The Englishman of Etretat
Translated from the French by Elliot Lewis
An important English poet has just made the crossing to France to greet Victor Hugo. The papers are alive with his name and the salons abuzz with the rumours that surround it. Fifteen years ago, I had the pleasure upon several occasions to meet Algernon Charles Swinburne. I would like to present an account of the man as I knew him, and to capture the uncommon impression he made on me, an impression that remains vivid despite the time that has passed.
I believe it was in 1867, perhaps 1868; a young Englishman of unknown origin had bought a little thatched cottage under the trees in Étretat. There he cultivated an uncommon, even unusual existence, largely alone amidst a local population both sly and small-minded that granted him little beyond a customary distrust. We’re led to believe that this eccentric Englishman dieted exclusively upon monkey (whether, sautéed, roasted, boiled or preserved; no matter) and that he would talk aloud for hours, though quite alone. In fact there abounded a hundred such stories serving only to confirm in the minds of the neighbourhood gossips that this fellow was far from ordinary. Perhaps most remarked upon was his living on terms of intimacy with a large monkey: had it been a dog or a cat, surely nothing would have been said, but a pet ape? How awful! What savagery!
I did not know him personally, merely by sight: a small man, somewhat flabby though not at all fat, with a reserved gait, and an almost invisible blond moustache. Our paths crossed by chance and I was to discover that this ‘savage’ had pleasant manners, the easy facility peculiar to those English eccentrics that one finds scattered here and there about the earth. He was possessed of an uncommon intellect, illuminated undoubtedly by the kinds of nocturnal reveries that inspired Edgar Poe. He had translated a volume of extraordinary Icelandic Legends of which I would most urgently welcome a French translation. Predisposed to the most intricate of spiritual distortions, he inclined instinctively towards the supernatural, the macabre, the profane, but nevertheless and with typically English phlegm, spoke utterly naturally of such unsettling subjects, his calm and quiet voice conferring thereupon a hallucinatory degree of normality.
With a lofty disdain for the conventions, prejudices and moral values of the world, he had nailed to his house a quite brazen name, offering an invitation barely more inviting than a hotel notice marked ‘tourists will be shot’. Having never previously set foot there, I was to be invited to lunch following my small part in a rescue party formed for a friend of his, carried out to sea. Arriving hurriedly only after the near-completion of the mission, I was nevertheless to receive the effusive thanks of the two Englishmen, and their request of my presence the next day.
The rescued friend, though clearly advanced beyond his thirtieth year had retained the body of a child, carrying an enormous head upon slight shoulders and an undeveloped chest. His frail face, all narrow eyes, goateed chin and receding jaw, was almost entirely swallowed up by the great swollen protuberance of a forehead both abnormal and magnificent in stature. And while the former conspired to give him a somewhat reptilian air, the latter suggested nothing less than a veritable genius. This already unusual character was furthermore distinguished by a halting nervousness, moving abruptly and unexpectedly, as a broken jack-in-the-box. His name was Algernon Charles Swinburne, son of an English admiral and maternal grandson of the Earl of Ashburnham. His troubling physiognomy was utterly transformed as soon as he began to speak. Rarely, if ever, have I witnessed such self-possessed elegance, accuracy and eloquence of speech. His words issued forth with a shimmering vitality, galvanised by an imagination both clear and quick, but also hypersensitive and fantastical. Accompanied by his erratic gestures, this sparkling elocution penetrated quite directly the minds of those listening. And his imagination was prone to sudden flashes of inspiration, as the abrupt flares of a lighthouse, seeming all at once to illuminate a whole world of ideas.
The house where these two men resided was a pleasant, if peculiar abode. The walls were replete with astonishing and strange paintings, veritable expressions of insanity. For instance, if my memory serves me correctly, one watercolour depicted a pink seashell carrying afloat a human skull upon an endless sea, beneath a moon of human form. Here and there were scattered skeletal remains. Particularly of note was a flayed hand; its desiccated skin intact, blackened muscles exposed and ancient traces of blood upon the bright white bone. The lunch was to remain an impenetrable mystery, entirely precluding my ability to judge its merits; a roasted monkey nevertheless left me without the desire to make of it a regular dining habit. As did the large monkey that ran free about us – playfully plunging my head into my glass as I made to drink – of the desire to any further keep company with his species.
As for the two men, they have left me with the unmistakable impression of two souls utterly apart from society, both weird and brilliant, belonging to that same lineage of tortured brilliance that gave birth amongst others, to Poe and to Hoffman. Genius is commonly held to be a sort of delirium of the highest intelligence, and if this is true, then Algernon Charles Swinburne is undoubtedly a man of genius. Great rational minds are never recognized to attain to genius, while we gladly lavish this highest of titles upon often lesser intelligences touched with a little madness. In any case, this poet remains among the foremost of his generation owing to the originality of his vision and the prodigious facility of his technique. An exalted and furious lyricist, he remains unconcerned by the noble and good truths sought so doggedly by French artists of today. Instead he pursues the subtlest of ideas, dreams and chimeras, offering insights that while occasionally exaggerated are as often wonderful and ingeniously grandiose.
Two years later, I returned to find the house shut up, its tenants gone. The furniture was being sold, and as a souvenir, I bought that frightful flayed hand. On the lawn was an immense granite block, engraved with one small word: Nip. On top was a small stone water dish, for the birds. It was the tombstone of the monkey, hanged by a young and vengeful black domestic. This violent servant-boy was subsequently to flee before the revolver of his enraged master, wandering vagrant and without food for several days before reappearing in the streets as a peddler of barley sugar. He was finally expelled from the country after strangling half to death a dissatisfied customer.
This story appeared in the “Gaulois,” November 29, 1882. It was the original sketch for the introductory study of Swinburne, written by Maupassant for the French translation by Gabriel Mourey of “Poems and Ballads. Read the original French of the Gaulois story here.
Elliot Lewis is a graduate of the University of Cambridge where he studied Architecture and History of Art, specialising in Surrealism, particularly the writings of Georges Bataille. Previous to that he pursued studies in French at the University of London. He currently lives in Paris, making a living as a translator.
This translation was done especially for The Public Domain Review to accompany the article by Julian Barnes “An Unlikely Lunch: When Maupassant met Swinburne”, and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.