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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote The Novel of Romanticism generally


In

fact, the advantages, both to the novelist and to his readers, of the historical kind can hardly be exaggerated. The great danger of invented prose narrative--of _all_ invented narrative, indeed, prose or verse--has always been, and has always from the first shown itself as being, that of running into moulds. In the old epics (the Classical, not the _Chansons_) this danger was accentuated by the rise of rule-criticism; but the facts had induced, if they did not justify, that rule-system itself. The monotony of the mediaeval romance, whether _Chanson_ or _Roman_, has been declared more than once in this book to be exaggerated, but it certainly exists. The "heroic" succumbs to a similar fate rather fatally, though the heroic element itself comes slightly to the rescue; and even the picaresque by no means escapes. To descend, or rather to look, into the gutter for a moment, the sameness of the deliberately obscene novel is a byword to those who, in pursuit of knowledge, have incurred the necessity of "washing themselves in water and being unclean until the evening"; and we saw that even such a light and lively talent as Crebillon's, keeping above the very lowest gutter-depths, could not escape the same danger wholly. In the upper air the fairy-tale flies too often in prescribed gyres; and the most modern kinds of all--the novel of analysis, the problem-novel, and all the rest of them--strive in vain to avoid the curse of--as Rabelais put something not dissimilar long ago--"fatras
_a la douzaine_." "All the stories are told," saith the New, even as the Old, Preacher; all but the highest genius is apt to show ruts, brain-marks, common orientations of route and specifications of design. Only the novel of creative--not merely synthetised--character in the most expert hands escapes--for human character undoubtedly partakes of the Infinite; but few are they who can command the days and ways of creation.

Yet though history has its unaltering laws; though human nature in general is always the same; though that which hath been shall be, and the dreams of new worlds and new societies are the most fatuous of vain imaginations--the details of historical incident vary as much as those of individual character or feature, and the whole of recorded time offers them, more than half ready for use, in something like the same condition as those patterns of work which ladies buy, fill up, and regard as their own. To make an historical novel of the very highest class, such as the best of Scott and Thackeray, requires of course very much more than this--to make one of all but the highest class, such as _Les Trois Mousquetaires_, requires much more. But that "tolerable pastime," which it is the business of the average novelist to supply at the demand of the average reader, can perhaps be attained more easily, more abundantly, and with better prospect of average satisfaction in the historical way than in any other.

[Sidenote: Other kinds and classes.]

[Sidenote: The Novel of Romanticism generally.]

It would, however, of course be an intolerable absurdity to rest the claims of the French novel of 1825 to 1850 wholly--it would be somewhat absurd to rest them mainly--on its performances in this single kind. It found out, continued, or improved many others; and perhaps most of its greatest achievements were in these others. In fact "others" is an incorrect or at least an inexact term; for the historic novel itself is only a subdivision or offshoot of the great literary revolution which we call Romanticism. Indeed the entire novel of the nineteenth century, misapprehend the fact as people may, is


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