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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

How mere recit dominated fiction


To Conversation.]

But it may seem that, for the last head or two, the defence has been a little "let down"--the pass, if not "sold," somewhat weakly held.[323] No such half-heartedness shall be chargeable on what is going to be said under the last category, which, in a way, allies itself to the first. It is, to a very large extent, by his marvellous use of conversation that Dumas attains his actual mastery of story-telling; and so this characteristic of his is of double importance and requires a Benjamin's allowance of treatment. The name just used is indeed specially appropriate, because Conversation is actually the youngest of the novelist's family or staff of work-fellows. We have seen, throughout or nearly throughout the last volume, how very long it was before its powers and advantages were properly appreciated; how mere _recit_ dominated fiction; and how, when the personages were allowed to speak, they were for the most part furnished only or mainly with harangues--like those with which the "unmixed" historian used to endow his characters. That conversation is not merely a grand set-off to a story, but that it is an actual means of telling the story itself, seems to have been unconscionably and almost unintelligibly slow in occurring to men's minds; though in the actual story-telling of ordinary life by word of mouth it is, and always must have been, frequent enough.[324] It is not impossible that the derivation of prose from verse fiction

may have had something to do with this, for gossippy talk and epic or romance in verse do not go well together. Nor is it probable that the old, the respectable, but the too often mischievous disinclination to "mix kinds" may have had its way, telling men that talk was the dramatist's not the novelist's business. But whatever was the cause, there can be no dispute about the fact.

It was, it should be hardly necessary to say, Scott who first discovered the secret[325] to an effectual extent, though he was not always true to his own discovery. And it is not superfluous to note that it was a specially valuable and important discovery in regard to the novel of historical adventure. It had, of course, and almost necessarily, forced itself, in regard to the novel of ordinary life, upon our own great explorers in that line earlier. Richardson has it abundantly. But when you are borrowing the _subjects_ of the historian, what can be more natural than to succumb to the _methods_ of the historian--the long continuous narrative and the intercalated harangue? It must be done sometimes; there is a danger of its being done too often. Before he had found out the true secret, Scott blunted the opening of _Waverley_ with _recit_; after he had discovered it he relapsed in divers places, of which the opening of _The Monastery_ may suffice for mention here. Dumas himself (and it will be at once evident that this is a main danger of "turning on your young man") has done it often--to take once more a single example, there is too much of it in the account of the great _emeute_, by which Gondy started the Fronde. But it is the facility which he has of dispensing with it--of making the story speak itself, with only barely necessary additions of the pointer and reciter at the side of the stage--which constitutes his power. Instances can hardly be required, for any one who knows him knows them, and every one who goes to him, not knowing, will find them. Just to touch the _apices_ once more, the two scenes following the actual overtures of the _Mousquetaires_ and of _La Reine Margot_--that where the impossible triple duel of D'Artagnan against the Three is turned into triumphant battle with the Cardinalists, blood-cementing the friendship of the Four; and that where Margot, after losing both husband and lover, is supplied with a substitute for both; adding the later passage where La Mole is saved from the noose at the door--may suffice.

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