Alphonse Daudet was born in Nîmes, France. His family, on both sides, belonged to the bourgeoisie. The father, Vincent Daudet, was a silk manufacturer ... a man dogged through life by misfortune and failure. Alphonse, amid much truancy, had a depressing boyhood. In 1856 he left Lyons, where his schooldays had been mainly spent, and began life as a schoolteacher at Alès, Gard, in the south of France. The position proved to be intolerable. As Dickens declared that all through his prosperous career he was haunted in dreams by the miseries of his apprenticeship to the blacking business, so Daudet says that for months after leaving Alès he would wake with horror, thinking he was still among his unruly pupils.
On 1 November 1857, he abandoned teaching and took refuge with his brother Ernest Daudet, only some three years his senior, who was trying, "and thereto soberly," to make a living as a journalist in Paris. Alphonse took to writing, and his poems were collected into a small volume, Les Amoureuses (1858), which met with a fair reception. He obtained employment on Le Figaro, then under Cartier de Villemessant's energetic editorship, wrote two or three plays, and began to be recognized, among those interested in literature, as possessing individuality and promise. Morny, Napoleon III's all-powerful minister, appointed him to be one of his secretaries ... a post which he held till Morny's death in 1865 ... and showed Daudet no small kindness. Daudet had put his foot on the road to fortune.
1866, Daudet's Lettres de mon moulin, written in Clamart, near Paris, and alluding to a windmill in Fontvieille, Provence, won the attention of many readers. The first of his longer books, Le petit chose (1868), did not, however, produce popular sensation. It is, in the main, the story of his own earlier years told with much grace and pathos. The year 1872 brought the famous Aventures prodigieuses de Tartarin de Tarascon, and the three-act play L'Arlésienne. But Fromont jeune et Risler aîné (1874) at once took the world by storm. It struck a note, not new certainly in English literature, but comparatively new in French. His creativeness resulted in characters that were real and also typical.
Jack, a novel about an illegitimate child, a martyr to his mother's selfishness, which followed in 1876, served only to deepen the same impression. Henceforward his career was that of a very successful man of letters, publishing novel on novel, Le Nabab (1877), Les Rois en exil (1879), Numa Roumestan (1881), Sapho (1884), L'Immortel (1888), and writing for the stage at frequent intervals, giving the world his reminiscences in Trente ans de Paris (1887) and Souvenirs d'un homme de lettres (1888). These, with the three Tartarins, Tartarin de Tarascon, Tartarin sur les Alpes, Port-Tarascon, and the admirable short stories, written for the most part before he had acquired fame and fortune, constitute his life work.
Though Daudet defended himself from the charge of imitating Dickens, it is difficult altogether to believe that so many similarities of spirit and manner were quite unsought. What, however, was purely his own was his style. It is a style that may rightly be called "impressionist," full of light and colour, not descriptive after the old fashion, but flashing its intended effect by a masterly juxtaposition of words that are like pigments. Nor does it convey, like the style of the Goncourts, for example, a constant feeling of effort. It is full of felicity and charm, "un charmeur," Zola called him. An intimate friend of Edmond de Goncourt (who died in his house), of Flaubert, of Zola, Daudet belonged essentially to naturalism. His own experiences, his surroundings, the men with whom he had been brought into contact, various persons who had played a part, more or less public, in Paris life, all passed into his art. But he vivified the material supplied by his memory. His world has the great gift of life. L'Immortel is a bitter attack on the Académie française, to which august body Daudet never belonged.Daudet wrote some charming stories for children, including "La Belle Nivernaise," the story of an old boat and her crew.
In 1867 Daudet married Julia Allard, who is known for her Impressions de nature et d'art (1879), L'Enfance d'une Parisienne (1883), and some literary studies written under the pseudonym "Karl Steen."
Daudet was far from faithful, and was among the literary syphilitics. Having lost his virginity at age twelve, and then slept with his friend's mistresses throughout his marriage, Daudet would undergo several painful treatments and operations for his subsequently paralyzing disease. His journal entries relating to the pain he experienced from tabes dorsalis are collected in the volume In the Land of Pain, translated by Julian Barnes.
Daudet died in Paris on 16 December 1897, and was interred at that city's Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Daudet was a monarchist and a fervent opponent of the French Republic. Daudet was also an anti-Semite. The main character of Le Nabab was inspired by a Jewish politician who was elected as a deputy for Nimes. Daudet campaigned against him and lost. Daudet counted many literary figures amongst his friends, including Edouard Drumont, who founded the Antisemitic League of France and founded and edited the anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole. Daudet also exchanged anti-Semitic correspondence with Richard Wagner. Daudet's son, Leon, went on to build his political career on both royalism and anti-Semitism.
It has been argued that Daudet deliberately exaggerated his links to Provence to further his literary career and social success (following Frederic Mistral's success), including lying to his future wife about his "provencal" roots.
Numerous colleges and schools in contemporary France bear his name and his books are still widely read and several are still in print.