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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Endeavouring to soften Thomyris


The

last of all, X. i. and ii., exhibits, in a remarkable degree, the general defects and the particular merits and promise of this curious and (it cannot be too often repeated) epoch-making book. In the latter respect more especially it shows the "laborious orient ivory sphere in sphere" fashion in which the endless and, it may sometimes seem, aimless episodes, and digressions, and insets are worked into the general theme. The defects will hardly startle, though they may still annoy, any one who has worked through the whole. But if another wickedly contented himself with a sketch of the story up to this point, and thought to make up by reading this Part of two volumes carefully, he would probably feel these defects very strongly indeed. We--we corrupt moderns--do expect a quickening up for the run-in. The usual beginning may seem to the non-experts to promise this, or at least to give hopes of it; for though there is a vast deal of talking--with Anacharsis as a go-between and Gelonide (a good confidante), endeavouring to soften Thomyris, one can but expect it--the situation itself is at once difficult and exciting. The position of Aryante in particular is really novel-dramatic. As he is in love with Mandane, he of course does not want his sister to murder her. But inasmuch as he fears Cyrus's rivalry, he does not want him to be near Mandane for two obvious reasons: first, the actual proximity, and, secondly, the danger of Thomyris's temper getting the better (or worse) of her when
both the lovers are in her power. So he sends private messengers to the Persian Prince, begging him _not_ to surrender. Cyrus, however, still thinks of exchanging himself for Mandane. At this point the neophyte's rage may be excited by being asked to plunge into the regular four-hundred page _Histoire_ of a certain Arpasie, who has two lovers--a Persian nobleman Hidaspe, and a supposed Assyrian champion Meliante, who has come with reinforcements for Thomyris. And no doubt the proportion _is_ outrageous. But "wait and see," a phrase, it may be observed, which was not, as some seem to think, invented by Mr. Asquith.

At last the business does begin again, and a tremendous battle takes place for the possession of certain forests which lie between the two armies, and are at first held by the Scythians. Cyrus, however, avails himself of the services of an engineer who has a secret of combustibles, sets the forests ablaze, and forces his way through one or two open defiles, with little loss to himself and very heavy loss to the enemy, whose main body, however, is still unbroken. This affords a fine subject for one of the curious frontispieces known to all readers of seventeenth century books. A further wait for reinforcements takes place, and the author basely avails herself of it for a no doubt to herself very congenial (they actually called her in "precious" circles by the name of the great poetess) and enormous _Histoire_ of no less a person than Sappho, which fills the last 250 pages of the first (nineteenth) volume and about as much of the second (twentieth) or last. It has very little connection with the text, save that Sappho and Phaon (for the self-precipitation at Leucas is treated as a fable) retire to the country of the Sauromatae, to live there a happy, united, but unwed and purely Platonic (in the silly sense) existence. The foolish side of the _precieuse_ system comes out here, and the treatment confirms one's suspicion that the author's classical knowledge was not very deep.


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