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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote The character of Nelvil


The minor personages of any importance are not numerous. Besides Lady Edgermond, they consist of the Comte d'Erfeuil, a French travelling companion of Nelvil's; the Prince of Castel-Forte, an Italian of the highest rank; a Mr. Edgermond, who does not make much appearance, but is more like a real Englishman in his ways and manners than Nelvil; an old Scotch nincompoop named Dickson, who, unintentionally, makes mischief wherever he goes as surely as the personage in the song made music. Lady Edgermond, though she is neither bad nor exactly ill-natured, is the evil genius of the story. Castel-Forte, a most honourable and excellent gentleman, has so little of typical Italianism in him that, finding Corinne will not have him, he actually serves as common friend, confidant, and almost as honourable go-between, to her and Nelvil.

On the other hand, French critics have justly complained, and critics not French may endorse the complaint, that the Comte d'Erfeuil is a mere caricature of the "frivolous" French type too commonly accepted out of France. He is well-mannered, not ill-natured, and even not, personally, very conceited, but utterly shallow, incapable of a serious interest in art, letters, or anything else, blandly convinced that everything French is superlative and that nothing not French is worthy of attention. Although he appears rather frequently, he plays no real part in the story, and, unless there was some personal grudge to pay off (which is not unlikely), it is difficult to imagine why Madame de Stael should have introduced a character which certainly does her skill as a character-drawer very little credit.

[Sidenote: The character of Nelvil.]

It is, however, quite possible that she was led astray by a will-o'-the-wisp, which has often misled artists not of the very first class--the chance of an easy contrast. The light-hearted, light-minded Erfeuil was to set off the tense and serious Nelvil--a type again, as he was evidently intended to be, but a somewhat new type of Englishman. She was a devotee of Rousseau, and she undoubtedly had the egregious Bomston before her. But, though her sojourn in England had not taught her very much about actual Englishman, she had probably read Mackenzie, and knew that the "Man of Feeling" touch had to some extent affected us. She tried to combine the two, with divers hints of hearsay and a good deal of pure fancy, and the result was Oswald, Lord Nelvil. As with that other curious contemporary of hers with whom we deal in this chapter, the result was startlingly powerful in literature. There is no doubt that the Byronic hero, whose importance of a kind is unmistakable and undeniable, is Schedoni, Rene, and Nelvil sliced up, pounded in a mortar, and made into a rissole with Byron's own sauce of style in rhetoric or (if anybody will have it so) poetry, but with very little more substantial ingredients. As for the worthy peer of Scotland or England, more recent estimates have seldom been favourable, and never ought to have been so. M. Sorel calls him a "snob"; but that is only one of the numerous and, according to amiable judgments, creditable instances of the inability of the French to discern exactly what "snobbishness" is.[17] My Lord Nelvil has many faults and very few merits, but among the former I do not perceive any snobbishness. He is not in the least attracted by Corinne's popularity, either with the great vulgar or the small, and his hesitations about marrying her do not arise from any doubt (while he is still ignorant on the subject) of her social worthiness to be his wife. He _is_ a prig doubtless, but he is a prig of a very peculiar character--a sort of passionate prig, or, to put it in another way, one of Baudelaire's "Enfants de la lune," who, not content with always pining after the place where he is not and the love that he has not, is constantly making not merely himself, but the place where he is and the love whom he has, uncomfortable and miserable. There can, I think, be little doubt that Madame de Stael, who frequently insists on his "irresolution" (remember that she had been in Germany and heard the Weimar people talk), meant him for a sort of modern Hamlet in very different circumstances as well as times. But it takes your Shakespeare to manage your Hamlet, and Madame de Stael was not Shakespeare, even in petticoats.


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