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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

It would be difficult to find a Bowdler for this Madeleine


[Sidenote:

_Mlle. de Maupin._]

There remains the most notorious and the most abused of all Gautier's work, _Mademoiselle de Maupin_. Perhaps here also, as in the case of _La Morte Amoureuse_, I cannot do better than simply reprint, with very slight addition, what I said of the book nearly forty years ago. For the case is a peculiar one, and I have made no change in my own estimate, though I think the inclusion of the _Preface_--not because I agree with it any less--more dubious than I did then. In this _Preface_ the doctrine of "art for art's sake" and of its consequent independence of any _licet_ or _non-licet_ from morality is put with great ability and no little cogency, but in a fashion essentially juvenile, from its want of measure and its evident wish to provoke as much as to prove.[216] Without it the book would probably have excited far less odium and opprobrium than it has actually done; it would, if separate, be an excellent critical essay on the general subject; while in its actual position it almost subjects the text to the curse of purpose, from which nothing which claims to be art ought (according to the doctrine of both preface and book) to be more free.

With the novel itself it is difficult to deal in the way of abstract and occasional excerpt, not merely because of its breaches of the proprieties, but on account of the plan on which it is written. A mixture of letters and narrative,[217] dealing almost

entirely with emotions, and scarcely at all with incidents, it defies narrative analysis such as that which was given to its elder sister in naughtiness, _La Religieuse_. It would seem that Goethe, who in many ways influenced Gautier, is responsible to some extent for its form, and perhaps for the fact that _As You Like It_ plays an even more important part in it than _Hamlet_ plays in _Wilhelm Meister_. No one who has read it can fail thenceforward to associate a new charm with the image of Rosalind, even though she be one of Shakespeare's most gracious creations; and this I know is a bold word. But, in truth, it is in more ways than one an unspeakable book. Those who like may point to a couple of pages of loose description at the end, a dialogue in the style of a polite _Jacques le Fataliste_ in the middle, a dozen phrases of a hazardous character scattered here and there. Diderot himself--no strait-laced judge, indeed _particeps ejusdem criminis_--remarked long ago, and truly enough, that errors of this sort punish themselves by restricting the circulation, and diminishing the chance of life of the book, or other work, that contains them. But it is not these things that the admirers of _Mademoiselle de Maupin_ admire. It is the wonderful and final expression, repeated, but subtly shaded and differenced, in the three characters of Albert, Rosette, and Madeleine herself, of the aspiration which, as I have said, colours Gautier's whole work. If he, as has been justly remarked, was the priest of beauty, _Mademoiselle de Maupin_ is certainly one of the sacred books of the cult. The apostle to whom it was revealed was young, and perhaps he has mingled words of clay with words of gold. It would be difficult to find a Bowdler for this Madeleine, and impossible to adapt her to the use of families. But those who understand as they read, and can reject the evil and hold fast the good, who desire sometimes to retire from the meditation of the weary ways of ordinary life to the land of clear colours and stories, where there is none of this weariness, who are not to be scared by the poet's harmless puppets or tempted by his guileless baits--they at least will take her as she is and be thankful.[218]


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