August 13, 2014

“No man is a hero to his valet” – the backstory on a famous proverb and misquote...

Charlotte Aïssé (1693-1733) was quite a celebrity in France in the early 18th Century — part heroine, part sex symbol, part intellectual.

As a child, her father’s palace was raided by the Turks. They took her captive but soon sold her to Count Charles de Ferriol, the French ambassador at Constantinople.

She was raised by Ferriol's sister-in-law in Paris and became a beauty who attracted the attention of several prominent French aristocrats.

After her death, her fame grew. Three French plays were written about her. The letters she wrote to a friend were edited by Voltaire and published in book form in 1787 (Lettres de Mademoiselle Aïssé a Madame Calandrini).

In one of those letters, dated August 13, 1728, Aïssé mentioned a quip she’d heard.

It was a comment by another prominent French lady, Anne-Marie Bigot de Cornuel (1605-1694), who was once the mistress of King Louis XIV.

A simplified English translation of part of what Madame Cornuel said became cited as a famous quotation:

      “No man is a hero to his valet.”

Many books of quotations attribute this quote to Cornuel by way of Aïssé’s letter. However, it seems to be a case of something gained in translation.

In the original French, what Aïssé actually wrote in her letter was:

“Je vous renvoie à ce que disoit madame Cornuel, qu’il n’y avoit point de héros pour les valets de chambre, et point de pères de l’Église parmi ses contemporains.”

A literal English translation of is something like:

“I refer to what Madame Cornuel said, that there were no heroes to valets, nor to the Fathers of the Church among their contemporaries.”

Somewhere along the line, in English translations, the valet part of Aïssé’s comment morphed into “No man is a hero to his valet.”

That may be because it already existed as a proverbial saying.

Indeed, “No man is a hero to his valet” is listed in many sources simply as an old French or English proverb

The meaning of the proverb is that a servant (such as a valet) does not usually have the same grand, positive view that other people may have of the servant’s master or employer.

My own conclusion is that “No man is a hero to his valet” is proverbial, with no clear origin, and that what Madame Cornuel said was an allusion to the proverb — which was then misquoted in translation to fit the English version of the saying.

Je suis désolé, Madame Cornuel. I’m sorry. But you don’t get credit for coining it — and may not even deserve credit for saying it.

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