French Figure: Jules Renard

French writer, famous for his novel Poil de Carotte, which describes his difficult and unfortunate childhood.

Jules Renard was born on 22nd February 1864 in Chalons-du-Maine. He was the third child of Anne-François Renard Rosa and he grew up in Chitry-les-Mines. In his early years, the village imposed a harsh stigma upon Renard, as his mother was insistent on humiliating him and portrayed him as the most horrible of children. Though educated to be a teacher, the young Renard moved to Paris at the age of seventeen, where he took up with an actress of the Comédie Française and was introduced to the city’s most prestigious literary salons.

His marriage in 1888 to Marie Morneau brought him a large dowry and allowed him to devote himself to life as an homme de lettres and to found the literary review Mercure de France. For the rest of his short life Renard would spend the warmer months in Chitry, where, like his father before him, he became mayor. In Paris he lived the life of a member of the Académie Goncourt and counted among his friends Alphonse Daudet, Edmond de Goncourt, Anatole France, Paul Claudel, and Sarah Bernhardt.

His various works are characterised by their astute observation of people and their behaviour, as well as their eternal amazement and wonderment at nature. His novel Poil de carotte, published in 1894 and adapted for the stage in 1900, was a poignant autobiographical piece about his difficult and unfortunate childhood. Although he spent most of his life in Paris, Renard never lost touch with his native countryside; in Les Philippe (1907), Nos frères farouches (1908) and Ragotte (1908), he depicted rural life with cutting depth and cruel realism.

Jules Renard died on 22nd May 1910 of arteriosclerosis and is buried in Chitry-les-Mines. In 1925, his journals, spanning from 1887 to a month before his death, were published posthumously. Through his detailed accounts, Renard developed not only his artistic convictions but also his humanity, as he reflected on the nineteenth-century French literary and art scene and on the emergence of his position as an important novelist and playwright in that growing world.