≡ Menu

IV. Gironiere, Dumas, history and fantasy

[This is part of a collection of posts serializing the second chapter of Pasyon, Awit, Legend.]

One of the earliest and most important sources for this examination is Paul Proust de Gironiere’s work. Gironiere’s writings are prickly, problematic sources. Of all the travel narratives written in the Philippines in the nineteenth century, his account was based on the most time spent there. Gironiere lived in the rural Philippines for twenty years from 1819 to 1839, the owner of a plantation on a Laguna peninsula known as Jalajala. His work is regarded as an excellent source on the cholera epidemic of 1820 and the massacre of the French residents, who were blamed by indios for the outbreak. The cholera riots provoked fears of revolution among the Spanish authorities in the wake of events in Mexico.1 As Gironiere is a source of much unique information, it is necessary to investigate his credibility.

Gironiere claims in the preface to his work that he was inspired to write his own version of events when he read a feuilleton; by Alexandre Dumas Père in Le Constitutionelle. This feuilleton was subsequently published as Les Mille et un Fantomes. Dumas’ novel was a mélange of material: several lengthy and unconnected narratives, a memoir of one of Dumas’ recently deceased friends, and a story entitled Les marriages de pere Olifus, Les marriages told of M. Olifus, who, pursued by his mermaid wife, journeys to Bidondo2 [sic] and meets a Chinese woman, Vanly Tching, whom he marries. He then travels to Halahala [sic] where he converses with M. de la Geronniere [sic].3

In the late 1840’s Gironiere had been holding forth in the salons of Nantes, regaling audiences with his tales of adventure in the Philippines and word of his stories reached the intellectually omnivorous Dumas. Stories of banditry were regarded as romantic and were wildly popular in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century4 and Gironiere told many bandit stories. Stumbling upon himself as a character in Le Constitutionelle, Gironiere wrote to Dumas and offered to sell his own story for publication in Dumas’ new journal, Le Mousquetaire.

Le Mousquetaire, October 1854, vol 1, issue 1

Le Mousquetaire, October 1854, vol 1, issue 1

Europe had just been rocked by a series of working class revolutions and their bloody suppression by governments. A marked shift occured in Dumas’ writing. An author who previously wrote romanticized yet trenchantly political stories, in historical settings which were but lightly fictionalized, Dumas now wrote a volume of fantasy with ghosts and mermaids and a journey to the exotic orient.

Dumas was well aware of the political reality from which his work was moving away. The opening chapter of Les Milles et un Fantomes is masterful in its realistic depiction of the working class. The narrator leaves Paris and travels to Fontenay-aux-Roses. As he passes Grand-Montrouge he sees quarries, where men run in gigantic wheels, engaged in “squirrel-like labor,” raising stones from the depths. “[I]f he actually rose one step in height each time his foot rested on a strut, after twenty-three years he would have reached the moon.”

He compares the landscape to a Goya engraving and notes that these are the stones that built Paris. The land has an abyss beneath its seemingly beautiful scenery through which a man could fall. “The verdant earth that seems so alluring rests on nothing; you can, if you set your foot over one of these cracks, quite easily disappear.”

The populace of these galleries has a separate physiognomy and character. “You often hear of an accident: a prop has collapsed, a rope has snapped, a man has been crushed. On the surface of the earth, this is taken to be a misfortune: thirty feet under, it is known to be a crime … The appearance of the quarrymen is in general sinister … Whenever there’s any civil commotion, it is rare that the men we have just been trying to depict do not get involved. When the shout goes up at the barrière d’Enfer, ‘Here come the men from the Montrouge quarry!’ the people living in nearby streets shake their heads and shut their doors.”5

From this realistic depiction of working class anger, Dumas turns to a story of ghosts, and a journey to the exotic east. The culmination of this journey into unreality is the encounter with ‘Geronniere.’

The revolutions of 1848-49 saw the rise of realism in art; for Dumas, they marked a flight from reality. His later work served as the inspiration for Hoffmann’s Nutcracker. There was nothing innocent in this literary choice by Dumas; he dedicated Les Milles et un Fantomes to the Orleans dynasty.

Thus, Dumas made a shift in his writing to fantasy and Gironiere’s salon fabrications provided the content of that fantasy for him. Gironiere’s work told how he single-handedly stopped a war, visited cannibals and headhunters and ate brains with them, and, above all, how he constantly encountered, captured, and conversed with bandits.

