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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote Ponson du Terrail and Gaboriau


C'est un besoin inne chez les peuplades germaniques; il faut, bon gre mal gre, qu'ils adorent quelqu'un.

They did not dislike puns and verbal jingles, either in France or in England in the mid-nineteenth century, as much as their ancestors and their descendants in both countries have done before and since. A survivor to-day might annotate "Et quel quelqu'un quelquefois!"

[Sidenote: _Maitre Pierre_, etc. Summing up.]

In fact, to put the matter brutally, but honestly, as far as the present writer's knowledge extends, Edmond About was not a novelist at all "in his heart." He was a journalist (he himself admits the impeachment so far), and he was a journalist in a country where novel- or at least tale-writing had long established itself as part of the journalist's business. Also he was really a good _raconteur_--a gift which, though perhaps few people have been good novelists without it, does not by itself make a good novelist. As a publicist, too, he was of no small mark: his _Question Romaine_ could not be left out of any sufficient political library of the nineteenth century. Some of his shorter tales, such as _Le Nez d'un Notaire_ and _L'Homme a l'Oreille Cassee_, have had a great vogue with those who like comic situations described with lively, if not very refined, wit. He was also a good topographer; indeed this element enters largely into most of his so-called novels

already noticed, and constitutes nearly all the interest of a very pleasant book called _Maitre Pierre_. This is a description of the _Landes_ between Bordeaux and Arcachon, and something like a "puff" of the methods used to reclaim them, diversified by an agreeable enough romance. The hero is a local "king," a foundling-hunter-agriculturist who uses his kingdom, not like Hadji Stavros, to pillage and torment, but to benefit his subjects. The heroine is his protegee Marinette, a sort of minor Isopel Berners, with a happier end.[428] The throwing into actual tale-form of curious and decidedly costly local fashions of courtship is clever; but the whole thing is a sort of glorified advertisement. Other books, _Les Mariages de Paris_ and _Les Mariages de Province_, almost tell their tales, and something more,[429] in their titles.

One cannot but be sorry if this seems an unfair or shabby account of a pleasant and popular writer, but the right and duty of historical criticism is not to be surrendered. One of the main objects of literary history is to separate what is quotidian from what is not. To neglect the quotidian altogether is--whatever some people may say--to fall short of the historian's duty; to put it in its proper place _is_ that duty.

* * * * *

[Sidenote: Ponson du Terrail and Gaboriau.]

What ought to be said and done about Ponson du Terrail and Gaboriau--the younger Sue and Soulie; the protagonists of the melodramatic and criminal _feuilleton_ during the later middle of the century--has been rather a problem with me. Clearly they cannot be altogether neglected. Deep would answer to deep, Rocambole to M. Lecoq, in protesting against such an omission of their manufacturers. I do not know, indeed, that any English writer of distinction has done for M. le Vicomte Ponson du Terrail what Mr. Lang did, "under the species of eternity" which verse confers, for "(Miss Braddon and) Gaboriau." I have known those who preferred that _other_ Viscount, "Richard O'Monroy"--who shared with "Gyp" and Armand Silvestre the cheerful office of cheering the cheerable during the 'eighties and later--to the more canonical possessor of the title before him. But du Terrail was what I believe is called, in Scottish "kirk" language, a "supply"--a person who could undertake the duty of filling gaps--of enormous efficacy in his day. That is a claim on this history which cannot be neglected, though the people who would fain have Martin Tupper blotted out of the history of English poetry, might like to drop Ponson du Terrail in that of the French novel down an oubliette, like one of his own heroes, and _not_ give him the file mercifully furnished to that robustious marquis. Gaboriau claims, in the same way, even more "clamantly."


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