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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

The level of artistic excellence was correspondingly lowered


Lastly,

of course, there was the increase of education: with which the demand for fiction, plentiful in quantity and easily comprehended, was sure to grow.

On the whole, however, the results concern us more than the causes. What is the general character of this large province, or, looking at it in another way, of these accumulated crops, which the fifty years more specially in question saw added to the prose fiction of France?

The answer is pretty much what any wide student of history--political, social, literary, or other--would expect, supposing, which is of course in fact an impossibility, that he could come to the particular study "fresh and fasting." Novel-writing in France, as elsewhere, became more and more a business; and so, while the level of craftsmanship might be to some extent raised, the level of artistic excellence was correspondingly lowered. It has been before observed more than once that, to the present critic, only Flaubert and Maupassant of the writers we have been discussing in these later chapters can be credited with positive genius, unless the too often smoky and malodorous torch of Zola be admitted to qualify for the Procession of the Chosen. But when we take in the whole century the retrospect is very different; and while the later period may suffer slightly in the respect just indicated, the earlier affords it some compensation in the other noted point.

There

is, indeed, no exact parallel, in any literature or any branch of literature within my knowledge, to the manifold development of the French novel during these hundred years. Our own experience in the same department cannot be set in any proper comparison with it, for the four great novelists of the mid-eighteenth century, and their followers from Miss Burney downwards, with the Terror and the Political schools of the extreme close, had advanced our starting-point so far that Scott and Miss Austen possessed advantages not open to any French writer. On the other hand, the Sensibility School, which was far more numerously attended in France than in England, gave other openings, which _were_ taken advantage of in a special direction by Benjamin Constant, and much earlier and less brilliantly, but still with important results, by Madame de Montolieu. The age-long competence of the French in _conte_ and _nouvelle_ was always ready for fresh adaptation; and at the very beginning of the new century, and even earlier, two reinforcements of the most diverse character came to the French novel. Pigault-Lebrun and Ducray-Duminil (the earliest of whose novels appeared just before the Revolution as Pigault's debut was made just after it) may be said to have democratised the novel to nearly[565] the full meaning of that much abused word. They lowered its value aesthetically, ethically (at least in Pigault's case, while Ducray's morality does not go much above the "Be amiable and honest" standard), logically, rhetorically, and in a good many other ways. But they did not merely increase the number of its readers; in so doing they multiplied correspondingly the number of its practitioners, and so they helped to make novel-writing a business and--through many failures and half-successes--to give it a sort of regularised practice, if not a theory.


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