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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Who jilts his cousin Claire de Beaulieu


One old receipt for popularity, "Put your characters up several steps in society," M. Ohnet has faithfully obeyed. We begin with a marquis unintentionally poaching on the ironmaster's ground, and (rather oddly) accepting game which he has _not_ shot thereon. We end with the marquis's sister putting her dainty fingers before the mouth of a duke's exploding pistol--to the not surprising damage of those digits, but with the result of happiness ever afterwards for the respectable characters of the book. There is a great deal of gambling, though, unfortunately told in a rather uninteresting manner of _recit_, which is a pity, for gambling can be made excellent in fiction.[544] There are several of M. Ohnet's favourite inventories, and a baroness--not a bad baroness--who has frequented sales, and knows all about _bric-a-brac_. Also there are several exciting situations, even before we come to the application of a lady's fingers as tompions. M. Ohnet is, it has been said, rather good at situations. But situations, to speak frankly, are rather things for the stage than for the story, except very rarely, and of a very striking--which does not mean melodramatic--kind. And it is very important, off the stage, that they should be led up to, and acted in by, vigorously drawn and well filled in characters.

To do M. Ohnet justice, he has attempted to meet this requirement in one instance at least, the one instance by which the book has to stand or fall. Some of the minor personages (like Marechal in _Serge Panine_) are fair enough; and the little baroness who, arriving at a country-house in a whirl of travel and baggage, cries, "Ou est mon mari? Est-ce que j'ai _deja_ egare mon mari?" puts one, for the moment, in quite a good temper. The ironmaster's sister, too, is not a bad sort of girl. He himself is too much of the virtuous, loyal, amiable, but not weak man of the people; the marquis is rather null, and the duke, who jilts his cousin Claire de Beaulieu, gambles, marries a rich and detestable daughter of a chocolate-man, and finally fires through Claire's fingers, is very much, to use our old phrase, _a la douzaine_. But Claire might save the book, and probably does so for those who like it. To me she seems quite wrongly put together. The novel has been so very widely read, in the original and in translations, that it is perhaps unnecessary to waste space on a full analysis of its central scene--a thing not to be done very shortly. It may be sufficient to say that Claire, treacherously and spitefully informed, by her successful rival, of the fact that she has been jilted, and shortly afterwards confronted with the jilter himself, recovers, as it seems to her, to the company, and I suppose to the author, the whip-hand by summoning the ironmaster (who is hanging about "promiscuous," and is already known to be attached to her, though she has given him no direct encouragement) and bestowing her hand upon him, insisting, too, upon being married at once, before the other pair. The act is supposed to be that of an exceptionally calm, haughty, and aristocratic damsel: and the acceptance of it is made by a man certainly deep in love, but independent, sharp-sighted, and strong-willed. To be sure, he could not very well refuse; but this very fact should have weighed additionally, with a girl of Claire's supposed temperament, in deciding her not to make a special Leap Year for the occasion. To hand yourself over to Dick because Tom has declined to have anything to do with you is no doubt not a very unusual proceeding: but it is not usually done quite so much _coram populo_, or with such acknowledgment of its being done to spite Tom and Tom's preferred one.[545]


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