ALPHONSE DAUDET was born at Nîmes in the south of France on May 13, 1840. His father was an unsuccessful silk manufacturer, and his boyhood was far from happy. After a period of schooling at Lyons, he became at sixteen usher in a school, but before the end of the following year he abandoned a profession in which he found only misery. Going up to Paris he joined his elder brother, Ernest, who was then trying to get a foothold in journalism. At eighteen he published a volume of poems, Les Amoureuses, wrote for the Figaro, and began experimenting with playwriting. He attracted the attention of the Duc de Morny, who made him one of his secretaries and in various ways helped him to a start in life.
His first notable success came in 1866 with his Lettres de mon Moulin, a series of sketches and stories of great charm and delicacy, and this was followed up by a longer work, Le petit chose, a pathetic fiction based upon his own unhappy youth. In 1872 he produced the first of his three volumes on the amazing Tartarin of Tarascon, probably the most vital of all his creations. In Fromont jeune et Risler aîné he created another great character, Delobelle, the broken-down actor, and he took captive the reading world by his combination of humor and pathos, and the vividness of his portraits of types. Pathos was again the chief characteristic of Jack, in which the life of a neglected boy at a school which recalls the establishment of Mr. Squeers is not the only parallel between Daudet and Dickens.
Daudet was now a successful writer of established reputation, and through the seventies and eighties he wrote a succession of novels of a considerable variety of theme. Thus he dealt with the Paris of dethroned monarchs in Les Rois en exil; with new millionaires in Le Nabab; with the talkative type of his native South in Numa Roumestan, satirizing the statesman Gambetta; with the demimonde in Sapho; while in LImmortel he drew a scathing picture of the French Academy, which never honored itself by electing him to membership. Tartarin reappeared in all his buoyancy in Tartarin sur les Alpes, and, less successfully as a colonist in Port-Tarascon. Some volumes of reminiscences, a considerable number of short stories, some delightful tales for children, and a few plays complete the list of his more important writings. He died at Paris on December 17, 1897.
Daudet was especially distinguished for his style. He wrote with a great impression of ease, yet he obtained an effect of great brilliance and felicity. He belonged to the realistic school, and though he achieved a very living sense of actuality he escaped the cynicism and brutality that marked the work of some of his colleagues.
None of his work is more perfect of its kind than his short stories, and the collection called Contes du lundi from which the following examples are taken exhibit his power of restrained pathos at its height. The horrors of the Franco-Prussian War have been more terribly pictured on some larger canvases, but no one has etched with more delicacy and sensitiveness the small private tragedies of that great disaster. The Siege of Berlin, The Last Class, and The Bad Zouave are not only classics of the art of the short story; they contain the essence of French patriotism.