Persian Letters Background

Persian Letters Background

Charles de Secondat was a French nobleman: the Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu. Historians and literary students simply refer to him as "Montesquieu".

Born in the southern part of France, Charles de Secondat lived from 1689 to 1755. Accordingly, he witnessed many key changes in the government and culture of France. His birth coincided roughly with the beginning of the Nine Years' War between France and a Grand Alliance of several European powers that included England, Spain, and many of the territories that make up modern Germany. Throughout young Charles's formative years, France was almost constantly at war.

Charles de Secondat inherited the first barony, La Brède, from his mother, who was the heiress to the Barony of La Brède and who died when he was seven. Inheriting through the female line was relatively rare in France, due to the custom of passing down titles of nobility to the eldest son. Until 1711, he remained at an exclusive school for the sons of aristocrats, where he received an education that included both legal and literary training.

In 1713, Charles's father died and he became the ward of his paternal uncle, his father's eldest brother and the baron de Montesquieu. This was not to provide Charles with protection or a home-- he was 24 years of age and practicing law-- but his uncle did require someone to inherit the title, which Charles did when the Baron died in 1716, leaving him a second noble title, a hereditary office, and a sizable fortune. Set up for life, he retired from law and devoted himself to writing.

Because Montesquieu was part of the noble class, he was closer to the political events affecting France than, say, a peasant would have been. In 1715, the aging "Sun King" Louis XIV died of gangrene and was succeeded by his five-year-old great-grandson. Louis XV did not assume the throne until 1723. During the intervening eight years the kingdom was effectively governed by a regent, Louis XV's nephew Philippe II Duc d'Orléans. So the Sun King died after Charles de Secondat's father but before his uncle.

The Persian Letters, regarded as the novel that made Montesquieu famous, was published in 1721 two years before the young Louis XV came into power. It is an epistolatory novel: a collection of letters between different characters. In Montesquieu's era, and earlier, it was not unusual for people to publish collections of letters or sonnet cycles.

Extremely well researched, The Persian Letters drew from the published writings of contemporary travelers to Persia, particularly Jean Chardin. Montesquieu also borrowed the epistolatory novel structure from previous authors going all the way back to Ovid. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the epistolatory novel structure was not yet mainstream, although the 1669 success of Les Lettres Portugueses (Letters of a Portuguese Nun) may have influenced Montesquieu's decision to write the novel as a series of letters.

The Persian Letters established Montesquieu as a caricature satirist who exaggerated his subjects' behavioral traits for comedic or critical purposes. Yet he later became known as a political writer and theorist who championed the separation of political powers. The "letter novel", as de Montesquieu described the structure of his work, became a template and form refined and used by authors well into the Romantic era.


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