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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Lesage has plenty of risky situations


I am myself pretty sure that Marivaux at least helped Richardson and Fielding, and there can be no doubt that Crebillon helped Sterne. And what is more important to our present purpose, they and their companions in this chapter helped the novel in general, and the French novel in particular, to an extent far more considerable. We may not, of course, take the course of literary history--general or particular--which has been, as the course which in any case must have been. But at the same time we cannot neglect the facts. And it is a quite certain fact that, for the whole of the last half of the eighteenth century, and nearly the whole of the first quarter of the nineteenth, the French novel, as a novel, made singularly little progress. We shall have to deal in the next chapter, if not in the next two chapters, with at least two persons of far greater powers than any one mentioned in the last two. But we shall perhaps be able to show cause why even Voltaire and Rousseau, why certainly Diderot, why Marmontel and almost every one else till we come, not in this volume, to Chateaubriand, whose own position is a little doubtful, somehow failed to attain the position of a great advancer of the novel.

These others, whatever their shortcomings, _had_ advanced it by bringing it, in various ways, a great deal nearer to its actual ideal of a completed picture of real human life. Lesage had blended with his representation a good deal of the conventional picaresque;

Marivaux had abused preciousness of language and petty psychology; Prevost, save in that marvellous windfall of his and the Muses which the historian of novels can hardly mention without taking off his hat if he has one on, or making his best bow if he has not, had gone wandering after impossible and uninteresting will-o'-the-wisps; Crebillon had done worse than "abide in his inn," he had abided almost always in his polite[350] bordello. But all of them had meant to be real; and all of them had, if only now and then, to an extent which even Madame de la Fayette had scarcely achieved before, attained reality.


[309] In fact it has been said, and may be said again, that Lesage is one of the prophets who have never had so much justice done them in their own countries as abroad.

[310] The first part of _Gil Blas_ appeared in 1715; and nearly twenty years later gossip said that the fourth was not ready, though the author had been paid in advance for it six or seven years earlier.

[311] I have never read it in the original, being, though a great admirer of Spanish, but slightly versed therein.

[312] This, which is a sort of Appendix to the _Diable Boiteux_, is much the best of these _opera minora_.

[313] He had a temper of the most _Breton-Bretonnant_ type--not ill-natured but sturdy and independent, recalcitrant alike to ill-treatment and to patronage. He got on neither at the Bar, his first profession, nor with the regular actors, and he took vengeance in his books on both; while at least one famous anecdote shows his way of treating a patron--indeed, as it happened, a patroness--who presumed.

[314] Asmodeus, according to his usual station in the infernal hierarchy, is _demon de la luxure_: but any fears or hopes which may be aroused by this description, and the circumstances of the action, will be disappointed. Lesage has plenty of risky situations, but his language is strictly "proper."

[315] Against this may be cited his equally anecdotic acceptance of Regnard, who was also "run" against Moliere. But Regnard was a "classic" and orthodox in his way; Lesage was a free-lance, and even a Romantic before Romanticism. Boileau knew that evil, as evil seemed to him, _had_ come from Spain; he saw more coming in this, and if he anticipated more still in the future, 1830 proved him no false prophet.

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