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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Let us take Panurge with Laclos' Valmont


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[Sidenote: Discussion on a point of general novel criticism.]

I have in these volumes, rather sedulously--some readers no doubt may think too sedulously--avoided "fighting prizes" on general points of the criticism or novel-theory. Not that I have the slightest objection to fighting "for my own hand" or to seeing or reading about a good fight between others--very much the contrary. I never thought it the worst compliment paid to Englishmen--the Indian opinion of us, as reported by the late M. Darmesteter--that we cared for nothing but fighting, sport, and making love. But the question now to be discussed is so germane to our subject, both general and special; and the discussion of it once for all (with _renvois_ thereto elsewhere) will save so much space, trouble, and inconvenience, that it may as well be handled at full length.

There was hinted--in a review[343] of the first volume of this work otherwise so complimentary that it must have satisfied the Archbishop of Granada himself--a doubt whether I had given sufficient weight to something which I shall let the reviewer express in his own words;[344] and whether my admission of Rabelais (of which admission, except on principle, he was himself very glad); my relegation of Laclos to the Condemned Corps; and my comparative toleration of Pigault-Lebrun, did not indicate heresy. Now I feel

pretty certain that such a well-wisher would hardly suspect me of doing any of these things by inadvertence; and as I must have gone, and shall still go, much further from what is the right line in his (and no doubt others') opinion, I may as well state my point of view here. It should supply a sort of justificatory comment not merely on the chapters and passages just referred to, and others in the last volume, but on a much larger number in this--in fact, after a fashion, to the whole of this. Any difference of it from the normal French view will even help to explain my attitude in those parts of this book (_e.g._ the remarks on Dumas _pere_) to which it does not directly apply, as well as those (_e.g._ on Dumas _fils_) to which it does.

The whole question seems to me to turn on the curiously different estimates which different people make of what constitutes "humanity." To cite another dictum of my friend the enemy, he, while, as I have said, speaking with extraordinary kindness of my chapter on Rabelais in itself, disallows it in a _History of the Novel_ because, among other reasons, Panurge is not, or is very slightly, human. I should have said that Panurge was as human as Hamlet, though certainly not so _gentle_human.[345] I never met either; but I might do so, and I am sure I should recognise both as men and brothers. Still, the comparison here is of course somewhat rhetorical. Let us take Panurge with Laclos' Valmont, whom, I think, my critic _does_ consider human; whom I am sure I never have met and never shall meet, even if I should be so unfortunate as to go to the place which (but, of course, for the consolations of the Church) would have been his, _if_ he had been human; and whom I never could in the most impossible event or _milieu_ recognise as anything but a synthetised specification. One may perhaps dwell on this, for it is of immense importance to the general question. Panurge and Valmont, comparatively considered, have beyond doubt points in common. Both are extremely immoral, and both are--though the one only sometimes, the other always--ill-natured. Neither is a fool, though the one does, or is going to do, at least one very foolish thing with his eyes open; while nothing that the other does--even his provocation of Madame de Merteuil--can be said to be exactly "foolish." Both are attempts to do what Thackeray said he attempted to do in most of the characters of _Vanity Fair_--to draw people "living without God in the world." Yet I can tolerate Panurge, and recognise him as human even when he indirectly murders Dindenault, even when (which is worse) he behaves so atrociously to the Lady of Paris; and I cannot tolerate or validate Valmont even when he excogitates and puts in practice that very ingenious and picturesque idea of a writing-desk, or when he seeks the consolations and fortifications of the Church after Danceny has done on him the first part of the judgment of God. And I think I can give reasons, both for my intolerance and for my toleration, "rightly and in mine own division."


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