When Clémence Royer died on February 7, 1902, she took with her into oblivion perhaps the last human brain that believed in and aimed for Complete Knowledge. She had devoted her life to the proposition that all things can be known, and that the essence of life was in knowing all things. Her time was spent in reading, then systematizing all she had read into great continents of knowledge that she lashed together in her writings by the force of her own all-encompassing sense of logic and scheme, allowing her readers to leap from anthropology to astronomy, social theory to biology, and religion to industry in a wild attempt to follow her standard.
Today, we remember her, when we think to remember her, as the person who brought Charles Darwin to the French with her 1862 translation of On the Origin of the Species, in the introduction of which she made applications of evolutionary theory to humanity that Darwin himself would not publicly express until The Descent of Man, some nine years later. But to her time she was an omni-competent savant without peer, whose encyclopedic grasp of the world allowed her to riddle her society’s greatest institutions and beliefs with irresistible and unrelenting volleys of logic and context.
What perhaps made her such a staunch believer in the Enlightenment creed of self-perfection was the fact that she was not, from the first, a prodigy and scholar. She had to overcome a number of youthful obstacles, some self-imposed, some from without, to develop her mind into the keen tool it would become. Born in 1830 to a military father whose oddly specific royalist sympathies placed him perpetually on the wrong side of the current French ruling order, her youth was spent in places of exile, and particularly in Switzerland, which would be the site of her great metamorphosis some decades later.
Her only official schooling came in the form of just over a year at a convent school at the age of ten. During her time there her naturally logical brain came to the conclusion that, if you honestly believed Christianity to be true, then obtaining a place in Heaven through a minute observance of Christian precepts should make up the entirety of your goals upon this Earth. Until arriving in Paris at the age of thirteen, she devoted herself utterly to a gloomy, world-denying perspective that starved her of intellectual stimulation and separated her from the family and friends whose lives she deemed too superficial and lacking in grace.
Her health worsened and her self-torment grew, and had she continued upon that trajectory there is little doubt she would have been like so many others in her religiously overwrought century who cut their joy in existence to a feeble nub in the pursuit of righteous self-abnegation. But her family moved to Paris and there she was saved by, of all things, the polka.
The Paris of the 1840s hummed with life and new ideas and Royer, first tentatively, then with her whole being, threw herself into its rhythms and diversions. She devoured the ball scene, and danced regularly well into the night, while politically, as against her father, the royal legitimist, she found herself sympathetic to the (ultimately frustrated) dreams of republicanism expressed by the 1848 Revolution. She was changing, certainly, but at a pace and in a manner which was not uncommon to her time and position. It was the death of her father in 1849 that pushed her to become the Clémence Royer we know today. Faced with the prospect of making her own way in the world financially, she thought she might turn her pen to a career as a writer when, suddenly, she realized that she knew nothing.
That is to say, she knew a great many things, but, fundamentally, beneath the surface accumulation of facts that gather like so many barnacles upon any body passing leisurely through society, there was nothing there. Nothing fundamental, no real sense of why the world was the way it was, how it had become that way, and why people had the opinions of it that they did and how those opinions made them act. She realized her youth had horrendously ill-served her, that her one year of schooling had actively restrained her mind, and that her years of relative freedom had improved her but little better.
And so, she resolved to re-make herself, returning to Switzerland where she found a room she could rent on the cheap that was within walking distance of a well stocked library, and remained in that room, studying the sum total of human knowledge from its deepest origins to its present manifestations. She studied anthropology, comparative religion, astronomy, biology, economic theory, moral theory, philosophy, mathematics, and much more besides on her way to piecing together a sense of the world in its totality achieved by few, then or since. She came to several conclusions in that time – that societal economic and belief structures are objects with a history that can be traced and explained without reference to supernatural forces, and that, following the example of Swedish novelist Frederika Bremer, who was touring Europe giving small select classes, it was her job to share her conclusions with women who had been systematically denied a full education.
She organized a series of small women-only classes where she shared the conclusions of her research into the origins of human thought and human societies, and soon word got out that here was a person who cowered before no idols and combined within her person the best insights of German religious theory, English biological theory, and French social theory. Men asked to be admitted to her classes and eventually Royer relented, her first open courses creating something of a sensation in European intellectual circles. A woman previously all but unknown had, through concentrated self-education, not only mastered her era’s most advanced positions but extended them on the strength of her prodigious investigations into our natural and cultural past, and was now quite unabashedly using her voice to call into question the reigning romanticisms of the mid-19th century.
