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Taine, Hippolyte Adolphelocked

(1828–1893)
  • H. S. Jones

Taine, Hippolyte Adolphe (1828–1893), philosopher, critic, and historian, was born on 12 April 1828 at Vouziers in the Ardennes, the only son and first of three children of Jean-Baptiste Taine (d. 1841), a lawyer, and his wife, Virginie, née Bezanson (1800–1880). He was educated in Paris at the Collège Bourbon (1841–8) and at the École Normale Supérieure (1848–51). His academic career was hampered by his heterodox opinions, and after a brief period as a provincial teacher he settled in Paris and made his living initially from private lessons and later from his pen. He is best known for his works of criticism (such as the four-volume Histoire de la littérature anglaise, 1863–4), for philosophical works that signalled his allegiance to a form of determinism (Les philosophes français du XIXe siècle, 1857, and De l'intelligence, 1870), and especially for his famous history of the French Revolution, Les origines de la France contemporaine (1873–93). He married Thérèse Denuelle on 6 June 1868; they had a daughter, Geneviève, and a son, Émile. Taine was elected to the Académie Française in 1878 and died at his Paris home, 23 rue Cassette, on 5 March 1893.

From boyhood, Taine was immersed in English culture, initially through the influence of an uncle who had worked in America. At the Collège Bourbon and at the École Normale Supérieure he read voraciously in English literature, especially of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; these were interests he shared with his friends Alexandre Prévost-Paradol, Cornélis de Witt, and Guillaume Guizot. But though he wrote extensively on English society and culture and became a noted Anglophile, Taine spent only short periods of time in Britain. A six-week visit from June to August 1860 largely confirmed the views he had already developed in articles on the relationship between national character and national literatures. During his visit he made extensive notes, which he recorded in small notebooks; these, together with similar notes made on subsequent visits, were to form the basis of his Notes sur l'Angleterre. In the autumn of 1860 and the spring of 1861 he published an important string of articles on Carlyle, Tennyson, and Mill, which were to form the substance of the final volume of his Histoire de la littérature anglaise. He made a second visit to England for about a fortnight between May and June 1862. By now it was clear that he was being seduced by what he considered to be the political superiority of the English, manifest in the quality of political discussion in the press.

Taine's third visit, which lasted for about three weeks in May and June 1871, was instigated by an invitation from Max Müller to give a series of lectures on seventeenth-century French theatre at the Taylor Institution in Oxford. On 8 June Taine was awarded an honorary DCL. The visit coincided with the suppression of the Paris commune, and the experience of civil war in Paris, together with defeat at the hands of Prussia, confirmed Taine in his despair at French political culture and his admiration for British political life. This is probably why, once returned to France, he set about completing and publishing his Notes sur l'Angleterre, which began to appear in serialized form in Le Temps in August 1871. The book appeared in December of the same year. It highlighted those aspects of life in which England seemed to Taine to possess a marked advantage over France: a representative system which was effective because it worked with the grain of social hierarchy; the habit of voluntary association; the educational system, with its happy emphasis upon a moral rather than a narrowly intellectual formation; and the Church of England, which Taine admired for its non-dogmatic emphasis upon moral instruction, and for its ability to nurture a learned clergy which harnessed religion and science together. Taine's knowledge of England, we should remember, was refracted by the circle of acquaintances to whom he was introduced by Guizot, and this circle was heavily weighted towards whig-Liberal politicians and liberal Anglican churchmen and scholars. The former included Richard Monckton Milnes, later Lord Houghton, Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff, and Odo Russell, and the latter, deans Stanley and Milman, and such Oxford luminaries as Benjamin Jowett and Mark Pattison. Their influence is rarely absent from his observations.

Taine's observations of England combined with the dual catastrophe that befell his homeland in 1870–71 to redirect his thinking and his energies towards politics. One aspect of this new direction was the role he played, both personally and through the influence exerted on French liberals by his Notes sur l'Angleterre, in launching the École Libre des Sciences Politiques, which was established in Paris in 1872 under the directorship of his friend and former pupil, Émile Boutmy. In the first place, the school aimed to nurture in France a class of 'natural leaders' such as Oxford and Cambridge supplied in England. In the second place, it sought to encourage the sort of comparative enquiry which Taine had pioneered. Boutmy himself was one of the earliest practitioners of this approach, which found its richest fulfilment in the work of one of his successors in the directorship, André Siegfried. Meanwhile Taine himself, having diagnosed some of the elements of English superiority, turned in the 1870s towards an investigation of the historical roots of France's political plight. The outcome was the work with which his name is most closely associated, Les origines de la France contemporaine.

Notes sur l'Angleterre was generally well received in Britain. It was translated into English by the journalist and former barrister William Fraser Rae, who had previously published a number of review articles in the Westminster Review in the 1860s. The translation first appeared, in abridged and serialized form, in the Daily News in 1872, and was published in book form the same year. Notable reviews appeared in The Times, Blackwood's Magazine, and The Academy. Taine's longer-term influence upon interpretations of Victorian England is harder to gauge. He continues to be much cited, especially by historians of education, the family, and religion, but should be read with some scepticism. When he published his Notes sur l'Angleterre he had spent only eleven weeks in Britain, and he made only two brief visits thereafter. His spoken English was poor. For the most part his views on England were inferred from his study of English literature and then reinforced by his observations and conversations. Furthermore, the authoritative claims of the Notes are perhaps vitiated by the inherent bias produced by the predominantly liberal Anglican circles in which he moved. The book was rather a diagnosis of France's political ills than a neutral comment on Victorian society.

Sources

  • H. Taine: sa vie et sa correspondance, 4 vols. (Paris, 1902–8)
  • F. C. Roe, Taine et l'Angleterre (1923)
  • F. Leger, Monsieur Taine (1993)

Archives

  • Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Likenesses

  • R. D., drawing, 1870, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
  • photographs, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris