Alphonse Daudet: from Alès to Frédéric Mistral

Who doesn't know Blanquette, le Sous-préfet aux champs or Maître Cornille?

When Alphonse was born (May 13, 1840), his father Vincent, a silk merchant, was practically bankrupt. The Daudet family fled to Lyon and lived in near poverty.

At the age of 16, Daudet was a pawn at the Collège d'Alès; he soon joined his brother Ernest in Paris, where he hoped to have his first stories published. Thanks to the Empress Eugénie, who - it is said! - appreciated a collection of his verses, he was hired as a secretary to the Duc de Morny, an understanding boss. From then on, young Alphonse led a life of bamboozling, benefiting from mission orders (with the fictitious title of sous-préfet!): he travels to Provence, Algeria... and gathers memories that will give birth to Lettres de mon moulin, in which we read Les Sauterelles, Le Sous-préfet aux champs, and of course La Chèvre de M. Seguin: "... qu'elle était jolie avec ses yeux doux, sa barbiche de sous-officier, ses sabots noirs et luisants, ses cornes zébrées et ses longs poils blancs qui lui faisaient une houppelande!" ( Mr. Seguin's goat was so pretty, with its soft eyes, its non-commissioned officer's goatee, its shiny black hooves, its zebra horns and its long white hair that made it a houppelande!Little by little, he became famous as much for his antics and friendships as for his literary works.

Long before that, he meets Julia... Alphonse is in love, and Julia is far from insensible to the charms of this boy "with senseless hair, unforgettable eyes and a poet's forehead"! Julia's parents - literary buffs Jules and Léonide Allard - don't take kindly to this budding romance... They ask around... and give in to their daughter's wishes. After all, the Duc de Morny's little secretary seemed destined for a bright literary future... so... so Julia married her beloved on January 28, 1867!

The morning, so active after an almost sleepless night; his [Alphonse's] arrival around eleven o'clock; [...] then he comes in; I'm afraid he doesn't think I'm beautiful; my hair a little changed, and then my bodice makes a crease, there, on the shoulder; he himself is very pale; but it's a blessed look we exchange. We leave for church in the rain, but as we leave, a beautiful ray of sunshine envelops us... [...] Lunch for my parents; and with everyone gone, we play music until evening... [...] Then it's off to the little apartment, where my white dress holds up the entire staircase.

Julia's pen mingles with Alphonse's: their two writings follow each other, entwine. [...] He covered page after page with his small, tight, nervous, elegant handwriting. A first draft served as a sort of canvas. That's where Julia came in! My childhood memories show my father and mother working at two tables side by side... I would carry the copy from one to the other, my mother very literate and a good writer, correcting here, adding there," wrote Léon Daudet.

Three children were born of this union: Léon (November 16, 1867); Lucien (June 9, 1878); Edmée (June 29, 1886).

December 1867

"How are you, my Mistral? Are you happy? What are you up to? A word, please.
Me, I'm a father; it's amazing! I had all the doors to my study padded so I couldn't hear the baby; but bah! I hear him all the same, and his little cries bite me in the guts deliciously.

He ends with these words: " Write to me - I beg you - e subretout parlo me de Mistral.

For many years, Daudet wrote mainly in Champrosay, a district of Draveil (a commune in the Essonne department, 22 km from Paris), because there's a legend that needs to be put to rest: He never lived or stayed at the Moulin de Fontvieille... No rabbits or old owls when he arrived, no fifes or mule bells on the road... For years, Daudet spent his summers and sometimes a few winter months in the house at the top of the hill, near the Ris-Orangis train station, close to the Seine. There, he welcomed his friends: Delacroix, Maupassant, Flaubert, Proust, Zola, Mistral of course, and a few others... And above all, the couple's most intimate, loyal and beloved, the one Alphonse called "mon Goncourt", Edmond!

Another lie! Paul Arène is said to be the author of Lettres de mon moulin , and Daudet is accused of having largely plagiarized the Sisters author... an act denied by both parties! They weren't friends all their lives, but it wasn't the suspicion cast on the Lettres that fanned the flames between the two men.
Daudet - a famous "epistolier"! - is the author of some forty books.

Success, love, friendships... was it all happiness for the Daudets? No... In addition to the worries of life came illness: probably contracted from a lady of the world in the entourage of the Empress, Daudet suffered from syphilis from which he would never recover. With remissions that could last years, and phases of aggravation, the parasite progressed, reaching the spinal cord and the lungs. He sometimes suffers like hell, the pain hardly ever leaves him, and the doses of morphine prescribed by the doctors frighten Julia.

On December 16 1897, Alphonse Daudet died in Paris.

"He deserves a national funeral!" declared Georges Clemenceau... but they were refused.

Julia died on April 23, 1940.

Sources: Julia et Alphonse Daudet à Draveil - Un couple d'écrivains à Champrosay - C.L.H.D. - 1997

Jeanne Monin

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