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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Despite its discomfortable matter


[Sidenote:

_Affaire Clemenceau._]

And so, at last, we may come to the book which curiously carries out, with a slight deflection, but an almost equivalent intensification, of meaning, what has been observed before of others--the singular habit which Dumas _fils_ has of quickening up for the run-in. This book was, I believe, in all important respects actually his run-in for the novel-prize; and what he had hitherto shown in the conduct of individual books he now showed in regard to his whole novel-list, betaking himself thenceforward, though he had nearly a third of a century to live, to the theatre, to pamphlets, etc. Against _Affaire Clemenceau_[380] there are some things to be said, and in criticism, not necessarily hostile, a great many about it. But nobody who knows strength when he sees it can deny that this is a strong book from start to finish. I can very well remember the hubbub it caused when it first appeared, and the debates about "Tue-la!" but I did not then read it, having, as I have confessed, a sort of prejudice--not then or at any time common with me--against the author--a prejudice strengthened rather than weakened by reviews of the book. What did I care (I am bound to say that I might add, "What _do_ I care?") about discussions whether if somebody breaks the Seventh Commandment to your discomfort you may break the Sixth to theirs? Did I want diatribes on the non-moral character of women, or anything of that sort? I wanted an interesting

story; an attractive (no matter in what fashion) heroine; a hero who is a gentleman, if possible, a man anyhow; and I did not think I should find them here. _Now_, I can "dichotomise" to some extent; and I can get an interesting story, striking moments, if not exactly an attractive heroine or hero, at any rate such as take their part in the interest, though I may have crows to pluck with them. It is, once more, a strong book: it is nearly--though I do not think quite--a great book. And to all sportsmanlike lovers of letters it is, despite its discomfortable matter, a comfortable book, because it shows us a considerable man of letters who has never yet, save perhaps in _La Dame aux Camelias_, quite "come off," coming off beyond all fair doubt or reasonable question.

[Sidenote: Story of it.]

Probably a good many people know the story of it, but certainly some do not. It can be told pretty shortly. Pierre Clemenceau, the _fils naturel_ (for this _vulnus_ is _eternum_) of a linen-draperess, is made, partly on account of his birth, unhappy at school, being especially tormented by an American-Italian boy, Andre Minati, whom, however, he thrashes, and who dies--but not of the thrashing. The father of another and _not_ hostile school-fellow, Constantin Ritz, is a sculptor, and accident helps him to discover the same vocation in young Clemenceau, who is taken into his protector's household as well as his studio, and makes great progress in his art--the one thing he cares for. He goes, however, a very little into society, and one evening meets a remarkable Russian-Polish Countess, whose train (for it is a kind of fancy ball) is borne by her thirteen-year-old daughter Iza, dressed as a page. The girl is extraordinarily beautiful, and Clemenceau, whose heart is practically virgin, falls in love with her, child as she is; improving the acquaintance by making a drawing of her when asleep, as well as later a bust from actual sittings, _gratis_. After a time, however, the Countess, who has some actual and more sham "claims" in Poland and Russia, returns thither. Years pass, during which, however, Pierre hears now and then from Iza in a mixed strain of love and friendship, till at last he is stung doubly, by news that she is to marry a young Russian noble named Serge, and by a commission for the trousseau to be supplied by his mother,[381] who has retired from business. The correspondence changes to sharp reproach on his part and apparently surprised resentment on hers. But before long she appears in person (the Serge marriage having fallen through), and, to speak vernacularly, throws herself straight at Pierre's head, even offering to be his mistress if she cannot be his wife.[382] They are married, however, and spend not merely a honeymoon, but nearly a honey-year in what is, in _Hereward the Wake_, graciously called "sweet madness," the madness, however, being purely physical, though so far genuine, on her side, spiritual as well as physical on his. The central scene of the book (very well done) gives a picture of Iza insisting on bathing in a stream running through the park (private, but practically open to the public) of the house lent to them. When her husband has brought her warm milk in a chased-silver cup of their host's, she casts it, empty, on the ground, and on the husband's exclamation, "Take care!" replies coolly, "What does it matter? It isn't _mine_."


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