Born at Sacy, he was educated by the Jansenists at Bicêtre, and on the expulsion of the Jansenists was received by one of his brothers, who was a curé. 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 Agnès Lebègue, a relation of his former master at Auxerre.
It was not until five or six years after his marriage that Rétif appeared as an author, and from that time to his death 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 subject. Rétif suffered at one time or another the extremes of poverty. 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". He has been described as both a social realist and a sexual fantasist in his writings.
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 fall of the assignats during the Revolution forced him to make his living by writing, profiting on the new freedom of the press. In 1795 he received a gratuity of 2000 francs from the Thermidor Convention. In spite of his declarations for the new power, his aristocratic acquaintances and his reputation made him fall in disgrace. Just before his death Napoleon gave him a place in the ministry of police: he however died at Paris, before taking up the position.
According to 1911 Britannica,
Rétif de la Bretonne undoubtedly holds a remarkable place in French literature. He was inordinately vain, and of extremely relaxed morals. His books were written with haste, and their licence of subject and language renders them quite unfit for general perusal.
He and the Marquis de Sade maintained a mutual hate, while he was appreciated by Benjamin Constant and Friedrich von Schiller and appeared at the table of Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière, whom he met in 1782. Jean François de La Harpe nicknamed him "the Voltaire of the chambermaids". He was rediscovered by the Surrealists in the early 20th century.
He is also noted for his advocacy of communism, indeed the term first made its modern appearance (1785) in his book review of Joseph-Alexandre-Victor Hupay de Fuveau who described himself as "communist" with his Project for a Philosophical Community.
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 père (1779)
- La Découverte Australe par un Homme Volant (1781), a piece of proto-science-fiction notorious for his prophetic inventions.
- Les Contemporaines (42 vols., 1780-1785), a vast collection of short stories
- Ingenue Saxancour, also a novel (1785)
- Les Nuits de Paris (beginning 1786: reportage including the September Massacres of 1792)
- Anti-Justine (1793), an answer to the earlier editions of the Marquis de Sade's Justine.
- The extraordinary autobiography of Monsieur Nicolas (16 vols., 1794-1797), 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, both real and fancied. In it, Rétif relates the beginnings of his sexual awakenings between 1738 and 1744, when he remembers experiencing the most pleasurable of sexual stimulations in very early childhood (see text for details). However, the last two volumes are practically a separate and much less interesting work in the opinion of the redactors of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Society of the Friends of Truth
- Le Paysan perverti, ou les Dangers de la ville, histoire récente, mise au jour d'après les véritables lettres des personnages, par N. E. Rétif de La Bretone, tome second, troisième -quatrième partie.
- 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Philippe H. Barr, Rétif de la Bretonne Spectateur nocturne: une esthétique de la pauvreté, Rodopi, "Faux-Titre", 2012, ISBN 9042035390
- "Bibliographie et Iconographie de tous les ouvrages de Restif de la Bretonne"
- Monsieur Nicolas: Or, The Human Heart Laid Bare, trans., ed., and abridged by Robert Baldick (1966) (Autobiography)
- A. Porter: Restif's Novels: Or, An Autobiography in Search of an Author (1967)
- Mark Poster: The Utopian Thought of Restif de la Bretonne (1971)
- Official Website of "Société Rétif de La Bretonne" with biography, bibliography, news, articles, etc. and subscription at newsletter.
- (French) Terre de ecrivains