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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

As is rather the way with Pigault


his most Sternian exercises, the propriety is chequered. It begins in sufficiently startling fashion; a single gentleman of easy fortune and amiable disposition, putting his latchkey in the door of his chambers one night, is touched and accosted by an interesting young person with an "argentine" voice. This may look _louche_; but the silvery accents appeal only for relief of needs, which, as it shortly appears, are those most properly to be supplied by a maternity hospital. It is to be understood that the suppliant is an entire stranger to the hero. He behaves in the most amiable and, indeed, noble fashion, instals her in his rooms, turns himself and his servant out to the nearest hotel, fetches the proper ministress, and, not content with this Good Samaritanism, effects a legitimate union between Jeanneton and her lover, half gives and half procures them a comfortable maintenance, resists temptation of repayment (_not_ in coin) on more than one occasion, and sets out, on foot, to Caudebec, to see about a heritage which has come to Jeanneton's husband. On the way he falls in with Angelique (a lady this time), falls also in love with her, and marries her. The later part of the story, as is rather the way with Pigault, becomes more "accidented." There are violent scenes, jealousies, not surprising, between the two heroines, etc. But the motto-title of Marmontel's _Heureusement_ governs all, and the end is peace, though not without some spots in its sun. That the public of 1799 did not like the book and did like _La Folie Espagnole_ is not surprising; but the bearing of this double attempt on the growth of novel-writing as a regular craft is important.

[Sidenote: _Mon Oncle Thomas._]

Perhaps on the whole _Mon Oncle Thomas_, which seems to have been one of the most popular, is also one of the most representative, if not the best, of Pigault-Lebrun's novels. Its opening, and not its opening only, is indeed full of that mere nastiness which we, with Smollett and others to our _dis_credit, cannot disclaim for our own parallel period, and which was much worse among the French, who have a choice selection of epithets for it. But the fortunes of the youthful Thomas--child of a prostitute of the lowest class, though a very good mother, who afterwards marries a miserly and ruffianly corporal of police--are told with a good deal of spirit--one even thinks of _Colonel Jack_--and the author shows his curious vulgar common sense, and his knowledge of human nature of a certain kind, pretty frequently, at least in the earlier part of the book.

[Sidenote: _Jerome._]

_Jerome_ is another of Pigault's favourite studies of boys--distinctly blackguard boys as a rule--from their mischievous, or, as the early English eighteenth century would have put it, "unlucky" childhood, to their most undeserved reward with a good and pretty wife (whom one sincerely pities), and more or less of a fortune. There is, however, more vigour in _Jerome_ than in most, and, if one has the knack of "combing out" the silly and stale Voltairianism, and paying little attention to the far from exciting sculduddery, the book may be read. It contains, in particular, one of the most finished of its author's sketches, of a type which he really did something to introduce into his country's literature--that of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic _routier_ or professional soldier--brave as you like, and--at least at some times when neither drunk nor under the influence of the garden god--not ungenerous; with a certain simplicity too: but as braggart as he is brave; a mere brute beast as regards the other sex; utterly ignorant, save of military matters, and in fact a kind of caricature of the older type, which the innocent Rymer was so wrath with Shakespeare for neglecting in Iago.


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