Prosper Mérimée

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Prosper Mérimée
Prosper Mérimée.jpg
Born (1803-09-28)28 September 1803
Paris, France
Died 23 September 1870(1870-09-23) (aged 66)
Cannes, France
Literary movement Romanticism
Notable works La Vénus d'Ille (1837), Carmen (1845)


Prosper Mérimée (28 September 1803 – 23 September 1870) was a French novelist and short story writer, as well as an archaeologist and historian. He is best known as for his novella Carmen, which became the basis of Bizet's opera Carmen. He learned Russian and translated the work of several important Russian writers, including Pushkin and Gogol, into French. He was the first inspector of French historical monuments, and was responsible for the preservation of many historic sites threatened with destruction, including the medieval citadel of Carcassonne. He was also, along with the writer George Sand, the co-discoverer of the The Lady and the Unicorn series of tapestries, now on display in the Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris. The official list of French monuments today bears his name.


Prosper Mérimée was born in Paris on September 28, 1803. His father and mother were both well-known painters. He attended the Lycée Henri-IV, and then studied law. He had a talent for foreign languages, and mastered Greek, Spanish, English, and Russian. In his youth he frequented the literary salon of Madame Récamier and the architects' salon of Viollet-le-Duc. When he completed his legal studies, he became a lawyer and went to work for the Ministry of Commerce.[1]

In 1825 he published his first literary work, Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul, which purported to be the work of a Spanish actress. It was followed in 1827 by la Guzla, ostensibly a collection of poems from the ancient Adriatic province of Illyria. This work was a great popular success; from then on Mérimée's stories and articles were regularly published by the two leading literary magazines of Paris, La Revue des Deux Mondes and La Revue de Paris.[1]

He traveled to England in 1826 and to Spain in 1834. In Spain he became close friends with the Count and Countess of Montijo and their young daughter, Eugénie, who in 1853 became the Empress Eugénie, the wife of Emperor Napoleon III.[1]

In 1833, King Louis-Philippe named Mérimée inspector-general of historical monuments. He set out on a series of long journeys throughout France, cataloging the historic buildings, many of which had been badly damaged during the French Revolution, and organized efforts to save those which were threatened with destruction. He was accompanied on many of his trips by his friend, the young architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who participated in the restoration of many of the monuments. In 1840 he published the first List of Historic Monuments in France, with 934 listed entries.[2] His tastes and talents were well suited to archaeology, combining an unusual linguistic talent, accurate scholarship, remarkable historical appreciation, and a sincere love for the arts of design and construction. He had some practical skills in design. A few pieces of his own art are held by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.[3] In his official capacity he published numerous letters and reports,[4] some of which, with other similar pieces, have been republished in his works.

In 1840-41, Mérimée made an extended tour of Italy, Greece and Asia Minor, visiting and writing about archeological sites and ancient civilizations. His archeology earned him a seat in the Académie française des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, and his stories and novellas won him a seat in the Académie Française in 1844.[1]

In 1841, during one of his extended inspection tours, accompanied by George Sand, Merimée discovered The Lady and the Unicorn during a stay at the castle of Boussac, Creuse in the Limousin district of central France. With the help of the writings of Sand, this set of tapestries became one of the most important and popular treasures of medieval art in France.

In 1849, Mérimée organized a successful protest campaign against the demolition of the medieval Citadel of Carcassonne. In 1850 he also arranged for the crypt of Saint-Laurent in Grenoble to be classified as an historical monument.

In 1852, President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte organized a coup and became Emperor Napoleon III. Eugénie Montijo, the daughter of his friends the Count and Countess of Montijo, was courted by The Emperor and in 1853 became the Empress Eugénie Mérimée was made a Senator of the Empire, and thereafter played a prominent role in the court, organizing lectures and readings and other cultural events for the Emperor and court.[1] He also became very active translating Russian literature into French and popularising it: in 1853 he published French translations of The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin and The Inspector General by Nikolai Gogol in prominent literary journals. In addition to his cultural work, he also occasionally carried out sensitive diplomatic missions to England for the Emperor.[1]


Prosper Mérimée died in Cannes, France on September 23, 1870, five days before his 67th birthday. He was interred there in the Cimetière du Grand Jas. In May 1871, the Paris Commune destroyed his Paris home and library, because of his close association with the deposed Napoleon III.


The French national list of heritage monuments is called the Base Mérimée in his honour.


Homme en Grande Bottes. The caricature may allude to the "Seven-league boots" which enable the wearer to take enormous strides, as in Hop-o'-My-Thumb

Mérimée was a prolific author. His early works were largely historical fiction (La Chronique du règne de Charles IX (1829)), and short novels, in exotic settings and in the romantic style; Colomba (1840) and Carmen (1844). He also wrote several theatrical works, influenced by Shakespeare and Pedro Calderón de la Barca, including Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul (1825). He wrote several books on history and literature, including Essai sur la Guerre sociale (1841), and Mélanges historiques et littéraires (1841), as well as books on archeology, most prominently Les Peintures de St.-Savin (1845). He wrote a series of books on his travels to the south of France (1835), the west (1836), the Auvergne (1838), and Corisca (1840). In addition, several volumes of his correspondence were published after his death, most famously Lettres à une inconnue (1873). His early works were largely romantic in style, but under the influence of his friend Stendahl, while he still used exotic settings and colorful characters, his style became more realistic. Toward the end of his life he abandoned fiction and concentrated on archeology and history.[1].

