Prosper Merimee

Portrait of Prosper Merimee

Prosper Merimee was a French writer and a pioneer of the novella. He was also an important figure in the history of architectural preservation. He was born in Paris, France on 28th September 1803 and died in Cannes, France on 23rd September 1870 aged 66.

Major Works

“La Vénus d’ille” (1837) 
“Colomba” (1840) 
“Carmen” (1845)

Biography Timeline

Prosper Merimee was born on 28th September 1803 in Paris, France. His father Leonor was a professor of design at the École Polytechnique specialising in the chemistry of oil paints. His mother was Anne an artist. Both his parents spoke English well and traveled to England frequently.

1807: His father becomes Permanent Secretary of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture. 

1810: He enrols at the Lycée Napoléon. He masters English, Greek and Latin and develops an interest in history.

1820: He finishes school with high marks and begins to study law hoping for a position in government. He translates some of the works of Ossian into French. He visits the salons of Juliette Recamier where he meets famous writers of the day including François-René de Chateaubriand

1822: He passes his legal examinations and is licensed to practice law. At a salon he meets and becomes friends with Henri Beyle, later to be known by his pen name Stendhal

1823: In September he begins a novel of which only one chapter now remains. He starts writing the historical play “Cromwell” and a satire called “Les Espagnols en Dannark” (The Spanish in Denmark).

1824: He writes “La Bataille” (The Battle).

1825: On 27th May “Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul” is published under a pseudonym. Balzac praised the work as did Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. King Charles the Tenth ascends the throne and begins a more authoritarian rule. On 30th November Merimee takes part in a student protest led by Victor Hugo and becomes influenced by the Romanticism of Eugene Delacroix.

1827: In July he publishes in a literary journal a new work “La Guzla” which appears under the name of Hyacinthe Maglanovich. It was supposedly a collection of ancient Illyrian poems and was widely praised with even Alexander Pushkin beginning to translate them into Russian before he finds out their true authorship. Although the work does not sell well it establishes Merimee as a major literary figure.

1828: In January he fights a duel with Félix Lacoste the husband of his mistress, Émilie Lacoste. He publishes the novel “La Jacquerie, Scènes féodales, suivies de la Famille de Carvajal” in June about a peasant revolt in the Middle Ages and also a parody of Lord Byron entitled “La Famille Carvajal”.

1829: He begins writing novellas beginning with “Mateo Falcone” and “Tamango”. In March he publishes “La Chronique du temps de Charles IX” featuring a detailed recreation of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

1830: On 25th February Merimee, Stendahl and Ivan Turgenev attend the premiere of Victor Hugo’s play “Hernani” to support the author against his opponents. Later in the year he tours Spain attending bullfights and studying the architecture. While he is away King Charles the Tenth is overthrown and replaced by Louis Phillippe the First in France. In October he meets the aristocrat Cipriano Portocarrero who is interested in his writings. (He would later marry and have a daughter who would become the Empress Eugenie, wife of Emperor Napoleon the Third). He meets Valentine Delessert for the first time, the wife of a wealthy banker. 

1831: He begins a relationship by with Jenny Dacquin although this is mostly by writing to each other. On 2nd February he is appointed chief of the secretariat at the Naval Office and then on 13th March he becomes head of the Count d’Argout’s cabinet at the Ministry of Commerce and Public Works. On 6yj May he is awarded as a member of the Legion of Honour.

1832: In April he is put in charge of fighting the cholera epidemic then sweeping Paris. In December he has the first face to face meeting with Jenny Dacquin at Boulogne-sur-Mer and later he is named as chief of the Ministry of the Interior and is sent to London to report back on the British elections.

1833: In April, back in Paris, he has a brief sexual relationship with the writer George Sand and although they don’t become lovers they continue to work together on literary and historical projects together. In June he publishes “Mosaique”.

1834: On 27th May he is appointed Inspector-General of Historical Monuments to review the many buildings which had been damaged during the French Revolution including Notre Dame Cathedral. In July he embarks on an extensive tour of the buildings in the south of France. In August he publishes “Les Ames du Purgatoire”.

1835: In July he publishes “Notes d’un voyage dans le Midi de la France”.

1836: On 16th February Valentine Delessert becomes his mistress. 

1837: The death of Stendhal in Paris on 23rd March shocks Mérimée. He begins to write scholarly studies for journals of archaeology and architecture. On 27th September his father Léonor dies. On 29th September the Commission of Historical Monuments is created. The novella “La Venus d’Ille” is published and in October “Notes d’un voyage dans l’Ouest de la France” is published. 

1840: He publishes the first official List of Historic Monuments in France which will be added to in the following years. He warns his conservators to avoid the “false-ancient”.

