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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote Commented examples Gracieuse et Percinet


[Sidenote:

Commented examples--_Gracieuse et Percinet_.]

That _Gracieuse et Percinet_ is of an essentially "stock" character is not in the least against it, for so it ought to be: and the "stock" company that plays its parts plays them well. The father is perhaps rather excessively foolish and unnatural, but then he almost had to be. The wicked and ugly stepmother tops, but does not overtop, _her_ part, and her punishment is not commonplace. Gracieuse herself deserves her name, not only "by her comely face and by her fair bodie," but by her good but not oppressive wits, and her amiable but not faultless disposition. She ought not to have looked into the box; but then we should not have liked her nearly as much if she had not done so. She was foolishly good in refusing to stay with Percinet; but we are by no means certain that we should like her better if she had thrown herself into his arms at the first or second time of asking. Besides, where would have been the story? As for Percinet, he escapes in a wonderful fashion, though partly by help of his lady's little wilfulnesses, the dangers of the handsome, amiable, in a small way always successful, and almost omnipotent hero. There is a sort of ironic tenderness, in his letting Gracieuse again and again go her wilful way and show her foolish filiality, which saves him. He is always ready, and does his spiriting in the politest and best manner, particularly when he shepherds all those amusing but rebellious

little people into their box again--a feat which some great novelists have achieved but awkwardly in their own cases. There is even pathos in the apparently melancholy statement that the fairy palace is dead, and that Gracieuse will never see it till she is buried. I should like to have been Percinet, and I should particularly like to have married Gracieuse.

Moreover, the thing is full of small additional seasonings of incident and phrase to the solid feast of fairy working which it provides. Gracieuse's "collation," with its more than twenty pots of different jams, has a delightful realty (which is slightly different from reality) even for those to whom jam has never been the very highest of human delights, because they prefer savouries to sweets. Even the abominable duchess seems to have had a splendid cellar, before she took to filling the casks with mere gold and jewels to catch the foolish king. It is impossible to imagine a scene more agreeably compounded of politeness and affection than Percinet's first introduction of himself to the Princess: and it is extraordinarily nice to find that they knew all about each other before, though we have had not the slightest previous information as to the acquaintance. I am very much afraid that he made his famous horse kick and plunge when Grognon was on him; but it must be remembered that he had been made to lead that animal against his will. The description of the hag's flogging Gracieuse with feathers instead of scourges is a quite admirable adaptation of some martyrological stories; and when, in her dilapidated condition, she remarks that she wishes he would go away, because she has always been told that she must not be alone with young gentlemen, one feels that the martyrdom must have been transferred, in no mock sense, to Percinet himself. If she borrows Psyche's trials, what good story is not another good story refreshed?[223]

[Sidenote: _L'Adroite Princesse._]

But if almost everything is good and well managed in _Gracieuse_, it may also be said that almost everything is badly managed in _Finette_.[224] To begin with, there is that capital error which has been noticed above, that it is not really a fairy tale at all. Except the magic _quenouilles_, which themselves are of the smallest importance in the story, there is nothing in it beyond the ways of an ordinary adventurous _nouvelle_. The touch of _grivoiserie_ by which the Princesses Nonchalante and Babillarde allow the weaknesses ticketed in their names to hand them over as a prey to the cunning and blackguard Prince Riche-Cautele, under pretence of entirely unceremonised and unwitnessed "marriage," is in no way amusing. Finette's escapes from the same fate are a little better, but the whole is told (as its author seems to have felt) at much too great length; and the dragging in of an actual fairy at the end, to communicate to the heroine the exceedingly novel and recondite maxim that "Prudence is the mother of safety," is almost idiotic. If the thing has any value, it is as an example, not of a real fairy tale nor of a satire on fairy tales (for which it is much too much "out of the rules" and much too stupid), but of something which may save an ordinary reader, or even student, from attacking, as I fear we shall have to do, the _Cabinet des Fees_ at large, and discovering, by painful experience, how excessively silly and tedious the corruption of this wise and delightful kind may be.


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