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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

I should claim for La Morte Amoureuse


Now

with Rossetti it was entirely different. His drawing may have been as faulty as people said it was, and he may have been as fond as they also said of bestowing upon all his subjects exaggerated and almost ungainly features, which possibly belonged to the Blessed Damozel, but were not the most indisputable part of her blessedness. But they were, despite their similarity of type, all personal and individual, and all suggestive to the mind and the emotions of real women, and of the things which real women are and do and suffer. And they were all differently suggestive. Proserpine and Beata Beatrix; the devotional figures in their quietude or their ecstasy, and the forlorn leaguer-lasses of that little masterpiece of the novitiate, "Hesterna Rosa"; the Damozel herself and a Corsican lady whose portrait, unpublished and unexhibited, has been familiar to me for six-and-thirty years;--all these and all the others would behave to you, and you would behave to them, if they could be vivified, in ways different individually but real and live.

[Sidenote: The reality.]

Now it is beauty of reality as well as of presentation that I at least find in _La Morte Amoureuse_. Clarimonde alive is very much more than a "shadow on glass"; Clarimonde dead is more alive than many live women.

[Sidenote: And the passion of it.]

But the audacity of infatuation need not

stop here. I should claim for _La Morte Amoureuse_, and for Gautier as the author of it, more than this. It appears to me to be one of the very few expressions in French prose of really passionate love. It is, with _Manon Lescaut_ and _Julie_, the most consummate utterance that I at least know, in that division of literature, of the union of sensual with transcendental enamourment. Why this is so rare in French is a question fitter for treatment in a _History of the French Temperament_ than in one of the French Novel. That it is so I believe to be a simple fact, and simple facts require little talking about. No prose literature has so much love-making in it as French, and none so much about different species of love: _amour de tete_ and _amour des sens_ especially, but also not unfrequently _amour de coeur_, and even _amour d'ame_. But of the combination that _we_ call "passionate love"--that fills our own late sixteenth, early seventeenth, and whole nineteenth century literature, and that requires love of the heart and the head, the soul and the senses, together--it has (outside poetry of course)[202] only the three books just mentioned and a few passages such as Atala's dying speech, Adolphe's, alas! too soon obliterated reflections on his first success with Ellenore, perhaps one or two more before _La Morte Amoureuse_, and even since its day not many. Maupassant (_v. inf._) _could_ manage the combination, but too often confined himself to exhibitions of the separate and imperfect divisions, whereof, no doubt, the number is endless.

That Gautier always or often maintained himself at this pitch, either of what we may call power of projecting live personages or of exhibition of great passions, it would be idle and uncritical to contend; that he did so here, and thereby put himself at once and for ever on the higher, nay, highest level of literature, I do, after fifty years' study of the thing and of endless other things, impenitently and impavidly affirm.

[Sidenote: Other short stories.]

What is more, in his shorter productions he was often not far below it, save in respect of intensity. If I do not admire _Fortunio_ quite so much as some people do, it is not so much because of its comparative heartlessness--a thing rare in Gautier--as because for once, and I think once only in pieces of its scale, the malt of the description _does_ get above the meal of the personal interest, though that personal interest exists. But _Jettatura_, with its combination of romantic and tragical appeal; _Avatar_, with its extraordinary mixture of romance, again, with humour, its "excitingness," and its delicacy of taste; the equally extraordinary felicity of the dealings with that too often unmanageable implement the "classical dictionary" in _Arria Marcella_, _Une Nuit de Cleopatre_, and perhaps especially _Le Roi Candaule_; the tiny sketches--half-_nouvelle_ and half-"middle" article--of _Le Pied de la Momie_, _La Pipe d'Opium_, and _Le Club des Haschischins_,--what marvellous consummateness in the various specifications and conditions do these afford us!


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