1841: He publishes “Colomba” in May. He stays at the Château of Boussac in Creuse and visits the nearby castle with George Sand. There they find six tapestries from the series “The Lady and the Unicorn” and they add them to the list for conservation.

1842: He arranges for the French State to purchase the medieval d’Cluny buildings in Paris and the Roman Baths next door.

1843: In October he leaves for Madrid with the Countess of Montijo (wife of Cipriano Portocarrero) and her daughters. In November Mérimée is finally elected to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. 

1844: On 14th March he is elected as a member of the Académie Française after lobbying members for a year. George Sand writes a novel about the tapestries. He publishes “Arsène Guillto”.

1845: He finishes “Carmen” which appears in the Revue des Deux Mondes in October.

1847: He learns Russian in order to read Alexander Puskin’s works in the original language. He travels to see the monuments in North Africa and publishes the first instalment of “L’Histoire de Don Pèdre, Roi de Castille”. 

1848: In February he is present at the 1848 Revolution as a member of the National Guard. King Louis Philippe is removed and the Second Republic is founded. In December Louis Napoleon Bonaparte is elected President of the Republic and the Bureau of Historic Monuments is taken over by the Department of Fine Arts, however Mérimée still keeps his position as Inspector of Historic Monuments.

1849: He assists George Sand with classifying the paintings in the church of Nohant but the two fall out due to Sand insulting the future Empress Eugénie.

1850: On 13th March “Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement” receives its premiere.

1851: Louis-Napoleon is prevented in running for re-election and organises a coup and continues. Victor Hugo does not accept the result and goes into exile.

1852: In January Mérimée becomes an officer of the Legion of Honour. His mother dies on 30th April. He is sentenced to fifteen days in prison for siding with Count Libri who had stolen and resold valuable texts from the state collection including some by Dante and Leonardo da Vinci. In November Eugénie Montijo is invited to the Palace of Fontainebleau where Louis Napoleon proposes marriage to her. They are married at the Tuileries Palace and Eugenie and her mother become confidants of Merimee. Louis Napoleon asks the population in a plebiscite to ratify himself becoming Emperor and on 2nd December he becomes Emperor Napoleon the Third. Merimee publishes “An Episode of the History of Russia; the False Dimitri”.

1853: On 23rd June he is made a senator. He makes his last tour of monuments although he remains the chief inspector of monuments until 1860.

1855: He is not very active in his role as Senator and only speaks three times in seventeen years. He devotes his time to writing and begins a work on Julius Caesar but the Emperor insists he tells him everything and “The History of Julius Caesar” is published on 10th December under the name of Napoleon the Third.

1857: He attends the Exposition of Manchester.

1860: He is named commander in the Legion of Honour in August.

1861: The tapestries are finally purchased by the French state and put on display in the Musee National du Moyen.

1862: In May he visits London as jury member for the Universal Exposition of Fine Arts. He visits England regularly throughout the 1860’s.

1864: In September he starts writing about Peter the Great of Russia which eventually appears as “Histoire du Règne de Pierre le Grand”.

1865: In February he publishes “Les Cosaques d’Autrefois”.

1866: On 14th August he is made High Officer of the Legion of Honour and writes “La Chambre Bleue”.

1869: On 29th January he finishes the horror fantasy novella “Lokis” about a half man, half bear and it is published in September under the title “Le Manuscrit du Professeur Wittembach (Lokis)”. The story was originally written to amuse the Empress. In May he declines an invitation to attend the opening of the Suez Canl by the Empress as he is now beginning to suffer from a respiratory illness and he spends much of his time in Cannes in the south of France.

1870: On 10th February he writes “Djoûmane”. A political crisis between Prussia and France begins in May and he returns to Paris for emergency meetings of the Senate. By now his health is worsening and he becomes housebound. On 24th June Valentine Delessert visits him. The Franco-Prussian War breaks out and the French Army and the Emperor are surrounded at the Battle of Sedan on 2nd September. The Emperor is taken prisoner and the army surrenders. One of the deputies, Adolphe Thiers, asks Merimee to try and get the Emperor and Empress to abdicate but he refuses. On 4th September Mérimée forces himself to attend the last meeting of the Senate at the Luxembourg Palace where the Third Republic is proclaimed. Mérimée returns to Cannes on 10th September. 

Prosper Merimee died on 23rd September 1870 in Cannes. Though he was an atheist he requested to be buried at the Cimetiere du Grand Jas, Protestant Church in Cannes. In May 1871 Communards burned his Paris home destroying his library and all his archaeological notes and collections as he was seen as a collaborator with Napoleon the Third.