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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

None had written a great novel


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[Sidenote: The French novel in 1800.]

There are more reasons than the convenience of furnishing a separately published first volume with an interim conclusion, for making, at the close of this, a few remarks on the general state of the French novel at the end of the eighteenth century. No thoroughly similar point is reached in the literary history of France, or of any country known to me, in regard to a particular department of literature. In England--the only place, which can, in this same department, be even considered in comparison, although at this very time two novelists, vastly superior to any of whom France has to boast, were just writing, or just about to write, and were a little later to revolutionise the novel itself--the general state and history of the kind had, for nearly two generations, reached a stage far beyond anything that France could claim. She had made earlier "running"; on the whole period of some seven hundred years she had always, till very recently, been in front. But in the novel, as distinguished from the romance, she had absolutely nothing to show like our great quartette of the mid-eighteenth century, and hardly anything to match the later developments of Miss Burney and others in domestic, of Mrs. Radcliffe and others still in revived romantic fiction. Very great Frenchmen or French writers had written novels; but, with the exceptions of

Lesage in _Gil Blas_, Prevost in that everlastingly wonderful "single-speech" of his, and Rousseau in _La Nouvelle Heloise_, none had written a great novel. No single writer of any greatness had been a novelist pure and simple. No species[433] of fiction, except the short tale, in which, through varying forms, France held an age-long mastery, had been thoroughly developed in her literature.

The main point, where England went right and France went wrong--to be only in the most equivocal way corrected by such a writer as Pigault-Lebrun--was the recognition of the connection--the intimate and all but necessary connection--of the completed novel with ordinary life. Look over the long history of fiction which we have surveyed in the last three or four or five chapters. There is much and sometimes great literary talent; sometimes, again, even genius; there are episodes of reality; there are most artful adjustments of type and convention and the like, of fashion in morals (or immorals) and sentiments. But a real objective novel of ordinary life, such as _Tom Jones_, or even _Humphry Clinker_, nay, such inferior approaches to it as exist elsewhere in English, you will not find. Of the Scudery romances we need not speak again; for all their key-references to persons, and their abstention from the supernatural, etc., they are, as wholes, hardly more real than _Amadis_ and its family themselves. Scarron has some and Furetiere more objectivity that may be argued for, but the Spanish picaresque has become a convention, and they, especially Scarron, are aiming more at the pattern than at the life-model. Madame de la Fayette has much, and some of her followers a little, real passion; but her manners, descriptions, etc., are all conventional, though of another kind. The fairy tales are of course not "real." Marivaux is aiming directly at Sensibility, preciousness, "psychology," if you like, but not at holding up the glass to any ordinary nature as such.[434] And though Crebillon might plead that his convention was actually the convention of hundreds and almost thousands of accomplished ladies and gentlemen, no one can deny that it was almost as much a convention as the historical or legendary acting of the _Comedie Humaine_ by living persons a hundred years later at Venice.


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