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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote Sensibilite and engouement


[Sidenote:

Mme. de Duras's "postscript."]

[Sidenote: _Sensibilite_ and _engouement_.]

This was the end of sensibility in more senses than one. It is true that, five years later than _Adolphe_, appeared Madame de Duras's agreeable novelettes of _Ourika_ and _Edouard_, in which something of the old tone revives. But they were written late in their author's life, and avowedly as a reminiscence of a past state of sentiment and of society. "Le ton de cette societe," says Madame de Duras herself, "etait l'engouement." As happy a sentence, perhaps, as can be anywhere found to describe what has been much written about, and, perhaps it may be said without presumption, much miswritten about. _Engouement_ itself is a nearly untranslatable word.[413] It may be clumsily but not inaccurately defined as a state of fanciful interest in persons and things which is rather more serious than mere caprice, and a good deal less serious than genuine enthusiasm. The word expresses exactly the attitude of French polite society in the eighteenth century to a vast number of subjects, and, what is more, it helps to explain the _sensibilite_ which dominated that society. The two terms mutually involve each other, and _sensibilite_ stands to mere flirtation on the one hand, and genuine passion on the other, exactly as _engouement_ does to caprice and enthusiasm. People flirted admirably in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the art was, I

fancy, recovered in the nineteenth with some success, but I do not think they flirted, properly speaking, in the eighteenth.[414] Sensibility (and its companion "sensuality") prevented that. Yet, on the other hand, they did not, till the society itself and its sentiments with it were breaking up, indulge in anything that can be called real passion. Sensibility prevented that also. The kind of love-making which was popular may be compared without much fancifulness to the favourite card-game of the period, quadrille. You changed partners pretty often, and the stakes were not very serious; but the rules of the game were elaborate and precise, and it did not admit of being treated with levity.

[Sidenote: Some final words on the matter.]

Only a small part, though the most original and not the least remarkable part, of the representation of this curious phenomenon in literature has been attempted in this discussion. The English and German developments of it are interesting and famous, and, merely as literature, contain perhaps better work than the French, but they are not so original, and they are out of our province. Marivaux[415] served directly as model to both English and German novelists, though the peculiarity of the national temperament quickly made itself felt in both cases. In England the great and healthy genius of Fielding applied the humour cure to Sensibility at a very early period; in Germany the literature of Sensibility rapidly became the literature of suicide--a consummation than which nothing could be more alien from the original conception. It is true that there is a good deal of dying in the works of Madame de la Fayette and her imitators. But it is quite transparent stage-dying, and the virtuous Prince of Cleves and the penitent Adelaide in the _Comte de Comminge_ do not disturb the mind at all. We know that, as soon as the curtain has dropped, they will get up again and go home to supper quite comfortably. It is otherwise with Werther and Adolphe. With all the first-named young man's extravagance, four generations have known perfectly well that there is something besides absurdity in him, while in Adolphe there is no extravagance at all. The wind of Sensibility had been sown, in literature and in life, for many a long year, and the whirlwind had begun to be reaped.[416]


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