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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Personne qui me parut susceptible d'en prendre


Time was chorus, gave them cues to laugh and cry, They would kill, befool, amuse him, let him die; Set him webs to weave to-day and break to-morrow, Till he died for good in play and rose in sorrow.

That is a history, in one stanza, of Sensibility, and no better account than _Adolphe_ exists of the rising in sorrow.

The story of the book opens in full eighteenth century. A young man, fresh from the University of Goettingen, goes to finish his education at the _residenz_ of D----. Here he finds much society, courtly and other. His chief resort is the house of a certain Count de P----, who lives, unmarried, with a Polish lady named Ellenore. In the easy-going days of Sensibility the _menage_ holds a certain place in society, though it is looked upon a little askance. But Ellenore is, on her own theory, thoroughly respectable, and the Count de P----, though in danger of his fortune, is a man of position and rank. As for Adolphe, he is the result of the struggle between Sensibility, an unquiet and ironic nature, and the teaching of a father who, though not unquiet, is more ironically given than himself. His main character is all that a young man's should be from the point of view of Sensibility. "Je ne demandais alors qu'a me livrer a ces impressions primitives et fougueuses," etc. But his father snubs the primitive and fiery impressions, and the son, feeling that they are a mistake, is only more

determined to experience them. Alternately expanding himself as Sensibility demands, and making ironic jests as his own nature and his father's teaching suggest, he acquires the character of "un homme immoral, un homme peu sur," the last of which expressions may be paralleled from the British repertory by "an ill-regulated young man," or "a young man on whom you can never depend."

All this time Adolphe is not in love, and as the dominant teaching of Sensibility lays it down that he ought to be, he feels that he is wrong. "'Je veux etre aime,' me dis-je, et je regardai autour de moi. Je ne voyais personne qui m'inspirait de l'amour; personne qui me parut susceptible d'en prendre." In parallel case the ordinary man would resign himself as easily as if he were in face of the two conditions of having no appetite and no dinner ready. But this will not do for the pupil of Sensibility. He must make what he does not find, and so Adolphe pitches on the luckless Ellenore, who "me parut une conquete digne de moi." To do Sensibility justice, it would not, at an earlier time, have used language so crude as this, but it had come to it now. Here is the portrait of the victim, drawn by her ten years younger lover.

Ellenore's wits were not above the ordinary, but her thoughts were just, and her expression, simple as it was, was sometimes striking by reason of the nobility and elevation of the thought. She was full of prejudices, but she was always prejudiced against her own interest. There was nothing she set more value on than regularity of conduct, precisely because her own conduct was conventionally irregular.[411] She was very religious, because religion rigidly condemned her mode of life. In conversation she frowned on pleasantries which would have seemed quite innocent to other women, because she feared that her circumstances might encourage the use of such as were not innocent. She would have liked to admit to her society none but men of the highest rank and most irreproachable reputation, because those women with whom she shuddered at the thought of being classed usually tolerate mixed society, and, giving up the hope of respect, seek only amusement. In short, Ellenore and her destiny were at daggers drawn; every word, every action of hers was a kind of protest against her social position. And as she felt that facts were too strong for her, and that the situation could be changed by no efforts of hers, she was exceedingly miserable.... The struggle between her feelings and her circumstances had affected her temper. She was often silent and dreamy: sometimes, however, she spoke with impetuosity. Beset as she was by a constant preoccupation, she was never quite calm in the midst of the most miscellaneous conversation, and for this very reason her manner had an unrest and an air of surprise about it which made her more piquant than she was by nature. Her strange position, in short, took the place of new and original ideas in her.


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