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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

In Villehardouin this gift may be almost wholly

In the present chapter we shall endeavour to treat two divisions of actual novel- or at least fiction-writing--strikingly opposed to each other in character; and a third subject, to include which in the title would have made that title too long, and which is not strictly a branch of novel-_writing_, but which had perhaps as important an influence on the progress of the novel itself as anything mentioned or to be mentioned in all this _History_. The first division is composed of the followers--sometimes in the full, always in the chronological sense--of Rabelais, a not very strong folk as a rule, but including one brilliant example of co-operative work, and two interesting, if in some degree problematical, persons. The second, strikingly contrasting with the general if not the universal tendency of the first, is the great translated group of _Amadis_ romances, which at once revived romance of the older kind itself, and exercised a most powerful, if not an actually generative, influence on newer forms which were themselves to pass into the novel proper. The third is the increasing body of memoir- and anecdote-writers who, with Brantome at their head, make actual personages and actual events the subjects of a kind of story-telling, not perhaps invariably of unexceptionable historic accuracy, but furnishing remarkable situations of plot and suggestions of character, together with abundant new examples of the "telling" faculty itself.

[Sidenote: Subsidiary

importance of Brantome and other character-mongers.]

The last point, as an apparent digression but really a most important contribution to the History, may perhaps be discussed and dismissed first. All persons who have even a slight knowledge of French literature must be aware how early and how remarkable are its possessions in what is vaguely called the "Memoir" department. There is nothing at the time, in any modern literature known to the present writer, similar to Villehardouin, or a little later to Joinville,--one might almost say that there is nothing in any literature at any time superior, if there be anything equal, in its kind to Froissart. In the first two cases there is pure personal experience; in the third there is, of course, a certain amount of precedent writing on the subject for guidance, and a large gathering of information by word of mouth. But in all these, and to a less extent in others up to the close of the fifteenth century, there is the indefinable gift of treatment--of "telling a story." In Villehardouin this gift may be almost wholly, and in principle very mainly, limited to the two great subjects which made the mediaeval end as far as profane matters were concerned--fighting and counselling; but this is by no means the case in Froissart, whom one is sometimes tempted to regard as a Sir Walter Scott thrown away upon base reality.

With the sixteenth century this gift once more burgeoned and spread itself out--dealing, indeed, very mainly with the somewhat ungrateful subject of the religious disputes and wars, but flowering or fruiting into the unsurpassable gossip--though gossip is too undignified a word--of Pierre de Bourdeilles, Abbe de Brantome, that Froissart and Pepys in one, with the noble delight in noble things of the first, inextricably united to the almost innocent shamelessness of the second, and a narrative gift equal to that of either in idiosyncrasy, and ranging beyond the subjects of both. Himself a soldier and a courtier (his abbacy, like many others, was purely titular and profitable--not professional in the least), his favourite subjects in literature, and obviously his idols in life, were great soldiers and fair ladies, "Bayard and the two Marguerites," as some one has put it. And his vivid irregular fashion of writing adapts itself with equal ease to a gallant feat of arms and a ferocious, half-cut-throat duel, to an exquisite piece of sentimental passion like that which tells us the story how the elder Queen of Navarre rebuked the lover carelessly stepping over the grave of his dead mistress, and to an unquotable anecdote to parallel the details of which, in literature of high rank, one must go to Rabelais himself, to Martial, or to Aristophanes. But, whatever the subject, the faculty of lively communication remains unaltered, and the suggestion of its transference from fact (possibly a little coloured) to pure fiction becomes more and more possible and powerful.[110]

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