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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

As Les Orientales were the poetical


It

is partly, but not wholly, due to this deplorable habit of irrelevant divagation that Hugo will never allow his stories to "march" (at least to begin with marching),[122] _Quatre-Vingt-Treize_ being here the only exception among the longer romances, for even _Les Travailleurs de la Mer_ never gets into stride till nearly the whole of the first volume is passed. But the habit, however great a nuisance it may be to the reader, is of some interest to the student and the historian, for the very reason that it does not seem to be wholly an outcome of the other habit of digression. It would thus be, in part at least, a survival of that odd old "inability to begin" which we noticed several times in the last volume, aggravated by the irrepressible wilfulness of the writer, and by his determination not to do like other people, who _had_ by this time mostly got over the difficulty.

If any further "dull moral" is wanted it may be the obvious lesson that overpowering popularity of a particular form is sometimes a misfortune, as that of allegory was in the Middle Ages and that of didactics in the eighteenth century. If it had not been almost incumbent on any Frenchman who aimed at achieving popularity in the mid-nineteenth century to attempt the novel, it is not very likely that Hugo would have attempted it. It may be doubted whether we should have lost any of the best things--we should only have had them in the compacter and higher shape of more _Orientales_,

more _Chants du Crepuscule_, more _Legendes_, and so forth. We should have lost the easily losable laugh over bug-pipe and wapentake--for though Hugo sometimes _thought_ sillily in verse he did not often let silliness touch his expression in the more majestical harmony--and we should have been spared an immensely greater body of matter which now provokes a yawn or a sigh.

This is, it may be said, after all a question of taste. Perhaps. But it can hardly be denied by any critical student of fiction that while Hugo's novel-work has added much splendid matter to literature, it has practically nowhere advanced, nor even satisfactorily exemplified, the art of the novel. It is here as an exception--marvellous, magnificent, and as such to be fully treated; actually an honour to the art of which it discards the requirements, but an exception merely and one which proves, inasmuch as it justifies, the cautions it defies.[123]

FOOTNOTES:

[93] Mr. Swinburne's magnificent paeans are "vatical" certainly, but scarcely critical, save now and then. Mr. Stevenson wrote on the Romances, but not on "the whole."

[94] See note in Vol. I. p. 472 of this _History_, and in the present volume, _sup._ p. 40.

[95] These crazes were not in origin, though they probably were in influence, political: Hugo held more than one of them while he was still a Royalist.

[96] She is of course not really Spanish or a gipsy, but is presented as such at first.

[97] Stated in the Preface to _Cromwell_, the critical division of his fourfold attack on neo-Classicism, as _Les Orientales_ were the poetical, _Hernani_ was the dramatic, and _Notre-Dame_ itself the prose-narrative.

[98] It is scarcely excessive to say that this mixture of wilful temper and unbridled theorising was the Saturnian influence, or the "infortune of Mart," in Hugo's horoscope throughout.

[99] Unless anybody chooses to say that the gallows and the guillotine are Hugo's monsters here.

[100] The failure of the riskiest and most important scene of the whole (where her surrender of herself to Phoebus is counteracted by Frollo's stabbing the soldier, the act itself leading to Esmeralda's incarceration) is glaring.


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