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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

405 Sidenote A glance at Miss Austen


As the story is not now, I believe, the universal school-book it once was, something more than mere allusion may be desirable. The ship in which Virginie is returning to the Isle of France gets into shallows during a hurricane, and is being beaten to pieces close to land. One stalwart sailor, stripped to swim for his life, approaches Virginie, imploring her to strip likewise and let him try to pilot her through the surf. But she (like the lady in the coach, at an early part of _Joseph Andrews_) won't so much as look at a naked man, clasps her arms round her own garments, and is very deservedly drowned. The sailor, to one's great relief, is not.

[402] Julie herself is an intense type rather than individual.

[403] I have not thought it necessary, except in regard to those of them who have been touched in treating of the _Cabinet des Fees_, to speak at any length of the minor tale-tellers of the century. They are sometimes not bad reading; but as a whole minor in almost all senses.




[Sidenote: "Sensibility."]

Frequent reference has been made, in the last two chapters, to the curious phenomenon called in French _sensibilite_

(with a derivative of contempt, _sensiblerie_), the exact English form of which supplies part of the title, and the meaning an even greater part of the subject, of one of Miss Austen's novels. The thing itself appears first definitely[404] in Madame de la Fayette, largely, though not unmixedly, in Marivaux, and to some extent in Prevost and Marmontel, while it is, as it were, sublimed in Rousseau, and present very strongly in Saint-Pierre. There are, however, some minor writers and books displaying it in some cases even more extensively and intensively; and in this final chapter of the present volume they may appropriately find a place, not merely because some of them are late, but because Sensibility is not confined to any part of the century, but, beginning before its birth, continued till after its end. We may thus have to encroach on the nineteenth a little, but more in appearance than in reality. In quintessence, and as a reigning fashion, Sensibility was the property of the eighteenth century.[405]

[Sidenote: A glance at Miss Austen.]

To recur for a moment to Miss Austen and _Sense and Sensibility_, everybody has laughed, let us hope not unkindly, over Marianne Dashwood's woes. But she herself was only an example, exaggerated in the genial fashion of her creatress, of the proper and recognised standard of feminine feeling in and long before her time. The "man of feeling" was admitted as something out of the way--on which side of the way opinions might differ. But the woman of feeling was emphatically the accepted type--a type which lasted far into the next century, though it was obsolete at least by the Mid-Victorian period, of which some do so vainly talk. The extraordinary development of emotion which was expected from women need not be illustrated merely from love-stories. The wonderful transports of Miss Ferrier's heroines at sight of their long-lost mothers; even those of sober Fanny Price in _Mansfield Park_, at the recovery of her estimable but not particularly interesting brother William, give the keynote much better than any more questionable ecstasies. "Sensibility, so charming," was the pet affectation of the period--an affectation carried on till it became quite natural, and was only cured by the half-caricature, half-reaction of Byronism.

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