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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Where he comes in contact with the Thenardier family


He

then proceeds to be extremely rude to his indulgent but royalist grandfather, retires to a mount of very peculiar sacredness, where he comes in contact with the Thenardier family, discovers a plot against Valjean, appeals to the civil arm to protect the victim, but, for reasons which seem good to him, turns tail, breaks his arranged part, and is very nearly accessory to a murder. At the other end of the story, carrying out his general character of prig-pedant, as selfish as self-righteous, he meets Valjean's rather foolish and fantastic self-sacrifice with illiberal suspicion, and practically kills the poor old creature by separating him from Cosette. When the _eclaircissement_ comes, it appears to me--as Mr. Carlyle said of Loyola that he ought to have consented to be damned--that Marius ought to have consented at least to be kicked.

Of course it may be said, "You should not give judgments on things with which you are evidently out of sympathy." But I do not acknowledge any palpable hit. If certain purposes of the opposite kind were obtruded here in the same fashion--if Victor (as he might have done in earlier days) had hymned Royalism instead of Republicanism, or (as perhaps he would never have done) had indulged in praise of severe laws and restricted education,[104] and other things, I should be "in sympathy," but I hope and believe that I should not be "out of" criticism. Unless strictly adjusted to the scale and degree suitable to a novel--as

Sir Walter has, I think, restricted his Mariolatry and his Jacobitism, and so forth--I should bar them as I bar these.[105] And it is the fact that they are not so restricted, with the concomitant faults which, again purely from the point of view of novel-criticism as such, I have ventured to find, that makes me consider _Les Miserables_ a failure as a novel. Once again, too, I find few of the really good and great things--which in so vast a book by such a writer are there, and could not fail to be there--to be essentially and specially good and great according to the novel standard. They are, with the rarest exceptions, the stuff of drama or of poetry, not of novel. That there are such exceptions--the treacherous feast of the students to the mistresses they are about to desert; the escapes of Valjean from the ambushes laid for him by Thenardier and Javert; some of the Saint-Merry fighting; the guesting of the children by Gavroche in the elephant; and others--is true. But they are oases in a desert; and, save when they would be better done in poetry, they do not after all seem to me to be much better done than they might have been by others--the comparative weakness of Hugo in conversation of the kind suitable for prose fiction making itself felt. That at least is what the present writer's notion of criticism puts into his mouth to say; and he can say no other.

[Sidenote: _Les Travailleurs de la Mer._]

_Les Travailleurs de la Mer_, on the other hand, is, according to some persons, among whom that present writer desires to be included, the summit of Victor Hugo's achievements in prose fiction. It has his "signatures" of absurdity in fair measure. There is the celebrated "Bug-Pipe" which a Highlander of the garrison of Guernsey sold (I am afraid contrary to military law) to the hero, and on which that hero performed the "_melancholy_ air" of "Bonny Dundee."[106] There is the equally celebrated "First of the Fourth" (Premiere de la Quatrieme), which is believed to be Hugonic for the Firth of Forth. There are some others. There is an elaborate presentation of a quite impossibly named clergyman, who is, it seems, an anticipator of "le Puseysme" and an actual high-churchman, who talks as never high-churchman talked from Laud to Pusey himself, but rather like the Reverend Gabriel Kettledrummle (with whom Hugo was probably acquainted "in translations, Sir! in translations").[107] Gilliatt, the hero, is a not very human prig outside those extraordinary performances, of which more later, and his consummate end. Deruchette, the heroine, is, like Cosette, a pretty nullity.[108] As always, the author _will_ not "get under way"; and short as the book is, and valuable as is its shortness, it could be cut down to two-thirds at least with advantage. Clubin and Rantaine, the villains, are pure melodrama; Mess Lethierry, the good old man, is rather an old fool, and not so very good. The real business of the book--the salvage by Gilliatt of the steamer wrecked on the Douvres--is, as a schoolboy would say, or would have said, "jolly impossible." But the book as a whole is, despite or because of its tragic quality, almost impossibly "jolly."


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