I BRING the Astrea forward to point out the lngenious manner by which a fine imagination can veil the common incidents of life, and turn whatever it touches into gold.
Honoré D’Urfé was the descendant of an illustrious family. His brother Anne married Diana of Chateaumorand, the wealthy heiress of another great house. After a marriage of no less duration than twenty-two years, this union was broken by the desire of Anne himself, for a cause which the delicacy of Diana had never revealed. Anne then became an ecclesiastic. Some time afterwards, Honoré, desirous of retaining the great wealth of Diana in the family, addressed this lady, and married her. This union, however, did not prove fortunate. Diana, like the goddess of that name, was a huntress continually surrounded by her dogs.—They dined with her at table, and slept with her in bed. This insupportable nuisance could not be patiently endured by the elegant Honoré. He was also disgusted with the barrenness of the huntress Diana, who was only delivered every year of abortions. He separated from her, and retired to Piedmont, where he passed his remaining days, in peace, without feeling thee thorns of marriage and ambition rankling in his heart. In this retreat he composed his Astrea; a pastoral romance, which was the admiration of Europe during half a century. It forms a striking picture of human life, for the incidents are facts beautifully concealed. They relate the amours and gallantries of the court of Henry IV. The personages in the Astrea display a rich invention; and the work might be still read, were it not for those wiredrawn and languishing conversations, or rather disputations, which they then introduced into romances. In a modern edition of this work, by the Abbé Souchai, he has curtailed these tiresome dialogues; the work still consists of ten duodecimo volumes.
Patru, when a youth, visited Honoré in his retirement, and collected from him with some difficulty a few explanations of those circumstances which he had concealed under a veil of fiction.
In this romance, Celidée, to cure the unfortunate Celidon, and to deprive Thamire at the same time of every reason for jealousy, tears her face with a pointed diamond, and disfigures it in so cruel a manner, that she excites horror in the breast of Thamire, who so ardently admires this exertion of virtue, that he loves her, hideous as she is represented, still more than when she was most beautiful. Heaven, to be just to these two lovers, restores the beauty of Celidée; which is effected by a sympathetic powder. This romantic incident is thus explained. One of the French princes (Celidon), when he returned from Italy, treated with coldness his amiable princess (Celidée); this was the effect of his violent passion, which had now become jealousy. The coolness subsisted till the prince was imprisoned, for state affairs, in the wood of Vincennes. The princess, with the permission of the court, followed him into his confinement. This proof of her love soon brought back the wandering heart and affections of the prince. The small-pox seized her; which is the pointed diamond, and the dreadful disfigurement of her face. She was so fortunate as to escape being marked by this disease; which is meant by the sympathetic powder. This trivial incident is happily turned into the marvellous: that a wife should choose to be imprisoned with her husband is not singular; to escape being marked by the small-pox happens every day; but to romance, as he has done, on such common circumstances, is beautiful and ingenious.
D’Urfé, when a boy, is said to have been enamoured of Diana; this indeed has been questioned. D’Urfé, however, was sent to the island of Malta to enter into that order of knighthood; and in his absence Diana was married to Anne. What an affliction for Honoré on his return, to see her married, and to his brother! His affection did not diminish, but he concealed it in respectful silence. He had some knowledge of his brother’s unhappiness, and on this probably founded his hopes. After several years, during which the modest Diana had uttered no complaint, Anne declared himself; and shortly afterwards Honoré, as we have noticed, married Diana.
Our author has described the parties under this false appearance of marriage. He assumes the names of Celadon and Sylvander, and gives Diana those of Astrea and Diana. He is Sylvander and she Astrea while she is married to Anne; and he Celadon and she Diana when the marriage is dissolved. Sylvander is represented always as a lover who sighs secretly; nor does Diana declare her passion till overcome by the long sufferings of her faithful shepherd. For this reason Astrea and Diana, as well as Sylvander and Celadon, go together, prompted by the same despair, to the FOUNTAIN of the TRUTH OF LOVE.
Sylvander is called an unknown shepherd, who has no other wealth than his flock; because our author was the youngest of his family, or rather a knight of Malta who possessed nothing but honour.
Celadon in despair throws himself into a river; this refers to his voyage to Malta. Under the name of Alexis he displays the friendship of Astrea for him, and all those innocent freedoms which passed between them as relatives: from this circumstance he has contrived a difficulty inimitably delicate.
Something of passion is to be discovered in these expressions of friendship. When Alexis assumes the name of Celadon, he calls that love which Astrea had mistaken for fraternal affection. This was the trying moment. For though she loved him, she is rigorous in her duty and honour. She says, “what will they think of me if I unite myself to him, after permitting, for so many years, those familiarities which a brother may have taken with a sister, with me, who knew that in fact I remained unmarried?”
How she got over this nice scruple does not appear; it was, however, for a long time a great obstacle to the felicity of our author. There is an incident which shows the purity of this married virgin, who was fearful the liberties she allowed Celadon might be ill construed. Phillis tells the druid Adamas that Astrea was seen sleeping by the fountain of the Truth of Love, and that the unicorns which guarded those waters were observed to approach her, and lay their heads on her lap. According to fable, it is one of the properties of these animals never to approach any female but a maiden: at this strange difficulty our druid remains surprised; while Astrea has thus given an incontrovertible proof of her purity.
The history of Philander is that of the elder D’Urfé. None but boys disguised as girls, and girls as boys, appear in the history. It was in this manner he concealed, without offending modesty, the defect of his brother. To mark the truth of this history, when Philander is disguised as a woman, while he converses with Astrea of his love, he frequently alludes to his misfortune, although in another sense.
Philander, ready to expire, will die with the glorious name of the husband of Astrea. He entreats her to grant him this favour; she accords it to him, and swears before the gods that she rcceives him in her heart for her husband. The truth is, he enjoyed nothing but the name. Philander dies, too, in combating with a hideous Moor, which is the personification of his conscience, and which at length compelled him to quit so beautiful an object, and one so worthy of being eternally beloved.
The gratitude of Sylvander, on the point of being sacrificed, represents the consent of Honoré’s parents to dissolve his vow of celibacy, and unite him to Diana; and the druid Adamas represents the ecclesiastical power. The FOUNTAIN of the TRUTH OF LOVE is that of marriage; the unicorns are the symbols of that purity which should ever guard it; and the flaming eyes of the lions, which are also there, represent those inconveniences attending marriage, but over which a faithful passion easily triumphs.
In this manner has our author disguised his own private history; and blended in his works a number of little amours which passed at the court of Henry the Great. I might proceed in explaining these allegories; but what I have noticed will be sufficient to give an idea of the ingenuity of the author.
Fontenelle, in his introduction to his Eclogues, has made a pretty comparison of this species of pastoral romance with that of chivalry, which turned the brain of Don Quixote. When he reads the inimitable acts of Amadis, so many castles forced, giants hacked, magicians confounded, he does not regret that these are only fables; but he adds, when, I read the ASTREA, where in a softened repose love occupies the minds of amiable heroes, where love decides on their fate, where wisdom itself preserves so little of its rigid air, that it becomes a zealous partisan of love, even to Adamas the sovereign druid, I then grieve that it is only a romance!
¶ This article is lightly revised from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities. D’Israeli began his earlier versions of the piece thus:
It is never my intention to dwell on topics, which prove barren of entertainment. The book I notice is as totally forgotten, as the Arcadia of Sir Philip Sidney, which was modelled on it.