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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

But none of these is so saturated with personality as Daudet


[Sidenote: His books from this point of view and others.]

But none of these is so saturated with personality as Daudet; and while some of his "gentle" readers seem not to care much about this, even if they do not share the partiality of the vulgar herd for it, it disgusts others not a little. Morny was not an estimable public or private character, though if he had been a "people's man" not much fault would probably have been found with him. I daresay Daudet, when in his service, was not overpaid, or treated with any particular private confidence. But still I doubt whether any gentleman could have written _Le Nabab_. The last Bourbon King of Naples was not hedged with much divinity; but it is hardly a question, with some, that his _decheance_, not less than that of his nobler spouse, should have protected them from the catch-penny vulgarity of _Les Rois en Exil_. Gambetta was not the worst of demagogues; there was something in him of Danton, and one might find more recent analogies without confining the researches to France. But even if his weaknesses gave a handle, which his merits could not save from the grasp of the vulgariser, _Numa Roumestan_ bore the style of a vulture who stoops upon recent corpses, not that of a dispassionate investigator of an interesting character made accessible by length of time. _L'Evangeliste_ had at least the excuse that the Salvation Army was fair game; and that, if there was personal satire, it was not necessarily obvious--a palliation which (not to mention another for a moment) extends to _Sapho_. But _L'Immortel_ revived--unfortunately, as a sort of last word--the ugliness of this besetting sin of Daudet's. Even the saner members of Academies would probably scout the idea of their being sacrosanct and immune from criticism. But _L'Immortel_, despite its author's cleverness, is once more an essentially vulgar book, and a vulturine or ghoulish one--fixing on the wounds and the bruises and the putrefying sores of its subject--dragging out of his grave, for posthumous crucifixion, a harmless enough pedant of not very old time; and throwing dirty missiles at living magnates. It is one of the books--unfortunately not its author's only contribution to the list--which leave a bad taste in the mouth, a "flavour of poisonous brass and metal sick."

[Sidenote: His "plagiarisms."]

Of another charge brought against Daudet I should make much shorter work; and, without absolutely clearing him of it, dismiss it as, though not unfounded, comparatively unimportant. It is that of plagiarism--plagiarism not from any French writer, but from Dickens and Thackeray. As to the last, one scene in _Fromont Jeune et Risler Aine_ simply _must_ be "lifted" from the famous culmination of _Vanity Fair_, when Rawdon Crawley returns from prison and catches Lord Steyne with his wife. But, beyond registering the fact, I do not know that we need do much more with it. In regard to Dickens, the resemblance is more pervading, but more problematical. "Boz" had been earlier, and has been always, popular in France. _L'excentricite anglaise_ warranted, if it did not quite make intelligible, his extravaganza; his semi-republican sentimentalism suited one side of the French temperament, etc. etc. Moreover, Daudet had actually, in his own youth, passed through experiences not entirely unlike those of David Copperfield and Charles Dickens himself, while perhaps the records of the elder novelist were not unknown to the younger. In judging men of letters as shown in their works, however, a sort of "_cadi_-justice"--a counter-valuation of merits and faults--is allowable. I cannot forgive Daudet his inveterate personality: I can bid him sit down quickly and write off his plagiarism--or most of it--without feeling the withers of my judicial conscience in the very least wrung. For if he did not, as others have done, make what he stole entirely his own, he had, _of_ his own, very considerable property in rather unusually various kinds.


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