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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote An illustrated edition of it


In

fact, _Corinne_, though the sisterhood of the two books is obvious enough, has almost, though not quite, all the faults of _Delphine_ removed and some merits added, of which in the earlier novel there is not the slightest trace. The history of my own acquaintance with it is, I hope, not quite irrelevant. I read it--a very rare thing for me with a French novel (in fact I can hardly recollect another instance, except, a quaint contrast, Paul de Kock's _Andre le Savoyard_)--first in English, and at a very early period of life, and I then thought it nearly as great "rot" as I have always thought its predecessor. But though I had, I hope, sense enough to see its faults, I had neither age nor experience nor literature enough to appreciate its merits. I read it a good deal later in French, and, being then better qualified, _did_ perceive these merits, though it still did not greatly "arride" me. Later still--in fact, only some twenty years ago--I was asked to re-edit and "introduce" the English translation. It is a popular mistake to think that an editor, like an advocate, is entitled, if not actually bound, to make the best case for his client, quite apart from his actual opinions; but in this instance my opinion of the book mounted considerably. And it has certainly not declined since, though this _History_ has necessitated a fourth study of the original, and though I shall neither repeat what I said in the Introduction referred to, nor give the impression there recorded in merely
altered words. Indeed, the very purpose of the present notice, forming part, as it should, of a connected history of the whole department to which the book belongs, requires different treatment, and an application of what may be called critical "triangulation" from different stand-points.

[Sidenote: An illustrated edition of it.]

By an odd chance and counter-chance, the edition which served for this last perusal, after threatening to disserve its text, had an exactly contrary result. It was the handsome two-volume issue of 1841 copiously adorned with all sorts of ingenious initial-devices, _culs-de-lampe_, etc., and with numerous illustrative "cuts" beautifully engraved (for the most part by English engravers, such as Orrin Smith, the Williamses, etc.), excellently drawn and composed by French artists from Gros downwards, but costumed in what is now perhaps the least tolerable style of dress even to the most catholic taste--that of the Empire in France and the Regency in England--and most comically "thought."[14] At first sight this might seem to be a disadvantage, as calling attention to, and aggravating, certain defects of the text itself. I found it just the reverse. One was slightly distracted from, and half inclined to make allowances for, Nelvil's performances in the novel when one saw him--in a Tom-and-Jerry early chimneypot hat, a large coachman's coat flung off his shoulders and hanging down to his heels, a swallow-tail, tight pantaloons, and Hessian boots--extracting from his bosom his father's portrait and expressing filial sentiments to it. One was less likely to accuse Corinne of peevishness when one beheld the delineation of family worship in the Edgermond household from which she fled. And the faithful eyes remonstrated with the petulant brain for scoffing at excessive sentiment, when they saw how everybody was always at somebody else's feet, or supporting somebody else in a fainting condition, or resting his or her burning brow on a hand, the elbow of which rested, in its turn, on a pedestal like that of Mr. Poseidon Hicks in _Mrs. Perkins's Ball_. The plates gave a safety-valve to the letterpress in a curiously anodyne fashion which I hardly ever remember to have experienced before. Or rather, one transferred to them part, if not the whole, of the somewhat contemptuous amusement which the manners had excited, and had one's more appreciative faculties clear for the book itself.


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