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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

The Chinese Tales are about as little Chinese as may be


The

_Chinese Tales_ are about as little Chinese as may be, consisting of accounts of his punitive metempsychoses by the Mandarin Fum Hoam (a name afterwards borrowed in better known work), who seems to have been excluded from the knowledge of anything particularly Celestial.[236] But they are rather smartly told. On the other hand, _Florine ou la Belle Italienne_, which is included in the same volume with the sham _Chinoiseries_, is one of the worst instances of the confusion of kinds noted above. It honestly prepares one for what is coming by a reference in the Preface to Fenelon; but a list of _dramatis_ (or _fabulae_) _personae_, which follows, would have tried the saintliness even of him of Cambrai almost as much as a German occupation of his archiepiscopal see. "Agatonphisie," for a personage who represents, we are told, "Le Bon Sens," might break the heart of Clenardus, if not the head of Priscian.

_The Thousand and One Quarter Hours_, or _Contes Tartares_, have as little of the Tartar as those above mentioned of the Chinese, but if somewhat verbose, they are not wholly devoid of literary quality. The substance is, as in nearly all these cases, _Arabian Nights_ rehashed; but the hashing is not seldom done _secundum artem_, and they have, with the _Les Sultanes de Gujerate_ and _Nouveaux Contes Orientaux_, which follow them, the faculty of letting themselves be read.

The best of these[237] (except the French

translation of the so-called Sir Charles Morell's (really James Ridley's) _Tales of the Genii_ (see above)) is perhaps, on the whole, _Les Sultanes de Gujerate_, where not only are some of the separate tales good, but the frame-story is far more artistically worked in and round and out than is usually the case. But taking them all together, there is one general and obvious, as well as another local and particular objection to them. Although the sub-title (_v. sup._ again) lets them in, the main one regards them with, at best, an oblique countenance. The differences between the Western fairy and the Eastern _peri_, _dive_, _djin_, or whatever one chooses to call her, him, or it, though not at all easy to define, are exceedingly easy to feel. The magicians and enchanters of the two kinds are nearer to each other, but still not the same. On the other hand, it is impossible for any one who has once felt the strange charm of the _Arabian Nights_ not to feel the immense inferiority of these rehashes and _croquettes_ and _rissoles_, and so forth, of the noble old haunch or sirloin. Yet again, from the special point of view of this book, though they cannot be simply passed over, they supply practically nothing which marks, or causes, or even promises an advance in the general development of fiction. They may be said to be simply a continuation of, or a relapse upon, the pure romance of adventure, with different dress, manners, and nomenclature. There is hardly a single touch of character in any one; their very morals (and no shame to them) are arch-known; and they do not possess style enough to confer distinction of the kind open to such things. If you take _Les Quatre Facardins_, before most of them, and _Vathek_[238] (itself, remember, originally French in language), after them all, the want of any kind of genius in their composers becomes almost disgustingly apparent. Yet even these masterpieces are masterpieces outside the main run of the novel.


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