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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

There is no vulgarity in Restif

In the first place, there is no vulgarity in Restif. If he had had a more regular education and society, literary or other, and could have kept his mind, which was to a certainty slightly unhinged, off the continual obsession of morbid subjects, he might have been a very considerable man of letters, and he is no mean one, so far as style goes,[419] as it is. He avails himself duly of the obscurity of a learned language when he has to use (which is regrettably often) words that do not appear in the dictionary of the Academy: and there is not the slightest evidence of his having taken to pornography for money, as Louvet and Laclos--as, one must regretfully add, Diderot, if not even Crebillon--certainly did. When a certain subject, or group of subjects, gets hold of a man--especially one of those whom a rather celebrated French lady called _les cerebraux_--he can think of nothing else: and though this is not absolutely true of Restif (for he had several minor crazes), it is very nearly true of him, and perhaps more true than of any one else who can be called a man of letters.

Probably no one has read all he wrote;[420] even the late M. Assezat, who knew more about him than anybody else, does not, I think, pretend to have done so. He was himself a printer, and therefore found exceptional means of getting the mischief, which his by no means idle hands found to do, into publicity of a kind, though even their subject does not seem to have made his books popular.[421] His largest work, _Les Contemporaines_, is in forty-two volumes, and contains some three hundred different sections, reminding one vaguely, though the differences in detail are very great, of Amory's plan, at least, for the _Memoirs of Several Ladies_. His most remarkable by far, the quasi-autobiographical _Monsieur Nicolas_,[422] in fourteen. He could write with positive moral purpose, as in the protest against _Le Paysan Parvenu_, above referred to; in _La Vie de Mon Pere_ (a book agreeably free from any variety of that sin of Ham which some biographical writings of sons about their fathers display); and in the unpleasantly titled _Pornographe_, which is also morally intended, and dull enough to be as moral as Mrs. Trimmer or Dr. Forsyth.

Indeed, this moral intention, so often idly and offensively put forward by those who are themselves mere pornographers, pervades Restif throughout, and, while it certainly sometimes does carry dulness with it, undoubtedly contributes at others a kind of piquancy, because of its evident sincerity, and the quaint contrast with the subjects the author is handling. These subjects make explicit dealing with himself difficult, if not impossible: but his _differentia_ as regards them may, with the aid of a little dexterity, be put without offence. In the first place, as regards the comparison with Rousseau, Restif is almost a gentleman: and he could not possibly have been guilty of Rousseau's blackguard tale-telling in the cases of Madame de Warens (or, as I believe, we are now told to spell it "Vuarrens") or Madame de Larnage. The way in which he speaks of his one idealised mistress, Madame "Parangon," is almost romantic. He is, indeed, savage in respect to his wife--whom he seems to have married in a sort of _clairvoyant_ mixture of knowledge of her evil nature and fascination by her personal charms and allurements, though he had had no difficulty in enjoying these without marriage. But into none other of his scores and hundreds of actual loves in some cases and at least passing intimacies in others,[423] does he ever appear to have taken either the Restoration and Regency tone on the one hand, or that of "sickly sentimentality" on the other. Against commerce for money he lifts up his testimony unceasingly; he has, as his one editor has put it, a _manie de paternite_, and denounces any vice disconnected with it. With the privileges of Solomon or Haroun al Raschid, Restif would have been perfectly contented: and he never would have availed himself of that of Schahriar before the two divine sisters put a stop to it.

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