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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

With the possible exception of Beyle


That

this half-digression, half-dilemma, is prospective as well as retrospective will hardly form a subject of objection for any one but a mere fault-finder. From the top of a watershed you necessarily survey both slopes. The tendency which we have been discussing is certainly more prevalent in the second half of the century than in the first half. It is prominent in Dumas _fils_, with whom we shall be dealing shortly; it increases as time goes on; and it becomes almost paramount in the practice of and the discussions about the Naturalist School. In the time on which we look back it is certainly important in Beyle and Balzac. But I cannot admit that it is predominant elsewhere, and I am prepared to deny utterly that, until the time of the Sensibility and _Philosophe_ novels, it is even a notable characteristic of French fiction. Many hard things have been said of criticism; but, acknowledging the badness of a bird who even admits any foulness in his own nest--far more in one who causes it--I am bound to say that I think the state of the department of literature now under discussion was happier before we meddled with it. Offence must come; it would even be sometimes rather a pity if it didn't come: but perhaps the old saying is true in the case of those by whom some kinds of it come. If criticism and creation could be kept as separate as some creators pridefully pretend, it would not matter. And the best critics never attempt to show how things should be done, but merely to point out
how they have been done--well or badly. But when men begin to write according to criticism, they generally begin to write badly, just as when women begin to dress themselves according to fashion-mongers they usually begin (or would but for the grace of God) to look ugly. And there are some mistakes which appear to be absolutely incorrigible. When I was a Professor of Literature I used to say every year in so many words, as I had previously written for more than as many years, when I was only a critic of it, "I do not wish to teach you how to write. I wish to teach you how to read, and to tell you what there is to read." The same is my wish in regard to the French Novel. What has been done in it--not what these, even the practitioners themselves, have said of it--is the burden of my possibly unmusical song.

* * * * *

The excuse, indeed, for this long digression may be, I think, made without impropriety or "forcing" to coincide with the natural sequel and correlation of this chapter. The development of the novel of ordinary life in the second half of the century _was_ extraordinary; but it was to a very large extent marked by the peculiarities--some of them near to corruptions--which have been just discussed. With the possible exception of Beyle, there was little more theory, or attempt at synthesis in accordance therewith, in the "ordinary" than in the "historical" division of this earlier time. We have seen how the absence of "general ideas"--another way of putting it--has been actually brought as a charge against Balzac. George Sand had, especially at first, something of it; and this something seems, to me at least, by no means to have improved her work. In none or hardly any of the rest is there any evidence of "school," "system," "pattern," "problem," or the like. Yet they give us an immense amount of pastime, and I do not think their or their readers' state was any the less gracious for what they did _not_ give us.

FOOTNOTES:

[328] I have not called this so, because the division into "Books," with which the _raison d'etre_ of "Interchapters" is almost inseparably connected, has not been adopted in this _History_.


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