Saturday, 8 March 2008

French bullseye

I've been reading Thomas Carlyle’s French Revolution (1837) – a quite unfamiliar sort of work for me who have read my share of Eng Lit in my time, or the sort of Eng Lit my generation were pointed to, which never included Carlyle. (A friend once overheard the Leavises -- famous literary critics -- as they browsed in a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge. Queenie to Frank: 'I think one has enough Carlyle, don't you?' The Leavises did not rate Carlyle.)

Carlyle constantly drives me to the dictionary – or to the consciousness that I ought to be going to the dictionary if I were less lazy. Or to some other reference work. Here’s a passage with a phrase that induced this unease:

Happy were a young “Louis the Desired” to make France happy; if it did not prove too troublesome, and he only knew the way. But there is endless discrepancy around him; so many claims and clamours; a mere confusion of tongues…. Philosophism claims her new Era…. France at large is now beginning to speak also…. On the other hand, the Oeuil-de-Boeuf.. best claims with shrill vehemence that the Monarchy be as heretofore a Horn of Plenty; wherefrom loyal courtiers may draw…

You see why I find Carlyle challenging. You won't see from this why he's also terrific. (I may write more about The French Revolution.)

Anyway: from such passages I gathered that the Oeuil-de-Boeuf was something to do with the Court.

So, to Google, which sends me in what seems a hopeless direction, taking me to a set of Flickr photographs gathered under the tag oeuildeboeuf (
Here are a couple:

Something to do with a round window, then? what has that to do with the French monarchy?

So to the Oxford English Dictionary (online, which I can access because I have a university library account). Here I find:

1. A small round or oval window.

2. The name of an octagonal vestibule lighted by a small oval window in the palace at Versailles where, before the Revolution of 1789, members of the court, government, etc., waited on the French monarch; (hence, in extended use) such a vestibule or antechamber in another establishment. Also: the people so gathered for an audience, etc.; a royal household or court. Now chiefly hist.

And among the quotes is

1837 T. CARLYLE French Revol. I. III. i. 91 To govern France were such a problem; and now it has grown well-nigh too hard to govern even the {Oe}il-de-B{oe}uf.

The end. Why did I think you might be interested? Just as an example of the fun you can have in following up obscure references in obscure (to me) literary works... And it could come in handy in a pub quiz.

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