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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Valmont according to prescription


The

reason why I think that Panurge is rightly and Valmont wrongly "copied or re-created" is that Panurge is made at the hazard of the artist, Valmont according to prescription. There might be--there have been--fifty or a hundred Valmonts, the prescription being followed, and slightly--still remaining a prescription--altered. There is and can be only one Panurge. This difference reminds me of, and may be illustrated by, a fact which, in one form or another, must be familiar to many people. I was once talking to a lady who had just come over from China, and who wore a dress of soft figured silk of the most perfect love-in-a-mist colour-shade which I had ever seen, even in turning over the wonder-drawers at Liberty's. I asked her if (for she then intended to go back almost at once) she could get me any like it. "No," she said, "at least not exactly. They never make two pieces of just the same shade, and in fact they couldn't if they tried. They take handfuls of different dyes, measured and mixed, as it seems, at random." Now that is the way God and, in a lesser degree, the great artists work, and the result is living creatures, according to the limitations of artistic and the no-limitations of natural life. The others weigh out a dram of lust, a scruple of cleverness, an ounce of malice, half an ounce of superficial good manners, etc., and say, "Here is a character for you. Type No. 12345." And it is not a living creature at all. But, having been made by regular synthesis,[346] it can
be regularly analysed, and people say, "Oh, how clever he is." The first product, having grown rather than been made, defies analysis, and they say, "How commonplace!"

One can perhaps lay out the ropes of the ring of combat most satisfactorily and fairly by using the distinction of the reviewer (if I do not misunderstand him), that I have neglected the interval between "to copy" and "to re-create." I accept this dependence, which may perhaps be illustrated further from that (in itself) foolish and vulgar boast of Edmond de Goncourt's that his and his brother's epithets were "personal" while Flaubert's were only "admirably good specimens of the epithets of _tout le monde_."

To translate: Should the novelist aim, by _mimesis_--it is a misfortune which I have lamented over and over again in print that "Imitation" and "Copying" are such misleading versions of this--of actual characters, to evolve a personality which will be recognised by all competent observers as somebody whom he has actually met or might have met? Or should he, trusting to his own personal powers of putting together qualities and traits, but more or less neglecting the patterns which the Almighty has put before him in _tout le monde_--sometimes also regarding conventional types and "academies"--either (for this is important) to follow or violently _not_ to follow them--produce something that owes _its_ personality to himself only? The former has been the aim of the great English novelists since Fielding, if not since Richardson[347] or even Defoe. It was the aim of Lesage: he has told us so in so many words. It is by no means alien from that of Marivaux, though he did not pursue it with a single eye; and the same may be said even of Crebillon. Whether Prevost aimed at it or not, he hit the white in _Manon_ as certainly and unmistakably as he lost his arrows elsewhere. Rousseau both did it and meant it in the first part of _Julie_. Pigault, in a clumsy, botcherly fashion, made "outers" not infrequently. But Laclos seems to me to have (as his in some sense follower Dumas _fils_ has it in the passage noted above) "proceeded by synthesis"--to have said, "Let us make a mischievous Marquise and a vile Viscount. Let us deprive them of every amiable quality and of every one that can be called in any sense 'good,' except a certain kind of intellectual ability, and, in the Viscount's case, an ingenious fancy in the matter of extemporising writing-desks." And he did it; and then the people who think that because (to adopt the language of George de Barnwell) "the True is not always the Beautiful" the Ugly must always be the True, hail him as a master.[348]


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