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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Or with Dumas as story tellers


was unnecessarily retarded,

by the absence of this division earlier. And in particular they might lay stress on the fortunes and misfortunes of the historical element. That element had at least helped to start--and had largely provided the material of--the earlier verse-romances and stories generally; but the entire absence of criticism at the time had merged it, almost or altogether, in mere fiction. It had played, as we saw, a great part in the novels of the seventeenth century; but it had for the most part merely "got in the way" of its companion ingredients and in its own. I have admitted that there are diversities of opinion as to its value in the _Astree_; but I hold strongly to my own that it would be much better away there. I can hardly think that any one, uninfluenced by the sillier, not the nobler, estimate of the classics, can think that the "heroic" novels gain anything, though they may possibly not lose very much, by the presence in them of Cyrus and Clelia, Arminius and Candace, Roxana and Scipio. But perhaps the most fruitful example for consideration is _La Princesse de Cleves_. Here, small as is the total space, there is a great deal of history and a crowd, if for the most part mute, of historical persons. But not one of these has the very slightest importance in the story; and the Prince and the Princess and the Duke--we may add the Vidame--who are the only figures that _have_ importance, might be the Prince and Princess of Kennaquhair, the Duke of Chose, and the Vidame of Gonesse, in any
time or no time since the creation of the world, while retaining their fullest power of situation and appeal.

But this side of the matter is of far less consequence than another. This historical element of the _historia mixta_[337] was not merely rather a nuisance and quite a superfluity as regarded the whole of the stories in which it appeared; but its presence there and the tricks that had to be played with it prevented the development of the historical novel proper--that, as it has been ticketed, "bodiless childful of life," which waited two thousand years in the ante-natal gloom before it could get itself born. Here, indeed, one may claim--and I suppose no sensible Frenchmen would for a moment hesitate to admit it--that even more than in the case of Richardson's influence nearly a century earlier, help came to their Troy from a Greek city. To France as to England, and to all the world, Scott unlocked the hoard of this delightful variety of fictitious literature, though it was not quite at once that she took advantage of the treasury.

But when she did, the way in which she turned over the borrowed capital was certainly amazing, and for a long time she quite distanced the followers of Scott himself in England. James, Ainsworth, and even Bulwer cannot possibly challenge comparison with the author of _Notre Dame de Paris_ as writers, or with Dumas as story-tellers; and it was not till the second half of the century was well advanced, and when Dumas' own best days were very nearly over, that England, with Thackeray's _Esmond_ and Kingsley's _Westward Ho!_ and Charles Reade's _The Cloister and the Hearth_, re-formed the kind afresh into something which France has never yet been able to rival.

In order, however, to obviate any possible charge of insular unfairness, it may be well to note that Chateaubriand, though he had never reached (or in all probability attempted to reach) anything of the true Scott kind, had made a great advance in something the same direction, and had indeed to some extent sketched a different variety of historical novel from Scott's own; while, before Scott's death, Victor Hugo imbued the Scott romance itself with intenser doses of passion, of the subsidiary interests of art, etc., and of what may be in a way called "theory," than Scott had cared for. In fact, the Hugonic romance is a sort of blending of Scott and Byron, with a good deal of the author's country, and still more of himself, added. The connection again between Scott and Dumas is simpler and less blended with other influences; the chief differences should have been already pointed out. But the important thing to notice is that, with a few actual gaps, and several patches which have been more fully worked over and occupied than others, practically the whole of French history from the fourteenth century to, and including, the Revolution was "novelised" by the wand of this second magician.[338]


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