In his “Petite bibliographie biographico-romancière” (1821) the publisher Pigoreau commented on the novels of Madame Grandmaison Van-Esbecq and noted that they were “interesting and well-written,” and that by saying so, he was free of resentment. In the past, she had treated him with little elegance. He did not give any details. We know nothing about this author, not even her first name, her date of birth and death. Her debut appeared in 1797 and showed courage.
“Adolphe, ou la Famille malheureuse” was a roman à clef with royalist intent. At the time, this could get one in serious trouble, as the freedom of speech in the Republic was reserved for those citizens who did not claim this freedom.
The repeal of censorship in 1791 had been rescinded two years later, when the National Convention implemented the death penalty for those who argued in favor of the return of the monarchy or those who tried to undermine the “sovereignty of the people.” Approximately seventy journalists and writers were executed on the basis of this regulation. Madame Grandmaison Van-Esbecq’s novel was now attracting the attention of the police, which qualified it as “dangerous” and confiscated it here and there.
Fortunately, the author managed to survive, and in 1814, after the restoration of the Bourbons, published a reprint of her first born, undoubtedly with a sense of triumph. Her last book, “Les Légataires d’Ayrshire, ou la Famille Pringle” (1822) was a translation from English of a novel by Scottish novelist John Galt.
I know of only three copies of the two part novel that is of interest here. I ordered photocopies of the first copy from the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The title page states that the book was published in house in 1809. The second copy is cherished by Raimondo Biffi in Rome. It’s practically identical to the first copy and only contains an extra list of errata, while the title page list three publishers - the author, Monsieur Debray, and Madame Lavernet.
It is dated 1810. It is not a copy of a second print, as such a proof of commercial success would be prominently stated, but what is called a “title edition”: the surplus of an edition with a new title page. The third copy, also from 1810, can be inspected at the Biblioteca Communale at Portoferraio on Elba.
“Antoine et Camile, ou la Sympathie” is a sentimental novel. In her foreword, Madame Grandmaison Van-Esbecq expresses the hope that “the sensitive reader” will sprinkle her novel with tears. The adventures of the orphan Camile de Blancheville and Antoine de Servinne, whose parents take care of Camile, are indeed very touching. As babies they are both breast-fed by Sophie, Antoine’s mother. They sleep in one cod and are tied by a deep friendship. When Antoine - not as sensitive as Camile - steals peaches from an abbé, Camile takes the blame to prevent his pal getting a beating. He pines away when Antoine is sent to a boarding school, and the boys - “too weak to resist the intensity of their emotions,” fall into each other’s arms when united. Afterwards, they are sent to the same boarding school, where their closeness is questioned by a teacher. “It is practically impossible for them to be separated from each other voluntarily for more than an hour. For their moral and physical well-being it seems vital that they see each other constantly, sharing their thoughts and breathing in the same air. [...] The phenomenon of this amazing sympathy may be hard to explain for naturalists, but it is there, and I belief this bond is indissoluble between the two friends.”
As son of a marquis, Camile will inherit the fortune of his parents by the time he reaches adulthood. In view of a future marriage, he has to make a trip to Paris with his foster father to be introduced to high society. Antoine speaks of his suspicion that they would have to go their separate ways because of this. Camile is deeply shocked:
“‘Antoine, never before, up to this moment in time, did you speak to me of such a cruel and heartless thing! Oh! Undoubtedly I am nothing more than a stranger, an orphan in your eyes and the eyes of your parents, unworthy of your friendship.’
While he speaks these words, the overly sensitive heir is already withdrawing. He leans against one of the trees in the undergrowth, he puts his hands in front of his face. Suffocated by grief, he soon feels short of breath... Antoine runs towards him, opens his tie, and does what he can to ease his breathing...
‘Leave me be,’ Camile tells him, ‘I am suffocating... I’m dying... I can’t cry...’
‘Oh! Forgive me, I am begging you on my knees! Forgive me, in the name of our tender friendship... I didn’t mean to hurt you...’
Antoine sobbed so bitterly and pressed his friend so firmly to his chest, that a flow of tears finally brought Camille relief.
