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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

I evidently had not read the Grecque Moderne


[Sidenote: The books themselves--_Histoire d'une Grecque Moderne_.]

I do not think that when I first wrote about Prevost (I had read _Manon_ long before) more than thirty years ago, in a _Short History of French Literature_, I paid very much attention to these books. I evidently had not read the _Grecque Moderne_, for I said nothing about it. Of the others I said only that they are "romances of adventure, occupying a middle place between those of Lesage and Marivaux." It is perfectly true, but of course not very "in-going," and whatever reading I then gave any of them had not left very much impression on my mind, when recently, and for the purpose of the present work, I took them up again, and the _Histoire_ as well. This last is the story of a young modern Greek slave named Theophe (a form of which the last syllable seems more modern than Greek), who is made visible in full harem by her particularly complaisant master, a Turkish pasha, to a young Frenchman, admired and bought by this Frenchman (the relater of the story), and freed by him. He does not at first think of making her his mistress, but later does propose it, only to meet a refusal of a somewhat sentimental-romantic character, though she protests not merely gratitude, but love for him. The latter part of the book is occupied by what Sainte-Beuve calls "delicate" ambiguities, which leave us in doubt whether her "cruelty" is shown to others as well, or whether it is not. In suggesting that Crebillon would have made it charming, the great critic has perhaps made another of those slips which show the novitiate. The fact is that it is an exceedingly dull book: and that to have made it anything else, while retaining anything like its present "propriety," either an entire metamorphosis of spirit, which might have made it as passionate as _Manon_ itself, or the sort of filigree play with thought and phrase which Marivaux would have given, would be required. As a "Crebillonnade" (_v. inf._) it might have been both pleasant and subtle, but it could only have been made so by becoming exceedingly indecent.

[Sidenote: _Cleveland._]

Still, its comparative (though only comparative) shortness, and a certain possibility rather than actuality of interest in the situation,[340] may recommend this novel at least to mercy. If the present writer were on a jury trying _Cleveland_, no want of food or fire should induce him to endorse any such recommendation in regard to that intolerable book. It is, to speak frankly, one of the very few books--one of the still fewer novels--which I have found it practically impossible to read even in the "skim and skip and dip" fashion which should, no doubt, be only practised as a work of necessity (_i.e._ duty to others) and of mercy (to oneself) on extraordinary occasions, but which nobody but a prig and a pedant will absolutely disallow. Almost the only good thing I can find to say about it is that Prevost, who lived indeed for some time in England, is now and then, if not always, miraculously correct in his proper names. He can actually spell Hammersmith! Other merit--and this is not constant (in the dips which I have actually made, to rise exhausted from each, and skip rather than even skim to the rest)--I can find none. The beginning is absurd and rather offensive, the hero being a natural son of Cromwell by a woman who has previously been the mistress of Charles I. The continuation is a mish-mash of adventure, sometimes sanguinary, but never exciting, travel (in fancy parts of the West Indies, etc.), and the philosophical disputations which Sainte-Beuve found interesting. As for the end, no two persons seem quite agreed what _is_ the end. Sainte-Beuve speaks of it as an attempted suicide of the hero--the most justifiable of all his actions, if he had succeeded. Prevost himself, in the Preface to the _Doyen de Killerine_, repeats an earlier disavowal (which he says he had previously made in Holland) of a fifth volume, and says that his own work ended with the murder of Cleveland by one of the characters. Again, this is a comprehensible and almost excusable action, and might have followed, though it could not have preceded, the other. But if it was the end, the other was not. A certain kind of critic may say that it is my duty to search and argue this out. But, for my part, I say as a reader to _Cleveland_, "No more _in_ thee my steps shall be, For ever and for ever."[341]


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