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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Made of poisoned fish bones Argow le Pirate


Whether

these curiosities are more widely known than they were some five-and-twenty, or thirty, years ago, when Mr. Louis Stevenson was the only friend of mine who had read them, and when even special writers on Balzac sometimes unblushingly confessed that they had not, I cannot say. Although printed in the little fifty-five-volume[160] edition which for so many years represented Balzac, they were excluded, as noted above, from the statelier "Definitive," and so may have once more "gone into abscondence." I do not want to read them again, but I no more repent the time once spent on them than I did earlier. In fact I really do not think any one ought to talk about Balzac who has not at least gained some knowledge of them, for many of their defects remained with him when he got rid of the others. These defects are numerous enough and serious enough. The books are nothing if not uncritical, generally extravagant, and sometimes (especially in _Jean Louis_) appallingly dull. Scarf-pins, made of poisoned fish-bones (_Argow le Pirate_), extinction of virgins under copper bells (_Le Centenaire_), attempts at fairy-tales (_La Derniere Fee_) jostle each other. The weaker historical kind figures largely in _L'Excommunie_ (one of the least bad), _L'Israelite_, _L'Heritiere de Birague_, _Dom Gigadas_. There is a _Vicaire des Ardennes_ (remarkably different from him of Wakefield), which is a kind of introduction to _Argow le Pirate_, and which, again, is not the worst. When I formerly wrote about these
curious productions, after reading them, I had not read Pigault-Lebrun, and therefore did not perceive, what I now see to be an undoubted fact, that Balzac was, sometimes at least, trying to follow in Pigault's popular footsteps. But he had not that writer's varied knowledge of actual life or his power of telling a story, and though he for the most part avoided Pigault's _grossierete_, the chaotic plots, the slovenly writing, and other defects of his model abode with him.

[Sidenote: _Les Chouans._]

There are not many more surprising things, especially _in pari materia_, to be found in literary history than the sun-burst of _Les Chouans_ after this darkness-that-can-be-felt of the early melodramas. Not that _Les Chouans_ is by any means a perfect novel, or even a great one. Its narrative drags, in some cases, almost intolerably; the grasp of character, though visible, is inchoate; the plot is rather a polyptych of separate scenes than a connected action; you see at once that the author has changed his model to Sir Walter and think how much better Sir Walter would have done the thing. But there is a strange air of "coming alive" in some of the scenes, though they are too much separated, as in the case of the finale and of the execution of the rather hardly used traitor earlier. These possess a character of thrill which may be looked for in vain through all the ten volumes of the _Oeuvres de Jeunesse_. Montauran _is_ a hero in more than one sense, and Mlle. de Verneuil is still more a heroine. Had Balzac worked her out as he worked out others, who did not deserve it so well, later, she might have been one of the great characters in fiction. Even as it is, the "jour sans lendemain," which in one sense unites, and in another parts, her and her lover for ever, is one of the most really passionate things that the French novel, in its revival, had yet seen. Besides this, there is a sort of extrinsic appeal in the book, giving that curious atmosphere referred to already, and recalling the old prints of the earth yawning in patches and animals rearing themselves from it at the Creation. The names and personages of Hulot and Corentin were to be well known later to readers of the "fifty volumes," and even the ruffianly patriot[161] Marche-a-Terre had his future.


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