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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

It does annoy her when she has to part from Des Grieux


For

once one may concede that the whole attraction of the piece, barring one or two transient but almost Shakespearian flashes of expression--such as the famous "Perfide Manon! Perfide!" when she and Des Grieux first meet after her earliest treason--is to be found in its marvellous humanity, its equally marvellous grasp of character, and the intense, the absolutely shattering pathos of the relations of the hero and heroine. There are those, of course, who make much of the _persona tertia_, Tiberge, the virtuous and friendly priest, who has a remarkable command of money for a not highly placed ecclesiastic, lends it with singular want of circumspection, and then meddles with the best of intentions and the most futile or mischievous of results. Very respectable man, Tiberge; but one with whom _on n'a que faire_. Manon and Des Grieux; Des Grieux and Manon--these are as all-sufficient to the reader as Manon was more than sufficient to Des Grieux, and as he, alas! was, if only in some ways, _in_sufficient to Manon.

One of the things which are nuisances in Prevost's other books becomes pardonable, almost admirable, in this. His habit of incessant, straight-on narration by a single person, his avoidance of dialogue properly so called, is, as has been noted, a habit common to all these early novels, and, to our taste if not to that of their early readers, often disastrous. Here it is a positive advantage. Manon speaks very little; and so much the better.

Her "comely face and her fair bodie" (to repeat once more a beloved quotation) speak for her to the ruin of her lover and herself--to the age-long delectation of readers. On the other hand, the whole speech is Des Grieux', and never was a monologue better suited or justified. The worst of such things is usually that there are in them all sorts of second thoughts of the author. There is none of this littleness in the speech of Des Grieux. He is a gentle youth in the very best sense of the term, and as we gather--not from anything he says of himself, but from the general tenor--by no means a "wild gallant"; affectionate, respectful to his parents, altogether "douce," and, indeed, rather (to start with) like Lord Glenvarloch in _The Fortunes of Nigel_. He meets Manon (Prevost has had the wits to make her a little older than her lover), and _actum est de_ both of them.

[Sidenote: The character of its heroine.]

But Manon herself? She talks (it has been said) very little, and it was not necessary that she should talk much. If she had talked as Marianne talks, we should probably hate her, unless, as is equally probable, we ceased to take any interest in her. She is a girl not of talk but of deeds: and her deeds are of course quite inexcusable. But still that great and long unknown verse of Prior, which tells how a more harmless heroine did various things--

As answered the end of her being created,

fits her, and the deeds create her in their process, according to the wonderful magic of the novelist's art. Manon is not in the least a Messalina; it is not what Messalina wanted that she wants at all, though she may have no physical objection to it, and may rejoice in it when it is shared by her lover. Still less is she a Margaret of Burgundy, or one of the tigress-enchantresses of the Fronde, who would kill their lovers after enjoying their love. It has been said often, and is beyond all doubt true, that she would have been perfectly happy with Des Grieux if he had fulfilled the expostulations of George the Fourth as to Mr. Turveydrop, and had not only been known to the King, but had had twenty thousand a year. She wants nobody and nothing but him, as far as the "Him" is concerned: but she does not want him in a cottage. And here the subtlety comes in. She does not in the least mind giving to others what she gives him, provided that they will give her what he cannot give. The possibility of this combination is of course not only shocking to Mrs. Grundy, but deniable by persons who are not Mrs. Grundy at all. Its existence is not really doubtful, though hardly anybody, except Prevost and (I repeat it, little as I am of an Ibsenite) Ibsen in the _Wild Duck_, has put it into real literature. Manon, like Gina and probably like others, does not really think what she gives of immense, or of any great, importance. People will give her, in exchange for it, what she does think of great, of immense importance; the person to whom she would quite honestly prefer to give it cannot give her these other things. And she concludes her bargain as composedly as any _bonne_ who takes the basket to the shops and "makes its handle dance"--to use the French idiom--for her own best advantage. It does annoy her when she has to part from Des Grieux, and it does annoy her that Des Grieux should be annoyed at what she does. But she is made of no nun's flesh, and such soul as she has is filled with much desire for luxury and pleasure. The desire of the soul will have its way, and the flesh lends itself readily enough to the satisfaction thereof.


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