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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

The proem gives us Dominique as after his passion years


The

author was a painter--perhaps the only painter-novelist of merit, though there are bright examples of painter-poets. His other literary work consists of a good book on his Netherlandish brethren in art, and of two still better ones, descriptive of Algeria. And _Dominique_ itself has unsurpassed passages of description at length, as well as numerous tiny touches like actual _remarques_ on the margin of the page. Only once does his painter's eye seem to have failed him as to situation. The hero, when he has thrown himself on his knees before his beloved, and she (who is married and "honest") has started back in terror, "drags himself after her." Now I believe it to be impossible for any one to execute this manoeuvre without producing a ludicrous effect. For which reason the wise have laid it down that the kneeling posture should never be resorted to unless the object of worship is likely to remain fairly still. But this is, I think, the only slip in the book. It is exceedingly interesting to compare Fromentin's descriptions with those of Gautier on the one hand before him, and with those of Fabre and Theuriet on the other later. I should like to point out the differences, but it is probably better merely to suggest the comparison. His actual work in design and colour I never saw, but I think (from attacks on it that I _have_ seen) I should like it.

But his descriptions, though they would always have given the book distinction, would not--or would

not by themselves--have given it its special appeal. Neither does that appeal lie in such story as there is--which, in fact, is very little. A French squire (he is more nearly that than most French landlords have cared to be, or indeed have been able to be, since the Revolution and the Code Napoleon) is orphaned early, brought up at his remote country house by an aunt, privately tutored for a time, not by an abbe, but by a young schoolmaster and literary aspirant; then sent for three or four years to the nearest "college," where he is bored but triumphant: and at last, about his _vingt ans_, let loose in Paris. But--except once, and with the result, usual for him, of finding the thing a failure--he does not make the stock use of liberty at that age and in that place. He has, at school, made friends with another youth of good family in the same province, who has an uncle and cousins living in the town where the college is. The eldest she-cousin of Olivier d'Orsel, Madeleine, is a year older than Dominique de Bray, and of course he falls in love with her. But though she, in a way, knows his passion, and, as one finds out afterwards, shares or might have been made to share it, the love is "never told," and she marries another. The destined victims of the _un_smooth course, however, meet in Paris, where Dominique and Olivier, though they do not share chambers, live in the same house and flat; and the story of just overcome temptation is broken off at last in a passionate scene like that of "Love and Duty"--which noble and strangely undervalued poem might serve as a long motto or verse-prelude to the book. It is rather questionable whether it would not be better without the thin frame of actual proem and conclusion, which does actually enclose the body of the novel as a sort of _recit_, provoked partly by the suicide, or attempted suicide, of Olivier after a life of fastidiousness and frivolity. The proem gives us Dominique as--after his passion-years, and his as yet unmentioned failure to achieve more than mediocrity in letters--a quiet if not cheerful married man with a charming wife, pretty children, a good estate, and some peasants not in the least like those of _La Terre_; while in the epilogue the tutor Augustin, who has made his way at last and has also married happily, drives up to the door, and the book ends abruptly. It is perhaps naughty, but one does not want the wife, or the children, or the good peasants, or the tutor Augustin, while the suicide of Olivier appears rather copy-booky. It is especially annoying thus to have what one does not want to know, and not what one, however childishly, does want to know--that is to say, the after-history of Madeleine.


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