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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

And with Les Travailleurs de la Mer


It is better, no doubt, that a novelist, and that everybody else, should be a _bien-pensant_; but, as in the case of the poet, it will not necessarily affect his goodness in his art if he is not. He had, indeed, best not air his opinions, whatever they are, at too great length; but _what_ they are matters little or nothing. A Tory critic who cannot admire Shelley or Swinburne, Dickens or Thackeray, because of their politics, is merely an ass, an animal unfortunately to be found in the stables or paddocks of every party. On the other hand, absurdities and faults of taste matter very much.

Now from these latter, which had nearly ruined _L'Homme Qui Rit_, _Quatre-Vingt-Treize_, if not entirely free, suffers comparatively little. The early and celebrated incident of the carronade running amuck shows characteristic neglect of burlesque possibilities (and, as I believe some experts have maintained, of actual ones), but it has the qualities of the Hugonian defects. An arm-chair critic may ask, Where was the English fleet in the Channel when a French one was allowed to come out and slowly mob the _Claymore_ to destruction, without, as far as one sees, any interference or counter-effort, though the expedition of that remarkable corvette formed part of an elaborate and carefully prepared offensive?[121] Undoubtedly, the Convention scenes must be allowed--even by sympathisers with the Revolution--to be clumsy stopgaps, unnecessary to the action and possessed of little intrinsic value in themselves. The old fault of verbosity and "watering out" recurs; and so does the reappearance, with very slight change, of figures and situations. Cimourdain in character is very much of a more respectable Claude Frollo; and in conduct, _mutatis_ not so very many _mutandis_, almost as much of a less respectable Javert. The death of Gauvain is far less effective than that of Sydney Carton, which had preceded it; and the enormous harangue of the Marquis to the nephew who is about to liberate him, though it may be intended to heighten the _peripeteia_, merely gives fresh evidence of Hugo's want of proportion and of his flux of rhetoric.

All this and more is true; yet _Quatre-Vingt-Treize_ is, "in its _fine_ wrong way," a great book, and with _Les Travailleurs de la Mer_, completes the pillars, such as they are, which support Hugo's position as a novelist. The rescue of the children by Lantenac is superb, though you may find twenty cavils against it easily: and the whole presentation of the Marquis, except perhaps the speech referred to, is one of the best pictures of the _ancienne noblesse_ in literature, one which--to reverse the contrast just made--annihilates Dickens's caricature thereof in _A Tale of Two Cities_. The single-handed defence of La Tourgue by "L'Imanus" has of course a good deal of the hyperbole which began with Quasimodo's similar act in _Notre-Dame_; but the reader who cannot "let himself go" with it is to be pitied. Nowhere is Hugo's child-worship more agreeably shown than in the three first chapters of the third volume. And, sinking particulars for a more general view, one may say that through the whole book, to an extent surpassing even _Les Travailleurs de la Mer_ as such, there is the great Victorian _souffle_ and surge, the rush as of mighty winds and mightier waters, which carries the reader resistlessly through and over all obstacles.

[Sidenote: Final remarks.]

Yet although Hugo thus terminated


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