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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

It seems to me to be melodrama infinitely superior


[Sidenote:

His attitude to Plot.]

The "four wheels of the novel" have been sometimes, and perhaps rightly, said to be Plot, Character, Description, and Dialogue--Style[321] being a sort of fifth. Of the first there is some difficulty in speaking, because the word "plot" is by no means used, as the text-books say, "univocally," and its synonyms or quasi-synonyms, in the different usages, are themselves things "kittle" to deal with. "Action" is sometimes taken as one of these synonyms--certainly in some senses of action no novelist has ever had more; very few have had so much. But of concerted, planned, or strictly co-ordinated action, of more than episode character, he can hardly be said to have been anything like a master. His best novels are chronicle-plays undramatised--large numbers of his scenes could be cut out with as little real loss as foolish "classical" critics used to think to be the case with Shakespeare; and his connections, when he takes the trouble to make any, are often his very weakest points. Take, for instance, the things that bring about D'Artagnan's great quest for the diamonds--one of the most excellent episodes in this department of fiction, and something more than an episode in itself. The author actually cannot think of any better way than to make Constance Bonacieux--who is represented as a rather unusually intelligent woman, well acquainted with her husband's character, and certainly not likely to overestimate him through any

superabundance of wifely affection or admiration--propose that he, a middle-aged mercer of sedentary and _bourgeois_ habits, shall undertake an expedition which, on the face of it, requires youth, strength, audacity, presence of mind, and other exceptional qualities in no ordinary measure, and which, if betrayed to an ever vigilant, extremely powerful, and quite unscrupulous enemy, is almost certain to be frustrated.

Still the "chronicle"-action dispenses a man, to a large extent, in the eyes of some readers at any rate, from even attempting exact and tight _liaisons_ of scene in this fashion, though of course if he does attempt them he submits himself to the perils of his attempt just as his heroes submit themselves to theirs. But other readers--and perhaps all those predestined to be Alexandrians--do not care to exact the penalties for such a failure. They are quite content to find themselves launched on the next reach of the stream, without asking too narrowly whether they have been ushered decorously through a lock or have tumbled somehow over a lasher. Such troubles never drown or damage _them_. And indeed there are some of them sufficiently depraved by nature, and hardened by indulgence in sin, to disregard _general_ action altogether, and to look mainly if not wholly to the way in which the individual stories are told, not at that in which they come to have to be told. Of Dumas' power of telling a story there surely can be no two opinions. The very reproach of _amuseur_ confesses it. Of the means--or some of them--by which he does and does not exercise this power, more may be said under the heads which follow. We are here chiefly concerned with the power as it has been achieved and stands--in, for instance, such a thing, already glanced at, as the "Vin de Porto" episode or division of _Vingt Ans Apres_, which, though there are scores of others nearly as good, seems to me on the whole the very finest thing Dumas ever did in his own peculiar kind. There are just two dozen pages of it--pages very well filled--from the moment when Blaisois and Mousqueton express their ideas on the subject of the unsuitableness of beer, as a fortifier against sea-sickness, to that when the corpse of Mordaunt, after floating in the moonlight with the gold-hilted dagger flashing from its breast, sinks for the last time. The interest grows constantly; it is never, as it sometimes is elsewhere, watered out by too much talk, though there is enough of this to carry out the author's usual system (_v. inf._). Nothing happens sufficiently extravagant or improbable to excite disgust or laughter, though what does happen is sufficiently "palpitating." If this is melodrama, it is melodrama free from most of the objections made elsewhere to the kind. And also if it is melodrama, it seems to me to be melodrama infinitely superior, not merely in degree, but in kind, to that of Sue and Soulie.


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