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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Chocolate with whipped cream on it


Of course--and only those who have made much study of criticism know how seldom critics recognise this "of course"--you must take the things in, and not out of, their own class. They are not bread, or meat, or milk of literature. They are, to take one order of gastronomic preference and taste, devilled biscuits; to take another, chocolate with whipped cream on it. And the devilling and the creaming are sometimes better than the chocolate and the biscuit.

[Sidenote: _Mr., Mme. et Bebe_ and _Entre Nous_.]

It is not very easy to say--and perhaps not very important to know--whether the mixture of naughtiness and sentimentality which characterises these books[435] was what Mr. Carlyle, I think, was first to call an "insurance" or only a spontaneous and in no way "dodgy" or "hedgy" expression of the two sides of the French character. For everybody ought to know that the complaint of Dickens's "Mr. the Englishman" as to the French being "so d--d sentimental" is at least as well justified as Mr. Arnold's disapproval of their "worship of Lubricity." I suppose there are some people who would prefer the sentiment and are others who would choose the "tum-te-dy," while yet a third set might find each a disagreeable alternative to the other. For myself, without considering so curiously, I can very frankly enjoy the best of both. The opening story of the earlier and, I think, more popular book, "Mon Premier Reveillon," is not characteristic. It might have been written by almost anybody, and is in substance a softened and genteel version of the story of Miss Jemima Ivins, and her luckless (but there virtuous) suitor, in the "Boz" _Sketches_. "L'Ame en Peine," which follows, strikes the peculiar Drozian note for the first time; and very pleasant is the painting of the struggles of a pious youth--pious and pudibund to a quite miraculous extent for a French _collegien_ of good family--with the temptations of a beautiful Marquise and cousin who, arrayed in an ultra-Second-Empire bathing-costume, insists on his bathing with her. "Tout le Reste de Madame de K." may a little remind an English reader of the venerable chestnut about the Bishop and the housemaid's knee; but the application is different. There is nothing wicked in it, but it contains some of the touches of varying estimate of "good form" in different countries which make the comparative reading of English and French novels so interesting. "Souvenirs de Careme" is (or rather are, for the piece is subdivided) the longest of several bits of Voltairianism, sometimes very funny and seldom offensive. But, alas! one cannot go through them all. The most remarkable exercise in the curious combination or contrast noticed above is afforded by _Une Nuit de Noce_ and _Le Cahier Bleu_ (tricks of ingeniously "passed-off" naughtiness which need not shock anybody), combined with the charming and pathetic "Omelette" which opens the second book, and which gives the happy progress and the sad termination of the union so merrily begun. All are drawn with equal skill and with no real bad taste. In one or two articles of both books the _gauloiserie_ broadens and coarsens, while in the more purely "Bebe" sections of the first the sentimentality may seem a little watered out. But you cannot expect acrobatics on wine-glasses of this kind always to "come off" without some slips and breakages.


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