A literary genius with an erratic career, Jacques Cazotte is the author of ‘The Devil in Love’, a precursor novel of French ‘fantastique’ literature that celebrates its 250th anniversary this year. It is the perfect opportunity to take a look back on the life story of the man who, for thirty years, was owner of the Château de la Marquetterie, in Pierry, Champagne.
Of all the successive owners of the Marquetterie – the château owned by Maison Taittinger since 1934 – Jacques Cazotte is undoubtedly the most astonishing. But who was he really? Biographers of the Enlightenment have attempted it, with only mixed success, since the man had not just one life, but a series of lives each one as remarkable as the next. Cazotte was a prolific but fickle writer, a zealous colonial administrator and staunch royalist.
A jack-of-all-trades author
Born in Dijon, he was already writing in his early youth, before his job in the French navy led him to Martinique as controller of the Windward Islands. In 1761, upon his return from this distant sojourn, the Burgundian settled in Champagne. He inherited the Château de Pierry – now the Marquetterie – and its vineyard, near Épernay. He retired there to devote himself to writing, while becoming a Champagne wine merchant. In the literary field – and this is where he is most surprising – Cazotte tried it all. He published L’Aventure du pèlerin, a short apologue denouncing the hypocrisy of the court, then in 1772 Le Diable amoureux (‘The Devil in Love’), which earned him the reputation amongst experts as one of the pioneers of French ‘fantastique’ literature. Out of defiance, a man summons the devil, who appears to him in the form of a beautiful young girl. He falls in love with her and is caught in his own trap. Cazotte’s themes and his freedom of tone might have lead one to believe him to be close to the Lumières and philosophers of the Enlightenment, but he criticises them harshly when he publishes Voltairiade. He continued to try his hand across all literary styles, writing the libretto of a comic opera (Les Sabots), and publishing poetry, fables in the manner of La Fontaine, oriental-inspired tales or parodies, and more.
Mystical and forbidden
At the very beginning of the Revolution, he became the first and short-lived mayor of Pierry. A staunch royalist, loyal to Louis XVI, he even hoped for a counter-revolution. It was at that time that he also sank into a deep mysticism; a philosophical, initiatory and esoteric movement derived from Freemasonry, in which he professed devout piety and portrayed the Revolution as Satan. He was arrested in August 1792, and almost died during the September Days when all prisoners were sentenced to execution by firing squad without any trial. He was saved by his daughter, who covered him with her own body. He fled but was arrested again a fortnight later. He ended up on the scaffold. His stance against the Enlightenment and the Jacobins cost him his life under the Reign of Terror. “I die as I lived, faithful to my God and my King,” Cazotte declaimed on the scaffold, a few seconds before the guillotine blade fell. Cazotte will continue to remain, in part, a mystery.