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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Jehan de Paris of an unknown writer


Now

whether this, as the book asserts and as is not at all improbable, is a true story or not, cannot matter to any sensible person one farthing. What does matter is that it is a by no means badly told story, that it resorts to no illegitimate sources or seasonings of interest, and that it offers opportunities for amplification and "diversity of administration" to almost any extent. One can fancy it told, at much greater length and with more or less adjustment to different times, by great novelists of the most widely varying classes--by Scott and by Dumas, by Charles Reade and by George Meredith, to mention no living writer, as might easily be done. Both hero and heroine have more character between them than you could extract out of fifty of the usual _nouvelles_, and each lends him or herself to endless further development. Not a few of the separate scenes--the good parents fussing over their daughter's intended cavalcade and her thrifty and ingenious objections; the journey of the uncle and niece (any of the first three of the great novelists mentioned above would have made chapters of this); the dramatic and risky passages at the castle _en Barrois_; the contrast of Katherine's passion and Gerard's sluggishness; and the fashion in which this latter at once brings on the lout's defeat and saves the lady from danger at his hands--all this is novel-matter of almost the first class as regards incident, with no lack of character-openings to boot. Nor could anybody want a better "curtain"
than the falling back of the scorned and baffled false lover, the concert of the minstrels, and Katherine's stately stepping down the dais to complete the insult by dancing with another.

[Sidenote: The interest of _named_ personages.]

One more general point may be noticed in connection with the superiority of this story, and that is the accession of interest, at first sight trivial but really important, which comes from the _naming_ of the personages. Both in the earlier _fabliaux_ and in these _Nouvelles_ themselves, by far the larger number of the actors are simply called by class-names--a "knight," a "damsel," a "merchant and his wife," a "priest," a "varlet." It may seem childish to allow the mere addition of a couple of names like Gerard and Katherine to make this difference of interest, but the fact is that there is a good deal of childishness in human nature, and especially in the enjoyment of story.[84] Only by very slow degrees were writers of fiction to learn the great difference that small matters of this kind make, and how the mere "anecdote," the dry argument or abstract of incident, can be amplified, varied, transformed from a remainder biscuit to an abundant and almost inexhaustible feast, by touches of individual character, setting of interiors, details of conversation, description, nomenclature, and what not. Quite early, as we saw in the case of the _St. Alexis_, persons of narrative gift stumbled upon things of the kind; but it was only after long delays, and hints of many half-conscious kinds, that they became part of recognised craft. Even with such a master of that craft as Boccaccio before them, not all the Italian novelists could catch the pattern; and the French, perhaps naturally enough, were slower still.

It must be remembered, in judging the fifteenth-century French tale, that just as it was to some extent hampered by the long continuing popularity of the verse _fabliau_ on the one hand, so it was, as we may say, "bled" on the other by the growing popularity of the farce, which consists of exactly the same material as the _fabliaux_ and the _nouvelles_ themselves, with the additional liveliness of voice and action. These later additions imposed not the smallest restraint on the license which had characterised and was to characterise the plain verse and prose forms,[85] and no doubt the result was all the more welcome to the taste of the time. But for that very reason the appetites and tastes, which could glut themselves with the full dramatic representation, might care less for the mere narrative, on the famous principle of _segnius irritant_. Nor was the political state of France during the time very favourable to letters. There are, however, two separate fifteenth-century stories which deserve notice. One of them is the rather famous, though probably not widely read, _Petit Jehan de Saintre_ of the already mentioned Antoine de la Salle, a certain work of his this time. The other is the pleasant, though to Englishmen intentionally uncomplimentary, _Jehan de Paris_ of an unknown writer. La Salle's book must belong to the later middle of the century, though, if he died in or about 1461, not to a very late middle. _Jehan de Paris_ has been put by M. de Montaiglon nearer the close.


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