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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

The class of prose fiction which


So

much in the way of alms for Momus. Fortunately a much fuller collection of points for admiration offers itself. It has been admitted that the historical element[278] is perhaps, in the circumstances and for the story, a trifle irrelevant and even "in the way." But its presence at all is the important point. Some, at any rate, of the details--the relations of that Henri II., with whom, it seems, we may _not_ connect the very queer, very rare, but not very beautiful _faience_ once called "Henri Deux" ware,[279] with his wife and his mistress; his accidental death at the hands of Montgomery; the history of Henry VIII.'s matrimonial career, and the courtship of his daughter by a French prince (if not _this_ French prince)--are historical enough to present a sharp contrast with the cloudy pseudo-classical canvas of the Scudery romances, or the mere fable-land of others. Any critical Brown ought to have discovered "great capabilities" in it; and though it was not for more than another century that the true historical novel got itself born, this was almost the nearest experiment to it. But the other side--the purely sentimental--let us not say psychological--side, is of far more consequence; for here we have not merely aspiration or chance-medley, we have attainment.

There is a not wholly discreditable prejudice against abridgments, especially of novels, and more especially against what are called condensations. But one may think that the simple knife,

without any artful or artless aid of interpolated summaries, could carve out of _La Princesse de Cleves_, as it stands, a much shorter but fully intelligible presentation of its passionate, pitiful subject. A slight want of _individual_ character may still be desiderated; it is hardly till _Manon Lescaut_ that we get that, but it was not to be expected. Scarcely more to be expected, but present and in no small force, is that truth to life; that "knowledge of the human heart" which had been hitherto attempted by--we may almost say permitted to--the poet, the dramatist, the philosopher, the divine; but which few, if any, romancers had aimed at. This knowledge is not elaborately but sufficiently "set" with the halls and _ruelles_ of the Court, the gardens and woods of Coulommiers; it is displayed with the aid of conversation, which, if it seems stilted to us, was not so then; and the machinery employed for working out the simple plot--as, for instance, in the case of the dropped letter, which, having originally nothing whatever to do with any of the chief characters, becomes an important instrument--is sometimes far from rudimentary in conception, and very effectively used.

It is therefore no wonder that the book did two things--things of unequal value indeed, but very important for us. In the first place, it started the School of "Sensibility"[280] in the novel, and so provided a large and influential portion of eighteenth-century fiction. In the second--small as it is--it almost started the novel proper, the class of prose fiction which, though it may take on a great variety of forms and colours, though it may specialise here and "extravagate" there, yet in the main distinguishes itself from the romance by being first of all subjective--by putting behaviour, passion, temperament, character, motive before incident and action in the commoner sense--which had had few if any representatives in ancient times, had not been disentangled from the romantic envelope in mediaeval, but was to be the chief new development of modern literature.


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