  • Cromwell (1822) — his first play. It was never published and no copies exist. Mérimée felt its similarities to contemporary French politics were too obvious, and he destroyed the manuscript.
  • Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul (1825) — supposedly a translation by one Joseph L'Estrange of work written by a Spanish actress. These plays, written before Hugo's Hernani, can be considered early examples of French romanticisme, as defined by Mérimée's friend Stendhal in his Racine et Shakespeare.
  • La Guzla, ou Choix de Poésies Illyriques recueillies dans la Dalmatie, la Croatie et l'Herzegowine (1827) — another hoax, ballads about various mystical themes purportedly translated from the original "Illyrian" (i.e. Croatian) by one Hyacinthe Maglanowich. These ballads had considerable influence, translated into Russian, notably by Pushkin and Lermontov.
  • La Jacquerie (1828) — dramatic scenes about a peasant insurrection in feudal times.
  • La Chronique du temps de Charles IX (1829) — a novel set at the French court at the time of the St. Bartholomew massacre (1572) (made into an opéra comique Le pré aux clercs by Ferdinand Hérold in 1832).
  • "Mateo Falcone" (1829) — a short story about a Corsican man who kills his son in the name of justice (made into an opera of the same name by the Russian composer César Cui)
  • Le Carrosse du Saint Sacrement (1829) — a comedy about a theatrical troupe (made into the film The Golden Coach by Jean Renoir)
  • Mosaïque (1833) — a collection of short stories, containing: "Mateo Falcone", "Vision de Charles XI", "L'enlèvement de la redoute", "Tamango", "Le fusil enchanté", "Federigo", "Ballades", "La partie de trictrac", "Le vase étrusque", "Les mécontents". It also includes three of his letters from Spain. Most of these tales were previously published in the Revue de Paris in 1829 and 1830.
  • Les âmes du Purgatoire (1834) — a novella about the libertine Don Juan Maraña.
  • La Vénus d'Ille (1837) — a fantastic horror tale of a bronze statue that seemingly comes to life.
  • Notes de voyages (1835–40) — describing his travels through Greece, Spain, Turkey, and France.
  • Colomba (1840) — his first famous novella about a young Corsican girl who pushes her brother to commit murder to avenge their father's death.
  • Carmen (1845) — another famous novella describing an unfaithful gypsy girl who is killed by the soldier who loves her (made into an opera by Georges Bizet in 1875).
  • Lokis (1869) — set in Lithuania, it is the horror story of a man who, it would seem, is half bear and half man. Trans. 1903 by Emily Mary Waller, 1867-1945.
  • La Chambre bleue (1872) — a farce that has all the trappings of a supernatural tale but in the end turns out to be anything but.
  • Lettres à une inconnue (1874) — a collection of letters from Mérimée to Jenny Dacquin, published after his death.
Literary Criticism
Translation from Russian
  • La Dame de pique (The Queen of Spades, "Пиковая дама"), Les Bohémiens (The Gypsies, "Цыганы"), Le Hussard ("Гусар") (1852), from Pushkin.
  • L'Inspecteur général (1853) from Gogol's The Government Inspector ("Ревизор").
  • Le Coup de pistolet ("Выстрел") (1856), from Pushkin.
  • Apparitions ("Призраки") (1866), from Turgenev.


Notes and Citations[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Quillet, p. 3717.
  2. ^ Petit Robert - Dictionnaire Universel des noms propres, Volume 2, (1988) page 1880
  3. ^ "Prospere Mérimée". Retrieved 29 August 2014. 
  4. ^ Mérimée, Prosper (1834). "Letters from Spain No. III: An Execution", The Dublin University Magazine, Vol. IV, pp. 184–191.

Bibliography (in French)[edit]

  • Dictionnaire Encylcopédique Quillet. Paris: Librarie Aristide Quillet. 1962. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Child, T.E. (1880). "Prosper Mérimée," The Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. 246, pp. 230–245.
  • Cropper, Corry (2004–2005). "Prosper Mérimée and the Subversive 'Historical' Short Story," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1/2, pp. 57–74.
  • Dale, R.C. (1966). The Poetics of Prosper Merimee. The Hague/Paris: Mouton & Co.
  • Erlande-Brandenburg, Alain (1993). The Lady and the Unicorn. Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux.
  • Gerould, Daniel (2008). "Playwriting as a Woman: Prosper Mérimée and 'The Theatre of Clara Gazul'," PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 120–128.
  • James, Henry (1878). "Mérimée Letters." In: French Poets and Novelists. London: Macmillan & Co., pp. 390–402.
  • Northup, George T. (1915). "The Influence of George Borrow upon Prosper Mérimée," Modern Philology, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 143–156.
  • Pater, Walter H. (1900). "Prosper Mérimée." In: Studies in European Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 31–53.
  • Sivert, Eileen Boyd (1978). "Fear and Confrontation in Prosper Mérimée's Narrative Fiction," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3/4, pp. 213–230.
  • Symons, Arthur (1919). "Prosper Mérimée." In: The Symbolist Movement in Literature. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, pp. 43–68.
  • Thorold, Algar (1909). "Prosper Mérimée." In: Six Masters in Disillusion. London: Archibald Constable & Co., pp. 26–55.
  • Wells, B.W. (1898). "The Fiction of Prosper Mérimée," The Sewanee Review, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 167–179.

External links[edit]