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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

The character of Madeleine Forestier


if the reader thinks that this summary is a prelude to anything like the "slate" that I thought it proper to bestow upon _Les Liaisons Dangereuses_, or even to such remarks as those made on the Goncourts, he is quite mistaken. Laclos had, as it seemed to me, a disgusting subject and no real compensation of treatment. In _Bel-Ami_ the merits of the treatment are very great. The scenes pass before you; the characters play their part in the scenes--if not in an engaging manner, in a completely life-like one. There is none of the _psychologie de commande_, which I object to in Laclos, but a true adumbration of life. The music-hall opening; the first dinner-party; the journalist scenes; the death of Forestier and the proposal of re-marriage over his corpse;[487] the honeymoon journey to Normandy--a dozen other things--could not be better done in their way, though this way may not be the best. It did not fall to me to review _Bel-Ami_ when it came out, but I do not think I should have made any mistake about it if it had. There are weak points technically; for instance, the character of Madeleine Forestier, afterwards Duroy--still later caught in flagrant delict and divorced--is left rather enigmatic. But the general technique (with the reservations elsewhere made) is masterly, and two passages--a Vigny-like[488] descant on Death by the old poet Norbert de Varenne and the death-scene of Forestier itself--give us Maupassant in that mood of _macabre_ sentiment--almost Romance--which chequers
and purifies his Naturalism.

But the main objection which I should take to the book is neither technical nor goody. The late Mr. Locker, in, I think, that most fascinating "New Omniana" _Patchwork_,[489] tells how, in the Travellers' Club one day, a haughty member thereof expressed surprise that he should see Mr. Locker going to the corner-house next door. The amiable author of _London Lyrics_ was good enough to explain that some not uninteresting people also used the humbler establishment--bishops, authors, painters, cabinet-ministers, etc. "Ah!" said the Traverser of Perilous Ways, "that would be all very well if one _wanted_ to meet that sort of people. But, you see, one _doesn't_ want to meet them." Now, I do not want to meet anybody in _Bel-Ami_; in fact, I would much rather not.

[Sidenote: _Une Vie._]

_Une Vie_ is, in this respect and others, a curious pendant to _Bel-Ami_. It illustrates another side of Maupassant's pessimism--the overtly, but for the most part quietly, tragic. It might almost (borrowing a second title from the _Index_) call itself "Jeanne; ou Les Malheurs de la Vertu." The heroine is perfectly innocent, though both a _femmelette_ and a fool. She never does any harm, nor, except through weakness and folly, deserves that any should be done to her. But she has an unwise and not blameless though affectionate and generous father, with a mother who is an invalid, and whom, after her death, the daughter discovers to have been, in early days, no better than she should be. Both of them are, if not exactly spendthrifts, "wasters," very mainly through careless and excessive generosity. She marries the first young man of decent family, looks, and manners that she comes across; and he turns out to be stingy, unfaithful in the most offensive way, with her own maid and others, and unkind. She loses him, by the vengeance of a husband whom he has wronged, and her second child is born dead in consequence of this shock. Her first she spoils for some twenty years, till he goes off with a concubine and nearly ruins his mother. We leave her consoling herself, in a half-imbecile fashion, with a grandchild. Her only earthly providence is her _bonne_ Rosalie, the same who had been her husband's mistress, but a very "good sort" otherwise. The book is charged with grime of all kinds. It certainly cannot be said of M. de Maupassant, to alter the pronoun in Mr. Kipling's line, that "[_He_] never talked obstetrics when the little stranger came," for _Une Vie_ contains two of these delectable scenes; and in other respects we are treated with the utmost "candour." But the book is again saved by some wonderful passages--specially those giving Jeanne's first night at the sea-side _chateau_ which is to be her own, and her last visit to it a quarter of a century after, when it has passed to strangers--and generally by the true tragedy which pervades it. When Maupassant took Sorrow into cohabitation and collaboration, there was no danger of the result.

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