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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote L'Education Sentimentale


[Sidenote:

_L'Education Sentimentale._]

That there was no danger of Flaubert's merely palming off, in his novel work, replicas with a few superficial differences, had now been shown. It was further established by his third and longest book, _L'Education Sentimentale_. This was not only, as the others had been, violently attacked, but was comparatively little read--indeed it is the only one of his books, with the usual exception of _Bouvard et Pecuchet_, which has been called, by any rational creature, dull. I do not find it so; but I confess that I find its intrinsic interest, which to me is great, largely enhanced by its unpopularity--which supplies a most remarkable pendant to that of _Jonathan Wild_, and is by no means devoid of value as further illustrating the cause of the very limited popularity of Thackeray, and even of the rarity of whole-hearted enthusiasm for Swift. Satire is allowed to be a considerable, and sometimes held to be an attractive, branch of literature. But when you come to analyse the actual sources of the attraction, it is to be feared that you will generally find them to lie outside of the pure exposure of general human weaknesses. A very large proportion of satire is personal, and personality is always popular. Satire is very often "naughty," and "naughtiness" is to a good many, _qua_ naughtiness, "nice." It lends itself well to rhetoric; and there is no doubt, whatever superior persons may say of it, that rhetoric _does_ "persuade"

a large portion of the human race. It is constantly associated with directly comic treatment, sometimes with something not unlike tragedy; and while the first, if of any merit, is sure, the second has a fair though more restricted chance, of favourable reception. Try Aristophanes, Horace, Juvenal, Lucian, Martial; try the modern satirists of all kinds, and you will always find these secondary sources of enjoyment present.

There is hardly one of them--if one--to be found in _L'Education Sentimentale_. It is simply a panorama of human folly, frailty, feebleness, and failure--never permitted to rise to any great heights or to sink to any infernal depths, but always maintained at a probable human level. We start with Frederic Moreau as he leaves school at the correct age of eighteen. I am not sure at what actual age we leave him, though it is at some point or other of middle life, the most active part of the book filling about a decade. But "vanity is the end of all his ways," and vanity has been the beginning and middle of them--a perfectly quiet and everyday kind of vanity, but vain from centre to circumference and entire surface. He (one cannot exactly say "tries," but) is brought into the possibility of trying love of various kinds--illegitimate-romantic, legitimate-not-unromantic, illegitimate-professional but not disagreeable, illegitimate-conventional. Nothing ever "comes off" in a really satisfactory fashion. He is "exposed" (in the photographic-plate sense) to all, or nearly all, the influences of a young man's life in Paris--law, literature, art, insufficient means, quite sufficient means, society, politics--including the Revolution of 1848--enchantments, disenchantments--_tout ce qu'il faut pour vivre_--to alter a little that stock expression for "writing materials" which is so common in French. But he never can get any real "life" out of any of these things. He is neither a fool, nor a cad, nor anything discreditable or disagreeable. He is "only an or'nary person," to reach the rhythm of the original by adopting a slang form in not quite the slang sense. And perhaps it is not unnatural that other ordinary persons should find him too faithful to their type to be welcome. In this respect at least I may claim not to be ordinary. One goes down so many empty wells, or wells with mere rubbish at the bottom of them, that to find Truth at last is to be happy with her (without prejudice to the convenience of another well or two here and there, with an agreeable Falsehood waiting for one). I do not know that _L'Education Sentimentale_ is a book to be read very often; one has the substance in one's own experience, and in the contemplation of other people's, too readily at hand for that to be necessary or perhaps desirable. But a great work of art which is also a great record of nature is not too common--and this is what it is.


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