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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Romanticised effectively enough


This,

however, is a digression from our proper subject, but one justifying itself after a fashion, inasmuch as it results from Vigny's own faulty handling of the subject itself and is appropriate to his line of argument in his _Examen_. He has written the novel not as he ought and as he ought not. The political and historical interests overshadow, confuse, and hamper the purely "fictional" (as people say now), and when he has got hold of a scene which _is_ either purely "fictional," or historical with fictitious possibilities, he does not seem (to me) to know how to deal with it. There is one--of the extremest melodramatic character and opportunities--where, in a hut perched on the side of a Pyrenean gorge or canon, Richelieu's villainous tool, the magistrate Laubardemont; his mad niece, the former Ursuline Abbess, who has helped to ruin Urbain Grandier; his outcast son Jacques, who has turned Spanish officer and general bravo; and a smuggler who has also figured in the Grandier business, forgather; where the mad Abbess dies in terror, and Jacques de Laubardemont by falling through the flimsy hut-boards into the gorge, his father taking from him, by a false pretence before his death, the treaty between the Cinq-Mars conspirators and Spain. All this is sufficiently "horrid," as the girls in _Northanger Abbey_ would say, and divers French contemporaries of Vigny's from Hugo to Soulie would have made good horrors of it. In his hands it seems (to me) to miss fire. So, again, he has a well-conceived
interview, in which Richelieu, for almost the last time, shows "the power of a strong mind over a weak one," and brings the King to abject submission and the surrender of Cinq-Mars, by the simple process of leaving his Majesty to settle by himself the problems that drop in from France, England, and where or whence not, during the time of the Cardinal's absence. It is less of a failure than the other, being more in Vigny's own line; but it is impossible not to remember several scenes--not one only--in _Quentin Durward_, and think how much better Scott would have done it; several in the Musketeer-trilogy, if not also in the Margot-Chicot series, and make a parallel reflection. And as a final parry by anticipation to the objection that such comparison is "rascally," let it be said that nothing of the kind ever created any prejudice against the book in my case. I failed to get on with it long before I took the least trouble to discover critical reasons that might excuse that failure.

[Sidenote: _Stello_ less of a novel, but containing better novel-stuff.]

But if any one be of taste sufficiently like mine to find disappointment of the unpleasant kind in _Cinq-Mars_, I think I can promise him an agreeable, if somewhat chequered, surprise when, remembering _Cinq-Mars_ and basing his expectations upon it, he turns to _Stello_. It is true that the book is, as a whole, even less "precisely a novel" than Sainte-Beuve's _Volupte_. But for that very reason it escapes the display of the disabilities which _Cinq-Mars_, being, or incurring obligation to be, precisely a novel, suffers. It is true also that it exhibits that fancy for putting historical persons in the first "plan" which he had avowed, and over which heads have been shaken. The bulk of it, indeed, consists of romanticised _histoires_ or historiettes (the narrator calls them "anecdotes") of the sad and famous fates of two French poets, Gilbert and Andre Chenier, and of our English Chatterton. But, then, no one of these can be called "a dominant historical personage," and the known facts permit themselves to be, and are, "romanticised" effectively enough. So the flower is in each case plucked from the nettle. And there is another flower of more positive and less compensatory kind which blooms here, which is particularly welcome to some readers, and which, from _Cinq-Mars_ alone, they could hardly have expected to find in any garden of Alfred de Vigny's. For this springs from a root of ironic wit which almost approaches humour, which, though never merry, is not seldom merciful, and is very seldom actually savage, though often sad. Now irony is, to those who love it, the saving grace of everything that possesses it, almost equal in charm, and still more nearly equal in power, to the sheer beauty, which can dispense with it, but which sometimes, and not so very rarely, is found in its company.


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