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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

As does all democratisation inevitably


Yet

if this democratisation of the novel thus went partly but, as does all democratisation inevitably, to the degradation of it in quality, though to its increase in quantity, there were fortunately other influences at work to provide new reinforcements, themselves in some cases of quality invaluable. It has been admitted that neither Chateaubriand nor Madame de Stael can be said to have written a first-class novel--even _Corinne_ can hardly be called that. But it is nearer thereto than anything that had been written since the first part of _La Nouvelle Heloise_: while _Rene_ and _Atala_ recover, and more than recover in tragic material, the narrative power of the best comic tales. And these isolated examples were of less importance for the actual history--being results of individual genius, which are not imitable--than certain more general characteristics of the two writers. Between them--a little perhaps owing to their social position, but much more by their pure literary quality--they reinstated the novel in the Upper House of literature itself. In Madame de Stael there was more than adequacy--in Chateaubriand there was sometimes consummateness--of style; in both, with whatever varnish of contemporary affectation, there was genuine nobility of thought. They both chose subjects worthy of their powers, and Madame de Stael at least contented herself with ordinary, or not very extraordinary, modern life. But the greatest things they did, from the historian's point of view, were introductions
of the novel to new fields of exercise and endeavour. Art and religion were brought into its sphere, and if _Les Natchez_ and _Les Martyrs_ cannot exactly be called modern historical novels, they are considerable advances, both upon the model of _Telemaque_ and upon that of _Belisaire_. And even putting this aside, the whole body of Chateaubriand's work, as well as not a little in Madame de Stael's, tended to introduce and to encourage the spirit of Romance.

Now the proposition which--though never, I trust, pushed to the unliterary extent of warping the judgment, and never yet, I hope, unduly flaunted or flourished in the reader's face--dominates this volume, is that Romanticism, or, to use the shorter and more glorious name, Romance, itself dominates the whole of the French nineteenth-century novel. If any one considers that this proposition is at variance with the other, that the main function of the novel during the period has been to bring the novel closer to ordinary life, he has failed to grasp what it might be presumptuous plumply to call the true meaning of Romance, but what is certainly that meaning as it has always appeared to me.

To attempt discussion, or even enumeration, of all the definitions or descriptions of Romance in general which have been given by others would not only be impossible in the space at command, but would be really irrelevant. As it happens, the matter can be cut short, without inadequacy and without disingenuousness, by quoting a single pair of epithets, affixed by a critic, for whom I have great respect, a day or two before I wrote these words. This critic held that Romantic treatment--in stage matters more particularly, but we can extend the phrase to fiction without unfairness--was "generous but false." _I_ should call it "generous" certainly, but before all things "true." Nor is this a mere play upon the words of the original. It so happens that our friend the enemy has supplied a most admirable help. Legally, as we know, veracity requires "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." I admit that the last clause will not fit Romance. She does give us something more than the truth, and that is her generosity, but it is a generosity which is necessitated by the fact that Romance is a quality or function not so much of nature essentially--though happily it is sometimes so by accident--as of Art, the essence of which is to require, whether it be art classic or art romantic, art of literature or art of design, art of sight or art of sound, something _added_ to the truth--as that truth exists in reality.


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