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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

What becomes of Mathilde we are not told


I am not certain that Mathilde is not even a greater creation, though again it is, except quite towards the end, equally impossible to like her. _Femina est_, though sometimes _furens_, oftener still _furiosa_ (in a still wider sense than that in which Mr. Norris has[138] ingeniously "feminated" Orlando _Furioso_), and, in part of her conduct already alluded to, as destitute of any morality as Julien himself. Although there could hardly be (and no doubt had better not be) many like her, she is real and true, and there are not a few redeeming features in her artistically and even personally. She is, as has been said, both rich and noble, the famous lover of the third Valois Marguerite being an (I suppose collateral) ancestor of hers.[139] Her father is not merely a patrician but a Minister at the close of the French Restoration; she may marry any one she likes; and has, in fact, a train of admirers whom she alternately cajoles and snubs. Julien is taken into the household as half private secretary, half librarian; is especially favoured by her father, and treated by her brother (one of Beyle's few thoroughly good fellows) almost on equal terms. But his bad blood and his want of breeding make him stiff and mysterious, and Mathilde takes a perverse fancy to him, the growth of which is skilfully drawn. Although she is nothing so little as a Lelia or an Indiana or a Valentine (_vide_ next chapter), she is idiosyncratically romantic, and at last it is a case of ladders up to the window,
"the irreparable," and various wild performances on her part and her lover's. But this is all comparatively banal. Beyle's touch of genius only reappears later. An extraordinary but (when one comes to think of it) not in the least unnatural series of "ups and downs" follows. Julien's bad blood and vulgar nature make him presume on the advantage he has obtained; Mathilde's _morgue_ and hot-headedness make her feel degraded by what she has given. She neglects him and he becomes quite frantic about _her_; he takes sudden dudgeon and she becomes frantically desirous of _him_. This spiritual or emotional man-and-woman-in-the-weather-house business continues; but at last, with ambages and minor peripeteias impossible to abstract, it so comes about that the great and proud Marquis de La Mole, startlingly but not quite improbably, chooses to recognise this traitor and seducer as a possible by-blow of nobility, gets him a commission, endows him handsomely, and all but gives his consent to a marriage.

Then the final revolution comes. With again extraordinary but, as it is told, again not inconceivable audacity, Julien refers for character to his first mistress in both senses, Madame de Renal, and she "gives him away." The marquis breaks off the treaties, and Julien, leaving his quarters, journeys down to Verrieres and shoots Madame de Renal (with the pocket-pistols) in church. She does not die, and is not even very seriously wounded; but he is tried, is (according, it would seem, to a state of French law, which contrasts most remarkably with one's recent knowledge of it) condemned, and after a time is executed for a murder which has not been committed. Mathilde (who is to bear him a child and always considers herself his wife) and Madame de Renal both visit him in prison, the former making immense efforts to save him. But Julien, consistently with his character all through, is now rather bored by Mathilde and exceedingly fond of Madame de Renal, who dies shortly after him. What becomes of Mathilde we are not told, except that she devotes herself to her paulo-post-future infant. The mere summary may seem rather preposterous; the book is in a way so. But it is also, in no ordinary sense, once more real and true. It has sometimes been regarded as a childish, but I believe it to be a true, criterion of novels that the reader should feel as if he would like to have had personal dealings with the personages. I should very much like to have shot[140] Julien Sorel, though it would have been rather an honour for him. And I should very much like to have made Mathilde fall in love with me. As for Madame de Renal, she was only good for suckling fools and telling tales out of school. But I do not find fault with Beyle for drawing her, and she, too, is very human.

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