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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

28 but in regard to Les Natchez


_Les Natchez._]

Both these stories, as will have been seen, have a distinctly religious element; in fact, a distinctly religious purpose. The larger novel-romance of which they form episodes, as well as its later and greater successor, _Les Martyrs_, increase the element in both cases, the purpose in the latter; but one of the means by which this increase is effected has certainly lost--whether it may or may not ever recover--its attraction, except to a student of literary history who is well out of his novitiate. Such a person should see at once that Chateaubriand's elaborate adoption, from Tasso and Milton, of the system of interspersed scenes of Divine and diabolic conclaves and interferences with the story, is an important, if not a wholly happy, instance of that general Romantic _reversion_ to earlier literary devices, and even atmospheres, of which the still rather enigmatic personage who rests enisled off Saint-Malo was so great an apostle. And it was probably effectual for its time. Classicists could not quarrel with it, for it had its precedents, indeed its origin, in Homer and Virgil; Romanticists (of that less exclusive class who admitted the Renaissance as well as the Dark and Middle Ages) could not but welcome it for its great modern defenders and examples. I cannot say that I enjoy it: but I can tolerate it, and there is no doubt at all, odd as it may seem to the merely twentieth-century reader, that it did something to revive the

half-extinct religiosity which had been starved and poisoned in the later days of the _ancien regime_, forcibly suppressed under the Republic, and only officially licensed by the Napoleonic system. In _Les Martyrs_ it has even a certain "grace of congruity,"[28] but in regard to _Les Natchez_, with which we are for the moment concerned, almost enough (with an example or two to come presently) has been said about it.

The book, as a whole, suffers, unquestionably and considerably, from the results of two defects in its author. He was not born, as Scott was a little later, to get the historical novel at last into full life and activity; and it would not be unfair to question whether he was a born novelist at all, though he had not a few of the qualifications necessary to the kind, and exercised, coming as and when he did, an immense influence upon it. The subject is too obscure. Its only original _vates_, Charlevoix, though always a respectable name to persons of some acquaintance with literature and history, has never been much more, either in France or in England. The French, unluckily for themselves, never took much interest in their transatlantic possessions while they had them; and their dealings with the Indians then, and ours afterwards, and those of the Americans since, have never been exactly of the kind that give on both sides a subject such as may be found in all mediaeval and most Renaissance matters; in the Fronde; in the English Civil War; in the great struggles of France and England from 1688 to 1815; in the Jacobite risings; in La Vendee; and in other historical periods and provinces too many to mention. On the other hand, the abstract "noble savage" is a faded object of exhausted _engouement_, than which there are few things less exhilarating. The Indian _ingenu_ (a very different one from Voltaire's) Outougamiz and his _ingenue_ Mila are rather nice; but Celuta (the ill-fated girl who loves Rene and whom he marries, because in a sort of way he cannot help it) is an eminent example of that helpless kind of quiet misfortune the unprofitableness of which Mr. Arnold has confessed and registered in a famous passage. Chactas maintains a respectable amount of interest, and his visit to the court of Louis XIV. takes very fair rank among a well-known group of things of which it is not Philistine to speak as old-fashioned, because they never possessed much attraction, except as being new- or regular-fashioned. But the villain Ondoure has almost as little of the fire of Hell as of that of Heaven, and his paramour and accomplice Akansie carries very little "conviction" with her. In short, the merit of the book, besides the faint one of having been the original framework of _Atala_ and _Rene_, is almost limited to its atmosphere, and the alterative qualities thereof--things now in a way ancient history--requiring even a considerable dose of the not-universally-possessed historic sense to discern and appreciate them.

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