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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crebillon


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thing, in short, is most like an intensely intricate dance, with endless figures--with elaborate, innumerable, and sometimes indescribable stage directions. And the whole of it is written down carefully by M. Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crebillon.

He might have occupied his time much better? Perhaps, as to the subject of occupation. But with that we have, if not nothing, very little to do. The point is, How did he handle these better-let-alone subjects? and what contribution, in so handling them, did he make to the general development of the novel?

I am bound to say that I think, with the caution given above, he handled them, when he was at his best, singularly well, and gave hints, to be taken or left as they chose, to handlers of less disputable subjects than his.

One at least of the most remarkable things about him is connected with this very disputableness. Voltaire and Sterne were no doubt greater men than Crebillon _fils_: and though both of them dealt with the same class of subject, they also dealt with others, while he did not. But, curiously enough, the reproach of sniggering, which lies so heavily on Laurence Sterne and Francois Arouet, does not lie on Crebillon. He has an audacity of grave persiflage[345] which is sometimes almost Swiftian in a lower sphere: and it saves him from the unpardonable sin of the snigger. He has also--as, to have this grave persiflage, he

almost necessarily must have--a singularly clear and flexible style, which is only made more piquant by the "-assiez's" and "-ussiez's" of the older language. Further, and of still greater importance for the novelist, he has a pretty wit, which sometimes almost approaches humour, and, if not a diabolically, a _diablotin_ically acute perception of human nature as it affects his subject. This perception rarely fails: and conventional, and very unhealthily conventional, as the Crebillon world is, the people who inhabit it are made real people. He is, in those best things of his at least, never "out." We can see the ever-victorious duke (M. de Clerval of the _Hasard_ is perhaps the closest to the Richelieu model of all Crebillon's coxcomb-gallants), who, even after a lady has given him most unequivocal proofs of her affection, refuses for a long time, if not finally, to say that he loves her, because he has himself a graduated scheme of values in that direction, and though she may have touched his heart, etc., she has not quite come up to his "love" standard.[346] And we know, too, though she is less common, the philosophical Marquise herself, who, "possessing" the most notoriously inconstant lover in all Paris (this same M. de Clerval, it happens), maintains her comparative indifference to the circumstance, alleging that even when he is most inconstant he is always "very affectionate, though a little _extinguished_." And in fact he goes off to her from the very fireside, where such curious things have chanced. Extravagant as are the situations in _La Nuit et le Moment_, the other best thing, they are, but for the _longueurs_ already censured, singularly verisimilar on their own postulates. The trusty coachman, who always drives particularly slowly when a lady accompanies his master in the carriage, but would never think of obeying the check-string if his master's own voice did not authorise it; the invaluable _soubrette_ who will sit up to any hour to play propriety, when her mistress is according a _tete-a-tete_, but who, most naturally, always falls asleep--these complete, at the lower end of the scale, what the dukes and the countesses have begun at the upper. And Crebillon, despite his verbosity, is never at a loss for pointed sayings to relieve and froth it up. Nor are these mere _mots_ or _pointes_ or conceits--there is a singular amount of life-wisdom in them, and a short anthology might be made here, if there were room for it, which would entirely vindicate the assertion.


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