She studied anthropology, comparative religion, astronomy, biology, economic theory, moral theory, philosophy, mathematics, and much more besides on her way to piecing together a sense of the world in its totality achieved by few, then or since.
Her reputation begun by her seminars, it was cemented by her 1862 translation of Charles Darwin’s 1859 work On the Origin of Species, which introduced the concept of species evolution via natural selection of desirable traits in a resource-limited environment, and which both jibed with and advanced the ideas she had come to as a result of her own research into the proto-evolutionary ideas of Lamarck and Cuvier. She wrote a controversial introduction to that volume which took Darwin’s ideas into the realm of humanity’s own ancestry, a step Darwin was unwilling to publicly take in his book, but which Royer, following his logic as well as her own, felt no fear in presenting to the French academic community. Her interactions with Darwin would continue in this vein through several more editions of his foundational work, with Royer ever daring and advancing where Darwin was cautious and unsure, resulting in a web of mutual admiration and frustration that is the bone and sinew I expect of every unofficial collaboration with an eager translator.
Her intellectual fame in the ascendant, her personal life was caught in something of a seductive muddle. In 1858 she met Pascal Duprat, a journalist and editor whose political views kept him in a state of regular exile from Napoleon III’s alternately farcical and modern Second French Empire. He was fascinated by Royer’s mastery of so many diverse fields and soon fell in love with her, and she, attracted to his principled defiance of the Emperor and devotion to modern thought, reciprocated, which would have made for a beautiful story if he weren’t already married.
For two decades, they carried out their affair. She had his child, whose legitimacy was recognized by an Italian government lenient about such matters, but not by a French government seeking a return to the straight-laced familial morality of the Napoleonic Code. Duprat and Royer lived together, though always at the edge of financial disaster between his earnings which could not possibly stretch to cover two separate households, and the perilous state of Royer’s royalties in the piratical world of nineteenth century publishing practice.
Royer kept learning and writing, but she found herself increasingly out of step with intellectual life around her, and when Duprat died in 1885, she moved into a small dwelling at Neuilly, where a foundation had been established by William Galignani to support a hundred people of good moral character performing literary work of value. Here she remained the rest of her life, writing and synthesizing, creating works of ever grander scope and ever diminishing renown. Her manuscripts piled up without hope of publication until several of her remaining well-connected friends banded together to arrange a commemorative banquet celebrating her life and work in 1897.
Of a sudden, it was as if all of France remembered that it had, living within its boundaries, one of the great minds of their age, and rushed as one to lavish honors on the intellectual hero they had let languish for two long decades. An admirer gave her six thousand francs so that she could publish her book La Constitution du Monde, her sweeping update of the ancient Lucretian project which took the scientific community of her time to task for its narrow devotion to over-specialization. Marguerite Durand commissioned her to write a regular column for the feminist periodical La Fronde, and the government itself, not to be outdone, awarded her the Legion of Honor in 1900.
Two years later, France’s great savant was dead, and in her last words she spoke of the sun, that symbol beloved by the Enlightenment as a vanquisher of shadow and revealer of truth. It was a fitting last thought for somebody who had bent her time with steady logical ferocity to the illumination of the dark recesses of her mind, and those of humanity’s twisted and spiritually tortured past. She had fearlessly dragged herself from comforting mythologies of immortality into the cool but pure air of humble insignificance before nature. She filled her days with a quest for Why and How, Whither and Whence, and showed first a city, then a nation, then a continent, not only how much one human might learn, but how much they might really understand if they refuse to be overwhelmed, and elect the universe as their domain, and all of humanity as their companions in exploring it.
FURTHER READING: Scholarly treatments of Clémence Royer come in waves. The toast of Europe in the 1860s, she languished until being rediscovered in the 1890s, and then again until a resurgence of interest in her work in the 1930s stirred by Albert Milice’s Clémence Royer, sa doctrine de vie (1926), and then a new re-re-re-discovery in the 1980s fueled by feminist interest in her importance. For me, though, your best bet is Clémence Royer l’Intrepide (2005) by Aline Demars. It contains a few dozen pages of autobiographical writing, along with biographical commentary and smaller essays about her most important works, so no matter what part of her life interests you, you’ll find something within!
Image credit: Caricature of Clémence Royer from Les Hommes d’aujourd’hui, Volume 44 , no 170 (1881). She is reading a copy of her new book, Le bien et la loi morale. By Henri Demare – *61-727, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons