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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

But Asseneth is a mystical allegory


it makes up in variety. The

peculiarity, some would say the defect, of mediaeval literature--its sheep-like tendency to go in flocks--is quite absent. Not more than two of the eight, _Le Roi Flore_ and _La Comtesse de Ponthieu_, can be said to be of the same class, even giving the word class a fairly elastic sense. They are short prose _Romans d'aventures_. But _Asseneth_ is a mystical allegory; _Aucassin et Nicolette_ is a sort of idyll, almost a lyric, in which the adventure is entirely subordinated to the emotional and poetical interest; _L'Empereur Constant_, though with something of the _Roman d'aventures_ in it, has a tendency towards a _moralitas_ ("there is no armour against fate") which never appears in the pure adventurous kind; _Troilus_ is an abridgment of a classical romance; and _Foulques Fitzwarin_ is, as has been said, an embryonic historical novel. Most, if not all, moreover, give openings for, and one or two even proceed into, character- and even "problem"-writing of the most advanced novel kind. In one or two also, no doubt, that aggression and encroachment of allegory (which is one of the chief notes of these two centuries) makes itself felt, though not to the extent which we shall notice in the next chapter. But almost everywhere a strong _nisus_ towards actual tale-telling and the rapid acquisition of proper "plant" for such telling, become evident. In particular, conversation--a thing difficult to bring anyhow into verse-narrative, and impossible there to keep up satisfactorily in
various moods--begins to find its way. We may turn, in the next chapter, to matter mostly or wholly in verse forms. But prose fiction is started all the same.

[Sidenote: And on the short story generally.]

Before we do so, however, it may not be improper to point out that the short story undoubtedly holds--of itself--a peculiar and almost prerogative place in the history and morphology or the novel. After a long and rather unintelligible unpopularity in English--it never suffered in this way in French--it has been, according to the way of the world, a little over-exalted of late perhaps. It is undoubtedly a very difficult thing to do well, and it would be absurd to pretend that any of the foregoing examples is done thoroughly well. The Italian _novella_ had to come and show the way.[79] But the short story, even of the rudimentary sort which we have been considering, cannot help being a powerful schoolmaster to bring folk to good practice in the larger kind. The faults and the merits of that kind, as such, appear in it after a fashion which can hardly fail to be instructive and suggestive. The faults so frequently charged against that "dear defunct" in our own tongue, the three-volume novel--the faults of long-windedness, of otiose padding, of unnecessary episodes, etc., are almost mechanically or mathematically impossible in the _nouvelle_. The long book provides pastime in its literal sense, and if it is not obvious in the other the accustomed reader, unless outraged by some extraordinary dulness or silences, goes on, partly like the Pickwickian horse because he can't well help it, and partly because he hopes that something _may_ turn up. In the case of the short he sees almost at once whether it is going to have any interest, and if there is none such apparent he throws it aside.


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