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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Sidenote Petit Jehan de Saintre


_Petit Jehan de Saintre._]

The history of "little John of Saintre and the Lady of the Beautiful Cousins"[86] has not struck all judges, even all English judges,[87] in the same way. Some have thought it mawkish, rhetorical, clumsily imitative of the manners of dead chivalry, and the like. Others, admitting it to be a late and "literary" presentation of the stately society it describes, rank it much higher as such. Its author was a bitter enough satirist if he wrote, as he most probably did, the famous _Quinze Joyes de Mariage_, one of the most unmitigated pieces of unsweetened irony--next to _A Tale of a Tub_ and _Jonathan Wild_--to be found in literature; but not couched in narrative form. The same quality appears of course in the still more famous farce of _Pathelin_, which few good judges deny very stoutly to him, though there is little positive evidence. In the _Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles_ again, as has been said, he certainly had a hand, and possibly a great hand, as well as perhaps elsewhere. The satiric touch appears even in _Petit Jehan_ itself; for, after all the gracious courtship of the earlier part, the _dame des belles Cousines_, during an absence of her lover on service, falls a by no means, as it would seem, very reluctant victim to the vulgar viciousness of a rich churchman, just like the innominatas of the _nouvelles_ themselves. But the earlier part _is_ gracious--a word specifically and intensively applicable to it. It may be

a little unreal; does not the secondary form and sense which has been fastened upon reality--"realism"--show that, in the opinion of many people at least, reality is _not_ gracious? The Foozles of this world who "despise all your kickshaws," the Dry-as-dusts who point out--not in the least seeing the real drift of their argument--that the fifteenth century was, in the greater part of Europe if not the whole, at a new point of morals and manners, may urge these things. But the best part of _Petit Jehan_ remains a gracious sort of dream for gracious dreamers--a picture of a kind of Utopia of Feminism, when Feminism did not mean votes or anything foolish, but only adoration of the adorable.

[Sidenote: _Jehan de Paris._]

It would be impossible to find or even to imagine anything more different than the not much later _Jehan de Paris_, an evident folk-tale[88] of uncertain origin, which very quickly became a popular chapbook and lasted long in that condition. Although we Englishmen provide the fun, he is certainly no Englishman who resents the fact or fails to enjoy the result, not to mention that we "could tell them tales with other endings." It is, for instance, not quite historically demonstrable that in crossing a river many English horsemen would be likely to be drowned, while all the French cavaliers got safe through; nor that, in scouring a country, the Frenchmen would score all the game and all the best beasts and poultry, while the English bag would consist of starvelings and offal. But no matter for that. The actual tale tells (with the agreeable introductory "How," which has not yet lost its zest for the right palates in chapter-headings) the story of a King and Queen of Spain who have, in recompense for help given them against turbulent barons, contracted their daughter to the King of France for his son; how they forgot this later, and betrothed her to the King of England, and how that King set out with his train, through France itself, to fetch his bride. As soon as the Dauphin (now king, for his father is dead) hears of their coming, he disguises himself under the name of John of Paris, with a splendid train of followers, much more gorgeous than the English (the "foggy islander" of course cannot make this out), and sets of _quiproquos_ follow, in each of which the Englishman is outdone and baffled generally, till at last "John of Paris" enters Burgos in state, reveals himself, and carries off the Englishman's bride, with the natural effect of making him _bien marry et courrouce_, though no fight comes off.

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