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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Anticipated Furetiere in not a few points


[Sidenote:

General stages traced.]

But, for practical purposes, Furetiere and the _Roman Bourgeois_ (_vide_ Vol. I.) give the starting-point. And here the Second Part, of which we formerly said little, acquires special importance, though the first is not without it. _All_ the details of _bourgeois_ life and middle-class society belong to the department which was afterwards preferred--and degraded--by the Naturalists; and the legal ins and outs of the Second Part are Zola in a good deal more than the making. Indeed the luckless "Charroselles" himself had, as we pointed out, anticipated Furetiere in not a few points, such as that most interesting reference to _bisque_.[468] Scarron himself has a good deal of it; in fact there is so much in the Spanish picaresque novel that it could not be absent from the followings thereof. For which same reason there is not a very little of it in Lesage, while, for an opposite one, there is less in Marivaux, and hardly any at all in Crebillon or Prevost. The _philosophes_, except Diderot--who was busy with other things and used his acquaintance with miscellaneous "documents" in another way--would have disdained it, and the Sentimentalists still more so. But it is a sign of the shortcomings of Pigault-Lebrun--especially considering the evident discipleship to Smollett, in whom there is no small amount of such detail--that, while in general he made a distinct advance in "ordinary" treatment, he did not reinforce this advance

with circumstantial accounts of "beds and basons."

But with the immense and multifarious new birth of the novel at the beginning of the nineteenth century, this development also received, in the most curiously diverse ways, reinforcement and extension. The Terror novel itself had earlier given a hand, for you had to describe, more or less minutely, the furniture of your haunted rooms, the number and volume of your drops of blood, the anatomical characteristics of your skeletons, and the values of your palette of coloured fires. The Historical novel lugged document in too often by head and shoulders, introducing it on happier occasions as the main and distinguishing ornament of its kind. Romanticism generally, with its tendency to antiquarian detail, its liking for _couleur locale_, its insistence on the "streaks of the tulip" and the rest, prompted the use and at least suggested the abuse.

[Sidenote: Some individual pioneers--especially Hugo.]

Nor did the great individual French novelists--for we need not specify any others--of the earlier part of the century, while they themselves kept to the pleasant slopes above the abyss, fail to point the way to it. Chateaubriand with his flowery descriptions of East and West, and Madame de Stael with her deliberate guide-bookery, encouraged the document-hunter and detail-devotee. Balzac, especially in the directions of finance and commerce, actually set him an example. George Sand, especially in pure country stories, was prodigal of local and technical matters and manners. The gorgeous scenery of Gautier, and the soberer but important "settings" of Merimee, might be claimed as models. And others might be added.

But from one point of view, as an authority above all earlier authorities, and from another as a sinner beyond all earlier sinners, might be quoted Victor Hugo, even putting his _juvenilia_ aside. He had flung a whole glossary of architecture, not to mention other things of similar kind, into _Notre Dame de Paris_; and when after a long interval he resumed prose fiction, he had ransacked the encyclopaedia for _Les Miserables_. _Les Travailleurs de la Mer_ is half a great poem and half a _real-lexikon_ of mechanics, weather-lore, seafaring, ichthyology, and God knows what else! If _L'Homme Qui Rit_ had been written a very little later, parts of it might have been taken as a deliberate burlesque, by a French Sir Francis Burnand, of Naturalist method. Now, as the most acute literary historians have always seen, Naturalism was practically nothing but a degeneration of Romanticism:[469] and degeneracy always shows itself in exaggeration. Naturalism exaggerated detail, streak of tulip, local colour, and all the rest, of which Romanticism had made such good use at its best. But what it exaggerated most of all was the Romantic neglect of classical _decorum_, in the wider as well as the narrower sense of that word. Classicism had said, "Keep everything indecorous out." Naturalism seemed sometimes to say, "Let nothing that is not indecorous come in."[470]


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