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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Here the relevance is much greater


A

slight difference of method may be observed in the treatment of authors in Chapter X. and onwards, this treatment being not only somewhat less judicial and more "impressionist," but also more general and less buckrammed out with abstracts of particular works.[4] There appeared to me to be more than one reason for this, all such reasons being independent of, though by no means ignoring, the mechanical pressure of ever-lessening space. In the first place, a very much larger number of readers may be presumed to be more or less familiar with the subjects of discussion, thus not only making elaborate "statement of case" and production of supporting evidence unnecessary, but exposing the purely judicial attitude to the charge of "no jurisdiction." Moreover, there is behind all this, as it seems to me, a really important principle, which is not a mere repetition, but a noteworthy extension, of that recently laid down. I rather doubt whether the absolute historico-critical verdict and sentence can ever be pronounced on work that is, even in the widest sense, contemporary. The "firm perspective of the past" can in very few instances be acquired: and those few, who by good luck have acquired something of it, should not presume too much on this gift of fortune. General opinion of a man is during his lifetime often wrong, for some time after his death almost always so: and the absolute balance is very seldom reached till a full generation--something more than the conventional thirty years--has
passed. Meanwhile, though all readers who have anything critical in them will be constantly revising their impressions, it is well not to put one's own out as more than impressions. It is only a very few years since I myself came to what I may call a provisionally final estimate of Zola, and I find that there is some slight alteration even in that which, from the first, I formed of Maupassant. I can hardly hope that readers of this part of the work will not be brought into collision with expressions of mine, more frequently than was the case in the first volume or even the first part of this. But I can at least assure them that I have no intention of playing Sir Oracle, or of trailing my coat.

The actual arrangement of this volume has been the subject of a good deal of "pondering and deliberation," almost as much as Sir Thomas Bertram gave to a matter no doubt of more importance. There was a considerable temptation to recur to the system on which I have written some other literary histories--that of "Books" and "Interchapters." This I had abandoned, in the first volume, because it was not so much difficult of application as hardly relevant. Here the relevance is much greater. The single century divides itself, without the slightest violence offered, into four parts, which, if I had that capacity or partiality for flowery writing, the absence of which in me some critics have deplored, I might almost call Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. There is the season, of little positive crop but important seed-sowing,--the season in which the greater writers, Chateaubriand and Mme. de Stael, perform their office. Here, too, quite humble folk--Pigault-Lebrun completing what has been already dealt with, Ducray-Duminil and others doing work to be dealt with here, and Paul de Kock most of all, get the novel of ordinary life ready in various ways: while others still, Nodier, Hugo, Vigny, Merimee, and, with however different literary value, Arlincourt, implant the New Romance. There is the sudden, magnificent, and long-continued outburst of all the kinds in and after 1830. There is the autumn of the Second Empire, continuing and adding to the fruits and flowers of summer: and there is the gradual decadence of the last quarter of the century, with some late blossoming and second-crop fruitage--the medlars of the novel--and the dying off of the great producers of the past. But the breach of uniformity in formal arrangement of the divisions would perhaps be too great to the eye without being absolutely necessary to the sense, and I have endeavoured to make the necessary recapitulation with a single "halt" of chapter-length[5] at the exact middle. It will readily be understood that the loss of my own library has been even more severely felt in this volume than in the earlier one, while circumstances, public and private, have made access to larger collections more difficult. But I have endeavoured to "make good" as much as possible, and grumbling or complaining supplies worse than no armour against Fate.


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