Narcissa’s Tomb

Image of a stone plaque on Narcissa's tomb.

Contributor: Catriona Seth

Location: Jardin des Plantes, Montpellier, France

Description: The poet Edward Young’s The Complaint: or Night-Thoughts on Life, Death & Immortality, published between 1742 and 1745 entranced readers throughout Europe. Whilst a fairly accurate German version was produced quite rapidly, the first French book-length translation only came out in 1769—it was a free adaptation by Le Tourneur and would be widely reprinted over the years. From Rousseau to Robespierre and Germaine de Staël to Bonaparte, whatever their social status or political sensibilities, the chattering classes read Les Nuits.

The second frontispiece of the oft-reprinted French edition, in many ways a forerunner of subsequent illustrations for gothic novels, shows “Young burying his daughter”. This alludes to a memorable episode of the poem: Taken to sunnier climes for her health, Narcissa died. She could not lie in consecrated ground in a catholic country so her Father gave her a clandestine burial at night. At a time when the power of the Church in France was being increasingly challenged, the idea that Young (rather than a poetic persona) had been forced to seek a resting place for a beautiful woman who had perished in the bloom of youth, was a forceful image to denounce religious tyranny.

It was suggested in a footnote to the French translation that the scene had taken place in Montpellier, famous for its medical school and warm climate. Foreign travellers seeking the spot were shown around the botanical gardens by guides who claimed to know the location of the surreptitious ceremony. The presence in Montpellier of health tourists, often afflicted with tuberculosis or some similar disease, surely made Narcissa’s fate a particularly moving one. Many were ready to consume aspects of the tale of her death. The sentimental narrative about a young girl deprived of a tomb through intolerance doubtless seemed particularly relevant. In 1787 the Edict of Tolerance granted civil rights to Protestants and Jews in France, signalling an official end to religious persecution. That same year, the Journal de la généralité de Montpellier published letters discussing where Narcissa was buried and whether a tomb should be erected. They suggest this could be a form of public reparation due to Young the poet—the man of genius—more than to the dead young girl or the grieving father, an implicit illustration of the importance of the artistic expression rather than of an actual event. There was some disquiet in conservative circles that a monument might be built on unhallowed ground to the memory of a heretic.

What lent credence to the legend of Narcissa’s burial was the apparent discovery of skeletal remains in Montpellier’s Jardin des Plantes. Touching stories can also become marketing opportunities. The Montpellier gardeners were not averse to charging visitors for their services. According to certain reports a morbid trade flourished, with students from the medical faculty always ready to supply bones if necessary. The whole business is reminiscent of debates about medieval relics and places of pilgrimage as moneymaking concerns.

From early on, doubts were expressed about the idea Young might have been forced to bury his daughter with his bare hands in an unmarked grave, but this did not stop artists representing the scene like Loutherbourg, a Frenchman who spent much of his career in England, in 1790, or his compatriot Vafflard in 1804. Many commentators remarked that the veracity of the tale was not important: it was sufficient that it should provoke emotion—and provoke emotion, it did, in visitors from across Europe.

A memorial was built to Narcissa during the Napoleonic era. Among the moving forces were two Comédie Française actors, Charlotte Vanhove and the celebrated François-Joseph Talma, who credited Young’s works with having helped him to think himself into the character of Macbeth. Resistance had to be overcome from those who feared the danger of celebrating an inaccurate tradition, but in 1819, Narcissa’s tomb was finally inaugurated by an English visitor, the duke of Gloucester. France was in the throes of Romanticism. Legislation on burials had cast cemeteries out to the most distant suburbs and the notion of a pilgrimage to an individual grave was gaining currency. Recovering from the Revolution, the French were thinking of those who had died far from home and sometimes been buried in unmarked spots. Narcissa could thus become an emblematic victim of circumstance.

John Murray’s 1840s Handbook for Travellers in France, based on journeys undertaken during the previous decade, gives details of the monument with its tablet and trellis rail and observes “This is pointed out as the tomb of Mrs Temple, the adopted daughter of Young, the poet, who died suddenly here, at a time when the atrocious laws which accompanied the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, backed by the superstition of a fanatic populace, denied Christian burial to Protestants”. Young is quoted at length before a more prosaic ending: “Evidence has been brought forward to prove that Narcissa (Mrs Temple) was, in reality, buried at Lyons.” This is perfectly accurate: Young’s step-daughter, the distant model for the poetic Narcissa, breathed her last at Lyons and was buried in the Swiss protestant cemetery.

To this day, in Montpellier, a tomb-like structure with the inscription Placandis Narcissae manibus and a plaque quoting the Night-Thoughts in French, commemorates the dead woman. Narcissa’s manes may have been placated—and writers like Romantic author Alfred de Musset, or, decades later, Paul Valery and André Gide inspired by her tale and “tomb”—, but Young never buried a daughter here. The story is a tribute to imagination, that of Young composing his Complaint, but also that of the common reader, a last resting place of no-one, but a memorial to a paper victim, the source of many dreams and reflections. Romantic tourism on the continent, not the grand tour which took visitors to see the ruined baths of Caracalla or Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, was also at times literary tourism, where fiction, rather than historical fact, was the mediation and the source of wonder.

Date: 1819

Subject: Edward Young

Media rights: Linda Gil

Object type: tomb

Format: stone structure