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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Exactly 2383 folio pages of MSS


to Chateaubriand's own account, when he quitted England after his not altogether cheerful experiences there as an almost penniless _emigre_, he left behind him, in the charge of his landlady, exactly 2383 folio pages of MSS. enclosed in a trunk, and (by a combination of merit on the custodian's part and luck on his own) recovered them fifteen years afterwards, _Atala_, _Rene_, and a few other fragments having alone accompanied him. These were published independently, the _Genie_ following. _Les Martyrs_ was a later composition altogether, while _Les Natchez_, the _matrix_ of both the shorter stories, and included, as one supposes, in the 2383 waifs, was partly rewritten and wholly published later still. A body of fiction of such a singular character is, as has been said, not altogether easy to treat; but, without much change in the method usually pursued in this _History_, we may perhaps do best by first giving a brief argument of the various contents and then taking up the censure, in no evil sense, of the whole.

[Sidenote: _Atala._]

_Atala_ is short and almost entirely to the point. The heroine is a half-breed girl with a Spanish father and for mother an Indian of some rank in her tribe, who has subsequently married a benevolent chief. She is regarded as a native princess, and succeeds in rescuing from the usual torture and death, and fleeing with, a captive chief of another "nation." This is Chactas, important

in _Rene_ and also in the _Natchez_ framework. They direct their flight northwards to the French settlements (it is late seventeenth or early eighteenth century throughout), and of course fall in love with each other. But Atala's mother, a Christian, has, in the tumult of her early misfortunes, vowed her daughter's virginity or death; and when, just before the crucial moment, a missionary opportunely or inopportunely occurs, Atala has already taken poison, with the object, it would appear, not so much of preventing as of avenging, of her own free will, a breach of the vow. The rest of the story is supplied by the vain attempts of the good father to save her, his evangelising efforts towards the pair, and the sorrows of Chactas after his beloved's death. The piece, of course, shows that exaggerated and somewhat morbid pathos of circumstance which is the common form of the early romantic efforts, whether in England, Germany, or France. But the pathos _is_ pathos; the unfamiliar scenery, unlike that of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (to whom, of course, Chateaubriand is much indebted, though he had actually seen what he describes), is not overdone, and suits the action and characters very well indeed. Chactas here is the best of all the "noble savages," and (what hardly any other of them is) positively good. Atala is really tragic and really gracious. The missionary stands to other fictitious, and perhaps some real, missionaries very much as Chactas does to other savages of story, if not of life. The proportion of the whole is good, and in the humble opinion of the present critic it is by far Chateaubriand's best thing in all perhaps but mere writing.

And even in this it is bad to beat, in him or out of him. The small space forbids mere surplusage of description, and the plot--as all plots should do, but, alas! as few succeed in doing--acts as a bellows to kindle the flame and intensify the heat of something far better than description itself--passionate character. There are many fine things--mixed, no doubt, with others not so fine--in the tempestuous scene of the death of Atala, which should have been the conclusion of the story. But this, in its own way, seems to me little short of magnificent:

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