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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote L'Abbesse de Castro


(_Fabrice has found favour in the eyes and arms of the actress Marietta_)

The love of this pretty Marietta gave Fabrice all the charms of the sweetest friendship. _And this made him think of the happiness of the same kind which he might have found with the Duchess herself._

If this is not "piercing to the accepted hells beneath" with a diamond-pointed plunger, I know not what is.

But much later, quite towards the end of the book, the author has to tell how Fabrice again and Clelia "forgot all but love" in one of their stolen meetings to arrange his escape.

(_He has, by the way, told a lie to make her think he is poisoned_)

She was so beautiful--half-dressed and in a state of extreme passion as she was--that Fabrice could not resist an almost involuntary movement. No resistance was opposed.[132]

Now I am not (see _Addenda and Corrigenda_ of the last volume) avid of expatiations of the Laclosian kind. But this is really a little too much of the "Spanish-fleet-taken-and-burnt-as-per-margin" order.

[Sidenote: _L'Abbesse de Castro_, etc.]

Much the same characteristics, but necessarily on a small scale, appear in the short stories usually found under the

title of the first and longest of them, _L'Abbesse de Castro_. Two of these, _Mina de Wangel_ and _Le Philtre_, are _historiettes_ of the passion which is absent from _La Chartreuse de Parme_; but each is tainted with the _macabre_ touch which Beyle affected or which (for that word is hardly fair) was natural to him. In one a German girl of high rank and great wealth falls in love with a married man, separates him from his wife by a gross deception, lives with him for a time; and when he leaves her on finding out the fraud, blows her brains out. In the other a Spanish lady, seduced and maltreated by a creole circus-rider of the worst character, declares to a more honourable lover her incurable passion for the scoundrel and takes the veil. The rest are stories of the Italian Renaissance, grimy and gory as usual. Vittoria Accoramboni herself figures, but there is no evidence that Beyle (although he had some knowledge of English literature[133]) knew at the time our glorious "White Devil," and his story dwells little on her faults and much on the punishment of her murderers. _L'Abbesse de Castro_ itself, _La Duchesse de Palliano_, _San Francesco a Ripa_, _Vanina Vanini_ are all of the same type and all full of the gloomier items seen by the Dreamer of Fair Women--

Scaffolds, still sheets of water, divers woes, Ranges of glimmering vaults with iron grates,

and blood everywhere. And these unmerry tales are always recounted _ab extra_; in fact, many of them are real or pretended abstracts from chronicles of the very kind which furnished Browning with the matter of _The Ring and the Book_. It is, however, more apt and more curious to compare them with the scenes of Gerard's experiences with the princess in _The Cloister and the Hearth_, as instances of different handling of the same matter by two novelists of talent almost, if not quite, reaching genius.

[Sidenote: _Le Rouge et le Noir._]

This singular aloofness, this separation of subject and spectator by a vast and impenetrable though translucent wall, as in a museum or a _morgue_, is characteristic of all Beyle's books more or less. In fact, he somewhere confesses--the confession having, as always in persons of anything like his stamp, the nature of a boast--that he cannot write otherwise than in _recit_, that the broken conversational or dramatic method is impossible to him. But an almost startling change--or perhaps it would be more accurate to say reinforcement--of this method appears in what seems to me by far the most remarkable and epoch-making of his books, _Le Rouge et le Noir_. That there is a strong autobiographic element in this, though vigorously and almost violently "transposed," must have been evident to any critical reader long ago. It became not merely evident but _evidenced_ by the fresh matter published thirty years since.


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