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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

As a thirdsman to Flaubert and Dumas fils



This latter, the elder of the two, though not so much the elder as used to be thought,[408] was at one time one of the most popular of French novelists both at home and abroad; but, latterly in particular, there were in his own country divers "dead sets" at him. He had been an Imperialist, and this excited one kind of prejudice against him; he was, in his way, orthodox in religion, and this aroused another; while, as has been already said, though his subjects, and even his treatment of them, would have sent our English Mrs. Grundy of earlier days into "screeching asterisks," the peculiar grime of Naturalism nowhere smirches his pages. For my own part I have always held him high, though there is a smatch about his morality which I would rather not have there. He seems to me to be--with the no doubt numerous transformations necessary--something of a French Anthony Trollope, though he has a tragic power which Trollope never showed; and, on the other side of the account, considerably less comic variety.

[Sidenote: His novels generally.]

As a "thirdsman" to Flaubert and Dumas _fils_, he shows some interesting differences. Merely as a maker of literature, he cannot touch the former, and has absolutely nothing of his poetic imagination, while his grasp of character is somewhat thinner and less firm. But it is more varied in itself and in the plots and scenery which give

it play and setting--a difference not necessary but fortunate, considering his very much larger "output." Contrasted with Dumas _fils_, he affords a more important difference still, indeed one which is very striking. I pointed out in the appropriate place--not at the moment thinking of Feuillet at all--the strange fashion in which Alexander the Younger constantly "makes good" an at first unattractive story; and, even in his most generally successful work, increases the appeal as he goes on. With Feuillet the order of things is quite curiously reversed. Almost (though, as will be seen, not quite) invariably, from the early days of _Bellah_ and _Onesta_ to _La Morte_, he "lays out" his plan in a masterly manner, and accumulates a great deal of excellent material, as it were by the roadside, for use as the story goes on. But, except when he is at his very best, he flags, and is too apt to keep up his curtain for a fifth act when it had much better have fallen for good at the end of the fourth. As has been noted already, his characters are not deeply cut, though they are faithfully enough sketched. That he is not strong enough to carry through a purpose-novel is not much to his discredit, for hardly anybody ever has been. But the _Histoire de Sibylle_--his swashing blow in the George Sand duel (_v. sup._ p. 204)--though much less dull than the _riposte_ in _Mlle. la Quintaine_, would hardly induce "the angels," in Mr. Disraeli's famous phrase, to engage him further as a Hal-o'-the-Wynd on their side.

But Feuillet's most vulnerable point is the peculiar sentimental morality-in-immorality which has been more than once glanced at. It was frankly found fault with by French critics--themselves by no means strait-laced--and the criticisms were well summed up (I remember the wording but not the writer of it) thus: "An honest woman does not feel the temptations" to which the novelist exposes his heroines. That there _is_ a certain morbid sentimentality about Feuillet's attitude not merely to the "triangle" but even to simple "exchange of fantasies" between man and woman in general, can hardly be denied. He has a most curious and (one might almost say) Judaic idea as to woman as a temptress, in fashions ranging from the almost innocent seduction of Eve through the more questionable[409] one of Delilah, down to the sheer attitude of Zuleika-Phraxanor, and the street-corner woman in the Proverbs. And this necessitates a correspondingly unheroic presentation of his heroes. They are always being led into serious mischief ("in a red-rose chain" or a ribbon one), as Marmontel's sham philosopher[410] was into comic confusion by that ingenious Presidente. Yet, allowing all this, there remains to Feuillet's credit such a full and brilliant series of novels, hardly one of which is an actual failure, as very few novelists can show. Although he lived long and wrote to the end of his life, he left no "dotages"; hardly could the youngest and strongest of any other school in France--Guy de Maupassant himself--have beaten _La Morte_, though it is not faultless, in power.

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