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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

And the novel of melodrama Le Juif Errant


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[Sidenote: Sue, Soulie, and the novel of melodrama--_Le Juif Errant_, etc.]

As regards one formerly almost famous and still well-known novelist, Eugene Sue, I am afraid I shall be an unprofitable servant to such masters in the guise of readers as desire to hear about him. For he is one more of those--I do not think I have had or shall have to confess to many--whom I have found it almost impossible to read. I acknowledge, indeed, that though at the first reading (I do not know how many years ago) of his most famous work, _Le Juif Errant_, I found no merit in it at all, at a second, though I do not think that even then I quite got through it, I had to allow a certain grandiosity. _The Mysteries of Paris_ has always defeated me, and I am now content to enjoy Thackeray's very admirable _precis_ of part of it. Out of pure goodness and sheer equity I endeavoured, for the present volume, to make myself acquainted with one of his later books--the immense _Sept Peches Capitaux_, which is said to be a Fourierist novel, and explains how the vices may be induced, in a sort of Mandeville-made-amiable fashion, to promote the good of society. I found it what Mrs. Browning has made somebody pronounce Fourier himself in _Aurora Leigh_, "Naught!"[276] except that I left them at the end actually committing an Eighth deadly sin by drinking _iced_ Constantia![277] Sue, who had been an army

surgeon and had served during the Napoleonic war, both on land and at sea, wrote, before he took to his great melodramas, some rather extravagant naval novels, which are simply rubbish compared with Marryat, but in themselves not quite, I think, so difficult to read as his better known work. I remember one in particular, but I am not certain whether it was _La Coucaratcha_ or _La Vigie de Koatven_. They are both very nice titles, and I am so much afraid of disillusionment that I have thought it better to look neither up for this occasion.[278]

[Sidenote: Melodramatic fiction generally.]

The fact is, as it seems to me, that the proper place for melodrama is not the study but the stage. I fear I have uttered some heresies about the theatre in this book, and I should not be sorry if I never passed through its doors again. If I must, I had rather the entertainment were melodrama than anything else. The better the play is as literature, the more I wish that I might be left to read it in comfort and see it acted with my mind's eye only. But I can rejoice in the valiant curate when (with the aid of an avalanche, if I remember rightly) he triumphs over the wicked baronet, who is treading on the fingers of the heroine as she hangs over the precipice. I can laugh and applaud when the heroic mother slashes her daughter's surreptitious portrait in full Academy. The object of melodrama is to make men rejoice and laugh; but it seems to me to require the stage to do it on, or at any rate to receive an immense assistance from theatrical presentation. So given, it escapes the curse of _segnius irritant_, because it attacks both ear and eye; being entirely independent of style (which _is_ in such cases actually _genant_), it does not need the quiet and solitary devotion which enjoyment of style demands; and it is immensely improved by dresses and _decor_, scenery and music, and "spectacle" generally--all things which, again, interfere with pure literary enjoyment. I shall hope to have demonstrated, or at any rate done something to show, how Dumas, when at his best, and even not quite at his best, escapes the actual melodramatic. Perhaps this was because he had purged himself of the stagy element in his abundant theatric exercise earlier. Sue, of course, dramatised or got dramatised a considerable part of his many inventions; but I think one can see that they were not originally stage-stuff.


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