Early traces of French Romanticism could be found at the beginning of the century by Francois-René de Chateubriand, who emphasized the Catholic religion in "Le Génie du Christianisme" (The genius of Christian religion, 1802), and created a melancholic romantic hero in "René" (1805). However the official beginning of Romanticism in France is dated in 1813, when Madame de Staël published "De L'Allemagne" (about Germany). There were strong resistances against the new styles of poetry: France, the country of Enlightenment, defended its identity in opposition to Germany's Romantic ideas, and thus French romanticism was a late-comer. Its role was ultimately defined only when Victor Hugo wrote the preface to a historical novel "Cromwell" (1827). Hugo recognized and stated the love of man for history, contrasts, contradictions, for melting the comic and the tragic, and for the grotesque. Shakespeare was a great influence. Another tendency developed by Hugo and topic of Romanticism is the one for the exotic, incredibly affirmed in the paintings of Delacroix and in Hugo's work titled "Les Orientales"(1829).
climax tension between French Romanticists and Classicists
occurred in the genre of dramatic arts. What we primarily
see in the theatre today is the prevalence of tragi-comedies
(called drame by the French). It terminated the
stock characters of the old and replaced it with a variety of new personages on the stage. It even encouraged disjointed action, which was positively denied by the canons of the French and Greek theatre. After Victor Hugo's fights for greater freedom, Alexandre Dumas came forward with a still more melodramatic style of the drame; the best known of these included Henry III and Antony, in which new colflicts were presented, especially regarding morality. A variety of comedic techniques and proverbs were introduced into French drama where dialogue became more important than action. Here the poet Alfred de Musset specially distinguished himself. The titles of his pieces are self-explanatory, as "Il faut qu'une porte soit ouverte ou fermée" (A door must be open or shut) or "On ne badine pas avec L'amour" (There's no trifling with love).
The main figure of the romantic school of literature was Rousseau. French romantics consciously rejected cut-and-dried rationalism of hitherto classic literature, and invoked the cult of feeling for a return to natural life. This nature included the "exotic" tendency mentioned before, clearly defined through the outer world of mountains and rivers, developed by the intellectual descendants of Rousseau such as Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (author of "Paul and Virginia").
Hugo's "Notre Dame" is the epitome of French Romantic fiction. Hugo tries to reconstruct a late Middle-Age Paris, Filled with strange characters, each one showing more individuality and more vigor than the anaemic kings and heroes of a late neo-classic tragedy. The novel seems to be a collection of curiosities more than a collection of human beings. Hugo's novel influenced romantics to mind less the portrayal of character than their incidents, and in particular their emotionalism and the vague humanitarianism which will be in the spirit of democracy as we know it.
Although Balzac had an incredibly different writing style than Hugo's; he wanted to portray human nature just like Hugo. Balzac included morbid eccentric heroes in his stories, aimed at the careful study of men and women of his century. If the exuberance of Dumas is looked over along with the vagaries of "lower romanticism", French romantics were actually trying to portray human nature, exactly as the classicists before them. Yet their vision of life was different. The heroes of romanticism in general are motley herd of eccentrics, and this in France was extremely true. Romantics in France were sometimes designated as the "flamboyant", referring to the gay and picturesque dressing affected by some of their adherents, as well as their literary style. Instead the conservative Classicists were called "grisâtre", or graybeard, which denoted the monotonous color of their poetry.
Il romanticismo francese: Da Prévost a Sartre, Italo Siciliano, Sansoni Editore, Firenze 1964
LA scrittura e L'interpretazione VOLUME 2: Dal barocco al romanticismo, G.B. Palumbo Editore, Romano Luperini, Pietro Cataldi, Lidia Marchiani, Franco Marchese, Firenze 1997