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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Oliphant 195 and Miss Braddon as commandresses of the order



For a final notice--dealing also with the last, or almost the last, of all her books--we may take _Flamarande_ and its sequel, _Les Deux Freres_. They give the history of the unfounded jealousy of a husband in regard to his wife--a jealousy which is backed up by an equally unfounded suspicion (supported by the most outrageous proceedings of espionage and something like burglary) on the part of a confidential servant, who, as we are informed at last, has himself had a secret passion for his innocent mistress. It is more like a Feuillet book than a George Sand, and in this respect shows the curious faculty--possessed also by some lady novelists of our own--of adapting itself to the change of novel-fashion. But to me at least it appeals not.

So turn we from particulars (for individual notice of the hundred books is impossible) to generals.

[Sidenote: Summary and judgment.]

[Sidenote: Style.]

It may be difficult to sum up the characteristics of such a writer as George Sand shortly, but it has to be done. There is to be allowed her--of course and at once--an extraordinary fertility, and a hardly less extraordinary escape from absolute sinking into the trivial. She is preposterous early, somewhat facile and "journalistic" later, but she is never exactly commonplace. She belongs to the school of immense

and almost mechanical producers who are represented in English by Anthony Trollope as their "prior" and by Mrs. Oliphant[195] and Miss Braddon as commandresses of the order. (I think she runs a good deal below the Prior but a good deal above the Commandresses.[196]) But, if she does so belong, it is very mainly due, not to any pre-eminence of narrative faculty, but to that gift of style which has been for nearly a hundred years admitted. Now I have in this _History_ more than once, and by no means with tongue in cheek, expressed a diffidence about giving opinions on this point. I have, it is true, read French for more than sixty years, and I have been accustomed to "read for style" in it, and in divers other languages, for at least fifty. But I see such extraordinary blunders made by foreigners in regard to this side of our own literature, that I can never be sure--being less conceited than the pious originator of the phrase--that even the Grace of God has prevented me from going the same way. Still, if I have any right to publish this book, I must have a little--I will not say "right," but _venia_ or licence--to say what seems to me to be the fact of the matter. That fact--or that seeming of fact--is that George Sand's style is _too_ facile to be first-rate. By this I do not mean that it is too plain. On the contrary, it is sometimes, especially in her early books, ornate to gorgeousness, and even to gaudiness. And it was a curious mistake of the late Mr. Pater, in a quite honorific reference to me, to imply that I preferred the plain style--a mistake all the more curious that he knew and acknowledged (and was almost unduly grateful for) my admiration of his own. I like both forms: but for style--putting meaning out of the question--I would rather read Browne than Swift, and Lamennais than Fenelon.

George Sand has both the plain and the ornate styles (and various shades of "middle" between them) at command. But it seems to me that she has them--to use a financial phrase recently familiar--too much "on tap." You see that the current of agreeable and, so to speak, faultless language is running, and might run volubly for any period of life that might be allotted to her. In fact it did so. Now no doubt there was something of Edmond de Goncourt's bad-blooded fatuity in his claim that his and his brother's epithets were "personal," while Flaubert's were not. Research for more personal "out-of-the-wayness" in style will rarely result in anything but jargon. But, on the other hand, Gautier's great injunction:

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