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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Has never reached the centre about Byron


The

main interest, however, shifts (with apparitions of Trenmor-Valmarina) to the loves (if they may be called so) of the pitiable Stenio and the intolerable heroine. She is unable to love anybody, and knows it; she can talk--ye Demons, how she can talk!--but she can never behave like a woman of this world. She alternately hugs Stenio, so that she nearly squeezes his breath out, and, when he draws natural conclusions from this process, pushes him away. But worse and more preposterous things happen. Lelia has a sister, Pulcherie, who is very like her (they are of course both impossibly beautiful) in body, and so far resembles her in mind and soul as to be unable to behave decently or sensibly. But her want of decency and sense takes the more commonplace line of becoming an actual courtesan of the "Imperia" kind in Italy. By a series of muddles for which Lelia is--as her plain-spoken sister points out after the catastrophe--herself really responsible, Stenio is induced, during the excitement of an _al fresco_ fete at night in the grounds of a sort of fairy palace, to take the "coming" sister for the recalcitrant one, and avail himself of her complaisance, _usque ad finem_. Lelia reproaches him (which she has not the least right to do), and he devotes himself entirely to Pulcherie (La Zinzolina is her professional name) and her group of noble paramours. He gets, however, generally drunk and behaves with a brutal rudeness, which would, in the Italy of tradition, have finished things up
very soon by a stiletto thrust, and in honest England by a kicking into the street. There are mysterious plots, cardinals, and anything else you like or don't like. Lelia becomes an abbess, Stenio a suicide, the above-mentioned priest, Magnus, being much concerned in this. She admits her unfortunate lover to burial, and is degraded and imprisoned for it--or for having saved Trenmor-Valmarina from the law. Everybody else now dies, and the nightmare comes to an end.

[Sidenote: The moral of the group and its tragi-comedy.]

The beauties of style which softened the savage breast of Thackeray himself in the notice above mentioned, and which, such as they are, appear even in George Sand's earliest work, will receive attention when that work comes to be discussed as a whole. Meanwhile, at the risk of any charge of Philistinism, I confess that this part of it seems to me, after fifty years and more of "corrected impression," almost worthless _au fond_. It is, being in prose, and therefore destitute of the easements or at least masquerades which poetry provides for nonsense, the most conspicuous and considerable example--despite the undoubted talent of the writer--of the mischief which Byronism did on the Continent. With us, though it made a great stir, it really did little harm except to some "silly women" (as the apostle, in unkindly and uncourtly, but truly apostolic fashion, had called similar persons of the angelic sex ages before). Counter-jumpers like Thackeray's own Pogson worshipped "the noble poet"; boys of nobler stamp like Tennyson _thought_ they worshipped him, but if they were going to become men of affairs forgot all about him; if they were to be poets took to Keats and Shelley as models, not to him. Critics hardly took him seriously, except for non-literary reasons. There was, as I think somebody (perhaps Thackeray himself) says upon something, "too much roast beef about" for us to fill our bellies with this worse than east wind of Sensibility gone rotten. But abroad, for reasons which would be easy but irrelevant to dwell upon, Byron hit the many-winged bird of popular favour on nearly all its pinions. He ran strikingly and delightfully contrary to the accepted _Anglais_, whether of the philosophical or the caricature type; he was noble, but revolutionary; he looked (he never was, except in non-essentials) Romantic; he was new, naughty, nice, all at once. And they went mad over him, and to a large extent and for a long time remained so; indeed, Continental criticism, whether Latin, Teutonic, Scandinavian, or Slav, has never reached "the centre" about Byron. Now George Sand was at no time exactly a silly woman, but she was for a long time a woman off her balance. Byronism was exactly the -ism with which she could execute the wildest feats of half-voluntary and half-involuntary acrobatics, saltimbanquery, and chucking of her bonnet over all conceivable and inconceivable mills. Childe Harold, Manfred, Conrad, Lara, Don Juan, Sardanapalus--the shades of these caught her and waltzed with her and reversed and figured and gesticulated,


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