A boon granted: Meet Agnès Replier

“She was the Jane Austen of the essay. That she isn’t as recognized is a big – and hopefully temporary – loss. So wrote John Lukacs, biographer and university professor, of Agnes Repplier more than 40 years ago when he compared the style and grace of Repplier’s prose to that of Austen. Alas, this loss appears to be permanent. Who these days has heard of Agnès Repplier (pronounced Rep-LEER), let alone read her work? Not me.

Although I have come across her name in obscure books, I first met Miss Repplier just a few weeks ago in the library of Christendom College here in Front Royal, Virginia. It’s summer and, with the students gone, the library is generally as quiet as a tomb.

Once in a while, I go there to bask in the silence and work on my laptop. On this particular occasion, I got up to stretch, wandered a bit in the stacks, and happened to see four volumes bearing Repplier’s name. I pulled out “American Austen: The Forgotten Writings of Agnes Repplier” by Lukacs, started reading its introduction and was hooked.

Let me introduce you to this new knowledge.

Her youth

Photograph by Agnes Repplier on March 15, 1910. Library of Congress. (Public domain)

Agnes Repplier (1855–1950) was born in Philadelphia and made that city her home for the rest of her life. She was a willful child, and this child lived in the adult. She refuted her mother’s attempts to teach her to read and acquired this skill by self-teaching at the age of 10.

She was expelled from two schools for her rebellious behavior, in one instance throwing a book on the floor at her teacher’s feet after saying it was “stupid”.

After leaving that second school, West Penn Square Seminary for Young Ladies, Repplier entered the most difficult stage of her life. Although her relationship with her mother was often tumultuous, Ms Repplier recognized her daughter’s gift for words and put her to work writing stories to help the family through the difficult times they were in. fallen.

In her late teens and twenties, she managed to make small amounts of money from these stories. After her mother’s death, she and her sister Mary, a teacher, found themselves caring for their ailing father and partially paraplegic brother.

Of his early stories, Repplier wrote, “They get published somewhere, somehow, and make a little money. Otherwise, they would have no excuse to be; a depressing circumstance of which I am well aware.

But all that was about to change.

An essayist is born

In July 1884, Repplier spoke with Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist order and publisher of Catholic World magazine. Although he accepted many of his stories, he found his fiction flat and without a real spark. “I imagine you know more about books than about life,” he told her, “that you’re more of a reader than an observer. He advised her to write an essay on John Ruskin, one of her favorite authors, and as Repplier later reported, “That essay set my feet on the path I have laboriously traveled ever since.”

For more than 60 years, Repplier entertained and enlightened readers with his essays, publishing more than 400 in magazines and newspapers, and collecting them in more than twenty books. Her writings have appeared in prestigious publications like The Atlantic, and as Lukacs tells us, “Every man and woman of letters in the English-speaking world has learned her name.”

Although she enjoyed the company of men, often corresponding with them or entertaining them at her home, Repplier never married. Despite her lectures and the great pleasure she took in conversing, she remained alone, writing essay after essay until extreme old age forced her to put down her pen.

His talents and gifts

Epoch Times Photo
Plate illustrated by Agnès Repplier reading, in “La Critique; an illustrated monthly review of literature, art and life”, 1904. (Public domain)

As we become more familiar with this remarkable writer, we see that Repplier has brought together several ingredients that help explain his prowess as an essayist.

The lifelong joy she derived from reading, especially English and French writers, provided gold and silver to her writing. Time and again in his essays, even non-literary ones, Repplier brought into play authors and historical figures, some of whom are largely unknown to readers today. In “Town and Suburb,” for example, she introduces us to Cobbett, Blake, Charles I, Dickens, Will Rogers, Walter Lippmann, Browning, and Dr. Johnson, among others.

Equally important was his skill, developed in part, no doubt, during those years spent in the literary desert composing stories. “For every sentence that can be written or spoken,” she once wrote, “the right words exist.”

Here is a writer who fully agreed with Mark Twain’s saying, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a big question – it’s the difference between the bug and the lightning bolt.”

Add to these tools subtle humour, open-mouthed honesty and sophistication, and you have Agnès Repplier, essayist extraordinaire.

Spirit, brilliance, relevance and revelation

Epoch Times Photo
“Woman Reading”, Portrait of Sofia Kramskaya, after 1866, by Ivan Kramskoi. Oil on canvas. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. (Public domain)

In a collection of his quotes online, we find gems such as these: “The conversation between Adam and Eve must have been difficult at times because they had no one to talk to”, “He is not easy to find happiness within ourselves, and it is not possible to find it elsewhere,” and “There are few nudities as objectionable as the naked truth.

Like his contemporary GK Chesterton, who now reads more for his novels than his essays, Repplier can surprise readers with a paradox or a sharp quip.

In “Ennui,” for example, she ends with a relevant comment for today, which will make some of us smile and nod: she mentions “… today’s sanguine socialist, who dreams of preparing us for a life of uninterrupted boredom. In her collection “Friction Points”, writing on the tyranny of a proletariat, she remarks: “It is as revolting to be robbed by a reformer as by a trust”.

By reading Repplier, who was an amateur historian all his life, we also learn a lot about the past. Although I have some knowledge of European history, Scanderbeg was a completely unfamiliar name to me. In “Points of View”, Repplier devotes an essay to this hero who was once a captive of the Turks, escaped and for decades led the Albanian resistance to Turkish incursions.

His account of this man and the wars, intrigues and dangers he faced is brought to life by his storytelling skills and vivid descriptions. She demonstrates a strong understanding of little-known history as well as the ability to bring it to life on the page.

It should not surprise us to find that Repplier is today a forgotten literary figure. Comparing her to many of today’s essayists, readers would likely find her style a bit starchy and stiff. Some of its references to books and authors may be confusing as these writers are also not read today. And essays in general, including some by Repplier, are often topical; they focus on current events which are of little interest today except to historians.

Finally, the general sweep of time itself often erases the culture of the past. Most Americans still recognize the names of literary celebrities like Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald, but far fewer remember best-selling authors like James Jones or Mary McCarthy, even fewer well-known journalists and essayists whose words were usually written on sand.

And yet…and yet….

I read a lot of essays these days. It’s my favorite genre: some of them online, some in books, and a few make more than a cursory impression. From Montaigne, father of the modern essay and still in print today, to writers like Joseph Epstein and Alice Thomas Ellis, I gained valuable knowledge and advice.

Fragments of what they shared in print stuck with me, making me return every now and then to refresh myself at their source of words.

As for Agnès Repplier, I am happy to have met her. His grace, his style and his subjects take me away from the rawness that so often manifests itself in our time. Reading it, I feel like a kid again, listening to the stories and observations of an old virgin aunt. For a moment, this soft, wise and humorous voice takes me to that most foreign place in the world: the past.

Once Repplier wrote,

“If the insensitive gods, so often invoked, so seldom complacent, would grant me a sweet favor, I would ask them to join this little group of authors who, unknown to the wide carefree world, remain from generation to generation. the friends of a few wealthy readers.

As one of her friends (I’m sure she has others), I believe her wish came true.

Unless otherwise noted, all information in this essay on the life and writing of Agnes Repplier is from “American Austen: The Forgotten Writings of Agnes Repplier” by John Lukacs and “Points of View” by Agnes Repplier.

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