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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

And the Prince de Noisy and the Vicomte de Gonesse


As

_L'Enchanteur Faustus_ is the shortest of the completed tales, so _Le Belier_ is the longest; indeed, as indicated above, it is the same length as what we have of _Les Quatre Facardins_. It is also--in that unsatisfactory and fragmentary way of knowledge with which literature often has to content itself--much the best known, because of the celebrated address of the giant Moulineau to the hero-beast "Belier, mon ami,... si tu voulais bien commencer par le commencement, tu me ferais plaisir." There are many other agreeable things in it; but it has on the whole a double or more than double portion of the drawback which attends these "key" stories. It was written to please his sister, Madame de Grammont, who had established herself in a country-house, near Versailles. This she transformed from a mere cottage, called Moulineau, into an elegant villa to which she gave the name of Pontalie. There were apparently some difficulties with rustic neighbours, and Anthony wove the whole matter into this story, with the giant and the (of course enchanted) ram just mentioned; and the beautiful Alie who hates all men (or nearly all); and her father, a powerful druid, who is the giant's enemy; and the Prince de Noisy and the Vicomte de Gonesse, and other personages of the environs of Paris, who were no doubt recognisable and interesting once, but who, whether recognisable or not, are not specially interesting now. To repeat that there are good scenes and piquant remarks is merely to say once more
that the thing is Hamilton's. But, on the whole, the present writer at any rate has always found it the least interesting (next to _L'Enchanteur Faustus_) of all.

On the other hand, _Zeneyde_--though unfinished, and though containing, in its ostensibly main story, things compared to which the Prince de Noisy and the Vicomte de Gonesse excite to palpitation--has points of remarkable interest about it. One of these--a prefatory sketch of the melancholy court of exiles at St. Germains--is like nothing else in Hamilton and like very few things anywhere else. This is in no sense fiction--it is, in fact, a historical document of the most striking kind; but it makes background and canvas for fiction itself,[292] and it gives us, besides, a most vivid picture of the priest-ridden, caballing little crowd of folk who had made great renunciations but could not make small. It also shows us in Hamilton a somewhat darker but also a stronger side of satiric powers, differently nuanced from the quiet _persiflage_ of the _Contes_ themselves. This, however, though easily "cobbled on" to the special tale, and possibly not unconnected with it key-fashion, is entirely separable, and might just as well have formed part of an actual letter to the "Madame de P.," to whom it is addressed.

The tale itself, like some if not all the others, but in a much more strikingly contrasted fashion, again consists of two strands, interwoven so intimately, however, that it is almost impossible to separate them, though it is equally impossible to conceive two things more different from each other. The ostensible theme is a history of herself, given by the Nymph of the Seine to the author--a history of which more presently. But this is introduced at considerable length, and interrupted more than once, by scenes and dialogues, between the nymph and her distinctly unwilling auditor, which are of the most whimsically humorous character to be found even in Hamilton himself.


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