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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

The creator of the modern novel


No

writer perhaps illustrates what is being said better than Prevost. No one of his books, voluminous as they are, has the very slightest reality, except _Manon Lescaut_; and that, like _La Princesse de Cleves_, though with much more intensity and fortunately with no alloy of convention whatever, is simply a study of passion, not of life at large at all. With the greater men the case alters to some extent in proportion to their greatness, but, again with one exception, not to such an extent as to affect the general rule. Voltaire avowedly never attempts ordinary representation of ordinary life--save as the merest by-work, it is all "purpose," satire, fancy. Rousseau may not, in one sense, go beyond that life in _Julie_, but in touching it he is almost as limited and exclusive as Prevost in his masterpiece. Diderot has to get hold of the abnormal, if not the unreal, before he can give you something like a true novel. Marmontel is half-fanciful, and though he does touch reality, subordinates it constantly to half-allegorical and wholly moral purpose. All the minor "Sensibility" folk follow their leaders, and so do all the minor _conteurs_.

The people (believed to be a numerous folk) who are uncomfortable with a fact unless some explanation of it is given, may be humoured here. The failure of a very literary nation--applying the most disciplined literary language in Europe to a department, in the earlier stages of which they had led Europe itself--to

get out of the trammels which we had easily discarded, is almost demonstrably connected with the very nature of their own literary character. Until the most recent years, if not up to the very present day, few Frenchmen have ever been happy without a type, a "kind," a set of type-and kind-rules, a classification and specification, as it were, which has to be filled up and worked over. Of all this the novel had nothing in ancient times, while in modern it had only been wrestling and struggling towards something of the sort, and had only in one country discovered, and not quite consciously there, that the beauty of the novel lies in having no type, no kind, no rules, no limitations, no general precept or motto for the craftsman except "Here is the whole of human life before you. Copy it, or, better, recreate it--with variation and decoration _ad libitum_--as faithfully, but as freely, as you can." Of this great fact even Fielding, the creator of the modern novel, was perhaps not wholly aware as a matter of theory, though he made no error about it in practice. Indeed the "comic prose epic" notion _might_ reduce to rules like those of the verse. Both Scott and Miss Austen abstained likewise from formalising it. But every really great novel has illustrated it; and attempts, such as have been recently made, to contest it and draw up a novelists' code, have certainly not yet justified themselves according to the Covenant of Works, and have at least not disposed some of us to welcome them as a Covenant of Faith. It is because Pigault-Lebrun, though a low kind of creature from every point of view, except that of mere craftsmanship, did, like his betters, recognise the fact in practice, that he has been allowed here a place of greater consideration than perhaps has ever fallen to his lot before in literary history.

Still, even putting out of sight the new developments which had shown the irrepressible vitality of the French _conte_, the seven hundred years had not been wasted. The product of the first half of them remained, indeed, at this time sealed up in the "gazophile" of the older age, or was popularised only by well-meaning misinterpreters like the Comte de Tressan;[435] but the treasure-house was very soon to be broken open and utilised. It is open to any one to contend--it is, indeed, pretty much the opinion of the present writer--that it was this very neglect which had made the progress of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries themselves so slow and so imperfect in its total results. For those who like to look for literary causes outside literature, there may be other explanations. But any intelligent reader can do something for himself if he has the facts before him. It is these facts that it has been and will be our business to give and to summarise here.


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