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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote Le Grand Alcandre Frustre


[Sidenote:

Mme. de Villedieu.]

The most recent book[215] but one about Mme. de Villedieu contains (and, oddly enough, confesses itself to contain) very little about her novels, which the plain man might have thought the only reason for writing about her at all. It tells (partly after Tallemant) the little that is known about her (adding a great deal more about other people, things, and places, and a vast amount of conjecture), and not only takes the very dubious "letters" published by herself for gospel, but attributes to her, on the slightest evidence, if any, the anonymous _Memoires sur la Vie de Henriette Sylvie de Moliere_, and, what is more, accepts them as autobiographic; quotes a good deal of her very valueless verse and that of others, and relates the whole in a most marvellous style, the smallest and most modest effervescences of which are things like this: "La religion arrose son ame d'une eau parfumee, et les fleurs noirs du repentir eclosent" or "Soixante ans pesaient sur son crane ennuage d'une perruque."[216] A good bibliography of the actual work, and not a little useful information about books and MS. relating to the period, may reconcile one class of readers to it, and a great deal of scandal another; but as far as the subject of this history goes no one will be much wiser when he closes the volume than he was when he opened it.

The novelist-heroine's actual name was Marie Catherine Hortense des Jardins,

and she never was really Mme. de Villedieu at all, though there was a real M. de Villedieu whom she loved, went through a marriage ceremony and lived with, left, according to some, or was left by, according to others. But he was already married, and this marriage was never dissolved. Very late in life she seems actually to have married a Marquis de Chaste, who died soon. But most of the time was spent in rather scandalous adventures, wherein Fouquet's friend Gourville, the minister Lyonne, and others figure. In fact she seems to have been a counterpart as well as a contemporary of our own Afra, though she never came near Mrs. Behn in poetry or perhaps in fiction. Her first novel, _Alcidamie_, not to be confounded with the earlier _Alcidiane_, was a scarcely concealed utilising of the famous scandal about Tancrede de Rohan (Mlle. des Jardins' mother had been a dependant on the Rohan family, and she herself was much befriended by that formidable and sombre-fated enchantress, Mme. de Montbazon). In fact, common as is the real or imputed "key"-interest in these romances from the _Astree_ onwards, none seems to have borrowed more from at least gossip than this. Her later performances, _Les Annales Galantes de la Grece_ (said to be very rare), _Carmente_, _Les Amours des Grands Hommes_, _Les Desordres de l'Amour_, and some smaller pieces, all rely more or less on this or that kind of scandal. Collections appeared three or four times in the earlier eighteenth century.

[Sidenote: _Le Grand Alcandre Frustre._]

Since M. Magne wrote (and it is fair to say that the main purpose of his book was frankly avowed by its appearance as a member of a series entitled _Femmes Galantes_), a somewhat more sober account, definitely devoted in part to the novels, has appeared.[217] But even this is not exhaustive from our point of view. The collected editions (of which that of 1702, in 10 vols., said to be the best, is the one I have used) must be consulted if one really wishes to attain a fair knowledge of what "this questionable Hortense" (as Mr. Carlyle would probably have called her) really did in literature; and no one, even of these, appears to contain the whole of her ascribed compositions. What used sometimes to be quoted as her principal work, _Le Grand Alcandre Frustre_ (the last word being often omitted), is, in fact, a very small book, containing a bit of scandal about the Grand Monarque, of the same kind as those which myriad anonyms of the time printed in Holland, and of which any one who wants them may find specimens enough in the _Bibliotheque Elzevirienne_ edition of Bussy-Rabutin. Its chief--if not its only--attraction is an exceedingly quaint frontispiece--a cavalier and lady standing with joined hands under a chandelier, the torches of which are held by a ring of seven Cupids, so that the lower one hangs downwards, and the disengaged hand of the cavalier, which is raised, seems to be grabbing at him.


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