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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Which Crebillon also uses in some of his books


There

are, however, excuses for Crebillon: and though it may seem a rash thing to say, and even one which gives the case away, there is, at least in these two and parts of _Le Sopha_, hardly a page--even of the parts which, if "cut," would improve the work as a whole--that does not in itself prove the almost elfish cleverness now assigned to him.

[Sidenote: For the defendant--The veracity of his artificiality and his consummate cleverness.]

The great excuse for him, from the non-literary point of view, is that this world of his--narrow though crowded as it is, corrupt, preposterous, inviting the Judgment that came after it as no period perhaps has ever done, except that immediately before the Deluge, that of the earlier Roman empire, and one other--was a real world in its day, and left, as all real things do, an abiding mark and influence on what followed. One of the scores and almost hundreds of sayings which distinguish him, trivial as he seems to some and no doubt disgusting as he seems to others, is made by one of his most characteristic and most impudent but not most offensive heroes _a la_ Richelieu, who says, not in soliloquy nor to a brother _roue_, but to the mistress of the moment: "If love-making is not always a pleasure, at any rate it is always a kind of occupation." That is the keynote of the Crebillon novel: it is the handbook, with illustrative examples, of the business, employment, or vocation of

flirting, in the most extensive and intensive meanings of that term comprehensible to the eighteenth century.

[Sidenote: The Crebillonesque atmosphere and method.]

Now you should never scamp or hurry over business: and Crebillon observes this doctrine in the most praiseworthy fashion. With the thorough practicality of his century and of his nation (which has always been in reality the most practical of all nations) he sets to work to give us the ways and manners of his world. It is an odd world at first sight, but one gets used to its conventions. It is a world of what they used to call, in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century, "high fellers" and of great ladies, all of whom--saving for glimpses of military and other appointments for the men, which sometimes take them away and are useful for change of scene, of theatres, balls, gaming-tables for men and women both--"have nothing in the world to do" but carry on that occupation which Clitandre of "The Night and the Moment," at an extremely suitable time and in equally appropriate circumstances, refers to in the words quoted above. There are some other oddities about this world. In some parts of it nobody seems to be married. Mrs. Grundy, and even persons more exercised in actual fact than Mrs. Grundy, would expect them all to be, and to neglect the tie. But sometimes Crebillon finds it easier to mask this fact. Often his ladies are actual widows, which is of course very convenient, and might be taken as a sign of grace in him by Mrs. G.: oftener it is difficult to say what they are legally. They are nearly all duchesses or marchionesses or countesses, just as the men hold corresponding ranks: and they all seem to be very well off. But their sole occupation is that conducted under the three great verbs, _Prendre_; _Avoir_; _Quitter_. These verbs are used rather more frequently, but by no means exclusively, of and by the men. Taking the stage nomenclature familiar to everybody from Moliere, which Crebillon also uses in some of his books, though he exchanges it for proper names elsewhere, let us suppose a society composed of Oronte, Clitandre, Eraste, Damis (men), and Cydalise, Celie, Lucinde, Julie (ladies). Oronte "takes" Lucinde, "possesses" her for a time, and "quits" her for Julie, who has been meanwhile "taken," "possessed," and "quitted" by Eraste. Eraste passes to the conjugation of the three verbs with Cydalise, who, however, takes the initiative of "quitting" and conjugates "take" in joint active and passive with Damis. Meanwhile Celie and Clitandre are similarly occupied with each other, and ready to "cut in" with the rest at fresh arrangements. These processes require much serious conversation, and this is related with the same mixture of gravity and irony which is bestowed on the livelier passages of action.


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