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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

And Ducange seems to have left it off


The importance of these minors not inconsiderable.]

It has been pointed out more than once that though neglect of such books as these may be perfectly natural and probable in the average reader, such neglect--and still more any contempt of them--is, though it may not be unnatural, utterly unscholarly and uncritical from the point of view of history. Their authors themselves learnt something from their own mistaken experiments, and their successors learnt a good deal more. They found that "sculduddery" was not a necessary attraction. Ducray does not avail himself of it, and Ducange seems to have left it off. They did not give up, but they came less and less to depend upon, extravagant incident, violent peripeteias, cheap supernaturalities, etc. But the most important thing about them perhaps is the evidence they give of learning what has been called their "business." Already, to a great extent if not wholly, that earliest obsession and preoccupation of the novelist--the idle anxiety to answer the question, "How do you know all these things?"--has begun to disappear. This is rather less the case with another foolish fancy--the belief that it is necessary to account not merely for what we call the consequents, but for the antecedents of all the characters (at least those of any importance) that you introduce. There can be no doubt that this was one of the objects, as it was part of the original cause, of the mistaken _Histoire_ system, which made

you, when or soon after you introduced a personage, "tell us all about it," as the children say, in a separate inset tale. You did not now do this, but you made, as in the capital instance of Victor Ducange, huge diversions, retrospects, episodes, in the body of the story itself. This method, being much less skippable than the inset by those who did not want it, was not likely to continue, and so applied the cure to its own ill. And yet further, as novels multiplied, the supposed necessity of very great length tended to disappear. The seven or eight volumes of the eighteenth century, which had replaced the twelves and twenties of the seventeenth, shrank to six (_Ludovica_), five (_L'Artiste et Le Soldat_ and _l'Ouvreuse de Loges_), four (_Le Petit Carillonneur_), and then three or two, though later the historical kind swelled again, and the almost invariable single volume did not establish itself till the middle of the century. As a consequence again of this, the enormous delay over single situations tended, though very slowly, to disappear. It is one of the merits of Pigault-Lebrun that he is not a great sinner in verbosity and prolixity: his contemporary minors of this volume are far more peccant in this kind.

[Sidenote: The Vicomte d'Arlincourt--_Le Solitaire_.]

_Le Solitaire_ is a book which I have been "going to read" for some fifty years, but by some accident did not till the present occasion. I knew it generally as one of the vedettes of Romanticism, and as extremely popular in its own day: also as having been, with its author's other work in poem and play and prose fiction, the subject of some ridicule. But till I read it, and some things about it, I never knew how well it deserved that ridicule and yet how very popular it was, and how really important is its position in the history of the Romantic movement, and so of the French novel and French literature generally. It was published at the end of January 1821, and at the end of November a seventh edition appeared, with an elaborate _Io Triumphe!_ from the publisher. Not only had there been those seven editions (which, it must be remembered in fairness, represent at least seventy at the other end of the century[77]), but it had been translated into four foreign languages; _fourteen_ dramas had been based on it, some half of which had been at least conditionally accepted for performance; painters of distinction were at work on subjects from it; it had reached the stages of Madrid and of London (where one critic had called it "a very beautiful composition"), while French approval had been practically unanimous. Nay, a game had been founded thereon, and--crowning, but perhaps rather ominous honour--somebody had actually published a burlesque imitation.

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