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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

As there had been in the Vicomte de Bragelonne


But in all these and many more it is simply a case of "Not here!" though in the historical examples, before Saint Bartholomew and after Sainte-Guillotine, the sentence may be mitigated to "Not here _consummately_." And it may be just, though only just, necessary to say that this examination of Dumas' qualities should itself, with very little application or moral, settle the question whether he is a mere circulating-library caterer or a producer of real literature.

[Sidenote: The worthier--treatment of them not so much individually as under heads.]

To give brief specifications of books and passages in the novels mentioned above, in groups or individually, may seem open to the objections often made to a mere catalogue of likes and dislikes. But, after all, in the estimation of aesthetic matters, it _is_ likes and dislikes that count. Nowhere, and perhaps in this case less than anywhere else, can the critic or the historian pretend to dispense his readers from actual perusal; it is sufficient, but it is at the same time necessary, that he should prepare those who have not read and remind those who have. For champion specimen-pieces, satisfying, not merely in parts but as wholes, the claim that Dumas shall be regarded as an absolute master in his own craft and in his own particular division of it, the present writer must still select, after fifty years' reading and re-reading, _Vingt Ans Apres_ and _La Reine Margot_. Parts of _Les Trois Mousquetaires_ are unsurpassed and unsurpassable; but the Bonacieux love-affair is inadequate and intruded, and I have never thought Milady's seduction of Felton quite "brought off." In _Le Vicomte de Bragelonne_ this inequality becomes much more manifest. Nothing, again, can surpass the single-handed achievement of D'Artagnan at the beginning in his kidnapping of General Monk, and few things his failure at the end to save Porthos, with the death of the latter--a thing which has hardly a superior throughout the whole range of the novel in whatever language (so far as I know) it has been written. But the "young men" were allowed their heads, by far too frequently and for too long periods, in the middle;[317] and these heads were by no means always equal to the occasion. There is no such declension in the immediate followers of _La Reine Margot_, _La Dame de Monsoreau_, and _Les Quarante-Cinq_. Chicot is supreme, but the personal interest is less distributed than in the first book and in the _Mousquetaire_ trilogy.

This lack of distribution, and the inequalities of the actual adventures, are, naturally enough, more noticeable still in the longer and later series dealing with the eighteenth century, while, almost of necessity, the purely "romantic" interest is at a lower strength. I can, however, find very little fault with _Le Chevalier d'Harmental_--an excellent blend of lightness and excitement. _Olympe de Cleves_ has had very important partisans;[318] but though I like Olympe herself almost better than any other of Dumas' heroines, except Marguerite, she does not seem to me altogether well "backed up"; and there is here, as there had been in the _Vicomte de Bragelonne_, and was to be in others, too much insignificant court-intrigue. The Cagliostro cycle again appeals very strongly to some good critics, and I own that in reading it a second time I liked it better than I had done before. But I doubt whether the supernatural of any kind was a circle in which Dumas could walk with perfect freedom and complete command of his own magic. There remains, as among the novels selected as pieces, not of conviction, but of diploma, _Monte Cristo_, perhaps the most popular of all, certainly one of the most famous, and still holding its popularity with good wits. Here, again. I have to confess a certain "correction of impression." As to the _Chateau d'If_, which is practically an independent book, there can hardly be two opinions among competent and unprejudiced persons. But I used to find the rest--the voluminous rest--rather heavy reading. Recently I got on better with them; but I can hardly say that they even now stand, with me, that supreme test of a novel, "Do you want to read it again?" I once, as an experiment, read "Wandering Willie's Tale" through, every night for a week, having read it I don't know how many times before; and I found it no more staled at the seventh enjoyment than I should have found the charm of Helen or of Cleopatra herself. I do not know how many times I have read Scott's longer novels (with one or two exceptions), or Dickens', or Thackeray's, or not a few others in French and English, including Dumas himself. And I hope to read them all once, twice, or as many times more as those other Times which are in Some One's hand will let me. But I do not want to read _Monte Cristo_ again.


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