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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote Restif de la Bretonne


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[Sidenote: Its importance here.]

This, however, is the moral side of the matter, with which we have not much to do. As a division of literature these sentimental novels, artificial as they are, have a good deal of interest; and in a _History_ such as the present they have very great importance. They are so entirely different in atmosphere from the work of later times, that reading them has all the refreshing effect of a visit to a strange country; and yet one feels that they themselves have opened that country for coming writers as well as readers. They are often extraordinarily ingenious, and the books to which in form they set the example, though the power of the writers made them something very different in matter--_Julie_, _La Religieuse_, _Paul et Virginie_,[417] _Corinne_, _Rene_--give their progenitors not a little importance, or at least not a little interest of curiosity. Besides, it was in the school of Sensibility that the author of _Manon Lescaut_ somehow or other developed that wonderful little book. I do not know that it would be prudent to recommend modern readers to study Sensibility for themselves in the original documents just surveyed. Disappointment and possibly maledictions would probably be the result of any such attempt, except in the case of Xavier de Maistre and Constant. But these others are just the cases in which the office of historical critic

justifies itself. It is often said (and nobody knows the truth of it better than critics themselves) that a diligent perusal of all the studies and _causeries_ that have ever been written, on any one of the really great writers, will not give as much knowledge of them as half an hour's reading of their own work. But then in that case the metal is virgin, and to be had on the surface and for the picking up. The case is different where tons of ore have to be crushed and smelted, in order to produce a few pennyweights of metal.

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Whatever fault may be found with the "Sensibility" novel, it is, as a rule, "written by gentlemen [and ladies] for [ladies and] gentlemen." Of the work of two curious writers, who may furnish the last detailed notices of this volume, as much cannot, unfortunately, be said.

[Sidenote: Restif de la Bretonne.]

It may, from different points of view, surprise different classes of readers to find Restif de la Bretonne (or as some would call him, Retif) mentioned here at all--at any rate to find him taken seriously, and not entirely without a certain respect. One of these classes, consisting of those who know nothing about him save at second-hand, may ground their surprise on the notion that his work is not only matter for the _Index Expurgatorius_, but also vulgar and unliterary, such as a French Ned Ward, without even Ned's gutter-wit, might have written. And these might derive some support from the stock ticket-jingle _Rousseau du ruisseau_, which, though not without some real pertinency, is directly misleading. Another class, consisting of some at least, if not most, of those who have read him to some extent, may urge that Decency--taking her revenge for the axiom of the boatswain in _Mr. Midshipman Easy_--forbids Duty to let him in. And yet others, less under the control of any Mrs. Grundy, literary or moral, may ask why he is let in, and Choderlos de Laclos[418] and Louvet de Courray, with some more, kept out, as they most assuredly will be.


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