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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Who has comprehended Lancelot pretty correctly


[Sidenote:

Some further remarks on the novel character of the story.]

A little more comment on this cento, and especially on the central passage of it, can hardly be, and ought certainly not to be, avoided in such a work as this, even if, like most summaries, it be something of a repetition. It must surely be obvious to any careful reader that here is something much more than--unless his reading has been as wide elsewhere as it is careful here--he expected from Romance in the commoner and half-contemptuous acceptation of that word. Lancelot he may, though he should not, still class as a mere _amoureux transi_--a nobler and pluckier Silvius in an earlier _As Yon Like It_, and with a greater than Phoebe for idol. Malory ought to be enough to set him right there: he need even not go much beyond Tennyson, who has comprehended Lancelot pretty correctly, if not indeed pretty adequately. But Malory has left out a great deal of the information which would have enabled his readers to comprehend Guinevere; and Tennyson, only presenting her in parts, has allowed those parts, especially the final and only full presentation, great as it is, to be too much influenced by his certainly unfortunate other presentation of Arthur as a blameless king.

I do not say that the actual creator of the Vulgate Guinevere, whoever he was, has wrought her into a novel-character of the first class. It would have been not merely a miracle (for miracles

often happen), but something more, if he had. If you could take Beatrix Esmond at a better time, Argemone Lavington raised to a higher power, and the spirit of all that is best and strongest and least purely paradoxical in Meredith's heroines, and work these three graces into one woman, adding the passion of Tennyson's own Fatima and the queenliness of Helen herself, it might be something like the achieved Guinevere who is still left to the reader's imagination to achieve. But the Unknown has given the hints of all this; and curiously enough it is only of _English_ novel-heroines that I can think in comparison and continuation of her. This book, if it is ever finished, will show, I hope, some knowledge of French ones: I can remember none possessing any touch of Guineveresque quality. Dante, if his poetic nature had taken a different bent, and Shakespeare, if he had only chosen, could have been her portrayers singly; no others that I can think of, and certainly no Frenchman.

[Sidenote: And the personages.]

But here Guinevere's creator or expounder has done more for her than merely indicate her charm. Her "fear for name and fame" is not exactly "crescent"--it is there from the first, and seems to have nothing either cowardly or merely selfish in it, but only that really "last infirmity of noble minds," the shame of shame even in doing things shameful or shameless. I have seldom seen justice done to her magnificent fearlessness in all her dangers. Her graciousness as a Queen has been more generally admitted, but, once again, the composition and complexity of her fits of jealousy have never, I think, been fully rationalised. Here, once more, we must take into account that difference of age which is so important. _He_ thinks nothing of it; _she_ never forgets it. And in almost all the circumstances where this rankling kindles into wrath--whether with no cause at all, as in most cases, or with cause more apparent than real, as in the Elaine business--study of particulars will show how easily they might be wrought out into the great character scenes of which they already contain the suggestion. _This_ Guinevere would never have "taken up" (to use purposely a vulgar phrase for what would have been a vulgar thing) with Mordred,[55] either for himself or for the kingdom that he was trying to steal. And I am bound to say again that much as I have read of purely French romance--that is to say, French not merely in language but in certain origin--I know nothing and nobody like her in it.


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