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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote Le Barbier de Paris


_Le Barbier de Paris._]

At one time in England--I cannot speak for the times of his greatest popularity in France--Paul de Kock's name, except for a vague knowledge of his grisette and _mauvais sujet_ studies, was very mainly connected with _Le Barbier de Paris_. It was an instance of the constant mistakes which almost all countries make about foreign authors. I imagine, from a fresh and recent reading of it, that he probably did take more trouble with it than with most of his books. But, unfortunately, instances of lost labour are not confined to literature. The subject and the author are very ill matched. It is a romance of 1632, and so in a way competing with the most successful efforts of the great Romantics. But for such a task Paul had no gifts, except his invariable one of concocting a readable story. As for style, imagination, atmosphere, and such high graces, it would be not so much cruel as absurd to "enter" the book with _Notre-Dame de Paris_ or the _Contes Drolatiques_, _Le Capitaine Fracasse_ or the _Chronique de Charles IX_. But even the lower ways he could not tread here. He did not know anything about the time, and his wicked Marquis de Villebelle is not early Louis Treize at all, but rather late Louis Quinze. He had not the gift (which Scott first showed and Dumas possessed in no small measure) of writing his conversations, if not in actual temporal colour of language, at any rate in a kind of _lingua franca_ suitable to, or

at the worst not flagrantly discordant with, _any_ particular time and _any_ particular state of manners. He could throw in types of the kind so much admired by no less a person than Sir Philip Sidney--a garrulous old servant, an innocent young girl, a gasconading coward, a revengeful daughter of Italy, a this and that and the other. But he could neither make individual character nor vivid historical scene. And so the thing breaks down.

The barber-hero-villain himself is the most "unconvincing" of barbers (who have profited fiction not so ill in other cases), of heroes (who are too often unconvincing), and even of villains (who have rather a habit of being so).[52] Why a man who is represented as being intensely, diabolically, wicked, but almost diabolically shrewd, should employ, and go on employing, as his instrument a blundering poltroon like the Gascon Chaudoreille, is a question which recurs almost throughout the book, and, being unanswered, is almost sufficient to damn it. And at the end the other question, why M. le Marquis de Villebelle--represented as, though also a villain, a person of superior intelligence--when he has discovered that the girl whom he has abducted and sought to ruin is really his daughter; when he has run upstairs to tell her, has knocked at her locked door, and has heard a heavy body splashing into the lake under her window,--why, instead of making his way at once to the water, he should run about the house for keys, break into the room, and at last, going to the window, draw from the fact that "an object shows itself at intervals on the surface, and appears to be still in a state of agitation," the no doubt quite logical inference that Blanche is drowning--when, and only then, he precipitates himself after her,--this question would achieve, if it were necessary, the damnation.

[Sidenote: The Pauline grisette.]

The fact

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