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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote The delinquencies of Saint Preux


[Sidenote:

The delinquencies of Saint-Preux.]

But Saint-Preux himself? How early was the obvious jest made that he is about as little of a _preux_ as he is of a saint? I have heard, or dreamt, of a schoolboy who, being accidentally somewhat precocious in French, and having read the book, ejaculated, "_What_ a sweep he is!" and I remember no time of my life at which I should not have heartily agreed with that youth. I do not suppose that either of us--though perhaps we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for not doing so--founded our condemnation on Saint-Preux's "forgetfulness of all but love." That is a "forfeit," in French and English sense alike, which has itself registered and settled in various tariffs and codes, none of which concerns the present history. It is not even that he is a most unreasonable creature now and then; that can be pardoned, being understood, though he really does strain the benefit of _amare et sapere_ etc. It is that, except when he is in the altitudes of passion, and not always then, he never "knows how to behave," as the simple and sufficient old phrase had it. If M. d'Etange had had the wits, and had deigned to do it, he might even, without knowing his deepest cause of quarrel with the treacherous tutor, have pointed out that Saint-Preux's claim to be one of God Almighty's gentlemen was as groundless as his "proofs," in the French technical sense of gentility, were non-existent. It is impossible to imagine anything in worse taste

than his reply to the Baron's no doubt offensive letter, and Julie's enclosed renunciation. Even the adoring Julie herself, and the hardly less adoring Claire--the latter not in the least a prude, nor given to giving herself "airs"--are constantly obliged to pull him up for his want of _delicatesse_. He is evidently a coxcomb, still more evidently a prig; selfish beyond even that selfishness which is venial in a lover; not in the least, though he can exceed in wine, a "good fellow," and in many ways thoroughly unmanly. A good English school and college might have made him tolerable: but it is rather to be doubted, and it is certain that his way as a transgressor would have been hard at both. As it is, he is very largely the embodiment--and it is more charitable than uncharitable to regard him as largely the cause--of the faults of the worst kind of French, and not quite only French, novel-hero ever since.

[Sidenote: And the less charming points of Julie. Her redemption.]

One approaches Julie herself, in critical intent, with mixed feelings. One would rather say nothing but good of her, and there is plenty of good to say: how much will be seen in a moment. Most of what is not so good belongs, in fact, to the dreary bulk of sequel tacked on by mistaken judgment to that more than true history of a hundred pages, which leaves her in despair, and might well have left her altogether. Even here she is not faultless, quite independently of her sins according to Mrs. Grundy and the Pharisees. If she had not been, as Claire herself fondly but truly calls her, such a _precheresse_, she might not have fallen a victim to such a prig. One never can quite forgive her for loving him, except on the all-excusing ground that she loved him so much; and though she is perhaps not far beyond the licence of "All's fair, in certain conditions," there is no doubt that, like her part-pattern Clarissa, she is not passionately attached to the truth. It might be possible to add some cavils, but for the irresistible plea just glanced at, which stops one.


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