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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

With Quasimodo and Esmeralda as they are presented here


[Sidenote:

The story recovers itself latterly.]

At first sight "Coup d'oeil impartial sur l'Ancienne Magistrature" may seem to give even more promise of November than of May. But there _is_ action here, and it really has something to do with the story. Also, the subsequent treatment of the recluse or anchoress of the severest type in the Place Notre-Dame itself (or practically so), though it is much too long and is lengthened by matters with which Hugo knows least of all how to deal, has still more claim to attention, for it leads directly on not merely to the parentage of Esmeralda, but to the tragedy of her fate. And almost the whole of the second volume is, whether the best novel-matter or not, at any rate genuine novel-matter. If almost the whole of the first had been boiled down (as Scott at his best would have boiled it) into a preliminary chapter or two, the position of the book as qualified to stand in its kind could not have been questioned. But its faults and merits in that kind would still have remained matters of very considerable question.

[Sidenote: But the characters?]

In respect of one fault, the side of the defence can surely be taken only by generous, but hardly judicious or judicial devotees. Hugo's singular affection for the monster--he had Stephano to justify him, but unfortunately did not possess either the humour of that drunken Neapolitan butler or the power of

his and Caliban's creator--had made a mere grotesque of _Han_, but had been reduced within more artistic limits in _Bug_. In _Le Dernier Jour_ and _Claude Gueux_ it was excluded by the subjects and objects alike.[99] Here it is, if not an _intellectus_, at any rate _sibi permissus_; and, as it does not in the earlier cases, it takes the not extremely artistic form of violent contrast which was to be made more violent later in _L'Homme Qui Rit_. If any one will consider Caliban and Miranda as they are presented in _The Tempest_, with Quasimodo and Esmeralda as _they_ are presented here, he will see at once the difference of great art and great failure of art.

Then, too, there emerges another of our author's persistent obsessions, the exaggeration of what we may call the individual combat. He had probably intended something of this kind in _Han_, but the mistake there in telling about it instead of telling it has been already pointed out. Neither Bug-Jargal nor Habibrah does anything glaringly and longwindedly impossible. But the one-man defence of Notre-Dame by Quasimodo against the _truands_ is a tissue not so much of impossibilities--they, as it has been said of old, hardly matter--as of the foolish-incredible. Why did the numerous other denizens of the church and its cloisters do nothing during all this time? Why did the _truands_, who, though they were all scoundrels, were certainly not all fools, confine themselves to this frontal assault of so huge a building? Why did the little rascal Jean Frollo not take some one with him? These are not questions of mere dull common sense; it is only dull absence of common sense which will think them so. Scott, who, once more, was not too careful in stopping loose places, managed the attacks of Tillietudlem and Torquilstone without giving any scope for objections of this kind.


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