‘Antoine, I want you to give me a frank answer. Would you be able to lead a happy life without me?’
‘Oh! No... No... Never!’ [...]
The two brothers fall into each other’s arms...
‘I am forever yours, Camile!’
‘I do not want to outlive you, Antoine!’”
When Camile is in the capital, Antoine’s health is heavily affected: “Antoine, separated from his other half, wanders lonely through the forest... At night, he doesn’t sleep, and hardly eats enough during the day to stand on his feet. His skin is deadly pale, his eyes dull, and he drags himself forward. Antoine is just a lamenting shadow, looking for traces of his friend...” (I added the italicization here, and in the quotes that follow.)
‘Never Anything Else but Friendship’
Sophie de Servinne fears for her son’s life and writes to her husband in Paris that the boys should be reunited as quickly as possible: “Come back to save Antoine, give him back his brother, and never separate them again as they are attracted to each other by a higher power.” Meanwhile, Camile was doing as badly as his brother, his travel companion writes: “O my Sophie! What can prudent precautions and reasoning do to counteract the whims of nature?”
At home again, Camile informs his brother he was not too impressed with the girls he met in Paris. He thought they were artificial and not very pretty. But then again, he does not desire “a single woman.”
The boys serve in the same dragoon regiment. Their captain condemns Antoine on suspicion of a disciplinary offence to a three months prison sentence. Camile asks for and gets permission to share the cell of his innocent pal. In each other’s arms they shed some tears, much to the annoyance of Blanche de St.-Elme, who’s in love with Camile: “‘He hurries to share the chains with his friend,’ the amiable young lady thought with some spite, ‘he must not feel the need for other ties, and his heart, inaccessible for love, will never know anything else but friendship...’ Blanche feels sad throughout the day, and dreams of Camile at night.
Dressed in long mourning attire, she walks towards the marriage temple; two children, as beautiful as little Cupids, accompany her. Camile stands at her side at the foot of the altar. She had already taken the vow that would create their bond when the temple suddenly collapses and is taken from her view; the beautiful floor tiles she knelt before sink below her shivering knees, a cold as is death itself seizes her heart; Blanche is the only one left on the marble of a tomb!...”
Whether dreams are lies, only the future will tell.
Even though Blanche is the only girl Camile can muster interest for, and although he is “surprised” that her beauty does something to him, he waives the idea of marrying her. He wants to match her with Antoine, because his financial situation will significantly benefit from a union with Blanche. “I do not deny,” he tells Antoine, “that she is the only woman I find charming, [...] but without surpassing the feeling that forges me to you... The loving wife of my brother will be my sister, my friend. Any other connection between her and myself is impossible.” Blanche’s mother approves of the project, and Blanche, whose opinion is not asked, reluctantly marries Antoine.
A ‘Horrible and Sinister Secret’
The marriage isn’t a success. Antoine gets entangled in the nets of the perfidious Adelphine, a widow he spends more time with than is proper. Pour Blanche finds comfort during his absence from her parents-in-law and Camile. One day, something very strange happens during breakfast. “Camile, down and lusterless, does not eat at all and is hardly listening to what is said. He suddenly rises, lets out a screech, and hastily removing himself from the table, extends his arms to the vision that terrifies him. ‘Antoine! Antoine! O, my friend!’ The unhappy one, overcome by horrible convulsions, eventually faints in the arms of the ladies and Augustine [a servant] who rush to come to his aid.”
At that precise moment they later learn, Antoine was fatally injured in a duel with one of Adelphine’s lovers. It gives the scene an almost occult touch.
Blanche continues to love Camile and is delighted when after a while, he promises her to be her husband. The priest who will perform the wedding ceremony, however, has his objections. In a secluded room, he accidentally discovers a “horrible and sinister secret,” a painting Camile had ordered depicts Camile and Antoine - stone dead, stretched out on a gravestone, and in an “intimate embrace.” This morbidity also becomes clear from Camile’s frequent and lengthy visits to what he calls “the temple of sadness,” the mausoleum in his garden in which Antoine is buried. Blanche has come to terms with the fact that again she has a rival - a dead rival this time.
