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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

As for the Lettres Atheniennes


It

will thus be seen that the objectors whom we have called A and B--or at least B--will find that they or he need not read all the pages of all the seven volumes to justify their views: and some other work, still to be mentioned, completes the exhibition. I confess, indeed, once more unblushingly, that I have not read every page of them myself. Had they fallen in my way forty years ago I should, no doubt, have done so; but forty years of critical experience and exercise give one the power, and grant one the right, of a more summary procedure in respect of matter thus postponed, unless it is perceived to be of very exceptional quality. These larger works of Crebillon's are not good, though they are not by any means so bad as those of Prevost. There are nuggets, of the shrewd sense and the neat phrase with which he has been credited, in nearly all of them: and these the skilled prospector of reading gold will always detect and profit by. But, barring the possibility of a collection of such, the _Oeuvres Choisies_ of Crebillon need not contain more than the best parts of _Le Sopha_, the two comparatively short dialogue-tales, and a longer passage or two from _Tanzai et Neadarne_. It would constitute (I was going to say a respectable, but as that is hardly the right word, I will say rather) a tolerable volume. Even in a wider representation _Les Heureux Orphelins_ and _Lettres Atheniennes_ would yield very little.

The first begins sensationally with

the discovery, by a young English squire in his own park, of a foundling girl and boy--_not_ of his own production--whom he brings up; and it ends with a tedious description of how somebody founded the first _petite maison_ in England--a worthy work indeed. It is also noteworthy for a piece of bad manners, which, one regrets to say, French writers have too often committed; lords and ladies of the best known names and titles in or near Crebillon's own day--such as Oxford, Suffolk, Pembroke--being introduced with the utmost nonchalance.[349] Our novelists have many faults to charge themselves with, and Anthony Trollope, in _The Three Clerks_, produced a Frenchman with perhaps as impossible a name as any English travesty in French literature. But I do not remember any one introducing, in a _not_ historical novel, a Duc de la Tremoille or a member of any of the branches of Rohan, at a time when actual bearers of these titles existed in France. As for the _Lettres Atheniennes_, if it were not for completeness, I should scarcely even mention them. Alcibiades is the chief male writer; Aspasia the chief female; but all of them, male and female, are equally destitute of Atticism and of interest. The contrast of the contrasts between Crebillon's and Prevost's best and worst work is one of the oddest things in letters. One wonders how Prevost came to write anything so admirable as _Manon Lescaut_; one wonders how Crebillon came to write anything so insufficient as the two books just criticised, and even others.

It may be said, "This being so, why have you given half a chapter to these two writers, even with Lesage and Marivaux to carry it off?" The reason is that this is (or attempts to be) a history of the French novel, and that, in such a history, the canons of importance are not the same as those of the novel itself. _Gil Blas_, _Marianne_, _Manon Lescaut_, and perhaps even _Le Hasard au Coin du Feu_ are interesting in themselves; but the whole work of their authors is important, and therefore interesting, to the historical student. For these authors carried further--a great deal further--the process of laying the foundations and providing the materials and plant for what was to come. Of actual masterpieces they only achieved the great, but not _equally_ great, one of _Gil Blas_ and the little one of _Manon Lescaut_. But it is not by masterpieces alone that the world of literature lives in the sense of prolonging its life. One may even say--touching the unclean thing paradox for a moment, and purifying oneself with incense, and salt, and wine--that the masterpieces of literature are more beautiful and memorable and delectable in themselves than fertile in results. They catch up the sum of their own possibilities, and utter it in such a fashion that there is no more to say in that fashion. The dreary imitation _Iliads_, the impossible sham _Divina Commedias_, the Sheridan-Knowles Shakespearian plays, rise up and terrify or bore us. Whereas these second-rate experimenters, these adventurers in quest of what they themselves hardly know, strike out paths, throw seed, sketch designs which others afterwards pursue, and plant out, and fill up. There are probably not many persons now who would echo Gray's wish for eternal romances of either Marivaux or Crebillon; and the accompanying remarks in the same letter on _Joseph Andrews_, though they show some appreciation of the best characters, are quite inappreciative of the merit of the novel as a whole. For eternal variations of _Joseph Andrews_, "_Passe!_" as a French Gray might have said.


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