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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Le Docteur Servans is more substantial


[Sidenote:

_Le Docteur Servans._]

[Sidenote: _Le Roman d'une Femme_.]

Some others must have shorter shrift. One volume of the standard edition contains two stories, _Le Docteur Servans_ and _Un Cas de Rupture_. The latter is short and not very happy, beginning with a rather feeble following of Xavier de Maistre,[375] continuing with stock _liaison_-matter, and ending rather vulgarly. Let us, however, give thanks to Alexander the younger in that he nobly defends the sacred persons of our English ladies against the venerable Gallic calumny of large feet, though he unhappily shows imperfect knowledge of the idioms of our language by using "Lady" as if it were like "Milady": "Reprit Lady," "Lady vit," etc. _Le Docteur Servans_ is more substantial, though itself not very long. It is a rather well-engineered story (illustrative of a fact to be noticed presently in regard to much of its author's work) about a benevolent doctor who, at first as a method of kindness and then as a method of testing character, "makes believe," and makes others believe, that he has the secret of Resurrection.[376] On the other hand, I have only read _Le Roman d'une Femme_ in the beloved little old Belgian edition which gave one one's first knowledge of so many pleasant things, and the light-weighting and large print of which are specially suitable to fiction. Putting one thing aside, it is not one of its author's greatest triumphs. It begins with

a good deal of that rather nauseous gush about the adorable candour of young persons which, in a French novel, too often means that the "blanche colombe" will become a very dingy dunghill hen before long--as duly happens here. There is, however, a chance for the novel reader of comparing the departure of two of these white doves[377] from their school-dovecot with that of Becky and Amelia from Miss Pinkerton's. And I must admit that, after a middle of commonplace grime, the author works up an end of complicated and by no means unreal tragedy.

[Sidenote: The habit of quickening up at the end.]

The point referred to about the two principal books just noticed, and indeed about Alexander the Younger's books generally, is the remarkable faculty--and not merely faculty but actual habit--which he displays, of turning an uninteresting beginning into an interesting end. I cannot remember any other novelist, in any of the literatures with which I am acquainted, who possesses, or at least uses, this odd gift to anything like the same degree. On the contrary, some of the greatest--far greater than he is--give results exactly contrary. Lady Louisa Stuart's reproach to Scott for "huddling up" his conclusions is well known and by no means ill-justified, while Sir Walter is far from being a solitary sinner. I must leave it to those who have given more study than I have to drama, especially modern drama, to decide whether this had anything to do with the fact that Dumas turned to the other kind. The main fact itself admits, as far as my experience and opinion go, of absolutely no dispute. Again and again, not merely in _Le Docteur Servans_ and _Le Roman d'une Femme_, but in _La Dame aux Camelias_ itself, in _Tristan le Roux_, in _Les Aventures de Quatre Femmes_, and in others still, I have been, at first reading, on the point of dropping the book. But, owing to the mere "triarian" habit of never giving up an appointed post, I have been able to turn my defeat (and his, as it seemed to me) into a victory, which no doubt I owe to him, but which has something of my own in it too. His heroes very frequently disgust and his heroines do not often delight me; I have "seen many others" than his baits of voluptuousness; he does not amuse me like Crebillon; nor thrill me like Prevost in the unique moment; nor interest me like his closest successor, Feuillet. I cannot place his work, despite the excellence of his mere writing, high as great literature. He is altogether on a lower level than Flaubert or Maupassant; and one could not think of evening him with Hugo in one way, with Balzac in another, with his own father in a third, with Gautier or Merimee in a fourth. But he does, somehow or other, manage that, in the evening time, there shall be such light as he can give; and I am bound to acknowledge this as a triumph of craft, if not of actual art. That while a gift and a remarkable one, it is rather a dangerous gift for a novelist to rely on, needs little argument.


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