The day of the wedding is here. After the church ceremony, the guests gather in the dining hall. The groom retreats and is nowhere to be found. People are getting worried and start looking for him. When the clock in “the temple of sadness” strikes six (the time of Antoine’s last breath), they decide to have a look in the temple, but the door is locked. A servant who had secretly had a duplicate key made, brings relief. The company enters and finds the lifeless body of the marquis on the tomb: “Camile, cold already, and motionless as the marble he laid on, had forever stopped mourning Antoine!”
An Unfortunate Incident
This is how the novel abruptly and melodramatically ends. In many ways, it is a typical product of the sentimental genre that had become popular in Europe around 1760. The genre is still very much alive halve a century later. The hyper sensitivity of the characters of Rousseau, Madame Riccoboni, the young Goethe, Johann Martin Miller, and the Dutch Rhijnvis Feith, to mention a few, we also find in the characters by Madame Grandmaison Van-Esbecq, especially in Camile de Blancheville. His willingness to receive the corrections that are due to Antoine remind us of Schiller’s tragedy “Don Carlos,” in which the protagonist receives a beating as a prince for his bosom friend the marquis of Posa had coming for playing a rough ball game.
The reader was already familiar with Camile’s necrophiliac behavior from the tearful “Épreuves du sentiment” by Baculard d’Arnaud; the technique used by Mrs. Grandmaison Van-Esbecq’s to reinforce the impact of certain scenes by switching from the simple past tense to the present tense was proven, just as the use of the exclamation and suspension points was. But in one aspect, her book was radically different from others.
The “Mercure de France” came with a favorable review that praised “the pleasant and fluent style” and the irreproachable moral of the story. “The depiction of a soft and pure friendship” undoubtedly appealed to those who “still believe in friendship.” But the critic doubted whether the “sympathy” that connected the main characters - a feeling he emphatically distinguished from love - was “interesting” enough as a theme for a novel in several parts.
He didn’t think so, and found the novel somewhat monotonous - a verdict romantically inclined homosexuals would certainly not have shared! It is safe to assume that the adventures of Antoine and Camile, “as beautiful as angels,” left a deep impression. They especially must have identified with Camile, the melancholy marquis who does not share his bed with any girls in contrast to Antoine, and on the day of his wedding, before his wedding night, dies on the grave of his friend. A hero who does not weep for a woman but for a man, a hero who actually refuses to carry out the tasks heterosexual society imposes on him and is driven to an unconventional Liebestod. The writer doesn’t mention suicide (the path of Goethe’s Werther) - Camile dies of a broken heart. In the literature from that period, I know of no other example of a main character who is so absorbed in and gives in to his feelings for someone of his own sex.
In her foreword, madame Grandmaison Van-Esbecq refers to “an unfortunate incident” in the papers some years before the Revolution. The article was about “two obscure men who had been linked by an extraordinary sympathy from a young age.” It was this tragic fate her novel was based on. To make the novel even more exciting, she had provided her characters with blue blood.
This information remains vague, but Raimondo Biffi informed me that the source of “Antoine et Camile” has been traced to the sixth issue, February 1776, of the “Journal historique et politique de Genève.” This contains an article that was reprinted in several magazines about two soldiers from Brest who were “connected by a very close friendship” and had left the city on the twelfth of that month, only to put a bullet through their heads several miles outside of the city. In a farewell letter they stressed that their suicide had not been prompted by the way their superiors had treated them. “It appears that the reproaches by their families on their youthful excesses had driven them to despair. Before their suicide, they had sent letters to their mothers and fathers in which they bitterly complained about their strictness.” Two hundred cards with both their names printed were found, with a written statement that their mutual exit was no impulse, but a considered decision:
Were they lovers? The fact that Madame Grandmaison Van-Esbecq remembered this affair more than thirty years later and writes a novel about it is intriguing and begs the question whether she had more information about their suicides than the newspaper tells us. Would it have surprised her that the readers of her work sense a homoerotic undertone? Was it her intention to introduce a character in her novel - Camile - whose “urges” (to use a euphemism) were different from others? She took this secret with her to the grave, and heaven knows where that is.