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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

And sacrament at once of Romanticism itself


[Sidenote:

Importance of the actual _title_.]

Perhaps the first impression of any reader who is not merely not an expert in criticism, but who has not yet learnt its first, last, and hardest lesson, shirked by not a few who seem to be experts--to suspend judgment till the case is fully heard--may be unfavourable. It is true that the title _Notre-Dame de Paris_, so stupidly and unfairly disguised by the addition-substitution of "_The Hunchback_ of Notre Dame" in English translations--quite honestly and quite legitimately warns any intelligent reader what to expect. It is the cathedral itself, its visible appearance and its invisible _aura_, atmosphere, history, spirit, inspiration which gives the author--and is taken by him as giving--his real subject. Esmeralda and Quasimodo, Frollo and Gringoire are almost as much minors and supers in comparison with It or Her as Phoebus de Chateaupers and the younger Frollo and the rest are in relation to the four protagonists themselves. The most ambitious piece of _dianoia_--of thought as contrasted with incident, character, or description--is that embodied in the famous chapter, _Ceci tuera cela_, where the fatal effect of literature (at least printed literature) on architecture is inculcated. The situation, precincts, construction, constitution of the church form the centre of such action as there is, and supply by far the larger part of its scene. Therefore nobody has a right to complain of a very large proportion

of purely architectural detail.

[Sidenote: The working out of the one under the other.]

But the question is whether, in the actual employment, and still more in what we may call the administration, of this and other diluents or obstruents of story, the artist has or has not made blunders in his art; and it is very difficult not to answer this in the affirmative. There were many excuses for him. The "guide-book novel" had already, and not so very long before, been triumphantly introduced by _Corinne_. It had been enormously popularised by Scott. The close alliance and almost assimilation of art and history with literature was one of the supremest articles of faith of Romanticism, and "the Gothic" was a sort of symbol, shibboleth, and sacrament at once of Romanticism itself. But Victor Hugo, like Falstaff, has, in this and other respects, abused his power of pressing subjects into service almost, if not quite, damnably. Whether out of pure wilfulness, out of mistaken theory, or out of a mixture[98] of these and other influences, he has made the first volume almost as little of a story as it could possibly be, while remaining a story at all. Seventy mortal pages, pretty well packed in the standard two-volume edition, which in all contains less than six hundred, dawdle over the not particularly well-told business of Gringoire's interrupted mystery, the arrival of the Flemish ambassadors, and the election of the Pope of Unreason. The vision of Esmeralda lightens the darkness and quickens the movement, and this brightness and liveliness continue till she saves her unlucky dramatist from the murderous diversions of the Cour des Miracles. But the means by which she does this--the old privilege of matrimony--leads to nothing but a single scene, which might have been effective, but which Hugo only leaves flat, while it has no further importance in the story whatsoever. After it we hop or struggle full forty pages through the public street of architecture pure and simple.


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