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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

And few things less unreal than vulgarity


If any one asks where this readableness comes from, I do not think the answer is very difficult to give, and it will of itself supply a fuller explanation (the words apology or excuse are not really necessary) for the space here allotted to its possessor. It comes, no doubt, in the first place, from sheer and unanalysable narrative faculty, the secret of the business, the mystery in one sense of the mystery in the other. But it also comes, as it seems to me, from the fact that Paul de Kock is the very first of French novelists who, though he has no closely woven plot, no striking character, no vivid conversation or arresting phrases, is thoroughly _real_, and in the good, not the bad, sense _quotidian_. The statement may surprise some people and shock others, but I believe it can be as fully sustained as that other statement about the most different subject possible, the _Astree_, which was quoted from Madame de Sevigne in the last volume. Paul knew the world he dealt with as well almost as Dickens[56] knew his very different but somewhat corresponding one; and, unlike Dickens, the Frenchman had the good sense to meddle very little[57] with worlds that he did not know. Of course it would be simply _bete_ to take it for granted that the majority of Parisian shop- and work- and servant-girls have or had either the beauty or the amiability or the less praiseworthy qualities of his grisettes. But somehow or other one feels that the general _ethos_ of the class has been caught.[58] His _bourgeois_ interiors and outings have the same real and not merely stagy quality; though his melodramatic or pantomimic endings may smack of "the boards" a little. The world to which he holds up the mirror may be a rather vulgar sort of Vanity Fair, but there are unfortunately few places more real than Vanity Fair, and few things less unreal than vulgarity.

The last sentence may lead to a remark of a graver kind than has been often indulged in here. Thackeray defined his own plan in _Vanity Fair_ itself as at least partly an attempt to show people "living without God in the world." There certainly is not much godliness in the book, but he could not keep it out altogether; he would have been false to nature (which he never was) if he had. In Paul de Kock's extensive work, on the other hand, the exclusion is complete. It is not that there is any expressed Voltairianism as there is in Pigault. But though the people are married in church as well as at the _mairie_, and I remember one casual remark about a mother and her daughter going to mass, the whole spiritual region--religious, theological, ecclesiastical, and what not--is left blank. I do not remember so much as a _cure_ figuring personally, though there may be one. And it is worth noting that Paul was born in 1794, and therefore passed his earliest childhood in the time when the Republic had actually gagged, if not stifled, religion in France--when children grew up, in some cases at any rate, without ever hearing the name of God, except perhaps in phrases like _pardieu_ or _parbleu_. It is not my business or my intention to make reflections or draw inferences; I merely indicate the fact.


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