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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

De Tencin and Le Comte de Comminge


The thing essentially French.]

The thing, however, was not English in origin, and never was thoroughly English at all. The main current of the Sensibility novelists, who impressed their curious morals or manners on all men and women in civilised Europe, was French in unbroken succession, from the day when Madame de la Fayette first broke ground against the ponderous romances of Madeleine de Scudery, to the day when Benjamin Constant forged, in _Adolphe_, the link between eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century romance, between the novel of sentiment and the novel of analysis.

[Sidenote: Its history.]

Of the relations to it of the greater novelists of the main century we have already spoken: and as for the two greatest of the extreme close, Chateaubriand and Madame de Stael, they mix too many secondary purposes with their philandering, and moreover do not form part of the plan of the present volume. For the true Sensibility, the odd quintessence of conventional feeling, played at steadily till it is half real, if not wholly so, which ends in the peculiarities of two such wholesome young Britonesses as Marianne Dashwood and Fanny Price, we must look elsewhere. After Madame de la Fayette, and excluding with her other names already treated, we come to Madame de Fontaines, Madame de Tencin (most heartless and therefore naturally not least sentimental of women), Madame Riccoboni,

the group of lady-novelists of whom Mesdames de Souza and de Duras are the chief, and, finally, the two really remarkable names of Xavier de Maistre and Benjamin Constant. These are our "documents." Even the minor subjects of this inquiry are pleasant pieces of literary _bric-a-brac_; perhaps they are something a little more than that. For Sensibility was actually once a great power in the world. Transformed a little, it did wonderful things in the hands of Rousseau and Goethe and Chateaubriand and Byron. It lingers in odd nooks and corners even at the present day, when it is usually and irreverently called "gush," and Heaven only knows whether it may not be resuscitated in full force before some of us are dead.[406] For it has exactly the peculiarities which characterise all recurrent fashions--the appeal to something which is genuine connected with the suggestion of a great deal that is not.

[Sidenote: Mme. de Tencin and _Le Comte de Comminge_.]

In the followers of Madame de la Fayette[407] we find that a good many years have passed by. The jargon appropriated to the subject has grown still more official; and instead of using it to express genuine sentiments, which in another language might deserve expression well enough, the characters are constantly suspected by the callous modern reader or elaborately, though perhaps unconsciously, feigning the sentiments which the jargon seems to imply that they ought to have. This is somewhat less noticeable in the work of Madame de Tencin than elsewhere, because d'Alembert's mother was so very much cleverer a person than the generality of the novel-writers of her day that she could hardly fail to hide defects more cunningly. But it is evident enough in the _Comte de Comminge_ and in the _Malheurs de l'Amour_. Having as questionable morals as any lady of the time (the time of the Regency), Madame de Tencin of course always had a moral purpose in her writings, and this again gives her books a certain difference. But, like the former, this difference only exposes, all the more clearly, the defects of the style, and the drawbacks from which it was almost impossible that those who practised it should escape.

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