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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

I have quite a lively remembrance of the advent of M

[Sidenote: Reflections.]

Sixty editions of one book in one year; three hundred and sixty-seven of another in twenty; a hundred and forty-two of _Serge Panine_ in five; sixty-nine of _Le Docteur Rameau_ in certainly at the outside not more; these are facts which, whatever may be insinuated about the number of an "edition," cannot be simply put aside. Popularity, as the wiser critics have always maintained, is no test of excellence; but as they have also maintained when they were wise, it is a "fact in the case," and it will not do merely to sneer at it. I should say that the popularity of M. Ohnet, like other popularities in England as well as in France, is quite explicable. Novel-writing, once again, had become a business, and he set himself to carry that business out with a thorough comprehension of what was wanted. His books, it is to be observed, are generally quite modern, dealing either with his own day or a few years before it; and modernity has, for a long time, been almost a _sine qua non_ of what is to please the public. They are, it has been said, full of situations, and the situation is what pleases the public most in everything. They came just when the first popularity of Naturalism was exhausting itself,[548] and they are not grimy; but, on the other hand, they do not aim at an excessive propriety. Their characters are not of the best, or even of the second-best class, as so often defined, but they are sufficient to work out the situations without startling inadequacy. The public never really cares, though part of it is sometimes taught to pretend to care, for style, and the same may be said of the finer kind of description. The conversation is not brilliant, but, like the character, it serves its turn. I once knew an excellent gentleman, of old lineage and fair fortune, who used to say that for his part he could not tell mutton from venison or Marsala from Madeira, and he thanked God for it. The novel-reading public,--that at least which reads novels by the three hundred and fifty thousand,--is very much of the same taste, and I am sure I hope it is equally pious.

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[Sidenote: Edouard Rod.]

I have quite a lively remembrance of the advent of M. Edouard Rod, of the crowning of _Le Sens de la Vie_, and so forth. That advent formed part of the just mentioned counter-attack on Naturalism, in which, as usual, some of the Naturalist methods and weapons themselves were used; but it had a distinct character of its own. Unless I mistake, it was not at first very warmly welcomed by "mortal" French criticism. There may have been something in this of that curious grudge[549] against Swiss-French, on the part of purely French-French, men of letters which never seems to have entirely ceased. But there was something more than this, though this something more was in a way the reason, some might say the justification, of the grudge. M. Rod was exceedingly serious; the title of his laureated book is of itself almost sufficient to show it; and though the exclusive notion of "the gay and frivolous Frenchman" always was something of a vulgar error, and has been increasingly so since the Revolution, Swiss seriousness, with its strong Germanic leaven, is not French seriousness at all. But he became, if not exactly a popular novelist to the tune of hundreds or even scores of editions, a prolific and fairly accepted one. I think, though he died in middle age and produced other things besides novels, he wrote some twenty or thirty stories, and his production rather increased than slackened as he went on. With the later ones I am not so well acquainted as with the earlier, but there is a pervading character about these earlier ones which is not likely to have changed much, and they alone belong strictly to our subject.

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