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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Denise herself is very near the first rank

with a slight uneasiness. For

I had read not a few of his books[538] carefully and critically at their first appearance, and in such cases--when novels are not of the _very_ first order (which, good as these are, I think few really critical readers would allot them) nor possessed of those "oddments" of appeal which sometimes make more or less inferior books readable and readable again--fresh acquaintance, after a long time, is dangerous. It has been said here (possibly more than once) that, when a book possesses this peculiar readableness, a second reading is positively beneficial to it, because you neglect the "knots in the reed" and slip along it easily. This is not quite the case with others: and, unless great critical care is taken, a new acquaintance, itself thirty years old, has, I fear, a better chance than an old one renewed after that time. However, the knight of Criticism, as of other ladies,[539] must dare any adventure, and ought to be able to bring the proper arms and methods to the task. For the purposes of renewal I chose _Sauvageonne_, _Le Fils Maugars_, and _Raymonde_. With the first, though I did not remember much more than its central situation and its catastrophe, with one striking incident, I do remember being originally pleased; the second has, I believe, at least sometimes, been thought Theuriet's masterpiece; and the third (which, by the way, is a "philippine" containing another story besides the title-one) is an early book which I had not previously read.



The argument of _Sauvageonne_ can be put very shortly. A young man of four-and-twenty, of no fortune, marries a rich widow ten years older than himself, and, as it happens, possessed of an adopted daughter of seventeen. He--who is by no means an intentional scoundrel, but a commonplace and selfish person, and a gentleman neither by birth nor by nature--soon wearies of his somewhat effusive and exacting wife; the girl takes a violent fancy to him; accident hurries on the natural if not laudable consequences; the wife covers the shame by succeeding in passing off their result as her own child, but the strain is too much for her, and she goes mad, but does not die.

This tragic theme (really a tragic [Greek: hamartia], for there is much good in Sauvageonne, as she is called, from her tomboy habits, and, with happier chance and a nobler lover, all might have been well with her) is handled with no little power, and with abundant display of skill in two different departments which M. Theuriet made particularly his own--sketches of the society of small country towns, and elaborate description of the country itself, especially wood-scenery. In regard to the former, it must be admitted that, though there is plenty of scandal and not a little ill-nature in English society of the same kind, the latter nuisance seems, according to French novelists, to be more _active_ with their country folk than it is with ours[540]--a thing, in a way, convenient for fiction. Of the descriptive part the only unfavourable criticism (and that a rather ungracious one) that could be made is that it is almost too elaborate. Of two fateful scenes of _Sauvageonne_, that where Francis Pommeret, the unheroic hero, comes across Denise (the girl's proper name) sitting in a crab-tree in the forest and pelting small boys with the fruit, is almost startlingly vivid. You see every detail of it as if it were on the Academy walls. In fact, it is almost more like a picture than like reality, which is more shaded off and less sharp in outline and vivid in colour. As for the character-drawing, if it does not attain to that consummateness which has been elsewhere described and desiderated--the production of people that you _know_--it attains the second rank; the three prominent characters (the rest are merely sets-off) are all people that you _might_ know. Denise herself is very near the first rank, and Francis Pommeret--not, as has been said, by any means a scoundrel, for he only succumbs to strong and continued temptation, but an ordinary selfish creature--is nearer than those who wish to think nobly of human nature may like, to complete reality. One is less certain about the unhappy Adrienne Lebreton or Pommeret, but discussion of her would be rather "an intricate impeach." And one may have a question about the end. We are told that Francis and Denise keep together (the luckless wife living on in spite of her madness) because of the child, though they absolutely hate each other. Would it not be more natural that, if they do not part, they should vary the hatred with spasms of passion and repulsion?

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