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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote Le Doyen de Killerine


[Sidenote:

_Le Doyen de Killerine._]

_Le Doyen de Killerine_ is not perhaps so utterly to be excommunicated as _Cleveland_, and, as has been said above, some have found real interest in it. It is not, however, free either from the preposterousness or from the dulness of the earlier book, though the first characteristic is less preposterous as such preposterousness goes. The Dean of Killerine (Coleraine) is a Roman Catholic dean, just after the expulsion of James II., when, we learn with some surprise, that neighbourhood was rather specially full of his co-religionists. He is a sort of _lusus naturae_, being bow-legged, humpbacked, potbellied, and possessing warts on his brows, which make him a sort of later horned Moses. The eccentricity of his appearance is equalled by that of his conduct. He is the eldest son of an Irish gentleman (nobleman, it would sometimes seem), and his father finds a pretty girl who is somehow willing to marry him. But, feeling no vocation for marriage, he suggests to her (a suggestion perhaps unique in fiction if not in fact) that she should marry his father instead. This singular match comes off, and a second family results, the members of which are, fortunately, not _lusus naturae_, but a brace of very handsome and accomplished boys, George and Patrick, and an extremely pretty girl, Rosa. Of these three, their parents dying when they are something short of full age, the excellent dean becomes a sort of guardian. He takes them

to the exiled court of Versailles, and his very hen-like anxieties over the escapades of these most lively ducklings supply the main subject of the book. It might have been made amusing by humorous treatment, but Prevost had no humour in him: and it might have been made thrilling by passion, but he never, except in the one great little instance, compressed or distilled his heaps and floods of sensibility and sensationalism into that. The scene where a wicked Mme. de S---- plays, and almost outplays, Potiphar's wife to the good but hideous Dean's Joseph is one of the most curious in novel-literature, though one of the least amusing.

[Sidenote: The _Memoires d'un Homme de Qualite_.]

We may now go back to the _Memoires_, partly in compliment to the master of all mid-nineteenth-century critics, but more because of their almost fortuitous good luck in ushering _Manon_ into the world. There is something in them of both their successors, _Cleveland_ and the _Doyen_, but it may be admitted that they are less unreadable than the first, and less trivial than the second. The plan--if it deserve that name--is odd, one marquis first telling his own fortunes and voyages and whatnots, and then serving as Mentor (the application, though of course not original, is inevitable) to another marquis in further voyages and adventures. There are Turkish brides and Spanish murdered damsels; English politics and literature, where, unfortunately, the spelling _does_ sometimes break down; glances backward, in "Histoires" of the _Grand Siecle_, at meetings with Charles de Sevigne, Racine, etc.; mysterious remedies, a great deal of moralising, and a great deal more of weeping. Indeed the whole of Prevost, like the whole of that "Sensibility Novel" of which he is a considerable though rather an outside practitioner, is pervaded with a gentle rain of tears wherein the personages seem to revel--indeed admit that they do so--in the midst of their woes.

[Sidenote: Its miscellaneous curiosities.]

On the whole, however, the youthful--or almost youthful--half-wisdom of Sainte-Beuve is better justified of its preference for the _Memoires_ than of other things in the same article. I found it, reading it later on purpose and with "preventions" rather the other way, very much more readable than any of its companions (_Manon_ is not its companion, but in a way its constituent), without being exactly readable _simpliciter_. All sorts of curious things might be dug out of it: for instance, quite at the beginning, a more definite declaration than I know elsewhere of that curious French title-system which has always been such a puzzle to Englishmen. "Il _se fit_ appeler le Comte de ... et, se voyant un fils, il _lui donna_ celui de Marquis de ..." There is a good deal in it which makes us think that Prevost had read Defoe, and something which makes it not extravagant to fancy that Thackeray had read Prevost. But once more "let us come to the real things--let us speak of" _Manon Lescaut_.


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