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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Persons like Tennyson's Ettarre


A

hasty rememberer of the sufferings of Lancelot and one or two other heroes of the early and genuine romance might say, "Why go further than this?" But on a little examination the cases will be found very different. Neither Iseult nor Guinevere is cruel to her lover; Orgueilleuse has a fair excuse in difference of rank and slight acquaintance; persons like Tennyson's Ettarre, still more his Vivien, are "sophisticated"--as we have pointed out already. Besides, Vivien and Ettarre are frankly bad women, which is by no means the case with the Polisardas and Miraguardas. They, if they did not introduce the thing--which is, after all, as the old waterman in _Jacob Faithful_ says, "Human natur',"--established and conventionalised the Silvius and Phoebe relation of lover and mistress. If Lancelot is banished more than once or twice, it is because of Guinevere's real though unfounded jealousy, not of any coquettish "cruelty" on her part; if Partenopeus nearly perishes in his one similar banishment, it is because of his own fault--his fault great and inexcusable. But the Amadisian heroes, as a rule--unless they belong to the light o' love Galaor type, which would not mind cruelty if it were exercised, but would simply laugh and ride away--are almost painfully faithful and deserving; and their sojourns in Tenebrous Isles, their encounters with Bedevilled Fauns, and the like, are either pure misfortunes or the deliberate results of capricious tyranny on the part of their mistresses.

style="text-align: justify;">Now of course this is the sort of thing which may be (and as a matter of fact it no doubt was) tediously abused; but it is equally evident that in the hands of a novelist of genius, or even of fair talent and craftsmanship, it gives opportunity for extensive and ingenious character-drawing, and for not a little "polite conversation." If _la donna e mobile_ generally, she has very special opportunities of exhibiting her mobility in the exercise of her caprice: and if it is the business of the lover (as it is of minorities, according to a Right Honourable politician) to suffer, the _amoureux transi_ who has some wits and some power of expression can suffer to the genteelest of tunes with the most ingenious fugues and variations. A great deal of the actual charm of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poetry in all languages comes from the rendering in verse of this very relation of woman and man. We owe to the "dear Lady Disdain" idea not merely Beatrice, but Beatrix long after her, and many another good thing both in verse and in prose between Shakespeare and Thackeray.

In the _Amadis_ group (as in its slightly modernised successor, that of the _Grand Cyrus_), the handling is so preposterously long and the reliefs of dialogue and other things frequently managed with so little skill, that, except for sheer passing of time, the books have been found difficult to read. The present writer's knowledge of Spanish is too sketchy to enable him to read them in the original with full comfort. _Amadis_ and _Palmerin_ are legible enough in Southey's translations, made, as one would expect from him, with all due effort to preserve the language of the old English versions where possible. But Herberay's sixteenth-century French is a very attractive and perfectly easy language, thoroughly well suited to the matter. And if anything that has been said is read as despite to these romances, the reading is wrong. They have grave faults, but also real delights, and they have no small "place i' the story."[123]

FOOTNOTES:

[110]

[Sidenote: Note on Montaigne.]

This suggestive influence may be found almost as strongly, though shown with less literary craftsmanship, in Brantome's successor and to some extent overlapper, Tallemant des Reaux. And it is almost needless to say that in both _subjects_ for novel treatment "foison," as both French and English would have said in their time. Nor may it be improper to add that Montaigne himself, though more indirectly, assisted in speeding the novel. The actual telling of a story is indeed not his strongest point: the dulness of the _Travels_, if they were really his (on which point the present writer cannot help entertaining a possibly unorthodox doubt), would sufficiently show this. But the great effect which he produced on French prose could not, as in the somewhat similar case of Dryden in English a century later, but prove of immense aid to the novelist. Except in the deliberately eccentric style, as in Rabelais' own case, or in periods such as the Elizabethan and our own, where there is a coterie ready to admire jargon, you cannot write novels, to interest and satisfy readers, without a style, or a group of styles, providing easy and clear narrative media. We shall see how, in the next century, writers in forms apparently still more alien from the novel helped it in the same way.


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