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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

As Crebillon himself doubtless foresaw


[Sidenote:

Inequality of his general work--a survey of it.]

It is true that the praises just given to Crebillon do not (as was indeed hinted above) apply to the whole of his work, or even to the larger part of it. An unfavourable critic might indeed say that, in strictness, they only apply to parts of _Le Sopha_ and to the two little dialogue-stories just referred to. The method is, no doubt, one by no means easy to apply on the great scale, and the restriction of the subject adds to the difficulty. The longest regular stories of all, _Ah! Quel Conte!_ and _Le Sopha_ itself, though they should have been mentioned in reverse order, are resumptions of the Hamiltonian idea[347] of chaining things on to the _Arabian Nights_. Crebillon, however, does not actually resuscitate Shahriar and the sisters, but substitutes a later Caliph, Shah Baham, and his Sultana. The Sultan is exceedingly stupid, but also very talkative, and fond of interrupting his vizier and the other tale-tellers with wiseacreries; the Sultana is an acute enough lady, who governs her tongue in order to save her neck. The framework is not bad for a short story, but becomes a little tedious when it is made to enshrine two volumes, one of them pretty big. It is better in _Le Sopha_ than in _Ah! Quel Conte!_ and some of the tales that it gives us in the former are almost equal to the two excepted dialogues. Moreover, it is unluckily true that _Ah! Quel Conte!_ (an ejaculation of the Sultana's at

the beginning) might be, as Crebillon himself doubtless foresaw, repeated with a sinister meaning by a reader at the end. _Tanzai et Neadarne_ or _L'Ecumoire_, another fairy story, though livelier in its incidents than _Ah! Quel Conte!_--nay, though it contains some of Crebillon's smartest sayings, and has perhaps his nicest heroine,--is heavy on the whole, and in it, the author's _gauffre_-like lightness of "impropriety" being absent, the tone approaches nearer to that dismallest form of literature or non-literature--the deliberate obscene.

_Les Egarements du Coeur et de l'Esprit_, on the other hand--one of the author's earliest books--is the furthest from that most undesirable consummation, and one of the most curious, if not of the most amusing, of all. It recounts, from the mouth of the neophyte himself, the "forming" of a very young man--almost a boy--to this strange kind of commerce, by an elderly, but not yet old, and still attractive coquette, Madame de Lursay, whose earlier life has scandalised even the not easily scandalisable society of her time (we are not told quite how), but who has recovered a reputation very slightly tarnished. The hero is flattered, but for a long time too timid and innocent to avail himself of the advantages offered to him; while, before very long, Madame de Lursay's wiles are interfered with by an "Inconnue-Ingenue," with whom he falls in deep calf-love of a quasi-genuine kind. The book includes sketches of the half-bravo gallants of the time, and is not negligible: but it is not vividly interesting.

Still less so, though they contain some very lively passages, and are the chief _locus_ for Crebillon's treatment of the actual trio of husband, wife, and lover, are the _Lettres de la Marquise de M---- au Comte de P----_. The scene in which the husband--unfaithful, peevish, and a _petit maitre_--enters his wife's room to find an ancient, gouty Marquis, who cannot get off his knees quick enough, and terminates the situation with all the _aplomb_ of the Regency, is rather nice: and the gradual "slide" of the at first quite virtuous writer (the wife herself, of course) is well depicted. But love-letters which are neither half-badinage--which these are not--nor wholly passionate--which these never are till the last,[348] when the writer is describing a state of things which Crebillon could not manage at all--are very difficult things to bring off, and Claude Prosper is not quite equal to the situation.


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