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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Is worth all Pigault put together and a great deal more


his long life in the nineteenth century, and did not die till Scott was dead in England, and the great series of novel-romances had begun, with Hugo and others, in France. But he was a man of nearly fifty in 1800, and the character of his work, except in one all-important point, or group of points, is thoroughly of the eighteenth, while even the excepted characteristics are of a more really transitional kind than anything in Chateaubriand and Madame de Stael, whom we have postponed, as well as in Constant and Xavier de Maistre, whom we have admitted. He has no high reputation in literature, and, except from our own special point of view, he does not deserve even a demi-reputation. Although he is not deliberately pornographic, he is exceedingly coarse, with a great deal of the nastiness which is not even naughty, but nastiness pure and simple. There is, in fact, and in more ways than one, something in him of an extremely inferior Smollett. Comparing him with his elder contemporary, Restif de la Bretonne, he is vulgar, which Restif never is. Passing to more purely literary matters, it would be difficult, from the side of literature as an art--I do not say as a craft--to say anything for him whatever. His style[426] is, I should suppose (for I think no foreigner has any business to do more than "suppose" in that matter), simply wretched; he has sentences as long as Milton's or Clarendon's or Mr. Ruskin's, not merely without the grandeur of the first, the beauty of the last, and the weighty sense of the second, but lacking any flash of graceful, pithy, or witty phrase; character of the model-theatre and cut-out paper kind; a mere accumulation of incidents instead of a plot; hardly an attempt at dialogue, and, where description is attempted at all, utter ineffectiveness or sheer rhyparography.[427]

It is a fair _riposte_ to the last paragraph to ask, "Then why do you drag him in here at all?" But the counter-parry is easy. The excepted points above supply it. With all his faults--admitting, too, that every generation since his time has supplied some, and most much better, examples of his kind--the fact remains that he was the first considerable representative, in his own country, of that variety of professional novelist who can spin yarns, of the sort that his audience or public[428] wants, with unwearied industry, in great volume, and of a quality which, such as it is, does not vary very much. He is, in short, the first notable French novelist-tradesman--the first who gives us notice that novel-production is established as a business. There is even a little more than this to be said for him. He has really made considerable progress, if we compare him with his predecessors and contemporaries, in the direction of the novel of ordinary life, as that life was in his own day. There are extravagances of course, but they are scarcely flagrant. His atmosphere is what the cooks, housemaids, footmen, what the grocers and small- or middle-class persons who, I suppose, chiefly read him, were, or would have liked to be, accustomed to. His scene is not a paradise in either the common or the Greek sense; it is a sort of cabbage-garden, with a cabbage-garden's lack of beauty, of exquisiteness in any form, with its presence of untidiness, and sometimes of evil odour, but with its own usefulness, and with a cultivator of the most sedulous. Pigault-Lebrun, for France, may be said to be the first author-in-chief of the circulating library. It may not be a position of exceeding honour; but it is certainly one which gives him a place in the story of the novel, and which justifies not merely these general remarks on him, but some analysis (not too abundant) of his particular works. As for translating him, a Frenchman might as well spend his time in translating the English newspaper _feuilletons_ of "family" papers in the earlier and middle nineteenth century. Indeed that _Minnigrey_, which I remember reading as a boy, and which long afterwards my friend, the late Mr. Henley, used to extol as one of the masterpieces of literature, is worth all Pigault put together and a great deal more.


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