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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

So conventionally inconsistent with her bad


A lover of paradox might almost suggest that "honest Janin" had been playing the ingenious but dangerous finesse of intentionally setting up a foil to his text. He has certainly, to some tastes, done this. There is hardly any false prettiness, any sham Dresden china (a thing, by the way, that has become almost a proverbial phrase in French for _demi-monde_ splendour), about _La Dame aux Camelias_ itself. Nor, on the other hand, is there to be found in it--even in such anticipated "naturalisms" as the exhumation of Marguerite's _two_-months'-old corpse,[357] and one or two other somewhat more veiled but equally or more audacious touches of realism--anything resembling the exaggerated horrors of such efforts of 1830 itself as Janin's own _Ane Mort_ and part of Borel's _Champavert_. In her splendour as in her misery, in her frivolity as in her devotion and self-sacrifice, repulsive as this contrast may conventionally be, Marguerite is never impossible or unnatural. Her chief companion of her own sex, Prudence Duvernoy, though, as might be expected, a good deal of a _proxenete_, and by no means disinterested in other ways, is also very well drawn, and assists the general effect more than may at first be seen.

The "problem" of the book, at least to English readers, lies in the person whom it is impossible to call the hero--Armand Duval. It would be very sanguine to say that he is unnatural; but the things that he does are rather appalling. That he listens at doors, opens letters not addressed to him, and so on, is sufficiently fatal; but a very generous extension of lovers' privileges may perhaps just be stretched over these things.[358] No such licence will run to other actions of his. In his early days of chequered possession he writes, anonymously, an insulting letter to his mistress, which she forgives; but he has at least the grace to repent of this almost immediately. His conduct, however, when he returns to Paris, after staying in the country with his family, and finds that she has returned to her old ways, is the real crime. A violent scene might, again, be excusable, for he does not know what his father has done. But for weeks this young gentleman of France devotes all his ingenuity and energies to tormenting and insulting the object of his former adoration. He ostentatiously "keeps" a beautiful but worthless friend of hers in her own class, and takes every opportunity of flaunting the connection in Marguerite's face. He permits himself and this creature to insult her in every way, apparently descending once more to anonymous letters. And when her inexhaustible forgiveness has induced a temporary but passionate reconciliation, he takes fresh umbrage, and sends money to her for her complaisance with another letter of more abominable insult than ever. Now it is bad to insult any one of whom you have been fond; worse to insult any woman; but to insult a prostitute, faugh![359]

However, I may be reading too much English taste into French ways here,[360] and it is impossible to deny that a man, whether French or English, _might_ behave in this ineffable manner. In other words, the irresistible _humanum est_ clears this as it clears Marguerite's own good behaviour, so conventionally inconsistent with her bad. The book, of course, cannot possibly be put on a level with its pattern and inspiration, _Manon Lescaut_: it is on a much lower level of literature, life, thought, passion--everything. But it has literature; it has life and thought and passion; and so it shall have no black mark here.


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