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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

In the lives of Des Grieux and Manon


[Sidenote:

And that of the hero.]

So, too, there is no such instance known to me of the presentation of two different characters, in two different ways, so complete and yet so idiosyncratic in each. Sainte-Beuve showed what he was going to become (as well, perhaps, as something which he was going to lose) in his slight but suggestive remarks on the relation of Des Grieux to the average _roue_ hero of that most _roue_ time. It is only a suggestion; he does not work it out. But it is worth working out a little. Des Grieux is _ab initio_, and in some ways _usque ad finem_, a sort of _ingenu_. He seems to have no vicious tendencies whatever; and had Manon not supervened, might have been a very much more exemplary Chevalier de Malte than the usual run of those dignitaries, who differed chiefly from their uncrossed comrades and brethren in having no wife to be unfaithful to. He is never false to Manon--the incident of one of Manon's lovers trying vainly to tempt his rival, with a pretty cast-off mistress of his own, is one of the most striking features of the book. He positively reveres, not his mother, who is dead, and reverence for whom would be nothing in a Frenchman, but his father, and even, it would seem, his elder brother--a last stretch of reverence quite unknown to many young English gentlemen who certainly would not do things that Des Grieux did. Except when Manon is concerned, it would seem that he might have been a kind of saint--as good at least

as Tiberge. But his love for her and his desire for her entirely saturate and transform him. That he disobeys his father and disregards his brother is nothing: we all do that in less serious cases than his, and there is almost warrant for it in Scripture. But he cheats at play (let us frankly allow, remembering Grammont and others, that this was not in France the unpardonable sin that it has--for many generations, fortunately--been with us), at the suggestion of his rascally left-hand brother-in-law, in order to supply Manon's wants. He commits an almost deliberate (though he makes some excuses on this point) and almost cowardly murder, on an unarmed lay-brother of Saint-Sulpice, to get to Manon. And, worst of all, he consents to the stealing of moneys given to her by his supplanters in order to feed her extravagance. After this his suborning the King's soldiers to attack the King's constabulary on the King's highway to rescue Manon is nothing. But observe that, though it is certainly not "All for God," it _is_ "All for Her." And observe further that all these things--even the murder--were quite common among the rank and file of that French aristocracy which was so busily hurrying on the French Revolution. Only, Des Grieux himself would pretty certainly not have done them if She had never come in his way. And he tells it all with a limpid and convincing clarity (as they would say now) which puts the whole thing before us. No apology is made, and no apology is needed. It is written in the books of the chronicles of Manon and Des Grieux; in the lives of Des Grieux and Manon, suppose them ever to have existed or to exist, it could not but happen.

[Sidenote: The inevitableness of both and the inestimableness of their history.]

It is surely not profane (and perhaps it has been done already) to borrow for these luckless, and, if you will, somewhat graceless persons, the words of the mighty colophon of Matthew Arnold's most unequal but in parts almost finest poem, at least the first and last lines:


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