Books tend to come into the Ramblings from all sorts of directions; a case in point being the title featuring on the blog today. “Adolphe” by Benjamin Constant is a work from 1816 which was reissued in 2021 by riverrun editions. My copy came via (I think) a Twitter giveaway and it turned out to be a fascinating read! Constant himself is an intriguing figure; a political activist and writer on political theory and religion, he was involved in the French revolution of 1795, then spent much time over the following decades switching allegiance to and from Napoleon, fleeing France and returning to it, and even supporting Louis Philippe I during the revolution of 1830! A very lively life indeed!

“Adolphe” was Constant’s only novel to make it into print during his lifetime, and has a somewhat convoluted history. After its publication in 1816, the author faced all kinds of accusations that the book was based on real people and events, and it was seen as a kind of act of revenge on his previous lover, Madame de Stael. The book had originally been published in French in 1816 by the Bond Street bookseller, Henry Colburn; the 1816 English translation by Alexander Walker was issued in 1817 in Philadelphia; and the version here is based on that edition. As well as the original text itself, it also includes prefaces to the second and third edition, plus a passage excised from the 1816 edition and restored to that of 1824. A book with a complex time-line, then!

On to the work itself. “Adolphe” presents itself as a ‘found’ text, handed to a stranger who then decides to publish it. The first person narrator, Adolphe himself, tells the story of his affair with his older lover, Ellenore; the Polish mistress of the Comte de P***, she has worked hard to get herself slightly accepted by society, and has children with the Comte. Into her life comes the alienated Adolphe, melancholy and introverted; and inspired by the affair of a friend, he decides that he should try his hand at seduction, settling on Ellenore. To be honest, she’s not the obvious choice; ten years older than him, and yoked to the Comte by bonds of loyalty and the many travails they have gone through, she does resist him at first. And the more she resists, the more he convinces himself he loves her. Inevitably, once he’s won through her reserve and she’s fallen in love with him, his ardour cools. Thus begins the emotional tug-of-war between the two which will lead to her leaving her security behind, to Adolphe vascillating between the demands of lover and family and duty, and ultimately to tragedy. More than that I will not say…

Whoever had read my heart in her absence, would have taken me for a cold and unfeeling seducer. Whoever had seen me at her side, would have believed he discovered in me a lover inexperienced, interdicted, and impassioned. They would have been equally deceived in these two opinions. There is no complete unity in man; and scarce anyone is entirely sincere, or entirely deceitful.

“Adolphe” was an intense and engrossing read, full of angst and emotion and duels and high dudgeon! I was reminded in places of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and the authors of the time didn’t shy away from dealing with deeply romantic scenarios; in fact, it’s notable that we read much more about the emotions and the angst of the characters, with the settings and locations getting scant mention. The focus is on humans and their passions; the setting could be anywhere.

The riverrun edition is edited, with a preface by Richard Sieburth and this too makes fascinating reading. He provides background information about Constant, his relationships with women, and the inspiration behind “Adolphe”, all of which adds to the reading experience. He also draws parallels with the Byron/Shelley menage who were at the time writing at the Villa Diodati, which was unexpected. Most interestingly, he makes a strong case for the Walker translation being the best one to read; although there have been more recent versions (Leonard Tancock in 1964, and Margaret Mauldon in 2001), Sieburth is of the opinion that Walker’s is a more accurate rendering, and notes that the later translators have for example added quotation marks to the speech in the novel, whereas Constant explicitly excised these from both editions of the book he oversaw. That kind of sells me on this version…

So a slightly unexpected arrival, and one which turned out to be a thoroughly absorbing and transporting read. The book is only 128 pages long, which is probably just right for prose at such an intense level; the characters and their fate linger in the mind; and the emotions which spark back and forth between the two protagonists do seem very modern and recognisable… “Adolphe” is an excellent read and if you fancy spending some time with it, I do recommend this edition!