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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Have never produced a good novel yet


Nelvil again.]

But Nelvil? He is, it has been said, a deplorable kind of creature--a kind of creature (to vary Dr. Johnson's doom on the unlucky mutton) ill-_bred_, ill-educated, ill- (though not quite in the ordinary sense) natured, ill-fated to an extent which he could partly, but only partly, have helped; and ill-conducted to an extent which he might have helped almost altogether. But is he unnatural? I fear--I trow--not. He is, I think, rather more natural than Edgar of Ravenswood, who is something of the same class, and who may perhaps owe a very little to him. At any rate, though he has more to do with the theatre, he is less purely theatrical than that black-plumed Master. And it seems to me that he is more differentiated from the Sensibility heroes than even Corinne herself is from the Sensibility heroines, though one sympathises with her much more than with him. _Homo est_, though scarcely _vir_. Now it is humanity which we have been always seeking, but not always finding, in the long and often brilliant list of French novels before his day. And we have found it here once more.

[Sidenote: Its aesthetics.]

But we find also something more; and this something more gives it not merely an additional but even to some extent a fresh hold upon the history of the novel itself. To say that it is in great part a "guide-book novel," as indeed its second title[18] honestly declares,

may seem nowadays a doubtful testimonial. It is not really so. For it was, with certain exceptions in German, the _first_ "guide-book" novel: and though some of those exceptions may have shown greater 'literary genius than Madame de Stael's, the Germans, though they have, in certain lines, had no superiors as producers of tales, have never produced a good novel yet.[19] Moreover, the guide-book element is a great set-off to the novel. It is not--or at any rate it is not necessarily--liable to the objections to "purpose," for it is ornamental and not structural. It takes a new and important and almost illimitably fresh province of nature and of art, which is a part of nature, to be its appanage. It would be out of place here to trace the development of this system of reinforcing the novel beyond France, in Scott more particularly. It is not out of place to remind the reader that even Rousseau (to whom Madame de Stael owed so much) to some extent, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre and Chateaubriand to more, as far as what we may call scenery-guide-booking goes, had preceded her. But for the "art," the aesthetic addition, she was indebted only to the Germans; and almost all her French successors were indebted to her.[20]

[Sidenote: The author's position in the History of the Novel.]

Although, therefore, it is hardly possible to call Madame de Stael a good novelist, she occupies a very important position in the history of the novel. She sees, or helps to see, the "sensibility" novel out, with forcible demonstration of the inconveniences of its theory. She helps to see the aesthetic novel--or the novel highly seasoned and even sandwiched with aesthetics--in. She manages to create at least one character to whom the epithets of "noble" and "pathetic" can hardly be refused; and at least one other to which that of "only too natural," if with an exceptional and faulty kind of nature, must be accorded. At a time when the most popular, prolific, and in a way craftsmanlike practitioner of the kind, Pigault-Lebrun, was dragging it through vulgarity, she keeps it at any rate clear of that. Her description is adequate: and her society-and-manners painting (not least in the _recit_ giving Corinne's trials in Northumberland) is a good deal more than adequate. Moreover, she preserves the tradition of the great _philosophe_ group by showing that the writer of novels can also be the author of serious and valuable literature of another kind. These are no small things to have done: and when one thinks of them one is almost able to wipe off the slate of memory that awful picture of a turbaned or "schalled" Blowsalind, with arms[21] like a "daughter of the plough," which a cruel tradition has perpetuated as frontispiece to some cheap editions of her works.

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