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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote Its Arcis Pommeraye episode


[Sidenote:

Its "Arcis-Pommeraye" episode.]

The story which has been referred to in passing as muddled, or, to adopt a better French word, for which we have no exact equivalent, _affuble_ (travestied and overlaid) with eccentricities and interruptions, the _Histoire_ of the Marquis des Arcis and the Marquise de la Pommeraye, has received a great deal of praise, most of which it deserves. The Marquis and the Marquise have entered upon one of the fashionable _liaisons_ which Crebillon described in his own way. Diderot describes this one in another. The Marquis gets tired--it is fair to say that he has offered marriage at the very first, but Madame de la Pommeraye, a widow with an unpleasant first experience of the state, has declined it. He shows his tiredness in a gentlemanly manner, but not very mistakably. His mistress, who is not at first _femina furens_, but who possesses some feminine characteristics in a dangerous degree, as he might perhaps have found out earlier if he had been a different person, determines to make sure of it. She intimates _her_ tiredness, and the Marquis makes his first step downwards by jumping at the release. They are--the old, old hopeless folly!--to remain friends, but friends only. But she really loves him, and after almost assuring herself that he has really ceased to love her (which, in the real language of love, means that he has never loved her at all), devises a further, a very clever, but a rather diabolical system of

last proof, involving vengeance if it fails. She has known, in exercises of charity (the _femme du monde_ has seldom quite abandoned these), a mother and daughter who, having lost their means, have taken to a questionable, or rather a very unquestionable manner of life, keeping a sort of private gaming-house, and extending to those frequenters of it who choose, what the late George Augustus Sala not inelegantly called, in an actual police-court instance, "the thorough hospitality characteristic of their domicile." She prevails on them to leave the house, get rid of all their belongings (down to clothes) which could possibly be identified, change their name, move to another quarter of Paris, and set up as _devotes_ under the full protection of the local clergy. Then she manages an introduction, of an apparently accidental kind, to the Marquis. He falls in love at once with the daughter, who is very pretty, and with masculine (or at least _some_ masculine) fatuity, makes Madame de la Pommeraye his confidante. She gives him rope, but he uses it, of course, only to hang himself. He tries the usual temptations; but though the mother at least would not refuse them, Madame de la Pommeraye's hand on the pair is too tight. At last he offers marriage, and--with her at least apparent consent--is married. The next day she tells him the truth. But her diabolism fails. At first there is of course a furious outburst. But the girl is beautiful, affectionate, and humble; the mother is pensioned off; the Marquis and Marquise des Arcis retire for some years to those invaluable _terres_, after a sojourn at which everything is forgotten; and the story ends. Diderot, by not too skilfully throwing in casuistical attacks and defences of the two principal characters, but telling us nothing of Madame de la Pommeraye's subsequent feelings or history, does what he can, unluckily after his too frequent fashion, to spoil or at least to blunt his tale. It is not necessary to imitate him by discussing the _pros_ and _cons_ at length. I think myself that the Marquis, both earlier and later, is made rather too much of a _benet_, or, in plain English, a nincompoop. But nincompoops exist: in fact how many of us are not nincompoops in certain circumstances? Madame de la Pommeraye is, I fear, rather true, and is certainly sketched with extraordinary ability. On a larger scale the thing would probably, at that time and by so hasty and careless a workman, have been quite spoilt. But it is obviously the skeleton--and something more--of a really great novel.


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