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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

And the Lepreux de la Cite d'Aoste


"And I," cried he suddenly with a kind of fury, "I suppose that a sister who loves her brother, pities and does not insult him; that the Marquis de Roselle knows better what can make him happy than the Countess of St. Sever; and that he is free, independent, able to dispose of himself, in spite of all opposition." With these words he turned to leave the room brusquely. I run to him, I stop him, he resists. "My brother!" "I have no sister." He makes a movement to free himself: he was about to escape me. "Oh, my father!" I cried. "Oh, my mother! come to my help." At these sacred names he started, stopped, and _allowed himself to be conducted to a sofa_.

[Sidenote: Mme. de Souza.]

This unlucky termination might be paralleled from many other places, even from the agreeable writings of Madame de Souza. This writer, by the way, when the father of one of her heroes refuses to consent to his son's marriage, makes the stern parent yield to a representation that by not doing so he will "authorise by anticipation a want of filial attachment and respect" in the grandchildren who do not as yet exist. These excursions into the preposterous in search of something new in the way of noble sentiment or affecting emotion--these whippings and spurrings of the feelings and the fancy--characterise all the later work of the school.

* * * * *

[Sidenote: Xavier de Maistre.]

Two names of great literary value and interest close the list of the novelists of Sensibility in France, and show at once its Nemesis and its caricature. They were almost contemporaries, and by a curious coincidence neither was a Frenchman by birth. It would be impossible to imagine a greater contrast than existed personally between Xavier de Maistre and Henri Benjamin de Constant-Rebecque, commonly called Benjamin Constant. But their personalities, interesting as both are, are not the matter of principal concern here. The _Voyage autour de ma Chambre_, its sequel the _Expedition Nocturne_, and the _Lepreux de la Cite d'Aoste_, exhibit one branch of the river of Sensibility (if one may be permitted to draw up a new Carte de Tendre), losing itself in agreeable trifling with the surface of life, and in generous, but fleeting, and slightly, though not consciously, insincere indulgence of the emotions. In _Adolphe_ the river rushes violently down a steep place, and _in nigras lethargi mergitur undas_. It is to be hoped that most people who will read these pages know Xavier de Maistre's charming little books; it is probable that at least some of them do not know _Adolphe_. Constant is the more strictly original of the two authors, for Xavier de Maistre owes a heavy debt to Sterne, though he employs the borrowed capital so well that he makes it his own, while _Adolphe_ can only be said to come after _Werther_ and _Rene_ in time, not in the least to follow them in nature.

The _Voyage autour de ma Chambre_ (readers may be informed or reminded) is a whimsical description of the author's meditations and experiences when confined to barracks for some military peccadillo. After a fashion which has found endless imitators since, the prisoner contemplates the various objects in his room, spins little romances to himself about them and about his beloved Madame de Hautcastel, moralises on the faithfulness of his servant Joannetti, and so forth. The _Expedition Nocturne_, a less popular sequel, is not very different in plan. The _Lepreux de la Cite d'Aoste_ is a very short story, telling how the narrator finds a sufferer from the most terrible of all diseases lodged in a garden-house, and of their dialogue. The chief merit of these works, as of the less mannerised and more direct _Prisonnier du Caucase_ and _Jeune Siberienne_, resides in their dainty style, in their singular narrative power (Sainte-Beuve says justly enough that the _Prisonnier du Caucase_ has been equalled by no other writer except Merimee), and in the remarkable charm of the personality of the author, which escapes at every moment from the work. The pleasant picture of the Chevalier de B---- in the _Soirees de St. Petersbourg_, which Joseph de Maistre is said to have drawn from his less formidable brother, often suggests itself as one follows the whimsicalities of the _Voyage_ and the _Expedition_. The affectation is so natural, the mannerism so simple, that it is some time before one realises how great in degree both are.


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