While Gironiere was waiting for his stories to be published in Le Mousquetaire,6 he tried getting them published elsewhere. He published his adventures as Vingt Années in 1853. He revised this slightly and republished it as L’ Aventures d’un Breton in 1855, adding an appendix.7

We have thus from the outset many reasons to be skeptical of Gironiere’s writing. His account was the most widely read popular work on the Philippines in the nineteenth century.8 Many travelers noted in their own accounts the fictional nature of Gironiere’s stories; some did so gently, others not so gently.

John Bowring, fourth governor of Hong Kong, wrote in 1859,

I can hardly pass over unnoticed M. de la Gironiere’s romantic book, as it was the subject of frequent conversations in the Philippines. No doubt he has dwelt there twenty years; but in the experience of those who have lived there more than twice twenty I found little confirmation of the strange stories which are crowded into his strange volume … M. de la Gironiere may have aspired to the honour of a Bernardin de St. Pierre or a Defoe, and have thought a few fanciful and tragic decorations would add to the interest of this personal drama. “All the world’s a stage,” and as a player thereon M. de la Gironiere perhaps felt himself authorized in the indulgence of some latitude of description, especially when his chosen “stage” was one meant to exhibit the wonders of travel.9

Henry Ellis can be read on the subject with amusement. He begins his travels in the Philippines in deep admiration of Gironiere’s work and is gradually disappointed on all counts. This disappointment is told in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. On journeying to Lagunita de Socol, he remarks, “Gironiere estimates this hill at 1,200 or 1,500 feet high; we thought, unanimously, that about 100 was nearer to the mark… “10 Ellis tells of traveling to Jalajala, Gironiere’s former estate, of looking for “Tulisanies,” [sic] of his assessment of Gironiere’s description of a kalabaw/carabao, and of desiring to eat brains, “a la Gironiere,” and is each time disappointed and yet still praises Gironiere’s book.11

Laurence Oliphant remarks wryly of Gironiere, whom he refers to as “that amusing but most audacious romancer,” “we trust, for the sake of La Gironiere’s credit as a sportsman, that he displayed as much courage with his rifle as he certainly has with his pen.”12

Finally, the German naturalist, Fedor Jagor, remarks in a footnote on Gironiere, “The raw materials of these adventures were supplied by a French planter, M. de la Gironiere, but their literary parent is avowedly Alexander Dumas.”13

Footnotes

  1. Ken De Bevoise, Agents of apocalypse: epidemic disease in the colonial Philippines (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1995), 29.
  2. Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown.
  3. This story was subsequently published separately from Les Milles et un Fantomes and all succeeding editions of Les Milles lacked the story of M. Olifus. Thus Andrew Brown’s delightful recent translation, Alexandre Dumas, One Thousand and One Ghosts, trans. Andrew Brown (London: Hesperus Classics, 2004), with its ghastly ruminations on the persistence of consciousness in guillotined heads does not contain Olifus’ narrative or the encounter with Gironiere. Les marriages was translated into English and published as Alexandre Dumas, The Man with Five Wives (Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson and Brothers, n.d.)
  4. On this point see Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, Revised Ed (New York: New Press, 2000).
  5. Dumas, One Thousand and One Ghosts, 4-6.
  6. In which journal it was serialized in 1855.
  7. Even this addition has occasional moments that would appear to be playful or fictionalized. In a list of Tagalog words and their French equivalents, Gironiere lists susu as saint (holy). Susu, depending on the accent, means either snail or breast.
  8. Rodney J. Sullivan, Exemplar of Americanism: the Philippine career of Dean C. Worcester (Ann Arbor: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, 1991), 56.
  9. John Bowring, A Visit to the Philippine Islands (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1859), 101-2.
  10. Henry T. Ellis, Hong Kong to Manilla [sic] and the Lakes of Luzon, in the Philippine Isles, in the Year 1856 (London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1859), 103.
  11. Cf. ia pp. 15, 88, 91-2, 94-7, 102-3, 191, 207.
  12. Laurence Oliphant, Narrative of the Earl of Elgin’s Mission to China and Japan in the Years 1857, ’58, ’59, second ed., vol. 1 (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1860), 88-9.
  13. Fedor Jagor, Travels in the Philippines (London: Chapman and Hall, 1875), 29; The original German work, Reisen in den Philippinen, was published in 1873. No translator is cited for the 1875 English edition.
{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment