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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Madame de Stael has cast off not only that drogue



"This dismal trash, which has nearly dislocated the jaws of every critic who has read it," was the extremely rude judgment pronounced by Sydney Smith on Madame de Stael's _Delphine_. Sydney was a good-natured person and a gentleman, nor had he, merely as a Whig, any reason to quarrel with the lady's general attitude to politics--a circumstance which, one regrets to say, did in those days, on both sides, rather improperly qualify the attitude of gentlemen to literary ladies as well as to each other. It is true that the author of _Corinne_ and of _Delphine_ itself had been rather a thorn in the side of the English Whigs by dint of some of her opinions, by much of her conduct, and, above all, by certain peculiarities which may be noticed presently. But Sydney, though a Whig, was not "a _vile_ Whig," for which reason the Upper Powers, in his later years, made him something rather indistinguishable from a Tory. And that blunt common sense, which in his case cohabited with the finest _un_common wit, must have found itself, in this instance, by no means at variance with its housemate in respect of Anne Germaine Necker.

There are many _worse_ books than _Delphine_. It is excellently written; there is no bad blood in it; there is no intentional licentiousness; on the contrary, there are the most desperate attempts to live up to a New Morality by no means entirely of the Wiggins kind. But there is an absence

of humour which is perfectly devastating: and there is a presence of the most disastrous atmosphere of sham sentiment, sham morality, sham almost everything, that can be imagined. It was hinted in the last volume that Madame de Stael's lover, Benjamin Constant, shows in one way the Nemesis of Sensibility; so does she herself in another. But the difference! In _Adolphe_ a coal from the altar of true passion has touched lips in themselves polluted enough, and the result is what it always is in such, alas! rare cases, whether the lips were polluted or not. In _Delphine_ there is a desperate pother to strike some sort of light and get some sort of heat; but the steel is naught, the flint is clay, the tinder is mouldy, and the wood is damp and rotten. No glow of brand or charcoal follows, and the lips, untouched by it, utter nothing but rhetoric and fustian and, as the Sydneian sentence speaks it, "trash."[9]

[Sidenote: The tone.]

In fact, to get any appropriate metaphorical description of it one has to change the terminology altogether. In a very great line Mr. Kipling has spoken of a metaphorical ship--

With a drogue of dead convictions to keep her head to gale.

Madame de Stael has cast off not only that drogue, but even the other and perhaps commoner floating ballast and steadier of dead _conventions_, and is trying to beat up against the

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