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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Camellias have gone out of fashion


A

very remarkable book it is. Camellias have gone out of fashion, which is a great pity, for a more beautiful flower in itself does not exist: and those who have seen, in the Channel Islands, a camellia tree, as big as a good-sized summer-house, clothed with snow, and the red blossoms and green leaf-pairs unconcernedly slashing the white garment, have seen one of the prettiest sights in the world. But I should not dream of transferring the epithets "beautiful" or even "pretty" from the flower to the book. It _is_ remarkable, and it is clever in no derogatory sense. For it has pathos without mere sentiment, and truth, throwing a light on humanity, which is not wholly or even mainly like that of

The blackguard boy That runs his link full in your face.

The story of it is, briefly, as follows. Marguerite Gautier, its heroine, is one of the most beautiful and popular _demi-mondaines_ of Paris, also a _poitrinaire_,[354] and as this, if not as the other, the pet and protegee, in a _quasi_-honourable fashion, of an old duke, whose daughter, closely resembling Marguerite, has actually died of consumption. But she does not give up her profession; and the duke in a manner, though not willingly, winks at it. One evening at the theatre a young man, Armand Duval, who, though by no means innocent, is shy and _gauche_, is introduced to her, and she laughs at him. But he falls frantically in love with her,

and after some interval meets her again. The passion becomes mutual, and for some time she gives herself up wholly to him. But the duke cannot stand this open _affiche_, and withdraws his allowances. Duval is on the point of ruining himself (he is a man of small means, partly derived from his father) for her, while she intends to sell all she has, pay her debts, and, as we may say, plunge into mutual ruin with him. Then appears the father, who at last makes a direct and effective appeal to her. She returns to business, enraging her lover, who departs abroad. Before he comes back, her health, and with it her professional capacity, breaks down, and she dies in agony, leaving pathetic explanations of what has driven him away from her. A few points in this bare summary may be enlarged on presently. Even from it a certain resemblance, partly of a topsy-turvy kind, may be perceived by a reader of not less than ordinary acuteness to _Manon Lescaut_. The suggestion, such as it is, is quite frankly admitted, and an actual copy of Prevost's masterpiece figures not unimportantly in the tale.[355] Of the difference between the two, again presently.

The later editions of _La Dame aux Camelias_ open with an "Introduction" by Jules Janin, dealing with a certain Marie Duplessis--the recently living original, as we are told, of Marguerite Gautier. A good deal has been said, not by any means always approvingly, of this system of "introductions," especially to novels. In the present instance I should say that the proceeding was dangerous but effective--perhaps not entirely in the way in which it was intended to be so. "Honest Janin,"[356] as Thackeray (who had deservedly rapped his knuckles earlier for a certain mixture of ignorance and impudence) called him later, was in his degree almost as "clever" a man as young Dumas; but his kind was different, and it did involve the derogatory connotation of cleverness. It is enough to say of the present subject that it displays, in almost the highest strength, the insincerity and superficiality of matter and thought which accompanied Janin's bright and almost brilliant facility of expression and style. His Marie Duplessis is one of those remarkable young persons who, to alter Dr. Johnson very slightly, unite "the manners of a _duchess_ with the morals of" the other object of the doctor's comparison unaltered; superadding to both the amiability of an angel, the beauty of Helen, and the taste in art of all the great collectors rolled into one. The thing is pleasantly written bosh; and, except to those readers who are concerned to know that they are going to read about "a real person," can be no commendation, and might even cause a little disgust, not at all from the moral but from the purely critical side.


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