His father, on the outbreak of the Revolution, was appointed mayor of Besançon and consequently chief police magistrate; he seems to have rather lent himself as an instrument to the tyranny of the Jacobins than to have shared their principles; but his son was for a time an ardent citizen, and is said to have been a club member when he could at the most have been twelve years old. In 1793 Charles saved the life of a lady guilty of sending money to an emigré, declaring to his father that if she were condemned he would take his own life. He was sent to Strassburg, where he lived in the house of Eulogius Schneider, the notorious Jacobin governor of Alsace, but a good Greek scholar.
During the Terror his father put him under the care of Girod de Chautrans, with whom he studied English and German. His love of books began very early, and he combined with it a strong interest in natural science. He became librarian in his native town, but his exertions in the cause of suspected persons brought him under suspicion. An inspection of his papers by the police, however, revealed nothing more dangerous than a dissertation on the antennae of Insects. Entomology continued to be a favourite study with him, but he varied it with philology and pure literature and even political writing. For a skit on Napoleon, in 1803, he was imprisoned for some months.
He then quitted Paris, whither he had gone after losing his position at Besançon, and for some years lived a very unsettled life at Besançon, Dôle, where he married, and in other places in the Jura. During these wanderings he wrote Le peintre de Salzbourg, journal des émotions d'un c?ur souffrant, suivi des Meditations du cloître (1803). The hero, Charles, who is a variation of the Werther type, desires the restoration of the monasteries, to afford a refuge from the woes of the world.
In 1811 Nodier appears at Laibach as editor of a polyglot journal, the Illyrian Telegraph, published in French, German, Italian and Slav. On the evacuation of the Illyrian provinces he returned to Paris, and the restoration found him a royalist, though he retained something of republican sentiment. In 1824 he was appointed to the librarianship of the Bibliotheque de l'Arsenal. He was elected a member of the Académie française in 1833, and made a member of the Legion of Honour in 1843, a year before his death.
These twenty years at the arsenal were by far the most important and fruitful of Nodier's life. He had much of the Bohemian in his composition. But he had the advantage of a settled home in which to collect and study rare books; and he was able to supply a centre and rallying place to a knot of young literary men of greater individual talent than himself--the so-called Romanticists of 1830--and to colour their tastes and work very decidedly with his own predilections. Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset and Sainte-Beuve all acknowledged their obligations to him. He was a passionate admirer of Goethe and of Shakespeare, and had himself contributed to the personal literature that was one of the leading traits of the Romantic school.
His best and most characteristic work, some of which is exquisite in its kind, consists partly of short tales of a more or less fantastic character, partly of nondescript articles, half bibliographic, half narrative, the nearest analogue to which in English is to be found in some of the papers of De Quincey. The best examples of the latter are to be found in the volume entitled Mélanges tirés d'une petite bibliothèque, published in 1829 and afterwards continued. Of his tales the best are Smarra, ou les démons de la nuit (1821); Trilby, ou le lutin d'Argail (1822); Histoire du roi de Bohême et de ses sept châteaux (1830); La Fée aux miettes (1832); Inès de las Sierras (1838); Les quatre talismans et la légende de s?ur Béatrix (1838), together with some fairy stories published in the year of his death, and Franciscus Columna, which appeared after it. The Souvenirs de jeunesse (1832) are interesting but untrustworthy, and the Dictionnaire universel de la langue française (1823), which, in the days before Littré, was one of the most useful of its kind, is said to have been not wholly or mainly Nodier's. There is a so-called collection of Œuvres complêtes, in 12 vols. (1832), but at that time much of the author's best work had not appeared, and it included but a part of what was actually published. Nodier found an indulgent biographer in Prosper Merimée on the occasion of the younger man's admission to the academy.
An account of his share in the Romantic movement is to be found in Georg Brandes's Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature. His Description raisonnée d'une jolie collection de livres (1844), which is a catalogue of the books in his library, contains a life by Francis Wey and a complete bibliography of his numerous works. See also Sainte-Beuve, Portraits littéraires, vol. ii.; Prosper Merimée, Portraits historiques et littéraires (1874); and A Estignard, Correspondance inedité de Charles Nodier, 1796-1844 (1876), containing his letters to Charles Weiss.