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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Despite a great deal of brag and swagger


But

the justification of such an "Interchapter" as this practically is depends, not on what is to come after, but on what has come before; and in this respect we shall find little difficulty in vindicating the position and arrangement assigned to the remarks which are to follow, though some of these may look forward as well as backward.[329]

* * * * *

[Sidenote: A political nadir.]

I should imagine that few Frenchmen--despite the almost infinite and sometimes very startling variety of selection which the _laudator temporis acti_ exhibits--look back upon the reign of Louis Philippe as a golden age in any respect but one. Regarding it from the point of view of general politics, the ridiculous change[330] from "King of France" to "King of the French" stamped it at once, finally and hopelessly, as the worst kind of compromise--as a sort of spiritual imitation of the methods of the Triumvirate, where everybody gives up, not exactly his father or his uncle or his brother, but his dearest and most respectable convictions, together with the historical, logical, and sentimental supports of them. The king himself--though certainly no fool, and though hardly to be called an unmitigated knave--was one of those unfortunate persons whose merits do not in the least interest and whose defects do very strongly disgust. Domestically, the reign was a reign, in the other

sense, of silly minor revolutions, which, till the end, came to nothing, and then came to something only less absurd than the Russian revolution of the other day, though fortunately less disastrous;[331] of bureaucracy of the corrupt and shabby character which seemed to cling to the whole _regime_; and of remarkable vying between two distinguished men of letters, Guizot and Thiers, as to which should do most to confirm the saying of the wicked that men of letters had much better have nothing to do with politics.[332] Abroad (with the exception of the acquisition of Algeria, which had begun earlier, and which conferred no great honour, though some profit, and a little snatching up of a few loose trifles such as the Society Islands, which we had, according to our custom, carelessly or benevolently left to gleaners), French arms, despite a great deal of brag and swagger, obtained little glory, while French diplomacy let itself wallow in one of the foulest sloughs in history, the matter of the Spanish marriages.

[Sidenote: And almost a literary zenith.]

But this unsatisfactory state of things was made up--and more than made up--for posterity if not for contemporaries--by the extraordinary development of literature and the arts--especially literature and most especially of all the _belles-lettres_. If (which would be rather impossible) one were to evaluate the relative excellence of poetry and of prose fiction in the time itself, a great deal could be said on both sides. But if one took the larger historic view, it would certainly have to be admitted that, while the excellence of French poetry was a magnificent Renaissance after a long period of something like sterility, the excellence of the novel was something more--an achievement of things never yet achieved; an acquisition and settlement of territory which had never previously been even explored.

I venture to hope that no great injustice has been done to the previous accomplishments of France in this department as they were surveyed in the last volume. She had been, if not the inventress of Romance, the [Greek: aidoie tamie]--the revered distributress--of it to all nations; she had made the short story her own to such an extent that, in almost all its forms, she had reached and kept mastery of it; and in various isolated instances she had done very important, if not now universally acceptable, work in the practice of the "Heroic." With Rabelais, Lesage, almost Marivaux, certainly, in his one diploma-piece, Prevost, she had contributed persons and things of more or less consummateness to the novel-staff and the novel treasury. But she had never quite reached, as England for two full generations had reached before 1800, the consummate expression of the--_pure_ novel--the story which, not neglecting incident, but as a rule confining itself to the incidents of ordinary life; advancing character to a position at least equal with plot; presenting the manners of its own day, but charging them with essence of humanity in all days; re-creates, for the delectation of readers, a new world of probable, indeed of actual, life through the medium of literature. And she had rarely--except in the fairy-tale and a very few masterpieces like _Manon Lescaut_ again and _La Nouvelle Heloise_[333]--achieved what may be called the Romantic or passionate novel; while, except in such very imperfect admixtures of the historic element as _La Princesse de Cleves_, she had never attempted, and even in these had never attained, the historical novel proper.


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