The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Brigands" (1883)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Brigands” (original: “Les Brigands”) was written by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and first appeared in Contes Cruels (1883). Jean Marie Mathias Philippe Auguste, Comte de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (1838-1889) was a French poet, dramatist, novelist, and short story writer. Villiers was well-regarded during his lifetime, influencing W.B. Yeats among others, and is now seen as an important figure in the history of French literature. His work is valued for its imagination and its combination of the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century and the Symbolist movement of the early twentieth century “The Brigands” is a short, pointed, harsh societal critique.
The two sub-prefectures of Pibrac and Nayrac are linked by one road. They live together “in a perfect unison of manners, occupations, and opinions,” the bourgeois of both villages enjoying “both the general esteem and its own.” All of this is disrupted one October night when the old fiddler of Nayrac robs the churchwarden of Pibrac as the warden is walking along the road between the two towns. The fiddler stands in shadow and uses a peremptory tone of voice, and the warden, not recognizing him in his fear, pays up. But when he returns to Pibrac and he claims to have been robbed by a gang of thieves who are rampaging across the south of France. The citizens of Nayrac and Pibrac, good solid burghers all, encourage these rumors, despite having investigated and heard the truth of the matter from the warden. The next month the citizen landowners of Nayrac set off to collect the rent from their farmer tenants, putting on a brave face for their wives as they do so. They collect their money and by dusk are returning home. They are a bit nervous, however, since they’ve heard that a real gang of bandits has formed, and their trek home is through a spooky forest. When the men from Nayrac are confronted by another group of men–the landowners of Pibrac, out collecting their rents from their farmers–and a gun accidentally goes off, each side panics and begins shooting. The resulting bloodbath kills all but one of the men, and he accidentally blows his own brains out in his eagerness to reload. The real brigands, playing cards in a shack a few miles away, are initially afraid that the gunfire means that a posse has been formed to come after them, but the fiddler figures out the truth soon enough, and he leads his men to the site to help the wounded. They are aghast to find everyone dead, and the fiddler tells them to quickly loot the bodies and flee for the border, since “they are going to prove that this was our doing....”
Although “The Brigands” appeared in Contes Cruels, it is not exactly a conte cruel, a story which highlights the meaningless of man’s place in the universe and the cruelty of fate. (Villiers’ “The Torture of Hope” is a more typical conte cruel). “The Brigands” is typical of most of the stories in Contes Cruels, in which Villiers displays a venomous antipathy to the values of contemporary French society, from capitalism to democracy to the bourgeoisie to modern science. Villiers’ target in “The Brigands” is the middle class. In scarcely concealed words of contempt Villiers describes them as smug, cowardly, and merciless, prefacing the fiddler’s “they are going to prove that this was our doing....” with “he pointed to the corpses, adding, with a shudder, this absurd but electrifying remark, born, no doubt, of a profound experience and lifelong knowledge of the vitality and honour of the Third Estate.” Villiers says, as the landowners set out to collect their rents, “The middle classes like good living and straight dealing. But when it comes to honesty, there is no touching them: they are upright to the point of hanging a child for the sake of an apple.” Villiers’ middle-class is ruled by greed, self-interest, lies and bravado. (“The Brigands” is not subtle, but it is a satisfying venting of spleen at the lumpenbourgeoisie).
“It is generally agreed that the aim of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam in the Contes cruels is not merely to ‘faire penser’—the motto to the Revue des Lettres et des Arts when he was its editor in 1867—but to disturb, disorientate, unsettle the reader, who can find himself ‘trapped in a web of apparent contradictions,’ a victim of Villiers’s irony.”1 Villiers succeeds at this unsettling of the reader in “The Brigands.”
Print: Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and Brian Stableford, The Scaffold and Other Cruel Tales. Tarzana, CA: Black Coat Press, 2004.
Online: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011254780 (in French; there is no English-language translation available online).
1 P.W.M. Cogman, “Subversion of the Reader in Villiers's 'Sombre Récit, Conteur Plus Sombre,'” The Modern Language Review 83, no. 1 (Jan. 1988): 30.