The French peerage under the old régime was a very peculiar thing, difficult to comprehend at all, but quite certain to be miscomprehended if any analogy of the English peerage is imported into the consideration. No two things could be more different in France than ennobling a man and making him a peer. No one was made a peer who was not ennobled, but men of the noblest blood in. France and representing their houses might not be, and in most cases were not, peers. Derived at least traditionally and imaginatively from the douze pairs of Charlemagne, the peers were supposed to represent the chosen of the noblesse, and gradtially, in an indefinite and constantly disputed fashion, became associated with the parlement of Paris as a quasi-legislative (or at least law-registering) and directly judicial body. But the peerage was further complicated by the fact that not persons but the holders of certain fiefs were made peers. Strictly speaking, neither Saint-Simon nor any one else in the same case was made a peer, but his estate was raised to the rank of a duchê paine or a comté paine as the case might be. Still the peers were in a way a standing committee representative of the entire body of nobles, and it was Saint-Simon's lifelong ideal, and at times his practical effort to convert them into a sort of great council of the nation.
His mother, Charlotte de l'Aubespine, belonged to a family not of the oldest nobility but one which had been distinguished in the public service at least since the time of Francis I. Her son Louis was well educated, to a great extent by herself, and he had vhad for godfather and godmother Louis XIV and the queen. After some tuition by the Jesuits (especially by Sanadon, the editor of Horace), he joined the mousquetaires gris in 1692. He was present at the siege of Namur, and the battle of Neerwinden. But it was at this very time that he chose to begin the crusade of his life by instigating, if not bringing, an action on the part of the peers of France against Luxembourg, his victorious general, on a point of precedence.
He fought, however, another campaign or two (not under Luxembourg), and in 1695 married Gabrielle de Durfort, daughter of the maréchal de Lorges, under whom he latterly served. He seems to have regarded her with a respect and affection not very usual between husband and wife at the time; and she sometimes succeeded in modifying his aristocratic ideas. But as he did not receive the promotion he desired he flung up his commission in 1702. Louis took a dislike to him, and it was with difficulty that he was able to keep a footing at court. He was, however, intensely interested in all the transactions of Versailles, and by dint of a most heterogeneous collection of instruments, ranging from dukes to servants, he managed to obtain the extraordinary secret information which he has handed down. His own part appears to have been entirely subordinate. He was appointed ambassador to Rome in 1705, but the appointment was cancelled before he started. At last he attached himself to the duke of Orleans and, though this was hardly likely to conciliate Louis's goodwill to him, it gave him at least the status of belonging to a definite party, and it eventually placed him in the position of tried friend to the acting chief of the state. He was able, moreover, to combine attachment to the duke of Burgundy with that to the duke of Orleans. Both attachments were no doubt all the more sincere because of his undying hatred to "the bastards," that is to say, the illegitimate sons of Louis XIV. It does not appear that this hatred was founded on moral reasons or on any real fear that these bastards would be intruded into the succession. The true cause of his wrath was that they had precedence of the peers.
The death of Louis seemed to give Saint-Simon a chance of realizing his hopes. The duke of Orleans was at once acknowledged regent, and Saint-Simon was of the council of regency. But no steps were taken to carry out his favourite vision of a France ruled by the nobles for its good, and he had little real influence with the regent. He was indeed gratified by the degradation of "the bastards," and in 1721 he was appointed ambassador to Spain to arrange for the marriage (not destined to take place) of Louis XV and the infanta. His visit was splendid; he received the grandeeship, and, though he also caught the smallpox, he was quite satisfied with the business. After his return he had little to do with public affairs. His own account of the cessation of his intimacy with Orléans and Dubois, the latter of whom had never been his friend, is, like his own account of some other events of his life, obscure and rather suspicious. But there can be little doubt that he was practically ousted by the favourite. He survived for more than thirty years; but little is known of his life. His wife died in 1743, his eldest son a little later; he had other family troubles, and he was loaded with debt. When he died, at Paris on the 2nd of March 1755, he had almost entirely outlived his own generation (among whom he had been one of the youngest) and the prosperity of his house, though not its notoriety. This last was in strange fashion revived by a distant relative born five years after his own death, Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon.
It will have been observed that the actual events of Saint-Simon's life, long as it was and high as was his position, are neither numerous nor noteworthy. He is, however, an almost unique example of a man who has acquired great literary fame entirely by posthumous publications. He was an indefatigable writer, and he began very early to set down in black and white all the gossip he collected, all his interminable legal disputes of precedence, and a vast mass of unclassified and almost unclassifiable matter. Most of his manuscripts came into the possession of the government, and it was long before their contents were published in anything like fulness. Partly in the form of notes on Dangeau's Journal, partly in that of original and independent memoirs, partly in scattered and multifarious tracts and disquisitions, he had committed to paper an immense amount of matter. But the mere mass of these productions is their least noteworthy feature, or rather it is most remarkable as contrasting with their character and style.
Saint-Simon, though careless and sometimes even ungrammatical, ranks among the most striking memoir-writers of France, the country richest in memoirs of any in the world. His pettiness, his absolute injustice to his private enemies and to those who espoused public parties with which he did not agree, the bitterness which allows him to give favourable portraits of hardly any one, his omnivorous appetite for gossip, his lack of proportion and perspective, are all lost sight of in admiration of his extraordinary genius for historical narrative and characterdrawing of a certain sort. He has been compared to Tacitus, and for once the comparison is just. In the midst of his enormous mass of writing phrases scarcely inferior to the Roman's occur frequently, and here and there are passages of sustained description equal, for intense concentration of light and life, to those of Tacitus or of any other historian. As may be expected from the vast extent of his work, it is in the highest degree unequal. But he is at the same time not a writer who can be "sampled" easily, inasmuchas his most characteristic phrases sometimes occur in the midst of long stretches of quite uninteresting matter.
A few critical studies of him, especially those of Sainte-Beuve, are the basis of much, if not most, that has been written about him. Yet no one is so little to be taken at second-hand. Even his most famous passages, such as the account of the death of the dauphin or of the Bed of Justice where his enemy, the duke of Maine was degraded, will not give a fair idea of his talent. These are his gallery pieces, his great "machines," as French art slang calls them. Much more noteworthy as well as more frequent are the sudden touches which he gives. The bishops are "cuistres violets"; M. de Caumartin "porte sous son manteau toute la faculté que M. de Villeroy étale sur son baudrier"; another politician has a "mine de chat faché." In short, the interest of the Memoirs, independent of the large addition of positive knowledge which they make, is one of constant surprise at the novel and adroit use of word and phrase.