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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Like Marmontel and Saint Pierre


et Virginie_, however, is one of those books which, having attained and long kept a European reputation, cannot be neglected, and it may be added that it does deserve, though for one thing only, never to be entirely forgotten. It is chock-full of _sensibilite_, the characters have no real character, and all healthy-minded persons have long ago agreed that the concomitant facts, if not causes, of Virginie's fate are more nasty than the nastiest thing in Diderot or Rabelais.[401] But the descriptions of the scenery of Mauritius, as sets-off to a novel, are something new, and something immensely important. _La Chaumiere Indienne_, though less of a story in size and general texture, is much better from the point of view of taste. It has touches of real irony, and almost of humour, though its hero, the good pariah, is a creature nearly as uninteresting as he is impossible. Yet his "black and polished" baby is a vivid property, and the descriptions are again famous. The shorter pieces, _Le Cafe de Surate_, etc., require little notice.

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It will, however, have been seen by anybody who can "seize points," that this _philosophe_ novel, as such, is a really important agent in bringing on the novel itself to its state of full age. That men like the three chiefs should take up the form is a great thing; that men who are not quite chiefs, like Marmontel and Saint-Pierre, should carry

it on, is not a small one. They all do something to get it out of the rough; to discard--if sometimes also they add--irrelevances; to modernise this one kind which is perhaps the predestined and acceptable literary product of modernity. Voltaire originates little, but puts his immense power and _diable au corps_ into the body of fiction. Rousseau enchains passion in its service, as Madame de la Fayette, as even Prevost, had not been able to do before. Diderot indicates, in whatever questionable material, the vast possibilities of psychological analysis. Marmontel--doing, like other second-rate talents, almost more _useful_ work than his betters--rescues the _conte_ from the "demi-rep" condition into which it had fallen, and, owing to the multifariousness of his examples, does not entirely subjugate it even to honest purpose; while Bernardin de Saint-Pierre carries the suggestions of Rousseau still further in the invaluable department of description. No one, except on the small scale, is great in plot; no one produces a really individual character;[402] and it can hardly be said that any one provides thoroughly achieved novel dialogue. But they have inspired and enlivened the whole thing as a whole; and if, against this, is to be set the crime of purpose, that is one not difficult to discard.[403]


[351] His _verse_ tales, even if stories in verse had not by this time fallen out of our proper range, require little notice. The faculty of "telling" did not remain with him here, perhaps because it was prejudicially affected by the "dryness" and unpoetical quality of his poetry, and of the French poetry of the time generally, perhaps for other reasons. At any rate, as compared with La Fontaine or Prior, he hardly counts. _Le Mondain_, _Le Pauvre Diable_, etc., are skits or squibs in verse, not tales. The opening one of the usual collection, _Ce qui plait aux Dames_,--in itself a flat rehandling of Chaucer and Dryden,--is saved by its charming last line--

Ah! croyez-moi, l'erreur a son merite,

a rede which he himself might well have recked.

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