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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Or how could Cheri be made into one


One might, of course, draw lessons from others of the original batches, but this may suffice for the specimen batch under immediate review. _Peau d'Ane_, one of the most interesting to "folklorists" and origin-hunters, is, of course, also in itself interesting to students of literature. Its combination of the old theme of the incestuous passion of a father for his daughter, with the special but not invariable shadow of excuse in the selfish vanity of the mother's dying request, is quite out of the usual way of these things. So is the curious series of fairy failures--things apparently against the whole set of the game--beginning with the unimaginative conception of dresses, weather-, or sky-, moon-, and sun-colour, rendered futile by the success of the artists, and ending in the somewhat banal device of making yourself ugly and running away, with the odd conclusion-contrast of Peau d'Ane's squalid appearance in public and her private splendour in the fairy garments.

[Sidenote: The danger of the "moral."]

Still, the lessons of correction, warning, and instruction to be drawn from these gracious little things, for the benefit of their younger and more elaborate successors, are not easily exhausted. They are, on the whole, very moral, and it is well that morality, rightly understood, should animate fiction. But they are occasionally much _too_ moral, and then they warn off instead of cheering on. Take, for instance, two other neighbours in the collection just quoted, _Le Prince Cheri_ and the ever-delightful _La Belle et La Bete_. Both of these are moral; but the latter is just moral enough, while _Cheri_, with one or two alleviations (of which, perhaps, more presently), is hardly anything if _not_ moral, and therefore disgusts, or at any rate bores. On the other hand, "Beauty" is as _bonne_ as she is _belle_; her only fault, that of overstaying her time, is the result of family affection, and her reward and the punishment of the wicked sisters are quite copy-book. But it is not for this part that we love what is perhaps the most engaging of all the tales. It is for Beauty's own charm, which is subtly conveyed; for the brisk and artistic "revolutions and discoveries"; above all, for the far from merely sentimental pathos of the Beast's all but death _for_ love, and the not in the least mawkish bringing of him to life again _by_ love.[225]

[Sidenote: Yet often redeemed.]

One may perhaps also make amends to Prince Cheri for the abuse just bestowed on him. His story has at least one touch which is sovereign for a fiction-fault common in the past, and only too probable in the future, at whatever time one takes the "present" of the story. When he is not unjustly turned into a monster of the most allegorical-composite order of monster architecture--a monster to whom dragons and wyverns and chimaeras dire are as ordinary as kittens--what do they do with him? They put him "with the other monsters." _Ce n'est pas plus raide que ca._ The present writer need hardly fear to be thought an anti-mediaevalist, but he is very much afraid that an average mediaeval romancer might have thought it necessary to catalogue these other monsters with the aid of a Bestiary. On the other hand, there have been times--no matter which--when this abrupt introduction and dismissal of monsters as common objects (for which any respectable community will have proper stables or cages) would have been disallowed, or explained away, or apologised for, or, worst of all, charged with a sort of wink or sneer to let the reader know that the author knew what he was about. Here there is nothing of this superfluous or offensive sort. The appropriate and undoubting logic of the style prevails over all too reasonable difficulties. There are monsters, or how could Cheri be made into one? If there are monsters there must, or in the highest probability may, be other monsters. Put him with them, and make no fuss about it. If all novelists had had this _aplomb_, we should have been spared a great deal of tediousness, some positive failures, and the spoiling, or at least the blotting and marring, of many excellent situations. But to praise the good points of fairy stories, from the brief consummateness of _Le Chat Botte_ to the longer drawn but still perfectly golden matter of _La Biche au Bois_, would really be superfluous. One loathes leaving them; but one has to do it, so far as the more unsophisticated part of them is concerned. Yet the duty of the historian will not let him be content with these, and, to vary "The Brave Lord Willoughby" a little, "turning to the [_others_] a thousand more," he must "slay," or at least criticise.


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