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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Julia de Trecoeur is a wilful and wayward girl


being granted some of the fascinations of the "clerk" in the old Phyllis-and-Flora _debats_ of mediaeval times; but the fact that _this_ clerk is also represented as a fool of the most disastrous, though not the most contemptible kind, should be held as a set-off to the bribery. It is a "story of three"--though not at all the usual three--graced (or not) by a really brilliant picture of the society of the early Second Empire. One of the leaders of this--a young countess and a member of the "Rantipole"[412] set of the time, but exempt from its vulgarity--meets in the country, and falls in love with, a middle-aged _savant_, who is doing archaeological work for Government in the neighbourhood. He despises her as a frivolous feather-brain at first, but soon falls under the spell. Yet what has been called "the fear of the 'Had-I-wist'" and the special notion--more common perhaps with men than is generally thought--that she cannot _really_ love him, makes him resist her advances. By rebound, she falls victim for a time to a commonplace Lovelace; but finds no satisfaction, languishes and dies, while the lover, who would not take the goods the gods provided, tries to play a sort of altered part of Colonel Morden in _Clarissa_, and the gods take their revenge for "sinned mercies." In abstract (it has been observed elsewhere that Feuillet seldom abstracts well, his work being too much built up of delicate touches) there may seem to be something of the preposterous in this; but it must be a somewhat coarse form of testing which discovers any real preposterousness in the actual story.

[Sidenote: _Julia de Trecoeur._]

It may, however, as has been said, seem to some to belong to the pathetic-sentimental rather than to the actually tragic; I at least could not allow any such judging of _Julia de Trecoeur_, though there are more actual faults in it than in _La Petite Comtesse_, and though, as has been mentioned elsewhere, the rather repulsive catastrophe may have been more or less borrowed. The _donnee_ is one of the great old simple cross-purposes of Fate--not a mere "conflict," as the silly modern jargon has it. Julia de Trecoeur is a wilful and wayward girl, as are many others of Feuillet's heroines. Her mother is widowed early, but consoles herself; and Julia--as such a girl pretty certainly would do--resents the proceeding, and refuses to live at home or to see her stepfather. He, however, is a friend of his wife's own cousin, and this cousin, conceiving a passion for Julia, offers to marry her. Her consent, in an English girl, would require some handling, but offers no difficulties in a French one. As a result, but after a time, she agrees to meet her mother and that mother's new husband. And then the tragedy begins. She likes at once, and very soon loves, her stepfather--he succumbs, more slowly, to Moira and Ate. But he is horrified at the notion of a quasi-incestuous love, and Julia perceives his horror. She forces her horse, like the Duchess May, but over the cliffs of the Cotentin, not over a castle wall; and her husband and her stepfather himself see the act without being able--indeed without trying--to prevent it. The actual place had nearly been the scene of a joint suicide by the unhappy lovers before.


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