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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sainte Beuve made something of a fight for them


The

little person goes on very delectably describing the packing, and how she grudged getting rid of the pretty things, and at last sighed and wept--whether for herself, or Valville, or the beautiful gown, she didn't know. But, alas! there is no more room, except to salute her as the agreeable ancestress of all the beloved coquettes and piquant minxes in prose fiction since. Could anything handsomer be said of her creator?

* * * * *

[Sidenote: Prevost.]

[Sidenote: His minor novels--the opinions on them of Sainte-Beuve.]

[Sidenote: And of Planche.]

It is, though an absolute and stereotyped commonplace, an almost equally absolute necessity, to begin any notice of the Abbe Prevost by remarking that nothing of his voluminous work is now, or has been for a long time, read, except _Manon Lescaut_. It may be added, though one is here repeating predecessors to not quite the same extent, that nothing else of his, in fiction at least, is worth reading. The faithful few who do not dislike old criticism may indeed turn over his _Le Pour et [le] Contre_ not without reward. But his historical and other compilations[339]--his total production in volumes is said to run over the hundred, and the standard edition of his _Oeuvres Choisies_ extends to thirty-nine not small ones--are admittedly worthless.

As to his minor novels--if one may use that term, albeit they are as major in bulk as they are minor in merit--opinions of importance, and presumably founded on actual knowledge, have differed somewhat strangely. Sainte-Beuve made something of a fight for them, but it was the Sainte-Beuve of almost the earliest years (1831), when, according to a weakness of beginners in criticism, he was a little inclined "to be different," for the sake of difference. Against _Cleveland_ even he lifts up his heel, though in a rather unfortunate manner, declaring the reading of the greater part to be "aussi fade que celle d'_Amadis_." Now to some of us the reading of _Amadis_ is not "fade" at all. But he finds some philosophical and psychological passages of merit. Over the _Memoires d'un Homme de Qualite_--that huge and unwieldy galleon to which the frail shallop of _Manon_ was originally attached, and which has long been stranded on the reefs of oblivion, while its fly-boat sails for ever more--he is quite enthusiastic, finds it, though with a certain relativity, "natural," "frank," and "well-preserved," gives it a long analysis, actually discovers in it "an inexpressible savour" surpassing modern "local colour," and thinks the handling of it comparable in some respects to that of _The Vicar of Wakefield_! The _Doyen de Killerine_--the third of Prevost's long books--is "infinitely agreeable," "si l'on y met un peu de complaisance." (The Sainte-Beuve of later years would have noticed that an infinity which has to be made infinite by a little complaisance is curiously finite). The later and shorter _Histoire d'une Grecque moderne_ is a _joli roman_, and _gracieux_, though it is not so charming and subtle as Crebillon _fils_ would have made it, and is "knocked off rather haphazardly." Another critic of 1830, now perhaps too much forgotten, Gustave Planche, does not mention the _Grecque_, and brushes aside the three earlier and bigger books rather hastily, though he allows "interest" to both _Cleveland_ and the _Doyen_. Perhaps, before "coming to real things" (as Balzac once said of his own work) in _Manon_, some remarks, not long, but first-hand, and based on actual reading at more than one time of life, as to her very unreal family, may be permitted here, though they may differ in opinion from the judgment of these two redoubtable critics.


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