gaillon in Normandie, France. Marmontel was historiographer of France (1772), high school professor of history, elected politician, for example as a member of the Council of Elders, only to be expelled from it later. Marmontel’s main works are his moral tales, Bélisaire (1767), The Incas (1777), and Elements of Literature (1887), which is still widely considered a masterpiece of French literature today. The famous French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869) would say of Marmontel that he “ranks first among the good writers of the eighteenth century” but believed that his best work was his Memoirs, which he considered very interesting for the history of manners and French Society of that time. Marmontel died in Habloville (Saint-Aubin-sur-Gaillon) in France on December 31st 1799 at the age of seventy-six years old as a result of a apoplexy attack.

Jean-François Marmontel was a French historian and writer, a member of the Encyclopediste movement. (July 11, 1723 – December 31, 1799)