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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote Cyrano de Bergerac and his Voyages


this, of course, is not extraordinarily brilliant; but it is an early--a _very_ early--beginning of the right sort of thing--conversation of a natural kind transferred from the boards to the book, sketches of character, touches of manners and of life generally, individual, national, local. The cross-purposes of the almost idiotic _ingenue_ and the philandering gallant are already very well done; and if Javotte had been as clever as she was stupid she could hardly have set forth the inwardness of French marriages more neatly than by the blunt reference to her _dot_, or have at the same moment more thoroughly disconcerted Nicodeme's regularly laid-out approaches for a flirtation in form, with only a possible, but in any case distant, termination in anything so prosaic as marriage.[268] The thing as a whole is, in familiar phrase, "all right" in kind and in scheme. It requires some perfecting in detail; but it is in every reasonable sense perfectible.

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[Sidenote: Cyrano de Bergerac and his _Voyages_.]

It has been possible to speak of one of the pioneer books mentioned in this chapter with more allowance than most of the few critics and historians who have discussed or mentioned it have given it, and to recommend the others, not uncritically but quite cheerfully. This satisfactory state of things hardly persists when we reach what seems perhaps,

to those who have never read it, not the least considerable of the batch--the _Voyage a la Lune_ of Cyrano de Bergerac, as his name is in literary history, though he never called himself so.[269] Cyrano, though he does not seem to have had a very fortunate life, and died young, yet was not all unblest, and has since been rather blessed than banned. Even in his own day Boileau spoke of him with what, in the "Bollevian" fashion, was comparative compliment--that is to say, he said that he did not think Cyrano so bad as somebody else. But long afterwards, in the middle of the nineteenth century, Gautier took him up among his _Grotesques_ and embalmed him in the caressing and immortalising amber of his marvellous style and treatment; while at the end of the same century one of the chief living poets and playwrights of France made him the subject of a popular and really pathetic drama. His _Pedant Joue_ is not a stupid comedy, and had the honour of furnishing Moliere with some of that "property" which he was, quite rightly, in the habit of commandeering wherever he found it. _La Mort d'Agrippine_ is by no means the worst of that curious school of tragedy, so like and so unlike to that of our own "University wits," which was partly exemplified and then transcended by Corneille, and which some of us are abandoned enough to enjoy more as readers, though as critics we may find more faults with it, than we find it possible to do with Racine. But the _Voyage a la Lune_, as well as, though rather less than, its complementary dealing with the Sun, has been praised with none of these allowances. On the contrary, it has had ascribed to it the credit of having furnished, not scraps of dialogue or incident, but a solid suggestion to an even greater than Moliere--to Swift; remarkable intellectual and scientific anticipations have been discovered in it, and in comparatively recent times versions of it have been published to serve as proofs that Cyrano was actually a father[270] of French eighteenth-century _philosophie_--a different thing, once more, from philosophy.


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