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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote Les Nuits Anglaises


[Sidenote: _Les Nuits Anglaises._]

As it happens, one volume of his, _Les Nuits Anglaises_, contains examples of his various manners, some of which may be noticed. Not all of them are stories, but it is fair to throw in a non-story because it is so very much better than the others. This is a "physionomie" of Manchester, written, it would seem, just at the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria; and it shows that Mery, as a writer of those middle articles or transformed _Spectator_ essays, which have played so large a part in the literature of the last century and a quarter, was not quite a negligible person. Moreover, the sort of thing, though not essential to the novelist's art, is a valuable tool at his disposal.

[Sidenote: The minor stories.]

But here the author, who was a considerable traveller and not a bad judge of art, was to a large extent under the grip of fact: when he got into fiction he exhibited a sad want of discipline. One must allow something, no doubt, for the fact that the _goguenard_ element is avowedly strong in him. The second English Night, with its Oxfordshire election (he has actually got the name of "Parker" right, though Woodstock wobbles from the proper form to "Woostock," "Wostoog," etc.) and its experiences of an Indian gentleman who is exposed at Ellora (near Madras) to the influence of the upas tree, by a wicked emissary of the Royal Society, Sir Wales, as a scientific experiment; and the last, where two Frenchmen, liberated from the hulks at the close of the Napoleonic War, make a fortune by threatening to blow up the city of Dublin; may sue out their writ of ease under the statute of Goguenarderie. A third half-Eastern, half-English story (Mery was fond of the East), _Anglais et Chinois_, telling quite delicately the surprising adventures of a mate of H.M.S. _Jamesina_[296] in a sort of Chinese harem, has some positive merit, though it is too long. The longest and most ambitious tale, _Histoire d'une Colline_, if not "wholly serious" (as a famous phrase has it), seems to aim at a good deal of seriousness. Yet it is, as a matter of fact, rather more absurd than the pure extravaganzas.

[Sidenote: _Histoire d'une Colline._]

Sir John Lively--who appears neither to have inherited the title (seeing that his sainted father, a victim of English tyranny, was named Arthur O'Tooley, perhaps one of the tailors of that ilk) nor to have paid M. Mery five or ten thousand pounds for it--is an Irishman of the purest virtue and the noblest sentiments, who possesses a cottage on a hill not far from the village and castle of Stafford. From this interesting height there are two views: one over the beautiful plains of Lancashire, another towards the brumous mountains of Oxfordshire. Lively always looks this latter way, because in coming from London he has seen, at the other village of Bucks, a divine creature who dispenses soda-water and some stronger liquors to the thirsty. She, like the ninepenny kettle of the song, "is Irish _tu_," and belongs to the well-known sept of the O'Killinghams. They are both fervent Roman Catholics (Mery is astoundingly severe on our "apostate" church, with its "insulted" Saint Paul's and Saint Martin's). She is also persecuted by an abominable English landlord, Mr. Igoghlein. The two meet at mass in "_the_ Catholic Church of the City," to which, "as in the time of Diocletian" (slightly altered to 1830-40), "a few faithful ones furtively glide, and seem to be in fear." To get money, Lively gambles, and (this is the sanest part of the book, for the reason that things went on in much the same way at Paris and at London) is cheated. But the cottage, and the hill with such commanding views, are discovered to be in the way of a new line and to conceal coal. He sells them to a Mr. Copperas; marries the beautiful O'Killingham; the bells of Dublin ring head over heels, "and Ireland hopes." Let it also be mentioned that in the course of the story we are more than once told of the double file of Mauresque, Spanish, Gothic, and Italian _colonnades_ which line the marvellous High Street of Oxford; and that Mr. Copperas visited that seat of learning to consult an expert in railways[297] and see his three largest shareholders. (Oh, these bloated dons!) That three members of "the society of _ti_total abstinence" drank, at the beautiful O'Killingham's cottage, twenty pints of porter (White-bread), two flagons of whisky, and three of claret, may meet with less incredulity, though the assortment of liquor is barbarous and the quantity is certainly large. But let us turn from this nonsense to the remarkable Manchester article.


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