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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

La Grande Marniere does not aspire to such heights


[Sidenote:

_Le Docteur Rameau._]

Two more of "Les Batailles de la Vie" (as, for some not too obvious[546] reason, it pleased M. Ohnet to _super_-title his novels) may perhaps suffice to give a basis for a more general judgment of his position. _Le Docteur Rameau_ is, at least towards its close, one of the most ambitious, if not _the_ most ambitious of all its author's books. The hero is one of those atheistic and republican physicians who are apt rather to _embeter_ us by their frequency in French novels. He is thrown into the also familiar situation of ascertaining, after his wife's death, that she has been false, and that his daughter, of whom he is very fond, is probably or certainly not his own. At the end, however, things come right as usual. Rameau is converted from hating his daughter, which is well, and from being an atheist, which is better. But, unluckily, M. Ohnet devotes several pages, in his own peculiar style, to a rhetorical exhibition of the logic of these conclusions. It seems to come to this. There is no God and no soul, because freewill is sufficient to account for everything. But M. le Docteur Rameau has willed, in the free-willingest manner, to hate his daughter, and finds he cannot. Therefore there is a God and a soul. A most satisfactory conclusion, but a most singular major premiss. Why should there be no God and no soul because there is (if there is) freewill?[547] But all is well that ends well: and how can you end better than

by being heard to ejaculate, "Mon Dieu!" (quite seriously and piously, and not in the ordinary trivial way) by a scientific friend, at the church of Sainte-Clotilde, during your daughter's wedding?

[Sidenote: _La Grande Marniere._]

_La Grande Marniere_ does not aspire to such heights, and is perhaps one of the best "machined" of M. Ohnet's books. The main plot is not very novel--his plots seldom are--and, in parts as well as plots, any one who cared for rag-picking and hole-picking might find a good deal of indebtedness. It is the old jealousy of a clever and unscrupulous self-made man towards an improvident _seigneur_ and his somewhat robustious son. The seigniorial improvidence, however, is not of the usual kind, for M. le Marquis de Clairefont wastes his substance, and gets into his enemy's debt and power, by costly experiments on agricultural and other machinery, partly due to the fact that he possesses on his estate a huge marl-pit and hill which want developing. There is the again usual cross-action of an at first hopeless affection on the part of the _roturier's_ son, Pascal Carvajan, a rising lawyer, for Antoinette de Clairefont. But M. Ohnet--still fertile in situations--adds a useful sort of conspiracy among Carvajan's tools of various stations against the house of Clairefont; a conspiracy which actually culminates in a murder-charge against Robert de Clairefont, the victim being the pretty daughter of a local poacher, one of the gang, with whom the Viscount has notoriously and indeed quite openly flirted. Now comes Pascal's opportunity: he defends Robert, and not merely obtains acquittal, but manages to discover that the crime was actually committed by the village idiot, who betrays himself by remorse and sleep-walking. There is a patient, jilted lover, M. de Croix-Mesnil (it may just be noted that since French novel-heroines were allowed any choice at all in marriage, they have developed a faculty of altering that choice which might be urged by praisers of times past against the enfranchisement); a comic aunt; and several other promoters of business. It is no wonder that, given a public for the kind of book, this particular example of it should have been popular. It had reached its sixtieth edition before it had been published a twelvemonth.


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