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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

For Crebillon pere was a most respectable man


Some be lewd, and some be shrewd, _But all they be not so_,

and I think that our fifteenth- or early sixteenth-century _vates_ showed his wisdom most in sticking to the strict negative in his exculpatory second line, here italicised.

Now if Alexander the Younger does not absolutely insist that "all they _be_ so," he goes very near to it, excepting only characters of insignificant domesticity. When he does give you an "honnete femme" who is not merely this, such as the Clementine of the _Roman d'une Femme_ or the Marceline of _Diane de Lys_, he gives them some queer touches. His "_shady_ Magdalenes" (with apologies to one of the best of parodies for spoiling its double rhyme) and his even more shady, because more inexcusable, _marquises_; his adorable innocents, who let their innocence vanish "in the heat of the moment" (as the late Mr. Samuel Morley said when he forgot that Mr. Bradlaugh was an atheist), because the husbands pay too much attention to politics; and his affectionate wives, like the Lady in _Therese_,[388] who supply their missing husbands' place just for once, and forget all about it--these _might_ be individually creatures of fact, but as a class they _are_ creatures of theory. And theory never made a good novel yet: it is lucky if it has sometimes, but too rarely, failed to make a good into a bad one. But it has been urged--and with some truth as regards at least the later forms of

the French novel--that it is almost founded on theory, and certainly Dumas _fils_ can be cited in support--perhaps, indeed, he is the first important and thoroughgoing supporter. And this of itself justifies the place and the kind of treatment allotted to him here, the justification being strengthened by the fact that he, after Beyle, and when Beyle's influence was still little felt, was a leader of a new class of novelist, that he is the first novelist definitely of the Second Empire.

FOOTNOTES:

[349] As, for instance, in _A Short History of French Literature_ (Oxford, 7th ed., 1917), pp. 550-552.

[350] At the same time, and admitting (see below) that it is wrong to meet overpraise with overblame, I think that it may be met with silence, for the time at any rate.

[351] I have, for reasons unnecessary to particularise, not observed strict chronological order in noticing his work or that of some others; but a sufficient "control" will, I hope, be supplied by the Appendix of dated books under their authors' names as treated in this volume.

[352] I observe with amusement (which may or may not be shared by "the friends of Mr. Peter Magnus") that I have repeated in the case of Dumas _fils_ what I said on Crebillon _fils_. The contrast-parallel is indeed rather striking. Partly it is a case of reversal, for Crebillon _pere_ was a most respectable man, most serious, and an academician; the son, though not personally disreputable, was the very reverse of serious, and academic neither by nature nor by status. In Dumas' case the father was extremely lively, and the Academy shuddered or sneered at him; the son was very serious indeed, and duly academised. Some surprise was, I remember, occasioned at the time by this promotion. There are several explanations of it; mine is Alexander the son's fondness for the correct subjunctive. George Sand, in a note to one of her books (I forget which), rebelliously says that the speaker in the text _ought_ to have said, "aimasse," not "aimais," but that he didn't, and she will not make him do it. On the other hand, I find "aimasse," "haisse," and "revisse" in just three lines of _La Dame aux Camelias_. And everybody ought to know the story of the Immortal who, upon finding a man "where nae mon should be," and upon that "mon" showing the baseness derived from Adam by turning on his accomplice and saying, "Quand je vous disais qu'il etait temps que je m'en aille!" neglected _crim. con._ for _crim. gram._ and cried in horror, "Que je m'en all_asse_, Monsieur!" But this preciseness did not extend to the younger Alexander's choice of subjects.


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