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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

But the undisguised editor of the Encyclopedie


[Sidenote:

A hardly missed, if missed, masterpiece.]

If the subject be not simply ruled out, and the book indexed for silence, it is practically impossible to suggest that it could have been treated better. Even the earlier parts, which could easily have been made dull, are not so; and it is noteworthy that, anti-religionist as Diderot was, and directly as the book is aimed at the conventual system,[382] all the priests who are introduced are men of honour, justice, and humanity. But the wonder is in the treatment of the "scabrous" part of the matter by the author of Diderot's other books. Whether Madame d'Holbach's[383] influence, as has been suggested, was more widely and subtly extended than we know, or whatever else may be the cause, there is not a coarse word, not even a coarsely drawn situation, in the whole. Suzanne's innocence is, in the subtlest manner, prevented from being in the least _bete_. The fluctuations and ficklenesses of the abbess's passion, and in a less degree of that of another young nun, whom Suzanne has partially ousted from her favour, are marvellously and almost inoffensively drawn, and the stages by which erotomania passes into mania general and mortal, are sketched slightly, but with equal power. There is, I suppose, hardly a book which one ought to discommend to the young person more than _La Religieuse_. There are not many in which the powers required by the novelist, in delineating morbid, and not only morbid, character,

are more brilliantly shown.

It is not the least remarkable thing about this remarkable book, and not the least characteristic of its most remarkable author, that its very survival has something extraordinary about it. Grimm, who was more likely than any one else to know, apparently thought it was destroyed or lost; it never appeared at all during Diderot's life, nor for a dozen years after his death, nor till seven after the outbreak of the Revolution, and six after the suppression of the religious orders in France. That it might have brought its author into difficulties is more than probable; but the undisguised editor of the _Encyclopedie_, the author, earlier, of the actually disgraceful _Bijoux Indiscrets_, and the much more than suspected principal begetter of the _Systeme de la Nature_, could not have been much influenced by this. The true cause of its abscondence, as in so much else of his work, was undoubtedly that ultra-Bohemian quality of indifference which distinguished Diderot--the first in a way, probably for ever the greatest, and, above all, the most altruistic of literary Bohemians. Ask him to do something definite, especially for somebody else's profit, to be done off-hand, and it was done. Ask him to bear the brunt of a dangerous, laborious, by no means lucrative, but rather exciting adventure, and he would, one cannot quite say consecrate, but devote (which has two senses) his life to it. But set him to elaborate artistic creation, confine him to it, and expect him to finish it, and you were certain to be disappointed. At another time, even at this time, if his surroundings and his society, his education and his breeding had been less unfortunate, he might, as it seems to me, have become a very great novelist indeed. As it is, he is a great possibility of novel and of much other writing, with occasional outbursts of actuality. The _Encyclopedie_ itself, for aught I care, might have gone in all its copies, and with all possibility of recovering or remembering it on earth, to the place where so many people at the time would have liked to send it. But in the rest of him, and even in some of his own Encyclopaedia articles,[384] there is much of quite different stuff. And among the various gifts, critical and creative, which this stuff shows, not the least, I think, was the half-used and mostly ill-used gift of novel-writing.


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