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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

He is a Rabelais de bonne compagnie


or appreciated it: that was

left for the eighteenth century to do. Meanwhile Hamilton brought the double influence to bear, not merely on the French novel, but on the novel in general and on the eccentric novel in particular. To appreciate him properly, he ought to be compared with Rabelais before him and with Voltaire or Sterne--with both, perhaps, as a counsel of perfection--after him. He is a smaller man, both in literature and in humanity, than Master Francis; but the phrase which Voltaire himself rather absurdly used of Swift might be used without any absurdity in reference to him. He _is_ a "Rabelais de bonne compagnie," and from the exactly opposite point of view he might be called a Voltaire or a Sterne _de bonne compagnie_ likewise. That is to say, he is a gentleman pretty certainly as well as a genius, which Rabelais might have been, at any rate in other circumstances, but did not choose to be, and which neither Francois Arouet nor Laurence Sterne could have been, however much either had tried, though the metamorphosis is not quite so utterly inconceivable in Sterne's case as in the other's. Hamilton, it has been confessed, is sometimes "naughty"; but his naughtiness is neither coarse nor sniggering,[308] and he depends upon it so little--a very important point--that he is sometimes most amusing when he is not naughty at all. In other words, he has no need of it, but simply takes it as one of the infinite functions of human comedy. Against which let Mrs. Grundy say what she likes.

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It is conceivable that objection may be taken, or at any rate surprise felt, at the fulness with which a group of mostly little books--no one of them produced by an author of the first magnitude as usual estimates run--has been here handled. But the truth is that the actual birth of the French novel took a much longer time than that of the English--a phenomenon explicable, without any national vainglory, by the fact that it came first and gave us patterns and stimulants. The writers surveyed in this chapter, and those who will take their places in the next--at least Scarron, Furetiere, Madame de La Fayette and Hamilton, Lesage, Marivaux, and Prevost--whatever objections or limitations may be brought against them, form the central group of the originators of the modern novel. They open the book of life, as distinguished from that of factitious and rather stale literature; they point out the varieties of incident and character; the manners and interiors and fantastic adjustments; the sentiment rising to passion--which are to determine the developments and departments of the fiction of the future. They leave, as far as we have seen them, great opportunities for improvement to those immediate followers to whom we shall now turn. Hamilton is, indeed, not yet much followed, but Lesage far outgoes Scarron in the raising of the picaresque; Marivaux distances Furetiere in painting of manners and in what some people call psychology; _Manon Lescaut_ throws _La Princesse de Cleves_ into the shade as regards the greatest and most novel-breeding of the passions. But the whole are really a _bloc_, the continental sense of which is rather different from our "block." And perhaps we shall find that, though none of them was equal in genius to some who succeeded them in novel-writing, the novel itself made little progress, and some backsliding, during nearly a hundred years after they ceased to write.


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