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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Le Roi des Montagnes and Tolla


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[Sidenote: About: _Le Roi des Montagnes_.]

There was a time when Englishmen of worth and Englishwomen of grace thought a good deal of Edmond About. Possibly this was because he was one of the pillars of the _Revue des Deux Mondes_. Far be it from me to speak with the slightest disrespect of that famous periodical, to which I have myself divers indebtednesses, and which has, in the last hundred years or thereabouts, harboured and fostered many of the greatest writers of France and much of her best literary work. But persons of some age and some memory must remember a time in England when it used to be "mentioned with _hor_" as Policeman X mentioned something or somebody else about the same date or a little earlier. Even Matthew Arnold, in whose comely head the bump of Veneration was not the most remarkable protuberance, used to point to it--as something far above _us_--to be regarded with reverence and striven towards with might and main. What justification there might be for this in general we need not now consider; but at any rate About has never seemed to the present historian very much of a pillar of anything. His chief generally accepted titles to the position in novel-writing are, I suppose, _Le Roi des Montagnes_ and _Tolla_, each of which, and perhaps one other, we may examine in some detail, grouping the rest (with one further exception) more summarily. They are

the better suited for our purpose in that one is comedy if not farce, and the other a gradually threatening and at last accomplished tragedy.

Of course it would be a very dull or a very curmudgeonly person who should fail to see or refuse to acknowledge "fun" in the history of Hadji or Hadgi Stavros. The mixture of sense, science, stupidity, and unconscious humour[417] in the German narrator; the satire on the toleration of brigandage by government in Greece (it must be confessed that, of all the reductions to the absurd of parliamentary and constitutional arrangements in countries unsuited for them, wherein the last hundred years have been so prolific, Greece has provided the most constant and reversed-sublime examples, as Russia has the most tragic); the contrast of amiability and atrocity in the brigands themselves--all these provide excellent opportunities, by no means always missed, for the display of a sort of anticipated and Gallicised Gilbertianism. Nor need the addition of stage Englishness in Mrs. Simons and her brother and Mary Ann, of stage Americanism in Captain John Harris and his nephew Lobster, spoil the broth.

But, to the possibly erroneous taste[418] of the present taster, it does not seem to be a consummated _consomme_. To begin with, there is too much of it; it is watered out to over three hundred pages when it might have been "reduced" with great advantage to one hundred. Nor is this a mere easy general complaint; it would be perfectly possible to point out where reductions should take place in detail. No one skilled in the use of the blue pencil could be at a loss where to apply it in the preliminary matter; in the journey; in the Hadgi's gravely burlesqued correspondence; in the escape of the ladies; in Hermann's too prolonged yet absurdly ineffective tortures; in the civil war between the King and his subjects; in the rather transpontine victory of the two Americans and the Maltese over both; and, above all, in the Royal Ball, where English etiquette requires that the rescuer must be duly introduced to those he has rescued. Less matter (or rather less talking about matter) with more art might have made it a capital thing, especially if certain traces of vulgarity, too common in About, were removed together with the mere superfluities. At any rate, this is how it strikes, and always has struck, a younger but now old contemporary.


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